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Archive for April 1, 2023

The Stray Smith: Chapter 3

Chapter 3 – Forging Ahead: Part 2


A silver arch was drawn in the air.

It was the swing of a dagger brought around to meet the spearpoint thrust of a blue horn belonging to flying nuisance that was known as the Gremlin. Having committed to propelling itself forward, the stray summon had attempted to drive it into the helmeted skull of the young girl that had wandered into its territory on the Second Floor of the Labyrinth. But said human had opted to bring the dagger around in a swinging motion where it scraped against the hardened point until it met the cross-guard, and the momentum of her arm sent the Gremlin drifting off to the side.

It was proceeded by Pratty spinning on her heel and then swinging the blade around to cut into its round body. But the edge sailed beneath the Oni-kin as it rose into the air, barely rustling the tassels of the paper streamers hanging around its waist. “Sit still already!”

The response it gave was to spin around and narrow its gaze towards her as embers began to appear form in front of it.

Pratty immediately threw herself back as far as she could. She had already been on the receiving end of its flames more than once and knew the signs it was coming. Even then the tongue of fire it spat at her still licked at her skin as she put two meters between them.

That was when the wind-borne Guardian Beast appeared right behind the annoyance, one arm winding up like a windmill before he slammed a hammer-blow down upon it. The flames died as it knocked down to the ground where it bounced once and flinched in shock. The Magical Beast let out a sound, as if to say to strike now. “Kutty!”

She didn’t hesitate. In a single motion she lunged forward and drove the tip of the knife into it.

There was enough force to penetrate the Gremlin’s defenses at last and leave it skewered. Then its body broke down into motes of mana. They drifted off the blade and left only the rope that it kept as an ornament around its body behind.

Pratty kept her knife out as she scanned her surroundings a final time, only to let out a huff and relax the tension in her body. She didn’t drop her aura, but she did lax her shoulders. “Nnn… those things are so annoying to deal with when you have such a short weapon.”

The blade was around six inches while the grip was four inches, giving her a weapon that was just under a foot long. That made her reach incredibly short and forced her to get a lot closer to her enemies. Not exactly an ideal weapon when said enemy was able to fly above her height.

Or breathe fire.

“Pratty, did you get it?” a voice called out from some distance away. She turned her eyes towards the source to see Trish poking her head around the corner of what she assumed to be the houses of one of the people who used to be here a long time ago.

“Yeah, I got it.” She nearly fell over when Kutty landed on her head as she bent over to pick up the Drop Item. But after shifting her helmet back from over her eyes she turned towards her fellow apprentice. “Did Caizo take care of the Pumpkeenos hanging around?”

“Yep, which means we can finally have Lunch in peace.” Trish held out her hand that had an Amulet in it, which ignited into a silvery flame that slowly burned to ward away any other stray summons that got curious. “Sorry to ask you to deal with the Gremlin for me.”

“It couldn’t be helped,” Pratty said as she sheathed the knife and fought down the gnawing in her belly at the promise of food. “We don’t have spare weapons yet, so it’ll be a pain to remake your spear before the preliminaries if it breaks.”

It had been three days since she had finished making her first weapon. Trish and Caizo had finished theirs shortly after Welf had come back from the Second Floor, which was part of the reason that Pratty and Sanary had been the ones cleaning the main forging area of the Silver Guild. Since they were relatively on the same level when it came to their skills as Craftknights, and there was the threat of them being attacked by a Spell Sword, they had opted to work together in the Labyrinth in order gather materials and gain experience with utilizing their new weapons.

They may have been rivals, but chances were they wouldn’t actually be facing one another for a while. And they were part of the same guild, so there was no reason for them not to assist one another for the time being. More so considering they were pretty much complete novices when it came to both forging and combat.

The first day they had gotten used to the First Floor. They only encountered the occasional Slime, but to their surprise even those had been a lot more resilient than they had expected. And their acid actually hurt a bit too.

The second day they had come down to the Second Floor. Not only did they have to deal with the Slimes, but Pumpkeenos proved to be a lot harder than they appeared. It took so many swings to actually take one down with her knife that she actually almost broke it. They had opted to leave when a Gremlin showed up and had to be taken care of by Kutty, leaving them to decide to head to a restaurant to eat and then come up with more of a strategy in how they explored.

Today they had come here earlier in the morning and chose to go more to the south. The northwest area had people more frequently traveling it so they could get to the Third Floor. Less people meant they could have more stray summons to face in order to refine their abilities and collect materials for the future.

