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    Asianovel

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    Chapter 83

    Who is he?

    After locking eyes with the brown ones, Aldous felt a tightness in his chest and instinctively averted his gaze.

    Strangely, he felt the red-haired youth looked incredibly familiar, as if he was a student at Miskatonic, but upon closer reflection, he couldn't recall any specific details about him in his memory.

    It was those eyes that exuded an odd sense of pressure, making Aldous unable to sustain eye contact.

    Aldous’s complexion changed, just about to turn and warn Alexis, when a wave of weakness emanated from deep within his body and soul – a side effect of casting spells.

    His eyelids began to droop uncontrollably, and in his last glimpse, Aldous vaguely saw the red-haired youth approaching him. For some reason, those brown eyes seemed to momentarily shift to a green hue.

    At the same time, a terrifying conjecture suddenly surfaced in his mind.

    Could it be...

    Unfortunately, Aldous couldn’t continue his thought as his consciousness plunged first into an abyss.

    ……

    "Aldous, hey Aldous!"

    Voices echoed in his ears as Aldous opened his eyes, with Alexis's old face coming into view.

    "Stop yelling, I'm still alive."

    "'You scared me,' Alexis sighed in relief. 'What happened to you? You suddenly became unresponsive. I thought I’d have to prepare for your funeral!'"

    "Aldous remained silent for a moment, then asked, 'How long was I out?'"

    "'Not too long, less than half an hour,' Alexis replied. 'After you fainted, many volunteers and students drained of magic also fell unconscious. Luckily, the anomaly disappeared, and those of us who could still move destroyed the ritual circle. The professors from the Department of Potions organized the students to take care of the injured and brought a lot of potions from a nearby research institute. Otherwise, you wouldn't have woken up so soon.'"

    "Indeed, after hearing this, Aldous realized his depleted body and spirit had significantly recovered. Although not fully restored, he could at least move around."

    "Struggling to sit up, he observed his surroundings. The active volunteers and students were tending to the injured from the operation. The redhead was also there, talking to the blonde-haired Albert."

    "'What was that spellcasting earlier? Didn’t you say it had severe side effects? You even mentioned death as another journey. I had even prepared my speech for your funeral,' the old man grumbled."

    "'I thought I was a goner too, but it seems I've got a second chance at life.'"

    "Alexis looked serious, 'Seriously, what happened?'"

    "'I don't know,' Aldous shook his head slightly, half-jokingly adding, 'Maybe the gods were in a good mood and overlooked my transgression?'"

    "Alexis looked incredulous, 'Do you think I’m stupid?'"

    "'Who knows,' Aldous shrugged, 'But it's true. I’m fine, aren’t I?'"

    "Alexis stared at him for a moment, 'Let's hope so.'"

    "'Let's go, I have something I need to verify,' Aldous said."

    "Aldous stood up, supporting each other with his old friend as they walked towards Albert and the red-haired boy in the center of the hall. Around them were the cultists who had earlier held hands in a circle. Now, they were reduced to mummies, their bodies completely dehydrated like those found under pyramids, eerily mummified."

    "The ritual marks on their skin had faded but were still recognizable to Aldous."

    "Part of the ritual was familiar to him, overlapping with his own research."

    "Aldous’s gaze focused on the silent Albert, and he sighed, 'Do you have anything to explain?'"

    "Alexis glanced perplexedly between Albert and Aldous, as if piecing things together, his expression turning grave, 'Aldous, are you saying...'"

    "Aldous remained silent, and Albert hung his head, 'I’m sorry, professor.'"

    "Although Albert had no choice at the time, his mission was to infiltrate Aldous's institute and obtain his research data."

    "In other words, his intentions had been impure from the start."

    "Especially after witnessing the near annihilation at Miskatonic University, Albert was overwhelmed with guilt."

    "'Answer my question, Albert,' Aldous continued sternly, 'Did you join the cult? Are you involved in all these attacks?'"

    "'I...' Albert, unable to speak, looked into Aldous’s pained eyes."

    "He had joined the foreigners for his undercover mission from the Bureau of Inspection, but the attack on Miskatonic was never part of the original plan with his Bureau contacts."

    "Yet, he was undeniably an accomplice in the current situation. Seeing the dead volunteers on the floor, Albert found it hard to claim his innocence."

