Fandom: Guilty Gear
Warnings: Alternate Timeline beginning around GGX, boom and stabbity. Now contains 100% more Ky-whumping.
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Going off the Record
Witnesses would later describe it as heaven coming down.
At first, nothing — a moment slowed to eternity as four sleek silver shapes arched through the air, hovering suspended at their apex, before rushing into a merciless descent. And then, a light like a miniature sun, whiter and hotter than anything the world had seen in almost two-hundred years, rising from the center of the impact as an earthquake rocked the chamber, equipment falling, humans screaming. But from within rose a second, even brighter light, a brilliant storm tearing through the fire and roaring up the walls, windowpanes shattering and machines spewing sparks as the containment fields failed, before the entire complex was plunged into darkness.
Years of field experience kept the worst thing from happening — people crushing each other in a panicked scramble for the exits. All the officers on duty had served in the war, and had seen enough frightened stampedes to know how to quell one before it got rolling. Fire and ice flared to light up the observation bays, the quick flash of blades sending delegates skittering away in fright. A few found their wits enough to protest, but for most of them, being held at sword point was the final straw, and they allowed themselves to be herded into groups and escorted outside without a word.
No one spoke beyond shouts for help or recognition, tones remaining clipped and hands busy in the face of the unvoiced fear that they'd just lost the Commander. Unthinkable, that such a thing should kill him when he had survived battles a thousand times bloodier than this, but it was even more unthinkable that they would worry about the Commander before they worried about everyone else. It had always been the iron rule, unspoken, perhaps, but nonetheless real, that the lives of comrades and civilians would come before his own, and heaven help anyone who tried to do otherwise.
It would take a while before anyone had the mind to spare to notice the glow that was slowly creeping up along the walls of the test chamber, brighter than any of the makeshift torches, the same glow that some had glimpsed in the moment of the explosion. It remained quiet and steady, a muted play of light that helped to illuminate the true extent of the damage — the fallen pillars, the scattered, twisted metal, every door and staircase in the test chamber torn off its hinges like papier-mâché.
And it would be even longer before an officer managed to make his way through the expanse of the wreckage to see the epicenter where the floor had given out, and on the lower level, a dome of shining light had risen, blue like Sir Kiske's signature magic.
It had taken a good half century of death and dying before Kliff Undersen rose to take charge of the war effort, and thought to determine the reason why magic users kept dropping like flies. Those who knew him, his kids and his direct subordinates, would often hear him lecture about it, would be privy to his fury that high command wasn't taking measures to protect their best and most effective weapons against the Gears, was willing to cite a mysterious illness or the price to pay in exchange for a divine gift, but not get off its collective ass and do something to fix it.
Over the years, he would gather medics and doctors, who in turn would talk and plead and swear on the honor of Hippocrates, to give mages stable support teams that would act as a human warning system. A lot of things that should have been self-evident weren't, such as the fact that all-magic squads were almost completely useless, left defenseless once they reached their limit, or that magic users needed to eat twice as much as everyone else just to cope with the energy loss, or they would quite simply starve. It took normal people to watch them, to recognize the sudden jitters in their limbs and force them to rest, and years upon years to fully change the system, to assign soldiers into fixed groups whom they would protect and care for.
The most dangerous thing about magic drain wasn't its symptoms, or its long recovery period, but the fact that the mages didn't notice it happening, that the most tenacious ones wouldn't even fall unconscious until it was too late. A low burning sensation in their veins, a bit of dizziness that could just as easily be from lack of sleep or a mild blow to the head, and once they got past that point, it would fade, the user entering a trance not unlike a freezing person, who would keep flinging spells until their body just stopped.
Magic was a precious resource, to be carefully controlled and rationed, so nobody knew what would happen if a mage were to craft a spell that would require all his power at once. No one could know, because it was something the body simply forbade, akin to trying to hold one's breath until everything shut down. And yet, this was what Ky was doing at the center of the storm, blindly and instinctively, willing every ounce of power in his body to resist — and discovering that in the eye of the raging elements, there lay only perfect silence.
He couldn't hear the shouts and the chaos, couldn't see beyond the wavering curtain of light, the soft pulsing flashes that occasionally formed in the expanse of blue-white brightness, sending ripples blending into one another like stones cast into a pond. He didn't know they came from the falling debris, barely even winced when a metal beam came crashing down, only to slide off like water on a bird wing and leave a kaleidoscope of swirls in its wake.
There was a strange joy in watching it, the way the patterns would spiral outward from the center and spread across the surface, only to disintegrate bit by bit. They were quite pretty, really; he'd always liked these colors and the way they flowed, how they would meld together under his fingertips with barely any effort at all, though he could no longer say how he knew them and why.
