"The war was a hassle, but I enjoyed the fall-out and teary speeches. Next time there's a war I should just sleep through it, and set an alarm to not wake me until the mourning afterwards," Crucis said.

After he joined Akshel and BlazeKey in Northern Kruxol, the three set off North to meet with DicingDevil. They had been walking for about five minutes.

"Ha, this is the light at the end of the tunnel for sure," Akshel replied. "By the way, did you hear? Some people in Kruxol were holding an event to mourn the loss at war, but they were killed. There was a lot of chatter after the Guilds reported on it. It was a Mage of some sort who did it, very brutal, but not one of ours. People think that DeathGang did it."

"Oh, I heard about that, yes." Crucis spoke in a neutral tone. "The funeral was to mourn the dead, since people's relations weren't respawning, but I'd guess that [The Fountain] are telling a different story."

"They're lying about it?" BlazeKey asked curiously.

"Yes, they're trying to cover up the conflicts with [Communion] and the mourners, to present a united face. Actually, the funeral was done in defiance of [The Fountain]'s orders."

"Darys is nearby, I'll tell him that there might be more to the story."

"Sure, go ahead."

BlazeKey reached out to the side and quickly moved his fingers, typing out a message.

Akshel spoke up. "By the way, the football World Cup is happening soon outside of here. Did any of you guys check out the World Cup Gallery VR program a few years back? You could watch through the matches in each World Cup, while exploring a model of the stadium. It was quite good, but a bit buggy, critics were harsh on it but it became widespread due to piracy."

"I don't follow modern football much, but I did watch a few old matches in that Gallery," Crucis replied. "I think I selected the 1982 World Cup, that had a great Italian team. The program crashed easily, though, so it was too much of a hassle and I didn't watch many other years."

"The Italy with Gentile and Paolo Rossi? Yeah, some quality there for sure."

"My family is from Madrid, so I grew up supporting Spain, they'd totally hate you for mentioning that Italy team," said BlazeKey chirpily, "but to be honest I sort of prefer German football. The Football Gallery was great, pity the creator offed himself. I quite liked watching the story of West Germany's win in '74, if any of you have heard of that. As they say, the Germans just seem more efficient, y'know."

"Pity that all of those teams lived before our time," opined Akshel. "But I kinda like watching the Portugal-Croatia rivalry that sprung up around this year after a brawl. They're in the same group in this W.C., though sadly we might miss it."

"Ah, I hadn't heard of that," Crucis replied, "As I said, I don't follow football much, but a heated rivalry like that is always nice."

"Yeah, definitely."

"There's a few elections in the West soon, I wonder if they'll start informing us of the news if we're trapped here for a while. Maybe you'll get to know some World Cup results too. People will get really antsy in here, and if they're cut off from news they'll probably start demanding it in order to feel like they're still a part of the world. Two days without much info about the outside world is already getting people tense."

"So we might get news about elections and stuff to soothe people? Yeah, that wouldn't surprise me."

"I mean, soothing people is kind of what elections are for. It's the smiling mask worn by unchanging corruption."

"Ha, true."

"Y'know, some loud-and-proud American types in town were bloviating that 'anti-democratic' DeathGang shouldn't celebrate the war because it's 'just a game.' While crying, might I add. Like, elections are just a game. But a worse one. There's no proper mechanics. It's like the [Communion] guys in town, they seem to think that their opinions should be the real game mechanics."

"[The Fountain] has some weird neocon Americans, they think we're like Stalin and Hitler combined and were talking about how the war with us was to spread 'democracy and freedom.'"

"They should change their nationality to Polish."

"Yes, and learn to polish our boots."

The group laughed.

"What's that caravan over there? And are there stables next to it?" Crucis motioned towards the right.

"Oh, that? I think it's the Mount store, it travels between a few set locations," Akshel replied, "But it's way too expensive. We can still check it out, if you want."

"Let's go ahead."

Entering the grey caravan, Crucis saw a counter where an old man named [Shopkeeper Yuri] was standing. A few brochures were scattered around the room.

"Greetings, all. If you wish to inspect the Mounts, take one of the guide booklets by the door and head on over to the stables. If you wish to buy one, then ask me."

