The strange energy contained within the steel-essence crystal twisted into a vortex, sucking in stray energy from its surroundings. Within the magic resonance detector, it drank in the torrent of energy flowing directly from the core of the black-steel furnace. In the blink of an eye, its form fully matured into a strange, dark gray void, ripples running outwards from it as it warped space and time around it.
The extraordinary nature of this energy inhibited Joshua's reactions – otherwise, with his speed, he could have pulled himself free from the grasp of the gray fog. The Gold-tier warrior could hold his own in supersonic-speed combat, his reaction time far beyond the imaginations of most of the living things in this world—the same could be said of the old dwarf, as well.
Nevertheless, he suffered from its effects—and before the rapidly whirling gray fog, even a moment's pause made all the difference.
The fog churned, and once it had engulfed Joshua and the others, the dimensional distortions grew even stronger. The warrior felt the familiar twisting sensation of traveling through a portal, nausea overtaking him as the whole world turned upside-down, but forcefully he suppressed it. Joshua strained to keep his mind clear, and in a blur, he saw himself passing across the space between worlds.
You got to be kidding me!
To be able to transport three Gold-tier champions in an instant, such power… Joshua only had the time for this one thought to flash through his mind, and then the overwhelming strain plunged his mind into darkness.
He couldn't think anymore.
The magic resonance detector continued its operation, the red indicator light on top flashing more and more insistently. The air was filled with an ear-piercing wail as warning alarms went off, the whole machine clattering violently. Thick smoke poured out from the costly alchemical device, and then—as was the ultimate fate of all goblin-made creations—it exploded.
Immeasurable energy ravaged the entire smithy, white-hot flames incinerating everything. It was a good thing that the old dwarf mainly kept steel items in here, so nothing was really damaged in this explosion, but the unexpected blast obviously shocked all the other dwarves around the Core Furnace—a whole bunch of guards hastily hurried over, and when they discovered no one inside Moreila's personal smithy, they dispersed the smoke and then immediately called upon the higher authorities to come investigate.
They didn't themselves have the authority to intrude upon the personal quarters of the Lord High Blacksmith.
Receiving a secret report from the guards, Moreila's eldest son Tanya rushed over from the town hall. Earlier he had been handling administrative matters and allocating resources, but upon hearing about the explosion in his father's smithy, he put everything down and came to see what had happened.
"Have you managed to make contact with my father?" he asked the guard beside him.
"I'm afraid not. After Master Moreila and that human count entered the Core Furnace, no one else reported seeing them again," the guard answered truthfully.
"Then the human count and his company have all disappeared as well?"
"No, his knights are still in the city; but the elven druid and the young man with the black hair are nowhere to be found."
"… What in the world happened?" Brow furrowed, Tanya's expression was one of confusion, all kinds of possibilities swirling through his mind: could this be a plot against the rune dwarves? A human conspiracy to destroy the Core Furnace, or to kidnap Master Moreila? But Tanya was no fool—he clearly knew that the human count named Joshua had been regularly exchanging letters with his father—and the two of them were close, as could be seen during the feast. His father had even had a suit of enchanted armor of the highest quality specially made for Joshua.
Truth be told, the rune dwarves were one of the greatest powers supporting the Radcliffe family. Their fates were tied to each other. How could the human count possibly perform such a self-destructive act of folly?
"What should we do, my Lord? We've already used our magic circles of detection to scan the entire Core Furnace, as well as the whole city—the magic revealed no trace of any Gold-tier presence!"
The guard appeared to have no idea what to do, in the face of such unusual circumstances, so he could only impart what he knew to Tanya. "We've already determined that the source of the explosion was that goblin-made magic resonance detector. Its energy overloaded, causing the scanning crystals at its core to superheat and explode."
"You just can't rely on those goblin contraptions!" Stroking his beard in agitation, the metal discs clanging together. Tanya thought for a while, finally shaking his head and saying, "Cover it up for now… Tell everyone that my father and the human count are deep in negotiations about issues regarding co-operation between both sides, and it's expected to take a substantial amount of time… for now, let's say three days."
