LEGEND OF THE EMPYREAN BLACKSMITH
BOOK I – PEST OF THE UMBRA KINGDOM
ARC II – TO BE AN EMPYREAN
Night hung, looming like a thread of oppression up on the sky. Silver-clad moon was completely hidden behind ashened, gray clouds which spat out snow ceaselessly. Falling flat, it gathered in small hills outside the silent village, while its whites doused roofs in its hues. Sharp, glistening icicles hung underneath gullies, fences and window panes, shimmering faintly even in the darkness of the night. Occasional howl of the wolves or bark of the dogs would break silence silly, but, past them, no other sound was emitted by the village, as though not a single soul rested inside. Edging toward eastern border of the village, surrounded by rather impoverished homes and tattered streets, a two-story building stood relentless within the frost. Its fenced courtyard showed signs of not being taken care of in a while, with even the wooden fence itself having been broken apart at some places. All windows were dark, and there were quite a few of them, numbering nearly twenty. Some were still whole, mostly those on the second floor, but most showed signs of deterioration, or outright collapse. On the first floor, heaved at the left side of the building, scurried in the corner, howling wind managed to pierce straight through the cracked window and broken cardboard patch, dousing the room into seething frost.
Inside a rather small room, there was only a single, simple bed with headboard and footboard which stood molded into the wall. Patches of glistening ice and snow fluttered on the floor freely like mid-summer dancers, while icicles had already begun forming at the bed’s edges. A blanket, thinner than a sheet of paper and full of holes, suddenly heaved slightly as it fell into folds, slowly slipping over and falling onto the floor silently. As it fell, it revealed a shivering, small body of a boy that didn’t look older than eight. The boy’s body was thin, bones visible on his skin, and he was currently curled up in a fetus position, his hands and head tightly wrapped together against his bosom. Black hair was messy and disorderly as it fell over the mattress, one lacking a pillow.
The body suddenly shifted as a soft groan of pain and agony escaped the boy’s pale lips. As his features unveiled, it showed a startling picture; the boy’s eyes were sunk in, patches of deep black and purple beneath each of his eyes. Snot beneath his nose was frozen stiff while his thin, sickly purple lips trembled ceaselessly. The boy suddenly scurried over to the edge of the bed with great difficulty, extending one of his thin arms and pulling up the fallen blanket back onto the bed, wrapping himself from head to toe in it immediately. Yet, it seemed to have hardly alleviated bone-piercing chill, as the body beneath still continued shivering. After a few short minutes, faint, weakly sobs echoed from beneath the sheets. They were barely audible and if one didn’t stand right at the bed’s edge, they’d be hard-pressed to hear them. Sobs quickly turn into an outright cry of pain and agony. Beneath the sheet, boy’s face was distorted as his weak, yellowed and half-missing teeth clacked loudly in a strange symphony. The boy fought fiercely to steady his jaw but to no avail. In the end, one of his arms escaped the entrapment of his knees as he steadied its palm against his lower jaw, bringing about the end to the symphony. Streams of tears bellowed down from his eyes over his cheeks and onto the mattress beneath, but he quickly wiped them clean with vigor from fear of having them frozen on his face. His thickly black eyebrows glistened faintly in frost, and his skin had gone completely pale, as though he was a corpse.
Suddenly, a sound of the doors opening startled the boy as he unwrapped himself and rang up onto the bed, turning his head toward the source. The first thing that entered his sight was a small, fist-sized candle exuding faint, ethereal light. The latter then cast over onto the features of the holder; as the boy rose his gaze up, he was met with a pair of glistening, azure-colored eyes that sparkled like gems in the night. Surrounding them was an oval-shaped head with clean, starkly brilliant features. A young girl, roughly boy’s age, quickly scurried into the room and closed the door behind her carefully. In her other arm was a thick, furred blanket, far eclipsing the boy’s. It was faintly brown in color with thick, hairy edges. Blowing faintly at the candle, the source of light was extinguished as the girl’s faint footsteps approached the bed. Finally awoken from the daze, the boy shook as his helpless expression disappeared and a stern one emerged.
“Ally, what are you doing here?!!” he bellowed in a low roar.
“Humph, what do you mean what I’m doing here?” the girl scoffed lightly as she stopped next to the bed. “Look at you…” her tone suddenly mellowed as her gem-like eyes sparkled in teary mist. “Move over.” she pushed him gently and leapt onto the bed before wrapping one of her arms around his waist and pulling him next to her, using the other arm to hang her thick blanket over the both of them. Boy’s body suddenly stiffened as the girl’s warm one pressed against his.
“No, no, leave!” jolted back to his senses, the boy immediately protested. “If we get caught, while they’ll just spank you, they might actually dump me out into the cold!”