Crucis had a brief glance through one of the brochures, then took a booklet near the caravan door.

"Let's go," he said. The others followed him to the large stables, where a couple of stable hands warned the group to keep their distance from the animals. The stables were each marked with different letters, and contained different Mount types.

Crucis scanned the booklet, and saw that there were a variety of Mounts here, from highly expensive horses to donkeys and even dinosaurs. It was as eclectic and impractical as befits a good video game stable. The most expensive Mount was a young wyvern, who costed no fewer than 90 million gold. Dragon mounts were typically the most expensive.

"Look at the price on that wyvern to the far-left," said Crucis, making small talk.

"Yeah, was it 9 million or something?" Akshel replied, "Wait, I just reread that. 90 million? That's crazy."

"All of these prices are crazy," laughed BlazeKey, "700k for a bad donkey. 75M for a Mungoon-Gali, whatever that is. It's like 1M gold for even a decent Mount, I'd rather get equipment."

"Wait, they have some Sales listed," said Akshel. "Huh, not bad. There's something called the [Ushi-Oni] for only 470k."

"That's the weird spider-bull thing to your left," Crucis said, "I think there's two versions listed in the booklet, the Non-Combat one is for sale. It's a good idea, though. Some guys buy Ferraris to impress girls, but the true Gigachad would buy a creepy spider mount to wow them."

Akshel glanced up at a large, brown creature with the head of a horned ox. It had six spiny legs, like a large spider's, coming out from the sides of its large, equally spider-like abdomen. Although Akshel was slightly put off by the creature's strange appearance, he was still enthusiastic about the prospect of getting a Mount.

"Check its stats," Crucis advised, "Mounts in stables can be viewed like item descriptions or NPC stats, point your right arm towards the critter and then press and hold the button. Hold it for longer than if you were opening the menu."

As Crucis had learnt from briefly looking through the Mount brochure, there were five basic stats for all Mounts. These were: Speed, Versatility, Resilience, Burst, and Handling. There were also two more vague stats, Grace and Fine Motion. All of these were rated out of 100.

The basic stats were easy to understand: Speed indicated a Mount's average speed, Versatility was its ability to adapt to different terrain, Resilience was how much HP it would have and how easily it could shake off blows, Burst was its ability to accelerate to fast speeds, and Handling was how responsive it was to player control.

The two other stats were slightly less clear. Fine Motion seemed to indicate that a Mount would adapt carefully to a player's commands, for instance swerving or stopping in a controlled, exact manner that reflected the player's command rather than skidding or moving haphazardly. Mounts with this were almost like an extension of the player, but they were often slightly slower due to their careful movements. Grace was how effortlessly and smoothly a Mount could gallop or run across the ground, with a high Grace Mount almost giving riders the sensation of being in flight.

In addition to these, combat Mounts had a Combat Rating. However, Crucis guessed that this might be misleading, because Mounts could fight in very different ways and their effectiveness would depend on this. For instance, a Mount with ranged attacks, like a dragon's fire breath, was more powerful than most others in a normal fight even with a slightly lower Combat Rating.

He browsed a few Mounts within a price range that he could afford. He didn't need to be that stingy, since he had stolen a lot of gold.

[Tsuchigumo (Non-Combat)]
Speed: 23.
Versatility: 50.
Resilience: 49.
Burst: 10.
Handling: 20.
Grace: 4.
Fine Motion: 48.
[Asena (untamed, Non-Combat)]
Speed: 40.
Versatility: 24.
Resilience: 40.
Burst: 50.
Handling: 2.
Grace: 30.
Fine Motion: 2.
[Dungavenhooter (Non-Combat)]
Speed: 20.
Versatility: 50.
Resilience: 50.
Burst: 4.
Handling: 17.
Grace: 15.
Fine Motion: 37.
Speed: 23.
Versatility: 45.
Resilience: 45.
Burst: 3.
Handling: 50.
Grace: 9.
Fine Motion: 40.
Speed: 50.
Versatility: 36.
Resilience: 35.
Burst: 14.
Handling: 38.
Grace: 23.
Fine Motion: 16.
Speed: 54.
Versatility: 17.
Resilience: 15.
Burst: 40.
Handling: 27.
Grace: 40.
Fine Motion: 24.
[Coelophysis (Non-Combat)]
Speed: 30.
Versatility: 40.
Resilience: 25.
Burst: 45.
Handling: 45.
Grace: 4.
Fine Motion: 50.
Speed: 40.
Versatility: 36.
Resilience: 28.
Burst: 40.
Handling: 28.
Grace: 35.
Fine Motion: 15.