"Yes, my Lord!" Having received these orders, the dwarven guard set off immediately to perform the assigned tasks, while Tanya strode into Moreila's smithy.
"… Eh?" he muttered in bewilderment, after looking around for a moment. "That's strange, isn't this the box dad was keeping the human count's armor in? How come the armor's missing…"
The large iron box was completely empty. All around there lay the burnt tatters of quite a few blueprints, and looking upon them he felt as though he could still see the detailed designs that had been drawn upon them, now lost.
Tanya turned his head to look at what remained of the magic resonance detector.
Thick black smoke was still fuming from the wreckage—although this meant little to a dwarf, used to handling blazing fires and magma. He walked up to it, closely examining the residual materials within.
However, other than a featureless pile of ashes, there was nothing else he could find.
"This is a disaster… the old man and that human count—where could they have run off to?!" Tanya muttered in bewilderment, rubbing the fine ash between his fingers. But then he gritted his teeth and vehemently declared, "This won't do at all! If we were to notify the Emperor… the head of the Guardian family and the leader of the northern dwarves gone missing together, it's enough to throw the empire into an uproar—I can't imagine His Royal Majesty would have nothing to say about this!"
While the dwarves were scrambling about trying to figure out how to respond to the crisis… in the expanse between worlds, Joshua had meanwhile regained his senses.
At the moment, he could feel himself floating through an indescribably odd space. Ling was holding onto his hand, and he also detected the presence of the old dwarf and the elven druid just nearby—all of the others had still yet to awaken.
Joshua exerted his innate Combat Aura to propel his body through the void, grasping hold of Moreila and Clyre so he could gather everyone together. In these circumstances, it was best not to get separated—it would be important to conserve every precious little bit of energy.
Just as he was tying everyone to himself, a wave of Chaos rushed out from the depths of the darkness, sending them flying. Right at this time, a faint ray of light appeared at the limit of Joshua's vision, and he summoned all the Combat Aura he was able to, sending them along a path towards the flickering light.
The Chaos wave threatened to carry them astray, while that tiny point of light rapidly grew into a gaping portal. In a single instant, Joshua brought the other three through the portal with him, and arrived at the other side.
There was a great crash, shockwaves sending violent gales racing across the land, and a cloud of dust rolled through the desolate wasteland. In this billowing dust storm, Joshua slowly got to his feet. After the shock of the collision, the other three people around him were gradually coming to as well.
Since they weren't dead, the warrior couldn't spare the time to inspect their condition—with brows furrowed, Joshua walked out of the crater formed by their impact, wasting no time to check out his surroundings.
It was a world filled with gray fog. The only thing clearly in view at the moment was a broad, flat plain around him. The sky was hung with thick clouds, shrouding everything in darkness. There were only scattered rays of light here and there throughout the world, although he couldn't tell where the light was coming from—besides that, there was no other form of illumination at all to be seen.
"Just like the place I saw in my vision…" Joshua muttered to himself. He didn't know why—although they had obviously arrived in a totally unknown and dangerous land, there was no hint of panic in his heart – instead he felt a calm serenity, as though everything was happening as it should.
He'd never known regret, nor confused himself by overthinking things needlessly. Now that they found themselves in unfamiliar territory, the first thing they needed to do was survey the surrounding area, as well as take stock of companions and inventory.
Looking back he saw that, with a groan of pain, the old dwarf was climbing haltingly to his feet inside the crater, while Clyre was still kneeling on the ground, holding her forehead, her long emerald hair dishevelled. Nearby, Ling had opened his golden eyes, looking around in a daze.
The situation could be worse; no one was hurt.
The strange thing was, right in between the three of them, there was a large black object. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be the suit of armor tailor-made for Joshua by Moreila, which for some reason had traveled here together with them.
"… Not bad."
Opting not to fuss over why the armor had come along—since knowing the answer was unlikely to help with the present situation —Joshua nodded his head with satisfaction, and turned to look out upon the haze of Chaos energy that hung over the darkened land in the distance.
He had a weapon, armor, and companions—he had everything he needed.
As long as he had these, there was nothing to worry about.