The Stray Smith: Chapter 1
Chapter 1 – The Summoning
A few months passed.
Time had not slowed its halt for the sake of a stray smith that found a home in the Silver Guild. But fortunately, it was within the realm of people to quickly learn to adjust to their surroundings. And so many things that may have been out of place for one lacking most of the knowledge that would be ingrained throughout a lifetime within the City of Swords soon became the norm.
Life in the Silver Guild was one of those things. His days would start with him waking early in the morning to do manual labor, such as performing an inventory of the materials on hand, ensuring that the tools and equipment that would be used were in proper shape, sweeping up the floors, cleaning out the forges now that the lingering heat was absent, and the finally igniting them in preparation for the working day.
He would then be called to move about and retrieve things so that the smiths at work would not have to take their attention off their work. Usually, that meant fetching some materials from the stock room. Sometimes that meant heading to a shop across town for trinkets and heatsinks. Other times he had to make multiple trips to a curry shop since that had been gaining popularity as of late and they all would be working late.
It all had a purpose. Tool preparation had to be an ingrained response for any smith. Keeping the workshop clean avoided any chance of mishaps. The constant travel made him more familiar with the layout of the city and helped make him a familiar face to what he had learned were regulars of the Silver Guild.
Even the hours spent sorting the materials gave him a better understanding of what kinds of elemental ores they could retrieve from them. And that was important considering the term ‘materials’ was fairly loose. He could be called to sort anything that ranged from a barrel filled with bottomless cups, broken fans, discarded matchboxes, and stripped bolts to massive furballs and horns left behind after whatever once held them met the business end of a blade. He had once watched a man throw a pair of shoes into a forge only to respond he needed it to finish work.
He felt that he should have been more surprised when the finished product was a massive axe.
But perhaps it was because he understood the underlying lessons that he never once had a complaint. Even if his circumstances weren’t unique, he felt that it all made sense. So, he was obedient and did as he was told, taking in the lessons being offered while he worked until the sun hung low and the workday ended.
Sometimes the others would take him to a local tavern or out to eat. Other times he would just eat whatever was in the kitchen that Bron hadn’t threatened to kick him out if he touched. Then were the chances he got to go with Pratty back to her house since Amariss would invite him to dinner.
He enjoyed the latter quite a bit. Not only for the fact that her food was quite delicious, or the fact that he was forever grateful for them doing so much for him. It was just the fact that Welf just found her nature rather… not quite motherly, but familial to an extent.
Then he would return to the Silver Guild before Bron locked up for the day and headed to his bedroom on the Second Floor. Or rather the workshop that was being made into his bedroom. It was complicated due to his situation since normally the apprentices weren’t allowed onto the Second Floor at all.
That was because it was mostly meant as a workshop for Journeymen who had more experience under their belts. The ones who had graduated past apprenticeship and were paid by the Silver Guild for their work as employees but weren’t yet considered capable of selling their products to stores or becoming self-employed Craftknights. That was only allowed for those who were considered Master Craftknights—and in the Silver Guild, you wouldn’t be considered a master until you submitted a work worthy enough in the eyes of the Silver Master.
Bron had the final say on if a weapon one of his employees crafted was worthy enough to be sold. It was for quality control as anything beneath his standards would harm the reputation of their guild. Only when you were good enough for him to give it a pass could a member of the Silver Guild strike out on their own.
Some started their own guilds. Some remained independent. Some were good enough to work as part of the Central Tower and gain access to all the resources they needed without the need for a middleman. Others even went to other countries to open a workshop, although, without easy access to the flames of the Holy Spirit (which could be crystalized and taken from the Shrine to be added to their forges), they had to purchase elemental ores from Wystern.
But his circumstances meant that he needed a living space since it would be inappropriate for him to continue to stay with a widowed woman and her daughter, in Bron’s words. Amariss had joked about how he thought she might have amorous intentions towards a young man just a few years older than Pratty. But then she stated it was a good thing that he completed the ‘graduation’ test from apprenticeship by forging his hammer since that had always been the condition for Bron to recognize someone as being worthy of using a workshop on the Second Floor.
Welf also noted that neither of them had brought up the question of him doing something to her. Not that he would, of course. But he got the impression it wasn’t just because he had been on his best behavior.
He decided not to question it.
Anyway, at the end of the day, Welf would head upstairs and go to bed. Wake up early the next morning. The cycle would then repeat itself with some variation of the tasks he would have to do, such as assisting with maintenance or running a task.
He noticed things started changing at the start of the month. Bron was called out more often to the Central Tower for some meeting of the local guild masters. Then some of the Journeymen began moving out of the workshops on the Second Floor and the workload within the Silver Guild seemed to drop pretty sharply.
Welf had thought it was a bit odd, but Bron had noted off-handedly that this wasn’t the only building under the Silver Guild’s ownership. He had several other assets under his name from boats to other workshops where they could work from. And it wasn’t like he needed to constantly keep an eye on them since they were graduates after all.
There were also more tremors popping up every now and again but that was unrelated to anything.
It was only around last week he heard from Pratty that there would be a tournament upcoming to be the next Craftlord. The applicants were all apprentices under the age of eighteen, which struck the stray smith as being a little suspicious given the title and duties that would entail. Craftlords were a pretty big deal and apprentices were literally at the bottom of the list of qualified candidates.