Pratty climbed up the nearby stairs to where they had set up a small place to eat. Caizo was already there and sitting on his carrying case, weapon next to him. He was applying a bandage to his arm.

Trish frowned as she marched over towards him, purple pigtails bouncing with each step. “You told me that you wouldn’t have any trouble dealing with them!”

“A mere scratch is hardly something the Great Caizo considers trouble,” he said with his voice full of bravado until she came over and inspected it. Then he winced as she poked it. “The last one just latched onto my arm slightly long enough for it to bruise from the bleed-through.”

It did little to settle her. “The fact that it managed to bleed-through before your aura hardened means your mana must be low. And if that’s the case then you could have lost the whole arm if it ran out.”

Their mana provided them protection so long as they had enough to spare. At full capacity it basically took a lot for them to really suffer a major injury, though they still felt diminished pain. But the lower the capacity meant there was greater bleed-though and less pain dampening.

Trish brows furrowed before she fished from her pouch her Summonite Gem and held the jade gemstone out. “Pouso, I need you.”

At her beckoning a sphere of light appeared and the air shifted. It was a gateway that breached the barrier set into place by the king of eld, calling forth one bound to the stone. And once the light was dispelled, what appeared next to her was a cute little floating yellow spirit from the Sapureth with an adorable, pointed brim-hat. It waved its little stubby arms in greeting at its summoner. “Pou.”

“Nice to see you too,” she brought the little spirit over for a hug before turning her attention to Caizo. “Can you help restore his mana with your Healing Spell?”

Pouso produced what could only be described as a star-shaped wand and floated over towards him. Then it pressed it against his forehead as her Summonite Gem shone brighter. His entire body shone as his aura was restored to full by the time it was done.

Calling it a Healing Spell was a bit much to be honest. Creatures from Sapureth only gained physical forms due to the Summoning Ritual, so restoring their mana was the equivalent of a healing spell. It couldn’t actually heal wounds for Humans like them, but replenishing the mana within one’s body made it so that their defenses were strong enough to ward off further damage and numb what they already felt.

Caizo shot her an apologetic look of gratitude. “Sorry for making you worry so much about me when you can only use that so many times a day.”

Their Summonite Gems could be used like expendable batteries to enhance what their Guardian Beasts were capable of to a degree. But they could only do so roughly six times a day. After that it took them just as long to absorb ambient mana to replenish themselves. Add that to the fact that most of their Guardian Beasts got really tired after doing so meant that using their abilities was something that had to be done with consideration.

“Pouso can use it once more today if we need it, and if you get seriously hurt then you might lose out on the chance to compete in the preliminaries. Besides, if I hadn’t nearly broken my spear then I could have helped deal with the Gremlin and Pratty could have helped you… I wish these things weren’t so fragile.”

The Novice Weapon Series, as Master Bron called them, consisted of five weapons: Knife, Spear, Axe, Knuckle, and Drill. He gave them to those just crafting their weapon because they were easy to make and best to get a handle of the process for each individual weapon. But because they were so easy to make they were also fairly fragile.

She had complained to Master Bron about it, of course. She wanted a sword like Sanary used. It was an Iron Saber made from elemental ores rather than by working the Iron Ore directly, which meant it could repair itself and was sharper and more durable than if it had been worked by a normal smith.

But he only pointed out that the Novice Weapons weren’t meant to be amazing. They were functional and meant to teach novices how to make use of them and act as a reliable spare for when they made more advance weapons. Sanary was apparently really skilled with handling a blade already and had made her own weapon outside of the guild, while the twins were the same when it came to using drills.

And then Master Bron had stated that while the dagger was weaker and even less durable on its own compared even to the other Novice Weapons it had a lot more potential as the user got more proficient with using it—and that if she didn’t understand that fact then she didn’t understand the three tenets of a Craftknight.

That had hurt. She couldn’t help but puff out her cheeks as she turned the knife in her hands when she remembered that. Master Bron has no consideration for a woman’s feelings.

“Still, we’re not doing nearly as bad as even two days ago,” Trish said with a note of elation in her voice. “We’ve fought a more strays now with less trouble and the weapons aren’t nearly in as bad of a condition as they would have been a day ago. We’re improving.”

She wasn’t wrong.

Pratty’s blue eyes fell onto the Novice Knife as she inspected it for damage and found it already showing from just the last battle. There was a dent from where it had slammed into the hard bone of the horn when they had started, along with scratches from where the point of the horn had run against it while she was trying to divert it. Not as bad as it could have been, given it looked as though it was nearly completely corroded from the First Floor alone on her first day.