    "Uncharacteristically, the old man spoke up for Albert, 'Aldous, calm down, look at the scars on his body.'"

    "Without hesitation, he pulled open Albert’s recently adjusted clothes, revealing bandages nearly covering his chest, stained with blood seepage. The scars, some fresh and others old, were numerous."

    "'If it weren’t for his desperate fighting, the casualties among the students and volunteers would have been much higher,' Alexis asserted, 'I don’t think a cult mole would go to such lengths.'"

    Amidst the onlookers, Len suddenly asked, "Senior Albert, have you ever given or shown your laboratory's documents to anyone else?"

    Albert had only shared the information with two parties. Under Len's intervention, he hadn't handed the complete and accurate data to the Stranger in this dream world but to...

    Wait a moment...

    At that instant, Albert realized something. His eyes widened slowly as his heart sank into an invisible abyss.

    ...the Audit Bureau.

    Only the Audit Bureau had access to such comprehensive data! Yet despite sending the intel, no investigator from the bureau had shown up so far.

    Ignoring the gazes around him, Albert promptly retrieved a peculiar communication device from his pocket. Upon seeing it, Aldrich and Alexis both raised their eyebrows, recognizing it instantly.

    Isn't this an Audit Bureau device?

    "…There's no signal," Albert muttered, staring blankly at the device issued by the bureau. The person who gave it to him had assured him that it would work anywhere on Earth.

    "Let me see that," Alexis said, taking the device from Albert's hand. "It's indeed from the Audit Bureau. Strange. This thing should have a signal even in the deepest of forests. While the bureau's researchers aren't exactly top-notch in the mystic field, they do possess some advanced technology."

    "Unless this is no longer Earth," Lane said softly, lifting his head suddenly.

    The others followed his gaze upward and saw the once-clear sky turning gradually gray. This wasn't a change in weather; instead, a faint mist had begun to spread from within the university grounds, unnoticed until now.

    Thirty minutes earlier, in the Players' chat channel:

    Barbara: Is anyone there?! Something huge has happened! Where are you all? Why isn't anyone responding to my mentions! Has the Druid team been completely wiped out? !

    Black Cat: I didn't get any replies when I mentioned everyone either. From the live stream, the battle seems intense on the Druids' side. What's happening at your end?

    Baba: It's best not to mention it. They were all caught, probably by some kind of hypnotic spell. Now, they can't access the forums, and it looks rather eerie.

    Black Cat: Then how come you're unharmed?

    Baba: This is a long story...

    Hilarious: Let me speak for him! I was an audience member in the "troublemaker's" live broadcast room at the time, and it was hilarious to the point of death.

    It's quite a laugh, but let's start from the moment you two went your separate ways.

    At the time, the players were divided into three groups. The druid and Lane went to the auditorium, the Black Cat accompanied the on-duty teacher to the administrative building, while the Mischievous Squad, along with the remaining players, stayed behind to guard the suspicious individuals and patrol the university campus.

    Since simply guarding people was too dull, the Mischievous Squad opted for the patrol task, which also allowed them to broadcast the layout of the Michigan University campus to their live stream viewers – a two-for-one deal.

    The patrol started smoothly. Though monotonous, the map of the university piqued everyone's interest. After surveying the area, they were almost certain that it was a well-developed map. Nightly boasted that the Michigan map would definitely be unlocked in the future; otherwise, with such an immense amount of work put into it, the programmers and artists would hang themselves at the dog planner's doorstep if it wasn't utilized in the game's storyline.

    The live stream audience agreed, but they found the continuous patrol boring. To prevent losing viewers, the Mischievous Squad naturally began to liven things up. Eventually, Babba, whose complexion was unusually fair that day, rolled a critical success for stealth and took the lead.

    Under the watchful eyes of the live stream viewers, Babba's conspicuous figure suddenly vanished – yes, just like that, right before everyone's eyes.

    "Grass, this isn't stealth at all; this is some kind of magic!"

    "Where has Baba moved to? Why can't I see him?"

    "Well, it seems I've sneaked into another dimension. How intriguing."

    The live stream chat was flooded with "Hahaha"s. Ye Ye and the others were laughing while playing hide-and-seek with BaBa, seemingly to test if someone with the Stealth roll could actually be found.

