Book 2 Chapter 36: Growing Through Adversity
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Jon did a few practice swings with the wooden sword, taking note of its balance as well as getting himself reacquainted with a weapon. Granted, it had only been a few days since the last time he had a weapon in hand, but everything that happened made it feel like an eternity ago.

“Are you sure about this?” Bella asked. “Maybe it would be wiser to sit out for today.”

“Trust me, I’m fine.”

To the left and right of the two, other pairs of students took their picks of weapons at the various racks by the walls. Afterward, they walked back to their position, every once and while taking glances at Jon. When it seemed like he was finally getting accepted, everything went to shit and he once again became the center of attention. He wished for a spell to either make them forget about him or to disappear from their sights. Preferably the latter, as he had people other than the students to worry about.

Even without looking, he could feel Professor Willow’s eyes burning a hole in the back of his head. When she saw him walking into the Practical Combat classroom, it was like she had seen a ghost. From then onwards, it felt like she wanted to turn him into one.

“If I feel like I can’t continue, then I promise to stop,” Jon said, not planning on actually honoring his words. He needed to blow off some steam before blowing up himself. After breakfast, he asked Bella and his roommates to accompany him as he delivered the box of potions to the headmaster. Not only for his own safety, he did it so they might act as witnesses in case the old man tried to screw him over.

Bella didn’t waste much time to chose a training weapon, picking one from the rack seemingly at random before following Jon.

Arms crossed, Professor Derfel waited for the last of the students to get into position. When they did, he gave the signal to activate the magic dampening field.

Jon tensed his muscles, intensifying the pain as his sword pointed straight at Bella. He took only a moment to prepare, promptly lunging forward with a slash that sent her sword clattering over the floor. The follow-up attack stopped short of smashing her across the face. “That was underwhelming,” he said, hoping to get her to fight. “One might think you were the one to get flogged.”

He wanted a fight to take his mind out of everything that happened. Going against an unresponsive opponent would serve no effect. Unless, of course, said opponents were either Garrel or Ireyne, in which case he would gladly waste his energy beating them into a pulp.

Bella bent down to pick her sword. She held her weapon up high, the hilt only a few inches to the side of her head. “You must be the most foolhardy person I ever met.”

Not really how Jon would describe himself, but he wanted to fight, not to argue. “Thank you.”

“It wasn’t a compliment.” She stepped forward with a stab aimed at his chest, a somewhat slow attack that Jon would have easily dodged in normal circumstances. This time, though, his sluggish muscles took a beat too long to respond, and the wooden sword brushed his shoulder as he stepped to the side. Bella didn’t say a word, the look on her face already conveying her thoughts.

He was clearly in no condition to fight.

Jon ignored it, instead choosing to swing down at her body. Bella recovered fast, bringing her sword back to block the strike, and his forearm flared up in pain from the resulting clash.

Bella didn’t let up this time, following up with a strike to his other forearm and a sweeping kick that left him sprawled on the floor. His back burned as it pressed against the cold stone. She spoke something, too low to be heard. Or maybe his ears were unable to hear it. He couldn’t be sure.

Jon stood up again, not about to give up. Bella advanced, sword raised high. Rather than using the weapon, he lowered his shoulder and shoved himself into the noblewoman, who let out a groan from the impact. She took two steps back, managing to keep her balance while leaving herself open. He stabbed at her abdomen, connecting with a heavy thud.

Bella bent down with a groan, her free arm hugging her stomach. When she raised her head again a deep frown was etched on her face. From then onwards, she no longer held back, fighting as if Jon was in peak condition. He was hit on the arms and legs, head and torso. Stabs and slashes coming from high and low.

The last time Jon took such a beating was years ago while sparring against his mother. He could see the blows coming, but his body almost always took a moment too long to react. Time and time again Bella would either disarm him or knock him off his feet. Even so, he continued fighting.

He could feel himself getting back to his old form. The fatigue kept building up, sure, but a good night of sleep should take care of that.

Jon held the sword in both hands. Sweat dripped down his chin and his heart seemed about to burst. Bella approached again, weapon pointing down. She planned on striking at his legs, he was sure of it. Probably a kick to his knee followed by a rising cut.

Sure enough, the noblewoman pivoted on one foot, her other leg cutting through the air. Jon didn’t stop to think. She wanted him to step back so she may follow up with the sword. Dodging to the sides wouldn’t work so he went forward, shoving into her. The look of surprise on Bella’s face told him he chose right.

Her knee connected with the side of his leg, but that was a small price to pay. Jon crashed into her. With one foot still off the ground, she lost her balance and was sent stumbling back. Jon followed, slashing at her body to try and bring her down. Wooden swords clashed as she hastily raised her weapon. The second blow came immediately after and was once again blocked. By the third one, she had already recovered her balance.

Bella’s lips moved, but no sound came out. Her sword stabbed toward his chest. Jon swiped at it with his own weapon, more out of instinct than anything else. In his current state, the attack was bound to reach its target.

It didn’t.

Something popped inside of him and his sword connected with Bella’s, deflecting it to the side. His body, which had been slow and heavy, now felt lighter than ever. Sounds of swords clashing and the scuffling of feet once again filled his ears.

Bella paused, seemingly confused that her attack was stopped. Then her eyes opened wide in realization. “Did you—”

Jon’s voice echoed through the underground classroom. “Yes!” He swung at her body, only a fraction of a second faster than before. It was enough so that Bella could only barely block the attack. She wasn’t as successful the second time, and her sword ended up clattering over the floor.

Other students stopped to look, and Jon was once again the center of attention. But for the first time, he didn’t care. He was now a third-level Crusader.

Only a few instants later, a series of cracks sounded out, signaling the end of class.

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