Her swings weren’t as wide as when she started out either. She was getting a better gauge of the distance and a feel for the amount of force that each one needed. Thanks to that she didn’t stress the blade as much and she was dispatching stray summons a bit faster.

It wasn’t as though she was good enough to kill a Pumpkeeno or anything with a single swipe of her knife. It just meant that instead of having to stab a Slime six times to kill it she had gotten better at putting just the right amount of force into it to get through their defenses in four. But the less she needed to use it meant the less wear and tear on it.

She could only guess that was why Master Bron wanted them to spend the rest of their time practicing in the Labyrinth rather than making a new weapon with only a few days to the preliminaries.

“But will we be fine with this alone?” Caizo soft words carried his concerns well as his gaze fell onto his Novice Axe. “If we get matched up against someone like Sanary, we probably won’t make it beyond the preliminaries.”

“…Is she really that great?” Pratty asked while unwrapping the sandwich that she had made for her lunch. There were two of them in total along with a pastry that was meant to keep her energy up. Once it was unwrapped, she held it up so that Kutty could eat—having learned from him socking her yesterday the price of not feeding him first as a reward for his efforts.

Her companions both gave her glances. For Caizo, it was a dumbfounded look that lacked the sugarcoating that Trish was prone towards. One that spoke of something that fought against common sense in terms of expectation.

She pouted. “…what?”

He sighed in resignation that an explanation would be necessary. “Pratty, where is Sanary now?”

“Probably on her way past the Third Floor,” she answered while unwrapping the sandwich she wanted to eat. The older girl had not hidden her disdain at the fact that due to what was apparently some kind of obstacle clearance going beyond the Third Floor was not an option prior to today. But from Pratty’s perspective just the first three floors alone were enough.

“And she’s been there for the last two days from sunrise to sunset with only her Iron Saber and probably a single backup weapon. If we’re struggling just to last half-a-day on the Second Floor while rotating through each of our weapons, then can you imagine how much of a monster she is compared to us to be going at it alone on a floor where there are even more of them?”


The sound of steel slicing through a hollowed out husk rang out.

The body of a Pumpkeeno split wide open with a single horizontal swipe of a blade, dissipating as a red-haired young woman pressed forward past it. Two more of the feral fruit snarled ravenously as they took the dead one’s place with the intention of taking her head off her shoulders. But twin arches smashed through each of the pumpkin’s skin and left them to dissipate with just as much ease.

“Smashing pumpkins is getting old!” Sanary’s frustration was evident as she as she continued her jaunt through the Third Floor of the Labyrinth.

Unlike the Second Floor that had more open water due to the flooding, the water channels were narrower here as they circled a central structure. She assumed it was a water elevator meant to transport large goods to and from the floor above. By funneling water from those channels upwards it would push a platform that could move several tons of materials, but at some point it had broken and that had caused the flooding above. Because of that elevator most of the Third Floor was actually akin to a loading area that went around it, with the exit on the opposite side. That meant to get the other side you went along the walls of the Central Tower, with it expanding further into the south into what could pass as a smaller storage area for the ones awaiting transport.

Of course, that was a long time ago. Now there were only overly aggressive pumpkins that had made themselves at home and, of course, Slimes—a gaggle of whom loitered ahead of her with their numbers rather padded out. She scoffed before funneling mana into her Summonite Gem without slowing down. “Rasho!

A swirl of light gave way to flames as from it burst free a member of Oni-kind that sported a singular protruding horn, long and wild red hair that framed his pointed ears, and a burning red gaze. Standing tall with his chest laid bare to reveal the muscular definition, his only protection was were the rectangular shields that went down from his shoulders to his elbows, along with his forearm and leg guards. On his back was a tiger-striped cape, and to his side was an impressive Silturn-style longsword.

“Clear a path ahead,” Sanary ordered as he floated next to her. “I’m almost to the Fourth Floor and don’t want to have to slow down waiting for my blade to mend itself because of the corrosion from cutting through so many.”

“At least give me something worthy of my blade.” In spite of the clear disappointment in his tone at having to contend with such meager foes, the Oni Prince shot forward as his fist ignited with a burning flame. He then slammed it down into the ground in the center of the horde, causing the flames to expand in an eruption that swallowed the Slimes up and burned them away.

Sanary didn’t slow down as she ran towards the exit until she noticed there was a Teleporter. She only paused in her sprint to go over to it just long enough to attune to it, giving her a way up to the First Floor and back without needing to go through the Second Floor. Then she shot towards the stairs leading down and began to bounce down them and into the Fourth Floor.

