If there is anything here that is legal-action-against-the-fanfic-author-worthy, I don't own whatever it is.

And here you go—the other half of the chapter, which I have for once delivered on time.

The chapter title comes from the Evanescence song of the same. The lyrics had nothing to do with that choice.


Chapter 15:

Missing

Negi adjusted his glasses several times on the way back down to the first floor. He felt like a wound-up spring from the tension that continued to build as they waited for the Kansai extremist faction to appear. Nervous tics like that weren't surprising.

What had been surprising was what Naruto had told him about Mana. It had not been pleasant. While Naruto continued his search for Setsuna, he had gone to Group 4's room to look at her ailment himself. He quickly saw that Naruto had spared him some of the details of just how awful their student looked.

Kaede was unfortunately correct in her deduction about his abilities; it was certainly beyond him to remove the cursed poison, or even to attempt to attack the curse in the first place for that matter. It wasn't something he had put more than a cursory study into, enough to recognize important terminology and remove a simple hex from an object—and enough to know that a mistake in removing it would make most curses worse. His ability to heal wasn't entirely undeveloped, but he didn't think he could counteract a poison that had advanced so far.

He bitterly bemoaned that he hadn't put more study into either field.

Still, Negi had refused to leave without taking at least some action to help her. His answer was to refresh her, revitalizing her much as he had his students for their test after that entire Library Island affair.

It didn't heal her, nor could it fight the curse, nor push away the poisons. But a body and mind well-rested is one most prepared to fight against foreign influences, and he could only hope that if he returned over the night to cast the spell again she might be able to survive it. He didn't know Mana very well—hadn't even known she was involved with magic until Naruto had told him, actually!—but as one of his precious students it still hurt him to see her in such a state.

He caught sight of Chizuru and Chisame walking down the hall. Negi's stomach flipped. They shouldn't be out! No student could be out of bed tonight. It was dangerous, way too dangerous!

But that wasn't reason to snap at them. "Hi girls! Sorry, but it'll be lights out in only a few minutes, so you should go on to your rooms."

"Yes, Sensei," grumbled Chisame. She refused to look at his eyes, light glinting off her glasses to hide her face. Inside, Negi begged her to forgive him. Hadn't he already apologized for accidentally blowing her bunny suit apart (in public), even if he couldn't exactly tell her what had happened?

And those glasses—sure, she needed them to see, but to Negi it looked like she hid behind them just as much. The only eye contact he could remember her making was through the intermediary of her Chiu-chan alias and a computer screen.

"We will, Negi-sensei," Chizuru replied. As she walked away her eyes asked him a question, to which he nodded.

Kaede had brought up similar concerns to those Chizuru had earlier in the day, but with the greater detail a friend could bring to the table. Negi thought there were a couple of things she hadn't told him for the sake of privacy, but what she had painted yet more of the eminently disturbing picture that had been dragged out into the light over the course of the day.

Negi wouldn't pry into it. He'd promised as much, and it wouldn't help whatever was wrong with Naruto's image of himself if he forced the matter. But the weight of another troubling concern settled onto his shoulders nonetheless.

Fortunately, Naruto wasn't one of those concerns that were currently unconscious or trying to attack him. That was a silver lining, right? Maybe?

Negi shook his head as he walked down to the first floor. It was more of a well-polished iron lining at best. But he had no more time to consider the figurative metallic composition of cloud linings, as he could see Naruto and Asuna sitting at one of the curved couches in front of small tables in the lobby. Three other such couches and tables graced that section of the lobby, the rounded furniture spaced so as to form the outline of a circle.

"Sorry for taking so long. I think I might have made a small difference, but our best bet would be to hope that one of the attackers has the antidote or can tell us what it is."

Asuna grimaced. "They'd better have it on hand. I thought that what happened to Makie and Class Rep pissed me off, but this is even worse."

"I can certainly understand that," Negi agreed, although he felt more worried than angry. The enemy just didn't have a face to be angry at. "Were you waiting for me to get back?"

"No, that wasn't it," said Naruto. "Setsuna came by here just a little while after you went to see Mana. She stuck some sort of paper slip over the doorway and then left. She said she'd be back soon, though." His assistant teacher sounded troubled and kept wringing his right hand in his left. Questions rose up in response, but if he asked he doubted they'd be finished by the time Setsuna returned.

Although Naruto's behavior caught his attention as a friend, his words caught his interest as a mage. 'Paper slip?' Negi took a seat beside Asuna, although his attention had turned to the door.

There was definitely a thin, rectangular cut of paper up there, but he couldn't feel any magic from it even when he actively tried to sense for it. Was it some method of hiding the power, or did one need to be closer to feel Oriental magic residing in an object?

Then Setsuna was putting up a second paper tag similarly equidistant from the edges of the door. She was just there—Negi couldn't tell if it was from an instant movement technique so she could finish her task faster or if she was simply very experienced at not being noticed. Through the glass doors behind her, he could see the stairs leading up from the main entrance to ground level outside.

Either way, he was so glad Chamo had been wrong! Despite the gravity of the situation, the knowledge that his student wasn't trying to murder him warmed his heart. That he had for even a moment been suspicious of his own student had struck him with guilt as a teacher.

She stepped down and returned the chair she had stood on to reach the headboard above the door to its original position, which Negi hadn't noticed her move it from. He thought he saw her furtively glance in their direction before sighing and shifting in their direction. Negi got the feeling she wasn't exactly looking forward to the upcoming conversation, although that may have been because of how Asuna and Naruto had last seen her.

Running away naked into the night could cause embarrassment like that. Generally speaking.

"Hello Setsuna-san!"

"Hey Sakurazaka-san, took you long enough."

"Please forgive my tardiness, Negi-sensei, Kagurazaki-san, Naruto-sensei."

Naruto, seated at the opposite end of the couch from them, leaned forwards when she neared. He smiled, but it was blatantly strained. "That's nothing. We aren't on a time crunch yet, so being a little late isn't bad. Um… those are ofuda, right? What were you doing with them?" His gaze dipped towards those remaining in her hands. Extensive writing in a language he didn't know covered one side of the forearm-length pieces of paper, along with a mystic symbol (the only one he could see featured a pentagram). They were somewhat larger than ofuda normally were, from his understanding of them. Maybe it was because of what they were used for?

"Wait, I was supposed to greet you too, wasn't I?" Naruto's sheepish grin was more honest this time. "Hi."

Ofuda were protective charms from a Shinto shrine, typically inscribed on paper. He had never got around to asking someone about it, but he had been almost certain that the talismans would have at least a small role to play in the Japanese magical traditions.

He was surprised that Naruto had recognized them, considering that he was from a different world—but then again, his culture did have an unusual number of parallels to Japan's.

Setsuna folded the ofuda and tucked them out of sight. "I was establishing a protective field around the ryokan. I don't have the ability to put up powerful protections around a structure this large, but the kanji for 'shikigami' layered with a kuji-kiri grid should be enough to keep any more of them from entering the building, now that I've put one of these over each of the entrances to the building." Naruto's immediate dive into questions had distracted her from whatever embarrassing thoughts she had called up.

"But you weren't gone that long," Naruto pointed out. "How did you put one over every window on the building?"

That was a good point. And aside from the time, it would have taken a lot of paper to put those up for every window in the entire inn.

Setsuna shook her head. "That would have taken too long, and it wouldn't have been too hard for someone to notice I was visiting every window in the building. They could have just rushed ahead of me and sent a shikigami through before I completed the barrier."

"Wait, so that—"

"I wasn't finished, Naruto-sensei," Setsuna reprimanded him with a small, but heated, glare. Could it be that she was still upset over Naruto trying to interrogate her as a spy? "I ended up hiding one of the talismans under the overhang of the roof on all four sides, in addition to the ones at the doors."

"I didn't feel like anyone was watching me, so I think they didn't notice—but I had to put it out there to give it a broader effect. With that, the barrier still covers all the windows, it's just… weaker. I'm grateful to have enclosed the building at all—that was the last ofuda I had that was suitable for creating a protective field." Her annoyed face quite clearly said that she wasn't going to bring so few next time she left home.

He supposed that was the best defense they could hope for in that regard, and it was more than they already had. Along with his own protections established outside the ryokan, they would at least be prepared should their mystery assailant make another attack. The wards he had set up wouldn't hold up against another mage out for long—but the most important part was the layer behind that which would trigger a silent alarm at any change in the first barrier or any attempt to cross its much less obvious border.

They didn't have the resources to hole up like a turtle in armor in a walled fortress on a cliff, so foreknowledge was their most important defense.

"A magic swordsman… so you were using magic back then…" Naruto muttered.

"Not at all. One of the unique traits of the onmyōdō is that almost all of the skills of the early and intermediate teachings can be accomplished through chi as well as magic. Mages have a better affinity for it, but if one cares to study there are a wide variety of spells or charms at hand even for someone who can't wield magic at all. What I have learned is only to complement my skills with a blade." She looked at him askance. "But I thought you would have noticed that—if you weren't using chi, surely it must have been magic? If I had used magic to enhance my movements, you would have felt it, would you not?"

Negi hurried to speak up. "Naruto-kun is a unique case. He's inherited abilities that deviate from the standard practices of magic or chi." Making sound like just a family trait made him feel guiltily like he was lying (even though it was technically the truth), but Negi wasn't certain they had time for a proper explanation of the world-hopping ninja. He silently promised to explain properly after this night's ordeal was over.

Naruto didn't speak up as they discussed him, his eyes dropping to stare at his hands.

Setsuna nodded. "I see. And you, Kagurazaka-san?" The swordsman's eyes fell on Asuna, quietly judging as they ran up and down her form. "Since when have you been involved in the hidden world of magic? You've never moved away from the normal life of a student before this."

She sat down at the nearby edge of a neighboring sectional sofa, which put a small distance between them. There was certainly still room on theirs for someone else, with Naruto staying on the very end of the couch as he was. The casual manner of her choice seemed to Negi to be one of someone used to separating herself from others.

"Well, someone had to keep Negi from messing things up, right?" W-wait, what was that? No, no someone didn't! He didn't make that many mistakes! Did he?

His eyes widened, focused on nothing, as he began to envision all the mistakes he may have made. So terrible were his sins that his hands vibrated from their quivering.

Negi missed the look Asuna cast at him when she said that, and so missed the smile his reaction her teasing elicited. "But I'm already in hip-deep, and Negi—the whole class, really—needs help, so…"

She trailed off, but Asuna didn't actually need to finish the sentence. The rest of them nodded as she finished speaking, everyone feeling the same need in face of the dangers the day had placed before them.

"Right then!" Chamo piped up, obviously not wanting to be overlooked and annoyed that he hadn't had a place in the conversation thus far. "Let's get the most important thing out of the way before we continue—Sakurazaki Setsuna, you are not our enemy, correct?"

Setsuna sighed. She didn't seem surprised by the talking mustelid, although considering that she was a magic swordsman someone like Chamo must not be all that shocking. "No. I thought this had been made clear by now." A hard look was sent Naruto's way with that.

