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Before leaving his small room in the [Kruxol Inn], Cael looked through his mail, which he had dumped in a corner of the room before sleeping.

Discarding most of the spam, such as Guild advertisements and reports on far-away Arena tournaments, he found a couple of letters pertaining to the Draugr Invasion event. One was marked 'Draugr Invasion: Participation Rewards,' and the other was marked 'Draugr Invasion: Fighting Rewards.' Opening the first, he found a letter which said:

"Congratulations on taking part in the Draugr Invasion world event! You participated in the event for three hours, here are your rewards. We encourage all players to take part in world events, and these rewards are quite valuable."

 

Cael reached into the envelope, and drew out a golden piece of paper. This dissolved as soon as he picked it up, and he gained a large amount of EXP, enough to boost him to level 50. The envelope also contained a thin, black quill pen, and a small grey stone. He saw that the stone was called [Draugrstakrr], and its description said:

[This stone seems to glow when a graveyard is nearby. Perhaps you will find out more about it if you take it to a graveyard?]

The quill pen was named [Illusion Quill Pen], and its description stated that it channeled a Mage's mana to write text. This text could then be used to enchant equipment, even without knowing the appropriate enchantment spell. It was limited to one enchantment per month. The text, since it was an extension of mana, could also be made to disappear by withdrawing the mana, or could be converted into spells by repurposing the mana. The text would use up the Mage's MP as long as it was left in place, but could be safely withdrawn after the enchantment was cast.

Opening the second letter, Cael read a similarly-worded congratulation for two hours of fighting draugr. He found that the envelope contained a [Hades Arm Scroll]. Reading this scroll, he saw that it contained a spell which would transform one of his arms until it resembled a draugr's, and this would increase its strength as well as weakening opponents' STR and DEX temporarily when a spell struck them. It did this because it tapped into the power of the undead to transform the user's own mana. The scroll explained that, "The caster's familiarity with the undead, from long fights against them, has granted him the ability to tap into the undead's charnel power and deathly animation. They have become like a denizen of the Underworld, from hours spent at crypts." Cael's eyebrow raised at this, since he hadn't typically had enough of a macabre disposition to spend his time hanging out at crypts. However, he took it to mostly be the scroll's grandiose way of suggesting that the spell was a reward for fighting the undead. He wondered if there was anything more to this: one of the items had mentioned that it strengthened him in a graveyard, so perhaps this scroll's description was giving further encouragement to fight in graveyards, perhaps implying a reward. However, for now, he learned the spell without needing to visit any such scenic locations.

[New spell! Arm of Hades. 90 MP]

This spell was costly in MP terms, especially since it only lasted for seven seconds. However, he still wished to try it out. As he cast [Arm of Hades], he felt the skin on his right hand become stiff and raw, and as he looked down he saw that it had become slightly grey and looked like old, rotting flesh. It felt quite uncomfortable at first. However, he tried holding out his arm to grab a heavy chair which was about one foot away, and found that he easily clasped his stiff hands around its back and dragged it across the room. Sitting down, he waited a few minutes for his MP to regenerate, then cast [Arm of Hades] again.

This time, he picked up the [Illusion Quill] and scrawled down the word 'sortie.' After the [Arm of Hades] buff had ended, and his arm returned to usual, he could feel that the word on the page was still written in a different form of mana to his usual. Since the [Illusion Quill Pen] wrote with the use of mana, he had guessed that it might be a way to preserve the special mana of [Arm of Hades] after the spell's effect had ended. After inspecting the writing carefully, using his Mage sensitivity to mana to verify that it was not his normal kind of mana, he decided to repurpose the mana from the text to cast [Mana Push] on a nearby object and see what happens. However, he found that the text faded before he could cast, because the mana required to keep the text in place had depleted his remaining MP, and he had no more MP to keep the text in place.

Shrugging, he waited for some MP to regenerate, then cast [Meditate] so that his MP would regenerate faster. He lay down in bed until his MP was full. As he got up, he decided to write fewer letters on the paper this time, so that his MP would deplete more slowly since there was less writing to preserve. He cast [Arm of Hades], then wrote the letter 'x' on the paper. As the [Arm of Hades] faded, he repurposed the small amount of mana in the writing to cast [Conjure Light] briefly. He saw a glow emanate from within his clenched right hand, but noticed that it was quite different from his usual [Conjure Light]. The air around the light source had grown stiff and still, and seemed like an extreme form of stolid graveyard air. The light itself looked much more pale than usual. He rose the light up towards his eyes, to wake him up more, and then ended the spell and stood up.

Looking through the window, he saw that he had a good view of the woods South of Kruxol. He saw a small group of players from [The Fountain] Guild patrolling the area. They must be looking for [DeathGang] Guild members, since Crucis had pretended to belong to that Guild while killing Ron. A few large Guilds had declared their intention to patrol areas where ganker Guilds were seen at work, in what was billed as an effort to make the wilds safer for players. A day had passed since players had been trapped in the game, and a few patrols had already been organised in places closer to the towns. These moves from the large Guilds had generated good PR, and led to increasing centralisation as other Guilds gave the large Guilds more respect and began to follow orders.

