The black shroud had stopped its violent surge. It now looked tranquil and smooth like a mirror, not a hint of ripple or protrusion could be seen.
Robzek, Moore and several others were lost within by accident—which was a huge harvest for the Chest of Erebus. Now that it had its fill it stopped expanding, allowing the mages and clergies to set up fields and barriers around it and limit its movements.
Even so many were afraid of approaching the terrifying existence, the sight of Gold and Supreme champions being consumed without resistance left the crowd terrorized. Even behind their magical barriers, their expressions were tragic as if they would soon be martyred.
But one man was starkly different.
Distinct and rhythmic footsteps rang out as a black-haired man calmly walked towards the black shroud, as if there was no danger to be expected within.
"Ah?! Uh, wait!" A young mage who took notice of him hurried ahead to stop him. Suddenly, as if sensing the man's approach, the gloom moved—and soon waves of the mist sprung towards the man. That phenomenon almost made the mage turn and run as well as warn everyone around that the bizarre black shroud was expanding again.
What he saw afterward made him closed his mouth in shock.
The mist had mustered a flap that was almost twenty meters high and slapped viciously at the black-haired man. Unexpectedly, just when it was about to hit true the shroud would suddenly even out smoothly like a mirror once more. Soon, the shroud parted as if the Red Sea, and a passageway wide enough for a single man to walk appeared in the middle of the shroud.
Naturally, the black-haired man followed the path as the shroud closed up behind him, and the rhythmic footsteps soon vanished within the shroud.
And the rest was silence.
Inside the shroud, Joshua watched keenly at the darkness that kept rolling around him. He even extended a hand to touch it, but it was as if he held some repelling force —however fast he moved, the dense shroud quickly evaded his touch as if sentient.
"So such immense repelling exist between divinity," Joshua mumbled. He never expected such a situation; he had initially planned to enter the shroud and clear its dungeon —which in turn would shatter its dreamworld.
That way, the warrior could get some warm-up while the people within the shroud would be awakened. Wasn't such a thought simply wonderful? But now, the shroud could not even approach him much less make him dream.
"In the past life, there were some folks who had divinity and still could enter the shroud without any issues. Perhaps the divine imprint within the Chest of Erebeus was just too weak; it can't even draw me into its dreamland just because I had a fraction of divinity."
Such was the truth; such was the explanation. Joshua had no need to think about the cause now—plans must change according to the circumstances. Now he simply had to look for the poor fellows who were caught in a dreamworld. After all, this black shroud was different from the harmless mist in his pre-existence; it possessed a curious negative energy and was highly corrosive.
As a holy knight, Robzek would be fine for some time, but it was another matter for Moore, Husk and the other mages —it was unlikely that they could hold out for long.
Right now, Joshua strode ahead within a semi-spherical bubble with a five-meter radius within the black vapor. There was no telling where he was heading into the unending darkness, but the warrior did not need his eyes to find his targets—he could see two flames of life burning brilliantly nearby.
One of them was as bright as the stars and twinkling with holy illumination. That, without question was Holy Knight Robzek—the black shroud did not even so much as weaken him. The other flame of life was clearly dim; it was obvious that the owner's body was not fine. Still, there was a circle of faintly conjured ancient runes that surrounded the flame, holding down the life force from further loss.
"You never know how many defensive measures a mage possesses…" Joshua softly muttered. He knew very well how difficult it was to handle a mage who has made enough preparations. It was entirely due to the fact that the guild never encountered the shroud before, otherwise Moore—a mage who participated in many campaigns against the orcs —would not have been blindsided.
Even if they were to be thrown into the Dark Abyss, it would still be a mere trifle for these men who were accomplished in teleportation magic.
Heading towards the flames of life, Joshua saw that the buildings around the area had obvious scars from air pressure. Those were marks that would only have appeared after centuries. The granite surface of the road had also softened; their inner layers corroded, turning them into shards.
Joshua arrived at the position of the holy knight and the mage; the old mage Moore was closer to him.
Full name: Tamara Moore. He hailed from the windy deserts of the North of the Empire. He once fought side-by-side with Nostradamus against the orcs, and led a team of Imperial mages against the Orcs' Royal Offering Circle. The pair was close and virtually best friends.
Now the old mage was in slumber, but his posture was upright like a military man's —distinctly different from an elderly man who was pushing eighty. Ancient runes were circling his gray enchanted robes, staving off the black shroud.
However, there was a clear pained expression on Tamara's face. His snowy-white beard and hair were trembling in an unsettled manner and veins were surfacing over his knuckles as he gripped his staff. It was obvious that his dreamland was not a comfortable one.
Without a word, Joshua lifted Moore with a hand gripping the back of his collar and his belt. Though the enchanted robes flashed little lightning bolts that attacked the warrior's hands, it did not faze him. And thus, without a change in his expression, Joshua looked for the proper positioning and forcefully threw the man out of the smog.
In the blink of an eye, the poor old man flew as if catapulted. He streaked past layers of black shroud with a whistling sound towards Nostradamus and the rest who were still busy discussing and analyzing the phenomenon.