In hindsight, Welf should probably have guessed he would be among those also participating before Bron tossed the Entrance Ticket his way last night.
Bron had said he was expecting Welf to ask any day about if he was entering, but he never did. Then the man actually complained about his lack of initiative even after Welf defended himself with the fact that he thought it would have stricter prerequisites and he had been prioritizing trying to regain his memories. The Silver Master only told him that it was done and to pick Pratty up in the morning to go to the Central Tower since she had a bad habit of always being late.
Now Welf stood outside of the residence he had visited often enough that it was a second home, gently knocking with the full knowledge that Amariss would likely be awake and in the kitchen at the moment. The door opened and he was greeted with a welcoming smile in very short order. “Oh, Welf. How are you this morning?”
“Fine, Ma’am. I came to pick up Pratty to go to the Central Tower.”
“I’ve tried to wake her up seven times already, but you know how heavy a sleeper that girl is.” She let out a sigh before stepping aside and gesturing for him to come inside. He did so and she shut the door behind him. “Are you excited since you’ll be entering too?”
“Honestly, I’m more surprised that I would be offered the chance,” he admitted. “I mean, all things considered, it feels a bit strange that someone like me would be eligible. And the fact that none of the Journeymen or Masters were being selected as potential Craftlords. Apprentices still have a lot to learn.”
“Hmm… I suppose it might seem that way,” Amariss conceded. “But I trust the others have something in mind with the tournament. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I will go wake up the sleepyhead before she makes you both late for your big day. Watch the kitchen for me?”
He did so to make sure that the meal she was preparing didn’t get burned. The loud crash of a teenage girl falling out of her bed mildly pulled his attention away, along with her shouting about the time and asking where her Entrance Ticket was. Then there were the frantic scrambling footfalls of her desperately getting herself ready to not be late and making her way towards the stairs—
—before there was a loud yelp that snatched his attention towards the base of the stairs where he spotted Pratty laying upside-down while softly groaning. Fortunately, there was a flicker of light coming off her skin. She had gotten her defenses up in time.
Since they were trained to go into combat, Craftknights learned to manifest their mana into a sort of protective veil. It was normally invisible but upon encountering something that caused physical trauma it would harden to prevent actual damage. But there was a limit to the abuse one could take since it was dependent on one’s mana reserves. Once they could no longer maintain it there was a very real chance that they could get hurt.
And it wasn’t limited to just them either. He had been told Summon Creatures and Stray Summons were inherently capable of doing the same on an instinctive level. The stronger the creature, the more hits it took to bring their defenses down and get rid of them.
“Hey, are you okay?” Welf asked as he helped her back onto her feet. “That looked bad from where I was standing.”
The teenage girl did not meet his gaze out of embarrassment. “Nnn… who put those stairs there in the first place?”
“I would imagine it was the carpenters who made the house,” Amariss said while following down the stairs properly and then gently grabbing hold of her daughter’s cheeks to look her in the eyes. “You didn’t hit your head, did you?”
“I’m fine, Mother,” Pratty insisted before freeing herself and huffing as she turned to Welf. “Anyway, we don’t have time to waste. We need to get to the Central Tower for the Entrance Ceremony.”
“The foot traffic was pretty heavy and we’ll have to head to the central part of Wystern, so it’ll probably be faster if we use the Water Scooters to ride the canals than if we go on foot,” Welf suggested while tilting a head to the foldable Water Scooter hanging from his shoulder. It was an older model, passed down from a Journeymen who had recently bought a new one. Since it was still functional the man had decided not to turn it into materials and passed it along to Welf.
A hum of acknowledgment bubbled up in Pratty’s throat as she pattered herself down and then pulled out what looked to be an old charm of some kind. It seemed like she wanted to make sure she hadn’t lost or damaged it in the fall. Then she ran over to get her own Water Scooter and bolted for the door. “See you later, Mother.”
“…Well, I better go pack her things for when Bron comes by,” Amariss said once her daughter was out of earshot before turning back to Welf with a playful smile. He got the distinct impression that Pratty had not been informed of her new living arrangements for the duration of the Craftlord Tournament. “Look after her for me while she’s staying at the Silver Guild?”
He gave her his word before heading out the door and then getting his scooter in the water to chase after Pratty.
The Central Tower was easily the largest structure that Welf had been inside in his life.
Or so he would like to say. He got the vague impression that he had been to some place similar within the depths of his murky memories. But it was still a very impressive place regardless given that it was the heart of Wystern itself.
Piercing the sky like a steel lance, the Second Floor shaped like a ring left the surrounding buildings beneath it in a state of perpetual shade that only wavered during the rising and falling of the sun. The entire structure was ringed by a moat that separated it from the rest of the city around it, upon which only authorized water vehicles could pass through. That meant the only way to enter it was a bridge of steel and stone that arched over the water—the Grand Bridge.
Welf and Pratty disembarked from the canal they had ridden in after navigating through the maze of small boats that had docked there. They were loaded with goods from weapons to materials that would be sent out across the city. Then they traversed on foot over the Grand Bridge towards their destination until they finally made it to the entrance where Craftknights that served as guards stood on either side of the doorway upon which the emblem of Wystern was emblazed.