Everything was slowly slipping away, sliding into that blue-white horizon, thoughts robbed of their substance before they could even begin to take shape. He couldn't say how long he knelt there, or why it mattered, a profound sense of serenity rising from somewhere deep within and wrapping around him like a blanket, the conviction that it was alright to be here, wherever he was, and just watch that lazily twining light.
He felt safe and protected, the kind of safety only very small children experience, held in the arms of their mother — everything was fine, everything would be all right... It had been a long time since he'd been so sure of anything.
There had been... he'd been there before, hadn't he? Like this, just like this, the same bone-deep sense of rightness... he knew a place like this. Bells, a carillon for every hour of the day, scattering their sweet tune across high-walled yards and gardens. White towers, and echoing halls, banners waving from the gates. Scorch marks on the walls, shrieks and laughter all around him, more than one call for a bucket of water for every bush that was set ablaze. A hand in his hair, old and calloused, grabbing a hold of his head and jerking it gently back and forth, and though he could have ducked away from it, he never did, let the hand rest there as long as it would. Proof that he'd done well, that he belonged, that he'd be able to... what?
He was forgetting something, something important, but it was getting hard to even remember that he was forgetting, the concepts swallowed up like footprints by the rising tide. The sea... he'd always liked the sea, too, had welcomed the bite of the salty spray on his face, the roar of the surf battering against the shore, washing away blood and soot and fallen bodies, and... was that it?
No, no, that wasn't it, that was... not here, though he couldn't say what here was, either, even though it was— even though he had to—
The voice cut through his bewilderment, at once distant yet strangely clear, as if spoken right into his ear, its gruffness bringing on a surge of warmth. He knew that voice, even if he seemed to have misplaced all the occasions... it had been different, hadn't it, to be pushed and push back, to yell and shove and go rolling down a hill — inadvisable, that's what it had been, unfitting, and yet... the idea that he could lie there in the mud, giddy with laughter, and have a hand grab a hold of his collar, yanking him back to his feet...
"...What the hell do you think you're doing."
He blinked, thoughts skittering further away as he tried to answer, and found that he couldn't. What was he doing?
"Nothing but trouble, you know that? Leaping straight into the fire for every stray kitten."
Ky smiled. He knew the answer to that.
"'Least I know when to fucking quit. Don't expect me to go warming up your frozen ass for you, I haven't—"
The words stung unexpectedly, more than they should have and more than he thought they would, when he'd been... busy, always busy, something to think about for later, when there wasn't so much to do, something for the small, dark hours of the morning when the questions were like visiting ghosts, asking why and how and what-if, whether there wasn't something he hadn't done, some small manner in which he'd failed to be worthy of trust—
And just like that, like a rubber band stretched taut, reality violently shivered back into place.
You haven't done that in more than five years.
Surfacing was like plunging into a lake of freezing water, at once registering the lances of ice spiking through his veins, the fact that his breath was fogging up as it had to claw its way out of his lungs. For a dizzying moment, Ky knew neither up nor down before the hard, flat surface of the marble started registering against his knees, and the cold burning of the shield spell leeching the heat from his body brought the situation back into sudden, acute focus.
He glanced down, his arms too numb to even feel the weight pressing against them, Andreyev's lifeless form bathed in the same white aura as everything else around him, his vision starting to play tricks on him the longer he kept fuelling the spell. He tried to move, to ascertain whether the lieutenant was even still breathing, when he became aware of another, different pull on his magic, much weaker than the first.
His hand had grabbed a hold of Andreyev's uniform over the left side of his chest, fingers frozen in a death-grip that wouldn't be removed. Though the material was still damp, no new blood seemed to be seeping through, and he realized with a start that this was because he was forcing a shield right into the other man's body, to seal off the gaping wound directly beside his heart.
Ky drew a shuddering breath, helplessly staring at his own hold on the darkened cloth. He'd treated a number of his own nastier wounds this way until a medic could spare the time to tend to him, but never another person's — and there was no telling, was there, whether he'd managed to inadvertently kill Andreyev with an uncontrolled burst of lightning, whether the spell hadn't managed to tear through every organ in his body and was simply holding everything together until he let go.
No time, though, no time to worry about things that had already happened; there would be enough moments to regret later, enough opportunities to blame himself and wish he'd put his foot down, play arbiter of fate for someone he'd always worried about, someone whose devotion was going to be the end of him. By God, but these things should have stopped with the war.
