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Crucis had found a [Rare Treasure Map] among the items dropped by the level 8 players, and inspected it carefully. The map displayed a rough sketch of Kruxol and the area West of Kruxol, and a few buildings in the abandoned farm were circled. Next to this map, there was another map which seemed to show an underground area near Kruxol, with an 'X' drawn in red in one corner of a sprawling maze of walls. Based on the common trope where 'X marks the spot,' Crucis guessed that the 'X' would contain the treasure which the map promised. The map's description said that he would have to consume the map to enter the area with treasure, meaning that he would only have one chance. This would mean that, if he died in there, he could not recover equipment or gold that he was carrying.

He wasn't sure how the two level 8 players had come upon one of these maps, since he had never heard of them being dropped by any low-level creatures. If they were drops from such creatures, then high-level players would still grind weak mobs around Kruxol for the maps. This did not happen, suggesting that there was no such way of getting the maps. Crucis shrugged slightly, and concluded that even if the maps didn't drop from weak mobs, he was lucky that they could drop from weak players.

Glancing at the map, he saw that most circled buildings - which he assumed were entrances to the underground area - were in the abandoned farm to the West of Kruxol. This might explain why the two level 8s hadn't yet attempted the quest. The path to the abandoned farm was somewhat unsafe now, because the farm's buildings were a good shelter for PKing Guilds to rest when they were red-named. For the level 8 players to go there alone would be dangerous, and even with their Guild's support it would be unsafe and could result in a tough fight. Due to this, Crucis guessed that it might also be difficult for him to enter.

He saw a couple of other buildings around Kruxol which were circled. The closest was a building within Kruxol. He thought it was slightly strange that there was an entrance within the town, that was much easier to reach than the ones out West. Nonetheless, it seemed like it was worth a try. When his name was no longer red, he decided to enter Kruxol before the players he had killed could tell Guild-mates to watch the area. He used [Stealth] to hide where he was coming from, and stepped onto the path towards Kruxol without attracting attention.

Once he was in Kruxol, he navigated swiftly to the building circled on the map, and found that it was a large royal building, with a red carpet running along the floor of a wide hallway. The grey walls were made of stone, and it seemed quite ancient. While at present it comprised only a hallway and a few rooms to each side, it seemed like it may have been the entryway to a larger castle or building that had been lost to time. To the sides of the hallway were a few banners and flags carrying the royal family's conventional emblem, a fiery yellow phoenix on a dark blue background, with a blue and grey shield behind the bird. This emblem generally marked a royal building, or one which was used for servants and emissaries of the monarchy.

As he tried to enter, he was interrupted by a guard. The guard checked that he was over level 10, and hence qualified to enter the building. After that, the guard further asked him to display an entry pass for the building. Since Crucis didn't have one, the guard pushed him away. He looked around, and saw that another player was looking angrily at the guard, so he turned to talk to this player.

"What entry pass do they mean?" asked Crucis.

"Oh, that. Yeah, I asked around," said the other player, a level 21 warrior wearing a green suit of armour, "The entry pass was apparently given to people who sent hefty donations to the company in charge of the game, there's no way of getting them from fights or quests. I was talking to someone who had outlined the various rewards for different tiers of donations, but he's gone now. It seems like some people were throwing money at this bugged game. Apparently they started soliciting the donations quite haphazardly and late. I hadn't actually heard much of these offers before getting the game, seemingly a lot were localised and the game company were targeting associates and groups or localities where they thought people were more likely to spend big amounts. The guards, needless to say, are just rude and don't explain any of this."

Crucis pondered this information for a moment, and said, "I see. By the way, is there any treasure map that is a part of these donation perks? I'm curious how some low-level players came upon that."

"Yeah, for a few larger donations there was a [Rare Treasure Map] and a [Unique Treasure Map] on offer. The latter is better, and gives a greater treasure. I think there's a couple of treasure chest entrances in this building, but I can't enter."

"OK, so what I've heard is that using a treasure map would extinguish it. Meaning, couldn't go back or reclaim your corpse if you died. If people did that, then how would they get a second chance to enter and reclaim their items? Otherwise, the treasure map would be something like a trap."

