The dungeon was completely underground, without any light coming in from the outside. Nothing but stone, moss and grimy puddles - no abandoned items, nor skeletal remains. Not even a single rat or a vermin.
The passageways had no sense of direction as if randomly placed. Stone columns covered in moss held up any chamber larger than a corridor. Some had standing water, ankle deep cold and murky over a layer of undisturbed silt.
Dripping sounds echoed down the solid stone walls, and subtle smells of ammonia hung in the cold damp air. Small metal grates were strewn about the place - in the ceilings, and at the base of the walls. Perhaps for drainage, yet the amount of flowing water was but a trickle. We tried pulling out the grates to scavenge them for metal, but Globba nudged us away shaking her head, as if it was a bad idea.
The explosions boomed and crackled and sent a gust of heated air that nearly knocked us off our feet. We got shoved back against Globba and Zoey who were standing behind, using us as cover.
The dungeon trembled, I squinted up at the ceiling with trepidation and got an eye-full of dust. Not that checking would have done us any good - a sudden collapse is not something you'd normally evade or survive.
"Whoa, what was that?" I asked Estra, rubbing my eye. "We can, you know, just squash them with the shield? And it doesn't cost any mana, nor does it shake the whole damn place down on our heads."
It didn't look like a fireball I had seen before. She had hurled a cluster that came apart mid-flight, bombarding a group of unfortunate slimes. Though each explosion looked smaller, the combined area was much bigger.
"I just wanted to see how it looked," she said anxiously.
The dungeon was supposedly magically reinforced - whatever that meant. However, my inspection revealed many structural faults in its design and especially its maintenance.
A stream of Essence gained notifications was followed up with a shared window. What was all the fuss about the dungeons' dangers? These slimes died easily and the correspondingly meager Essence reflected it.
[Essence gained: +43]
[Essence gained: +91]
[Essence gained: +40]
[Essence gained: +57]
[Essence gained: +39]
[Essence gained: +74]
[Essence gained: +98]
Cast Time: 3.5 seconds 
Mana cost: 140 
AoE: A sphere of [Int/200] cubic meters (100 int = 1m wide explosion)
Damage: [Int/100] MJ (100 int = 1 MJ = stick of dynamite)
[t3] Reduced mana cost, -30%
[t3] Reduced cast time, -30%
[t2] Increased damage, +10%
[t4] Increased AoE, +20%; [t5] Cluster shot, 9 projectiles, 75% decreased AoE; A nine ball structure that disperses when thrown.
Estra beamed as I read through the upgrades she bought for her Fireball.
I nodded to Estra in appreciation of her new upgraded spell. "Yeah, alright. It's nice." I smiled. "But please don't use it so close to us. Throw it farther. Muuuuch farther. Alright?" Her new cluster shot must have been heftier and more difficult to throw, causing it to land close to us.
We found another group of variously colored slimes and I shield charged through them. Each no bigger than a large chicken, and equally as dangerous. Globba finished off any that didn't die outright.
[Essence gained: +37]
[Essence gained: +62]
[Essence gained: +60]
[Essence gained: +89]
Globba acted eagerly as a guide, and for some reason seemed to know her way around the slime dungeon as much as Zoey. That is, until she lead us into a dead-end. The ceiling ahead sprung open and a single slime dropped down, small and glowing brilliantly. Globba clapped her hands, bouncing on her toes.
[Race: [t5] Gold Slime]
A tier five - I gulped. Was this the danger that Estra warned about? The Gold Slime wobbled its tiny form, almost playfully. I felt our heart thump loudly in our chest. I was certain that it only pretended to be harmless - a bluff. All the other slimes we encountered were tier 1.
I gripped the shield's handle tightly, keeping my eyes glued on the bouncy blob for any abrupt movement. We backed up slowly, without saying a word. It remained where it dropped. Maybe if we didn't act aggressively it wouldn't attack us? Zoey vanished.
Globba didn't share our apprehension. She rushed forward and simply clubbed it. "Gift!"
[Essence gained: +4,335]
I couldn't believe it. The golden slime splattered without so much as a protest. Estra and I stared at each other, stunned. What's more, a rod much larger than what the tiny slime could contain popped out of its disintegrating form. Globba picked it up and handed it to Estra, beaming with a satisfied toothy smile.
"Thanks?" Estra said, in an uncertain tone.
[Mihana's Cane. +50% mana regeneration] The cane shone crisp black as if made from onyx. Though much too short to be used as a walking cane given our height.
"Oh wow," I said as I read the single stat and let out a pent up breath I didn't realize I was holding in.
Estra squealed with delight, eyes wide and glowing.
"Not bad, right?" I asked.
"Not bad?" She scoffed. "It's amazing! This cane is equal to some of the best items I had seen in my father's vault."
"It's just fifty percent more regeneration. What's that like?" I did some quick mental math. "Thirty-seven mana per hour? That's all?"
She looked at me as if I had sprouted a second head.
