The Stray Smith: Chapter 2
Chapter 2 – Forging Ahead
Night passed and morning came.
Since he had a habit of waking right as the sun was on the cusp of rising to get the forges up and running, Welf had been the first to rise. The ingrained habit led him down the stairs to the main forge area where he went through the motions since, even if the workload had dropped and the majority of the Journeymen were no longer here, a few would come in to use them for other work. Once that was taken care of, he decided to go ahead and make breakfast since the schedule for who among the Journeymen normally would make it was no longer relevant.
Bron woke up when he was in the middle of cooking, having also woken up early since he needed to handle Silver Guild business such as deliveries and the like. He looked at the meal that was being made and, once it was clear there was enough being prepared for all the apprentices, nodded approvingly. Then he left out to handle the deliveries to the local shops he had a contract with for business.
Welf had finished making the morning meal when the first to come down was Sanary. She was dressed in a set of sleeping shorts and a long nightshirt with her neck-length hair left unbound, in contrast to her normal appearance. She had clearly just woken up and regarded him for a moment before asking, “Where’s Master Bron?”
“He had to deal with the guild duties, so I’m in charge of breakfast this morning,” he explained. “It might be a bit meatier than you’re used to though. Master Bron tends to want those who live in the guild itself to eat pretty heartly, so they have the strength to work hard.”
Her response was to frown as if he had offended her. “I’m not some princess who tries to go on a diet while being a Craftknight. You need protein to put on muscle unless you plan to just let your Guardian Beast do all the work.”
You needed stamina more than strength when it came to forging but using a longsword meant she needed stronger arms to use it effectively. Looking at them now that they weren’t covered by her normal tunic, he could see they were slender but honed to a greater degree than the others. Then again he had an inkling that Sanary was around his age, which made the two of them the oldest of the apprentices and so they likely had more to work with.
“Then there’s no problem,” Welf said. “If you take a seat, I can have a plate ready for you since I was just getting ready to make my own.”
She let out a slight hum before shrugging her shoulders and taking a seat at the table that was rather long since it was meant to have everyone eating together. She crossed her leg and rested one arm on the table, eyeing him the entire time until he was done. Content that he had not done anything to her food, she gave him a rather flat, “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” he answered in turn without regard for her attempt at being as distant as possible. He could tell from how quickly that argument sparked last night that she was among the most competitive in the guild so she was trying not to let her guard down around him. “So, I assume you’ll be heading straight to the Labyrinth once we receive our passes?”
She paused from eating to address him. “Of course. There’s going to be a scramble to get materials for better weapons by every other person in the tournament. That’s part of why you’re up early, right?”
“Not in particular,” Welf admitted. “I’m used to waking early. But rather than hurry through since I haven’t been there before, I intended to make preparations and finalize the technique for the weapon I plan to use in the tournament. That way I won’t have to butt heads with everyone else hurrying in the morning.”
Red eyes scrutinized his answer for a moment before she shut them. “Suit yourself.”
The small talk ended there as both of them finished their meal. Sanary gave him the courtesy of complimenting it before she headed up to one of the two bathrooms to get herself ready for the day. Welf stayed below to clean up after himself.
That was when Bron returned with a bit of news that the shop was selling Iron Ore at a steep discount, which was pretty good considering how it neatly broke down into three sets of elemental ores due to its composition. Since Welf was already awake he gave him some boam and told him to go and purchase some for whatever he had planned before the news spread around and they sold out in a hurry.
Welf set out since he had intended to go shopping for the Labyrinth exploration either way. He already had an idea of how to get the elemental ore he needed without using Iron Ore, so he didn’t feel the need to buy as much as he could. Instead, he wanted to make sure he had enough supplies for the trip—Amulets that warded away Stray Summons, Silturn Water in case his mana reserves dropped, etc.
By the time he returned the other apprentices, barring Pratty, were already eating and getting ready for the day. The Central Tower official who oversaw the issuing of Labyrinth passes had come by while he was out and handed Bron theirs. The Silver Master passed them along before Welf returned to his room and took a seat at the nearby desk.
The stray smith then set aside the ores he bought and started with the design of the blade. He needed the details of its structure before he could work out the ratio of elemental ores and how they would be implemented. He was using his current sword as a model, but he wanted there to be room for some flexibility and change.
That was another reason he planned to visit the Labyrinth later. He wanted to get a better scope of the sorts of creatures he would be using it against, along with the tournament. That way he could make something reliable enough to last in battle without neglecting the offensive capabilities.
It was when he was midway through the designing that Urus roused from what passed as slumber. Even though the Summonite Gem allowed her to return to her home realm and be called forth again at will, she seemed to prefer to stay closer to him. But since she was still unused to her new form and he didn’t want to risk waking to find that she had lit his room on fire while in a dream, they had settled on her sleeping in the forge.
She drifted closer until her flame-woven arms rested over his shoulders. It felt like nestling against a softly burning hearth, warm but not unpleasantly so. Then he spotted her incandescent eyes falling onto what he was working on and felt her gentle brush of a question against his mind.
“We’ll spend time practicing with some simple materials to get used to the process before moving on to Iron Ore tomorrow,” he answered in turn. The Iron Ore had set amounts of the elemental ores but she wasn’t experienced in pulling all three. Better to start one at a time with lesser materials and work their way up. “I’ll go ask Bron if he has any advice on the ratio distribution now since he’ll likely be busy with the others.”
Urus hung herself over his shoulders in what he presumed was a comfortable position as he made his way toward the stairs. But, before he could get down them, bickering came in from the base of it below. The voices belonged to Sanary and Pratty.