For now, though, he would have to think, and fast, figure out what to do as long as he was still conscious to do it. He didn't know what was happening outside the barrier, and had no means to check, no idea if the robots had been satisfied with taking him out, or if they were still out there waiting — or worse, trying to get to the people in the observation bays, if they hadn't done so already. He didn't even know how long he'd been out, dragged under by the torrent of his own magic, and there was also the matter of the creeping cold in every part of his body, coiling thicker and tighter with every passing second—
The sudden burst of noise in his skull was as much a miracle as it was hell on his overloading nerves, the radio unit tenaciously clinging to life against his ear.
"—ou... ere?! —mmander!"
"...speaking," he breathed, surprised at how thin and reedy his voice sounded, barely able to form the words.
"—mmander! My God, it's—"
The transmission cut off, and then, a different voice took over, Jarre's more restrained tone quavering from the failing speaker. "Sir, we... out here... evacuated— can't... get to you."
The elation was like a rush, spiking through his system before he'd even managed to fully decipher the fragmented transmission, but if the major could talk like that, could speak to him with barely contained relief in his voice instead of shouting the body count into his ear, then it meant that maybe, mercifully, things weren't as bad as they could have been. Ky tried to wet his lips, found that he couldn't, and lowered his head to get closer to the mouthpiece. "Major... I need you to listen... very carefully. Do you have... a medical team with you?"
"Yes, sir. We're—"
"Good. That's good. Tell them... I can't drop the shield, not without... not without causing harm to the lieutenant. He's got... a severe stab wound... in the chest area. I've tried to stop the bleeding, but I can't... can't concentrate enough to terminate... only one spell. They'll both fall, and when they do... I'll need the healing spells good to go."
"—stood, sir..." A brief pause. "We're ready."
It was like flipping a switch. Even though Ky wanted to acknowledge the transmission, he couldn't, his body making the decision for him before he could so much as call out a warning. Letting go of the shield spell was almost as bad as forcing it into existence in the first place, every cell in his body screaming as the tension was suddenly lifted, only to come crashing back into him in a single, blinding instant.
When the world finally stopped swimming before his eyes, two healers in their yellow-rimmed uniforms had dropped to their knees next to them, a soft, steady glow radiating from their hands as they set to work on closing the gash. A few feet away, a group of stunned police personnel were hovering amidst a field of carnage, covered in dust and dirt, and not entirely sure what to do — they must have thought both of them dead, Ky realized, still taking in huge, shuddering gulps of air, and both of them probably looked the part of wraith, too, with all the blood gone from their faces.
"Move it!" a voice snapped, a gray-haired woman in a white overcoat shoving her way past the onlookers and cracking open her doctor's bag in mid-step. The healers barely glanced up, before obediently scooting aside to make room for her.
"We need to clear his lungs. You, over there!" She waved to the officers. "I'll need someone to keep his head still and check his breathing. Stop gawking and help out."
Her hands never stilling as she pulled out instruments and needles, the doctor briefly glanced at Ky, a look of surprise darting across her features. "You can let go now, Sir Kiske," she said, in a slightly kinder tone. "I assure you, we'll do everything we can."
"Pardon?" Ky blinked, staring down to where he was still holding on, supporting Andreyev's back and obstructing the healers from getting to the wound. He tried to move his fingers, but they still wouldn't obey, the numbness radiating all the way up into his biceps. "Oh. I'm sorry, I—"
The doctor bent forward a little further, her expression growing sharp when she noticed the ghastly brightness of his eyes. "I understand. You! Lend a hand! And somebody get me a support caster. We've got a grade four drain patient here!"
"Sir, if I may...?" Jarre had moved to his side, deftly helping to loosen his fingers, and offering his arm for assistance.
"Thank you, Major. I'm fine," Ky murmured, though it took him two tries to actually rise to his feet and step away, and another minute to get the world to stop tilting towards a blankness that didn't exist. "Please, don't trouble yourself."
Jarre didn't look the least bit convinced, but then again, Ky thought, being a human icicle didn't make for a very convincing argument. It was nothing he hadn't done before, really, but the major didn't know that, none of the officers in attendance knew, since he'd always taken care not to let the soldiers see when he was hurt, or sick, or both. All he needed was a moment to sit down, to catch his breath and think...
"Sir, can I... I mean, would you like some water?" Jarre was still hovering, trying not to look too much like he was preparing to step in if Ky's knees gave out, and yet, past his professional assistance, it was easy to recognize the look in his eyes, fear and relief blending into stunned bewilderment at the thought that he was talking to someone who shouldn't have been alive.