The fastest of these would easily be the horse Longma, and the Monoceros and Allocamelus were also relatively fast while also being able to brave more uneven terrain. The Monoceros was a horse-like creature with a stag's head, and thick but nimble feet that walked sturdily across the ground. It would probably be the best Mount at this price range by most conventional standards, by Crucis' estimation. Its versatility and consistent stats, combined with high speed, made it a fast Mount that would be less vulnerable to adverse conditions than the Longma.

By contrast, the Pachyrhinosaurus was a dinosaur that somewhat resembled a triceratops, and it was a sturdy ride with high Resilience. It was probably the easiest Mount to control and would be able to adapt to terrain easily, while resisting damage like a fortress. All the same, the lack of speed made it less effective for everyday use. The dungavenhooter was a crocodilian creature, but Crucis felt like its non-combat form wasn't worth the while. Its combat form would probably be highly resistant to attacks, able to maneouevre on all kinds of terrain, and would allow its rider to use Fine Motion and move rapidly and precisely in close combat. That was too expensive for now, however, with a cost of about 7M gold.

The Tsuchigomo was a large spider which was whirling like a calypso dancer across its stable. It also looked like a powerful combat Mount, but as a non-combat Mount its low Handling and Speed meant that it wasn't well-suited to using on journeys or pursuit.

The Asena was a large wolf, but Crucis saw that it didn't have a price listed. He guessed that its low Handling and Fine Motion made it basically unusable as a Mount, so it had eventually been withdrawn from sale. Mostly, Mounts with stats like this would generally disobey or ignore their riders. Crucis figured that a combat version of this untamed Asena could be left among lower-level players and it would wreak havoc on its own, but if he could find one being sold then the pricing of it would likely be out of range.

As he saw the wyvern briefly glide around its stable, he was impressed by the speed of the creature's movement. The creature glided so quickly and effortlessly that it almost made the world around it seem slower in comparison. Just out of curiosity, Crucis checked its stats:

[Young Wyvern]
Speed: 90.
Versatility: 70.
Resilience: 82.
Burst: 85.
Handling: 67.
Grace: 90.
Fine Motion: 60.
Combat Rating: 85.

It was a very fast Mount, and was capable of low flight just above the ground. Most Mounts of such quality would be rare, although Crucis knew that there were some even better Mounts available at remote locations far from the towns. It might even be possible to get this Mount for a better price, but it would require a difficult journey through high-level areas.

"So the Ushi-Oni has great Versatility, it's also sturdy and a bit faster than you'd expect. It's pretty much steady 30s and higher 20s across the board, except it has low Grace," reported Akshel after reluctantly studying the spider for a while.

Crucis was impressed by the Mount's stats. "Yeah, for that price? It's a steal, get it while it's on Sale."

"The Sale ends today evening, it says. I'll have to get it now, then."

"Why not? Go ahead."

"I left my gold in Kruxol Storage, I'd have to dash back and get it. That alright with you guys?"

"Yeah, might as well," replied BlazeKey, "Dicing said he's a bit busy at the moment anyway, they're dealing with a small scuffle."

"No reason to wait, then," Crucis said.

"Okay. You guys were also researching the creatures, anyone want to come with me back to Kruxol?"

"Yes, actually. I'd like to purchase a Mount as well," Crucis said.

"I can't afford any of these, so I'll wait here for you guys," BlazeKey said.

After this agreement, Crucis and Akshel left for Kruxol in a rush. They didn't encounter anyone on the way. After a quick visit to the Storage building, they were soon back at the Mount store.

Akshel entered the caravan, and requested the [Ushi-Oni (Non-Combat)] Mount. Smiling, Yuri accepted the 470,000 gold, and gestured towards the people at the stables. Crucis saw a brief flurry of motion near the Ushi-Oni Mount.