It would not be wrong to say that the half of the Fourth Floor was just a singular expanded corridor that ran across the tower. In keeping with the idea of transporting goods it was wide with crystals blooming like flowers along the walls at non-fixed intervals for light. The sound of her footfalls and panting echoed throughout the empty chamber as she ran through it, keeping her frantic pace while Rasho floated next to her.

Then he scowled. “Tin heads are coming.”

Her gaze snapped up to the air above. His vision was sharper than hers, so she didn’t doubt his words. And sure enough she could catch the gleam of the light reflecting off the three-unit group of machine lifeforms that loitered there.

Gunnerheads—a type of Mechanical Soldier from the Machine World of Loreilal with a rectangular body that resembled a floating mechanical head with two sets of rotating barrels attached for arms. They were driven by a simple AI and meant to act as mid-ranged artillery units during the Summoner Wars, though they were later repurposed for the sake of security units after the Warring Era.

The optical units that served as their eyes processed the approaching organics and ran their biometrics through their databanks, which were long out of date since they had been copied from the original progenitors. Unable to find them, it registered them as intruders to be eliminated with excessive force and began the process of converting mana into solid projectiles with a good deal of stopping power—bullets.

“If you’re careless your sword will break,” Rasho warned her. He knew that creatures from Loreilal tended to have tougher bodies due to their inorganic nature and that made them a pain to deal with when only using a sword. It was better to use an axe since they had greater cleaving power due to their weight, or a spear that had thrusting power behind them to penetrate.

“Then I’ll melt through it!” She once more triggered a charge of the Summonite Gem while gripping her sword even tighter as they neared the firing range of the Gunnerheads. “Enchant Flame!”

He snapped his fingers and generated a spark that turned into a slithering flame that coiled around the blade of her Iron Saber before sinking in. Then there were no more words. The cacophony of bullets being fired echoed throughout the corridor.

Sanary changed her approach to an angled sprint as the construct bullets smashed into the ground and scattered into mana, leaving them to trail after her. She used one of the crystal outcroppings jutting from the wall as cover before she jumped up and kicked off the wall to close the distance from the air. “YAH!”

The trail of the flames drew burning arches in the air. Blazing steel cleaved through two of the three as she landed past their disintegrating bodies, having cut through their defenses in a single swipe each in passing. The third subsequently exploded as a burning fist was slammed into it by Rasho, whose gaze kept on the young woman as she continued pressing onward to the second wave, before he continued his role as Guardian Beast and shot after her.

The flashes of searing flames. The scent of smoldering steel. The drum of gunfire. The din of shattering crystals. The padding of pained grunts and flicker of a defensive aura blunting the damage. The corridor became nothing more than a recreation of the era where bladesteel and flame clashed with the otherworldly creatures whose purpose now was only to serve as a threat to the inhabitants due to old directives.

And by the time she was finally through the straight corridor and into the room that served as the passage for Assessors Gate, Sanary was left with her shoulders rising and falling as she fought for breath.

Rasho regarded her condition for a moment before pointing over to the northern wall. “There’s a Rejuvenation Pad over there.”

The Rejuvenation Pads were a second convenience of the Labyrinth from the ancient era and kept in working condition. Much like with the Teleporters, if someone attuned to it, they would trigger and gather ambient mana from the tower and send it into the recipient to restore their own or a vessel they were carrying like the Summonite Gem, which also fed into the Guardian Beast.

However, it wasn’t an instantaneous process. It took time between charges. Time that could be spent pushing into the Labryinth to gather materials and seeking out treasures not claimed by other. Or running into a Spell Sword and finally obtaining Mystic Ore.

Sanary grimaced at the thought of slowing down for that long. But more than a few stray shots had caught her on the way. Reason won out over recklessness as she knew she wouldn’t be able to claim her prize even if she ran into it with her current state. “Fine. I’ll take a break long enough to eat and get my mana back.”

The young swordswoman made her way over to the pad and began the attunement process. The hum of the device stirring to life and beginning the charging process was lower than she liked, doing little to pad out the uncomfortable silence that followed the ringing that lingered in the back of her head. But it gave her time to work out her progress in her head and broach a question to the Guardian Beast standing away from her. “Rasho, how long did it take for my sister to make it this far?”

The Oni Prince regarded her for a moment before closing his eyes and pulling up the memory. “Maybe two weeks or so?”

So, I beat her on that front… It brought a smile to her face hearing that. In just three days she had reached as far as her sister had in two weeks when she had been starting out. That was proof enough for her that she was getting closer to her goal of becoming the best and most beautiful Craftlord in Wystern.