The inside was brightly illuminated by lights that were fixed above and throngs of people dressed in the green-and-blue uniform that denoted them as a member of the Central Tower staff could be seen moving about. One such person took notice of the two relatively younger individuals who passed through and asked them if they were in attendance for the Opening Ceremony and to present their Entrance Tickets. Upon doing so they were guided up to the Second Floor and towards the Ceremony Hall.
The room was filled with young men and women that ranged from being taller than Welf to barely up to his stomach. They were sitting around in various groups, dressed in an assortment of clothes that stood out compared to the uniforms of the employees that filled the tower. Some still had their leather bibs that were blackened from the flames of the forge and looked as though they had to be pulled away to attend the ceremony, while others were dressed in more ceremonial clothes that denoted the event to be important.
There was palpable tension running throughout the entirety of the chamber. The ceremony hadn’t begun but everyone inside the room knew that they would be competing with one another for the title of Craftlord at some point. So it was natural that Welf and Pratty would be scrutinized by every single person as they searched for a place to station themselves out of the walkway, eventually finding a place in the upper left section behind a red-haired young woman who gave them a once-over before turning her attention back to the stage.
As they waited next to one another, Welf took a glance over to his side at Pratty. It was an understatement to say that the younger girl looked quite tense as her eyes carefully roamed around the room to take stock of the others while avoiding their gazes in turn. He leaned close and whispered, “Nervous?”
Her eyes shifted towards him. There was a moment of silence as she weighed her words. Then she exhaled slightly through her nose before giving a small nod. “A bit. What about you?”
“Not really.” He noticed the incredulous look that she gave him when he admitted as much and shrugged before tapping his temple. “Bigger priorities.”
She rolled her eyes but understood where he was coming from given how often they talked. It had been months and only a scant few of his memories returned. There were feelings associated with certain things and actions, but the lack of memories meant that he had no context. If there was neither of those things attached to the role of being a Craftlord then he wouldn’t be nervous.
“It’s natural to be nervous,” Welf assured her. “Everyone else is in the same boat here. Some are just better at hiding it than others. Don’t focus on them and instead focus on making sure you memorize what you learn from the meeting.”
Pratty bowed her head in understanding and her blue eyes fixed themselves to the front of the stage.
It was a few minutes later that one of the staff came onto the stage and said, “We will now begin the opening ceremony of the Craftlord Tournament. Can all participants please remain silent until the end?”
The noise settled down appropriately as all eyes were affixed to the stage. Aside from the Central Tower officer, there were now three individuals who could be seen starting to emerge from a rear door nestled in the corner of the stage. “Thank you. We will begin by introducing the Craftlord of Amber, Master Lubert—”
Said man looked to be the oldest of the three on the stage and likely in his mid-thirties by all accounts. His body was tall and lean enough that the sleeves of his amber-colored robes seemed to hang off his frame. He had dark brown hair that was slicked back and upwards as though it was always windblown and had a thin but long whisker mustache. His nose was slightly pointed as was his jaw, but he wore a confident grin.
“—the Craftlord of Jade, Master Ureksa—”
The second was a younger man who looked to only be a few years Welf’s senior and sported neck-length hair that was blonde at the tips and crept its way up halfway before abruptly becoming darker. His youth was evident in how slender his body was as he sported the color of his title on a coat and pants that were half-zipped, allowing his sleeves to hang off his arms. A white scarf that was probably twice the length of his body hung around his neck and shoulders.
“—and the Craftlord of Sapphire, Master Sakuro.”
The final Craftlord was firmly wedged between the other two in terms of his age and appearance. He stood straight with his arms crossed and most of his light brown hair set into a ponytail with the bangs left free to frame his face along with his glasses. His tunic and trousers were a solid blue, while his long-sleeved undershirt and knee-length boots were black with white highlights, and he had thick smith gloves on his hands. On his belt hung a sword on one side and several pouches on the other.
“These three Craftlords will be providing you with the information regarding the tournament. You would do well to listen to their words of wisdom.”
His piece done, the officer in charge of the announcement made himself scarce. The three who reigned supreme and could call the massive tower their castle took their rightful place in the center of the stage, their presence naturally commanding all of the attention.
It was then Lubert deigned to address them. “Welcome, apprentices of the City of Sword. Though it may be a bit premature, we have judged that as the future defenders of Wystern you will be presented with a unique opportunity not many could boast—the chance to join our ranks as a Craftlord.”
Indeed, one could call it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity given that no one in the room had reached the point where they could reasonably be considered above the rank of Master. At best, some would be Journeymen in all but rank, having not yet completed their graduation task set by their masters. But at worse, some had far less experience, meaning they were at a distinct disadvantage.
Sakuro addressed them next. “It was roughly three years ago that we lost Shintetsu, the most respected and strongest Craftlord of our generation. So great were his accomplishments and heroism that we allowed his seat to remain unfilled due to his legacy. But since the recent disappearance of the Craftlord of Crystal, Tyram, we’ve deemed it time to fill it once more and have chosen to draw from the apprentices that will be the herald of the next generation.”
