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23rd Level

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A green world. You'd never guess anything is wrong just by gazing towards the horizont. Then again, if you weren't wearing a heavy protective suit engraved full of esoteric, complex runes made of intricate shapes that extend beyond the three dimensions we stupid apes can understand you wouldn't be there, not for long. You'd be found and killed so swiftly that the last thoughts of your vaporized brains would be as tranquil as the green, empty world.


I sighed and flexed my fingers in the thick stream of flowing mana, careful not to weave any marks into it. I wasn't there to actually do anything, not this time. It was simply my turn to relax, my turn for a short break out here on the topside. It took a while in the creaking, thick suit, but I managed to sit down in the grass. Couldn't smell or touch it through the protective layers but I leaned backwards and extended my arms, flopped down to a completely helpless position. A moment of ephemeral peace.


I might have fallen asleep or maybe I just was unlucky and it happened very soon after I laid down, doesn't matter much. Either way I came to to the trembling of the ground, to a burning, greasy smell I could sense even through the filters in the mask. The suit was glowing in all the colors of the rainbow and some not found in the nature like some veil made out of unicorn manes or a human-shaped oil puddle, the colors so garish yet pretty it almost distracted me from the danger I was in. I started breathing more heavily, knew there was nothing I could actually do. Running to the bunker door would be the worst possible action I could take, running anywhere else pointless. The hunter beam caressed the suit a moment longer, heatless flames blazing all around me. The grass around me was unharmed, still gently swaying in the wind, and then the flames flickered and died, leaving only my heavy breathing and thundering heartbeat as the only reminders that something had happened. So much for imagining they weren't out there any more.


I sat up and held my knees, but it was a tricky position to hold in the cubersome suit and after a while I gave up and let go, fell back to the still ground. Small insects buzzed all around me and the grass whispered in the breeze but there were no other sounds, no living beings larger than a butterfly or an earthworm around. My fingers grabbed a handful of brown and black earth, tore it off the ground and crumbled it to small pieces between them. The smell was there somewhere, even with the filters, even with the rank terror sweat now cooling inside my suit. Living soil, something we hadn't managed to kill during our latest folly. I shook with some emtion, grief or hysterical laughter, but I did not let it grip me further. I let the hand, now empty of dirt, fall down.


This time I certainly fell asleep. Very unprofessional of me, but it was harder and harder to castigate yourself with such thoughts these days. There were only professionals left, unless the enemy had hid away a few non-combatants. Unlikely, but possible. My confused thoughts slowly merging from the sea of sleep focused when I realized it was dark and that I had slept a long time. Not only that, but something large was moving in the grass, clumsy and near. Logic dictated it would be a comrade of mine in the other suit. That did not stop echoes of the earlier terror from reappearing as I carefully stood up, fingers locked in the safe position - nobody wearing a suit like this could really work magic or harm anybody through the wards and sigils with whatever feeble forces they might be able to conjure, but maybe whoever it was was as terrified as I was and armed with something obsolete, like a sword or an arquebus.


"I'm here."


I had been right on every count - it was Cosette with a thin rapier or some such blade, and even if I couldn't see her face and her voice was muffled, I think she was afraid.


"Is that you, Rogan? What's the password!?"


"Yeah, I'm sorry I fell asleep. Password is 'arrogance begets misery'."


She waded through the grass closer and I could see in the way she moved how her terror transmuted into raw anger, step by step until she was furious right next to me, the thick glove pointed at me like her sword had been earlier.


"That password's a bit too appropriate right now, don't you think? What on Earth were you thinking, Rogan? That the break is for ten hours, not one!?"


"I wasn't thinking."


It was hard to convey any emotions properly through the masks but I tried to distill every ounce of calm regret into the tone of my reply I could muster. I lowered my head slightly, a gesture that came naturally to me since I was ashamed of my mistake.


"Let's go in. The others must be anxious by now."


"You bet they are."


She hesistated as if willing to continue the scene out here, then lead the way. Having a fight wearing these suits would've been just the right sort of surreal, I thought, the sort of thing people did at the end of the world. Here's the survivors of the Gamarkatcha University of Applied Magic, having something akin to a domestic dispute in the last two high-energy suits they own, waist-deep in grass so green under deep, endless blue sky that is rapidly turning black. Silly, surreal, stupid, and all my fault. I owed to the rest to do better than this, I knew. Even so, my voice was almost inaudible mutter when I spoke.


"I'm sorry. Didn't want to come in during a hunter beam sweep."


"Ten hour sweep?"


"Of course not."




That was the last we spoke of it outside. I hadn't gone all that far out and it didn't take long for us to reach the door, both of us making the necessary gestures that marked the mana flow with the key, defusing the deadly traps set on the thick metal. Home sweet home.

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