Hearing Joshua's words, Clyre moved around a bit, testing out how her body felt. She blinked her big green eyes, and then said with some surprise, "Actually, I do feel better…"
She hadn't noticed until he mentioned it, but now she realized that she was breathing more easily, and her body felt a little less tense. Since the moment they arrived in this world, she'd felt as though she'd been wearing chains and shackles, and only now had she managed to shrug them off and regain freedom.
Noting her response, Joshua nodded and continued, his tone more sober, "It is my theory that the steel-essence crystals have temporarily absorbed the corruption drowning this world, and which had been debilitating us. While we're still enjoying this improved condition, we must hurry on."
As he said this, he looked around. The fog having dissipated—the droplets of moisture suspended in the air having settled down at last—visibility was exceptionally clear, and he felt able to see all the way to the furthest horizons.
Joshua turned back to address everyone once more. "No matter what, staying here won't do any good. Earlier, we arrived through a one-way portal to this realm. We won't find any normal road leading back to the Mycroft continent. In that case, we might as well investigate any anomalies in the region, on the look-out for any possible portals."
He added, "Although all known portals in the North have been sealed, couldn't there be another portal like the one in the Dark Forest of Moldova—hidden so deep that most people have never encountered it?"
Joshua had a point, and both Moreila and Clyre nodded in agreement. Though what caused them to arrive here was a mystery, and their current circumstances were bewildering, it was plain to see that it would be pointless to remain here doing nothing. True enough, they should be on the hunt for any kind of natural anomaly, in the hopes that there might be another portal concealed at its source.
"Who would have thought, after all that effort we spent closing portals, we'd now be searching for a secret portal and hoping one might be hidden away somewhere…" Moreila shook his head at the irony of it.
Off to the side, there seemed to be something strange going on with Ling. The young man with black hair and golden eyes was casting about in confusion, left hand pressed to his heart. He appeared to be feeling some discomfort.
Joshua easily noticed this. He walked over to stand before Ling, knelt down, and looked him straight in the eyes to ask, "What's the matter? Are you feeling alright?"
Ling knit his brows together, leaning in to whisper in the warrior's ear, "Master, it's a little unclear but, I thought I sensed the presence of one of my kind… it's very vague, as if I'd only imagined it."
"Is that so…" Joshua thought for a moment, though there was no clue to be seen in his expression.
There was nothing remarkable about detecting the presence of a Divine Armament here—after all, they originated from this world, which had been the final battlefield in a decisive clash between civilization and the demons of chaos. Buried in this land must be the remnants of countless Divine Armaments, so it was no surprise at all that Ling could detect their presence, and the only thing it proved was that his senses were sharper than theirs.
"Alright, well… it's no big deal, don't worry."
Patting Ling's head a couple of times, Joshua discovered that the smooth texture of his hair felt pretty good, so he stroked it a little more. Laughingly, he assured Ling, "With me here, you need only be ready for battle. Let's go."
Moreila and Clyre, observing Joshua's calm behavior from the sidelines—the way he displayed not the slightest hint of worry—they couldn't help but feel a quiet admiration in their hearts.
How rare it was, this kind of fearless nature. In the face of such perilous circumstances, having been literally transported to an alien world, not even an expert in such temporal-spatial matters could be certain of finding a way back. For the two of them, their long life-spans had provided many centuries during which to temper their hearts and wills, and only thus were they able to face the situation before them with calm and objectivity—but how old was Joshua? At his age, if they had been put in the same position, they might probably have been frightened out of their wits, and it was unimaginable that they could have been keeping their cool like this.
"Truly he is a natural-born warrior and adventurer. For a character of such quality, it almost seems insulting for him to only hold the station of a mere count." Mumbling beneath his breath about this, Moreila's gaze grew distant as he looked back into the past, remembering those members of the Radcliffe family whom he had known before. A little laugh escaped from him. "Thinking back, didn't they all carry themselves the same way? And yet, not a proper count among them."