Yuri handed Akshel a half-gold half-silver key, called [Ushi-Oni Summoning Key], and said, "The Mount has been prepared for you. You may use this key to summon it, or unsummon it. The key is no-drop, so it can't be gifted or stolen."

Akshel thanked the shopkeeper, then walked gleefully away with the key. BlazeKey congratulated him. However, they were both surprised when they saw Crucis walk up to the shopkeeper's counter and say, "I'll take the Coelophysis for 1.5 million gold."

While the Monoceros was a good Mount, as he was reading the Mounts' stats Crucis had decided to opt for the Coelophysis' Fine Motion, Burst and Handling. He wanted a Mount which could be used to pursue and home in on a target, requiring both acceleration and the ability to control the Mount closely. In spite of the Mount, he wanted to be able to approach the opponent with precision so that he could easily choose how and where to strike the enemy. Further, this Non-Combat Mount would give him a discount if he ever wished to buy the Combat Coelophysis, though he couldn't afford it for now.

Crucis placed a large amount of gold on the table, and Akshel gasped. "You got all of that without being in a Guild?"

Crucis laughed lightly, "I kill plenty of rich guys, apparently. I'm like psycho Bernie Sanders."

Akshel smiled, still in a good mood after getting a Mount, "Well, that's a Robin 'ood story if there ever was one. Shine on, you crazy diamond."

Yuri accepted the deal, and handed Crucis a silver-gold [Coelophysis Summoning Key], which had a red gem embedded in it. After Yuri gave Crucis the same explanation for the key, Crucis thanked him.

The shopkeeper paused, then said, "By the way, I see you have a friend out here. When we have travelling groups purchasing Mounts here, we try and get everyone a Mount so that you can all ride on without leaving anyone behind. Does your friend want to loan a Mount for 12 hours?"

"Why not an untamed Asena?" laughed Crucis.

The shopkeeper clarified, not processing the humour, "A few of our low-level or experimental Mounts can be loaned out. You could have an untrained mule, a Nue tiger-monkey that is difficult to handle, or a Gajasimha with the head of an elephant and body of a lion. The first one is a common Mount, the others are being tested out slightly. Do you have any preference?"

"I'll take the Nue. It sounds faster," replied BlazeKey.

The shopkeeper handed BlazeKey a grey [Temporary Nue Summoning Key], set to expire in 12 hours. He wished the group of three luck as they went on their journey.

As they left the caravan, Crucis placed the key into his inventory and activated it. A large raptor-like dinosaur appeared besides him, and he hopped onto its back.

Akshel also summoned his Mount, and crawled onto its large abdomen as the ox head grunted loudly. Finally, BlazeKey reluctantly boarded his monkey-faced Mount, which hooted softly as if planning some mischief.

As the group rode North, Crucis slowed his Mount down slightly in order to not run too far ahead. BlazeKey's Mount was erratically zig-zagging across the path and sometimes dancing along the tree-line, and Akshel skmetimes laughed at the haphazard Mount's antics. Akshel's Mount was sturdy, creeping persistently along the ground, and it easily stepped through a few rocky areas of the path.

Crucis' Mount slowed down and drifted comfortably beside Akshel.

"We need to get into a fight now, I want to see BlazeKey fight on that thing," Crucis said.

"Yeah, that's for sure," Akshel replied, "Maybe a bit later, Dicing is nearby, just past these next trees."

A small line of tall trees stood in front of them. Crucis' Mount easily swerved around the trees to get through, while Akshel took his Mount towards the left until he found a large gap and his Mount passed through. BlazeKey didn't even bother, and dismounted to get through the trees.

Behind the trees, an expanse of sand began, and Crucis saw a large boulder just ahead. DicingDevil had been standing next to it, and now approached this group.

"Hey, you guys have Mounts too now? Great, we can use ours as well," said DicingDevil.

He reached for his inventory, and soon slightly dark grey, red and yellow horse appeared beside him. As Crucis looked at this creature, he noticed that it had a set of colourful, rooster-like feathers fanned out behind it and was named a [Hippalectryon]. Its hind feet were also rooster-like, and bent close to the ground, while its front feet were a horse's. It was probably not as fast as an ordinary horse-like creature, but it still moved quickly.