As if reading her mind, the Oni Prince ruthlessly pulled the rug from under her achievements without mercy. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. She started with a knife and didn’t have any experience, whereas you’ve had myself acting as a combat instructor even before she transferred over the contract. Your forging skills aren’t even close to hers, your sword skills are barely passable, and as far as your body goes, you’re about as distant as night from day.”

His words came from his observation as one who had served as the Guardian Beast for the Craftlord of Ruby, Kouren. The older sister that Sanary looked up to and the standard she had set for being a Female Craftknight with Rumari. At least that was the case once upon a time.

Sanary knew that she still wasn’t there yet. She only had to look at the sword at his waist to be reminded of what the craftsmanship of a Craftlord was truly like. It was a weapon that her older sister had made for the Guardian Beast.

When they first met, Rasho had stipulated it would be under the condition that Kouren would make him a weapon worthy of his stature as an Oni Prince that he would serve as her Guardian Beast. It was a condition she fulfilled after becoming a Craftlord. She made so splendid a weapon that he rarely drew it unless he found something or someone worthy enough to do so.

When Sanary inherited her sister’s contract with the aid of a Summoner, Rasho applied the same condition to her. He would serve as her Guardian Beast but only to the degree that he deemed her skills merited. She would only get him at his best when she herself reached the point she could craft a weapon on par with the blade her sister made.

She also knew her swordsmanship was lacking. Her sister would have gotten through that bullet hell without so much as a hair out of place, let alone being touched by a single projectile. Craftlords were on an entirely different level compared to an apprentice Craftknight like her.

But there was one thing that she couldn’t overlook as she bristled and blushed. “What does my body have to do with any of that!?”

He crossed his arms and spoke bluntly. “You’re chasing after your sister in all aspects, including appearance. She has the title of the most beautiful woman in Wystern for a reason. Really, the only thing that you have going for you is that you’re as much of a Tomboy as she was at your age.”

Her eyes twitched as she struggled to keep her temper in check. “…You’re being awfully cheeky today, Rasho.”

He opened his arms and smiled. “What can I say? Watching as you flounder around with little grasp of your own emotions is far more entertaining than you trying and failing to match the countenance that your sister projects.”

She responded as any adolsenct teenager would. “I understand my emotions perfectly!”

“Oh really? Then have you figured out why that red-headed fellow still gets under your skin?”

His face popped up in her mind and suddenly she felt her lips pulling themselves into a frown. “That slowpoke who’s barely come out of his room after his first visit to the Labyrinth?”

“I believe it was mentioned that he’s forging himself a new sword,” Rasho pointed out. “The fact that he’s devoting that much time to it will likely speak well towards its quality.”

“Or it just reinforces the fact that he works at a snail’s pace. It’s bad enough I can’t even sense much drive from that guy to start with, but if it takes him that long to make a decent weapon then I don’t see him making it past the preliminaries. He just won’t be able to keep up.”

You couldn’t just make weapons that were decent. It had to be done at an appropriate speed. Taking too long for a weapon he would have to discard for a better one wasn’t the mark of a professional, but an overly cautious amateur.

It would be a different story if he was using the Mystic Ore that he had lucked into getting. They were hard to get their hands on and hard to refine, but the weapons created from them were on a whole other level. Not only did they draw out the elemental property of the weapon, but those benefits bled back into the weapon’s user to enhance their own abilities to a greater degree.

Sanary was sure that if she had gotten it, she would have cleared more than half of the way to the Eleventh Floor by now.

“He made the right decision,” Rasho said, recalling the half-hour of complaining she had done the day prior when they had yet to find another Spell Sword. “He decided to plan things out rather than trying to burn himself playing fire. The fact that he did so is part of what’s bothering you.”

She fought down a scowl. “Enlighten me then. What about him bothers me?”

“Not even a night prior that you said, and I quote, ‘Male Craftknights are all just brutes with muscles all the way up to their brains.’”

She had. “Yeah, and?”

“You call him a slowpoke, but he’s already got Mystic Ore and thus ahead of you. If he had used it on something like a Novice Knife, then you would be complaining he’s wasted it like a brute. But the fact he’s using his brain to plan out what he intends to do immediately contradicts that. Especially when you no doubt would have done the same thing for an edge with your sword at this point. Do you understand where I’m going?”

Her brows deepened as she wracked her brain over it to no avail.

The Oni Prince sighed and gave her a hint. “Tyram.”