    It was at this precise moment that an unforeseen incident occurred. Nian Nian and the others, who were still searching for BaBa, suddenly froze. Under the gaze of the live-stream viewers, they turned expressionlessly toward a particular direction.

    The mist grew thicker, and amidst it, the sound of footsteps echoed softly and steadily.

    A familiar figure with snow-white hair appeared before the Team Diao Min. The moment he emerged, their live stream channel exploded with activity.

    "Blimey!"

    "The big boss just popped up out of nowhere!"

    "Not a single hint of preparation!"

    "Not a single worry in sight."

    "You simply appeared in my world like this."

    "That's enough from upstairs, I was already scared stiff, and now all my tension is gone thanks to these comments."

    "Sauron, oh god, you startled me badly!"

    "What boss is charging at us? Nian Nian, hurry up!"

    "Wait, don't you find it odd with the Unruly Squad?"

    Indeed, something was off with Night Night, not just with them, but also with all the surrounding players. In the face of a boss that had suddenly appeared out of thin air, none of them seemed to be on guard. Instead, they stood obediently in place, their expressions rigid and dull. With a wave of Sauron's hand, the players followed him docilely, blending into the ranks of the foreigners as they moved forward.

    "Holy crap, what happened to Night Night and the others?"

    "From the looks of it, could they have been enchanted?"

    "What is it, what is it? They've only just met?? No, to be precise, they haven't even seen the boss's face yet, right?! How did they end up completely defeated?"

    "Damn, why does it feel like Sauron is even stronger than before? Or is it because the players are using predefined cards, making them seem weaker?"

    "I'm not sure, but I'm terribly worried. Oh, by the way, where is Baba?"

    "Goodness, ha ha ha ha ha! Could it be that he was hypnotized in another dimension, and Sauron is unaware of it?"

    "Surely Fortune didn't smile that way, did it? Surely no one could be so unfortunate as to be hypnotized and then, because the boss couldn't locate them, they were forgotten in another dimension without receiving any orders? It can't be, right?"

    Baba: "You guys are too mean!"

    Back to reality.

    Player Channel

    Black Cat: So, you were really the sole survivor just because you were forgotten?

    Barbie: ...

    Black Cat: Hahahahaahahaahaha!

    Desiring Sleep: Ahahahahahaha!

    Baba: Stop laughing (facepalms) If not for me! You all wouldn't have known Sauron's location yet!

    Baba: Something like that. Tsk, I regained consciousness after they left for a distance. Now, I'm trailing behind them. The good news is that they don't seem to be in a hurry to eliminate players. Perhaps they have some use for us.

    Black Cat, having finished her laughter, returned to her usual self and continued analyzing the boss's motives: Considering what happened in Arkham City before, Sauron must need living sacrifices and players as stepping stones to activate the Dream Induction ritual. That's why they're keeping us alive. Luckily, we have Baba. Now that we know their whereabouts, we can act fast to stop them!

    Baba: Right, this dungeon has a time limit. Do you know when it ends exactly? Are we still within the timeframe? (hesitates)

    Black Cat: I couldn't figure it out either, but now I do.

    Black Cat: Look up at the sky.

    Barbara raises her head, looking puzzled at the heavens. "Huh... nothing unusual... wait, why is the moon so huge?"

    Black Cat: If nothing unexpected happens tonight, it should be a 'lunar eclipse.' I've already confirmed this with the on-duty teacher. Remember, in the Cthulhu universe, most major rituals are associated with unique celestial events. The Arkham ritual also took place during a lunar eclipse. The eclipse will begin at 5:45 PM.

    As soon as Black Cat finished speaking, all the players received a notification.

    "End of instance: 4:10:11"

    Baba: Plus, there are still three hours left.

    Black Cat: Think about it, that time probably indicates when the eclipse ends. It's already half past five now.

    Baba: Then we only have fifteen minutes left!

    Black Cat: Yeah, it's urgent. There's no time to meet up. Send me the coordinates, we'll head there separately!

    Players on Lane's side also received the notification. They had seen Black Cat's analysis on the player channel and cried out in unison, "Only 15 minutes left!"

    Aldis frowned. "What 15 minutes?"

    Lane, drenched in cold sweat, explained for the players, "Well, it seems that these cultists didn't come to Michigan University for revenge. The proof is that they've been drawing all sorts of arrays on campus. I think they're preparing for some sort of ritual, and isn't it best to perform such rituals during special celestial events?"

