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Soft, pale grass gave way to a hard stone floor as Cael cautiously stepped into the cave. He peered further into the cave mouth, to check that it was safe, and let himself further into the cave when he didn't see any monsters to threaten him. It was soon dark, and feeling around with his hands he found that he was in a slightly narrow passageway. Since it was too dark to navigate comfortably, he cast [Conjure Light], and a fountain of light shot out from his left palm to light the surrounding area. The stone walls of the passageway glowed in brilliant shades of white and pale grey. He knew that this was slightly unsafe, as creatures might notice the light, but stumbling around a cave in the darkness wouldn't be any safer. As a compromise, he dimmed the light from his [Conjure Light] spell, using an option that allows players to dim the brightness of the spell and reduce its MP cost. He had deliberately chosen the cave entrance closest to the town of Sanra, as Byron had mentioned that these should have lower-level monsters.

Looking forwards, he could see that the walls of the passageway gave way to a larger, open area on the right. In the dimmed light, the cave appeared a shade of battleship grey that would have pleased Glenn Gould. As he turned to the right, his feet rapidly stood still at the sight of red text floating near the floor. He looked down and saw the outline of a small creature, that seemed not to have noticed the light. As he stood there, he noticed that he wasn't being attacked. Perhaps this creature was some form of troglobite. He read the creature's red name: [Kruxol cave shrimp]. The creature's appearance subtly changed as it crawled along the rocky floor, suggesting that it was mostly transparent.

As he took a step towards it, it turned towards him. He reflected that he should have attacked it before it aggroed on him, as it was red-named and the chance to attack while unseen was a lucky opportunity. At least it was only level 9, he supposed. He cast [Mana Beam] at the creature, knocking out 40% of its HP, and it flinched slightly. However, it launched itself at his feet, and raked at his exposed calf with its small, sharp claws. This caused him 7% HP's worth of damage. Pleased that this shrimp was just a shrimp, and thus more mannerly than his recent chicken encounter, he used [Mana Push] to shove it off him onto the ground beside his feet, and then sent a [Flare] at close range into the shrimp. The wisps of fire plunged right into the shrimp, causing it to squirm violently for a second before it died. That was slight overkill, but it had given him one of the three kills he needed.

Stepping into the open, spacious cave area behind the shrimp, he saw a still pool to his left. Water was sitting in the dark cave, in a large gap formed in the stony ground. He was cautious about proceeding past the pool, as he wasn't sure if it would attract stronger creatures, but he saw a black, square grate placed over a hole right behind the pool.

Walking up to it, he saw another floor of the cave below him, filled with what looked like black mist. As the mist settled on a few low-hanging parts of the roof, he saw that they were actually bats. Looking carefully, he could see that quite a few were above level 50. He quickly leapt back from the grate, nearly losing his balance as he landed. While the bats wouldn't attack him behind the grate, he thought that he shouldn't risk attracting their attention at his level. He slowly walked past the right side of the grate, superstitiously taking care to make little noise.

He saw a large creature moving in the darkness of the cave up ahead. Reaching his left hand in that direction for light, he saw that the movement was a moist-furred [Giant Rat], at level 19. It was red-named. Taking this on would be difficult due to its level, but he had no choice, as while he had been looking at the rat it noticed the light source and began to charge him. He hastily targeted a [Flare] at it, skewing the aim towards the rat's right flank, and the rat dodged with a quick step to the left. It leapt at him, and scratched at his chest with its claws, while he almost fell backwards to get the creature off him. He saw that he was at 85% HP. As he tried to get up, the rat bit at his left thigh, sending him crouching unevenly on the injured leg. The rat was getting too close to him, and could attack at will. He decided that there was no choice but to push it away, and quickly thought back to the plan he had made when receiving [Mana Strike] in Sanra.

When the rat barged into his chest and sent him careering backwards at 40% HP, he landed crumpled and crouching to the floor and then cast [Mana Strike], shoving the rat onto the rocky wall besides the grate. He could hear some light commotion from the bats, but he didn't care for now. He immediately cast [Mana Push] at the rat as it thudded against the wall, keeping it pinned against the wall as he had planned. The rat had already taken collision damage and was down to 67% HP, but Cael's push trapped it against the wall for an extra 5 seconds, causing further collision damage as it was impaled against the sharp, rocky surface. The rat was now at 15% HP, and slumped to the ground. Smiling that this combination of moves had worked, Cael cast [Spark] to kill the rat.