Slight murmurs began to fill the room. It seemed that a Craftlord going missing was a big deal, which made sense given the role they had to play. Though Welf could tell that Pratty’s attention was focused more on the mention of her father and he could only imagine her own feelings of someone else holding the title he once did.
Ureksa cleared his throat to grab their attention. “I understand that most of you might be confused as to why it is that apprentices within your age range were selected from other viable candidates. That is because we’ve determined that while your skills may be underdeveloped at the moment, the gift of youth brings with it the potential for exponential growth. Rather than overlook that potential, we wish to see it blossom over the tournament over the next several weeks that will put the skills that you have learned as apprentices to the ultimate test and push you past your limits.”
It was a trial by fire. Pitting the apprentices against one another would sort them out and force them to keep improving, lest they be the next to fall. By the end, only the one who excelled would have what it took to become a Craftlord.
The Jade Craftlord continued. “To that end, the rules of the tournament are as follows: First, you are only allowed to fight with one weapon that you have crafted yourself. I understand that some of you have not been allowed to craft your own weapons yet, so we have decided to allow your masters to assist you with the planning stages of the process. But know that it must be forged by your own hands.”
The Sapphire Craftlord picked up from there. “Second, the battle is won when your opponent yields, their mana reserves are depleted and can no longer sustain their protective veil, or their weapon breaks. Though you may be fighting seriously to defeat your opponent, you are not fighting to kill. If we deem that you have resorted to excessive force when not necessary, such as attacking someone when their defenses have been broken, you will be punished and removed from the tournament for your lack of self-control—if not stripped of your apprenticeship entirely.”
And the Amber Craftlord finished it up. “Third, you will be allowed to receive assistance in the battle by your Guardian Beast. Permission has been given for Summoners to enter the city to assist in procuring them for those who have none, though it is your masters who hold the reins in that area. However, their assistance does not serve as a substitute for your participation. If you attempt to leave all the fighting to them then we will deem you lacking in ability and judge you as such. You are the ones being tested as Craftknights, not them.”
Welf chewed on that information. It seemed like they had considered the gap in experience when it came to the different apprentices. There was a huge level of discrepancy considering some of them had not likely ever fought before and others had not earned the right to a Guardian Beast at all—he and Pratty didn’t have one. But they were at least providing ways to make up for that and he suspected that was part of the reason Bron wanted them back at the Silver Guild the moment this was over.
Once everyone had a moment to process the information with varying levels of excitement or trepidation, Sakuro continued. “Starting tomorrow, all you of begin receiving a clearance pass to enter the Labyrinth up to the 12th Floor to gather materials and fortify yourself for combat. You should know that we have not done anything to lessen or remove the dangers of the Labyrinth and the threat they present. However, to reward exploration, we have set treasure chests filled with items or materials that may be beneficial to you. Weigh the risk and rewards accordingly—if you cannot defend yourself, you are not worthy of being a Craftlord. But we do not wish for your lives to be forfeited in a fool’s pursuit.”
By not removing the challenges they were effectively telling them to break through them under their own strength. As they fought against the creatures in the Labyrinth their own abilities would increase, and by pushing themselves to their limits they would be forced to grow. He couldn’t shake the sensation that such a notion was familiar, but the memory annoyingly continued to elude the stray smith.
“The preliminary matches will begin at the start of next week with you receiving notices,” Lubert said. “You will not know who your opponent will be until the day of the match. After those of you who lacked the skills to go further beyond are removed from the pool, individual matches will be scheduled in accordance with the decision of the Craftlords. For these, you will usually receive notification of your next match a week in advance to give you time to prepare yourself accordingly.”
So you would have to defeat your first opponent while not knowing what to expect, to see if you could overcome an unknown challenge. Then, after you had a taste for battle and went in blind, you would receive advance notice. That gave you time to learn all you could to gain a decisive edge over them, but they could do the same to you. Either you surpassed yourself as you were before, or you risked being outmatched because you couldn’t.
“Finally, techniques for the weapon used in the tournament will need to be submitted in the standard format before each match to the Central Tower,” Ureksa added. “This is because not only will we be appraising your skill in crafting based on it, but also since a copy of it will be provided to your opponent should they be victorious as part of their prize.”
Now that got some feedback. Weapons were the lifeblood of Craftknights, and they often sought to make their own unique pieces as they developed in skill. More so considering they had to submit an original piece to their Master to graduate into the rank themselves. Handing them over upon defeat so someone else could take their secrets and methods would naturally leave a bad taste in their mouths.
Lubert only sneered at their reaction. “To be frank, if you fail then either your technique was insufficient, or you lacked the capability to bring out its true potential. In which case, the opponent claiming your technique matters not. But if you wish to hamstring yourself by using subpar weapons out of fear that your precious secrets will be stolen, then by all means drop out of the tournament now. We have no need for cowards or those who are so insecure that they think they would fail in the first place.”
The Amber Craftlord’s words were barbed and cruel. Especially considering how so many of them were young. But neither Sapphire nor Jade spoke up against his words, which was tactically giving their agreement on the matter. The noise quelled slowly in understanding as that set in.
Sakuro deigned to close out the ceremony. “Remember the tenets of the Craftknights: A sword is not strength. A sword is not skill. A sword is not fellowship. I sincerely believe that one of you will become our equal despite the short timeframe if you follow the code wholeheartedly, and I look forward to welcoming you as such. Dismissed.”