“They won’t catch us, I was careful!” the girl said in a low tone. “Don’t-don’t wave your cold legs around-bzz-it’s cold!”
“Ally, seriously, leave!” the boy exclaimed as loudly as he could without having his voice leave the boundary of the blanket that had covered both of them. Though it was completely dark, the boy still swore he could see the girl’s sparkling eyes staring at him.
“I won’t!” the girl said in an annoyed tone. “Look at you, you’re still shaking! How can I leave?!” her tiny arms suddenly wrapped tightly around the boy’s body and brought him even closer until they had nearly become one. “You’re… so cold…” because the girl was slightly taller, the boy’s head only reached up to her collarbones; as her voice faded, he could feel sudden wetness on his hair.
“If Sister Roa catches us… we’re toast…” the boy mumbled softly as he gave up his protests, feeling quite comfortable having been suddenly thrown into warmth.
“She won’t,” the girl said. “She won’t, don’t worry…”
“… how can I not worry?” the boy said. “They quite liked you when you first came here, but, because of me, they’ve also started cutting your food too.”
“Who cares? It’s just less food.” the girl said. “Compared to you, I’m still eating like a Queen.”
“… thank you.” the boy mumbled in a barely audible voice.
“Lino… did… did you ever think about leaving this place?” the girl suddenly asked.
“Heh… every day.” the boy said. “But… then what?”
“I don’t know.”
“… I’m sorry… I… I wish I could help you more…”
“… don’t cry, oi, don’t cry!” Lino exclaimed in a slightly scared voice as he heard Ally’s sobs. “Y-you already help me ton… d-don’t cry…”
The faint sobs soon came to an end as the room fell into deep silence. Underneath the thick blanket, the two were wrapped tightly into each other’s embrace, their expressions tranquil and serene. Though the cold wind still blew, it seemed unable to pierce the blanket’s thick coating and disturb the two. Lino’s eyelashes trembled a few times and his expression darkened on occasions, as though he was having a bad dream. Bit by bit, he moved ever so closer to Ally until his head was directly pressing against her chest. Only then did he seem to calm down somewhat.
By the time morning arrived, wind had already stopped blowing. As though woken by something, Lino’s eyes suddenly jolted open. He scurried out of the blanket and looked outside the window only to see the hazy beams of sun slowly trickling at the horizon. His heart started and he quickly turned around, shaking Ally and calling out her name. It took him nearly half a minute to wake the girl up; the latter slowly stretched and yawned, wiping her eyes, as she looked at him gently and smiled serenely. Her golden hair flapped on the mattress and she seemed unhurried to get up despite Lino’s anxious calls.
“Get up, get up! It’s already morning!” Lino cried out hurriedly in low voice. “If someone catches you, we’ll be done for!”
“… uhm, let me sleep a bit more…” Ally mumbled. “I feel like I slept really well last night…”
“Damn it, get up you lazy beast!” Lino growled somewhat angrily as he forcibly sat her up. “I’ll play with you later. Okay? Just leave now!”
“You promise?!” Ally’s eyes beamed in joy suddenly.
“Yes, yes, I promise! Go! Now!” only then did Lino somehow manage to convince the strange girl to leave while carrying the thick blanket.
It was only after five minutes had passed since her departure that Lino’s heart calmed down somewhat. He plummeted back onto the bed, already feeling tired. However, he couldn’t help but let a smile creep up onto his face. Ever since she came here, for one reason or another, Ally stuck to him like glue. Disregarding warnings from Sisters and jeering from other kids, she seemed deaf to it all and still stuck with him. Even when her rations were cut and when she was punished for disobeying rules, she still stubbornly sought ways to meet up with him and play. Over a year had passed since then, and he’d slowly let the strange girl’s image inside his heart. Perhaps, for the first time in his life, he’d felt the happiness he heard about from the stories. Yet, such feeling also made him feel apprehensive; the more he cared, the more he feared losing that feeling. That is why he tried to meet up less and less with her, as to not let others have an excuse to constantly bully her. However, she was even deaf to his pleas. Whether out in the open or in secret, she sought him and asked him to tell her the stories he picked up while sneaking out of the orphanage. Because of her, he’d been sneaking out more often recently just so he could pick up another story or two to retell to her.
After calming down, he slowly got off the bed and walked over to the window while covering himself from head to toe with thin blanket. Looking out into the courtyard, he only saw a pile of snow beyond which lay a fence, a street, and a row of rundown homes, some of which had already begun spitting out smoke from their chimneys. As he watched on, he saw robust men coated in thick, fur clothes walk toward the backside of the village where one of the mines was located, no doubt going to work. He looked on at them with deep envy in his heart; though he knew their days were far from perfect, at least they had control over their lives. Nobody could decide whether they were allowed to eat or drink something but them themselves. Realizing that his chest was growing painful, he finally broke off his gaze and walked back onto the bed. He knew that some other kids were probably gathering in the canteen for the breakfast, but he also knew that it had nothing to do with him. He wasn’t an exception, though; there were many others just like him, some even younger and weaker.