"It's not my fault! I agreed you weren't a spy, didn't I? And I was there when you saved Konoka. I already know you aren't a Kansai agent."

"It was just a question that needed to get asked, Setsuna-nēsan! We suspected you, so asking out loud helps that suspicion die down is all. Hehehe… ehe… Sorry about that." Chamo laughed nervously. Subject to Asuna's glare, he hastily corrected himself. "Well, I suspected you, and that kept everyone worried."

"Right, but that's over now! This crazy ermine was just being paranoid. But having someone who can actually fight with us is a huge relief, Sakurazaki-san."

"A-Asuna! You can't just ignore me like that! Ninja here, remember?"

"A ninja whose head doesn't even reach my shoulder! And it wasn't you who stopped the monkeys, was it?" Asuna shot back.

"Ugyuu…" A wounded sound emerged from Naruto's lips at Asuna's painful truth. He looked rather like she had punched him in the gut while he wasn't looking.

Setsuna nodded. "A shinobi… I thought as much, although I've never met one with such terrible form in martial arts."

"U-u-uugyuuu…"

It sounded like he was choking on words, leaving only half of a sound to come out. Naruto's head sank until his brow was pressed against the glass table in front of the sectional couch.

Negi had to step in before Naruto's pride was stepped on any further. "Setsuna-san, do you know anything about the sorcerers who've been harassing us today? Oriental magic isn't something that any of us know much about."

The pale girl directed her attention to him. The sensation of being judged before her eyes was unnerving. Was she wondering about how useful he would be should a fight break out? He couldn't think of another reason—or at least, with the looming presence of such a battle so central to his thoughts he couldn't.

"It doesn't sit well with me that someone as young as you is already involved in something so dangerous," Setsuna said. Negi hid the grimace of frustration the phrase evoked with practiced ease—even if the wording was different, it was a sentence he was very familiar with. His age had been a barrier to him for a long time. Particularly in those years following that winter's night—

Negi shut the thought away before it could progress, and slid it into the back of his mind. This evening would be a spectacularly inconvenient time to get lost in thought and memories.

But Setsuna hadn't finished speaking. "But I've heard that you are a powerful mage… I haven't seen that myself, but I do know that you're already a major target and so can't be expected to simply stand aside. And of course, if this conflict escalates any further it would only put Ojō-sama in more danger. My discomfort isn't important in face of that. I'll tell you what I can."

Negi beamed gratitude at her through his eyes. Her approval made him feel proud despite hardly knowing her. Maybe it was because she was a magic swordsman that could cut through boulders.

Good thing magic could patch that up… although the standard repairing spells were frustratingly slow at their task.

Setsuna began to explain, her features showing nothing but the gravity by which she took her mission. "The majority of the magic you'll see from a sorcerer of the Kansai Magic Association falls under one of the disciplines of onmyōdō—the way of yin and yang. An onmyōji has the same limits as you wizards do—channeling tools are still needed to use onmyōdō, even for someone who uses chi like I do."

Channeling tool, focusing instrument, casting device, magic-activation item… those were just some of the many, oft-interchanged names for the items a mage might use to enable him or herself to actualize magic in the form of a spell (although the last term was the one most commonly used in magical academia). Cut and unflawed crystals, a ritually prepared deck of cards, magically forged jewelry or crowns, consecrated religious symbols, or the various components used in alchemy were also well-known magic-activation items.

The staff and wand were of course the most archetypical and widespread of these.

Negi was surprised—not that the sorcerers of Japan followed the rules of magic despite their different magical traditions (of course they still did), but that even a chi-wielder would require a channeling tool.

The word choice made more sense in this case, as it wasn't magic that Setsuna was activating (despite the tendency of magic to be used as a blanket term for supernatural energies as a whole). But how did that work in the first place?

"I've never heard of items being required to use chi before. But then again, I've never heard of magic and chi both usable for the same spell, either," Negi mused aloud. There were some magical items that could be set off with just a touch of power, but that was different from actually casting. "It could be that it's the use of the channeling tool that enables someone with a different power to use hers in imitation of magic… but something that could be broadly applied, such as a wand, couldn't possibly achieve that."

Still, he didn't know how someone would design a device that produced the same result when exposed to two energies that with such fundamentally different behaviors. Oh, there were a lot of areas of overlap between magic and chi, but even in that respect how the person used that power was different with each of the two sources.

Setsuna stared at him in quiet surprise. "Th-that, I can't answer. Such matters are more the domain of researchers or experienced sorcerers than a practitioner like me… I don't know if your average onmyōji would have an answer either. Although if you want to know about channeling items, the most common would be the ofuda. In fact, the aspect of onmyōjutsu focusing on their use is so widely studied that the titles of 'talisman master' and 'onmyōji' have become all but synonyms."

Negi stared in interest as she pulled out one of those slips of paper, this one having only one word repeated in sprawling letters all over it, in both Sanskrit and kanji. At least he thought the part in Sanskrit was the same as the kanji. It was smaller than the first ofuda he'd seen her place above the door.

He reached out for it–and, when she nodded, took it in his hand. With it in his hand he could easily feel the magic potential held within the ofuda. He assumed he had been too inexperienced with oriental magic to notice it from a distance. Although it feeling like magic at all seemed out of place, considering that Setsuna wasn't a mage.

On that thought… he felt too much power in the paper seal. "Ah… Setsuna, this doesn't feel like a focus instrument…" he nervously squeaked out, carefully setting the ofuda on the table. "Is this safe? It is actually one of yours, right?"

"Yes to both." Setsuna answered very quickly, before Naruto and Asuna could do more than tense at the possible danger Negi had just brought up. "This ofuda was, originally, just a channeling tool. But once I inscribed the spell onto it and imbued it with my chi, it is completed as a proper talisman. All that is needed to activate it and finish the spell is another use of chi and a short chant, most often less than your wizardry requires. Onmyōji who use magic instead of chi frequently don't need to say anything at all, unless they want to pull more power from the ofuda."

Negi looked at the seal in his hands. "Are you… are you saying that by inscribing the spell onto the ofuda, you've essentially converted the incantation into writing? Not merely storing the effects of the spell, or holding an already cast one in stasis in an uncompleted state, but actually setting the casting of the spell into written form? If all you have to do is finish an incantation that's almost complete, an onmyōji could toss out two, maybe three spells in the time it would take me to cast one!"

It was brilliant and more than a little worrying. He didn't know what preparation the ofuda needed before it was suitable for use as a channeling tool, but once made it was literally a spell someone carried around with them. Creating magical items, brewing potions—those took time, effort, and money, and such products weren't things to be casually expended. Those could create a similar outcome to the ofuda… but if it was the main method of spellcasting here, the talismans must be much easier to make. And unlike the above, an ofuda would contain an actual, entire spell rather than just the end result of one.

The distinction may not seem important in terms of pure practicality or exploding fireballs, but academically and conceptually it was a drastic difference.

And having the spell cast in the form of the written word… the physical nature of the incantation could very well play a role in directing differing energies towards the same result. The markings on the ofuda didn't serve the proper purpose of magical runes (runes certainly didn't work like that!), but might serve a similar, if altered, purpose. Negi couldn't think of any other branch of magic that accomplished what quite Japan's sorcerers did with their talismans.

That might also explain why her chi felt like magic when in the ofuda—the words (or the preparations required to make the paper slip a focus instrument) could very well be altering the chi entering it to take on properties similar to those of magic in order to achieve the same effects. That would certainly explain why mages were better at using ofuda.

"Yes. An onmyōji's strongest advantage in magical combat is the readied spells she has at hand and the speed at which she can throw them out. In addition to that, it's difficult to interrupt their casting in the short span it takes them to cast the spell. Those who train in the aspect of onmyōjutsu that focuses of ofuda are called 'talisman masters', but as I mentioned it is so broadly studied that the word and onmyōji are all but the same."

Setsuna coughed and turned her head away. "Having now answered your question… I would prefer it if you would not call me an onmyōji. I do know some of their arts, but am by no means comparable to an actual sorcerer, nor do I cleave as closely to the philosophy of the path as a true onmyōji would. What onmyōjutsu I use is, again, only that which supplements my skills with the sword."

As Negi rushed to apologize, Asuna gave voice to the shared concern Setsuna had given life. "If the mages here can play "magic machine gun", what are we supposed to do? With only one of Negi's spells for every two or three of theirs… even he'd get knocked down by that!"

Her hand came up to grasp his shoulder while she talked, pulling him slightly towards her. Negi awkwardly adjusted his glasses. It wasn't that he thought himself any manner of experienced battle mage, but knowing that Asuna was right was still mortifying. But still, it wasn't so one-sided as that, because—

"Negi might, if the mage actually has the spells for it," Naruto said, raising his head from the table. "The sorcerer still has limits of his own—how fast he can pull out an ofuda, how many he has, and most importantly, what spells he thought to inscribe on his talismans. Or her talismans, I suppose."

Negi mentally applauded Naruto for his analysis. That said, he did miss—

"This is true, but you didn't mention their other flaw," Setsuna elaborated. "An onmyōji cannot bring into battle ofuda bearing all of the spells she knows. With so many paper seals, they would take too much time to sort through to find the magic she's actually looking for. She is limited in both number and variety of talismans, and would be forced to turn to a likely less practiced style of magic once they're gone."

The bells in Asuna's hair chimed as she shook her head from side to side. "That still sounds really bad. Especially if there's more than one, or if they start slinging paper at us while we're busy with their Minister. "

"If it's only one or two, then Asuna and either me or Setsuna should be able to at least occupy the Minister Magi, while the other and Negi took on the actual mages. I could possibly divert their attention by myself if necessary, though… I don't think I could actually beat them, especially if they were wielding those magic artifacts Negi mentioned, but I'm…

Naruto's eyes dropped away and the confidence left his voice. "I'm… very good at healing myself."

Negi didn't think that was what Naruto was originally going to say.

"That won't be necessary, Naruto-sensei," Setsuna replied after staring at the shinobi. "And encountering a Minister or Ministra isn't going to be a problem, considering that one of the reasons for these attacks is to prevent the peace talks between the Elders of the Magic Associations. The Headmaster told me about the mission he assigned to you," she added as an aside to Negi.

"Why not? What difference does that make?" Asuna asked, obviously confused.

Setsuna explained before Negi could. "What's happened so far has almost certainly been due to the Honganji or Junsuibi Faction—two groups of fanatic traditionalists that have between them a small, but not insignificant, following in the Association. They refuse to use magic that isn't a part of the long-established Japanese magical tradition." Setsuna shook her head in disgust. "And then in their purist pride they use what should be treasured teachings of magic and chi to split the magical side of our nation in half."

"That's awful… but it means we know what range of abilities they have. Still, what does that have to do with Ministra?"

Setsuna cast an annoyed look in Naruto's direction. "If you'd let me finish talking, I'd answer that." He sheepishly turned his gaze to the floor as Setsuna began explaining. "Although I've been told the spirits of the Pactio can be easily called anywhere, the Pactio ritual came from overseas, and not so far back in history that the shamefully extreme would consider it to have become a part of Japan's magical culture."