The rat was finding it difficult to get up, trying to recover from the paralysis of its recent rock wall crucifixion, and the waves of mana pacifying it put paid to any hopes of recovery. It gave in to the paralysis, and lay helplessly like a stone on the ground, until it died. Cael knew that Spark was soon going to become too low-level to deal enough damage to mobs, but the disempowering effect was powerful compared to the early segment of the fight where the rat was energetically striking him from close range.

Low on HP and low on MP, he retreated to the spot where the shrimp had fought him, and crouched to the ground. Turning off his light source, he stayed still and hoped that the shrimp would respawn here and give him his third kill easily. After 5 minutes, he saw no sign of a shrimp. He figured that it must have crawled its way here from a spawn-point deeper in the cave. He was cautious about going further in, because of the damage that the rat had been able to deal, but decided that it was necessary to get his third kill. He cast [Conjure Light] again, being sure to dim it. Walking carefully forwards past where he had seen the rat, he found a wall with a fairly large opening to its right. Peering through, he saw another large space that stretched towards the left, with a level 40 bat flitting around at the leftmost end. He quickly stepped back.

He turned around to see if anything had spawned in his safer area of the cave, but all that he saw was a faint glow on the floor to his right, hidden slightly under a crack in the wall. Leaning towards it, he found a small slip of paper. The game sent a message to the left of his vision:

[Lore Page Found! Title: The Resolve of Loki. Read it for EXP, as you learn the ways of gods and men!]

He could recognise the name Loki from Norse mythology. He was not, however, certain why Loki's message would appear over here.

Reading the piece of paper, it contained a poem:

Hearing the thunderous call of Thor over the land,
Loki, who had just swore at the gods and mocked their customs,
Now sought a hiding place from their power on earth.
He walked past a town, and slid agilely into a cave
As if to avoid the judgement of the gods. He knew
That power was not his, but theirs, and resolved
That he was bound in chains so long as the gods
Remained in their high thrones, for all he would do
At this moment was to curse at them, yet the roaring
Of thunder forbade him this free desire. If he was
Bound, then he would bind them, as soon as their
Hands reached out for love and not for him in hate.
With thunderous strike like Thor, he would rend his foe:
Such a one as the gods loved, such as was his opposite.
In chains, that light of the gods must perish, yet Loki
Knew that whatever chains he would suffer, and suffered now,
Would not hold him, and, like Fenrir, he would be free.

On reading this passage, Cael gained enough EXP to level to 24, and almost to 25. He supposed that these lore papers were rare enough that the game gave the players incentive to seek them, especially since they had a long respawn timer and only half of them spawned at any given time. He was glad that he had spotted this one. It seemed to him that this cave might be of further importance, due to the mention of Loki here, and the lower bat-covered levels may reveal more about this.

The quest log contained a 'Miscellaneous' tab, containing quests that encouraged rare or competitive game events like beginning an event that affected other players, fighting certain rare creatures, or killing players in PvP. He had been planning to check it if he ever got lucky enough to encounter a rare event or item. He checked his quest log, and saw that a quest in the 'Miscellaneous quest' tab had been completed, with the task description reading, 'Collect one page of Lore.' As he accepted the reward for this task, he found that he was at level 25.

[Feature unlocked! Skill Mastery. Choose up to 3 skills, and develop them to an elite level.]

Excitedly, he opened up the menu and navigated to the [Skill Mastery] Feature. In front of him, a window appeared displaying 3 empty square slots, with the third one greyed out. As a Mage, he was instructed by text under the slots that if he placed known spells into the available slots, and had an extra scroll of them, the spell would evolve permanently to a more powerful version with an enhanced effect. He was slightly upset that he couldn't begin immediately, because he didn't have spare scrolls, but figured that it might be for the best. While the feature specified that you could replace a basic form of a spell in a slot with a higher one - for instance, Flare could be replaced with Fireball, or Mana Push with Mana Strike - he didn't know which spells had the highest potential evolution and if he should wait for later, more powerful spells. He therefore resolved to wait, but idly checked on what the upgrade effect could do to some of his spells:

[Mana Strike | Becomes Mana Strike*, and propels enemies like a bullet due to its great force.]
[Spark | Becomes Spark*, gains higher damage and colonises enemy body.]
[Mana Beam | Becomes Mana Beam*, gains the ability to sacrifice mana to charge its power and deal greater damage, as well as to follow and strike a moving target.]

