"Master, I've just about reached my limit here…"
In the western section of the city, at the auxiliary mansion, in the second-floor bedroom.
Ling sat by the bedside, both hands holding onto the right hand of the silver-haired girl upon the bed. One could see a haze of dim silver-gray light flowing between their hands. With a sigh, the dark-haired golden-eyed young man creased his brow slightly, and softly whispered, "This energy residing inside my sister's body is too stubborn—I can't draw out that much of it; just this much is already all I can do."
"You can stop then, if that's the case. There's no need to push yourself."
Joshua stood at the doorway, leaning against the wall, his head turned towards the bed. "At least her condition really does seem to have improved. Not a bad job, Ling. Just be careful not to let yourself catch the same thing."
"Alright." Saying this in soft reply, Ling closed his eyes wearily and began to rest a little.
Joshua looked upon his two Divine Armaments and found himself nodding his head. Though Ying was yet fast asleep in bed, she did look to be somewhat better than before. At the very least, he could now see her expression had changed subtly, her face no longer the frozen mask it had been before.
Ling meanwhile, having not long ago found out about the condition of his so-called 'sister,' straight-away asked whether there was any way for him to help. Having formed the pact with him exactly for this purpose in the first place, the warrior obviously wouldn't turn him down. However, the fact of the matter was that the new pact was still only a recent thing. Having yet to fight alongside Joshua in any battles, nor gain even a single level, Ling's abilities were still a little lacking, so one couldn't expect too much of him yet.
He looked down at the red-and-black gem-stone in his hand. The steel-essence crystal was glimmering like a star, wreathed in Combat Aura. Joshua watched it solemnly.
"Steel-essence crystal… the mysterious power contained within, and the world it led me to see – was it real?" Muttering to himself, the warrior's eyes narrowed. "Or perhaps, that's the realm that lies beyond the dimensional rift? It feels different from what I remember from my previous life…"
Whatever the truth might be, there was one very real possibility: that oppressive sensation, and the feeling of impending doom, it truly did suggest a post-apocalyptic world—in essence, no different from the Mycroft continent he remembered from before, after it had been consumed by the Dark Abyss—filled with a complete and deathly stillness.
Shaking his head, Joshua decided not to think about it any further, and slipped the gem-stone back into his pocket. He turned to the young man and said, "Have a little rest for now, Ling. Later on, I'll fill you in on some more of what's been going on."
A few days later, in the magic communications circle on the second floor of the auxiliary mansion.
The last time Nostradamus paid him a visit, Joshua had requested the archmage of the Empire to set up a simple communications circle in this mansion. Considering how repairs to the liege's mansion would only be completed by the coming spring… in the meantime, the warrior could hardly keep running down to Cathedral of St Laurent to borrow the use of their communications circle—besides being a huge nuisance to old Artanis the priest, it would also be tremendously inconvenient for Joshua.
And so, Joshua was at the moment making contact with Nostradamus.
"… and that's the situation. The method you prescribed has indeed had an effect, albeit a small one."
The warrior spoke calmly. "I have also discovered something new. Ying's coma was caused by the power feedback from my ascension. This should have allowed her to begin her own Ascension as well—but the strange bit of steel-essence crystal she carried with her, it gave off some stagnant form of steel-essence energy which halted this process. Getting stuck in the middle of her ascension—I reckon that's probably the true reason behind Ying's coma."
"Is that so? Well, it's good that the method is working, very good news… as for the strange taint in that steel-essence crystal, I must say it's a pity—it's a rare material, and I myself have precious little of it."
Having passed on his congratulations to Joshua, the old mage on the other end of the connection was silent in thought for a while, before suggesting, "It would be another thing if we were talking about alchemical ingredients, but where these sorts of rare minerals are concerned, I would personally recommend you to make an inquiry with the rune dwarves in your domain. They possess the most comprehensive knowledge of such materials in the land, and should command a deep understanding of any kind of mineral—better, at least, than this old mage with no understanding of forging."
"As you say."
The dwarven clans produced the greatest master smiths and mineralogy experts in the world. The warrior nodded to himself as he thought further about this very reasonable suggestion, and decided to pay a visit to the dwarven settlement within the next few days, in the hopes of calling on that Lord High Blacksmith of the rune dwarves who often wrote to him: Master Moreila Ironborn.
"Well then," said Joshua, "Thank you so much for sharing your views on this matter."