"However, their reliance on ofuda makes them as vulnerable to attack as an occidental wizard like you, Negi-sensei. If you want to use a spell it leaves you open to attack, which could also break up your casting; an onmyōji has to draw out her ofuda, which as objects could be destroyed or taken away from her. An attack strong enough to knock her around might also throw a number of them out of wherever she's stored them."

"But they have another line of defense," Negi stated as he considered what she said. "It would be impossible for a tradition with a vulnerability like that to survive unless the mages developed a means to protect themselves. For something unlike the Pactio… something Japanese, ready at hand whenever the mage would need protection…"

"… are they using shikigami?"

"N-not quite," Setsuna replied, her mouth gaping open a little bit once he finished. "Although in a sense you are correct. A shikigami is made similarly to an ofuda, but after you've cut the paper into the shape of what the shikigami will imitate you install an animating spirit into it. These are rarely very powerful—most spirits that can be contained are weak, although there are some exceptions."

"Protecting a mage requires greater strength than that. By creating specially prepared and personalized paper vessels to hold them—which I'll note that I cannot make—the onmyōji can infuse up to two, and never more than two, seals with demons summoned as part of the ritual."

"A… demon?" Naruto asked. No, that wasn't right—it was some unpleasant mix of a demand and a plea combined into a single sound that broke from the restrained emotion in his voice. The color drained completely from his face, making his dark whisker marks stand out in contrast. The small motion of Setsuna's eyes guiltily flicking down to the table went completely unnoticed compared to the study in flagrant emotion Naruto displayed.

That was right… he also had been upset by that old tsukumogami lady when they first met for tea, and he was terrified of the puppet Chachazero. Of course Naruto would be disconcerted over demons.

His instant judgment in response to the word was irrational. Still, Negi couldn't deny that the word stirred uncomfortable sensations within him as well, and he shivered from the phantom chill of snowy memories.

"Two demons, she said." Negi turned the whole of his attention to the subject of talisman masters and defenses, burying the feeling deep in his mind.

Setsuna's eyes flicked up from their study of the flower vase on the table. She looked… somehow even less happy than her already completely serious face and sharp eyes had shown. "That's correct. These demons are called the Zenki and Goki; the Greater Demon most suited for aggressive attacks as the vanguard, and the Guardian Demon which remains behind to protect its master or serve as the rearguard should the onmyōji need to retreat."

"The primary method of obtaining them is to summon and bargain with a demon; the second, for the talisman master to summon only the soul or even just its power into the paper seal. This allows them to modify the resulting 'demon' without worrying about the original's consent. Either way, these demons are, technically, in the same class of being as a shikigami—but by virtue of their power and the unusual nature of spirit they hold, the difference between them and other shikigami is great enough that few think of them as the same."

"That sounds like a terrible idea," Naruto butted in. He shook his head with a pitying grin. "I can't imagine a demon not coming back for vengeance after having something so precious stolen by a mere human."

His previous upset had disappeared, leaving Naruto bearing a smile that was neither too small nor too large than could comfortably fit into the conversation. There was nothing to hint at how almost traumatically horrified he had been only seconds before.

And that disturbed Negi more than any of Naruto's casual mentions of violence and death ever had.

So intent was Negi on trying to find flaws in Naruto's smile that he almost missed Setsuna's response.

"That is occasionally a problem—and was more in far older times," she admitted. But she quickly qualified her statement, which Negi imagined was to keep from casting the magic of Japan in a bad light. "And of course, the sorcerers who do this are those who don't care to make a bargain with the demon, often because it would result in a more equal partnership than they're willing to accept. So, for the past several centuries such soon-to-be summoners have taken to using more extensive divinations before starting the ritual. By finding one of the older demons that has slept for years or decades—some demons are like dragons in that regard—they can use as much of its power as they can handle and later return it without waking the spirit at all."

Negotiating a contract with a demon… how unlike the preset terms of the probationary Pactio contract. And more risky, even though demons were hardly as malicious as (mostly occidental) culture depicted them—magical bargains had a long history of being exploited by either side. Considering how some demons looked, he hoped the differences included not sealing the deal with a kiss.

"And the soul part? I… I didn't think demons even had them."

"No, that's… wrong. Most demons do."

"Oh."

Naruto and Setsuna's exchange was subdued. Setsuna looked uncomfortable at the topic, which wasn't as striking a change as Naruto, who had lost his fake smile and couldn't seem to actually meet anyone's eyes.

Negi mentally catalogued the conversation and its result as important information for the ongoing mysteries of "Who is Naruto?", "What's Wrong with Naruto?", and the relatively new one, "Who is this Setsuna Girl, Anyways?"

To prevent the dismal air from growing any greater—Negi rather thought what was coming was worrying enough already—he spoke up. "So even if it's only one onmyōji, that's the mage and two demons? Demons, who have their own powers to use via youki?"

Maybe talking about how dangerous it would be wasn't a good topic for that.

"Yes… but it may be even worse than that," Setsuna said, in the most worrying way that anyone had ever agreed with him. She seemed more at ease talking about dangerous conspirators than demon souls. "This would be because of the Kyoto branch of Shinmei-Ryū."

Negi stared on in confusion, not understanding why her fellow swordsmen would be a danger, as she continued. "Shinmei-Ryū originated from a band of some of the foremost warriors in Japan. Their leader, Aoyama Kojirō,developed the style to protect Kyoto back when it was the capital, forming it also to vanquish the demons and youkai who in that time had become a widespread danger."

Setsuna sighed and looked down. "Because of this, Kyoto is the center of learning for Shinmei-ryū, and of the styles composing the school, Kyoto Shinmei-ryū is the most frequently taught. As Kyoto is also the home of the Kansai Magic Association, the two groups have long held a close bond. It is not uncommon for an onmyōji to request for a swordsman from the Shinmei School to accompany him or her for a time as a bodyguard. The last denial of such a request was in 1937. There are certainly many within the school who would also hate the East."

"It would practically be overkill at that point to bring in anyone else," Naruto said, looking closer to what Negi thought to be normal for Naruto. "A spell-slinging sorcerer in the back, who you'd have to get past two demons to reach—who have their own supernatural powers on hand—and a sword lady who can cut through stone? Just one onmyōji could sweep away a smaller group by numbers alone. We're lucky there're four of us."

"Hey, it ain't that bad!" Chamo said from beside Negi's ear. His longtime friend hopped down from his shoulder to the table so as to seen better. "We've got those trap circles out there, and if a troop of four tries to storm the inn they're bound to cross at least one of them. And you said your Shinmei-ryū was strong against demons, right? That's at least half of the group that would enter, but our side doesn't have any."

"O-of course we don't."

"No, no demons here!"

Chamo nodded. "Right, so picking them off should be easy!"

"I suppose that… wait a moment." Naruto cocked his head to the left and peered at Chamo. "I wondered about this before, but I forgot about it. You… didn't I hear your voice in the onsen?"

The ermine froze. "Er—no. No you didn't."

"Now that you mention it, I recall it too. Didn't you advise Naruto that it didn't seem like I was a spy?

Sweat trickled down Chamo's back. "Ah… aha… ha, aha… no, that… aha, that d-didn't happen…"

"Yeah, that's right—you do sound like that perverted voice from the changing room!"

His eyes were dead, empty circles of white, devoid of anything that could resemble hope or life. "S-save me…"

Despite Chamo's indefatigable perversion, Negi still had to help his old friend. "But it couldn't have been him."


"Ermine senses, tingling…"

"What? What is it?" Negi had never received a straight answer on what 'ermine senses' were, but Chamo swore by them, which was enough for him.

"Er… nothing, nothing! Nothing that you'd be interested in, at least. Look, I've got to run; the beautiful au natura—I mean, the beauty of nature is calling me, and I have to go, uh, satisfy my bird watching hobby. Yep, I just need to go photograph some chicks…"

Chamo had never struck him as the type to pick up bird watching, but nonetheless his familiar seemed to really like looking at birds. "Oh. Well, alright. What kind?"

The white-furred fey leapt from his shoulder and dashed away. "… Titmice!"


"So he couldn't have been there."

Chamo gaped in stunned horror at the one that had unwittingly condemned him to a terrible fate. "A-A-Aniki," was all he could whimper before the sound of cracking knuckles drowned out his voice as the shadow of Kagurazaka Asuna darkened his form.

"Wait a moment!" Negi gasped. "Titmice are only native to North America!" Negi of course completely missed the actual problem with Chamo's story.

What followed was a punishment too terrible to retell, save to say that if ever did a nation incorporate it into their justice system, their number of peeping toms would drop by a factor of nine.

Negi could do nothing but cover his remains with a napkin, that Chamo could at least have some dignity in the end.

Thus did Negi learn another lesson about the terror of womankind. Or rather, juniorhighschoolgirlkind.

But the time that great tragedy gave allowed Negi to think over the information Setsuna gave them about their enemy, and the large snag in it that she hadn't addressed.

"Setsuna-san, if the onmyōji does bring one of those swordsmen, doesn't that mean you'd be fighting against your friends who follow Shinmei-ryū?"

Setsuna sat unmoving at his question. Though she seemed to just be ordering her thoughts for an unexpected question, Naruto surprisingly spoke up in her place. "No, she doesn't…"

He trailed off with an awkward roll of his shoulders, backing away from what wasn't his place to explain. Negi noted with some small interest that his coworker seemed to already know the answer to his question, although Naruto hadn't mentioned this topic in their earlier retelling of the events in the onsen.

"No, you don't have to worry, Negi-sensei. I'm not a social person, and knew few that I would actually call friend," Setsuna finally said in a voice that held no bitterness. "Due to my decision to follow Ojō-sama to Mahora, those ties have been broken. For choosing to go to school in the territory of the Kanto Magic Association—at their home city, no less—the swordsmen of Kyoto Shinmei-ryū see me as a traitor."

Yet, even as she spoke of her estrangement from her own home, Setsuna's lips still curved into a smile. "I don't mind. Where I am didn't matter to me; to fulfill my desire to protect Konoka-ojōsama, I would follow her wherever she might go."

"So long as I am able to keep her safe, I am content."

Negi couldn't find the words to respond. This person, who follows Konoka without care for herself, had been the one to worry the warm-hearted girl so much? He could scarcely believe it when she sat in front of him, this girl who found fulfillment in nothing more than watching a once-friend from a distance. And yet… despite her peaceful tone, he could not believe that.

'I am content.'

That was wrong. For someone to give up friendship to protect someone they refuse to even talk to… no one should be content with that. If Setsuna actually was, then it didn't change how wrong her situation was. No, it made it even worse.

"Well I'm convinced!" Asuna proclaimed as she walked forwards to clasp Setsuna's shoulder. "I didn't understand all of it, but I definitely get that you don't hate Konoka!"

"Th-that I-I what…!?"