Before leaving the inn, Cael reached back for the envelope with his draugr-fighting rewards, and found another golden piece of paper. This also dissolved into the air, giving him even more EXP than the last paper of this sort. He saw that he had raised to level 53. Most players in this area didn't survive the draugr long enough to fight for 2 hours or participate for three hours, so Cael felt that he was making progress relative to them.

Once he had emerged into the dark, night-time streets of Kruxol, Cael quietly walked near the borders of the town, scanning for nearby buildings which he could hide in. The town was noticeably quieter after the exodus to Kaxil, and few people noticed him. If he was seen, he changed his path slightly so that he would appear to be going towards one of the town's numerous stores. However, after about 15 minutes he had done a full lap of the town.

Checking carefully to make sure that no patrol was near, he snuck into a small wooden building South of Kruxol, a short way to the West of the temple. He saw that this building contained a shrine painted with gold, with its centrepiece a sculpture of a blue deity with three blood-red tongues sticking out, who carried a lance and a rectangular knife which resembled a machete. The paint on this sculpture was beginning to fade, but the deity looked quite fearsome at night, where his blue skin appeared almost black in the darkness. Cael saw that a small amount of red paint seemed to have spilled beneath the deity's mouth, as if he had been eating blood.

Cael had chosen this building because it had a window, which he crouched down beneath. He raised his head slightly to peer through this, and heard a few players talking nearby. He guessed that they were [The Fountain] members patrolling the area.

"Well, that was easy. What the hell are they doing making us waste our time here?" said one player.

"I guess that LordAeneas doesn't want us to sleep," joked a companion of his. They both made loud footsteps as they walked briskly through the woods. Cael guessed that LordAeneas was one of [The Fountain]'s leaders.

The first of the players spoke up again. "Aye, he got us traipsing around the woods at night. What a mensch, no wonder they call him Lord Anus."

"Yeah. Anyway, we're nearly at Kruxol, thank God. I'm sure the guys will be glad to hear that - yet again - we saw no signs of anything happening. I'm sure ol' Gant will be like, 'We know DeathGang well, if they attack in an area then they're probably lurking there. They're nomads, they hang out in a place until everyone else leaves.' Well, they're not going to all be hovering around right next to Kruxol, innit? With a whole group of 'em, they'd stick out like a sore thumb."

"True, that. Anyway, let's reach Kruxol, we can go to the bar and wait for the laggards to catch up."

The two players departed, and Cael heard them walking into town some distance away. It seemed that, since there was nothing in the woods, the patrolling had become lax. The patrol weren't bothering to stick together, and these two players had rushed back to Kruxol early. Cael couldn't blame them. While Guild leaders tended to party up with strong Guild members and do dungeons, growing stronger in the process, the rank-and-file were being used for things like patrols and to escort travellers between cities. These duties, needless to say, gave no real rewards. Since players couldn't currently leave their Guilds, they had little choice but to listen to these orders or risk punishment. The result was several players who were continually sent on these missions, and had begun to stall in their growth. A few Guilds had tried to remedy this by offering pay to their Guild members as a recompense, but this wasn't enough to stop players from stagnating. Cael guessed that a few large Guilds, currently high and mighty, might find a surprise down the line when other Guilds that have levelled up more quickly upset the balance of power.

Cael looked carefully through the window, and saw a group of three players patrolling to the South.

"Yes, it's terrible, but Hunting can make you some money if you're good at it," one player was laughing, "I got a good deer skin the other day when our Guild went to the hunting grounds, it was worth tons of gold."

"Yes," another player interjected, "but you can't go up North safely without support. And you can't hunt green-name animals outside huntibg territory, it's poaching and our Guild forbids it."

"Oh, yeah, definitely. But there's still some expensive stuff you can find by exploring, though I really wish Aeneas would let us go North again." This player seemed a bit dejected. "Ah, well, doubt we'll find anything. I'll go and get a pint up North with my ill-gotten gains, barely bothered going to Storage because nothing's ever here. See you guys later."

The others said goodbye, and Cael saw a player walking North, taking a path near Cael's window. The player was only level 25, and looked to be a warrior. Quickly acting based on the conversation he had just heard, he used [Minor Illusion] to create the illusion of a small sable, resembling the one which he had fought on the first day of the game. He gave this an orange name, and had it approach the player aggressively. Cael saw that the player's name was [StarInEye], and the player was wearing a fairly expensive suit beneath a thin layer of armour, as well as donning a jewelled, purely cosmetic necklace. Clearly, this player saw bling as the endgame.

On seeing the sable, StarInEye looked at it with wide eyes for a moment, amazed by the sight of its valuable, rare fur. Cael smiled slightly. As the illusory sable approached, StarInEye drew his sword and swung at the sable, which backed off slightly. Cael had invested most of the points from levelling up into INT, and this had improved the potency of his illusion skill, so he was now able to control the illusory sable like a novice puppeteer. StarInEye gave chase, scrambling desperately after the sable and managing to brush close to it with a firm strike.

