Chapter 1086 New Orders
Halfway between one of the many tributaries of the Lumyst River and the fortified camp they had come from, a dozen corpses of men, aliens, and beasts lay strewn on the ground. The blood seeping from their wounds was still warm, indicating they had met their end only moments before.
Among the fallen were a massive mutant lioness and an elderly yet athletic and good-looking pair of goblins: Sarabi, Xort, and Niss. The others were unknown Players from their regiment, with whom they had bonded in the past few days.
Unlike the other slaughtered Players, these souls had been extinguished in both body and spirit. Even if Jake were present, he couldn't have brought them back. And even if he had managed to, they'd just be hollow shells...
Standing motionless amidst the bloodbath, two mismatched individuals reluctantly tore their gaze away from their grim handiwork when they received a communication request on their wristbands. Unlike their foes' Oracle System, theirs was working perfectly.
Upon accepting the call, a towering hologram of a faceless alien android appeared before them, asserting its dominance. Aside from its lengthy articulated arms, a prominent steel horn extending from the top of its head gave it an oddly conical appearance.
"Doomhorn? Why are you contacting us so soon? The operation has just started," an alien, whose body seemed to be made of liquid mercury, snapped impatiently.
As it berated the holographic robot, its body divided into numerous large mercury slugs, which then attached themselves to the faces of the dozen victims lying at their feet. A heartbeat later, they detached, much like leeches recoiling from salt.
Whatever they had intended to do seemed to have failed. But in the next moment, the mercury blobs started to shift, then expand, perfectly mimicking the appearances of the corpses they had just latched onto.
Unruffled by the criticism, the android patiently observed the unsettling display, then calmly announced,
"Quilo, we've hit an unexpected snag."
Doomhorn relayed what his scout-robots had just informed him of, and, unsurprisingly, their shocked responses came pouring in.
"What?! Someone's slaughtering our Players by the thousands?"
"This someone is reviving everyone we kill? You're pulling our leg, right?"
The alien Quilo—or rather, the thirteen alien Quilos, now including a lioness and two goblins—had lost their earlier disdain. No longer in the mood to mock the steel-coned being, they growled in perfect unison, deeply serious,
"Doomhorn... What are our new orders?"
In response to his question, a second hologram showcasing a hooded man, dressed in black like an assassin and armed with twin scimitars, materialized before them. Had Hephais been able to see this hologram, he would've surely found its look familiar… After all, it was none other than himself.
"This is your next target," the android continued in its robotic tone. "The two of you will need to ambush the target at the coordinates I just shared. Based on his past movements, both my calculations and the Oracle Path of Mind Weaver Weiss predict with 100% certainty that his next victims will be there. Sadly, His Holiness is tied up with another mission and cannot handle this herself."
"Coordinate with the Players targeted by the enemy to eliminate him before he succeeds."
Quilo and his comrade checked the geolocation of their allies and their expressions shifted,
"That's Ezlao and Torak's squad operating over there," Quilo frowned, speaking up once more before his companion. "If I'm not mistaken, Ezlao is a Rank 15 Player and Torak is Rank 14, but that's only because he's an idiot and can't seize opportunities when they present themselves. Doomhorn, are you sure you aren't overestimating this target?"
The android didn't respond right away this time. After a brief pause where its blinking pupils seemed immersed in complex computations, it solemnly revealed,
"Actually, we fear we might have underestimated him. Something's off with this human. Some of his feats don't match the data our scans picked up about him. To counter any unexpected surprises, Lord Ooom, Glutton, and Iaoth will also join you there. They might be running a bit late, so you'll have to manage without them for a while. Good luck…"
The hologram vanished as abruptly as it had appeared, its ambiguous final words leaving the duo in a complex mood. Why did it feel, from its tone, like the two of them, powerful and feared Rank 15 Players, were about to be toast? Wasn't this damn Mechoid supposed to be as emotionless as a flatlined EKG?
"Even Iaoth is being deployed..." Quilo's shoulders slumped as he realized the heavy implications behind that.
Lord Ooom was the right hand of Mind Weaver Weiss, Glutton a terrifying and cruel beast serving Titan of Vrax Kaelum, while Iaoth served Bipolar Seer Shadrex. While the three they served were indeed Rank 17 Oracle Knights, they themselves were not to be underestimated.
Because all three of them were also Rank 16 Players. As for Iaoth, he was by far the most formidable among them. If it weren't for his lack of drive, he might well have been a Rank 17 Oracle Knight himself.
"Let's move, Quilo..." The Player who had been silent throughout the briefing finally spoke, his golden eyes shimmering like twin plasma orbs in the dark. "Let's take this bastard down. I have a feeling we're in for some fun..."
Hephais, unaware of the nasty surprise his enemies had in store for him, was currently speeding through the massive web of shadows that interconnected almost the entire continent, illuminated by the moon's reflection. The only times he had to emerge from these shadows were when another tributary of the Lumyst River blocked his path; no shadows reflected on the water.
If he had access to his full power, he would have simply generated extra shadows to bridge the gap, or teleported directly to the next one. But right now, even moving within existing shadows drained him significantly. If his stats weren't so high, he'd have had to take breaks. For this reason, he was careful not to move at full speed, always maintaining his physical condition at its peak.
Like many times in the past few minutes, the assassin was halted by yet another watercourse. He swiftly scanned his surroundings with an Oracle Scan before emerging. Even though the Oracle System was malfunctioning, he could still use his own Aether to access the built-in functions of his bracelet.
[Six Players attacked 3 hours from our position. 56 kilometers.] His Oracle AI swiftly reported.
"Thanks, Krea. On it."
Hephais didn't ask for specifics about his enemies and dashed straight in the indicated direction. This was because every enemy Player he'd encountered seemed immune to mental probing. Oracle Scans weren't exactly like mental sensing, but they were similar enough.
Most likely, they had a powerful psychist backing them. But so far, knock on wood, he hadn't crossed paths with this individual. Not that he was afraid; quite the opposite. His pragmatic mind churned with anticipation thinking about how proactively eliminating such a Player would boost their overall victory.
'For some reason they can't detect Jake,' the Egaean recalled as he finally sensed the Aether signatures of Players battling it out using his mental sense.
Ever since he began rescuing folks, he had been ambushed several times. Yet Jake, whom he couldn't see but knew was right behind him, was completely ignored.
'I guess I'm the bait then. So be it...' Hephais lampooned with a wry smile.
Usually, it was the other way around. An assassin wasn't meant to be on the front lines.
When he finally reached the battlefield, a sense of irreversible resignation washed over him. Of the six Players he intended to save, only two were still breathing: a battered man and woman.
He didn't recognize the woman, but a taken aback brow lifted as he identified the man under attack. He was the first that Jake and he had seen swimming in the Lumyst River and surviving it twice.
His heterochromatic eyes, one icy blue and the other blood-red, were hard to forget. Moreover, he was still bare and weaponless after losing all his equipment in his last dip. Right now, he probably rue that last swim with every fiber of his being.
The duo had been brutally tortured, all four limbs torn off, bled nearly dry. Their blood mixed with that of other corpses, forming a murky pool blending sand, soil, blood, and other fluids.
The fact they were still alive was miraculous. But seeing the overwhelming fluctuations, resembling to violent waves, from their opponents, Hephais displayed genuine confusion.
'Something's off, they should be dead by now.'