"And that's what matters the most here, right? Because otherwise I would have had to kick you in the head, willing to help us or not," Asuna added, which was entirely unnecessary and led to uncomfortable sweatdropping on the part of all non-Asunas. She patted Setsuna on the back, which being Asuna was twice as forceful as anyone else would do. "So I'm really glad you're here. And doubly glad what with that magic swordsman thing!"

"K-Kagurazaki-san—?"

"Since you're Konoka's friend you're obviously a good person, and my friend too!"

"How does that work?" Naruto asked.

"Well, she's my friend's friend, so my friend's friend is my friend. This also makes me my friend's friend's friend. And obviously my friends are your friends, too… Ah! B-but, if my friend's friend is my friend, doesn't that mean I'm friends with myself?"

"Wh-wh-what?"

Both Naruto and Asuna stopped as they tried to wrap their minds around what she had just said. As the steam rising from their heads indicated, they could not.

"S-stop!" Negi called out to stop them from overheating. "If you think about it so hard that you break, what will 3-A's Guardian Angels do? We'd have only two members!"

He realized his mistake as soon as he said it, and regretted it as soon as everyone's attention and puzzled gazes turned to him. He hadn't intended to actually say that aloud.

Still, he tried to bring his blush under control and to go ahead and roll with what had fallen out of his mouth. "A-ah, that is… seeing as how we're protecting the class from attack, 'Guardian Angels' fits, if we… er… need to mention this during the day."

Flat faces told him that they weren't buying his excuse.

Asuna shook her head. "You decide to act like an actual kid at the weirdest times."

B-but… he thought the name was good…

Setsuna pushed to move the subject back to something actually important, although he thought having a team name was a good topic of discussion. "Since we've summarized the abilities the enemy will most likely bring against us—we would only be blindly guessing if we tried to continue—we need now to look at our own so that we can form a working strategy."

Negi nodded, but only listened with half an ear as Setsuna described her own skills as they would apply to combat—from her description of her style's origins and what Naruto had told of their fight, it fell largely within what one would expect of a magical demon-hunting swordman. He knew Asuna's already, of course, so the only one he really paid attention to was the haltering words of Naruto. Which wasn't much—Setsuna ended up describing Naruto better than the actual boy did.

No, what occupied Negi's thoughts was, as the sword-wielding schoolgirl had said, strategy. Well, that sounded presumptuous—he didn't have any experience with combat to feel comfortable thinking of that so casually, but there wasn't a synonym for the word that had less dramatic connotations and still applied so completely to the situation at hand.

An onmyōji, a swordsman, and two demons. They'd be lucky if Chamo's scenario happened as planned and took out a fourth of the group; otherwise they were faced with the problem of where to put Setsuna. She was the best choice to counter another follower of Shinmei-ryū, as Naruto had already shown that he wasn't quite as good as her and although it seemed like Asuna had a sword as her artifact, she didn't know how to use it.

On the other hand, Shinmei-ryū specialized in fighting demons, and Setsuna might very well be able to take on both the Greater and Guardian Demons at once. In that case, Naruto and Asuna together could possibly keep the opposing swordsman tied down until Setsuna exorcised the summoned demons.

Negi mentally frowned, his mouth absentmindedly recounting his range of spells that held relevance to their crisis. Setsuna was undeniably the most powerful of the four of them, but it wasn't good to rely so heavily on her. After all, one person could be… incapacitated. He didn't want to think of more drastic words than that.

The sorcerer, though, could completely change everything. They really had no idea what he or she used… well, that would make her a sorceress, if that was the case. The ways magic could be used approached the infinite, and knowing the onmyōji would almost certainly wield ofuda gave no warning regarding what spells those ofuda would unleash. Nor did it say anything of what other forms of onmyōjutsu the sorcerer might know.

He would have to take the offensive, and try to keep the other mage moving at his pace. He wouldn't be able to keep up with an onslaught of ofuda, and if the sorcerer used indirect magic then giving him—or her—time to act could be even more disastrous than if she just attacked.

"Our biggest advantages at the moment are the traps we've set up around the ryokan," Negi finally said as the round of expositing talent reached its end. "A flytrap spell can hold almost anything, at least for a short time, and establishes the first layer of the bind in a minute fraction of a second. And although my barrier around the inn would do no more than slow any decent mage, a second and more sensitive barrier will give me the alarm if the first is disturbed even slightly."

"Is that so?" Setsuna questioned, seemingly half to herself. "If we drew up the area around the building, could you mark down the boundary of the field, and the locations of the flytrap spells?"

"Yes, but I'd need some paper…"

To Negi's surprise, it was Asuna who pulled out a small notepad of lineless paper and a pencil. At his disbelieving stare she defended herself. "I am in the Art Club, you know!"

But wasn't she in that just to sigh at Takamichi? Still, that Asuna carried around sketch paper even in non-Takamichi related situations made Negi feel oddly proud, despite not being involved in the Art Club at all. He didn't know she had an interest in it apart from the club's advisor.

Negi drew a rough estimate of the perimeter of the building, and a more precise outline of the outside of the ryokan property, which his barrier stopped just shy of as it formed a perfect circle around the inn.

Bounded fields, barriers, stronghold dweomercraft… true, he had studied them in more depth than the classes at Meldiana Academy had covered, but that had only been to satisfy his curiosity and understand more of their fundamental principles (which crossed into a number of other fields of magic). He now regretted not having devoted more study time to such large scale protections.

"You did a good job placing your trap spells," Setsuna remarked after he handed the resulting map to her. "They aren't in any sort of pattern, so guessing where they are will be difficult, but you've covered most of the routes they might take to enter the building… how do your flytraps activate?"

"These are attuned so that as soon as anyone steps over one with any type of magic on their person, the spell will tie them to the spot."

Naruto raised his hand like a schoolkid in class. "I set a few traps on the roof, too. They aren't magic or anything, but they might still be useful."

Setsuna sent yet another glare at Naruto. "Yes… 'useful'. I found those, by the way. I'm still not certain how you managed to make them launch upwards from under the tiles."

"Eh? When did—oh, right, you jumped onto… the…" Naruto trailed off as Setsuna held out a handful of kunai and shuriken. More than one of them glistened with what looked alarmingly like blood. Naruto slowly reached out to take them, but when one of her fingers brushed against his he abruptly pulled them all away at once. Setsuna only narrowly avoided getting her fingertips slit open.

"Ah… er… sorry? Shit, um, where did they hit you? I can go get some bandages or—"

"That won't be necessary," Setsuna interrupted in a patient voice. The glare, seemingly a momentary anger, had disappeared. "At least, not if Negi-sensei can do something about it. I heard that he was a powerful wizard, but no one actually knows what magic he uses."

She turned to him with expectant eyes.

There was an unexpected pressure when requested to help by someone who hunted demons. It felt as though her gaze demanded he work at a higher level than he could actually reach. "Er, I did mention my focus of study when you asked me and Asuna. But I can heal too, although I'm not very good at it. Naruto asked a good question: where did they hit you?"

Setsuna slid her leg out of the yukata. Negi grimaced; there was a huge, dangerous-looking contusion at her knee, and three stab wounds that he was thankful hadn't penetrated too deeply. None of the cuts were actively bleeding, which surprised him considering how recently she must have hurt herself and how she had been walking around the inn. She was pretty hardy…

Wait a moment. "Y-you were walking around like this?! Wh-what's wrong with you? You should have come to me sooner, not waited until it just came up in a conversation!"

She pulled back at his outburst, surprise painted on her face. "I-I don't think it's something to get upset about, I just had to finish my rounds through the inn. If I don't put my weight on it, it won't get worse. I haven't been running."

Asuna surprised him by bopping Setsuna on the head. "Ow!"

"That's a horrible reason not to get help!"

Negi agreed. "Now just stay still so I can help. I'm not very good at healing spells, but…"

"Junonēs, dētrahe foras cute et ossi ista quae dēbilitābat tuum corporem. Visceris Iterum Crēscēns."

Negi could feel the warmth of magic flow out from his hand and gather, like tiny spiraling stars, around Setsuna's injuries—which also included some heavy bruising on her forearms, a mild sprain in her left wrist paired with a hairline fracture along the ulna bone of the forearm, and a set of mostly-healed scratches near her shoulder blades. The bruises weren't nearly as bad as her knee, but they were certainly something she should have told him about. It didn't do any good to just go walking around with that sort of pain, even if Setsuna didn't realize that the damage was more than skin-deep.

Soothing pulses of heat pulsed out as the spell numbed nerves and grew new skin over where it had been rent, as it worried away at the swelling bruise and sent the gathered, now revitalized, blood on its way back through the body. After seven seconds, the magic faded away, leaving Setsuna's body whole, uninjured, and more refreshed than it had been in a long time.

She looked amazed as she ran her hands down her leg. "I feel amazing! It's like I was never hurt at all—and so quickly, too." She stared at him as though accusing him of a terrible crime. "You said you weren't very good at healing!"

"I'm not! That spell has an incantation that could be halved easily without weakening it at all by someone more experienced at healing. And then there's much greater spells than that, and I'm not nearly good enough to accomplish something like, say, regenerating a limb."

Setsuna stared at him with a blank expression on her face. "I don't think you choose good subjects against which to measure yourself."

Negi was annoyed by that assumption, but didn't know why. Introspection might have shown Negi that it was because Setsuna had, incredibly indirectly, said that since it wasn't a good idea to compare himself against mages who were vastly more advanced than he, it was likewise bad to compare himself against the Thousand Master. However, there was little time for introspection, and so the emotion disappeared as their conversation progressed.

"Sorry to call back something from a bit ago," Asuna butted in, "but you said that Negi covered most of the ways they might try to get in. Do we need to go trap the others, too?"

Naruto shook his head. "We could, but ways to get in are also ways to get out. Locking ourselves in without a way to leave could be disastrous if they somehow manage to steal the letter away without triggering the traps. We'd have to stop and take them down before we could pass."

"And by that time, they'd be gone," Setsuna finished for him. "This is their hometown, after all."

"Right. Figures you'd know that… we've got a genius, a ninja, and a demon-hunting sword girl. I really got nothing to contribute for this strategy stuff."

"Just because you aren't trained for it doesn't mean you can't bring up important points," Setsuna replied to Asuna's complaint. "And what you said did remind me of something… Negi-sensei, Naruto-sensei, Kagurazaki-san, have any of you looked at the roads leading to our location?"

It only took Negi a moment to realize what Setsuna was asking about, but Naruto had already risen and grabbed a sightseeing map of Kyoto by then. He was reminded yet again of the ease of understanding Naruto had in regards to matters of violence. Was it just because of the constant warfare in his world, or did it have some other origin? There was something disturbing about it that Negi couldn't quite grasp.

"What do you mean? I thought it looked alright," Asuna said, frowning as she realized she was missing something.

Naruto unfolded the map and jabbed a finger towards the wrong inn. After being corrected and re-jabbing with drama equal to his original attempt, he said, "No, it isn't about what it looks like. What is the terrain around the building? What direction could we expect someone to approach us, and where would they go if they successfully got hold of our stuff?"

The four of them leaned in to discuss the possible danger that Setsuna had brought up, making room for Chamo upon his resurrection.


