Word Count: 3451
The rain falling upon Setsuna was so heavy that the swordsman felt as though she were standing under a waterfall. Within seconds, she was completely drenched by the cold rain. Setsuna fumbled in the folds of her wet skirt for her pactio card, quickly putting the magically dry card to her forehead.
"Negi-sensei! Summon me!" she telepathically cried, but her words were met with silence. "Negi-sensei? Negi-sensei?!" Nothing. Mana and Setsuna glanced sideways at each other, but did not comment on the bad omen as Setsuna stowed away the useless card. All they could do now was run as fast as they could back to their campsite, expecting the worst.
Chapter 7: Protect Me
Setsuna cursed the storm for making the ground slippery beneath their feet, slowing down their progress through the dense woods. Her soaked clothes were now plastered to her skin, further restricting her movements. "Damn this rain!" the swordsman shouted. If only she hadn't wandered so deep into the woods earlier, they wouldn't be so far away from their friends now!
"Oi, calm down!" Mana shouted back over the sounds of rain, thunder, and their bodies crashing through the forest at top speed. "'Cool heads win battles', remember?" she asked, repeating a phrase often used by the two of them during difficult exorcisms.
The swordsman reflexively took a deep breath upon hearing their mantra. The action helped to clear her mind, and for a moment Setsuna felt herself slip into the familiar calmness that preceded every exorcism that she and Mana had conducted. Even though some missions had been tougher than others, the swordsman had always been sure of herself, sure of her role throughout every exorcism. Setsuna drew on that confidence now, trying to set aside the emotional turmoil over Konoka. She would deal with those feelings later, but for now she needed to prepare for battle.
"I'm calm," Setsuna said firmly, as much for her own benefit as Mana's. At least as a warrior, Setsuna knew who she was. She tightened her hold on Yuunagi and the briefest shadow of a smile flickered across her lips. Whatever danger awaited them, "I'm ready," she said.
Side by side, Mana and Setsuna sprinted to the campground. The swordsman felt the chilled wind increase in intensity as they neared their destination, to the point where it felt like a hurricane was trying to keep her away from her comrades. As the two of them forced their way into the clearing at last, their hands shielding their eyes from windy debris, Setsuna froze at the sight of a towering pillar of wind circling the area. It swirled violently, a perfect, unwavering cylinder of wind, threatening to pull in the swordsman and sniper as they skidded to a stop just feet away from it.
"What is it?!" Setsuna shouted to Mana over the howling wind. A drowned out response from the other girl indicated that Mana was unsure what this phenomenon was either. As she peered through the wall of swirling wind, the swordsman could make out the rough outlines of figures dashing about. A sudden crash of deafening thunder rang out, and Setsuna glimpsed a bolt of lightning streak out of the vortex.
"We have to get in there!" Setsuna shouted again, this time gesturing toward herself and then at the hurricane to indicate her meaning to Mana in case her words were not heard. Mana nodded, but looked a bit dubious at how they would enter the violent barrier. Setsuna, who still carried the lunch that Mana had given her earlier, now threw the wrapped package at the hurricane. The small box of food was ripped apart as it was pulled inward, and disappeared into the churning wind. The sniper said nothing, but gave Setsuna a look that the swordsman knew to mean, "we're not trying that."
Setsuna quickly surveyed their surroundings. The hurricane rose over the tops of the tallest trees around them, so scaling a tree to leap into its center didn't seem like a plausible way to enter. Setsuna could only think of one other way to accomplish the task, and knelt to the ground to put her plan into motion. She steeled herself for the shock, and then drew out her magnificent white wings.
"Hurry!" she called to Mana, motioning for the girl to climb onto her back. Already, Setsuna could feel her feathers being pulled out by the force of the wind cyclone nearby. It didn't hurt, but she knew it would be impossible for her to take flight if she lost too many more feathers. Luckily, the sniper reacted quickly and instantly threw an arm around Setsuna's neck and found kneeholds on either side of her waist. The swordsman took off and began battling against the wind for altitude. An arduous few moments later, they had the height they needed. Setsuna's back was burning now, the violent torrents threatening to snap the hollow bones of her wing structures.
As soon as Setsuna had them situated at the mouth of the cyclone, as centered as she could manage given the amount of wind they faced, she pulled in her wings and let them fall out of the sky. There was too much haze and debris in the air to see clearly, but she prayed that they would be able to see the ground as they neared it to stick a safe landing. The freefall should have lasted less than five seconds, but trouble appeared after only two. Directly below them, less than halfway through their fall, Setsuna saw what appeared to be a swamp of electricity crackling on the ground. The swordsman readied her battered wings for the shock of reopening them to slow their descent, but Mana reacted first before Setsuna could pull out her wings.