“I’m not asking for you to give it to me for free,” Pratty said with her voice unusually forceful compared to normal. She was leaning forward with Kutty on the top of her head, trying to stack up to Sanary’s height. “Just sell me one so I can make my weapon!”
Sanary merely looked down upon her, arms crossed and annoyed. “I said no. It’s your own fault for being so slow.”
“What are you two arguing about?” Welf asked as he began to make his way down the stairwell. Urus was leaning over his shoulder far enough that if she needed a center of balance she certainly would have tipped over.
Pratty’s blue eyes looked up towards him for support as she pointed an accusative finger toward Sanary. “Welf, get this! She bought up the last of the Iron Ore that Master told us was on sale. Even when I’m offering to pay for it, she won’t sell me any so I can’t make the technique that he gave me—and without a weapon, I can’t go into the Labyrinth either. It’s sabotage.”
The red-haired swordswoman bristled. “It’s not! I just so happen to buy what was left after that guy in green bought up the rest. The fact that everyone else got theirs before you is because you were so slow waking up. You’ve no one to blame but yourself.”
Welf sighed as he got the gist of the situation. Everyone else had gotten news of the sale within the Silver Guild and went out to buy it after breakfast. But because Pratty had a habit of sleeping so long she was late to get hers. No materials meant she couldn’t forge whatever weapon it was that Bron had given her, and with no weapon going into a place filled with hostile creatures was a death wish.
Add that with the fact that by their own tenets Craftknights only wielded weapons that they themselves made, Pratty was stuck unless she gathered up various items to turn into materials. But she didn’t have a good scope of what was needed since that came with time and experience. All which she lacked as an apprentice that never forged a weapon.
“Pratty, Sanary does have the right of it. You’re rivals with one another and every Iron Ore she gives you is one less she can use in her own forging.” The look of betrayal she gave him contrasted with the expression that came across the older girl’s face at the acknowledgment. “That being said, I can afford to part with a single Iron Ore for whatever price you were offering to pay her. Just leave the boam on my desk and take your time since you likely won’t have the materials to spare, and I can’t justify more than that for my own project.”
Pratty accepted that with an energetic jump that caused her Guardian Beast to settle for floating in the air rather than being tossed around. She then ran past Sanary and hugged him. “Thanks, Welf! I’ll show you my weapon when I’m done!”
She was in and out of his workshop within five seconds before she locked herself into her workshop.
Sanary only shook her head but said nothing else. She just continued down the stairs without looking back. Considering that she had her battle clothes and her sword on her back, he could only assume that she was getting ready to go to the Labyrinth.
Welf hoped that things between her and Pratty improved. They were all members of the same guild in the end. Just because they were rivals didn’t mean they needed to be enemies.
Pratty shut the door to her workshop once her Guardian Beast floated in behind her. “Thanks to Welf being reasonable, we can get started on our first weapon. Isn’t it exciting, Kutty?”
She unfurled the technique given to her by the Silver Master and laid it out on the table. It was called the [Novice Knife] and was meant for beginning Journeymen to craft once they had their Guardian Beast due to the lack of complexities. It was just a multi-purpose knife that was well-balanced and cost-efficient when it came to materials to make a Sword-Type weapon—the kind of weapon her father used the most.
It only required ten elemental ores—five Fire Ores and Wind Ores. The fire ones would be turned into the blade and the tang. The wind ones would be turned into the hilt and pommel. It was a pretty plain weapon, but Master Bron had assured her it would be fine for her to get a feel for using a weapon.
The magical beast only regarded the design for a moment before letting out an unimpressed, “Ku.”
Pratty puffed out her cheeks at the response. She couldn’t tell if his dismissive attitude was towards the weapon itself being simplistic, since he had probably worked on more impressive things with her father, or if he just wasn’t interested at all. She was still having trouble getting a read on his behavior at times.
“Anyway, Master Bron said that it was simple enough to us make and use,” Pratty continued as she went over to the forge and lit it. “You might be rusty since you were out of practice for three years, but I’ll be counting on your help.”
That done she waited until the forge was hot before she added the pink crystals that contained the blessings of Parista within them to one of the chambers that made up the forge. The red-hot flames in it began to turn a more vibrant hue as the crystals broke down and became kindling to imbue the fire with the ability to burn away the material essence. Then she slid the Iron Ore into that section of the forge and closed it shut, watching through the pane as the transformation happened.
The materials lapped by the flames began to glow as the heat sank in. There was a mixture of colors swimming around loosely that she could make out as they bled to the surface—red, green, and blue that represented the elements housed within it. The colors grew more vivid as the ore itself began to shed motes of light that showed the process was nearing completion until it completely evaporated and the forge was filled with the rampant colors dancing among the flames as they were now free of physical constraints.
“Kutty!” She called out to the magical beast that had gone over to her bed and decided to drift off while waiting for the forge to do its work. He roused with a slight yawn before poking his eyes up from beneath his cap. “The ore’s been broken down. Your turn.”
He floated over towards the forge and peered through the opening before extending both of his gloved hands. The adorable features of his face became focused as he began to radiate light from gathering his mana and then reaching out to the turbulent colors floating around in the chamber. They stirred like they were in a twister, the process separating them neatly into different hues of glowing balls before he made a noise and gestured at the handle.
Pratty interpreted that as the signal to open the forge, so she did. The heat from the flames blasted her with their warmth before the assorted balls of color emerged and then floated over to the nearby tray. Then there was a flash of light as they crystalized into three sets of five colored blocks stacked onto one another.
“Wow, they’re all neat and everything.” She couldn’t help but be impressed. Pratty had seen elemental ores before, but usually, they were rough in shape rather than so neat and defined. If she had to guess it was because he had two decades of experience in the process compared to a new Guardian Beast. “Good job, Kutty!”