Naruto stood in front of the door to his room.

The rest of the meeting had gone smoothly, and the schedule for their patrols left him with extra time. Unfortunately, he knew what the best use for this time was.

He had to apologize to Chachazero.

The thought set his hands quivering as he imagined all the horrible ways that the upcoming confrontation could go wrong. Oh, she wasn't able to move, but he still had his suspicions about the truth of that demon puppet's 'immobility'. It would be safer for him to just sleep outside his room. Hell, it was probably safer to tie himself up and go to sleep on the road outside with a bow on his head and a greeting card taped to his face.

But he had stabbed her in the face with a shuriken, and Naruto felt a twinge of guilt that he had left the paralyzed doll just lying on the ground like that. Just a small twinge, mind, but his overreaction was his own fault… it wasn't like he didn't already expect murderous suggestions from Chachazero.

Blond hair swayed in front of blue eyes as Naruto's head sagged, and his chest heaved with his bracing inhale. And, his eyes as haunted as those of a criminal being dragged to the execution chamber, Naruto opened the door and entered his room.

He immediately regretted it, and wondered if it would be cowardly for him to run before he even spoke to her.

Chachazero was not lying on the floor. Chachazero did not have a shuriken sticking out of her forehead like a demented ninja-unicorn doll.

And she was smiling, her wild grin casting over him the same certainty of madness as did the foaming of a rabid dog. But no dog was ever so terrifying as the puppet sitting on his table was at that moment.

Naruto pasted a smile on his face, but his skills were not enough to keep his nervousness from seeping into his expression. "Hi, Chachazero," he managed to say without any shakiness entering his voice.

The light of the room glistened off the puppet's glass eyes. "Hiya! Mmmm, that smell… you got in a fight, didn'cha? I can smell some blo~ood~!"

How the hell did she smell things? She was a doll! She didn't even have a nose! And how could she notice that he had bled, anyways? It was just from his scrapes as he was juggled around the onsen—there weren't even scratches anymore, and what little blood there was had washed away in the water.

Truly, Chachazero had no equal when it came to unsettling him.

"There was a… misunderstanding. Yeah, it turned into a fight—but we eventually figured out that neither of us was turning on the class."

Chachazero gave a noncommittal 'meh' at his news. She obviously didn't care about those boring details. She instead peered at him in silence for long, tense minutes, her green eyes trying to pierce into his blue.

"I didn't expect you to come back," she said at last. The noise, after the quiet of her own making, was jarring. So of course his wince wasn't due to her words, just… the sudden sound. Obviously. "At least, not tonight."

Naruto shrugged in obvious discomfort from her gaze. "I didn't really think about that," he admitted. He should have, though—if he had left from his room, he should have put some thought into where he would be sleeping instead.

He steeled himself as he approached her, taking a seat at the table a short distance away from the doll. "You… look good," he awkwardly began.

Her eternal smile mocked him. "Ehehehe, I do, don't I? Having a lethal weapon piercing through your noggin can take away from that though, right? Eeheeheehehehehe~!"

And not the slightest mention of how it was removed. Or how her forehead hadn't so much as a single scratch. Or how in the hells she had managed to get back on the goddamn table.

"You—" Naruto stopped at a single word, Chachazero's stare growing more eager as he tried to speak. "How—"

"Since when—"

"Ehehe, ahahahaha! You can't even ask? Come on, it's not that hard of a question, and I bet you'd be too worried to sleep if you don't spit it out…"

Her knowing grin made his skin break out into trembling goosebumps. "You… Chachazero, how did you get onto the table?"

Chachazero's eyelids fluttered. "That wasn't the question I expected at all! But that's good too… anyways, if I tell you, you have to give me back my hat. Otherwise not knowing can haunt you for however long you want it to."

Naruto's eyebrows rose at her condition. He hadn't paid attention, but she really didn't have her hat… and her hair was all mussed up, quite unlike the well-cared for doll that had been snuck into his bag. A quick look at the floor showed her top hat lying where it had fallen when he had knocked it off her head.

He transferred the hat from the floor to her head, brushing her hair back into a semblance of neatness, and Chachazero sighed in relief. "I feel like a whole new person! Without my hair decorations or hats, it's like I'm just… just… just a sock puppet! Thanks."

Glass eyes shone with gratitude. Insane, murderous gratitude, over being handed a hat. Naruto swallowed. "So… how does a doll manage to get up onto the top of a table, but not be able to put her hat on?"

Chachazero tilted her head back and forth in what he could only assume passed for a shrug. "Well, I can't use my arms. It's kind of hard to don a hat if you can't hold it."

"That said nothing about how you climbed the table!"

"Oh, that was easy. You should have guessed it yourself. All I did was… this!" And with that statement, Chachazero flung herself to the side.

Naruto made the sound tactical decision to screech and leap to the opposite side of the room.

"Ahaha, ahahaha! You're awfully fun to scare. Did you know that?" Chachazero asked while not trying to control her giggling at all. She again jerked to the side, but with his eyes now focused on her with the intensity of an Akamichi at a buffet he saw what she was actually doing.

Her head tilted to one side, and her hair snapped like a whip as she swung her head with enough force to drag her body several centimeters along with. Then, now lying on her side, she did the motion again, more clumsily. She moved six centimeters. Then another five centimeters. Maybe three that time, at most.

"You… you seriously…"

Naruto couldn't continue, because Chachazero had reached the edge of the table. And did not stop; no, she instead flung herself over the edge with one massive heave of her head…

And hung suspended from the table by her teeth.

"What."

Chachazero let go of the tabletop and dropped a short distance, only to bite the table leg again to stop her fall. Twice more she did this, until the doll was sitting on the floor, her hat still seated on her head. Looking down, he could see that another table leg had a number of bite-shaped indentations.

"What."

"Hm? Too amazed to say anything else? I don't blame you, I'm pretty amazing you know! So, now you know how I get around. Don't you feel happy?"

Naruto refused to answer that question.

She looked up at him with her head turned at an angle usually reserved for dead people. "Now pick me up again. I'm a high-class doll you know, I don't belong on the floor."

"Then why did you drop down there? You could have just told me." Although Naruto probably wouldn't have believed her. No, he definitely wouldn't have believed her if she told him something like that.

Despite his complaints, he still lifted her from the tatami mats to sit her on the table again. Her wooden body was inhuman enough that the contact didn't set spasms of revulsion down his arms.

"But that's just boring! I wanted to see what you'd do once you saw me move. I liked your reaction." Chachazero said as she looked at the corner Naruto had fled and clung to.

It was a sign of Naruto's great self-restraint that he didn't punt her across the room.

Instead he sighed and forced himself to look her in the eyes. Her soulless, malicious, freakish eyes. "Look, Chachazero…" he trailed off. Saying it was hard, and even more so to say it to her face.

His teeth ground together before he could force open his mouth to try again. "I'm sorry about earlier. When I stabbed you in the forehead. That was… sorry. I lost my temper."

"Oh?" Chachazero's eyelids lowered as her gaze raked over him, her mouth a thin line. "You are, are you? How sorry?"

"Very."

"Sorry enough to give me a knife?"

"No."

"Damn, I thought that'd work," Chachazero grumbled. But her serious face immediately disappeared as her eyes and mouth snapped back to their default position of homicidal joy. "Ah, well. That's fine, what's a little attempted murder between friends? You kicked a shard of ice into my face that one time, although this wasn't as impressive… I mean, your shuriken did go deeper and you got me dead-on, but a would-be fatal blow with a chunk of frozen water kicked up from the floor while you were tied up was much better. I give you an eight out of ten for execution, but a five for style."

Naruto's mouth gaped open in stunned disbelief. "You… You are… Chachazero, you're…"

'Chachazero, you're fucking insane,' the thought finished itself in his head, where the doll couldn't hear it. Probably.

"Yeah, I know what you mean. The word you're thinking of is 'magnanimous,' by the way." Naruto was absolutely certain that word had nothing to do with what was going through his head as he stared at her.

"Well… thanks," he managed to reply. Crazy or not, being stabbed in the head was a pretty big thing to forgive. Naruto would have been more than happy to leave on that note, but he knew there was one more thing he had to talk about. He didn't want to think about what Chachazero would do if he didn't tell her about all the life-threatening news he'd learned since he left.

So he told her, the puppet sitting as eagerly as a child being read a story. Occasional giggles burst out at terribly inappropriate times, but otherwise he managed to describe everything with remarkably little interruption, considering who Chachazero was and what he had just compared her to.

Then again, a puppet as old as Chachazero must know a great deal about patience.

A swell of guilt rose as he recounted his encounter with Setsuna and the events afterwards. She had broken off the fighting first, but he had still been, well, a bit of an ass. And then she got injured on the roof because of him…

"Whew! That's quite a lot that's happened. You weren't gone that long, do you have crazy luck or something?" Chachazero wondered aloud as the ninja finished recalling the meeting of the 'Guardian Angels'. "Don't you have to set those traps up again?"

Naruto shook his head, having had the forethought to go back to the roof before going to his room. "No, I've already done that. I can prioritize, you know."

"Hmph. Well then, where are they?"

He pulled out a sheet of paper, a copy of the building map sketched onto it courtesy of Asuna. He used a kunai to make small stabs in it where he trapped the roof, seeing as how he didn't have a pencil.

'Remember to keep writing tools on hand in the future,' he told himself as he finished marking the map, setting the kunai on the table and map. "I've got them spread out over the roof, generally either at the edge of the roof or within the first two meters inwards. There are a few closer to the middle of the roof where I thought someone might likely walk if they didn't set off the traps by the edge."

Chachazero looked over it. "Well, I suppose that works for someone like you. You can't just carpet the entire roof with trap magic, and Negi Springfield needs to keep magic in reserve for later. Considering the materials you have, this is good enough."

Naruto sent her an obscene gesture for being so condescending, which she of course could not recognize, as it wasn't an Earthly insult. "Do you have any suggestions, then?"

"Ohohoho, so now you want my help? Got any corpses for me?"

"Yeah, yours!"

Chachazero blinked under the heat of Naruto's glare. He didn't have time to play her games! He had wasted enough time as it was. His patrol hadn't started yet, but there had to be something he could do!

"Hehehe," Of all things, she started to laugh. He didn't expect that. "Ahahaha! That's funny! Aheeheehee, heee, aha. I like that. I was going to help you anyways, but that's a really great answer! Hehehe, ahahah… I can't breathe…"

Naruto stared at her with a raised eyebrow.

"Well, I can't ever breathe, ehee, but if I could I wouldn't be able to right now." She explained as she brought her giggling under control. "Haaa… if I were made of flesh and blood, I really would have become a corpse, huh? You're pretty good!"

How is anything about that good? At all?

But still, he was surprised. "You… would have helped me anyways? I don't get it. Why?"

Chachazero cocked her head to the right, looking as puzzled as he felt. "What do you mean, 'why'? I don't have a reason not to, you know. It's pretty obvious you're going to be one of those people who are picky about what people they disembowel, so trying to blackmail you into murdering someone by holding back advice really won't do anything."