The sniper flipped them in mid-air and used the soles of both feet to kick Setsuna firmly in the chest. The action propelled them away from each other, and away from the electrified danger beneath them. They landed safely on opposite sides of the clearing, with Setsuna breathless from the force of Mana's kick. She was grateful for her comrade's quick reaction, though she wouldn't have objected to a more delicate solution.
The swordsman steadied herself, trying to catch her breath, and immediately felt something white-hot whip past her face. Another burst of something blazing-white and impossibly fast rushed toward her, and Setsuna managed to dive out of its path. It was lightning, she realized, watching as it pass overhead. No doubt it originated from the concentration of lightning she and Mana had avoided moments ago, but Setsuna couldn't fathom how this anomaly had gotten into Mahora and why it was attacking her friends.
Black storm clouds filled the sky, casting the school grounds in darkness, yet the swordsman could clearly see her friends illuminated by the lightning. They were trapped within the wind cyclone, of this she was certain. Figures were dashing about all around her, and on closer inspection she realized they were nearly all Kaede, or rather her clones. There was at least half a dozen, each one carrying a classmate in her arms. A seemingly unconscious Negi passed by her, and the Kaede that carried him had scarcely a moment to look in Setsuna's direction, and point to Negi with a thumbs up to let her know their teacher was alive before Kaede scampered away with a blaze of lightning on her tail.
Insanity. No other word could describe this battlefield. But what were they fighting against? Her eyes went toward the bright mass of lightning near the cyclone's center. Ku was there, stabbing at the existence with her cloth spear, seemingly to no avail. On closer inspection, the lightning swamp was not a swamp at all, but a large creature that resembled a four-legged beast. It zipped from side to side with blazing speed, giving off the appearance of a large blob of light due to the residual after-image as it moved.
"Where did it come from," Setsuna murmured to no one in particular with wide eyes, never having seen such a creature before. She spotted Asuna nearby Ku, dodging about without a sword or harisen in hand, aiding Ku in her efforts to attack their enemy. The swordsman briefly wondered if Asuna had purposely chosen not to bring out her artifact because it was made of metal, but recalled that she had seen an unconscious Negi just seconds ago. Even if Asuna had wanted to summon it, artifacts weren't an option at this point.
Setsuna glanced at the sheathed sword in her hand and realized that her metallic weapon might also be a problem in this fight. The best thing for all of them would be to escape to the protection of the trees until they could think of an effective plan of attack. And that meant that their primary goal would be to get rid of the wind barrier. Setsuna racked her brains for any idea that offered a hope of escaping the trap.
A burst of light and a roar came from the beast as it caused another spike of lightning to shoot out of the ground, scattering Ku and Asuna. A stray bolt ricocheted towards Setsuna. As she dodged to her left, narrowly avoiding the blinding projectile, she collided heavily into another Kaede. They crashed into a pile of bodies and limbs, with the swordsman sliding over both Kaede and Chachamaru, whom she had been carrying. When she rolled to a stop, Setsuna gasped as her eyes fell onto Chachamaru's lifeless form. Her classmate's robotic body was charred and frayed wires spilled out of her various joints.
The muddied swordsman and ninja locked eyes as they scrambled to their feet. Kaede quickly scooped Chachamaru's body back into her arms, ignoring the occasional spark coming out of the robot's fried circuits. The ground started to tremble beneath them, forcing Kaede to condense a report into three seconds before they continued their endless sprinting.
"Negi and Evangeline-san are out cold, too. Everyone's alive. I have all the mages. My clones won't last much longer!"
That was all Kaede could manage to convey to her comrade before the ground under them split apart and a massive geyser of lightning burst forth. The years of training that Kaede and Setsuna had conditioned themselves with saved their lives, causing each fighter to react to the fissure opening below and to jump out of the way in time.
Setsuna landed on her feet, but her lower extremities felt like pins and needles. That last attack had come too close to her legs and just that proximity was enough to force a numbness into her muscles. She took a wobbly step forward and collapsed onto Yuunagi, who acted more like a walking stick than a sword now. It was going to be impossible for her to continue moving like before. Setsuna glanced at the beast. It appeared to be faceless, just a concentration of electricity forced into the shape of a four legged creature, but the swordsman could have sworn that the beast was staring intently at her in this moment. It reared its head back and shot a bolt of lightning in her direction.
