Joshua raised his head.
His gaze pierced through the gray fog, all the way to the black canopy of night in the distance. There, emerald-green lightning rampaged about with a terrible fury, bursting into jagged streaks of light across the sky. Soon after, the rumbling of thunder came rolling in, and the lightning gradually became fainter, until it was gone completely.
But that was not the end of it.
Accompanied by a soft fluttering sound, a sudden gale rose up. Billowing around in spiraling gusts, it drew up great torrents of dust and sand, and formed into a massive curtain of rippling wind. The gray fog, which lay upon the earth like a blanket, was consumed by this tempest as well, flowing up into streamers that hung suspended in the air.
With the fog dispersed, the field of vision momentarily became clear.
Fierce winds swept across the plain, and a small group of people standing on the outskirts was buffeted by stray gusts, their hair flowing in the wind. Though pre-occupied by the decline in her powers, Clyre couldn't help lifting her gaze up to take a look—and what she saw, high in the heavens, was a roiling black sky, as of a whirlwind.
In an instant, the land was caught in the grip of a bitter chill. Although never to boast a warm climate in any case, at present the biting cold had surpassed even the most frigid winters in its history. The ground was covered with a sheet of frost, snowflakes forming out of the empty air. In the space of but a few breaths, the dusty gray plain was rendered all in white.
A normal person should have frozen to death instantly. Fortunately, here were three Gold-tier champions, bearing a weapon with a property to resist the elements. Although she was somewhat diminished in power, owing to the loss of her connection with nature, Clyre had no need to fear even such extreme temperatures.
The chaotic disturbances elsewhere had brought storms and blizzards. Looking out to the far horizon, everyone could see there had appeared the dark column of a tornado, and it came driving rain.
Strange notes rang clear through the air. The furious downpour of rain continued to race ever closer, the storm rapidly spreading outwards to where they stood. Stunned and staring, Moreila saw countless translucent shards of crystal, gleaming silver-white as they hurtled down through the sky, like droplets of rain.
The old dwarf, relying solely on his sight, was able to discern the true nature of these crystals, and his beard was quivering with shock. Shaping his Combat Aura in a sweep of crimson-and-gold to ward off the shower of crystals, he reached out and caught a single crystal with an enormous hand. The silver gem glittered with scintillating rays of light, an aura of purest power radiating from it, so strong that Moreila found it hard to draw breath. "So much?! Such a precious material—to think, to think that it would now be falling from the sky like rain…"
He was being careless with his words. Though he was supposedly the Lord High Blacksmith of the rune dwarves of the north, he had never once spoken so freely before. Having said that, Moreila seemed to recall something, and the old dwarf cast about in all directions, murmuring to himself, "Legends say, at a time when the world is on the brink between rebirth and destruction, only then will large amounts of wandering steel-essence energy condense into crystal form… could it be that now is such a time?"
"This sure doesn't look like any scene of rebirth."
Clyre made this quiet comment from the side, emerald-green magic woven into a trellis of illusory brambles to shelter her from the onslaught of the crystal storm. The elven druid appeared to be less than pleased. "It should be terribly obvious that the world is on the verge of ruin, hence all these odd events. This would also be the only possible explanation as to why I can't detect even the slightest smidgen of primal energy."
Primal energy, which is drawn from the energy contained within all living things, is similar to the life-force within one's body, yet not exactly the same thing. It exists between Combat Aura and magic, and it is the force which drives the creation of new life in nature. This energy can be tapped in order to perform all manner of wonders: the druid relied upon it to promote plant growth, alter creatures and plants, and produce better seeds and offspring.
Generally speaking, where there exists an eco-system, there should be primal energy— however, Clyre could no longer feel its call. It was enough to demonstrate that this world had already perished, without a trace of life remaining.
Meanwhile, Joshua let the storm of shards wash over him, allowing the solid gemstones to pelt his body, clattering with the impacts. Hiding in his shadow, scarlet light had been formed into a screen to shield Ling from the crystals crashing down from high above.