"Not that being choosy about whom you slaughter is a bad thing," Chachazero hastened to clarify. "I won't judge you. What happens in your butcher room is your own business. I have plenty of friends who only want to rip out the organs of certain people."

Naruto contemplated the merits and downsides of pouring bleach into his ears.

But the doll continued, blithely unaware of the struggle occurring in her new toy's head. Fortunately, this topic was less inducing of nausea in the soul. "And you're fun, so I'll just go ahead and lend you some advice. There's not a fancy reason for it. SO! My first suggestion is this: put on your normal clothes, or figure out how to carry your little arsenal of ninja stars in your kimono."

"That's—!" Naruto stopped and thought about she said for a moment. Through the horrified, disturbed gratitude, he tried to look at what she said objectively. "That's actually a good idea. I should have done that already, in fact."

"Yes, you should have."

He stood and grabbed his bag—the one that had his shuriken and other weapons. Naruto would find a way to hide more of them on his person despite wearing a yukata. He'd just step out somewhere unseen to start working on that. Also, Chachazero was an idiot who didn't know what things were called.

"Hey, where're you going?"

"I'm not going to change in front of you!"

"I'm a doll!"

"So?!"

"… I can't argue against that."

Naruto could think of a dozen ways she could have argued against that, but was grateful she wasn't continuing. "I'll be back in a couple minutes," he said over his shoulder as he turned to the door.

Chachazero didn't respond.

*k-k-k-k-k-k*

The door was halfway open when he stopped. There was a clacking sound, like the slapping of wood on metal. "Hey, Chachazero, do you hear that?"

* k-k-k-k-k-k-chink—KCH-KCHTHUNK*

The sound changed, and Naruto immediately dove to the floor. A crunch like a tree snapping in half told him he made a good decision, and the shuriken that tore through the air where his spine had been and sunk halfway into the wall across the hall only reinforced that.

He flipped over and leapt backwards, tearing the weapon from the wall for his own use. "Wh-what the hell? What the hell was that?"

Chachazero looked at him with a confused expression. "Huh? I was giving you back your shuriken. You're welcome, no need to thank me!"

"To—to thank—" Naruto jabbed his hand at the damaged wall while he waved his weapon accusingly at the psychopath. "You just tried to kill me!"

"Pffft. What's a little attempted murder between friends? You did stab me in the head, remember? Besides, that wouldn't have killed you," Chachazero said with a knowing nod of her head, looking exactly as chipper and happy as she ever did. There was nothing to show how she attacked him. "I've met regenerators before, and a severed spine is just a very painful, paralyzing, and traumatic inconvenience."

Naruto's brow furrowed. It was true that he attacked her, but that was really messed up. "So you were trying to get back at me for earlier?"

"Eh? No no no, not at all! Well, maybe I did want to punish you a bit, but mostly it was just for fun."

He shook his head. Naruto needed alone time, or just not-psycho-puppet time. "Chachazero, you're fucking insane."

"Yep!"

Naruto left.

Locked in the bathroom, Naruto took a look at the clothing and weapons he had. No matter how he looked at it, the yukata was definitely the most appropriate clothing for walking around a ryokan, even if it didn't really have pockets. And he was only borrowing it, so he couldn't try to change it (if he even had the time to).

But the haori had them, didn't it? If he put the jacket-like cloth on over the yukata it would not only give him pockets, but put on a layer easier to remove or reach into than the yukata, but still covering enough that he could strap weapons on under it. He did have a number of leg and arm holsters from his scroll that he could store sharp metal objects in. Although he should still keep some under his yukata just in case…

Having an actual weapon pouch out would be pretty obvious, but if he kept it in his pocket he could strap it to his leg in only a couple seconds. It only took a little training to get used to drawing from the leg, and it kept the pouch out of easy arm's reach for an enemy that might grab it.

But that still left a lot of great stuff in his backpack. He didn't have the more practical-use sealing scrolls that would let him bring a wide variety of tools with him, so he was limited by what he could hide on his person. Perhaps he could bring his bag with him? Or would it get in the way?

Naruto stripped to begin arming himself, working from the feet upwards with each layer. His eyes crawled guiltily away from the sight of his skin as he worked, but he managed to complete the task anyways. But it set him to thinking about earlier again, despite his attempts to direct his attention elsewhere.

He hadn't been able to talk to Setsuna after the meeting. She had immediately left with Asuna, and Negi had told him that it would be best for him to rest after having just fought. Naruto thought that Setsuna was the one who needed to rest—he wasn't even tired—but apparently Negi's spell had also healed any exhaustion she may have felt.

It had occurred to him afterwards that he might have been able to get her attention while they were all together so they could speak later, but he had been… subdued. The affirmation of Setsuna's devotion to Konoka had only confused him more—why the distance between them?—but after his… revelation… in Kaede's room he hadn't felt able to bring any energy to bear until their discussion had neared its end.

Naruto shuddered. He didn't want to think about what it had meant, his inability to so much as brush against Kaede's shoulder. That couldn't be excused as an attempt on his part to keep her safe, not with the layers of clothing between them. It was just… him.

But, like a lifeline, Naruto clung to the rising memory of his fight against Setsuna. That contact hadn't bothered him at all. Well, he didn't appreciate being slammed into a boulder, but it had been so damned exciting that he didn't really mind that much. But then when she had touched his hand giving him back his kunai…

It had been a knee-jerk reaction, but he could have cut off one of her fingers. And as Negi said only a minute later, he couldn't reattach parts of people. But the sensation of another's hand against his had held the impact of being punched in the gut, and was about as nauseating.

How did that make any sense? Setsuna hadn't changed between their fight and their meeting. He hadn't—no, that wasn't true. But however disturbing his failure had been and whatever was wrong with him, his learning of it wouldn't make him different enough to suddenly change his mind about touch. Although he didn't know why he wasn't upset over it in the onsen in the first place.

Naruto's brow furrowed. Wasn't that the real issue here? Why hadn't he freaked out during their fight, or after? Or even right now, as the memory of it replayed within his head? He couldn't remember actually letting anyone touch him since he had left Konoha… not that there was a lot of contact at hand there for a demon child.

No… no, wait! Wasn't this just like back in Tanzaku? The gambling city had a large underworld and a lot of gangs, and hunting them down and attacking them had become a type of training (or maybe hobby?) for him. But most importantly, he had hit them. Kicked them, grabbed and threw them, and occasionally they had been good enough to repay the favor. There had certainly been some skin contact there—but to be honest, Naruto had never even thought about it until then.

And it didn't bother him at all. Just like with Setsuna… except his punching bags didn't stand nearly as positively in his thoughts than did the girl who'd ran away from her friend. And he certainly wasn't putting her on a pedestal after learning that.

It didn't take Naruto long to make the connection. It was as though he were instinctively drawn to the answer. "Fighting. The secret is fighting—the violence of it. If it hurts someone then it doesn't bother me," he whispered to his reflection in the mirror.

For a single blink he thought the eyes staring back at him had turned red, but his half-lunge at the glass surface to examine it with paranoid detail showed him that it was just a figment of his imagination. The tense knot in Naruto's shoulders eased slightly and he let out the breath that he hadn't been aware he was holding.

Now he wished he still didn't have an answer. He didn't like what this one said about him.

When Naruto returned to his room, he didn't notice anything strange. He had, after all, completely forgotten that he had left a kunai on the table. So it being gone didn't worry him at all.


"Yue-chan. Yuueeeee-chaaaan. Yue-chan. Yue-chan? Oh good, I think she's asleep."

Setsuna's stare betrayed her disbelief that anyone would intentionally do something so stupid. "And… and you felt you should test this by trying to wake her up?"

"W-well, she is the only one that didn't get smashed," Asuna answered in her defense. "So she might wake up if something noisy happened. But now I know we can at least talk without waking her up."

"What would be wrong with whispering?"

"…" She didn't have an answer to that.

Setsuna shook her head. "I'll… I'll just go patrol the halls."

"Remember to come get me in an hour or two to switch out." Asuna did not want to go hunting through the building for someone. Again. "Until then, I'll keep watch over Konoka."

The pale girl nodded. She may have looked a little grateful, but she hardly emoted at all. She might have just been annoyed. "Please don't do anything rash. Kagurazaka-san is a normal person, after all. Please get me if anything happens."

Setsuna strode to the door and bowed politely in farewell. Asuna had a feeling that 'politely' was a word that could be used to describe a lot of Setsuna's behavior. "I'll be going then."

The room was silent save for the sound of sleepy breathing as Asuna shook her head. "Wow. That Sakurazaki-san is a little uptight, isn't she?" she said to the sleeping Konoka. "I bet actually being around you, instead of stalking you, would have helped her relax."

Asuna sat down on the floor and settled in for a long stretch of boredom. At least when watching over Konoka, she didn't have to wonder about her wandering off. Negi, though… it was getting chilly outside. She hoped he'd dressed warmly.

Of course, that was the least important worry she had about him at the moment.


A certain boy mage found his mood lifting as he headed up the steps outside the inn's main doors. True, they were still in danger, but with Setsuna on their side and the defenses they had prepared he was certain that they would stop the worst from happening.

There was no one on the bridge leading into town and he couldn't see or feel anyone in the trees that bordered the ryokan. Negi ran a finger across the wooden surface of his staff, bolstering his confidence with its familiar texture before starting his patrol.

Well, perhaps he did take a moment to adjust the spells that kept him in more-than-ten-year-old physical condition. The night seemed to be a little colder than in Mahora, so adding a charm for warmth to the magic he wore all the time had been in order. Oh, he had certainly put on the haori overcoat for his yukata, and found that the ryokan also had a supply of loafers for people who didn't want to freeze their toes off in the sandal-like geta, but those did nothing to warm his legs or face.

"Alright… apart from that dirt path heading towards the forest, there were only a couple of places where someone would be able to sneak in without running into the flytraps."

Chamo nodded. "Which is why those are where we need to keep the closest watch. Yeah, I was there too, remember?"

"Sorry. I didn't remember when you regained consciousness."

He wasn't looking, but Negi could feel his familiar shaking his head from his perch on his shoulder. "You got to pay more attention to these things. And by these things, I mean me! But enough of that, there's more I have to tell you about the Pactio—specifically, how to use the Pactio cards."

"Use them?" One of their recent conversations tickled at his memory. "That's right, you did mention that there was more to the Pactio, back when you explained the contract to Naruto."

The ermine nodded. "Yep, that's what I'm coming around to. You already got a handle on using the contract to enhance your Ministra from that shindig with Evangeline-san, and we just covered the artifact—"

Negi coughed to interrupt his friend as politely as he could. "Actually, Chamo, you never actually said how to use the Pactio artifact." His eyes swept over the forest as they walked, but he only saw trees. More importantly, he couldn't feel any magic from the woods. Maybe he couldn't feel those talismans, but a mage was a different story.

"E-eh? I didn't? Sorry 'bout that. Alright then, I'll explain; firstly, you, the Magister, can't actually summon the artifact. That's something only a Ministra can do. This is because of the nature of the contract and the spirits of the Pactio."