Assuming that it was another new move from the shroud, the old mage instinctively prepared a spell to counter it. But ultimately he was a still Supreme-tier mage; he needed just the thousandth of a second to recognize that the bunch of gray was his friend. Instantly, his mana that had been prepared to be unleashed in the form of a fireball shifted and materialized into a formless hand and caught the man.
Lowering the poorly Moore gently though without examining his friend, Nostradamus and the other mages cast stunned glances at the darkness.
"Even if it's saving lives… thro-throwing people is really uncalled for…" he muttered.
"He's not waking up!" Young Vera had quickly rushed beside his instructor to take a look at the elderly mage. The youth himself was a Silver mage after all, and could quickly surmise his mentor's condition. "His soul is imprisoned by some mysterious force, and he's now… dreaming?" he reported, his voice becoming hesitant.
Any spells that could imprison a soul is indubitably evil regardless of its purpose.
Furthermore, the shroud itself was churning with negative energy and formidable corroding elements. As such, most of the mages now deemed the ancient races that had worshiped the Chest of Erebus and their gods as Evil Gods.
Although Moore's condition was not critical, the mysterious power that held his soul captive held shreds of divinity. Furthermore, the old mage was merely dreaming and not being tormented; his expression might be ugly and he may not be in an ideal state but he might simply be having a bad dream.
That, or perhaps Joshua had sprained the old man's back with his powerful toss.
Meanwhile, the warrior stood motionlessly in the shroud, not really moving to Robzek who was nearby to throw him out of the shroud too.
He was frowning tightly with dimmed eyes as if his spirit left his body. The black mist was flapping around him all the time but still unable to break past the invisible five-meter barrier.
It took some time for his eyes to light up again.
Breathing a long sigh, he looked hesitantly out of the shroud at the direction where he threw Moore. "So. That was his dream?" he muttered.
When he had held on to the old mage and curtly threw him out of the shroud, his eyes began to swirl with blurry illusions that crossed light and shadow. It was as if he was falling into a dreamland himself.
It was a vast plain. Forage grass swayed with the wind while the skies were gloomy with dark clouds. There was dampness in the air and hints of rain were scattered by the wind and finally dropped upon the land.
Two armies were fighting on the plain. One side had effective equipment and moved in compact, orderly formations as if a properly running machine. The other moved in chaos, their equipment ragged and their only advantage was their indomitable will.
The orc army and the Northern Empire. The warrior thought.
Not giving their opposition any time to think, the armies moved and crashed into each other. In minutes, the orcs' formation was completely broken—and under intricate commands by their leaders, the humans slowly shredded the ranks of the orcs.
They were an elite force with excellent commanders, fighting against a second-rate orc force that might have been leaderless. Even those who did not understand military would be able to tell that the battle was one without suspense.
Nevertheless, the orcs proved to be unexpectedly stubborn. Though they were scattered and each of them was essentially going on solo skirmishes, they managed to hold the human soldiers back, using their lives to postpone their advance.
Until a heavy cavalry appeared from afar, roaring as they charged into the fray.
It was a skillful troop of orcs who mounted single-horned stone rhinoceros. Their pattern was unlike that of their kin. They moved with order and rhythm as they sped across the plains. Clouds hung above them and darkened the sky while thunder and gales whistled across the horizon.
The human troops could feel the powerful tremors from the tidy footsteps of the beasts. However, they were caught out and unable to recover their formation. What remained of the orc army were pinning them down—as if simply resigning themselves to their assigned roles since they would die anyway.
As thunder and lightning cracked the sky and torrential cold rains fell, and the world was suddenly blanketed in darkness. Without visibility on the battlefield, it was now impossible for them to return to formation. At the same time, the ground shook under the charging stone beasts, rolling forward from the distance as if it were real thunder.
It turned into a massacre.
Without a proper troop configuration to hold their ground, the human army was powerless against the stone rhinos that were akin to land dragons. Furthermore, the riders ranked at Silver or above; their Combat Auras augmented the ferocity and menace of their mounts as they punched forward.
In less than an hour, the human army suffered the fate of the second-rate orc troops they had battered earlier and were dispersed across the plains. Their commanders dead and their banners broken, they retreated in chaos all over the plains, but most of them were caught by the cavalry and butchered.
There were just a lucky few who had escaped through the confusion wrought by the storm, and among them was a young mage in gray robes with a blank expression.
One could tell that he did not look nervous. Whether it was the fight against the orc army or the ambush by their cavalry, the younger mage did not show fear. Instead, he looked impassive and doubtful, as if not sure why he was here.
He had been confused why he would leap back decades and return to this place. A place where he despaired and resolved to become a man 'who would survive under all circumstances.'
Now, Joshua could almost guess the reason.
"The God of Fortune and Despair," he uttered the name he discovered from that murky illusion. Narrowing his eyes, he curled his lips to laugh quietly.
"Interesting. It's a name of a god I've never heard of in my pre-existence."