"It was nothing." The old mage on the other end of the connection certainly sounded pleased. "I'm happy to have been of some service to a busy young man with much to do, like yourself."
After some further discussion about various other matters, Joshua terminated the connection and went to his study.
The study was sparsely furnished. It wasn't that Joshua was opposed to opulence; he simply couldn't be bothered to put up all the tiresome decorations and fixtures and so on. For now, seated atop the black pine-wood desk, there was a dark-haired young man attentively scanning through all sorts of paperwork with his golden eyes, handling all the affairs.
This child, Ling—he really puts one at ease.
Opening the door to see this, Joshua couldn't hold back a sudden gasp, and then sighed.
Ever since he'd entered into a pact with this young Divine Armament, he'd taken care of all the mundane work over the past few days, freeing Joshua from the tedious burden of administrative matters. This had allowed him to focus on his own daily training, the instruction of the other knights, and the upkeep of his personal garrison.
It had to be said that Ling's archive of knowledge was exceptionally comprehensive, and his abilities were comparable to that of seasoned administrative staff. As such, he could easily take care of all the internal affairs of the domain, with little fear that he might make a mistake somewhere.
Not only that, the youthful Divine Armament was also well-versed in all manner of esoteric knowledge. Even Joshua, who had been reborn into a second life in this world, often felt that in some of his poorer areas of study, he might well be inferior to his newly hired butler—the boy was like a walking encyclopedia and seemed to know everything.
Perfect at his work, skilled at cooking, quick with office work—he could even look after the horses!
Thinking about all this, the warrior couldn't help but sigh once more.
Just this morning, Black had thrown another inexplicable tantrum in the stables—but rather than Joshua, it had been Ling who calmed it down. What's more, he'd even created some special kind of feed for pacifying Black. All things considered, he seemed to be talented at everything.
"You're so wonderful, Ling. How can you know so much?" Joshua sighed, despite himself.
"As I've explained before, Master, my rate of synchronization with you was over 60%, whereas my sister only achieved 50%. Therefore, my elders—as well as the previous counts—poured whole volumes of specialized knowledge into my memory core, the better for me to assist my master with everyday matters… this is typically the case for every Divine Armament."
Shrugging his shoulders, Ling sighed as he looked through the documents in his hands. In the past few days, he'd found out about his master's legendary exploits over the recent months. "Perhaps when Master heard about the previous count's passing, the resulting emotional turmoil caused a shift in the synchronization rate? After all, who can avoid the changes in mood which follow the whims of our hearts?"
Flipping through another page, he said in reminder, "That's right, Master. There's a message here from the dwarves. They say that the armor they wish to present to you is just about finished, and if it pleases you, they could deliver it in a few days' time."
"Oh? Is that right… what a lovely coincidence." Joshua's expression was one of surprise, but then he said with a laugh, "Very well, I had also been planning to pay them a visit some days from now… no need for them to deliver it, I'll go pick it up myself. Ling, please draft a reply to them."
Going to the dwarves' territory was not something to be done immediately. In truth, there were many issues which needed seeing to at the moment.
The region where the dwarves had settled was in the southern Ajax mountains, closely located to a subterranean well of lava. They made their homes underground among the rock and earth, tapping the energy of molten magma to power runic devices and forge weapons. Although located within the borders of Moldavia, it was no easy trip to make. Even seasoned tourists and thrill-seekers would have to hike past quite a few foot-hills before reaching the dwarven settlement, and it was not a feat for the ill-prepared.
In addition, this being a courtesy call, he would have to bring a gift—fine wines and quality ores, for example, would surely be expected… just as neither would be easily portable.
Of course, assembling these items would not actually require any action on the part of Count Joshua.
Two days later, everything had been prepared, down to the last detail. However, just as Joshua was about to gather everyone and make the final preparations for departure, he was suddenly informed of Clyre's arrival.
Naturally, Joshua wouldn't send her away. He received the green-haired elf in the parlor.
This day, Clyre Windsong was wearing a purple woolen coat, looking nothing like the druids legends described as being one with nature, and more like a fashionable young lady from the capital.
Her features were marked with exhaustion. The warrior knew that Clyre had been restless of late, constantly trekking through the surrounding lands, inspecting the soil and taking samples, and conducting various specialized tests. Joshua had thought this would continue until she began to cleanse the earth itself, and hadn't expected that the elven beauty would come to him today, asking to join in his expedition to see the dwarves.
"My lady Clyre, what about your work of purification?"