The floating bundle of fur somehow managed to make a rather smug smile as he crossed his arms and nodded his head. It was as if he was saying that was to be expected of him. “Ku. Ku. Ku.”
“Don’t get a big head just yet, Mister,” Pratty said as she pushed aside the water ones. Those could be saved for later. “We need to put the red ones back into the forge while the flames still have Parista’s blessing so you can recombine them into the base of the knife. Then do the same for the green ones for the handle and pommel before the blessing wears off.”
It didn’t take nearly as long as it did before for them to break down once they were back inside the chamber specifically for processing the elemental ores. In their pure state, they easily turned into their formless state and the Guardian Beast could force them together into a shape closer to that of a weapon. In this case, Kutty would be making the shape into the blade and tang of the knife using the fire ones based on the proper measurements that Master Bron had written down. Then they could heat them in the main section of the forge like ordinary steel where regular flames would make them more physically malleable so that they could start working on the rest of the profiling and beveling.
Kutty gave her an annoyed chuff at having to do so, but never once did he stray or lose focus in the process. It was clear that the time spent with Shintetsu had passed on a lot of lessons going from a Journeymen to a Craftlord. Not only did he speed up certain parts of the forging, but he even corrected the mistakes she was getting ready to make, like when she nearly pinched the bevel instead of compressing it by angling the blade wrong before hammering it.
Then there was filing those bevels down on both sides before curving them to their edges. She had to do that before she put it back into the forge at low heat for the heat treatment and then quench it to harden the structure of the blade so that it could hold a sharp edge. Then they would temper the metal to make it less brittle by putting it through two cycles of keeping it heated and then allowing it to cool at room temperature so that its durability was solid enough that it wouldn’t break too quickly.
While waiting for the tempering to finish they got started on the handle and pommel. Kutty put the wind blocks through the same process of breaking them down and then reconstituting them into two individual pieces. The ratio skewed the majority towards the pommel that would be peened to the tang since that was the counterbalance for the weight, allowing it to offset it to a greater degree despite being so light itself thanks to the fact that it was composed of the wind elemental ores.
After that, she eyed it to make sure that the blade was straight before she took it to the grindstone to refine the bevels. Normally, it was a slower process to make sure that not too much material was taken off. But Kutty used his wind to somehow smooth out the process and they could do the same to the handle and pommel, polishing them up before sharpening the blade.
She stood up after that and thrust the completed weapon into the air. “Woohoo, we’re done!”
Her Guardian Beast lacked the same enthusiasm, instead letting out a yawn as he rubbed his eyes and then drifted down towards her bed. “Ku, kuuu…”
“You’re hard to please at times, aren’t you?” Even so, Pratty couldn’t bring herself to be upset considering he had done most of the harder work that she would have struggled with and made it so that they didn’t have to work out any mistakes. She imagined if he hadn’t been trained it would have been a lot harder and taken longer.
She rose to her feet, resolved to show off their work with pride to the Silver Master. But before that, she went over and ran her hand along her partner’s frame which was rising and falling with a steady rhythm of slumber. “Good night, Kutty.”
Welf made for the Central Tower sometime after midday while Pratty had been in the middle of making her first weapon.
He went beyond the guards that were stationed on the outside and passed by a few of the other apprentices who had already done their round of exploring. Some carried themselves straight and sported expressions that told they had made a grand discovery or met with success on their weapon testing. Others were despondent and making their way back to the surface without eye contact, lacking a weapon and evidence of having fled from battle with only their lives.
The moment he set foot below ground he felt in the atmosphere how different it was from the surface.
The air was damp and cool against his skin, contrasting the warmth of the salt-sweet breeze that washed throughout the City of Swords. Metal pipes threaded the steel ceiling, while a long bridge served as the sole path leading beyond the waterway that marked the boundary between above and below. The residencies of the people who came before the current era were now abandoned dwellings, stacked on top of one another with rusted ladders slouching over in surrender from the passage of time and steep stairs that were glistening from moisture that promised to send any fool that trod upon them carelessly tumbling below.
This was the smallest floor of what was once a towering city locked within steel to serve as a haven during the era of war. Each floor grew more expansive the further one made it down until they reached what had been the base of a tower that pierced the heavens. The sunken city upon which Wystern had been built now turned into a den of dangers—the Labyrinth.
Brighter than I expected, Welf mused. The light that filled it stemmed from two sources as a whole: the soft glow of the crystals that had formed over the various surfaces that made up the area and the luminous water itself that seemed to have swallowed up sunken portions of the floor.
The crystals themselves were condensed mana formed from the dissipation of the summon creatures that had met their end within the walls of the Labyrinth sealed off from the world outside. Summoners of eld loyal to Parista called forth other beings from other realms to protect the Holy Spirit of Swords that lay within the shrine below. The stray summons that existed today were descendants made by asexual reproduction, a process possible due to the physical forms they were given through the ritual that brought them into the world, and their deaths released that mana back out into the world barring particularly resilient or concentrated portions retaining their composition after their death. That which did not crystallize upon a solid surface instead clung to the water, the constant shifting of which by the ancient structure kept it from becoming solidified.
Welf’s attention was pulled over to the side by a large pad that was several paces to his left from the entranceway that thrummed with a constant din. He had been reminded before he set out that there were two conveniences that he should take advantage of within the Labyrinth, ancient devices that were still maintained within the abandoned confines by the Craftknights. This was the one known as a Teleporter.
How it worked eluded him—something or other about repurposed principles from Loreilal summon creatures that attuned to the signature of one’s mana before displacing them. What mattered was that by attuning and registering to each one he would gain easy passage between the floors. No need to run up multiple floors when there were stations positioned every few ones or so.
