Mana was warming up in the preparation room during the short break while the arena was being repaired. It was nothing much, her body was mostly recovered from the stress and the damage of the intensive training as the finals served as a nice time-out for the food pills she took before to take effect and fully work its magic. Kiyomi was sitting nearby, nervously observing Mana's preparations.
"So you've recovered?" The Yamanaka asked once again.
"I think so", Mana shrugged, breaking the warm-up for just a second before resuming it. "I won't be able to rely on my chakra sensory due to massive chakra signatures in the Ninja Council but other than that I feel great".
"And you're sure you can win?" Kiyomi raised an eyebrow.
"You're the one who fought someone who was literally invincible. Don't worry, it doesn't matter what I think now, what I am worried about. What matters is that I've done everything in my power to prepare and that, whatever happens, I'll have no regrets after this." Mana finally finished stretching her neck out and after checking the hidden pockets in her vest finally finished the last, rather spontaneous check-ups and warm-up.
"Alright, good luck out there. You've done crazy stuff in the past focusing on what you're doing it for. Just keep thinking about your dream and keep going for it." Kiyomi assuredly placed her hand on Mana's shoulder in encouragement before walking together with the magician to where the corridors crossed. One path lead to the staircase going up to the right observatory used by female contestants that day, the other one lead straight to the corridors leading up to the arena entrance.
As she said the momentary farewells to her friend, the magician kept on thinking of the fact that her dream has actually changed throughout this exam. For the longest time, she saw this exam as an opportunity to prove herself as having the potential to become the legendary hero who would change the world. It was as abstract as abstract dreams got, just something to prove to herself that she had the guts to go that desired distance.
After meeting and getting to know Stea, Mana's dream changed. This was no longer about Mana's own promotion or proving anything to anyone. After accepting her own retirement when the five weeks of training began, Mana had no problem moving past just having things to prove. Now it was about being a translator, a worthy challenger to Stea's inhuman skills that would match her in a way that she could show off herself in the right way to the Council. Mana sighed as she looked onto the gloomy and repaired arena and saw the buzzing audience with the corners of her eyes.
She was the ordinary girl, telling an angel which way to fly down to so that the people on the ground could see the angel the way the girl did and begin believing in her. In a way, both Mana and Stea were on the same side in this, both of them were fighting for the people in Getsugakure and the chance for a better life.
After remembering that, Mana bravely stepped out through the entrance, waving her hands aside and allowing her "Magical Entrance Jutsu", just a little of sparks and dazzle for the visual appeal, she used to start off her magic shows go off without hand seals or words. Only now did Mana realize the full ramifications of this match, she was exposing herself to this audience as a ninja now, granted, she was exposed as a ninja this whole time, certainly after her name was announced for the final match but… After seeing her here they will all have no other choice but to believe that she was more than just a pretty face playing ninja.
The worlds of Mana the Konoha's Sorceress and Mana the Konohagakure kunoichi will forever be intertwined. There will no longer be any divide between them, ironically, just as Mana wanted to snuff one of these worlds out for the other…
"Take these shades off, stop embarrassing yourself", Stea playfully teased the magician now that the two ended up facing each other with overseer Oke standing by their side, preparing to address the audience. God, Stea was a bit taller than Mana, the magician had not noticed that before.
"So you know…" Mana smiled as she slipped the shades off and played with them by waving them around before pulling off a disappearing act with them as the girl slipped them into her back pocket for future use.
"Gasco told me not to underestimate you, he said that your chakra has grown a little bit in the two weeks you've spent training and that you've mostly recovered." Stea grinned.
"Mostly? I'm completely recovered." Mana pressed her lips together playfully.
"Really? A pity that your training was so inefficient then… Gasco was worried that your chakra signature barely grew in size this time." Stea locked her arms on her chest.
"There is more to training than just raising your chakra reserves. Don't worry, I'll show it to you in a moment." Mana calmly replied before overseer Oke stepped in between the two and raised his hands up, addressing the audience.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the audience and the honorable Ninja Council, and so we've arrived at this point! The final match of the finale of this year's Chuunin Exams! What a wild ride it was! Something tells me that these two will give us a show that will sum it all for you just nicely…" Oke, a showman, as usual, began hyping the two chillingly calm examinees who continued to boldly stare each other down.
Mana did not like this one bit. This may have been a battle just for fun, nothing of the sort of battles she had experienced, nothing like the deathmatches of the Sun Disc arena but… Her peaceful nature did not relent. She was worried, she was frustrated about this battle being a certainty lodged in her path. Still, she was an entertainer, she needed to sell the kind of battle that the audience and Council wanted to see. She needed to look full of herself, she needed to look bloodthirsty and ready to go.
Some part of Mana was ready to go. Some part of her wanted this over with, that part was quite burning up to make her preparations come to fruition and then have her be done with this.
"For the final match of the day, we have Nakotsumi Mana, famous around the village as Konoha's Sorceress, the stage magician! Most of us have seen what she can do onstage but few of her fans have seen her unorthodox tactics in the arena! As someone who was trained by both Red Dog Tanshu and Lady Fifth herself and has beaten both of her opponents in the semi-finals, Mana has deserved to stand here and face her opponent…" overseer Oke turned for Stea's side.