"Damnit!" Setsuna shouted, lifting Yuunagi out of the mud. Without a doubt, dodging was out of the question. That left her with few options to survive this attack. She moved to unsheathe Yuunagi, then saw an orange blur move towards her out of the corner of her eyes, perhaps even faster than the lightning approaching from the front. Setsuna remained motionless and let the orange blur lift her off the ground as it passed her, and out of the way of the electrifying attack. There was a chime of tiny bells, and Setsuna knew that Asuna had saved her.
"Setsuna-san, can you move?" Asuna asked her, breathless from the effort.
"No, my legs are numb. But I need you to put me down."
"What?" Asuna cried. "Are you nuts? You're a sitting duck if you stop moving."
"I know, but I need to test something!" Setsuna explained. "If it works, I have a plan to get us out of here."
Asuna steadied herself with a deep breath. "OK, get ready. How far do you want me to drop you from that thing?"
"Less than half the distance of this clearing. I need it to see me and attack me directly."
"Don't get yourself killed," Asuna murmured as they slowed to a stop. "Konoka'll kill me if you do, so... good luck!"
"Thanks, and stay close. If this works," Setsuna said, drawing out Yuunagi like she had started to do earlier, "I'm going to need you to do something for me."
Setsuna was no more than fifty feet away from the creature. It hadn't been looking at her, but the swordsman could see that unsheathing Yuunagi had piqued its interest. She held the sword in front of herself, waiting for the enemy to make the first move. Like before, the beast opened its mouth and shot another bolt in Setsuna's direction.
As the attack approached her, the swordsman deftly stepped to the side despite the numbness in her legs. Still gripping Yuunagi in both hands, she swung the sword akin to a baseball bat, connecting with the lightning bolt just before it approached her previous position. As she had hoped, the lightning was attracted to Yuunagi's metal blade and momentarily tried to cling to the sword, but the force of Setsuna's swing redirected the lightning and sent it flying in direction of sword attack. The action had lasted a fraction of a second, but the aftereffects were overwhelming. The tingling sensation in the swordsman's legs now spread to her hands like an army of fire ants swarming their prey. It was painful, yet bearable, a successful test by her standards. She now had a means to deflect the lightning attacks.
"Asuna-san!" Setsuna shouted, and her friend was at her side in an instant.
"Are you OK?" she asked nervously, "did it work?"
Setsuna nodded. "It worked perfectly." She threw an arm over Asuna's shoulder. "Get me out of here, I need a moment to recover."
Asuna reacted without hesitation. She lifted Setsuna and carried her to the other side of the clearing, listening to Setsuna's instructions as she did so.
"Drop me here, then find any Kaede and let her know that I need Kono-chan, now. She's the only way to get us out of this thing," she explained, waving her hand at the wall of wind surrounding them.
"Can you even move after that?" Asuna asked worriedly. "If I leave you here and the beast comes after you, you're screwed."
Setsuna sheathed Yuunagi as they came to a halt. "The numbness is only temporary I think. I can already feel my legs again. Just hurry with Kaede, and distract the beast again to buy us some time." Setsuna said, and Asuna nodded and darted off with her task. No sooner had Setsuna tried to take a few steps on her wobbly legs, a Kaede appeared before her carrying Konoka.
"Somebody order an ojou-sama?" Kaede asked with a smile, lowering Konoka onto the ground. The mage dove at Setsuna with such ferocity that Setsuna found it impossible to evade her hug. Konoka's arms wrapped around her neck tightly, knocking her to the ground.
"I didn't think I'd ever see you again, Secchan!" Konoka cried with tears in her eyes. "We were training and there was an explosion and that yellow thing appeared and the hurricane surrounded us and-"
"Kono-chan, we don't have time for this," Setsuna chided her gently. "You need to use your wind magic to dissipate the barrier around us."
Konoka wiped her eyes with the palm of her hand and looked back at Setsuna fearfully. "I haven't learned how to do that! I don't know how!"
"No, you do know how," Setsuna quietly told the mage, as the confidence in her partner manifested itself in a gentle smile that was reserved only for Konoka. The swordsman reached a hand to touch Konoka's cheek, but the action was interrupted as Setsuna pulled her to the ground and out of the way of a lightning attack.