Once that was out of the way he made along what could arguably be called the main path. Since it had been frequently traversed before his arrival there weren’t any real threats lurking about, having no doubt been eradicated by the wandering Craftknights as they searched for materials or the hidden caches left by the Craftlords to gain an advantage over the competition. He was actually grateful since he wanted to avoid combat as much as possible for the moment—he intended to get a feel of the threats he would face but didn’t want to risk his weapon before the Second Floor.
The greatsword that he had wasn’t made through the same processes as other weapons made by Craftknights, so if he used it carelessly it would break. That would leave him defenseless barring the hammer that he kept on him. He had packed two Amulets to be safe as well, to make a cleaner retreat back to the surface.
Progressing along the pathway eventually led him to a raised platform that gave way to a window where there were only steel walls, a singular massive pane that offered an unobstructed view of the world beyond the looking glass. There fish of all colors and shapes swam freely amidst the depths that seemed to stretch on forever.
There was already a familiar figure standing there, admiring the view with a look of quiet contemplation. Her ruby gaze briefly flickered over in his direction upon hearing his footfalls crossing the bridge that connected what must have been the residential area of this floor over towards here. “Oh, it’s you. Are you only arriving now?”
“Yeah.” Welf took that as an invitation to climb up the stairs and join her. “Figured now would be the best time since by now those who found what they were looking for would be gone and the number of stray summons would be at its lowest. That would make it easier to get a gauge of the First and Second Floors without being overwhelming… I’m not interrupting you, am I?”
“Not really.” Her gaze turned back to the view spread out in front of her. “I was just taking a moment to wind down since I finished exploring the Third Floor.”
He could see that she had a bag slung over her shoulder beneath the sheath on her back, with her compact water scooter crossed over the other side. It looked like it was swollen with various shapes inside. “Sounds like you went through a lot going that far.”
“The monsters barely posed a challenge for someone on my skill level. I didn’t even have to rely on my Guardian Beast to deal with them.” The confidence in her voice brokered no falsehoods. For her, it was a simple fact. “Unfortunately, no matter how many I killed I couldn’t find the creature I was looking for. I’ll have to come back tomorrow and try again, but by then the surviving summon creatures will get their numbers back up.”
That was no doubt only possible because the concentration of mana present in the tower meant the summon creatures were never lacking. “And what are you looking for in particular?”
“Not telling.” She crossed her arms as her gaze shifted to the side towards him. “Like you told that kid earlier, the same guild or not we’re still rivals. Telling you would be taking away an advantage of mine.”
“Fair enough.” Welf simply shrugged his shoulders. There was no point in pressing her for the details and it was clear she could handle herself. Instead, he turned his attention back to the ocean view. “Can’t say I expected to see a sight like this underwater. Even if it’s reinforced, the only thing standing between the entirety of the ocean and you is a pretty thin sheet of glass.”
Her response was the opposite of his own. “It’s pretty calming for me. I came here once a few years ago and since then it’s been on my mind. Just being here makes me feel closer to my goal.”
A mild look of surprise came across the stray smith’s face. “Oh. You managed to get in before the tournament?”
“My sister snuck me here once as a reward when I was younger,” Sanary admitted, watching his reaction. When there was none of note, no awe or envy but a mere acceptance of the fact, she pressed on. “She told me that back when the tower sat high in the sky this was meant to be an observatory so that you could see into the stars above without the clouds obstructing them from view. Now it just gives you a look at the sea floor, but the sight sets me at ease. I’m happy that I can finally make it here under my own power now rather than going through a few more years as an apprentice.”
He noticed that not only her voice but her atmosphere did seem a lot less charged than when she was at the workshop. Then again, he supposed that she was treating them all like rivals she would have to step over to get to the top. It was natural she would be on edge as things began and likely would be until it was all over. “That’s a good feeling to hold onto.”
Sanary’s expression shifted once more as she quietly weighed his words. Eventually, that became too much of a hassle before she just sighed and shifted track. “Anyway, since we’re alone I’ll speak my mind. I don’t know what kind of relationship the two of you have but you should stop babying the kid back at the workshop. You might mean well, but if you hold her hand the entire time she’ll only be weaker for it in the future.”
“I’m not babying Pratty,” Welf said. “I’m just helping her while she’s starting out. Someone who never made a weapon before in their lives is going to be fighting an uphill battle the entire way, so having a smooth start can make the difference. One Iron Ore is a small price to pay to the alternative of her coming here without a means of defending herself.”
“It was only an Iron Ore this time, but what if it’s something more next?” Sanary asked, her tone indifferent as she pressed him to realize the folly of that single act. “The fact that she’s in the tournament and Master Bron is helping her should be enough, but if she’s reliant on a guy who should be competition helping her then she’s got bigger problems. Not to mention you’re a bit of a slowpoke in how you operate as well, and helping someone else will only push you further back. At least get your own affairs in order first, otherwise you won’t make it past the preliminaries.”
There was no malice in her voice. It was simply her opinion after the observations she made throughout the day and taking into account what she had seen of their relationship and behavior so far. Someone who moved at a snail’s pace in her eyes having to drag someone else along would only end up with them both falling behind the curve.
Silence lingered as Welf considered her words. Then the stray smith merely smiled and said, “Pratty isn’t slowing me down. If anything, she gave me a push needed to put more effort into it. There are only some things we can only reach for when we have someone else showing us how to get there first. It was the same for you, right?”
