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Beetle Sludge

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His heart stops beating for a moment, and then it starts again.

It takes him a moment longer to realise he’s still alive. The green glow fades, and instead the black gaze of the chimera swallows him. Something’s throttling him: his reserves, his magical power – but his life, his physical body, is more or less intact.

Why?

He realises it a moment later when the devil beetles approach. He doesn’t raise an arm to stop them – he can’t; not quite yet – but they vanish into dust before they even reach him. His fingers twitch on the trigger but he doesn’t fire, not yet. He’s not sure he can fire. His arm is burning, and his weapon feels cold and empty in his grip.

But the devil beetles are crumbling, scattering, and the chimera is staring at him, as though waiting for something. Waiting for him, obviously.

But for what?

Something’s up. Something’s wrong, and it’s not just a miracle survival, a miracle miss from point blank range. He knows that.

He still feels the surge of foreign power almost too late to catch it.

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He can feel them: little hammers, little wings, little claws. He can feel them all beating his brain, surging in bloodlust, promising him power beyond his wildest dreams, stealing bits of rationality before he can whip around and grab them…

And this – he’s never heard of this before, but he knows what it must be: the chimera’s power, the devil beetles’ power. Somehow, it didn’t kill him. Now, it’s trying to corrupt him.

It's succeeding in driving him up the wall, at least. He's stuck in the infirmary a while because of his arm, and because he can't focus on anything aside from those devil beetles for more than a few seconds. The doctors chalk it up to tinnitus - some magical backlash that's made his senses hypersensetive for a time. But that will only hold for so long.

Of course, his sanity isn't an infinite well either. It's harder and harder to hide it, and he knows he needs to escape this scrutiny soon otherwise it'll be the end of him.

Ideally, he'd like to be rid of this problem entirely but their claws are so deep, he's not sure he can.

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He knows he can't last. It's a mix of physical and mental, but those beetles have sunk their claws into him and are eating him inside out.

When he first joined the Sky Wizard's Academy, he'd expected to die a bloody death on the battlefield. He'd been under no delusions at that time, thinking he'd die a hero because he knew full well those heroes were forgotten, and that the amount of blood spilt by the devil beatles were immeasurable. But he also knew he had something to contribute, and the clear skies when they had them were worth every drop of sweat and blood.

Now, though... He's snuck out of the infirmary and the surveillance and summoned Gladius to his hand and just that, just the simple act of summoning, is enough to drag him to his knees.

He tries to fire a basic shot anyway, and it blots his vision out. It's wrong, hisses a voice in his mind. He's doing it wrong except years of practice and battlefields tells him he's not.

The technique isn't wrong at all. It's the person doing it. It's the magic.

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His arm is healed, physically, but he botches all the simulation exercises and remains off-duty. Chloe and Lloyd are sympathetic. Yuri expects more - or perhaps she can see through him a little easier than these childhood friends he's now letting down.

When he skips out of the rank advancement exams, it's the end of the line. Better that than to insult them all by swinging a tiny mockery of his sword, he thinks.

He doesn't stop fighting though. He can't. He refuses to see the sky or the inside of his head painted black with those beetles and so he has to fight both of them. Even if he can't fight the way he used to, the way that brought him fame and pride...

But the reality is no soldier can be held up with just fame and pride. Those ones die bloody deaths on the battlefield and are forgotten, or retire into obscurity and it seems he'll be doing the latter before a misstep takes him to the former instead and that's fine with him. Even when people sneer at him, call him a loser and a traitor...

Well, none of them know he's still fighting, and none of them know the little beetles inside his head he fights against.

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Time races ahead without him. A new place – a pit of darkness with only small specks of light – opens up and swallows him hole. And in the darkness, he finds a new perspective.

Claire and Lloyd are his little lanterns bobbing on the dark pool of water. They check up on him too often for him to lose sight of them, and Mistgun is a big place aside. All the trouble that brims under the surface, all the holes that have been patched up with band-aids that can only hold so much and for so long – they’re all apparent to him now.

He’s a ticking time bomb, but here’s another hopeless fight he can try to win.