Tyram—the Craftlord of Crystal who had gone missing. He was also known as ‘Tyram the Calm’ to others because of his demeanor being like the calmness of the ocean without wind or waves. That also extended to his fighting style where he often carried a sense of serenity and speed that went beyond the limits of what one would think possible.

Sanary had watched a spar between him and her sister. It looked like he stood in place with the appearance of being unmoving even as he somehow fended off a variety of attacks. Her sister had explained it as the result of having no wasted movement or imperfections from the start to the end, which gave it the appearance of him not moving at all.

And he used a Crystal Sword as his weapon of choice—an incredibly sharp sword, but one of the most brittle and fragile ones possible to make. The Novice Weapons Series were even more durable than those things. Yet it barely looked scratched at the edges while facing off against a peer of his level or higher.

She acknowledged the Craftlords were talented beyond comparison. But out of all of them she had seen in action, Tyram was the one she simply couldn’t read at all. Not his movements. Not his personality. Not his thoughts. None of it.

Then it clicked for her what about the smith bothered her. “…Ah, so he throws me off because I can’t read him at all.”

“Finally,” Rasho huffed. “With the others who are competing you at least can gauge where they stand and where you stand. But with him you can’t and so you don’t know how to respond. And if you don’t know how to respond, it takes up your time thinking of ways to do so, and your usual confidence goes out the window when he does something to contradict that. That leaves only frustration.”

It was such a simple thing in the end. Every time she wanted to place a label on him things would change. She would be forced to reassess him and then it would happen again.

She tried to treat him as competition and make distance, he would respond cordially and without a hint of competitiveness. She labeled him a slowpoke, he went and got ahead of her by obtaining the one thing she knew would tip the scales. She tried to advise him to quit holding the hand of the girl latching onto him like a child, he threw back in her face the fact that she only was where she was now because her sister did the same for her when she was younger.

That smith was such an enigma for her that even now she was getting frustrated thinking about him. “Whatever. It’s a waste of brain power trying to think more about someone who probably isn’t even going to make it past the preliminaries. We need to focus on the here and now.”

There was so little time left. Three days at the most. If she couldn’t get Mystic Ore by tonight, then incorporating it into an Iron Saber and getting familiar with the new weapon would be impossible—at worst she would probably fumble over it and embarrass herself in front of the world.

Not a great start for someone seeking to succeed the Craftlord of Ruby as the best swordswoman in Wystern.


Welf let out a sigh as he set down the water bottle after downing the contents for the third time today.

The workshop had risen in temperature from the constant heat surging through the forge. Even with the surprisingly efficient ventilation he was soaked in sweat. The pungent scent was only masked by the aroma of hot metal that loitered in the air at all times.

The light in the room was kept dim. He needed to be able to eyeball the temperature of the metal he was working based on the colors, and that meant the light was an obstacle. Even Urus kept her flames rather low when not assisting to keep from hindering the project they were working on.

He huffed, wiping the sweat that dripped past the bandana out of his eyes with his blackened thumbs. His gaze fell into the yawning crimson maw of the forge as he stared at the billet formed solely of Fire Ore that had been shaped into a rectangular block as its color shifted to show the heat of the physical flames sinking in and making it more pliable. “Urus, we’re getting ready to get started with the core.”

The Fire Spirit drifted over to her perch on his shoulders. Then she leaned over, her face brushing against his sweat-slicked cheek as her incandescent gaze focused on the same sight. Her head quirked back at him as she quietly pressed for more information.

“We’ve finished the jacket so now we’re going to get to work on the heart of it,” he explained to the silent question. “It’ll be a long one, but not as long as the jacket. Then we’ll fit it inside and then forge it together. We should finish that much tonight. Then tomorrow we press on to the next part.”

The sword that they were working on to replace his broken one was one that Welf had debated on for some time the night he had come back. He knew the qualities that he wanted it to possess so that it wouldn’t be so easily broken again. But the matter of forging them into the weapon itself was one that took careful consideration.

He had opted for only two elemental ores—Fire Ore and Water Ore. Fire was known for being hard and carrying an edge exceedingly well, enhancing the cutting power to a degree that couldn’t be underestimated. Water was the opposite in that it made the blade softer and flexible, but it also made it heavier and didn’t hold an edge as well.

Welf wanted to create a sword that possessed a very high degree of cutting power but also was durable and flexible enough to not snap like the previous one had. It was fine if the blade chipped since they could mend themselves, but it had to be able to avoid completely breaking. That was fatal for the weapon and likely would follow suit for its wielder.