"Stea Tesprea from Team Phobos of Getsugakure. A fearsome trio of ninja that has left a path of devastation wherever they trodden. Not a single member of their team has officially been bested by any contestant, they've left the Forest of Death effortlessly and went plowed through the semi-finals without as much as being issued a proper challenge. The only fallen member of their team was eliminated due to disqualification!"
The audience appeared to eat that hype speech up. Something about Stea's aura as undefeated monster granted her more of a connection with the audience. It was an odd thing for Mana to hear and a little painful, given how many of the people there were fans of her magic shows. The thought of her just playing ninja using dirty magic tricks must have rooted itself quite strongly, things needed to be done about that.
With overseer Oke raising and lowering his hands, the match officially began. This was no honorable kumite, given the rule alterations so there were no formal rituals like bowing or ceremonial hand seals being made. Right after the man withdrew himself from the dangerous distance the two kunoichi went at it.
With a slick, silky sound, knives slid out from under the shroud that Stea wore around her face and shoulders, concealing the upper part of her body except for her flowing silver hair. Like that the young kunoichi attacked the magician, sloppily, but that was the point. Stea begged to be injured, attacking well enough to test her opponent and make them sweat a little, but possibly to be overcome.
Mana noticed that her opponent had gotten better at that part – whereas in the semi-finals it was painfully obvious that her intentions were to be hurt and just how much she held back during her attack, now – she made that illusion disappear. Had the magician now known intimately of her opponent's fighting style she would have possibly been fooled for one exchange or a pair of them.
Stea's knives slashed right through Mana's throat, sending the gurgling magician down on her knees before slamming on the floor face-first. The Getsugakure kunoichi took a large leap back as her confused eyes began scanning the environment. The audience jumped off their seats as well.
What confused Stea mostly was that she saw Mana performing absolutely no hand seals. The kunoichi was ready to confront the magician's impressive hand seal speed but she could never believe that the magician managed to perform them so fast that her eyes were so utterly and completely fooled. This was impossible.
This was no substitution either – by the time when Stea's mind reached that conclusion, the corpse that kept on gurgling and choking on her own blood would have soon been replaced and switched out. Stea clearly saw that this was a trick, there could have been no way that the magician would have gotten killed so soon and so easily but it was evident that the specifics of the trick Mana had pulled still eluded her.
In a slow and delicate manner, Stea's hand moved towards the side of her head and removed one-half of the veil that covered her face. As the silks slipped off of her face, her lips were revealed to be in an upwards crescent of a smile.
"I know what you're doing", Stea exclaimed. "It's a pretty clever tactic, had you used it five weeks before, it may have worked. Granted, it is so obvious I'm quite disappointed you're even trying it now."
Mana remained calm, standing right in front of Stea as her opponent struggled to see the real magician. All that the audience and the Getsugakure genin saw was the perfectly emulated corpse, it was a common trick Mana used in her magic shows as a fake-out and sometimes in combat. When the magician still needed to utter the technique's name, she called it the "Fancy Trick Jutsu".
"You're counting on me continuously dispelling your low ranking illusions as you keep stacking them up and, in that manner, wasting my chakra so that I cannot indulge any of it for my high-costing fighting style, which, otherwise, you still cannot defeat", Stea closed her eyes, she was deceitfully calm, almost like she knew exactly where the real Mana was standing but the magician knew it was just a mind-game. Stea had no idea, all smells, sounds and sights of the real Mana were hidden once the illusion set off, all she could perceive was the dying illusion, thusly was her mind convinced, thusly it wanted to believe that Stea had won this easily. Even if the better parts of logic advised against this.
"Problem is that you will need to attack me eventually and I know that pain dispels illusions as well. I have no problem bleeding a little and letting you dispel your own illusion for me", Stea triumphantly lowered her defenses.
Mana bit her lower lip in anger. Stea was playing dirty, didn't she want to put up an entertaining match and to be promoted? Why was she consciously slowing the match down like this and forcing Mana into purposefully making mistakes just so she could win?
Maybe the magician could strike a vital point hard enough to instantly knock Stea out. No. Mana's opponent was smarter than that, she thought this through ahead of time – if Mana tried she risked bumping into even the most elementary chakra augmentations that would work like armor against strikes. Mana would need to augment her own strike to penetrate the augmentations, chakra over matter, and all that.
Problem was, that if Mana augmented her strikes, she would disrupt her own chakra flow and reveal herself by canceling the precisely balanced flow needed to maintain the genjutsu. Stea certainly read up on the illusionary arts. That much was for sure. Very few ninja bothered to study an art that did not directly attack or cause damage to the opponent, Stea was much wiser than to underestimate genjutsu like that.
"Well? Aren't you going to attack?" Stea taunted Mana again forcing the magician into a position she wanted no part in. With a light wave of her palm, Mana canceled the illusion, by applying another one in its place.
Stea looked around, her eyes shot open in horror as she saw her worst fears surround and cover her from her toes up. The girl took a few cowardly steps back before tumbling on the ground and starting to scream.