"Where did you get that?" Akshel asked, impressed by the creature's colours.

"Oh, I found it during a quest way East," DicingDevil replied, "The quest-giver tells you to fight a poacher, but you can instead negotiate with the poacher to buy one of the Mounts he has caged. The poacher was level 130, so I figured that was the wiser choice, heh. Sneaking around the strong creatures out East is fun, but it's difficult to do much there. A few good rewards if you try to find non-combat quests, though, because it's content meant for higher-levels."

"Clever," Crucis said.

"Ta. You should visit it while you still have a DeathGang wristband, I think that yours will expire after a week."

"Good advice, sure."

DicingDevil awkwardly mounted his strange horse-rooster, and told the others to follow him North. Six other DeathGang members who had been waiting with DicingDevil, with the lowest being level 45, were nearby and began summoning their Mounts to embark on the journey. Crucis, Akshel, and BlazeKey already had their Mounts summoned, so they rushed ahead to keep up with DicingDevil.

Though the path ahead was winding, Crucis found it fairly easy to negotiate. Due to his Mount's high Handling and Fine Motions stats, it responded to him like a typical video game Mount that was directed by a controller or keyboard, rather than resembling horseback riding. He could specify directions carefully, and found that the Mount adjusted naturally and immediately to his choice of direction across the winding path. It moved deliberately and in a controlled manner, with knees slightly bent, which allowed it to react without delay when Crucis had it change direction.

As he got the hang of riding the Mount, Crucis began to relax and move along the berms at the edge of the path, which separated it from trees on either side. His Mount gently stepped onto the berms while turning, like a racing car passing over curbs. He maintained a leisurely pace to allow the rest of the group to keep up, as did DicingDevil who rode in front of him. Most of the DeathGang Mounts were donkeys, mules, or sturdy tortoise-like Mounts, probably the cheapest. Crucis reflected that these DeathGang members probably got enough gold to afford their Mounts due to ganking players.

However, since DeathGang are territorial, eventually few players passed into DeathGang territory with many items in hand, and DeathGang did not actively seek out targets who weren't near their territory. Crucis wondered if the Hashin had flashy Mounts by now, since they were more nomadic and hunted like Crucis. If they had such Mounts, they seemingly insisted on not showing them, to keep up the image of a minimalistic group of wandering ronin-like Assassins. It's possible that the Hashin used fast Mounts for travel and moved on foot when finding targets. There were a few stories of players managing to flee the Hashin while on a Mount, but generally the Hashin would lay traps and ambushes carefully to snare their victims. Fast Mounts might help with getting into a position for such ambushes and attacks, so Crucis considered this a likely possibility.

"By the way, I was checking on the Mount key," said Akshel from a few metres behind, "it has the usual Summon and Unsummon options, but what's the Name option?"

"Um, you can name your Mount and treat it like a cutesy pet," smirked DicingDevil.

"Awesome! I'm naming mine 'Dame' or 'Fluffy.'" Crucis responded with mock-enthusiasm.

"Um, was that a joke?" Akshel said.

Crucis drew out his gold and silver key, and gazed at the red gem on it. Selecting the 'Name' function, he typed in the word 'Dao Dracului' and entered it. The name appeared in blue text above his Mount.

"Good name," said DicingDevil, "By the way, how do you pronounce the Mount's species?"

"It's a bit like 'sell offices,' I think. But I'm not sure, there might be other ways to pronounce it," Crucis replied.

A large, rocky hill was rising up in the distance in front of them, and DicingDevil pointed the group towards it. Crucis saw a large, gaping hole in the side of the hill, that seemed to lead underground. There was a pair of high, silver columns on either side of the hole, so Crucis guessed that it was the entrance to a dungeon.

The dungeon entrance soon revealed a large cavern, with magma-like fiery veins running through the rocky walls and lighting the cavern. This cavern seemed to lead into an underground path.

Two other players were exiting the dungeon covered in faint bruises and sweat, and Crucis guessed that they had come from Kruxol and hence evaded detection by DeathGang. Not so now.