The gesture he made to the view they shared emphasized the point. Sanary had been shown the view before her by the sister who brought her here. So that she didn’t need to rely on someone else she became strong enough to make it that far. The path was one she walked on her own, but someone showed it to her before then and she was happier for it.
She gave him dumbfounded look at turning her own words against her before just deciding to let go. “Whatever. I’ll be heading back now. If you decide to go any lower, I’d advise you not to push to the Third Floor. Only a handful of us made it that far down and the monsters tend to start operating in groups to swarm you from all sides.”
That said, she spun on the heel of her boots and made her way out towards the bridge that Welf had come from. He watched her leave for a while before turning his gaze down towards the Summonite Gem that hung around his neck. He had taken the time to wrap it with some cording that he wove into netting, making a necklace so that he didn’t risk losing it. “Urus, you awake?”
Flames gently swaddled him from the gemstone before the half-humanoid frame of the fire spirit greeted him.
“I don’t intend to go very far below since the place is still unknown to us, but chances are we’ll be attacked. I’ll be counting on you to watch my back.”
She met his statement with an affirmative nod and the resolution to do so touched his mind.
Then they made their way to the Second Floor.
The scent of the water was far richer along with the blue tinge of light coming from it. The various canals that carried water throughout the floor had overflowed from the banks and sank some of the lower sections of the buildings. The result was that only the taller structures that made up the floor provided footing like scattered islands in a small sea.
If he had to guess, it was because on this floor in particular the system that kept the water moving and draining had become clogged to a larger degree. The lack of stagnant water was likely because of the mana permeating it. But, considering he could make out the slight protrusion of an eye peering up from the water, it was probably a smarter decision to use a water scooter to get around instead of trying to swim.
He crossed the aquatic boundary that separated him from the safety of retreating to the First Floor. The sloping walkway of what would be the base of a plaza built-in service to a purpose that no longer mattered when life spread beyond its chrome walls was his destination. It was there that was when he encountered his first stray summon.
He had to stop to do a double-take when he saw what was hopping his way. “A… pumpkin…?”
A hollow snarl clawed its way out of a non-existent throat. Its carved maw pulled back and its empty sockets narrowed. There was even the flicker of red within the shadows that filled the space where guts and seeds would before. The stray summon had undoubtedly been offended at being called a mere fruit as it slowly bound towards him like an overly rotund and orange hare.
For he who was unaware, the Pumpkeeno was a creature called forth from the realm of Silturn where mythical creatures roamed and Yokai were birthed from objects, living beings, and the forces of nature themselves. The label stretched far and wide to anything not of human descent, including that which could be called a Jack-o-Lantern in the Nameless World.
An object made to serve as a ward against Evil Spirits, it was nothing more than a hollowed-out husk carved into a fearsome visage with sharp teeth and fierce eyes before a candle was lit inside of it. Life eventually filled the vessel, and it served the purpose of a guardian that would devour spirits and turn them into fuel for its flame. To that end, it was no surprise that it was summoned during the era of the great war to fend off spiritual entities from Sapureth, though with such little mind and power, it served as little more than an attack dog—one whose masters were long gone, and it had become feral.
Welf drew his greatsword from his back. The mana inside of his body soaked outwards to form the protective aura meant to shield him from harm. He stood ready in a stance that felt familiar…
And at that moment an image flashed in his mind. Abandoned buildings became cavernous walls that shone with a pale green light. Against him for the first time was a creature that radiated hostility with eyes that shone like ominous stars.
The vestiges of memory no doubt.
It vanished as quickly as it came in the face of danger as the threat closed in.
In a single lunge, the pumpkin had crossed three meters. Its round body swelled up to more than twice its prior size. Its maw that had been carved into place warped and dislocated, lengthening as engorged fangs hung open—a living bear trap closing in on his head with the intention of replacing everything above his shoulders.
Almost on reflex, Welf took two actions.
He kicked off his hindleg to get off-line from the straight shot it had towards his head. And he swung the sword horizontally into the gaping maw. The net result was the point where the upper and lower half of its mouth clamped down on the sword as the edge bit into where they connected, sparks flashing as the instinctive aura protecting it was shaved off.
The Pumpkeeno snarled viciously like a dog with a stick in its mouth. Pale orange slobber ran over the blade as it tried to gnaw its way past the steel to get toward the flesh. But the blade was thick and heavy and hard enough that it wouldn’t snap so easily. Even so…
That jaw strength is no joke!
He could hear the groan of bladesteel straining beneath the clamped fangs. He could only imagine what that sort of pressure would do to flesh. It might look like an ornament, but the creature was a real threat.
“My sword is… not a chew toy!” Welf stomped the ground as he reoriented the blade into an overhead chop and brought it down. The ground served as a cutting board for an oversized knife. Wedged between them, the thin veil covering the creature’s body strained against the inevitable for only a moment more. Then it suffered the fate of any other pumpkin and was carved wide open.
His grey-blue eyes watched as its form dissipated into mana before he let out an exhalation. Then he looked at his sword. He could see indents in the metal from where those carved fangs had dug into.
Danger from behind.
There was no time to be concerned about the long-term implications of that as Urus’ voice touched his mind. He whirled around with his blade in a defensive stance and felt a heavy but shifting weight splashing against both the blade and his hands. Then the prickling heat gnawed against his exposed fingers. He sucked in a sharp breath as he looked at the source.
It was a Slime—an amorphous mass of undulating jelly with blue skin that was firm from a thickened outer layer. Blobby spheres that mimicked eyes floated freely on what could be generously considered the top of it. A dripping split maw exposed frothing bubbles from where it had congealed enough of its caustic insides to send a lob of acid flying toward him.
