Standing at the end of the tunnel— the entrance to the dwarves' underground city—Joshua looked out across the distance and nodded.
Compared to the scattered residences around the Volcanic Lake back up above-ground, the city that had been built up within this colossal cavern looked much more like a place where dwarves lived and worked. He couldn't tell if the underground cavern had been naturally formed or deliberately excavated, but within there stood countless stone structures, lit up by so many glow-stone tubes that it was as bright as day all across the city, crowded with homes and meeting places. Further inside, the temple made for a magnificent sight, and next to it was a grand town hall. Of course, right at the very center of the city, unimaginably tall and constructed entirely from black steel, extending from the cavern floor up to the ceiling high above, was the Core Furnace.
Before he could observe further and make a more detailed analysis, a group of dwarves emerged from the city streets not far away, holding up flags as they approached the warrior's assembled company.
The first thing Joshua noticed was the figure being raised up in the middle of the group.
Wearing a steel circlet upon his head, it was an elderly dwarf, white of hair and beard, face and body covered with wrinkles—but it did nothing to conceal his sturdy frame, like a fortress of muscles stronger than steel. His eyes flashed with a golden light, like molten iron, and he carried himself with the imposing stature of a craggy mountain peak.
In that instant when their eyes met, Joshua's fists tightened, his whole body tensing for battle. In his eyes, everyone else present had been completely forgotten—only this formidable opponent before he was worthy of his attention.
Joshua could feel that this venerable dwarf—over a century old at least—compared to everyone else he'd met since his transition into this world, was a champion whose power was second only to the Supreme-tier Aragami and Nostradamus himself. Although the latter was tremendously powerful as a mage; when he wasn't channeling his magical power, he seemed nothing more than a kindly old man. The dwarf before him, meanwhile, radiated such an aura of intensity, there was no doubt at all that he was a dedicated warrior—with a hammer in hand, not only could he forge legendary weapons of war, he could also crush the flesh and bones of his enemies and hammer them flat.
At least Perfect Gold tier, perhaps even on the cusp of the Supreme tier. When this thought crossed his mind, Joshua smiled and advanced towards them.
For his part, the old dwarf known as Ironborn Moreila, the current head of the northern rune dwarves and Lord High Blacksmith, was similarly scrutinizing the warrior who was now steadily approaching. Golden eyes met with red, and the old dwarf, renowned for his fortitude and wisdom, found himself stroking his beard, musing to himself with some astonishment.
Upper Gold tier? What unexpected talent…
After all his long years, he was now only at the Upper Gold tier himself as well. Although he had begun to approach the Supreme Tier, as far as actual power was concerned, there was no real difference between himself and the young human before him.
Along with his astonishment, Moreila also couldn't help nodding his head appreciatively as he remembered something with a smile. In the memories of the old dwarf, there had surfaced a similar figure, with the same black hair and red eyes.
Old friend, so this is your descendant. Without realizing it, he seems to have already surpassed you… The ability of humans to improve constantly from one generation to the next—it is truly something outstanding.
He surmised that Joshua's power was the result of inheriting the power of Order as a Chaos Guardian.
Moreila turned his attention away from Joshua, but before he had the chance to examine the other knights, he caught sight of Ling on another horse nearby, and had another shock.
Divine Armament… hold on, this presence—it's different from the one I'd detected a few months back… it couldn't be, a second Divine Armament?!
Having forged the weapon-forms of Divine Armaments, Moreila was able to tell when a pact had been formed with a Divine Armament for the first time, but a second time… seeing as how, in all these years, not one person had ever succeeded in forming a pact with a second Divine Armament, his detection magic had not yet been designed to inform him of such an event. It was only at this moment that the old dwarf realized Joshua had successfully entered into a pact with two Divine Armaments.
Wait a minute, in that case—won't I have to craft another suit of armor? In appraising Joshua's power and his remarkable gifts, this thought suddenly popped up in Moreila's mind. [In accordance with the pact: for each Divine Armament, a suit of armor.]
At the same time, without allowing the other to finish his thoughts, Joshua closed the distance with long strides. The other dwarves hurried to get out of his way, in spite of themselves, so that the warrior could pass easily through their ranks. They could all sense that this human before them possessed tremendous power within himself, and there was something about his presence which frightened them, which was why none of the assembled dwarves dared to stand in Joshua's way.
Their behavior did not escape Moreila's notice. Shaking his head, he stepped forward to receive the warrior's approach directly.
Joshua stepped up before the old dwarf. He extended his hand, and the dwarf took it. Both of them exerted their immense physical strength at the same time, semi-transparent ripples of force racing outwards from where their hands met.
Having personally experienced his adversary's might, Joshua released his grip, the warrior smiling as he said, "Joshua van Radcliffe, count of Moldavia. I've been looking forward to meeting you, Master Moreila."
"I am Ironborn Moreila, current ruler of the rune dwarves. I'm just a blacksmith." As though he could still feel the intensity of force from their contact a moment ago, the old dwarf's expression was a touch grim, but then he shook his head, returning the smile.
"There's no need to be modest, Joshua. Your fame is already wide-spread here in the north—even all the way in the royal capital, you have no small amount of admirers. I'm sure that soon the whole empire, indeed the whole world, will know of how there appeared in the northern lands, during the mid-year, an invincible warrior who single-handedly broke the tides of Chaos and closed the dimensional door."
As the two of them exchanged these words, Moreila noticed Clyre, who had been standing off to the side all this while. As always, the wood-elf druid was wearing a hooded robe, hiding her face and long green hair. However, the dwarf's sharp eyesight had been finely honed over the years, and although he'd earlier been distracted by Joshua and Ling, now he noticed that something was amiss. Immediately his brow furrowed, and he exclaimed in surprise, "You… Clyre Windsong, you still live?!"
"You survived, Ironborn. Why wouldn't I?" the elf replied serenely, gently lowering her hood and taking a step forward. However, there was something sharp concealed in her tone.
… Sure enough, something was wrong.
Without asking, Joshua understood. There had to have been some leftover issues from the past between the two of them, and it might even have had some connection to his ancestor. He could figure out this much from the letter Moreila had sent to him.
Giving it a little thought, one could see, an Upper Gold-tier druid of Balance—what more a wood elf, more accustomed to the deep forests—for what reason would she have been so set on coming to the northern lands? The frozen wastes here were their least favorite kind of place. Even if it had been for the sake of purifying the land, Joshua found it hard to believe that someone as powerful and well-connected as Nostradamus couldn't have found a more suitable candidate.
It was clear now that whether it was about Clyre coming to the northern lands, or asking to join in the expedition to visit the dwarven settlement, there had been a deeper agenda behind it all.
At any rate, the mood had become darker in an instant—one might even say bitter. Joshua's knights weren't expected to have much to say during these meetings in any case; similarly, even if the dwarves accompanying Moreila failed to read the mood, at least they could tell that their leader was in a foul temper, and would therefore refrain from saying anything unbidden.
But ultimately Moreila was a dwarf with many years behind him, and wouldn't possibly allow such an awkward situation to persist. With a loud cough, the old dwarf abruptly cut off his exchange with Clyre, and turned to the warrior.
"Welcome to our underground home of Black Steel City. If you're not against the idea, would you eat the mid-day meal with us?"
Joshua had no objection to this, of course. "That would be fine," he replied with a nod.