"Master Moreila, come help me put on this armor here."
Over yonder, Joshua was handling that suit of armor which had mysteriously been transported along with him. Tailor-made by master dwarven smiths especially for him, it was an entire suit of armor of astounding thickness, its weight approaching three hundred kilograms. Simply laying it down upon the dusty plain would leave a pronounced depression, yet the warrior hefted it up as though it were only a sheet of paper.
Previously, when Joshua and Moreila had been discussing some future designs for enchanted armor, they had already determined one final detail—designing the insignia that would be stamped upon it. Perhaps it was for this reason that this suit of armor had traveled along? Regardless of the reason, being able to don it here would at least help improve his combat-readiness.
With Moreila's help, Joshua soon finished putting on the armor. Pending the inclusion of a magical command to automatically equip it upon himself, the assistance of another was crucial in order to put on an entire suit of armor.
Now, the man stood tall upon the open plain, his whole body encased in armor. With every movement, he threw up a great cloud of dust from the ground. Comprised of seamless layers of interlocking metal scales, this suit of heavy armor was a magnificent sight to behold – and, covered with steel, his two hands called to mind the razor-sharp talons of a demon, opening and closing like pincer claws, accompanied by the fearsome groan of grinding metal.
A golden emblem of two hands bearing swords was emblazoned upon both pauldrons, a majestic symbol of prestige. From his helmet, which was adorned with the twin horns of a dragon, two pin-points of red light shone out through a transparent V-shaped visor of steel-essence crystal.
"Feels pretty good." Nodding his head, the sound of Joshua's satisfied voice could be heard from within the helm.
"… for this evening's affair, I seem to have come un-armed. All I have with me is this steel hammer." Looking upon the sight of Joshua, thusly well-equipped, Moreila couldn't help but sigh, beginning to long for the battle armor and warhammer he'd left behind in his quarters. "I guess those who use Divine Armaments have it simpler—their equipment will follow along by itself."
Saying this, he cast a glance towards Ling. The dark-haired youth blinked his golden eyes, completely failing to note that he was one of those walking weapons in question.
Well, in a manner of speaking, the statement was true enough.
Standing across from Moreila, Clyre was contemplating the staff she held in her hands. As a druid, she never carried much with her to begin with, for she had no need of inordinate weapons or equipment. Just the emerald-green robes she wore, her staff, and various mystical gems were all the implements the elf had required. Yet now, with the loss of primal energy, and furthermore the lack of forests and beasts in this world, the elf's powers were greatly diminished.
"That's right, Clyre…"
Joshua's voice issued suddenly from beside Clyre. The heavily armored warrior allowed Ling to retrieve, from a small pocket, a tiny red ring.
Joshua handed over the Twin Inferno Serpents to the elf. Beheld in her emerald-green eyes, the warrior spoke solemnly through his armor, "You've lost too much of your combat ability. If we get into a fight later, that could be a serious risk, so for the time being I'll lend you this ring with which to defend yourself."
I've basically given away this ladies' ring.
This was how he actually felt, whatever else he said. After all, this Extraordinary-Tier magic item, wrought of gold, was nothing he could use—so it was just as well that he'd found a way for it to serve some purpose.
Considering Joshua carefully for a while, the elf accepted the ring with some hesitation. Although she couldn't see his expression at the moment, having known him all this while, Clyre felt sure he didn't mean anything else by it—the fellow probably didn't have the barest clue about romance in his head, and had most likely only handed her the ring for no reason other than because he happened to have one on him at the time.
Does he realize what it means to give an elf—no, to give a woman—a ring? As soon as the elf thought this, she immediately decided, No, he clearly has no idea.
Everyone having completed their preparations, Joshua, in heavy armor and high spirits, commanded, "Move out!"
As he had said, since they had been transported here unwittingly, they had to seek salvation by venturing into phenomenal danger.
Having determined their direction and destination, the party set forth.