Normally, they were passive. But only in the sense that they did not actively hunt larger prey that could fight back or easily escape their movement, which was akin to molasses. It would be more accurate to say they were opportunistic. If there were enough of them to surround hapless prey, then they would come from all sides and melt away their defenses. Otherwise, they were scavengers and only followed in the wake of a stronger stray summon to clean up after them, taking in the remains and dissolving them for nourishment.
Welf closed the distance and swung the edge of the blade down into it. Its skin molded briefly underneath the blade, presenting a thicker resistance than one would expect of a living mass of caustic water. That was no doubt its rudimentary defenses at work, but it was far weaker than the previous foe. It only took a single swing of the heavy steel for the gelatinous blob to deflate and end up splattered against the ground.
“Thanks for the warning, Urus.” He shook his hands that had been covered with the acidic goop clean, knowing it could have been worse if he had relaxed his defenses. “You really can’t drop your guard here, huh?”
The body quickly evaporated into motes of mana that went on to saturate the air. However, one of the eyes that had been upturned by the force of the blade remained behind. The white sclera compressed as it dried up until the point that it was a solid mass, but the pupil itself melted away and spilled out below to reveal a hollow chamber that went from one end to the other. What was left behind resembled a bottomless cup.
He collected it and pressed on a little more carefully. Along the way, he encountered more Slimes and a few more Pumpkeeno. The former was easy enough to deal with as long as they were alone, but considering how aggressive the latter was it tended to be hard to focus on the acid-throwing globs when something was trying to eat your head.
And then there was the Gremlin, which was easily the most dangerous thing on the floor. Not because it was particularly menacing. It was a small, single-horned Oni the size of his head with mostly round bodies that floated in the air and wore what appeared to be straw ropes that had paper streamers around them. It was the fact that it could breathe out gouts of fire that were thankfully short-lived but still not something you wanted to be blasted in the face with.
Urus had taken the first blast for him since she was practically made of fire itself. But even then, it took more than a few swings to down the creature and it was liberal enough with its horn once he got close. He had used the flat of his blade to block the piercing stabs, but the impact was deceptively heavy. By the end of the battle, he had to take a break to inspect the total damage sustained by his weapon.
It had bite marks and scrapes from the jaws of the living fruits with attitude. The acid from the bags of ooze had started to gnaw away at the outer surface. And now dents and warps from the flame and horn of a small Oni—all while being only a short way into the Second Floor.
Bron had told him that the weapons of Wystern Craftknights could repair themselves as if they were living and breathing things. Something to do with the elemental ores and the abundance of mana. So long as they were not overused in battle, they could restore themselves to prime condition with enough time. Welf realized now that it had been a necessity if they were going to navigate places as harsh as these.
The monsters might not have had menacing appearances but each one of them wrought havoc on equipment and could prove lethal if you were careless. And they only got stronger and came in greater numbers from here on out. If your crafting wasn’t sufficient and your skill with the weapons you carried was subpar then you wouldn’t make it any further than this.
“Urus, we’re heading back.” He called out to the fire spirit that had become taken by the enclosing rope and streamers that had been left behind by the Gremlin after it died. The fact that it didn’t burn even as the thing spat fire likely meant that there was no problem with her wearing it like an accessory around her wrist. “Going any further than this would be beyond reckless.”
Urus gave an affirmative nod as she drifted closer to take her favorite place for the journey back… only to stiffen into place.
“Urus…?” He noticed how the flames that made up her body threatened to return to fleeting embers. How her incandescent eyes shrank and grew distant. “What’s—”
His words choked and he had to force down a sudden bout of bile that threatened to escape his throat instead as a repulsive sensation washed over the stray smith. This feeling is…
It could only be described as a vile hatred so thick that it threatened to drown his spirit. Malice so cold that the blackened chill sank past his flesh and scraped against his very bones. Promised death that ran up his spine stiffened in place and sent sweat racing down his brow.
Not like the territorial aggression directed towards him from the other stray summons that had gambled their lives and lost. It was something primal and pure that went beyond concepts like territory and predation. Something far more potent and directed.
It’s stronger, but I’m sure this feeling is the same as before.
His stiffened muscles creaked. His body had locked up under fear. But he forcibly turned his head towards the source of unfiltered killing intent to confirm his suspicion…
And saw Death aiming to gouge out his heart.
It took the form of a black blade wreathed in purple malice. Or rather what were the shards of shattered blades having been forced back into an approximation of a sword. The shards were all chipped and battered and misshapen to the point it was unmistakable that each one came from a different source, only held together by the violet vapor seething out of it like steam.
He screamed as the cursed blade struck him in the chest. It was a true killing blow. The only reason it hadn’t pierced the skin, broken through the bone, and skewered his heart was that he had learned not to drop his defenses for even a moment. Even so, the impact had still been enough to rival a sledgehammer and sent him off his feet.
Welf hit the ground more than three meters away. He breathed out pain itself as his entire body pulsated. The response to physical trauma great enough that it caused the body to instinctively use as much mana as possible to harden the aura as an escape from death.
It only bought him seconds before it came for him again.
The black blade whirled. It cut through the air like a sawblade, intent on slicing him right down the middle where he stood. Fortunately, he rolled to the side to escape as it sliced into the surface where he had been laying up to the hilt.
Welf got back up to his feet and put his sword forward in a guard pose. His mind raced as he finished processing exactly what was trying to kill him. There was no doubt in his mind that what was before him was no stray summon that descended from the progenitor summon creatures. This thing is where Mystic Ore comes from?
Bron had mentioned that Mystic Ore was all that was left behind when they could no longer seek to take out their hatred. But this was their true form that could only be found down here in the Labyrinth where thousands of years of discarded and broken weapons festered long enough to be reanimated by their grudges. The vengeful ghost born of weapons that had life breathed into them by the Craftknights only to be tossed aside when they failed to live up to their purpose.
