“Well, hello Richard. I’m fine. Thanks for asking. It’s nice to know that my big brother cares about me”, the patriarch mumbled.
“I’m waiting!” was the reply he received.
“Not even going to ask who this is?” Roland said, gesturing behind him at Valerian. All he got was a flat stare. He chose to continue anyway.
“This is Valerian, Valan’s grandson”, he said by way of introduction. Then, turning back to the smith. “Valerian, this is Great Elder Richard, my brother. He is in charge of the clan’s artificing halls and the Head of all affairs related to them such as smithing, weapons research, and many others that escape me right now. Like the Richard of your household, this one is very brusque and perpetually grumpy. You should be used to the type but…”
The aforementioned grump cut in. “Hold on! This is the brat that had the Greater Council so worked up?”
Despite having his words cut off, the patriarch smiled as if happy. “Yes. This is that same, Valerian. The one who carries the blood of the Golden Winged Peng.”
Richard placed his chisel at his belt and stepped forward to examine Valerian more closely. “I suppose I have you to thank for my current workload then”, he revealed. “I’d shake your hand but you had to butcher your way into the abdomen and ruin a good portion of the leather. Whatever it was you did to the carcass left whole sections severely damaged after you drained essence right out of it and don’t get me started on the state of the core.”
Valerian stood there, stunned but Richard rambled on. “Do you know just how much trouble you’ve given me? What should have been a prize in third tier dragon material is barely worth half as much.”
Not knowing how to respond, Valerian could only say, “I am sorry. I had no idea.”
“Wait! Valerian is the reason for the degradation of the dragon materials?” the patriarch asked, finally reverting back to his serious self. “How?”
“Didn’t you read the report?” Richard asked his brother incredulously.
“You know how busy I was, preparing for the Zebre then”, Roland explained. “I had one of my aides give me the highlights. Nowhere in them was there mention of essence draining or a connection between Valerian and the Gleamscales project or the cause of your current artificing problems.” The patriarch said defensively.
Richard scoffed and explained the circumstances to him quickly. Hearing the full account of events, the patriarch could not help but feel sweat run down his spine. He had heard about Valerian supposedly encountering the spirit or will of the peng but he never knew it was after nearly dying at the hands of bandits and then tearing apart and consuming the remains of a third tier dragon.
“What happened to the Vults?” he questioned seriously.
“I’m not sure. I haven’t followed the case in a while. All I know is that they were broken in a week”, Richard told him. Then, shooting Valerian a meaningfully look, he continued. “Apparently, someone told the people in charge that they held vital information that was important enough to consider their lives and future well being as secondary. So, I honestly can’t say that how they ended up. Before that, however, the gaolers managed to extract their identities and purpose.”
At this, Valerian, who had purposefully been avoiding the man’s gaze, looked up again.
“They were a secret party of Vults responsible for carting treasure to their group’s secret stash. An elite squad was sent but they came back with news that the vault had been emptied of everything worthwhile. It seems the disappearance of the delivery group was enough to alert them to the fact that something was wrong. The bandits were unable to take everything and so were forced to leave some gold and a few mounds of low-grade essence stones”, Richard added.
“Were they able to track them?” Roland inquired.
“Yes, but only back to their base”, Richard confirmed. “It was a coup but again, nothing of significance was gained. The leader and his elite were long gone. The remaining bandits weren’t even aware that something was wrong until we overrun them. Several attempts were made but we could not pick up their trail.”
“Hmph” his brother snorted. “That’s Thieran alright, decisive to a fault. The faintest twang of a bow in the distance is enough reason for him to take flight.”
“Agreed. But you haven’t told me why you are here”, Richard said calmly.
“I trust that Valan came by to secure his grandson’s share of the spoils?” Roland asked curiously.
“Naturally!” Richard informed them. “Given what happened, he wanted the dragon’s core as well but the other elders were already committed to the Gleamscales project. We were able to trade him an extra portion of the other materials instead. His share of any proceeds issued from mining the site is now twenty-five percent instead of fifteen. Twenty-five percent of a site that’s churning out fine-grade imbued metals the likes of titan bone and frost iron. Not to mention the immense stores of essence stones. Thomas might be a good bookkeeper but he’s a bad negotiator. I told you not to put him in acquisitions”, he chastised.