Once the ceremony was over Welf and Pratty used their Water Scooters to bypass the long foot trek back to the Silver Guild. Pratty almost immediately jumped through the entrance and called out for Bron, eager to have the chance to obtain a Guardian Beast. But he only told her to settle down and wait for everyone to arrive before discussing any of that.
And by everyone, he meant the other apprentices that they had never really met before.
The first to arrive after them was the same red-haired girl who had been close to them. She wore her red hair that resembled Welf’s and Amariss in a high ponytail with a pink ribbon, leaving her proud and confident face uncovered for all to see. Her tunic was pink with white hemming and stripes while she had a matching combat skirt and boots that had the opposite color scheme. And on her back was a longsword that looked to be just a foot shy of her actual height.
She glanced over at the two of them once more before she turned her back to them.
“I’M HERE, UNC—MASTER BRON!” And in complete contrast to her was a rather young kid who was likely barely over the age of ten, earning a second glance from Welf. They were dressed in a yellow shirt that was oversized enough that it fell to their upper thighs, followed by black shorts, and had to be secured with what looked to be a belt the size of their stomach. A yellow bandana covered their head to match the color of their tunic, and they wore thick brown boots and gloves.
“How loud can one person be?” chimed in a third person, who turned out to be a girl with a ribbon-rimmed blue hat covering her brown hair. She had round-framed glasses but wore a confident expression as she strode into the room.
And then what may as well have been her clone followed, only instead of blue she had a green color scheme, and her expression was slightly more neutral. “It can’t be helped when they are so young.”
Those two were followed by another young woman who introduced herself as Trish. She had deep purple hair in pigtails and immediately came over towards Pratty to chat with her like an old friend, though considering they were fellow apprentices it was likely that they were. And last was a blue-haired young man who called himself the Great Caizo, moving with a swagger in his step and oozing confidence.
“Good, yer all here now,” Bron began as he stood before them with his lumbering frame easily towering over them. His eyes briefly settled on each of them before he straightened them out. “I’ll only ask this once: Do ya have the skills an’ confidence to win and become a Craftlord?”
“Naturally,” answered the red-haired girl as she stood straight. “I’ve been training for this even before they announced the tournament. I’ll become the next Craftlord easily.”
“Nu-uh! It’s gonna be me!” said the shortest of the group with the sort of energy and optimism you would expect from a child. “I got this in the bag!”
“Confidence with no basis in reality,” the blue-colored twin said while shrugging her shoulders. “It must be nice to be so young. Right, Mariel?”
“Now, now, Ariel,” responded the green-colored one. “There’s a chance they can scrape by the first round if they get lucky on the draw. And I suppose if someone of Sanary’s standing can’t cut it, it’d be embarrassing.”
Sanary, the red-haired one, glowered at them. “I see your attitudes haven’t changed for a couple of bookworms. The kid could probably run laps around the both of you.”
“I’m not a kid!” said kid snapped with a frown. “My name is Razzy! Remember that because I’m going send you flying when we get on stage.”
“Ladies, ladies, there’s no need to fight amongst yourselves,” Caizo said, brazenly stepping into the middle of what was starting to look like a premature four-way match. “After all, we are all members of the same guild. I am certain that we are all capable of passing the challenge ahead with dignity and grace.”
Meanwhile, Trish simply looked over to Pratty and with a smile said, “Let’s do our best!”
Pratty’s response was a bit more subdued, given she had mostly been preoccupied with the others getting ready to tear one another’s heads off. “Y-Yeah….”
Welf stayed silent until Bron finished pinching his nose and shaking his head at the display before fixing his gaze on the stray smith. “I’ll do my best, but I honestly can’t say whether or not I’ll be able to stack up yet.”
It earned him some looks from the others, but he only shrugged in response. It would be a lie to say that he had the skills to win in the tournament given that he was still in a state where he didn’t know the full scope of what he was capable of. They had the luxury of recalling all their lessons as an apprentice whereas he was still drudging through what he knew and what he didn’t.
He would give it his all but he knew where he stood.
Bron only grunted. “Ya could do with some more determination, but I’ll hold ya to the standard set then. And to be honest, none of ya got the skills to win as ya are. Yer all too green, pickin’ at each other and chompin’ at the bits. But at the very least, I wanna see ya do better than I have so far. Startin’ with less bickerin’!”
They took the warning to heart and at the very least settled to glaring at one another instead of threatening open violence.
“Right then, first thing for the unaware. Startin’ tonight yer living here on the Second Floor for the duration of the tournament. Yer parents have sent yer belongings and I’ve shoved ‘em into the rooms of upstairs—and no, ya don’t get ta pick.”
Pratty had the expected response. “Wait, what? When did I agree to that?”
“When ye became an apprentice! Now clam it until I’m done talkin’!” She promptly hushed up. “Second, since all of ya are my apprentices, I ain’t playin’ favorites. I don’t care if I’ve known ya since yer were in diapers, yer prodigies in the making, ye call a Craftlord kin, or yer a decent stray off the streets. You’ll all be gettin’ the same treatment from me.”