These sounded interesting, but the increased damage might not be enough for higher-level players. They would probably save up for powerful elemental spells, which had rare scrolls that would be difficult to get multiple drops of. Since the price of Mana Strike was low in Sanra, Cael assumed that the word had spread not to waste a Skill Mastery slot on it. However, Cael recalled that his Mana Strike against the rat had pushed it towards the wall, but relied on the rocky, sharp nature of the wall to deal continual damage, yet a sharper upgraded Mana Strike would make his stratagem more universally applicable. However, he was reluctant to use a slot on a basic movement spell, when he might need it for more powerful spell effects later.

He glanced carefully into the room with the bat, and saw that a giant rat and some other creatures had spawned next to the bat. It seemed unlikely that he would be able to fight them unless he was really lucky and either the rat left the bat's protection or the bat flew away. However, along the wall opposite the bat, he saw a slightly tattered spiderweb. He tried tentatively using [Mana Push] on it, prepared to run away if the bat came for him. At first, nothing happened, but then a level 15 oversized white spider crept out from a crack in the upper half of the wall. It started to creep quickly towards him, its brown-tinted legs shuffling swiftly across the wall. He retreated backwards, concerned that the bat might notice him if he started to fight in the same room. The sickly-white spider was red-named, and called a [Scurion Spider].

He waited for it to enter the room, but noticed it stop and briefly feel with its legs against the rocky wall, apparently unable to locate him despite the light source. Soon, it did sense his location, and scurried from the wall onto the floor while facing him. He knew that pushing this spider towards the wall would be double-edged, because it was used to traversing the wall. However, it was low levelled, and possibly less fearsome than it looked. Casting [Minor Illusion], he summoned a small rock in his hand and threw it at the left side of the spider, which he expected to have high Agility. Expectedly, it dodged out of the way with great pace, veering to the right towards the wall. Cael immediately cast [Mana Strike], taking the spider's momentum and tossing it at very high pace against the wall, resembling what he imagined an upgraded Mana Strike would look like. He followed up with [Mana Push], impaling the spider and reducing it to 17% HP.

The spider gingerly got back to its feet. It started to scurry up the wall, heading back to its web to use a healing ability due to its low HP. Before it could get close, Cael tried to finish it off with a [Mana Beam], but the spider was moving too quickly. Angered, he adjusted his aim slightly and cast [Flare] near the web, scorching the spider and causing it to collapse to the ground, with its web still burning lightly like Hanukkah candles. Cael had completed his 3 kills, and could now invest his next Trait point.

However, he heard some commotion from the direction of the level 40 bat, which had become excited by the bright Flare attack. As he heard its lethargic wings beating quickly and effortlessly in the direction of the spider, he quickly rushed out past the pool and down the passageway out of the cave. He managed to make it safely, but that could have been a dangerous encounter if the bat had seen him and begun to chase with its high Agility. As it is, he had only given the bat a curious murder mystery to solve, and since the mystery genre is widely-enjoyed this could be considered a gift.

As Cael walked to Sanra, he checked on the Trait system. He saw a skill that increased the power of non-elemental spells, like Mana Strike and Spark, by 5% but increased their MP cost by 15. He accepted this option, as he realised that he had been using these abilities often; however, he was still slightly keen to seek any abilities that would strengthen elemental spells significantly, as most higher-level PvP players and Guilds considered elemental spells as the endgame.

As he arrived in Sanra, he saw Jarius, Audet and Justiciar talking to each other, and they waved to him as he came nearby. He greeted them quickly, but saw that they were still waiting for some of their Guildmates to turn up before they all moved on. In the meantime, he entered the Alchemist's Store, and quickly invested most of his stat points from levelling into INT. He asked what spells could be learnt, and heard three new ones which had not been an option before: [Lesser Aura], [Refined Aura], and [Healing.]