Ky shook his head to clear it, and quickly found out that it was a bad idea as his vision started slipping again. It was getting hard to focus now that the adrenaline was draining from his body, leaving his brain feebly grasping for all the things he'd need to do from here on out. Eventually, he said quietly, "No, Major... I want you to order a lock-down. If anyone asks... this qualifies as a blacktech incident now. Take a team and record everything you can get your hands on, very carefully. If you can..."
Rubbing his hands against his thighs to get some feeling back in them, he lowered his voice even further, "...you have my permission to seize evidence."
"Understood, sir." Jarre hesitated. "But the Church—"
"It won't last, I'm sure. They'll want... their toys back, and we'll have to bow out. But we'll have a few hours. Let's make the best of them."
With a nod and a lingering look, the major excused himself, allowing Ky a minute to regain his bearings.
It wouldn't last... none of it would last, not with so many influential people involved, but for now, it was all he could do. At least, it would maintain order until he was back on his feet again; word would get out, and then there would be thousands of festival goers to calm down in addition to any shaken diplomats, frightened people whose only experience with technology were sermons and fairy tales. More than that, though, it would keep the officers busy, too busy to start giving in to their feelings.
They were good people, all of them, those who hadn't served directly under him had been handpicked by those who had, but Ky held no illusion as to their disposition. No matter what job they took up, they would always be soldiers, had given too much of their lives to the war and the army not to feel the service in their very bones, but beyond that, they had signed their lives over to him, and would always be his soldiers first. Ky had come to accept that, yet now it meant that once the shell-shock subsided, there would be several hundred veteran fighters beyond furious at the idea that someone would harm two of their own. Unless they were reined in, given an immediate task, there was no telling what they might do.
A wave of nausea rolled over him as he tried to move out of the way, two medics with a stretcher brushing past him to join the healers in their efforts. From his vantage point, he couldn't tell exactly what was happening, whether any of the spells would even stick, all urgent gestures and hushed exchanges that rang like white noise in his ears. Briefly, one of the healers shifted, allowing for a glimpse at Andreyev's face, as deathly pale as it had been inside the dome, and the only solace lay in knowing that they hadn't stopped casting, the green glow flickering and rekindling at regular intervals.
He took a deep breath, felt his lungs stutter and seize up on the task, a stern warning that he better stop trying to do much of anything for the time being.
It seemed so laughable now, that not two days ago, they'd all been convinced it would just be another function, just an event to stand guard at and get through, and now, he was looking at the ruins of the testing complex, not even sure his decision wouldn't cost a good man his life. Madness, this was madness, different threads convening to weave a tangled, grotesque web where humans built the inhuman and aimed it at each other — so easily, so terribly casually, as if two centuries of death and loss and suffering simply didn't matter... and Andreyev was to be merely the first in a long line of sacrifices, none of whom meant anything at all.
A second wave of nausea struck, longer and harder than the first, sending Ky stumbling back against a capsized pillar. His concentration was unraveling rapidly, replacing thought and reason with the blaring alarm signals of his body. The tendrils of ice were still crawling upwards through his limbs despite his refusal to acknowledge them, and the harder he fought to retain his grip on awareness, to keep his breathing slow and his head clear, the more viciously the drain symptoms surged back up, alternately slowing down and speeding up what was happening before his eyes, his own pulse pounding so loudly in his ears that it felt like the vessels were about to burst.
Ky splayed his hands against the metal surface to steady himself, working to shove everything out of his mind — impressions, feelings, even that overwhelming cold, to just wipe everything clean and regain control of himself. All he needed was the mind, not the body; as long as he could think, he could keep going. He could always rest later, when the fires were under control, when the plans were in full motion and all that remained was to wait and see, but first.... but first...
He'd done it enough times in the war. Rock bottom was never truly rock bottom, just a wall he hit in the depths of himself once he cut back far enough on food, rest and essential bodily fluids. If he was careful, though, he could keep going, not deeper but further against that wall, could dig his fingers in and start feeling his way along its surface, step after measured step. When he was especially cautious, he still had enough resources to last him for hours after that, more than enough to give orders and sign forms and keep up morale, and when he ran out, well... it would be in the safety of his own tent, without anyone to see him and panic, with a pair of unfazed arms to catch him if he didn't make it all the way to the bed.
This time should have been no different, just a moment to close his eyes and find purchase in that wall again, except Ky had smashed right through rock bottom over an hour ago and had simply kept going, and the arms that eventually caught him were those of a stunned young medic, who hadn't been prepared for it at all.
A/N: I love magic. It means I can make my protagonists take missiles to the face. XD Thanks go to Tofu for beta duties, and C&C is much appreciated.
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