It was only briefly, but Welf caught several of them shifting at that part of his speech. Pratty was obvious, given her father, but it seemed like the others fit those criteria. He could guess from their attitudes that the twins were likely the aforementioned prodigies and he had heard Razzy’s slight slip of the tongue along with the fact that they were dressed like a younger version of the man himself.
“Third: take advantage of this opportunity while ya can,” Bron continued with a slight smile. “Normally, I wouldn’ think of handin’ some of ya a weapon for a couple more years, but now ya get the chance to ask me for a technique fittin’ for ya and the chance to learn ahead of schedule. Livin’ here means ya get access to the forges in yer workshops at all times, and the Labyrinth can give ya all the materials can carry. Until the end of the tournament, all of that is yers—whether ya win or not.”
As the Guild Master of one of the two largest guilds in Wystern, Bron was normally busy with so many things that he couldn’t afford to dedicate the majority of his time to aiding his apprentices. But now he could and that meant they had a chance to get ahead of the curve with resources and opportunities they wouldn’t get for years. Their squabbling over who would win the tournament took a backseat as they realized the scope of freedom they had while no longer constrained by ordinary restrictions.
“We have been working on that new drill design for a while,” Ariel began with a very pleased smile. “With the proper material and knowledge, we could move our timetable up by quite a bit, couldn’t we, Mariel?”
The younger twin set a hand on her chin as the light from above glinted off her spectacles. “Unlimited access to fully functional forges with no restrictions certainly would make our progress smoother. We even have the opportunity to stress test them.”
“…I can visit that place any time I want now on my own,” Sanary muttered softly and in a contemplative tone. Then a smile came onto her face as whatever the implications of that clearly pleased her.
“Ooh, then can I have you help me finish working on an idea I came up with?” Razzy asked with the sort of enthusiasm you would expect from a child being told they could get whatever they wanted. “I wanted to try earlier, but Mom said I had to wait until I was old enough to be a Craftknight and get a Guardian Beast like yours.”
The Silver Master nodded. “In due time. So, hurry up an’ get settled in upstairs. I’ll send word for those of ya without a Guardian Beast when the Summoner gets here so it can be handled privately. And remember that yer rivals, but not enemies. Push each other to new heights, but don’t go sabotagin’ one another!”
The moment that Bron had given them the cue to do their own thing for a while, Welf returned to his room on the Second Floor. The others were busy enough settling into their own rooms with their grand plans for what the tournament held for them. Bron had proven himself their master by knowing exactly what would incentivize them enough to focus on the whole of what they could accomplish since in the end only one of them can be the next Craftlord.
He opted to instead lay on his bed and focus on gathering his own thoughts and his own desires. He still recalled what was born from the first time he swung a hammer. The origin point that gave rise to his desire to be a smith and the joy of creating something new.
For him, he supposed that the tournament would give him the opportunity to create new weapons to test and improve upon. But he wasn’t blind to what that meant. He would have to face Pratty at some point or other if they both made it past the first round.
Pratty was the daughter of Shintetsu. The child of the Craftlord of Iron. The empty throne was now set to be filled and she was in a position to do it, filling in where her father no longer could and taking up his place. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do so, and Welf had no doubt she was going to give it her all for that reason.
What right did he have to stand in the way of that and risk crushing her dream when his own was far simpler?
Before he could get lost in his thoughts on her normally cheerful face being contorted in tears at him potentially crushing her, there was a knock on the door. And it was followed by a familiar voice. “Welf, open up!”
“Pratty?” He rose from the bed and made his way over to the door. The moment he opened it, he was greeted with the sight of green fur as something was shoved into his face hard enough that it knocked him over. “Bwagh!?”
“Look, look!” Pratty said as she stepped into the room while holding a green and furry creature that resembled a stuffed animal more than anything. But alive. “I’ve got a Guardian Beast now!”
“…I can see that,” he muttered as he rose to his feet and took a good look at said Guardian Beast. Its legs were chambered, and it had a pair of long and floppy ears that were the length of its body. A red collar adorned its neck, with a matching red cap on the top of its head. And… were those spiked gloves it wore? “So, who’s this little… guy?”
“His name is Kutty,” Pratty said, even as the creature wriggled its way out of her grasp and then began to float in the air without wings of any kind. “Get this, Master Bron said he was the same Guardian Beast my father summoned twenty years ago! He thinks that the bond between them was so strong he sensed who I was and answered.”
“You don’t say.” He brought his hand to his chin in thought when he considered the adorable little floating creature was older than the both of them. He reached out to pat it on the head. “Nice to meet you, Kutty.”
The response he got was the Guardian Beast letting out a cry of its name before promptly dropping lower in the air until he was chest-height with Welf. Then he lashed out with his fist. “Kutty!”
Welf staggered back. Not so much in pain but in surprise. It actually packed a bit of a punch despite its small size. “Why’d he hit me?”
“Not sure,” Pratty told him. “He licked me. Then punched me. Then he laughed. I’m still working out whether that means he likes me or finds me amusing. But that can wait until later. Master Bron told me to come get you so that you can get your own partner—and he said to bring your sword since that’s all you had to your name when you got here.”
“Right, I need to get my own Guardian Beast to properly participate, won’t I?”