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Sometimes, he wishes he was old enough to drink. He wonders, though, if that would help at all, or make things worse. That drowsy, disinhibited state… would it leave him with an artificial peace, or remove the stopper on the devil beetles within?

Sometimes, he sees a chance, an opening, to sneak something in. He wanders frequently, after all. And if he’s not in his uniform or battle armour, then he can pretend to be a little bit taller, a little bit wiser, a little bit less like a warrior and… well, he doesn’t need to do anything about his eyes. Enough people who don’t know he’s a disgraced sky wizard tell him he’s got the eyes of an old man.

It’s funny what makes people look at him. It’s funny what makes people ignore him.

But the alcohol… Well, he’s decided time and again he can’t really chance that. Still, he can’t help but long for a solution, however temporary.

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He finds it, and he wishes he didn’t.

He couldn’t help it. Devil beetles are attacking and the scout teams are getting pushed back.

The commander is a force to be reckoned with, but she’s too straightforward. But though the devil beetles may be mindless, the chimeras that control them have more than just launch frontal assault after frontal assault and fail every time.

They’re getting smarter. The commander must recognise that but her battle tactics don’t reflect it.

Or maybe she just doesn’t have the resources to play with.

Or maybe, Kanata thinks wryly as, over the clouds, he slips past the sky wizard vanguard and the mass of devil beetles below. The chimera’s up to its usual tricks, hiding behind it’s minions but this time there’s more, much more, and the sky wizards are being stretched thin.

But hiding behind all that frontal armour means his back’s exposed.

He comes to a stop on his board, still behind cloud cover. He’s not worried about that. Gladius can pierce through cloud with no problem. What he’s worried about is his magical reserve.

Enough for one blast, surely. And the bastard will never see it coming.

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One blast, surely, is what he tells himself. He can fire one blast, when once upon a time he could blast a battalion out of the sky by himself.

Even if, of late, he can barely muster up

But what surges within him when he powers up his attack is not magical power. It’s something that comes far more easily, but feels far more foreign.

His head spins. Bile creeps into his throat. Pinpricks of light stab at him. And, like they’ve been woken up by that strange power, he can feel those sharp claws in his head.

He screams, and lets go of the trigger.

It’s a moment of weaknesses he realises afterwards, but it’s neither the start nor the end of anything.

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By some miracle no-one sees, no-one knows. Even Claire and Lloyd don’t seem to notice his absence later.

He’s the only one who knows. He and the devil beetles and he hates how he has them to thank for his life now twice over.

It’s easier to think of them as a poison granting him a slow death but this… This feels more like an investment.

And that is more terrifying than anything, because he's the Trojan horse that could bring the Sky Wizard's academy down.

But he doesn't flee. He doesn't throw himself off the tower or into certain death. A part of him knows that won't work, because the only things that can kill a wizard are devil beetles or another wizard or some other equally fantastical force, and the devil beetles in his head won't allow those. And another part of him doesn't even want to try because he's alive, he's alive, and that makes all the world of difference.

He can throw himself into battle and not care if he survives, but it's a whole other matter to actively seek the means of his demise. And that, perhaps, is his biggest failure of all. His one and only failure, in a sense.

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Why him, he wonders. Have his exploits on the battlefield attracted the eye of the other side, as well? Were they intelligent enough to differentiate the aces from the masses?

Well, his parents always said his ego would bite him in the ass someday, and it's done exactly that and not in a way any of them would have ever predicted. And the juniors at the academy used to wonder what it would take to make Kanata Age scream, and now he knows.

Ideally, he'll take that knowledge to the grave and he's on a time limit in more ways than one. His days are numbered, and he doesn't know what will do him in first: his newfound lack of magic, this power he refuses to explore too deeply, or the enemy scraping away at his soul...

A distraction is what he needs.

A cure is what he needs, rather, but wizards don't generally go around surviving certain death at the hands of the devil beetles.

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Claire and Lloyd believe in him but they walk, to an extent, on eggshells around him. He is grateful for them, because they're his friends and he doesn't want to lose them, and also because they make sure to include him, make sure he's still relevant in some capacity and still has a place, whether in obscurity or with the proverbial black mark, in the Sky Wizards Academy.