Valerian stood off to the side, doing his best to keep track of the conversation and the names. It seemed that whilst he was busy training for the Zebre, his grandfather had taken the opportunity to get some of their affairs in order. Gleamscales’ lair had been turned into a mine and his remains were being used for a hush-hush artificing project that was currently stalled because of an issue with the materials. He wondered when the old man planned on telling him that he now owned twenty-five percent of imbued metal cum essence stone mine. The fact that the leaders of the Vults had escaped was worrisome as well.
“I had originally planned on pestering you to forge Valerian here a new suit of noble tier armour out of our new stock of materials. Unfortunately, those plans have changed. Valerian will be going to Strapping’s and their rules don’t allow students to carry essence artefacts greater than their current cultivation tier. How much defensive ability do you think you can pack into an elite tier artefact?” Roland asked his brother.
Valerian’s mind went blank. Noble tier armour! A single ordinary noble artefact was worth a few hundred florins. As for a complete suit of noble armour, Valerian could only hazard a guess. Realising that he would no longer be getting that sent some pain through his heart. Elite artefacts were the closest thing to noble ones but they still paled in comparison to the real thing.
“You’re kidding”, Richard said straightforwardly. “This brat is headed to Strapping’s? I thought the council put an injunction on going to that place after what happened the last time. Besides, isn’t the plan to hide the fact that he was a descendant of the peng?”
“Trust me Richard”, Roland stressed. “The boy is more than good enough, even without his peng legacy. He won second place in this year’s Zebre when not even three months ago he was still in the second phase of the meridian opening stage. I have no doubts that he could pass now if need be but he still requires training and preparation if we want to play in the big leagues. To do that, he will need new gear”. He glanced back at Valerian’s training armour. “Vastly superior new gear.”
Richard glanced over with him, his eyes running over Valerian’s pitted breastplate. It was all Valerian could do to keep from fidgeting. The eyes with which he looked at him now were different from before. They were now appraising him. Placing in the Zebre was not a minor feat for a young cultivator especially given the roster this year. Richard did not pay much attention to outside affairs. Everything he learnt came from the mandatory great elder’s meetings. Still, he had had to deal with a number of elders who crooned about their descendants as if they were the most talented children in existence. From what he could tell, none of them would be Valerian’s match.
Come to think of it. Not even his might. He sighed. It was the longstanding duty of the clan’s smiths to equip and support its fighters. For a moment, he contemplated giving the work to another of the clan’s smiths. He truly was busy after all. However, something stopped him. This boy was the descendant of the golden winged peng. Here was a chance for him to craft something unique, something different from the usual size changing, flesh melding, true guard monolithic armour.
Taking out his tape measure, he called to him, “Come here, lad.”
Roland smiled triumphantly. Valerian moved quickly, trying not to look too excited. He might not be getting a noble set but the fact that Roland was the Head of the Clan’s Artificing Halls implied that he was possibly its greatest artificer. Getting an elite set from him shouldn’t be too inferior to a noble one. Considering he had never even used a single elite artefact, this was definitely a rank up for him.
“What did you have in mind?” Richard asked his brother as he took his measurements.
“I want this set to be purely defensive and supplementary. We’ll make up his offensive might with weapons. No need to split our priorities and lessen the overall effects. Valerian’s last set was better than the one he is wearing now however, he run into a Veldt with a noble tiered fire bow and it did nothing to help him”, Roland informed him.
“Thanks to the boy, there’s a lot of frost iron. With a few fire suppressing arrays we can eliminate that weakness for the most part”, his brother, pointed out.
“That’s good. However, Valerian is dual attributed. We cannot focus on his metal attribute and forget the wind. We must also factor in his forces and of course, we’ll need weapons. Valerian tends to use actual weapons to reinforce his ranged spells and his primary focus has been damaged.
“I still have some cloud iron in my stores. I’ll alloy it with the frost iron and titan bone whilst using some wind daemon leathers for the fittings and paddings”, Richard acquiesced as he stood up.
“Which is your attacking hand boy?” he asked Valerian.
“Both”, Valerian quickly answered. The smith nodded.
“Did you ever get much use from the orbs in your gauntlets?” he questioned.
Valerian looked at his wrists to make sure. He was wearing his training armour. It didn’t have the secondary foci his formal one did. How did the man know?
“Hmph!” the man snorted, much like his brother had done before. “I know the smith who made your armours lad. He signed this piece as well. It is a feature he can’t seem to do without.”
Valerian nodded calmly, accepting the answer. “I never had reason to rely on them. Their bolstering effect was much weaker when compared to my primary focus and they did not contribute to my armour’s actual capabilities”, he answered in turn.