Now they hunted down the warrior smiths that wandered their halls.
The black blade wrenched itself free of the ground. It howled despite having no mouth to vent its frustration at being denied its vengeance by every second of his prolonged survival. Then it came flying towards Welf once more with a piercing thrust.
“I’m not going to just lay down and die!” He had finished composing himself after unraveling its identity and his body no longer froze in place. Death passed by as he slid his foot to the side and pivoted on it, leaving it to cut through empty space instead. Then he whirled around with his blade using the momentum and delivered the edge against its face.
And a grim realization set in as the weapon nearly wrenched itself out of his grasp. It’s as hard as Mystic Ore itself?
It should not have been a surprise. The grudge was born from weapons that had shattered into shards and been discarded. Or course once it reanimated itself it would be so that it never returned to that state.
He didn’t have time to dwell on that fact as the blade righted itself after rebuking the attempt to shatter it anew. Then it swung using its grip as a pivot point for what would be an overhead slash that came towards his skull. He put the flat of the greatsword between the two as a shield only for the bladesteel to screech as it was sheared into.
The attacks came in earnest. Once. Twice. Thrice. Each stroke of the black blade left a violet arch in the air as it tore into his own until the final one that finished what the stray summons until this point had started. With a horrible sound of snapping steel, the cursed blade had shattered the massive blade into shards, leaving only his grip and a little above the guard remaining.
Then the naked edge of the cursed weapon came around in an attempt to cut him in half once more.
Welf gritted his teeth to hold in the scream as he felt its sharp bite trying to penetrate the field shrouding his body. Mana flared up once more to reinforce it as part of it was shaved off, leaving him whole even as the impact sent him skirting back. But he remained standing since going prone a second time would likely be fatal.
Not that he would survive the next exchange at this rate. The bleed-through of pain still stung where he’d nearly been bisected. And his head was starting to feel light from encroaching mana deprivation. Welf knew that the next hit would be the last.
The black blade howled. Whether angered by seeing another broken weapon laying before it or sensing that the source of its rage was now vulnerable, it let loose its fury audibly. Then it shot towards him once more to finish the job.
Fire erupted between the living and dead with an explosive force that threw off the killing thrust. The fire spirit that had nearly been smothered by the presence of the black blade had remembered its duty as a Guardian Beast. Now her flames were rekindled once more as she stood between them to allow him to escape.
Death in the form of a blade moved to snuff out the meager flame standing between it and the smith.
“Urus…” Welf clenched the Summonite Gem dyed her color and writ with her name as it closed in upon her. He had been told that these were more than mere trinkets that acted as a gateway between the world using the Bonding Pact. He willed the stone to shine brighter as he turned the mana stored within into fuel so that she could burn even hotter.
The flames encompassing her body swelled. The black blade that had come spearing forward slammed into the inferno and came to a stop as the fire itself grappled it and held it in place while the hue turned from bright red to deep orange. Then it burned even hotter and became an all-encompassing dazzling white. Even the toy ring made of rope and streamers that refused to burn under ordinary flame evaporated into a formless red mist that seemed to spread itself thin before vanishing.
Cursed steel shrieked. The violet vapor seeping from it was swallowed by the flames as they writhed their way inside out. Her fury began to heat it beyond the critical point and left the shards themselves to grow luminous to the point where they threatened to liquefy.
But it wouldn’t be enough. He could tell from how she was struggling to keep it in place and the metal itself refused to yield that it wouldn’t be enough. Her flames wouldn’t be enough as they were now and the Summonite Gem serving as a battery would eventually run out its charge. He needed to help her, but his weapon was no longer able to serve that purpose…
No. That wasn’t right. There was one weapon he still possessed. His hand drifted down to his side where the hammer he had forged lay. Even after his blade had been broken it remained the one tool a blacksmith could rely on.
He drew it and then charged into the inferno as the flames began to abate while pouring out his will into the Summonite Gem. “URUS!”
The Guardian Beast turned her incandescent gaze toward her partner as he ran forward instead of retreating. Confusion blossomed into understanding as he raised the hammer. Her arm extended towards it and flames leaped from the Summonite Gem to wreathe the smithing tool, turning it burning red as it was enchanted with her flames.
Welf roared as he slammed it upon the black blade. “RRRRRRRRAAAAHHHH!!!”
The sound of metal shrieking rang out along with a spray of molten shards being cast away like sparks. The cursed weapon felt the strike of the hammer and forge and the sensation of being wrought was driven in once more by its refined kin given new purpose. Murderous rage gave way to fear and it made to escape lest it be broken once more.
The fire spirit wouldn’t let it escape after it had threatened her master.
Her flames. Her hands. She used them all to grab hold of the cursed weapon so that it couldn’t fly away to attack them another day. Then she used everything she had to drive it into the ground and keep it in place.
Metal shrieked as more shards flew away as the smith brought the burning hammer down once more. The cracks threading the living grudge widened and exposed the deep-grey and violet ore that pulsated with life in the core of the blade. It grew more and more frantic as shards were blasted away like scale with the following strike and left it completely exposed.
Welf brought the hammer down a final time and struck the core with all his might. The flames bloomed and erupted outwards as its properties rebuked the force. And in doing so it completely scattered the remaining shards that constituted its frame.
Leaving behind a single ore that cried out as it could no longer seek its revenge.
Welf grunted as he exhaled to catch his breath while the flames died out. Then he reached into the bag he brought with him. The ore was dropped inside while he pulled out a bottle of Silturn Water and an Amulet in turn.