Yuri, on the other hand, tries to forsake him and is failing miserably. If he wasn't her friend, and she his, he might have burst out laughing at the absurdity of it but he can't. It only hurts and he knows it hurts her too. But buried beneath that is a sense of relief, because Yuri's heart is already broken by this betrayal and so the other will never happen. Maybe, one day, she'll learn the truth. Or maybe she'll never need to. There are kind ways to break people's hearts and there are cruel ways, and being branded a traitor is a cruel way to most but, Kanata has learned via the devil beetles, perceived kindness is what hurts the most on the battlefield.

 

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Gradually, the hubhub dies down. Kanata is still a student, but he's rarely attended classes from the get go and now that he's no longer blasting headlines with his heroics on the battlefield, they stop bringing the topic of him up.

He's sure, if he comes into their view, if someone mentions him, then the hubhub will start up again but there's some obscurity now and it's both gratifying and it hurts. He's not as integral, anymore. He can be forgotten, now.

But it also means he doesn't have to bear their eyes as the devil beetles tear him apart. He doesn't have to hide his pain in half-cresent moon indents on his palms.

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He fades into obscurity, but still he does what he can and by doing that, he learns a lot about the Academy, and about himself as well.

He's always been good at seeing potential, he supposes. And now, outside of the battlefield, he's able to use that to the fullest. Even if Lloyd thinks he's wasting his talents and Claire thinks he's depressed. It's what he can do without having to fall back onto the devil beetles' power, and without having to recall them either. Those strange but menial tasks can keep him occupied for hours, can keep him alive for hours if he thinks about it like that.

And the less time he spends resting, the better for him. And when he collapses, exhausted, he's too numb to feel their scratching his mind into little bits.

Of course, no-one notices. He's too good at feigning sanity behind stoicism but the truth is, he's not faking anymore. What was once agony is now numb. What was once unbearable was once numb. It'll be easy to cross the line one day, he thinks, so he only stays farther away.

Not that he can get much further away, without leaving the Academy for good and where even would he go? If nothing else, he won't let the devil beetles drive him out of his home.

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In the end, those girls become his saving grace.

It's Chloe's idea. He's good at seeing the potential in people and things so maybe he can rescue those three girls about to be kicked out of the school.

He manages it, even with Yuri playing the devil's advocate. And he does wind up giving away too much of himself in the process but he doesn't regret it.

Better than saving an ignorant populace, better than saving the friends he cherishes most in the world, is being able to pass on what he's learnt for others to take up the torch. 

Now he understands why Yuri with her sword was so painful.

But now he's fought, and he's used the power of the devil beetles too many times and he's falling apart in a way that he can't hide anymore. And these friends, old and new, won't allow him to hide. 

He sees their pitying gazes. They know they're looking at a dying man. But the only thing that would make him feel more fulfilled would be to stop the devil beetles once and for all.

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It would have been rather circumferential if he'd died in a fight against devil beetles, now that he'd been dragged into those fights again.

But he doesn't. Instead, it's the opposite; he dies fighting against the people he never thought he'd fight more seriously than a training battle.

But he's not thinking at all at that point and that's the point, really. He's crumbled into something that can only fight or not fight and they're either weak semblances of movement or the power of a thousand devil beetles in a single blast. And he's got no control over it anymore.

He's a slave to his weakened body eternally warring with the instincts of the devil beetle. He's taught his body that much stubborness, it seems, even when he's not actively calling the shots.

It's impossible for the others to know if the next strike will kill them or not. And thankfully, just thankfully, they've watched the tail end of his descent and they know.

They don't want to admit it but they know.

And they fight, if only to save him, to put him out of his misery, to set his soul free or whatever it is they believe in. Perhaps Yuri is even clinging onto the hope that she can rip the devil bottles from his body, like she did for Real.

She can't. He's too far gone and he'd stopped hoping for a miracle over a year ago.

They say the ones who stop hoping are the ones who are already dead inside. In that case, he did die in that battle against the devil beetle and has been a corpse walking all this time.

It's only time to make it official, and that's only too hard and too easy now.