Richard took note mentally. “Where is this focus now?”
Valerian took his mace out of his spatial ring with trepidation. The once favoured weapon that hung constantly at his side looked so battered it was nearly unrecognisable. The Zebre had not been kind to it at all. The damage was so bad he had been unable to use it in his final battle with Tirenael. Given what Valerian’s cultivation had been over the years, it was the tool he had used in pretty much all his work. Having relied on it for so many years, it actually pained him to see the state it was in now. He held in his hands for a few seconds looking morosely over it till Richard took it out of his hands.
The smith held it in his hands, appraising the worn tool. Someone who had taken great care had polished it and it was well maintained despite its current state. Neither the polish nor the maintenance could do much more for this weapon. It was scuffed and scratched with some portions suffering serious flame damage. One flange had broken off, two were bent and all were warped from some great heat. The swirls of essence in the inner portion were depleted and the speed of their revolution was slow. Richard flipped it in his hands, noting its heft.
‘A mace’, he mused. ‘That idiot James had sought to craft a mace.’
The thing was clearly, an arcanist’s stave. Only, the creator cast it in the mould of a flanged mace choosing his material solely for its weight. The thing was a poor weapon, not because it was badly made or unbalanced. The balance was actually quite good. It’s just that James made equipment for arcanists. Whiles Richard admired that he had experimented with something out of his comfort zone, it didn’t stop the piece from being trash in his eyes.
‘The idiot never thought to temper the weapon’, he noted with derision. The mace was textbook in terms of shape and balance but that was it. It was still only a stave in the shape of a mace. The glyphs embed within it were there to channel arcane energy. The body was heavy but not sturdy. The thing was never intended for use as an actual weapon; only, no one told its wielder that. No wonder it had failed in prolonged battle. He looked from the mace to its owner, seeing the sad look on the latter. He was a good kid but polish wasn’t going to fix this thing. Nothing was.
“What of the other weapons you use?” he asked.
With a thought, Valerian retrieved his new set from his ring. The old ones were part of the melted sludge that he and Aaron had left in the aftermath of their battle. Four quarrels and five blades hovered in the air dyed in the firelight of the furnace. Valerian felt his connection to two break but before he had a chance to be startled he noticed them in the smith’s hands.
“Oh, these are ordinary. You’re using pure metal manipulation”, Richard exclaimed. “How many can you control?”
“Nine”, he answered.
The smith looked at him strangely. “Go on then”, he commanded. “Show me”, he added, letting the weapons he had captured go.
They flew back to their places beside Valerian. Realising he was being tested, Valerian gave it all he had. He sent them forward, firing them off, singularly and then simultaneously like he was using a bow. Calling them back, he scattered them in the air and had them swoop at an imaginary target like birds of prey. Moving each separately, he sent them in different directions, having them crisscross each other’s paths without touching. The whole time, he relied on one hand for control, making gestures like a conductor before an orchestra but eventually, he put it away relying completely on mental power and concentration.
Under his control, the weapons seemed to be transformed. Like Richard had noted earlier, they were ordinary weapons; mere crossbow quarrels and daggers. However, they were now akin to flying swords and soaring spears. The quarrels pierced through the air like missiles, seeking targets. The daggers swayed, cutting and slashing at unseen enemies. They flew at high speeds and with purpose, like a horde of angry hornets.
Richard began to clap, bringing Valerian out of his concentrated trance. The boy really was good. “So, nine is your limit?” he asked.
Valerian nodded, a bit out of breath. “When I add even one more, my control entirely disappears. I can control them en mass but not individually or with finesse”, he explained.
“I see”, Roland spoke up. “You’ve reached a bottleneck in your technique.”
Richard nodded in agreement. “Your technique is very good. However, you are a bit lacking in understanding the nature and use of metal. Once you comprehend that, you’ll find it easier to manipulate and you’ll progress beyond this stage.”
Valerian nodded slowly, trying to take it in. He hadn’t known that metal manipulation could have bottlenecks.
“From what I can see, you’ll do better with hands-free weapons”, Richard stated suddenly. “With your skills at manipulation, you’ll have few issues using them to perfection and you’ll have your hands free for casting spells, creating arrays or plain old fist fighting.”
“It’s good you think so Richard”, his brother cut in. “I’d like to request a mercurial orb for Valerian.”
Richard rounded up on his brother so fast that Valerian saw an afterimage.
“NO! Absolutely not!” he bellowed.
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