"You don't understand. Artoreus, the High Magus of the Academy holds the best scepter, and this cane is nearly as good." She said in a chiding tone.
"Really? with just a single stat like mana regeneration?" It didn't seem all that much to me, but I haven't seen what the best gear could be. "Maybe I judged it too harshly." I said, apologetically. "Mana is something we always need."
She nodded enthusiastically.
"Who gets the cane?" I asked. "Do we roll for it? How is the loot handled?"
Globba seemed to understand what I said, and pointed to Estra in particular. "Gift."
"Zoey?" I looked toward her and her eyes darted to the cane, then back to me. She licked her lips in a way only a ratfolk can, up and down the length of her long toothy snout.
She shrugged, "I'm not a magic user. It's best in the hands of a healer."
"Thanks," I said, and turned to Estra. "Your father has a vault? Who is he?"
"I ... " Her excitement melted away instantly. She brought the cane up closer to her face, seemingly inspecting the intricate patterns of the ivory handle shaped like a hilt and a crossguard of a sword. "We should spend some of our essence on Spirit."
"Yeah, alright." I nodded. Spirit would pair well with the cane, but I wanted to upgrade my shield skills - I was eager to see the unique tier 5s each upgrade seemed to have.
"Not gonna tell me about yourself?"
She scrunched up her lips and narrowed her eyes, then looked away as she spoke. "It all seems so distant now. But." She paused and looked back at me. "I'll tell you one thing. If we somehow survive all this and manage to return to human bodies, then we'd live like royalty."
I chuckled. "Yeah, of course. Happily ever after."
Mucking about the first level of the dungeon earned us +2304 more Essence, then called it a day. We increased our Spirit stat to 200, and I spent the rest of the Essence on the shield.
Shield Proficiency [t1]
[t4] Shield weight reduction -40%
[t3] Shield magic resistance +30%
[t4] Shield durability +40%
Increasing the shield weight reduction made the heavy shield noticibly lighter - a blessing for my aching shoulder that was sore from constantly holding up the weight. The lighter weight also made it easier to heft the shield from side to side.
Shield magic resistance produced a thin coating, like a luster on the surface of the shield, which increased in intensity as I upgraded it two more times.
The harsh creaky sounds from the loose boards, all but vanished after increasing shield durability. The rickety mess came together into a single sturdy mass.
I felt proud of my new shield.
A dream of inspecting fire sprinklers had turned into a nightmare. Bob screamed profanities at the top of his lungs. I woke up alarmed. Yelling and hissing filled the chamber. Smoke entered from across the chamber, making my eyes water. In my still drowsy state, I expected fire alarms to start blaring.
"Fire!" Estra shouted between coughs.
I shoved Globba awake, took her by the wrist and dragged her along. The juveniles darted every which way, a few clung on to our back and shoulders. We yelled for them to follow, grabbed any within arm's reach, then scrambled for the passage leading to the stream.
Kobolds flooded into the same area to escape the smoke. I checked our mana, taking our increased mana regeneration into account - only a few hours had passed, it would be dark outside. Estra summoned a ball of light, illuminating a hazy room full of alarmed faces. I considered going back to save more, but I knew the sad statistics of doing that.
It took some time for the smoke to clear out before we could go back. The place was in turmoil. We caught up to Zoey.
"What the hell happened?" I asked her.
"Sabotage. Our monthly tribute was set on fire," Zoey replied.
"Tribute? What tribute?"
"The wood stockpile. Each clan pays a tribute to the top chief every month. Ozo pays in wood, but now it's gone."
"Let me guess, the fiend?"
"What are they going to do?"
"Not sure, go see Mahda if you're interested."
Half-awake, we moped around, visited the site of the incident, saw the covered bodies of the victims, and then went to see Mahda. Lan was getting yelled at when we arrived, and Mahda didn't stop on our account.
"... and where were they!?" Mahda voice her ire in an uncharacteristically loud and angry tone, directed at Lan, who by his cowed posture wished he was anywhere but in that very room. He continued staring down at the floor, as if it had an answer, shuffling from foot to foot, arms crossed at his chest.
"Can you pay tribute in mana mushrooms?" I broke the awkward silence, directing attention away from Lan, for which he was likely very grateful.
Mahda sighed, then directed her stern look in my direction, "You can harvest them tonight? The chief meeting is tomorrow."
Mahda tried to hide the look in her eyes as she eyed the cane in Estra's hand. No doubt Zoey had informed her about the fortunate dungeon run.
"Maybe." I had to fight Estra's control of my hand to give Mahda a book.
After the fire, we came back to find a small leather-bound book at our sleeping spot. At first sight it didn't appear special, weathered and old as it was. But Estra recognized it immediatly, and wouldn't stop touching it. Spell tomes were exceedingly rare and valuable because they only came from dungeons. Arthur had come through for us, just in time.
"Where'd you get it?"
"In the dungeon." I lied.
Mahda nodded knowingly, then flipped open the tome. The book flashed in bright light, then promptly vanished.