"Um, good question," said the warrior, hesitating for a few seconds. "Probably they'd have some option to purchase more of them if people needed to top-up. That sounds a bit like a common scheme, you get people to pay for entry, then pay for re-entry every time they die. There's quite a few players using things like the Treasure Maps now that we're trapped here, to try and get ahead."

Crucis laughed resignedly. "So we have group of players around here with a large headstart?"

"Not all of them have a headstart, some of the rewards were alcoholic. A few spent the last days getting drunk," quipped the warrior.

"Ah, excellent. Due to the various government regulations, I think games now tend to verify age before letting people drink in bars?"

"Yes. These VR games are tied up with the overall International Social Network system, where people each have IDs containing their age, name, etc. Since VR is already used for study spaces or for other things like exploring simulacra of famous landmarks, this basically ties all of the VR systems together. VR is very centralised, more than it seems. So alcohol is regulated carefully."

"Pity. I guess that if I want to hear five-year-olds screaming and howling, I'll have to PK them rather than hanging around a bar."

"Yes. To be honest, I'm not a fan of PKing. I get that it's a part of the game, but I'm not comfortable with it."

"How else can we get some of those fancy donation items while we're in here, though?"

"I guess we can't. But a lot of them are 'no-drop,' you can't obtain them even if you kill someone or loot a corpse."

Crucis laughed, and said, "Well, maybe the items are just no-drop if you don't shake the players hard enough! It never hurts to try."

"I guess that's a spirited way of looking at it. By the way, my name's Azrawl. It doesn't show clearly any more, right?"

"Yes, after the bug a lot of text was garbled -"

"Exactly. Anyway, I have to go. I have to run a few dungeons with my Guild. Take care."

Crucis checked his map as Azrawl left, and saw that there was another circled building just to the South of Kruxol. Entering the royal building in Kruxol would be futile, as guards would just kill him if he managed to get around them, but the other building might be more promising if it was as he remembered.

Running Southwards, he found a large, pyramidal building with a wall just to the South of Kruxol. Navigating his way around this wall, he saw two creatures named [Orc Guard], with red names. They were both level 300, meaning that the building was probably sealed off to most players. He saw a wizard NPC standing on the left side of the building, and walked up to talk.

"Welcome to the Temple of Ubsola. If you are a Mage, come here after you unlock your subclass, and you may use this Temple to further hone your skills and collect the rare spell scrolls within. If not, then the orcish guards will tell you to leave, and attack you if you do not comply. Further, the building contains many strong enemies, so be careful not to get trapped."

Thanking the wizard, Crucis frowned in slight frustration. It seemed like he wouldn't have much choice except to find some way to safely search the abandoned farm. However, he saw a level 30 Mage walking by. As he approached, the Mage smiled and said, "Hello. You're nearly at level 20, would you mind joining my party? I'm only at level 30, and the enemies in here are level 35 minimum, so I could use a bit of assistance. Since you're an Assassin, would you mind being a scout, and running ahead to check for enemies? If you warn me about them or run into them, then I'll know what to prepare for. I've heard that most enemies here are only difficult if they get the jump on you. I just need to obtain one item in here, it shouldn't be too difficult."

Crucis was slightly angry about the Mage's request, since he was basically suggesting that Crucis play a disposable scout and risk being ambushed by monsters just so that the Mage isn't surprised. It was like being a stick that someone pokes into a snake hole to determine whether there is a snake there. The Mage's tone was suitably derisive, treating Crucis as a potentially useful tool who could be thrown into harm's way. Crucis wondered if the Mage would follow up this request by asking Crucis to pick cotton on a plantation. However, Crucis had no other good way of entering the building, and decided that if he could tag along with this Mage then he would just have to find some way of slipping away to enter the underground area indicated by the treasure map. Due to this, he accepted with a nod and joined the Mage's party. The Mage introduced himself as Garulus, and told Crucis to follow behind him.