He took the latter and drove his mana into it, causing it to ignite with a cleansing flame that was meant to drive away stray summons until it burned itself out. Then he drank the former to replenish some of his mana to get his defenses back up to par. Just in case they ran into something else despite that.
“How you holding up, Urus?” he asked the fire spirit, only to receive the impression of a dwindling flame against his mind. The inferno that had encompassed her body was now little more than a barely smoldering ember. She had exhausted everything. “Yeah… we’re done for today…”
Forget practicing with the materials. Forget finishing the design of his weapon. Forget even thinking about any of that. Both wanted nothing more than to rest as they forced their bodies to keep moving before the Amulet burned itself out.
They made their way back to the surface after night had fallen.
Dinner had been an agonizing event for Pratty.
Not because it wasn’t good. It was okay. Not to her mother’s standards by any stretch, but still fine.
It was because she had finished her first weapon and wanted to show Welf that she had properly used the Iron Ore that he had given her. Master Bron had even complimented the craftmanship for someone who had never made a weapon before. Though he also pointed out that Kutty clearly did most of the work, she was just happy to have finished it and been given a sheath by him to fit it.
She had been the first to finish too among the apprentices. Trish was still finishing up her spear and Caizo was still working on his axe. Razzy had apparently finished mapping out a set of knuckles and was going to start forging the metal strips meant to enclose and protect their fist and wrists as they punched things.
The twins and Sanary didn’t count since they already had weapons when they came.
“He’s late,” Pratty voiced as she swept the floor of the main forge room for the evening. Since the usual people who would do so weren’t here, the Silver Master decided to put them to work. “Master, should we go look for him?”
“Of all people, yer the last ta talk about bein’ late,” Bron pointed out from the cabinet where the rarer materials were stocked. He had set a curfew for the apprentices to be indoors by, but that time had not arrived yet and he saw no need to send someone searching for the stray smith. “The lad ain’ fool enough ta go deeper than he ought to. Sanary, ya mentioned runnin’ into ‘em on the way back, right?”
The red-head who had swapped out of her battle-clothes for causal ones looked up from the forge she had been assigned to clean in the main room. “He only said that he was going to the Second Floor. Not that he’ll find anything of value since by now it would have been picked clean but, given how much of a slowpoke he is, he’s probably just dragging his feet on the way back.”
Pratty felt a surge of passing annoyance towards the older girl. “He’s not a slowpoke. He just likes being thorough to not make any mistakes.”
Sanary just gave her an unimpressed shrug. “If you’re so worried about him then rather than waiting for him to come and hold your hand again, how about you actually go look for him on your own?”
Pratty bristled at the insinuation. “I’m not a child!”
“No bickerin’!” Bron snapped at the two. “Razzy’s more mature than both of ya.”
The two girls glared at one another but didn’t rekindle the argument before the door to the Silver Guild opened at that moment. Any question of who it was that had entered faded when it was followed by a familiar voice. “Master Bron, are you here?”
Her anger was shelved as she set the broom aside and went towards the entrance to greet him. “Welf, we’re in here. I finished—”
Her words died as he stepped through the door to the forge room and she saw how ragged he looked. In one hand was what was left of his once great sword. The blade itself had clearly been broken to where nothing above the hole meant to make holstering it on his back easier remained. His clothes looked cut in two places while dust was thick in patches and she could smell the scent of burnt metal coming from him.
And she could feel that same sensation coming from him that night the ore had been set in front of them months ago.
Bron noticed the state Welf was in, and his face scrunched up. “I thought ya were only headin’ to the Second Floor. But… I take it ya ran into one of ‘em?”
“Calling it a grudge was an understatement.” He reached into his bag and pulled out the source of her discomfort. It was a dark-grey and purple and it practically oozed malice. “It probably wasn’t even a minute or two and in that time it nearly killed me twice, broke my weapon, and exhausted both Urus and myself before I beat it with the hammer.”
Pratty’s dumbfounded expression spoke of how much she understood the situation.
In contrast, Sanary ran over and eyed it in absolute shock. “You found a Spell Sword on the Second Floor? I spent all day trying to find one!”
Welf looked at her like she had grown a second head. “You were trying to find one of those?”
“Of course I was!” Her tone carried her frustration at having clearly lost out on the opportunity despite all her efforts. Not that she would dare ask for it considering her own pride as a Craftknight. “They’re so rare to find on the Upper Floors, but you can forge a strong weapon with them as part of the core.”
Welf only shook his head. “Not with this one. Not now anyway. I can tell from how much it tried to kill me that it working it into a new form would be more than either Urus or myself could handle at the moment. Master Bron, may I store it somewhere it can simmer down until later?”
“Yea, probably for the best.” The Silver Master took it and grimaced before returning to the steel cabinet and unlocking the bottom drawer. He then set it inside and locked it back up. “Didn’ think ya’d run into one of those so quickly… musta been hell feelin’ the full force of it the first time, right?”
The expression he made said everything he wouldn’t put into words for Pratty.
“Go sleep it off,” Bron told him. It was rough but his tone wasn’t unkind as far as he went. “Yer weapon’s gone and makin’ a new one will be time consumin’. I trust ya got enough materials ta work with?”
Welf looked down at his broken sword. “I should have enough. I also collected all the shards I could. Not sure if they’ll have a lot of value as materials or if they could become another grudge since it was an ordinary weapon, but after seeing that I wasn’t eager to be on the receiving end of one of my own creations one day. I’ll float the design changes I had in mind to you tomorrow morning to avoid something like this happening again.”
That said, Pratty watched him walk off with an expression she had never seen before.
The knife she made felt heavy on her belt.