He had first considered making it a monosteel—using a single kind of steel for the entirety of the blade. Since the different elemental ores could be merged into one alloy using the Holy Flames, the option to combine the proper ratio into a single lump of steel and shape it was viable. He could have done that and been finished by now, but he had deemed it not suitable for what he wanted.

Urus was still new to breaking down the materials for the elements and then reconstituting them into the individual ores. They had spent the first day working that out as they took everything they gathered and then broke them down one-by-one to help her get a feel for the process. The resulting ores were rough even if they were workable, but that made it clear that having her combine multiple ones to focus the concentration into specific parts wasn’t something she could do.

If he wanted a general, all-around blade then that was fine. She might get the distribution wrong, but he could just fold the metal repeatedly to spread out the composition. It would take more time, but it would ensure that it wasn’t too hard or too soft within a specific part and make them weak points for the blade. However, that would just leave him with a general blade that didn’t excel in specific areas and there was no merit in doing that when he had a specific purpose in mind for what he wanted to create.

So, he opted for the longer and more difficult path of creating a laminated blade instead. It was a process of bladesmithing that relied on layering different kinds of metal rather than using a monosteel alloy. That allowed the individual aspects of the steels to play a part in the blade without compromising on their qualities by melding them together.

Of course, it was more complicated and time consuming in both the planning and forging. More rooms for error. And Bron had been clear on one thing in particular: once the technique was submitted to the Central Tower there was no turning back.

He was gambling the time it would take to forge the blade with the time before the preliminaries.

In the best-case scenario, it would be ready a day beforehand. In the worst-case scenario, it would be hours. Either way there would be no time to build up his technical skills by familiarize himself with it. And if there was a mistake in the forging process there would be no time to re-forge the blade or start over.

It was all or nothing.

But that was fine with the stray smith. The preliminaries were a deadline, but they weren’t his end-goal. His promise to Pratty was still in effect but something else guided his hammer as his thoughts drifted back to the Second Floor.

Urus had nearly sacrificed herself in order to buy him time to escape. Though she was a spirit from another world, her physical form had been given to her by the Summoning Ritual. That meant she could feel pain and be killed.

Her life for his was not a trade that he had been comfortable with tolerating for even a second.

And what if Pratty had been with him at the time when they were attacked? How would he defend her if his blade shattered when he needed it the most? Would her life have been the price for his instead?

Those thoughts drove him to make this blade. Not for the preliminaries, but for himself. He needed a weapon that was strong enough to protect others and durable enough to protect himself. So that the knowledge that his blade shattered when he needed it the most didn’t haunt him.

He could not compromise on that if he was going to remain true to himself.

“…It’s at a good temperature,” he said as he took in the hue it had become. Fire Ore itself tended to require a very high heat to be malleable due to its nature. “We’ll get started drawing it out enough to fit into the jacket.”

Using a pair of tongs, he grabbed hold of the heated materials and brought it over to the anvil. It came up to his upper thighs thanks to a stand, putting it in a comfortable position for the long work. No sooner than he set it down did the heat begin to sink into it.

“Same as before, Urus. Keep it at the temperature it’s at now for as long as you can.”

The Fire Spirit gave an enthusiastic nod before settling her hands onto the steel. The flames of her body grew more intense to match the heat. They then writhed and lapped at the heated ore to trickle it in as she pulled away.

Welf started hammering away to work it into shape. He couldn’t hammer it too flat right now or else the fit wouldn’t be snug enough for when they forge-welded the cores to its jacket. If that happened, it would simply slide out during the welding process and complications would emerge.

Sparks and flames billowed from the friction of the blows. Steel sang as the hammer took joy in fulfilling its promised purpose. The ghost of a smile could be felt within the orange and red mask that was the Fire Spirit’s face as she watched the scene until the shaping was done.

His human limits demanded a moment’s rest afterwards. He adjusted the temperature of the forge and then set the jacket that was already in its boat-shape into it to start heating up. He refueled with a quick snack and replenished his water supply, and then outlined the next phase for the Fire Spirit to comprehend based on Urus previous performance and the amount of metal he was working with.

Then it was back to work.

The jacket heated up enough to where it could be used, so he had her keep it steady as he slid the core into place and held the rod connecting it. Then he took up the hammer and smote the core into its jacket. Sparks bloomed and fire spat as it was wedged into place since the core had cooled enough to where it wouldn’t shape the inside and cause his efforts to need further correcting. Eventually, the residual heat from the jacket brought the core up to match.