"When the Pactio ritual starts it attracts vast numbers of all sorts of spirits of magic, even from great distances away. Spirits don't have the same physical restrictions as corporeal beings, so you can actually get them from anywhere in the world, no matter where you try to make the contract. Once gathered, they examine the potential Magister and Ministra as a single being, which requires a certain level of intimate contact."

Blood surged to Negi's cheeks. "The kiss…"

"Exactly. Then the most compatible spirits 'attach' themselves to the two. While you kissed, you and Ane-san were each filled with an identical spirit of magic, suited to the nature of 'Negi-Asuna', and creating the bond between you through their resonance with one another. There's a second part, though—the creation of the Pactio card, the proof of the contract between you two. The light of the ritual doesn't fade until the contract is completed."

Chamo pulled a cigarette out of his dimensional pocket and lit it with a word in the language of the faerie, which try as he might Negi could never hear properly nor repeat. Humans were not meant to. "The card holds yet another spirit, but the one inhabiting the Pactio card is that which most matches the Ministra, and the Ministra alone. That is the card you have—the real and original."

"But Asuna got a card, too. What's the difference between it and mine?" There didn't seem to be anyone coming this way either. Negi turned back and headed to the other side of the inn.

"Functionally, there isn't one. It's really a copy, filled with a lesser spirit used to channel the original from the card you keep on hand. It's to keep the original card safer by keeping it out of the line of fire, you see. You can only have a single copy exist at a time, but they're easy to make—so much so that often show up as a byproduct of a ritual with partners with a particularly strong resonance of soul or whose destinies are more entwined than usual, no effort needed on your part. That's why Ane-san has one already."

Negi was fascinated. "I had no idea that a probationary contract would be so complex. That's far beyond almost any other magical contract I've heard of."

Chamo chuckled. "That's not the half of it! There's a lot more to the contract. Hmm… in hindsight, it might not have been such a good idea to convince you to focus your studies on magic you could control and leave everything involving the Pactio to me. There'd be no need to waste time explaining in that case."

Negi, who had no reason to use telepathy, obviously couldn't hear Chamo's accompanying thought. 'Although if you knew more about the system, you'd definitely be opposed to becoming the 'Thousand Harem Master'. Please stay ignorant for a little longer, Aniki! I'll make it up to you…'

Negi shook his head. "No, that's fine. I could spend my entire life just learning new works of magic and still never come close to knowing everything about it, so I appreciate your help. But you still haven't said anything about the artifact."

"I was getting there! Be patient! Now, the card—"

Chamo stopped midsentence, freezing still on Negi's shoulder. "Chamo? What is it?" A thread of irrational fear ran down his throat and into his heart, and he reached up to his longtime friend to assure himself that he was still of fur and flesh.

He shook himself at Negi's touch as though ridding himself of water. "There's… something's wrong. The words are 'adeat' and 'abeat', Asuna will need those. Maybe very soon. Something isn't right."

Negi started to worry at the slight quiver that had entered Chamo's voice. He began to ask a question—but that quickly became entirely unnecessary.

The barrier around the ryokan rung like bells in Negi's head.

"Th-the wards! Chamo, you—"

"Yeah, I helped make the circle, I feel it too! But I feel like something's… never mind, just occupy them long enough for me to get Setsuna-nēsan!" With those parting words his familiar leapt off his shoulder, and Negi ran.

Sped by the wind, it took him only seconds to cross to the opposite side of the inn. Negi pulled his staff to his hand as he searched for the intruder that had crossed his barrier. There was a stretch of garden reaching out to the forest, paved paths winding around ponds, rock formations, flowers, and vibrant green plant life in a testament to the artistic talent of the ones who ran the ryokan.

But not a person. Or a demon. Or even so much as a frog. Unless the sorcerer had decided to make a fish shikigami, Negi couldn't find a single—

Stupid! Why did he think they would just be out in the open?

"Rastel maskil magister! Tredecim spīritūs āēriāles…" Negi began, incanting even as he felt out for magic not his own. 'There!'

He swung around to aim his staff at the inn, or rather, at the huge and misshapen monkey silently trying to force open a window two stories above the ground. "Vinculum factī inimīc—ah!"

But his chant caught its attention. Negi only barely managed to scramble away before it smashed into the earth where he had stood. "F-fast!"

"Heh heh heh."

He hadn't seen the monkey shikigami that had invaded the changing room, but what stood in front of him matched the descriptions. If the monkeys had been three meters tall.

But even though its head was easily the size of the rest of its entire body and it looked like nothing so much as the stuffed animal of a giant, Negi could tell that it wasn't a shikigami. It felt different.

"Ēvocātiōnis valcyriarī, contubernālēs gladiātrīcēs. Age pungent!"

Three colorless imitations of his body coalesced from the wind and charged towards the intruder's towering form. Wielding a flamberge each, two of the wind spirits swung at the monkey.

It moved more agilely than anything its size had any right to as it flipped away—but even then, Negi didn't see any sign of the paper-like movements or folds a shikigami would make. "Heh heh heh." Again came that hollow laugh, hidden behind the faceplate attached to the monkey's open, gaping mouth. White, blank, and expressionless, the utterly plain Noh mask said nothing about who it hid.

The evasion pulled it back across the barrier, setting the ringing off in Negi's head again.

The third of the warrior wind spirits leapt over its brethren with trident in hand. With a war cry like an angry storm it thrust its polearm down into the monkey's head. The tip tore through one of its giant ears—but no sooner had the spirit struck than the monkey's tail, growing like a cursed vine, pierced its chest in turn. The magic holding it together fell apart as it returned to the element that had birthed it.

Negi imagined that tail going through his own body and swallowed, his mouth and throat suddenly dry.

Moving in tandem, the twin sword-wielding spirits flanked the monkey. It showed no sign that it cared. "Heh heh heh."

Like it was mocking him. Or rather, like she was mocking them—though muffled and husky, the voice sounded female. And the monkey's mouth was placed where a tall woman's head might be.

She dropped to the ground at the thrust of the leftmost sword, and with a push of those handless arms kicked off the ground before the wavy blade from the right could reach her. Her tail knocked the follow-up swing aside as she kicked Negi's copy in the head, dispelling it.

The final spirit Negi had called forth couldn't hold against her on its own and fell after only two seconds. The woman in the monkey suit turned towards him, her empty mask sending a shiver down his back.

"Heh heh heh."

But he held his ground. After all, his spell had given him the opportunity to see what magic this mage used. It was the monkey suit—it had to be enchanted or animated somehow (he didn't feel that kind of magic, but he had already learned that he couldn't sense onmyōjutsu very well). She had learned to fight herself, or instilled the knowledge into the suit in some way.

It was certainly odd for a mage to get so close and personal in a fight, though.

She rushed him, faster than she had moved when she had fought the wind spirits. Surprised at the change, Negi tried to run to the side—but he didn't nearly match the agility of that monkey suit. That tail shot out towards his neck—

"Thanks for holding out for me."

—and was cut in half. The glint of moonlight on metal flashed, and the monkey woman got away with nothing more than a scratch that ran from the suit's lip to below her left eye. And sure enough, all that came out was stuffing—no blood, no reverting to paper.

The clatter of geta sandals on stone sounded as Setsuna landed beside him. She brought the hilt of her blade up to just below her neck, the weapon held forwards and parallel to the ground. "Are you alright, Negi-sensei?" she asked, not moving her eyes off of the giant monkey.

"Y-yes, she just leapt over the wards again when she pulled back. I'll be fine. I think there's someone in the monkey suit." Negi's free hand clutched at his head. She had pulled back to put quite some distance between them, but she had started stalking forwards again—which set the sound of bells tolling in his mind again.

"Heh heh heh."

"Good. This was one of the weak spots for your spell arrangement, but aren't there…?"

He realized what she meant immediately. "Yes, there are. Do you remember where?"

Setsuna nodded. They each started to move in opposite directions, moving slowly to keep from pushing the woman in the monkey suit into suddenly attacking. Setsuna carefully stepped over a small bridge over one of the ponds. Negi hung back by a meeting of flowerbeds.

"Rastel Maskil Magister! Ēvocātiōnis valcyriarī …"

Negi repeated his call for the wind valkyries, and the three of them exploded into motion.

The monkey woman immediately charged him, using the edges of the pools of water and the stones of the gardens for her effortless acrobatics, each of which inevitably tore apart at least one of his five copies without cutting into her momentum at all. Setsuna was only a pace behind her, her slashes repelled again and again by a regrown tail that seemed almost self-aware.

The monkey woman jumped to her right to avoid a sweeping blow from Setsuna and a pair of valkyries—a path that gave her a straight path to Negi. Five meters were covered in an instant, and her paw struck out for his face.

"Heh heh heh."

It was instinct that made Negi flinch from the blow. Even though she had just rushed into the flytrap spell, and even though he knew the spell about to activate could ensnare someone in under a microsecond…

Well, the rational mind doesn't have much involvement when it comes to objects speeding towards one's eyes

But as expected, she stopped. When he looked at her again she was fully bound, glowing ribbons wrapped tightly over and around her arms, legs, shoulders, and even her tail. Her head, too, could barely move.

He did it. He really did it! Laughter bubbled up from his still-racing heart, and Negi almost wanted to shout. He'd actually won, and not because of some last-minute stroke of luck as with Evangeline!

A moment later and Setsuna was beside him again. "Well done, Negi-sensei" she congratulated him. "But in the future, please don't be the one to draw the enemy's attention. You're still only a child, after all."

"Ah… oh. I see. I-I didn't mean to worry you."

Setsuna turned her eyes away from his dejected face. "No, I didn't mean… never mind. Let's see who our mystery attacker is."

She pulled forth an ofuda and held it ready as she pulled off the mask.

All the saw were two strips of paper attached to the inner back of the empty suit. One visibly glowed with magic that served no purpose other than to feel magical, and the other…

"Heh heh heh."

"Heh heh heh."

"Heh heh heh."


The last monkey shikigami, folded within its target's clothing, crumbled into dust.


Konoka had strange dreams that night.

It wasn't unusual for her mind to wander in unusual directions once she fell asleep. All manner of strange images or sounds or songs may appear, completely at random or sometimes in a comprehensible story.

For instance, she had once dreamt about a tree that was cutting off its own branches, and of a spider that tried to wrap a fox in its web. Another dream was of a little white bird trying to fly with a murder of crows, only to be pecked and chased away. She had once seen a knight who had to choose between saving a child or saving his queen, and who fell when he tried to do both.

Sometimes she woke up with eyes that were already red from tears, even though she hadn't seen anything sad. A child making a clock where the time was always yesterday shouldn't have left her pillow salty and wet.

Fortunately, most were just silly and weird.

Of course, Konoka didn't think about their oddity, having seen such sights often in her sleep. She was vaguely aware her dreams were different from other people's, but rarely paid much attention to that fact.

So it was, that night, that she had dreams that were very strange—or would have been to anyone who wasn't Konoka.