Suddenly, he heard a noise by the door, and as he turned around he saw Jarius walk in. "Hey, you're shopping for scrolls? I know quite a bit of the Mage meta from supervising Sebastienne, let's see what your options are."

Cael indicated the three new scroll options, and said, "I'm guessing that Healing would be a good choice, but not sure about the others."

"Deffo, unless you really hate clerics," laughed Jarius.

Looking at the other scrolls, Jarius said, "Lesser Aura is just a weakened Aura spell. It unlocks at around the same time as an upgraded version, so basically no-one bothers with it. The Aura spells aren't that important, though, because all that they do is make a mana aura that you can convert into your other spells so that your mana regeneration goes up when a spell is cast. But it requires MP for the aura's upkeep, so it balances out and probably wastes some MP and gives your enemy time to attack. I haven't come across any serious players bothering with it, definitely not after trying it." He spoke with a matter-of-fact tone.

Cael realised that Jarius' reasoning was quite sound. He thanked Jarius, and Jarius walked out of the building to gather his Guild together. Even with some gold that came from fighting the cave enemies, Cael couldn't afford much more than [Healing]. He paid 1000 for the [Healing] scroll, and was planning to leave, but decided that he should see the Aura skill for himself. However, he couldn't afford the Refined version, so he tossed out 200 gold for the Lesser version.

The price on the Refined version was quite decent, but he couldn't afford it yet and would make up his mind later. He could have probably afforded it by selling some of his inventory, but the stores in Sanra were oversupplied by nearby grinders selling loot and the prices offered for things tended to be low. From what he could tell, the Lesser version of the spell just allowed the user to cast offensive non-elemental spells by converting the aura into spells, but the Refined version allowed for elemental spells and worked by casting spells and then covering their cost with the mana aura. Instead of converting the aura into a spell, the Refined version actually allowed the spell to draw mana from the aura when cast. The Lesser version would almost always amount to a loss of MP. Regardless, Cael memorised it just so that he could test it out.

[New spell! Healing. 100 MP]
[New spell! Lesser Aura. 20 MP per 5 seconds.]

Out of curiosity, he saw that upgrading Healing with Skill Mastery would allow it to remove up to two status effects, and upgrading Lesser Aura would allow you to use any non-elemental spells. A Healing upgrade might be worthwhile, but he wasn't sure yet if that was optimal for non-clerics.

As he left the building, Cael saw that some of the GildedKnights group were standing by a dark-brown, wooden building just to the Southwest of town. Not many players were in that area, so Cael quickly found his way to the group.

"The boss here just spawned," said Byron, "this building is kinda weird, if a new player enters this seemingly ordinary building then they can get jump-scared by a level 35 boss. Nobody over level 27 can open the door. But the rewards are great, so let's try and clear it until Jarius is ready for the next dungeon. Everybody, please help."

The archer Hurricanrana opened the door, and behind it Cael saw a ghoulish old man, who lunged at the charging Byron. However, Byron nimbly stepped backwards to avoid the lunge, then struck with a [Piercing Jab] that caused the boss to bleed. Hurricanrana was nearby, and fired a [Fire Arrow] around Byron at the boss, surprising Byron by the archer's ability to safely slot the arrow past him as he stood in the doorway. The boss became clearer as Byron moved back and gave it room, and Cael saw that it had chains on its hands that it used to flail at Byron. Byron, however, parried this with his sword. The boss managed to catch Byron's sword and push it aside, but as the boss prepared to strike Byron with a chained fist, Byron raised his foot to the boss' chest and used [Forcing Kick] to shove him away to the ground.

As the boss tried to get up, Cael used [Mana Push] to shove it back down, and struck with a [Flare], dealing a sliver of damage. Without turning his head, Byron said, "The game doesn't really explain how this works, but elemental spells deal less damage if you don't have the subclass." He blocked a limp attack from the boss, and continued, "I think the idea was that they would add a perk which increased elemental spell damage as soon as you got the subclass, but the coding is a bit wonky and actually reduces the damage when you don't have the subclass." Cael thanked him for the advice. A few other low-levels in attendance were getting hits in, to share in the boss' rewards.