He flipped it onto its side and began to hammer at it as hard as he could. It was so they would naturally meld together with any gaps being squeezed out so there was no air inside of it. Urus kept the heat up so that he could weld them together until they were truly made into one. Then he returned them to the forge as one completed billet and once it was up to temperature began the process of squaring it out.

It was late by the time that Welf had retreated from his workshop.

Night had long fallen by the time he finished squaring it out. Looming silence permeated the Second Floor and had done so for some time. The hands of the clock hanging from the wall was closing in on its midnight stroke.

Sweat and steel filled his nostrils. His muscles that had been stressed through the pounding of hot metal were aching. His stomach gnawed away at him from the inside, demanding compensation for staving off its pains while he worked until now like a child seeking attention.

Welf would comply. But first he slipped into the closest bathroom to cleanse himself of the proof of his hard work. No one else on the Second Floor had been awake so he didn’t need to worry about someone else taking it up. The squeak of a knob was followed by the drum of the water beating against his skin and he went through the motions while his mind comb through everything that still needed to be done.

Then he stopped the shower. Toweled himself dry. Dressed for the night. And then he made his way down to the First Floor of the Silver Guild to head towards the Kitchen.

Tink. Tink. Tink.

His footsteps paused as he caught the sound of hammer falls coming from the central forge area. He had to head that way to get through to the Kitchen, but he didn’t expect anyone else to be up now. He opened the door and was greeted by the distant silhouette shrouded in the orange glow of a forge at work, sparks blooming with each hit.

It was the Silver Master at work.

The large smith was busy working a bar of steel into shape by himself. One hand was using tongs that had a cup-shape holding the tang portion firm. The other took a smaller hammer to the end and forged the glowing tip.

He was striking beneath where the tip would be, causing the end to bulge out and become convex as he flipped between one side to the other. It was drawing out the tip the closer he got to the end and would form a fine tip. His eyes never left his work even as he suddenly spoke up. “If yer fixin’ to get somethin’ ta eat, yer gonna hafta deal with leftovers.”

“That’s fine,” Welf said. “I didn’t expect you to still be up, Master.”

“Order ta Vance needin’ to be filled,” he explained. “Iron Sabers by the dozen. Journeymen have their own orders, so it’s up ta me.”

He likely would have been finished well before now if not for the fact that he had to assist the others as well. His apprentices had a big day coming and they needed his guidance. But he couldn’t neglect his duties to patrons who came to him for quality blades. So he was spending late nights working the forge.

“How’s yer…project comin’ …so far?” Bron asked between adjustment strikes.

“We still need to draw out the blade to its full length,” Welf stated. Once that was done he would cut off the tip and save it for later use with the guard. Then forge the tip over into a slope so that the hardened edge ran along the sword from belly to spine and start the beveling for the edge. “I think we can get the profiling done within two days.”

They were cutting it dangerously close. “I wanna call ya overly ambitious for makin’ a blade with that much effort in so short time. It’d be one-thing if ya had more time or yer Guardian Beast was more accustomed, but yer handlin’ the workload yerself. No time for buildin’ technical skill with it, that blade’ll be what determines the outcome—if ya finish it.”

Welf acknowledged it. “That can’t be helped. The sword needs to be able to last not only in the preliminaries but in the Labyrinth. I don’t want regrets.”

“Hrm.” The grunt was thick and spoke of his opinion without words. “No sheathin’ a blade like that. I’ll use Magnetic Ore to create a band and holster.”

The question of how he was going to sheathe it had been on Welf’s mind. But he was content with simply carrying it until after the preliminaries. “Will you have time to do that when you have so many orders?”

“It’s the duty of a master to provide fer his apprentices,” Bron stated in a tone that said not to argue with him on it. “So just focus on gettin’ it done properly. I expect nothin’ less than the best damn blade ya could make with the materials ya have considerin’ Magnetic Ore comes Iron Giants from the Lower Floors.”

“Of course,” Welf vowed. “The duty of the smith is to make something that will last after all, and that means the best.”

There were no more words after that. The Silver Master went back to his work. The stray apprentice he had taken in ate what was left and went to back to his room to rest. Tomorrow would be another busy day.

Laying on his bed, his gaze turned over to mouth of the forge that had stopped running but still baked the room with its lingering heat. The Fire Spirit whose flame burned bright now gently flickered within the forge. Her limits had been reached for that day and in deep slumber she laid.

There was little she could do aside from providing the constant heat and occasionally act as a second set of hands. She was still too inexperienced to work as a hammering partner for something like this. But even so he was grateful she was still giving it her all to bring the blade to life.

It was because of that he had no fear of failure.

They would finish in time.