    "You mean the lunar eclipse tonight?" Aldis frowned. "That's indeed possible. The eclipse is about to start, but how do we know where they'll conduct their ritual? Michigan University is quite vast."

    At that moment, a Druid interjected, "One of our companions encountered Sauron earlier while patrolling. They're currently tailing him. I believe we should have a way to locate them."

    The druid spoke ambiguously, originally intending to mention that they could communicate through electronic devices, but those had just proven useless, unable to receive any signals.

    Indeed, it was better to be vague at this moment.

    Sure enough, given the urgency of the situation, the two professors didn't dwell on the matter. They merely nodded and said, "Then let's go."

    "Hmm?" The druid looked at them in surprise.

    "What's your reaction?"

    "Well, it's not like we can't handle it ourselves. We have our people there," the Druid tried to put it delicately. "It's too risky for you teachers to be leading the students into this. It'd be better if you organized their evacuation."

    Aldrich looked at him steadily, a flicker of confusion in his eyes. "If anyone should seek shelter, it should be you. This is MU, and it's our responsibility to protect our school. But you don't have that obligation."

    That was true.

    The Druid opened his mouth, seemingly at a loss for words, scratching his head.

    Come to think of it, it seemed this dungeon adhered to the rule of staying true to one's character card.

    It seemed that they had, indeed, utterly botched it.

    Would they be kicked out directly?

    The druid cautiously asked, "Is it not a valid reason to say that we admire Myrdal University and wish to attend this school?"

    "Certainly not," Alders replied with a stern expression.

    "Sob, sob, sob... No way, are they really going to expel someone?"

    "It's quite expected, actually. From their behavior earlier, I could tell. Although it was passionate and touching, it didn't really align with the logic of their original character cards. Most of them were just ordinary people; how many true altruistic saints would there be among them?"

    "Upstairs, one might need a reason to kill, but not to save."

    "Yes, doing good doesn't require logic. Even someone at the bottom rung of society has the right to spare a fraction of their living expenses, like five cents, to help someone poorer than themselves."

    "At the very least, you should give me your names and register for next year's entrance exam," Alders said, a smile tugging at his weathered face. "There are too many of you for me to write recommendation letters for all. But don't worry, our university has a special bonus system for students who have contributed to paranormal investigations or made exceptional contributions to Michigan University. I believe you all fit that criteria."

    The surrounding players were stunned, then burst into cheers.

    "Good gracious! I'm incredibly envious!"

    "I'm seething with jealousy (face contorted) Ahhhhh! Let me in! Or I'll turn into a vengeful spirit!!!"

    "Thus, let's set off and defend our school from those darn cultists!"

    "Ohhhhh yeahhhh!"

    "Charge, ahhhh!"

    Aldus's words ignited the passion within the players. The Druid even made a bold statement in his livestream: "After this battle, I'll be attending Michigan University! I'll stream my daily life there for you all."

    "Such an adorable streamer hhhhh, he's totally immersed!"

    "There's a sense of setting a flag with this declaration, isn't there?"

    "The Druid is like an old general on stage, adorned with flags all over."

    "Sigh, I almost feel bad reminding him that Michigan University is just an illusion."

    Whether players had simply forgotten or deliberately suppressed this fact, at least for this moment, the somewhat disheartened gamers, who had just completed the Auditorium dungeon, rallied their spirits and marched aggressively towards the coordinates Babar had provided.

    Of course, not all the Druids and students were to join the hunt; some remained behind to tend to the injured. Initially, Druid Drew had intended for the elderly professors, Alders and Alexis, to stay as well, considering their age and the fact that they were both injured and not at their peak condition. However, he couldn't persuade them against their determination and thus set off with them.

    Within the advancing group, Lann cast a subtle glance at Albert, the expressionless youth with vacant eyes.

    As for the adult version, for some unknown reason, it vanished without a trace after the auditorium duplicate ended. Perhaps it was being overly self-conscious about its previous behavior and didn't dare to meet him for the time being?

    Regardless, the other party would definitely make an appearance during the final showdown. As expected, the battle with Sauron was the last memory in Albert's recollection.

    It was also the key to whether Lane could alter the outcome of the Grand Mystery.

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