"Intruders. I'll say hello," said DicingDevil simply, before rapidly riding towards the two players and unsheathing his sword. His Mount's rooster-like back legs couldn't accelerate easily as it attempted a slightly lopsided charge, and as he slashed awkwardly at the duo from atop his wobbling Mount, he managed to slash one across the face. Dismounting, DicingDevil expertly grappled this off-balance player across the face and placed a [Chokehold], then forced the player quickly to the ground. The player's friend, who Crucis saw was a level 41 female named [SamanthaYours], began to run away, much to DicingDevil's frustration.

However, Crucis had anticipated that DicingDevil wouldn't be able to deal with both players at once, and began to direct his Mount towards the fleeing SamanthaYours. As she stumbled on the rocky ground, Crucis slowed his Mount and hovered slowly a short distance behind her in order to tempt her into a reckless sprint. His Mount carefully crept across the terrain, occasionally swerving from side to side when Crucis saw SamanthaYours glancing around and contemplating making a break to the side.

Soon, SamanthaYours saw that the Mount was slowly closing the distance, and she would have to sprint and attempt to find cover within the distant trees to the West. However, as she set off, she soon tripped over a large stone to her right, which she had ignored in her haste and panic. She scrambled to her feet after a couple of seconds, however, and Crucis guessed that she was a dextrous Ranger. She wore a light, long green shirt, and carried a smallsword, so this seemed likely.

As she got up, she saw the long shadow of Crucis' accelerating Mount looming across her. As she turned around, Crucis' sword gave a firm [Slash] just below the back of her neck, and the brief hit to her spine caused her to flinch forwards slightly. As she tried to raise her sword and fight back, Crucis leaned out and grabbed her in a low [Chokehold] while the Mount slowed down slightly, and the Mount then began to gather pace and run straight in the direction that SamanthaYours was facing. Due to the chokehold; SamanthaYours felt herself being dragged forwards and helplessly fell as the Mount's motion dragged her on. She hovered briefly in the air, suffocating on Crucis' chokehold, but soon Crucis felt her falling too quickly for him to hold and he let her go.

She flew forwards and landed face-first on the ground, where she lay down choking on blood. As Crucis dismounted, he saw that SamanthaYours' face had become disfigured from the fall. Some black mist had begun to spread around the area, and she shivered slightly as she saw an array of jagged, sharp claws that appeared in the place of Crucis' hands. However, she knew that her partner; Dan, had told her to not give in to fear. Spurred on by anger and adrenaline, she flayed her sword towards the intruder, but her hand flared up in pain and her swing landed limply to the side.

She was surprised when Crucis simply reached out and caught her sword by the blade, using [Sword hold]. As she looked up at her assailant, she was horrified to see the face and hood of a shadowy, black King Cobra staring back at her from close up, rising above where Crucis' neck should be. The snake hissed with its teeth bared. She turned away instinctively.

With the accuracy boost from the [Nightmare] status, Crucis managed to land a [Lunge] which stabbed through the back of her neck at the top. Holding this in place with [Half-swording], he crouched down behind her as her neck involuntarily twitched from side to side while slumping to the ground. She had only 4% HP remaining. Crucis sprayed [Vile Toxin Gas] at her neck wound, then smiled as she contorted her neck trying to scream while barely conscious. She soon died.

Crucis saw that DicingDevil had rode up nearby.

"Thanks for taking care of that," said DicingDevil.

Crucis hopped back onto his Mount, and rode towards the large dungeon entrance. He noticed that his Mount had gained some EXP during the fight. While Non-Combat Mounts could not develop much, and gained EXP at a lower rate due to not fighting, they were able to grow by a maximum of 10 stat points, which would be distributed between their stats automatically by the game. Crucis guessed that, after he had accumulated enough EXP, one of the Mount's stats would increase by one point. He wasn't entirely sure how the game calculated which stat would increase, but he had heard that it was based on the game analysing the different ways you used your Mount. He would have to research this further.

The cave entrance towered high above the approaching party of players. At the entrance to the dungeon, he saw a sign saying 'Black Crescent Cave.'


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