A stuffed teddy snuck into a hive of riled bees for honey. A man who never existed died and was replaced by himself. The white moon showed itself as black, and viciously tore into the dimmed sun.

A soft breeze blew past, but as monsters and mountains stood in its path it grew into a thunderous gale to cast them aside. The face in the mirror talked to the rumbling wall, while a cliché stock laugh track sounded in the background. A tarot card lay on a net, and soon the clouds rained cards rather than water.

One of them had her face, but as soon as she focused her attention on it the colors of the world blurred like mixing paint, and she was elsewhere, under a bright cerulean sky.

An angel held her in soft arms, and the earth sung to her as Konoka's chrysalis fell away. She and the angel played together, and it was some time before her dream moved on to show a sword waking from a nightmare. A book loses its pages, so it gets more paper.

Disembodied hands clasped together in prayer, blood seeping out between their fingers. No, it flowed out of the hands at such a rate that blood rushed down invisible arms in torrents like a red waterfall, covering them to the elbows before splashing onto the floor. Then the red spread, lifting into the air, washing away the blue sky to dye it a deep crimson. It wasn't the color of blood, no—it was a color that impossibly both redder than red and darker than black, and far more sinister than mere blood could be. As the last speck of blue faded away she felt herself being pulled into the sky. She fell upwards, screaming, into the—

Konoka woke up, breathing heavily. Her hair stuck to her sweaty forehead, and she had managed to tangle herself up in her blanket while she slept.

She was vaguely aware that she hadn't actually woken up because of the nightmare her dream had suddenly become. No, it was instead a sudden and urgent message from the bladder to the brain requesting clearance to unload its cargo.

"Mmummbrble, hmumble," she said with all the clarity of someone woken from a deep sleep. "Godda go t' bathroom…"

As luck would have it, she avoided stumbling over the for-some-reason-she-was-too-sleepy-to-think-about-still-awake Asuna. "Oh. Uh, sure then. "

It really was quite uncomfortable to respond when someone tells you something like that. That's what Konoka would have thought if she were conscious enough to think in full sentences.

She scuffled through the halls in her slippers and yukata, somehow managing to find the bathroom. Movements slow and clumsy by sleepiness, she pushed open the door and entered.

And suddenly paused. The moment she stepped past the doorframe, the need to pee had completely and instantly disappeared. So strange was the sensation that it jolted her awake. She would have spent more thought on feeling, but…

Cold, metallic claws clasped about her neck. Fur brushed against her as a tall form pressed her against the wall, light reflecting ominously from within its open mouth.

"Sorry. It's occupied."


Author's Note:

Any feedback on the chapter would be appreciated.

Flamberge: Also called the flammard, flambard, or flammenschwart, the flamberge is a sword with a wavy, undulating blade. The design is supposed to make swords that strike it vibrate more, making them harder to use. The wavy shape also gives it a wider profile without requiring more metal. It is used on both one-handed and two-handed swords, although it is more commonly found on the larger weapons.

Ermine senses: Chamo possesses the supernatural ability to detect potentially perverted situations within a certain distance of his body. This also has a broad range of other uses. Negi has never exactly figured this out, as Chamo has protected Negi from realizing the full extent of his perversion.

Bird and chick are obviously the well-known slang for girls (bird is British, and chick came from America… but I don't know if chick is also used in Britain or not. Most of you know this, again, but from according to the traffic tracking this story some of the readers are currently in non-English speaking countries and may speak it as a second language, so I felt I should explain), but the titmouse is a real bird that's actually only found in North America. Chamo should have more accurately said he was going to watch the Japanese Tit. Yes, that's the actual species name. Outside of America, most birds in the titmouse's family are called chickadees or tits.

Honganji and Junsuibi Factions: Although the manga is vastly superior to the anime, Negima's does have its uses—in this case, providing the name for the group showing up in this arc. The subtitles read 'Hoganji', but that was likely a misspelling as both I and Japanese-speaking beta are unable to find a meaning for it. 'Honganji' is more likely, referencing the Higashi Honganji Buddhist temple in Kyoto; however, the Honganji Faction was cast out of the temple and the faith by those Buddhists aware of magic. The Junsuibi Faction, on the other hand, is a creation of my own (the name (純粋日) meaning "Unblemished Sun"—"Honganji" references hongan, Amida Buddha's 18th promise and the basis of Pure Land Buddhism). No worries, I'm not flooding the arc with OCs. They're a background element, to eventually be elaborated upon in-story.

Kuji-kiri: The ku-ji ("nine syllables") are a mantra formed of nine characters (in Japan, this is almost always Rin, Hyo, Toh, Sha, Kai, Jin, Retsu, Zai, Zen. That Retsu leads me to assume 'syllables' means 'characters' in this case). These words are, individually, in a set, or as a whole, associated with any number of different subjects, from gods to the elements to the planets. Kuji-kiri (cutting the nine syllables, or nine symbolic cuts. Both work) is a form of warding aware something unpleasant: one traces out the kanji of what they want to avoid and a grid of nine lines over each other (whether 9 cuts are made of five lines vertical and four horizontal, or four horizontal and five vertical, depends on the specific tradition). One can draw this in the air using their hand, or take brush to paper to make a physical charm to carry around with them.
I had to wade through so much internet bullshit to get real information on this that my monitor now reeks of it.

Onmyōdō: "The Way of Yin and Yang", it essentially refers to the Japanese magical tradition. In this story, the term has come to be the term under which all forms of Japanese magic is categorized. In real life, the onmyōji were said to have conducted divinations, were responsible for tracking the heavens and creating calendars, protecting homes and cities from evil spirits, experimented with alchemy, advised the nobility and Imperial Family, overlooked construction so that the building wasn't objectionable to those spirits nearby, conducted cleansing rituals, and spoke with spirits on behalf of the people. Onmyōdō was actually institutionalized by the Japanese government for a long period of time, before it was eventually discarded and relegated to superstition. A number of aspects of it had by this time been picked up by the Buddhist and Shinto faiths, however. My collection of onmyōjutsu is broader and more magical than reality offers up, however.

I refer to onmyō techniques as "onmyōjutsu" because the word "jutsu" refers to any technique or skill, and finds a lot of use outside of Naruto and other ninja stories (again, something many of you may already know). I haven't really discussed ofuda, but this is getting long… I'll bring it up next chapter.

"Junonēs, dētrahe foras cute et ossi ista quae dēbilitābat tuum corporem. Visceris Iterum Crēscēns."

"Oh juno, pull forth from skin and bone that which would cripple your body. Rebirth of the Flesh."

To explain the juno, one must explain the genius. The word "genius" originates from Latin, but it had a far different usage for the people of Rome. They believed that all people, places, objects, and even concepts held within them a spark of divinity, and each of these aspects of divinity is called a "genius", plural "genii". For a human, their genius was much like the soul, to which Romans attributed the talents and rational thought of human beings (although the genius wasn't the soul in the sense of continuing to the afterlife). The Romans had an interesting view of genius and object, viewing them as distinctly different yet intertwined. A man's genius may be very different from himself. If a person had skill or knowledge, or an object function or beauty, then that was viewed as a part of the person or object-but originating from the genius.

The genius of a woman was called the "juno" after the matron goddess of the same name. One would give worship to one's own genius, to that of the head of household and to the juno of his wife (reflecting the divine Jupiter/Juno pairing), and to the genius or genii of the family itself. There were also a number of genii known for their talent in a particular regard, such as health, learning, travel, protection, etc. The juno was most often given the stereotypical roles associated with women (childbirth, family, marriage, and so on). There were also a number of famous genii that were widely worshipped, such as the genius of the position of divine emperor "Genius Augustus" (the emperor himself was not considered a god, but the position of emperor and his genius was); of concepts such as victory, health, or safety; that of Rome itself; or that of any of the various groups, guilds, villages, or even military units that people may be a part of. All of these were believed to have a divinity all their own.

Of course, in the modern age not everyone has their own genius-the belief in such things has vanished, and so they are much rarer. However, the type of magical spirit that could become a genius still exists, and can be invoked to temporarily serve as one. Indeed, this is the basis of the spell—while it is a common trait of genii to care for the safety of their other half, one must note that they originally were with someone from the day of their birth. By making that brief bond, the mage uses the symbolism of 'attaching at birth' to heal the subject (although, being both a temporary attachment and a stretch of common sense, it cannot heal major wounds). A ritual could be used to properly connect a genius to someone, if it was important enough to them. A number of the most significant old genii still exist, too strong to fade away with the passage of time. "Visceris Iterum Crescens" more closely translates to "the flesh is again being born" (there are a lot of words for "flesh", this one can also mean "newborn"), but as Akamatsu has taken liberties with the present participle I will as well. Direct translations rarely come out gracefully, in any case. Also, although Latin is sometimes written with j's, they are pronounced as i's. I's are pronounced as normal (the j was a late addition to the Latin alphabet).

"Ēvocātiōnis valcyriarī, contubernālēs gladiātrīcēs. Age pungent!"

"I call upon the Valkyries, sword wielding brothers in arms. Attack!"

Firstly, one must point out that the valkyries used here are not the valkyries of Norse mythology—Ken Akamatsu originally used 'valcyriarum', a singular gender-neutral word (I pluralized it), and while a word for 'valkyrie' doesn't actually exist in Latin, this and the lack of any other connection to the Norse figures suggests that they aren't the mythical valkyries. That's me pretty much telling you straight from the back of volume 3, but not everyone has the manga (and curiously, the original spell is missing from the otherwise-excellent Vetus site at Wordpress). The valkyries were psychopomps—figures in charge of the transition of souls from the death to the afterlife—whose purpose was to find worthy warriors amongst the dead and take them to Valhalla (they are also sometimes said to make the judgment of who lives and who dies in battle). There was a different afterlife for those who didn't make the cut, but that isn't for describing here.

The valkyries in HFAAA exist, but in the Christianization of the Norse the term was misapplied to a pugnacious form of wind spirit (which is also how the name became Latinized), an error which wasn't corrected for a number of centuries. This spell summons and directs such spirits, who take on the form of their summoner (having a fondness for the humanoid form). They may appear wielding an imitation of any weapon to have ever been swung or shot through the air, thought it is composed of condensed wind and thus may lack certain properties of the original. The literal translation of the spell is horrible. I can't repeat this enough—unless you have a good reason for every word to match up as closely as possible, regardless of how mangled the sentence in English is—do not literally translate another language's sentences.

'Gladiatrix' (the c replaces x when declined) is a feminization of the Latin word 'gladiator' following the more common pattern for converting a –tor noun to the feminine (the term for 'comrade' happens to be female, regardless of the comrades in question). It actually means 'gladiator' and originated from 'gladius', the most famous Roman sword and the word for swords in general, which is why Akamatsu could use it as an adjective. To reiterate, this isn't bad translating on his part (although he was going from Latin to Japanese, which is very different than from Latin to the linguistically-connected English), but rather he understood that words can arrange in another language in a way that would make no sense with a straightforward translation. There isn't actually a Latin word for 'swordsman'.