Mana had spent the better part of these past two and a half weeks polishing her weakest links, making them as natural to her as a wave of her hand but she had never counted on such a simple illusion ending up to be so effective. Just what could the girl have been seeing? Once the lingering thought of a particularly scary possibility unveiled itself in the magician's mind, Mana reached out to end the illusion herself.
It was too cruel to force the girl to see that. Usually, people saw rats, spiders or similar creepy things that weirded them out but someone like Stea had much more terrifying horrors in mind. Much bloodier and darker sights to return to. It was too cruel to subject her to that again but… Mana's hand stopped halfway to canceling the illusion before lowering lifelessly.
It had to be done. Mana had spent quite a sizeable percentage of her chakra already to no avail. She needed to force Stea to tap out to this horror and dispel the illusion herself. No matter what horrific past horrors haunted her, it didn't matter how many starving friends wrapped their bony fingers around Stea's throat. The decision to leave that illusion needed to be hers. Guru Ayushi and Lady Fifth taught the kunoichi to respect her opponents at least that much.
Stea was not someone to underestimate and dispel illusions for.
Screaming in pain and panic, Stea weaved a hand seal and screamed out "Dispel" before fumbling back on her feet. Her eyes pulsing in fury and her long and delicate fingers bent like the paws of wildcat aiming to claw the eyes of her prey outright.
"How dare you?" She mumbled. Uncertainty dawned in Mana's heart after these words. Had she gone too far? She did not know just what sights this illusion would show, she had no control of that but had she thought about it for one moment longer she could have at least made an educated and a quite correct guess. What else than the lives of her friends who succumbed to hunger and the worst parts of humanity could have haunted this young lady?
"You needed a reminder of what you're fighting for. You were sinking yourself into a tar pit with that slow and dirty approach. I won't allow you to fail the people you care about", Mana firmly stated. She felt like a monster inside. She's struggled so much with telling right from wrong recently… What if… What if she was wrong right now, yet again, just like with Kouta.
"Don't you dare!" Stea screamed out, jumping at Mana with previously unseen ferocity. Mana gently hopped aside, avoiding the anger-driven and careless attacks of her opponent and once again waving her hand. A powerful burst of light burst from the sandy ground beneath the feet of the two girls as illusionary clones of Mana appeared from the light.
Mana merely jumped aside, observing as Stea realized her wrath and the beastly thirst for Mana's blood on those clones. Every time one of the clones created by the magician's "Many-Faced Jutsu" was hit, she burst into light instead of blood and every time one was killed, four more took her place. It was an ultimate jutsu for toying with someone's mind, someone's as vicious and thoughtless as this enraged Stea was.
It was obvious that Stea knew these clones appearing from the source of light on the ground were just illusions. Why would she not instantly realize that? But, even knowing that, the Getsugakure kunoichi continued to spill out her violent intentions onto them, wearing herself out slowly. The intricate and impressive murderous feats and maneuvers she performed on these clones were almost impressive, Stea definitely had a lot of suppressed feelings about it.
Seeing weariness in her opponent's muscles, her newly found difficulties breathing, Mana tipped her magician's hat forward, letting it tumble down her shoulder right into her hand before pushing her hand into it. A bright purple light lit up as the seals of her father's activated allowing Mana to tap into their storage and pull out the Audra wand of Meiko's making out.
Waving the wand around, Mana set off another genjutsu onto Stea's undispelled chain. The Getsugakure kunoichi lazily observed illusionary decorative swords popping above her and thrusting at the ground, aiming to skewer her. She may have initially taken it for a game, but once her body showed her that while the damage dealt to her by these swords was not real, the pain very much was, Stea began taking the jutsu much more seriously.
The Getsugakure kunoichi tumbled on her knees, huffing and wheezing in front of Mana. There was worry in the magician's heart – her opponent refused to dispel the illusions and therefore hadn't wasted that much chakra whereas Mana was very much doing so, creating elaborate yet easy to execute chains of illusions that'd have greatly cost her before these two weeks, yet came off relatively easy after the training in the Rabbit Caves.
Something was off with Stea, Mana could see it. The kunoichi had one of her eyes closed and sweat ran down her face, she looked tired if a little delirious from the complicated assault on her mind that transpired with her refusing to spend chakra dispelling these illusions before they did their worst. Most of them were relatively harmless, visual or one-sense based C or D rank illusions but… They stacked up to quite nasty combinations when used one after another.
Then, Mana finally realized what Stea was reaching out for. An efficient lockdown of Mana's illusions. One so crazy and so reckless that very few would even think up of such a strategy, needless to say, attempt it. While illusions did not directly damage one's body, they did do a number on one's mind. Continuous strain under the illusions could have completely torn one's mind apart resulting in madness or even a comatose shut down of one's body.
Could Stea's fatigue and current symptoms be early prophets of that? Could this have been Stea's game all along? To play dirty and guilt trip Mana into refusing to use her genjutsu once things really got dangerous and the mental damage that Stea suffered was too much. If it was, Stea was certainly using dirtiest tricks to win, however… Given that such a strategy required research on her opponent's personality… It just may have been crazy enough to work and secure Stea a promotion!