He hesitated as he looked over the flying green punching creature that regarded him with eyes that were dark and judgmental. It was the very same Guardian Beast that had helped Pratty’s father, called forth when she was in the running to succeed him. It seemed almost like fate, so did he really…
“You’re not thinking something silly like ‘you don’t want to compete because we might be going against each other’, are you?” He jolted as he turned back to see Pratty pouting at him after practically reading his mind. “Master Bron said you might be thinking something like that before he sent me up, but I didn’t think he was serious!”
He sighed while silently cursing the man who was more perceptive than he gave him credit for. “…I told you before that I have other priorities, right?”
“That’s no excuse!” Pratty chided him. “You think I want to be a Craftlord if I’m not good enough that someone has to throw a match for my sake?”
“That’s not what I was saying.”
“It sounded that way,” she pointed out. “I want to become a Craftlord like Father, but there’s no point in succeeding him if I can’t win honestly against one of my friends. How do you think Master Bron and Mother would feel knowing you threw in the towel for my sake?”
They would be upset with him. He knew that much from the time he had spent with them. Because not only did it mean that he wasn’t actually giving it his all, but he was dragging Pratty down in the process by not serving as a proper obstacle that she needed to overcome.
He huffed. “Okay, let’s say that I do give it my all and I win. What will you do then?”
The girl had no hesitation. “Train harder so that I can earn the title the way that Father did, through his own efforts and merits. I want people to acknowledge me because I earned it. And if you beat me and then go on to win, at least then I can say one of my friends managed to make it that far because I pushed them to it by making them give it their all! Right, Kutty?”
“Kutty!” The Guardian Beast nodded in agreement before flying over and landing on her head. It then made punching motions toward Welf, as if to say it would welcome the challenge.
“…Pfffttt. Hahahaha!” He broke out laughing as he realized the point that she was making. So what if one path for her was closed off? She would find another while taking advantage of the fact that she was getting a head start thanks to the tournament. It was no different than the promise he had made to himself when he forged the hammer and vowed to succeed regardless of whether or not he got admission to the Silver Guild.
“You got me there, both of you.” Rising to his feet, the stray smith made his way over to the wall where the greatsword that had been with him since he woke laid against and picked it up. He then hefted it forward towards the pair in a challenge. The stance and motion felt engraved into his body with familiarity. “Fine then, if we meet opposite one another then I’ll give it my all.”
“You better!” She stuck her chest out with pride at having gotten what she wanted from the older of the two of them with her words. “Now hurry up and get to Master Bron.”
He went down the stairs and into the private room where Bron was awaiting him with the Summoner. “Sorry, I’m late. Pratty gave me an earful.”
“And whatever she said goes double for me,” Bron added on principle. The Silver Master probably knew everything she was going to say the moment he told her what was likely on Welf’s mind. He then looked to the Summoner. “Yer up!”
“Right…” The man cleared his throat. “Now, I’ve been told of your situation from Master Bron. You’ve lost your memories and so the normal process of questioning that I would give to help with finding a compatible partner from one of the four other realms won’t work since you have less experience to draw from.”
Welf had been told that Summon Creatures tended to come from one of the four realms that ringed this one. There was Loreilal, which was a technologically advanced world that had more mechanical beings. There was Maetropa, where magical beasts typically lived (he was assuming Kutty came from there). There was Sapureth, where more spiritual beings like angels and devils called home. And last there was Silturn, the world where Oni and beings born from beliefs and objects manifested.
“Fortunately, we might be able to manage to find you a compatible partner by instead focusing on the embodiment of the passions that drive you now. That which stirs within you strong emotions along with something that embodies it will act as a focus by reaching out across the boundaries set in place and call forth a likeminded Summon Creature.”
It clicked. “So that’s why you wanted me to bring my sword with me?”
“S’ right,” Bron nodded. “It’s clear as day that forgin’ and smithin’ has been drilled into ya so thoroughly that what yer mind can’t recall, yer body does. That blade of yers ain’t a masterpiece by any stretch and won’t hold up in the tournament, but it’s clear a lotta thought and feelin’ went into it. There ain’t a more appropriate catalyst for ya.”
He couldn’t remember shaping the metal to forge the blade, but he could tell what every part of it was shaped for. It was practical in its design and thus had a purpose. That was done with consideration and planning before being worked into existence. “Okay, let’s give it a try.”
Welf exchanged the sword with the man who gave him a colorless gemstone in return. Just touching it he could feel that it was rich in mana. The man explained that it was called a Summonite Gem, which would be used to provide the basis of the contract for the Bonding Pact—a catalyst to throw wide the gates and open the way for his partner to reach him.
“Right, I’ll begin the chant now,” the Summoner said. “Focus your thoughts, your breath, your very soul of a smith that you hold pride onto the stone. As you do so, wish with all your heart for a Guardian Beast to aid you in both your craft and battle. In doing so, it should resonate with a compatible Summon Creature, and you will hear a name. Call it out when you do to seal the contract.”
The soul of a smith.
He closed his eyes and slowly began taking deep breaths as he searched for that which could be called his soul. He already remembered what it was that night months ago, sitting in the dark and working himself to the bone. He only needed to return and grasp it once more, so he fell deep into himself….