The Mage had set up the party so that only he received drops from enemy creatures. Since the Mage had no Guild and it was night-time, he hadn't been able to get other people along for the expedition at short notice, and needed to find a [Hidden Fire Tome] in order to continue his Pyromancer sub-class training. Crucis followed him to the Temple's entrance. The Mage talked to the guards, and they quickly agreed to let the Mage into the Temple along with his party. Once they were inside, Crucis saw that they had entered a large, dark room with wooden scaffolding along each wall, and saw a small raised book stand on the left side of the wall. That must be where he was supposed to place the map. The Mage, however, was instead leading Crucis towards a hole in the centre of the building, containing a small stairway downwards. It had a stone door encrusted with red gems, which was currently left open. This probably led to the area with monsters.

Crucis followed Garulus down the stairs. As they stepped into the long, cavernous tunnel below, the stone door slammed shut behind them. Garulus looked back with alarm. Since the entrance to this area had slammed shut, it must mean that there was another exit further down this path, Crucis surmised. However, if Crucis followed the Mage out of another exit, then he might emerge outside the Temple and have no way of using the Treasure Map. Further, since the Mage clearly intended to have Crucis run into risky situations to check what was there, Crucis might not even survive the journey. This meant that, if the Mage succeeded at this quest, it might be difficult for Crucis to safely find a way back to the Temple.

As they stepped forward across the stony underground path, their feet rang loudly against the cold, steely granite beneath them. Garulus paused and turned to Crucis to ask him to go ahead and check for any monsters. However, this was interrupted by the sound of a loud howling from deeper in the dark tunnel. Several scaly, large-mouthed creatures came hurtling through the tunnel, and Crucis could make out their red name, [Mutant Raptor]. He could make out four of them, all level 35. These fast creatures would be a tough fight.

Standing a few steps behind Garulus, Crucis saw that the Mage was preparing a powerful fire spell to unleash when the reptiles came close. However, Crucis realised that if the Mage was on the back foot against these creatures, it would be difficult for him to recover from their fast melee assault.

Crucis began looking at the left wall of the tunnel, taking small steps until he could see multiple renderings of the wall at once.

"I can hold off these lizards, but it would be a difficult fight. Please make yourself useful, and don't expect me to do everything," said Garulus.

Crucis hesitated for a moment, to let the reptiles close in, then swiftly used [Stunning Dagger] on Garulus's left shoulder to leave him paralysed and exposed to the reptiles. Using [Agile Step], Crucis leapt quickly into the left wall of the tunnel, and began to run backwards towards the stairs as he heard the reptiles begin pouring over Garulus in a vicious assault.

Looking back towards the fray, he saw that Garulus had shoved one of the reptiles away using [Mana Strike], but the incessant attacks of the reptiles left the Mage with little time to prepare powerful elemental magic spells. The creatures were clawing at Garulus and using their scaly, muscular skin to shove him forcefully to the ground, occasionally biting at him. Once the Mage was down to 30% HP, he finally managed to roll away and cast a powerful [Fire Shower] spell, which sent flames spurting up wildly in all directions and lighted the tunnel. One of the reptiles died, but the other three hesitantly kept going. However, the sound-and-light show of the spell had attracted some attention. Crucis saw a level 30 boss named [Agadzagadza] appear from a sideways path further down the tunnel. It was a reptile that looked like a more fierce and large version of the [Mutant Raptor], and its green-grey scaly skin oozed around its gaping mouth. It looked like a Dali-esque melting Tyrannosaurus Rex, with a touch of Edvard Munch's 'The Scream.'

The boss lunged at Garulus, and used an attack named [Venomous Bite]. As it bit into the Mage's right shoulder, the Mage let out a loud scream as his body convulsed in pain from the boss's venom. He looked violently sick. Crucis recalled that bosses could also cause pain due to the bug, not only players. This boss seemed like a bad enemy to face in such conditions. The boss gripped Garulus with its clawed hands, and slammed him screaming to the ground with an attack named [Burial]. As Garulus rolled around the floor of the tunnel screeching, Agadzagadza let out a guttural roar and used a skill named [Scale Cloth], wrapping its scaly arms around Garulus's throat and choking until the writhing Mage died.

Once the Mage died, Crucis bolted up through the wall towards the stone door of the tunnel, and slipped through this to end up back at the Temple. Breathing heavily, he crawled towards the book stand he had seen, and placed his [Rare Treasure Map] on it. He heard a loud noise as the floor beside him creaked open, revealing a path to another underground area.

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MOROSE

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