"Kono-chan," shouted the swordsman, the gentleness replaced by urgency as they scrambled to their feet. "What you did yesterday against Negi-sensei's magic was dissipation. I know you can do this, just hang on." Setsuna turned to Kaede. "Kaede! Where's your giant ninja star?"
"It's on the other side of the clearing. There's a clone near it right now. What are you planning?"
"We're going to try to pin that thing to the ground," Setsuna cried, nodding at the lightning beast that was now chasing after the others. "When that beast starts roaming the perimeter, hit it dead center with your star. If things go according to plan, it'll be attracted to the metal of your star and won't be able to get very far after that. Go!"
Kaede nodded. "My clone's on it. What are you going to do?"
"As soon as it's pinned, I'm going to set ojou-sama up at the center of the barrier. She's going to take the barrier down, and then we'll scatter into the trees."
"Secchan, I-" The uncertainty in the mage's voice was unmistakable. "I don't think I can do this!"
In that moment, Setsuna lost sight of the battle and turned all of her attention towards Konoka, who was clearly torn about her role on this battlefield. And in that moment, the beast chose to chase after them. There was movement in her peripheral vision, and the Kaede clone nearest to them shoved Setsuna into Konoka-effectively pushing them out of the way as the clone jumped into the path of the raging beast. There was a sickening cry and the clone was gone. Setsuna scooped up Konoka and dodged out of the way, just as a giant ninja star crashed into the ground where they had been moments ago, pinning the beast to the ground.
Setsuna glanced at the beast over her shoulder. It lunged at them and was pulled back to the star. If the beast had a discernable face, the swordsman was sure it would hold a look of bewilderment as the beast turned to examine the ninja star that held it in place.
"Perfect," thought the swordsman, as she dashed toward the center of wind barrier. She lowered Konoka to the ground and stepped into a defensive stance with Yuunagi drawn, acting as a shield between Konoka and the beast.
"Kono-chan," she said to mage, with her back to the other girl. Setsuna's eyes were focused only on the tethered beast, but her heart was focused only on Konoka. "Yesterday afternoon, I underestimated you in every way possible. You were more than capable of fighting that fight, but I stood in your way and stopped you from unleashing your potential. But you showed me your true strength when you battled against Negi, and I'm ready to acknowledge that strength now. Please," Setsuna gave a sideways glance at Konoka, who only had eyes for her in this moment. "Let me protect you while you protect all of us... while you protect me."
Setsuna was only a swordsman, yet her words seemed to cast a spell on Konoka. The mage rose from the ground, her eyes firmly fixed on Setsuna's, and nodded. She had accepted the challenge, she was finally ready to fight along side Setsuna.
"No turning back!" Setsuna called to her with a smile. Her heart was pounding with excitement. "Are you ready to do this?!"
"Just watch me!" Konoka shouted back, smiling radiantly. She whispered an incantation that Setsuna couldn't quite make out, and a pillar of light and wind shot out of her body, directly into the sky. It encompassed only Konoka at first, and then expanded slowly to include Setsuna. As Konoka's own wind barrier passed through the swordsman to surround her as well, Setsuna could feel her body healing slightly. It wasn't a complete heal, but it was enough of an improvement that Setsuna flexed her arms in amazement and stared in awe at Konoka. The mage was fully focused on the task now, her eyes screwed shut with concentration as one raised hand held her practice wand toward the sky while her left hand was clutched into a fist at her chest.
"I'm watching you, Kono-chan," Setsuna thought to herself as she turned back to face the beast. With her renewed strength, she tightened her grip on Yuunagi and prepared for the battle ahead. "I don't have my eyes on anybody but you."
Author's Note: Let's not discuss how long it took to write this, or that it took a folder of 12 documents to produce this chapter, with each file labeled something like "Chapter 7 - 10th try", "Chapter 7 - 11th try"... Let's just marvel at the fact that this chapter was finished and try to enjoy it. :)
Now this is the Setsuna we know. Confident, strong, strategic. And, perhaps for the first time ever, she's willing to be protected by Konoka. :) It took over 4 years (OK, I guess we talked about how long it took...) but our little swordsman is growing up!
If you're someone who's been reading this story since the last update, I'm deeply indebted to you. Thank you for continuing to read despite the insanely long breaks between each chapter. *bows* I hope you'll continue to follow the story as I try to wrap things up.
If you're a new reader, welcome! I hope you're enjoying this story! I hope you'll stick with me to the end as well. But don't listen to anyone if they tell you that it takes years for a chapter to come out. It's not true... *shifty eyes* Thanks for reading, and everyone, please review! :)