At this, Cael stood up and cast [Mana Strike] to throw StarInEye to the ground, and thunderously shouted, "How dare you! What kind of monster would kill such a beautiful creature? I would never have even imagined that someone could act like that."

He followed this up with [Spark], and StarInEye collapsed back onto the ground weakly. Cael had upgraded his [Spark] skill using Skill Mastery, after purchasing a cheap extra scroll of the skill. It now had more potency, and a longer duration of effect. It was still clearly a low-level spell, and had only reduced the weaker StarInEye's HP by 5%. However, as Cael walked outside the building, he saw that the warrior was still on the ground, shivering haltingly. While StarInEye was trying to crawl his way back onto his feet, his hands seemed to keep failing and falling to the side helplessly. Cael smiled, and dispelled the sable illusion while the warrior wasn't looking. Activating [Arm of Hades], he felt his right arm grow stiff, and he followed this up by casting [Dark's Tendrils]. Shadowy, stiff tendrils, almost invisible in the night, struck at StarInEye, who flattened against the ground and whimpered as his strength faded. Cael used [Magic Missile] to kill the warrior off quickly.

Since Cael's mana was almost fully depleted, he returned into the building with the shrine, to hide and replenish mana. He slid into a small gap behind the shrine, meaning that a casual seeker would probably not find him. Since the sight of a sable had lured StarInEye into a small area enclosed by thick bushes, Cael did not expect anyone to find the body until the next morning. At night, it was well-hidden. However, once his MP had recovered, he still decided to quietly walk into a building slightly further away from the corpse, where he had seen another shrine.

He found that this shrine had golden paint peeling off it, and the sculpture in the centre had seemingly been forcibly removed. The atmosphere of this building was stale and decrepit. He stayed hidden in a corner, covered in the thick shadows of the shrine and hence difficult to see at night. He heard the sound of footsteps nearby, but this building had no windows and he couldn't tell how strong the player outside was. To try and figure this out, he used [Minor Illusion] to conjure an image of the [Immortal Silver Stallion Stone], a shimmering silver stone sculpted in the shape of a horse. This item was quite famous because of its use in advertising, where it was shown as a powerful item that even a small or average player could obtain by exploration. Somewhat like the [Lore Page], it was randomly generated in certain places around the map. However, few players had found it so far. In the night, it was difficult to miss.

Cael saw a female player whose name was [DiAn], and who was level 11. She was arguing with another player, who was holding her by the shoulder, and telling him to leave the stone behind.

"Oi, I found it! Get off me, you can't just take everything for yourself!" said the young girl, who had black hair and looked slightly Chinese, but had clearly grown up in the West.

"Listen, girl, you're just young, you don't understand anything," said a middle-aged man behind her, who seemed to be a relative of some sort. "Show respect to the elders in your family, ah." Cael squinted slightly, and saw that this man was level 21.

"No! You always do this, you don't want me to have anything! My father bought me this dress, not yours. You just act like you're my father!"

"Listen, what would your grandparents have said? Look at the heavens now and ask, who is to receive it, and who isn't?"

While this argument was partially in jest, Cael saw that the two had started passive-aggressively wrestling over who was to pick up the stone.

"OK. Let's see if they answer. Elders, do you think I should not get the stone?" said the young girl snarkily.

At that moment, Cael stood up and used [Mana Strike] on the older man as he was half-wrestling the girl, and the man fell down over the girl, causing them both to collapse to the ground. Cael used [Spark] on the young girl, and saw her once-lively form shrivel up to a weak husk on the ground. She had only 15% HP left. He saw that his [Black Cursed Draugr Staff] had inflicted the [Disease] status on her, so he left her be since she would die anyway.

Turning to the older man, whose name was garbled, he used [Magic Missile] and saw that the man was at 40% HP already. The level difference was already quite pronounced. The man saw him and clumsily drew a sword, but could not attack because Cael immediately knocked the sword from his hands using [Mana Push]. As the man reached back to pull up the sword, Cael saw that his [Spark] spell had ended cooldown.

As the warrior charged towards him, he used [Spark], slowing the charge to a crawl as the warrior struggled to move. Cael immediately followed the [Spark] with casting [Arm of Hades]. As the warrior slowed to a stop in front of him, he used his stiff draugr-like right arm to swing horizontally at the man's face, knocking his opponent to the ground and killing them. He saw that the game counted the [Arm of Hades] strike as blunt damage, which was typically associated with blunt weapons like clubs and maces.

He saw that the girl was on the verge of death, and was unable to move or get up due to the [Disease] status effect being too exhausting. She hence only had 2% HP left, but was making shrill, whining noises on the ground. Annoyed, Cael used [Mana Strike] to send her barreling across the dusty ground, and saw that she had received several scrapes from this. Her blood stretched across the ground, and her corpse lay dead.

Cael sighed lightly. He would have to find another hiding-place. However, the patrols were probably mostly done by now, so he wasn't that concerned. Winding his way towards the East of Kruxol, he found a small ruined building that he had noticed earlier. The building had been converted into ruins when Kruxol was downgraded. Regardless, he walked into it. Hiding himself behind rubble, he waited for his red name to fade. The night was cold, but silent, and he found the silence reassuring.

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MOROSE

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