The welcoming darkness. The ring of a hammer striking steel. He traced his way to them once more expecting to arrive at the scene of the forge where the shrouded silhouette awaited him from ages lost.
But this time was different. The din of the hammer instead led him someplace else. Someplace that was beyond even that enclosed space. Someplace further than the boundaries of the darkness itself that seemed endless.
And there he saw a guiding flame.
It was such a small and feeble thing. So weak that it looked as though a slight breeze would put it out. Yet it was so warm as he approached the beacon in the dark that seemed to quiver in curiosity as he felt its attention fall onto him instead of the din of steel being struck that lured it here.
It was just a newly kindled flame that had flickered into life. Too weak to become a roaring blaze or light a forge. It might just quietly fade out without accomplishing anything if left on its own. Yet something in his very blood seemed to be reaching out that young flame.
And it reached out to his blood in turn, cautiously. Like a newborn, the flame crawled closer and closer until it could finally reach out to brush it. The flicker of its touch was gentle and probing with inquisitive curiosity. But his blood itself seemed to be more than willing to embrace it in response, gently bringing it into its grasp.
Curiosity bloomed into an acknowledgment of the kinship between them. Then he felt something inside of him shift. It could only be described as the echoes of his blood stirring to life and flowing into that weak and meager flame. It slowly burned brighter and hotter, practically thrumming with definition and life until it was steady and strong.
A sensation of relief and fulfillment washed over him. The feeling that came with the entrustment of something beloved. So precious and sentimental that it could persist even in a place that one only reached after the end of one journey and before the beginning of a new one.
Welf looked at the invigorated flame that now danced in his formless palms. It eagerly brushed against him with a newfound zeal. Clinging to him as the din of steel fell silent there was a single prevalent desire that had filled the flame.
You want to help me, huh? He could feel the desire. The yearning to seek out that which could only be found in the song of steel being worked and the warmth of the forge. That works for me. But I need to know your name.
It flickered for a moment as in thought. Then he felt what could only be called the ghost of a smile gracing that which had no mouth. It answered back with…
Fire bloomed in his palm.
No sooner than the name was declared did the hand that grasped the colorless gemstone erupt into flames that swallowed it whole. They lapped over every inch of his arm as they crawled along the limb to his upper body. Then he felt its embrace rolling over him from head to waist entirely.
Yet it didn’t burn.
The flames that came from the gemstone were gentle and soothing as they caressed him. Feeling him inside and out. Taking something from the very blood within him. Then it slowly pulled itself away and he saw that the rampant flame now had what could pass as a humanoid shape, albeit with decidedly more feminine features as its glowing eyes that housed within it an ardent flame stared straight into his own.
That name touched his mind with an ethereal yet dulcet tone. It was her voice. She was speaking to him despite having no mouth to speak with.
And that name. He didn’t know why, but that name seemed to draw out a wellspring of anger from deep inside of him. Something about it filled him with nothing but disdain to the point he never wanted to hear it again. “My name is Welf. Not whoever Crozzo is.”
The embodiment of flame quirked its head.
“Not Crozzo,” he insisted. Even though the name sounded familiar he found it distasteful. Besides, from what he had been told the only people who had last names were those who were Summoners or descended from them. “I’m just Welf, Urus.”
There was an impression of… sadness? Confusion? Understanding? He wasn’t certain if she felt that way entirely or if he was having trouble interpreting the impressions that she was giving him. It was all too new to really tell.
“ARE YA TRYIN’ TO BURN ME TO A CRISP, YA DAFT IDIOT!”
The sharp yell of an angry blacksmith drew their attention back to Bron. The Silver Master was frowning rather fiercely given that part of his shirt and some of his facial hair was smoldering from what Welf could only assume was being too close when Urus had erupted into existence. He winced. “Sorry, Master Bron.”
The man’s nostrils flared out as he settled himself. “Ya took ages ta wake up. Thought somethin’ went wrong with the process an’ when I got close, all of a sudden ya went up in flames!”
The Summoner himself looked winded. But thankfully not burnt. “Yes, the process was admittedly longer than normal. But it’s done now. You should be able to see the name of your Guardian Beast within the Summonite Gem to signal the completion of the process.”
He opened his palm to see what had once been a colorless gemstone was now a scarlet red one. The name that had been given to him was emblazoned deep inside of it as if burned into place from the inside out to be forever preserved—the Bonding Pact.
The Summoner composed himself and then gave his analysis. “Given its clearly spiritual nature and how you seem to be able to commune while we don’t hear a verbal response, I have to assume that it came from the Spirit Realm of Sapureth. You should be aware that they possess different senses of perception and understanding, given that before the Summoning Ritual they typically lack a physical form. It may take time to get accustomed to its new form, so don’t be surprised if it starts probing you and gradually learning customs. And now I believe I will take my leave and get some Tomato Juice at the local inn. That was exhausting…”
The departure of the man was followed by Bron stating that the Fire Spirit would likely need to be guided once they started forging anything since they had no previous experience. But at the very least they were pretty sure that there wouldn’t be a compatibility problem. More so considering how she kept clinging to him and muttering his name over and over as if to reaffirm who he was.
Hopefully, she would pick up on things quickly enough since there was only a week before the preliminaries.