Cael could glimpse the boss's name now, [Grand Old Man]. It was a slightly minimalistic name, atypical for this game. Cael carefully aimed a [Mana Beam] at the boss, dealing reasonably more damage than the [Flare]. Byron killed the grounded boss with [Lower Ground! It Ends], kneeling over the boss to keep it down and then stabbing it hard below the chest. The move dealt higher damage when the user had the higher ground, and was further enhanced when the opponent's HP was below 20%.

Cael looked at his rewards for the moderate damage he had dealt, and they were quite good. He had received 4000 gold, as well as a staff that he wasn't yet qualified to use, which required a minimum of 1500 INT. The staff looked quite powerful, and would be a good choice of weapon once it unlocked. His inventory was quite full with monster drops, and while some might be worth a reasonable amount of gold, he would have to look through them more carefully.

As the young players celebrated their loot, Jarius came over and said that they were going to another dungeon. There would be good drops for all Guild members this time, and he was bringing Cael and three guests from Sanra to grind some lower-level side-rooms.

"Please allow me, Byron and Justiciar to stay in front, any non-warriors should keep your distance from any enemies," said Jarius.

As Jarius said this to the attendant group, Cael saw the dark-brown building nearby seem to pixellate slightly, with patches of it covered in an array of pink, white, red, green and blue spots flashing and changing colour. A few others started staring at the place around them, so Cael realised that he wasn't the only one. Around the edges of the buildings in town, strange rainbow-like colours started flashing in a pixellated display, that would sometimes change as Cael tilted his head slightly to look closer. This must be a graphics bug.

"What the hell?" said Hurricanrana.

"That's strange, it must be some kind of bug," said Justiciar.

Cael tried to step closer to the group, but seemed to only step on air as the game's render of the ground in front of him suddenly faded into a pixellated mess, and was replaced with another display of the same patch of ground below it. He stumbled slightly as his step landed lower than he was expecting.

"Give it 25 minutes, we'll see if this persists," said Jarius, as if to reassure the group, "Go and grind some enemies with others in a similar level range. If that goes smoothly, then we should still be able to go to the dungeon. It's probably just a bug in the visual display, this game was tested carefully."

Cael noticed a lower-level GildedKnights member ask Jarius what their plans were, and Jarius spoke his reply to the whole group, "Optimally, we finish the dungeon and can then return to Kruxol to keep our stuff in Storage for safekeeping," proclaimed Jarius, slightly impatient about the 25 minute waiting time he had proposed. He had spent a while preparing his high-level Guildmates for the dungeon, while the low-level members fought the house's boss, so Jarius wasn't prepared to give up on the expedition because of some fancy squares.

Cael joined the other non-Guild players, who were at levels 27, 19, and 12, to grind some of the mobs in the popular grinding spots near Sanra. The areas were slightly less crowded now due to the bug, as players returned to the towns to find out what was going on. As Cael's group prepared to go, Byron walked briskly up to them and offered some advice, "By the way, if you're going to that hunting area, make sure to focus on fighting goblins. Skulk around the edges of the grinding spots, and rush in if you see goblins spawn. The drops from gobbos are way better, but you'd run into too many rats in there normally. This way, you'll get much higher rewards." He smiled, and the level 19 archer in Cael's group thanked Byron as they left. They could all hear some loud commotion in the town, but Byron gestured them on their way as he went to investigate the cause of the uproar.

The names of Cael's companions were difficult to make out, because the bug had scrambled the text in their names and turned the names into a large mess of pixels. In fact, it had affected most text in the game, especially longer passages of text where the effect of the bug seemed to accumulate as the text went on and the walls of Zalgo-like mangled text overflowed over anything past the first three or four lines.

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A note from MOROSE

T̸̹̓h̸̘̅a̸̘̒n̷̘̏ḳ̵́ ̸̀͜y̴̑͜o̸̯͝u̸̥͊ ̶̟̈́f̵̺͝o̷̡̽r̶̙͆ ̶̣̌r̴̖̀e̴̗̓ä̵͖́d̷̛͜į̵̒n̷̠̏g̶̠̎.̵̮͛


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