Joshua wasn't trying to insinuate anything, he was merely pointing out the issue.
"By spring, if we haven't resolved the problem of Chaos pollution, the farmers will be unable to plant their fields—though I'm sure this wasn't your intention, coming here."
"It won't be a problem—I've already taken care of everything."
The elven druid did not seem the talkative type. In response to Joshua's inquiry, she replied simply, "I've planted the seeds of sun vines in the surrounding region. I've made special modifications to them, based on the information I've collected about the soil in this area. These plants will absorb the sun's energy and use it to maintain the environmental balance, as well as cleansing any taint of Chaos nearby… following that, we'll only have to re-plant everything."
"So that's how it is." Joshua nodded in understanding. He was, of course, familiar with sun vines: a magical plant, originally used to absorb sunlight in order to dispel negative energy. He'd never imagined that such a plain and ordinary thing—probably the cheapest magical plant one could find—after being altered by this elder druid, could serve to purify the energies of Chaos.
The power of magic was truly astounding.
In light of this development, there should be no problems. Joshua promptly responded, "Great. In that case, you may join in my expedition, and follow along with us to the dwarven settlement."
Since the problem of Chaos energies had been dealt with, bringing her along would pose no problem; if anything, having an Upper Gold-tier druid accompanying them was hardly a bad thing. Even if they turned her down, she'd find her own way there anyway—so there was no reason to refuse.
"… You agree?" saying this after a pause, Clyre seemed somewhat taken aback. It didn't appear to be some kind of act—she was genuinely shocked. "I thought you'd refuse, or maybe we'd have to negotiate for a long while; I never expected it to be so easy…"
"Why would you expect me to refuse?" Now Joshua was the one puzzled by her words. "You're free to do as you please, even if you hadn't completed your purification work. For a Gold-tier druid like yourself, even if you wanted to travel to the dwarven settlement on your own, it would hardly pose a problem for you. Especially considering that you've already fulfilled your responsibility—for what reason would I turn down your request?"
"Maybe… because of how you look?" Clyre tilted her head slightly, and calmly added, "You've always looked like a fierce, unapproachable sort of guy."
"How I look… See here, Clyre, I never thought an elf would judge someone by appearances!" Choking with disbelief, Joshua now felt he needed to explain himself a little. Furrowing his brow, he sternly declared, "Although I may not look like a good person—unkind even—the truth is that I'm very sociable, and I generally oblige anyone who comes to me for help… What do you mean 'because of how I look'?!"
Holding a hand up to her face—perhaps to hide what might be a smile—the green-haired elf turned away, and said no more in reply.
The next day.
Perhaps it was a side effect of living in the coldest climates—the Northerners either demonstrated a temper like fire, or the sloth of a bear. Nevertheless, under Joshua's command, all preparations had been completed.
Starfall Year 832, the 24th day of the 2nd month, morning.
In the ice fields just outside the city.
Twenty knights in full battle dress sat silently upon their mounts, their backs straight as they held themselves upright against the flying snow, frost forming a thin layer upon their gleaming armor. Polished to a shine, their spearheads shone golden as they pointed towards the sky. Their formation was neat and tidy, not a single detail out of place.
Joshua rode upon a tall black steed, patrolling back and forth before the assembled knights, while at his sides were Clyre and Ling, each mounted upon their own horse. The warrior observed the immaculate formation before him and nodded his head with satisfaction.
"I won't say too much." Invoking his Combat Aura to amplify his voice, Joshua's words cut through the howling gale and boomed across the frozen field. "Knights, we are about to set forth for the home of the dwarves—one of humanity's greatest allies. There, you will be seen as representatives of Moldavia's count—that's me, Joshua. You will be defending nothing less than my dignity, as well as the glory of all human-kind. As such, please be very, very careful to mind yourselves well. If you could maintain as good an image as you're presenting right now, that would be really great!"
"Yes, sir!" the knights immediately roared in response, twenty voices in perfect unison, as deep and implacable as rolling thunder. They seemed beside themselves with enthusiasm, as though they'd been eagerly anticipating this trip to the dwarven lands.
"Excellent." Joshua looked up at the gloomy sky. The snow was lessening, and it was no longer so cold that your breath would instantly turn to mist, for now. Winter had mostly gone by, and soon the first shoots would be poking out of the ground as life returned to the land.
Obeying his command, knights and warhorses stepped forward as one. Hooves crunching through frost and kicking up snowy ground, they sped off towards their destination.