Time passed in dull melancholy, and after they had been marching for about half the day, the storm of crystals gradually abated, and the steel-essence crystals which had turned red-and-black upon the ground were slowly melting away. The dark gray fog rose up once more, a mysterious red light began to flicker through the air again, and the roiling heavens, tainted by the gathering energies of Chaos, once again deepened into impenetrable darkness.
Joshua could feel the 'Mana Drain' and 'Lightless World' conditions falling upon him anew. Moreila and Clyre also appeared a bit weary, and he could see that the flickering lights of their life-force had dimmed a little.
"So this is what's meant by, 'consumes the soul to maintain the spark of life.' Although at first glance it doesn't appear to have much of an effect, over time every part of you will be weakened as a whole, leaving you in grave danger." Even as Joshua muttered to himself about this, he noticed that he himself was not experiencing such effects—whether in body or spirit, he felt as lively as ever, without the slightest hint of exhaustion.
What's more, he was walking around in a ponderously heavy suit of armor, so it was hard to imagine how he would be feeling less strain than the others. A Golden-Tier champion he may be, possessed of tremendous stamina, but this was a mana-draining lightless world, after all.
"Could it be that this is the effect of a Soul of Fire?" he wondered uncertainly, "The Pool of Souls… what exactly had that voice been saying? Back when I was playing this game, I'd never heard of such terms before."
The Continental War of his previous existence… In the end, it had only been a game—no matter how realistic, it was only a game. Most people only bothered with socializing and combat; as for the lore of the game world, only the biggest nerds would have studied it to that extent. As a more casual fan of the game himself, the things he most liked to do were stand outside other guilds rousting for a duel, kill-stealing boss enemies and so on. When it came to this kind of immersive game-world knowledge, he was completely at a loss.
Bit by bit, they were once again engulfed in fog, as the party made its way across this barren, dusty plain. Were it any ordinary person, they would have long ago become hopelessly lost and disoriented in this trackless miasma, and it was only because Joshua could draw upon both the system as well as personal experience that they were able to approximately keep track of both their position as well as their heading.
"Right, let's rest for a moment."
Seeing the signs of exhaustion becoming plain upon the faces of the dwarf and the elf trudging along beside him, Joshua had to raise a hand to signal for a halt. "Let's take a second to get our breath back, everyone, and try to check this drain on our energies. It won't do if we find ourselves in a fight later on, and run out of stamina halfway through."
Exhaling a long breath, Moreila simply sank to the ground, appearing very tired indeed. The old dwarf shook his head, moaning, "I've gotten old, to be feeling this worn out after such a short journey…"
Meanwhile, the elven druid closed her eyes, set herself down, and entered a restful meditation.
After making sure there was nothing of concern in the immediate area, Joshua and Ling—neither one feeling particularly taxed—stood aside and looked out at the undulating terrain in the distance.
"Exactly what does it mean, this Lightless World?" the warrior murmured this to himself as he gazed upon the soaring peaks, not a scrap of plant growth upon their faces—only shadowy granite.
Joshua knew that at the birth of this world—with fire as the source, and from steel-essence gaining life—fire and steel-essence had combined to create the universe, with all its wonders and miracles. As for a Lightless World… could it be referring to a barren wasteland like this, lifeless and soulless?
With insufficient information, analyzing this further would get him nowhere, so Joshua soon decided to abandon such meaningless speculation. Taking a seat like everyone else, he began to rest and recover his stamina. As far as possible, a warrior should keep his energy topped off, so as to be able to handle any possible threat which may arise.
The party soon fell into a deep silence.
It was not long, however, before the peace was shattered by a peculiar noise.
An enormous whistling sound, deafeningly loud, and the thundering cacophony of moving machinery interrupted their repose. Moreila raised his head, while Clyre squinted about at their surroundings.
From within his tightly sealed helmet, Joshua's eyes widened, and he urgently turned towards the source of the noise.
"This sound… it's exactly like what I heard in my dream!"