Reaching out, he caught one of the falling crystals. With his finely honed senses, Joshua could tell that the surrounding fog had completely dissipated, and that he was recovering from his condition of declining internal energy. He also noticed that as time went by, whether it was the crystals that had fallen to the ground, or the one that he held in his hand, they were all swiftly turning red and black. In the end, they would all be just like that crystal he had previously found on Ying.
Of course, Moreila and Clyre didn't miss this detail either, and even Ling turned anxiously to the warrior. Joshua nodded his head, saying, "Indeed it is the same sensation. Looks like that bit of steel-essence crystal we inspected last time is about to be reflected in every drop of this storm."
Saying so, he then resumed looking up into the distance.
The dark clouds upon the horizon continued to roil, the lightning flickering ceaselessly while the tornado danced on.
Over there, that's the source from which this crystal rain spreads, and besides… exactly what has happened?
Joshua was puzzled. The current situation was well beyond his domain of experience. Even when he'd fallen into the abyss at the end of Chaos, that place had been nothing like this world. Faced with such a circumstance, he decided to access the system in the hope that it would help him figure out just what was going on.
Opening the system, he was immediately flooded with notices.
[You have entered the Apocalyptic Realm: the Famine of Karlis]
[This world is suitable for human habitation, additional survival measures will not be required.]
[Warning: This world is being consumed by Chaos! Extreme danger!]
[Warning: This world is facing imminent destruction! Extreme danger!]
[Summary: Karlis was a magical realm of some former glory, giving rise to a great and magnificent civilization. However, in some cataclysm that took place over a millennium ago, this civilization was extinguished, and the world began to descend towards oblivion.]
[Condition: Chaos Corruption: The spirit of Chaos consumes you, weakening your body and senses, and reducing all your attributes by one level. (Due to your special ability 'Unkindled Flame', you are not affected by this condition.)
… a final breath before withering away.]
[Condition: Mana Drain: The surrounding low-energy environment affects your powers, temporarily diminishing your magic, Combat Aura, and various special abilities.
… imprisoned in a mundane world without magic, this would be the ultimate torture for a champion.]
[Condition: Lightless World: The land has been burnt to ash, with neither a single soul nor any trace of life remaining. You are haunted by an unimaginable sense of loneliness and solitude, and you must constantly expend energy in order to maintain your own will to live.
… when civilizations fall and all life is lost, when knowledge disappears and order collapses—thus is the cycle of existence broken, on the day that everything ends.]
The situation certainly seemed especially dire. Joshua's brow furrowed.
At the moment however, the text describing the 'Mana Drain' and 'Lightless World' conditions appeared to be grayed out, which meant that they'd been suspended for the time being. In their place was yet another condition, 'Purification by Steel.'
[Condition: Purification by Steel: Steel-essence energy from the time of the world's creation, surging forth once more at the time of world's end. Even under the conditions of a Lightless World, it can be of some use, suppressing most negative conditions.
… the world's pulse yet beats with the fire of resistance, with a determination of steel.]
"Looks like this world truly is facing the end."
Looking at the first three negative conditions, Joshua couldn't help thinking: never mind the Chaos Corruption; the Mana Drain and Lightless World conditions leave no doubt as to the world's grim and imminent fate, such that not even magic nor Combat Aura can hold it off. Yet this shower of steel-essence crystals towards the end, it suggests that the world is still planning a come-back, and perhaps there's still a faint hope of salvaging the situation somehow.
Having determined the present circumstances, Joshua turned to face Moreila and Clyre, who were still watching the downpour of crystals, and he said, "Everyone, I think we should head that way."
Saying thus, he pointed in the direction of where the lightning and tornado had been seen earlier. Visibility had cleared up much more by now, and everyone was easily able to observe the rolling hills and soaring mountains which lay that way.
The old dwarf was still musing over the crystal in his hand, so it was Clyre who raised the question this time.
"Because over there is the only light and activity we can see in this whole barren wasteland—and it's also where all these crystals seem to be coming from. Besides, haven't you noticed yourselves feeling much better now?"