The orphanage, after all, only received some monthly donations. To feed all the kids was theoretically possible, but just barely. However, instead of that, the focus was on the kids that had a higher chance of either being adopted or bought. That is why they paid a lot of attention to Ally when she was brought in; golden hair, azure-colored eyes, pretty face… she was even able to read at the tender age of seven. Of all the kids currently in the orphanage, she had the highest chance of leaving this place quickly. When she first arrived, she was given three meals a day and even proper education. However, as she started hanging out with him, most of her privileges were stripped in an attempt to pull her away. Some of the scorn inevitably fell on Lino, and, nowadays, he’d be lucky to get to eat in orphanage once in a week. Besides sneaking out of the orphanage to listen in on the stories from random people, he also snuck out in search for food. That is how he mostly survived for the past half a year.
As he picked up a lot of stories from the outside world, he yearned to grow up and leave this place. One of the first stories he’d ever heard was the one of the legendary blacksmith who visited the Umbra Kingdom a long, long time ago, and crafted the Kingdom’s legendary weapon that, till this day, is still considered its last line of defense. The legendary blacksmith was offered coffers of gold, jewels and gems, but he refused them all, elusively disappearing and never surfacing again. The story lit fires inside Lino’s heart, and he swore to himself he’d become a blacksmith one day and, just like legendary blacksmith, craft something that would awe the world but, unlike the legendary blacksmith, he wouldn’t ignobly refuse the toast of gold, gems and jewels. After all, he feels as though he sucked all the heaven’s luck when he stumbles upon a single copper coin, then what if he had a huge pile of gold? Couldn’t he eat those sweet cakes from Benny’s shop every day?
Waiting until the meal was over, Lino climbed out of the window slowly and circled to the backyard of the orphanage, drilling himself through a small hole in the fence and landing on the snowy-white street. By now, the village had already woken up completely. Sneaking through the slightly obscured alleyways, he raced toward the village’s market with a faint smile on his face. Though all of his body began feeling the wretches of cold once again, running heated him up somewhat. Three copper coins dangled in his pockets; he had been saving for entire four months now, and today was finally the day he’d be spending them. About half a year ago, he came across a book called <Tales and Fables> that Old Wick was selling and he forced the latter to swore to not sell it until Lino saved up three copper coins. On his way over, he couldn’t help but imagine Ally’s shocked face when he shows her his find. Though he couldn’t read quite well just yet, he was confident in at least being able to understand the book and retell it to Ally.
His faint, small footprints in the snow were soon covered up with much larger ones as he swayed between the heavily-coated bodies on his way to the market. Even this early, it was already bustling with activity and noise. Stalls were lined up left and right of the cobblestone street, with people constantly bargaining over the prices. Ignoring every stall that wasn’t Old Wick’s, Lino scurried over in his fastest speed, soon coming to a stop in front of one of the smaller stalls; save for the three rows of rather strange and macabre items, there was nothing else on display. Sitting on a small stool next to the stall with a pipe in his mouth, Old Wick was the same as Lino remembered him; disheveled, gray hair fell over his shoulder, his wrinkled face giving of sagacious air, and his slightly dulled, silver eyes wandering off into the distant horizon.
“Hey, hey, old man!” Lino waved his hands in front of Old Wick’s face and spoke with enthusiastic voice. “Wake up! I’ve got you three copper coins for that book!”
“Eh? Lino?” the old man jolted back to reality as he glanced downwards at the small, fragile body of a boy with a gentle smile. “Oh? You really have them?”
“Of course, of course!” Lino reached into his pocket and took out the three, old copper coins, handing them over quickly. “Give me! Give me the book!”
“Alright, alright,” Old Wick chuckled as he ignored the three copper coins in the boy’s hand and reached for the backside of the stall, taking out a slightly worn book with roughly two hundred pages. “Here. Take good care of it, you hear?!”
“Eh? Why aren’t you taking the coins?” Lino looked at him with bewilderment as he took the book.
“Why would I need your coins?” Old Wick chuckled as he drew a smoke from his pipe and blew it gray into moist air. “It’s enough that I see you really wanted it. Just promise me you’d take care of it!”
“Eeeeeh? Couldn’t you have just given it to me back then?” Lino asked, pouting slightly. “Then I wouldn’t have had to save up in the first place!”
“It’s a lesson, lesson, ha ha!”
“You’re just messing with me!”
Growling lowly at the old man, he stuck out his tongue and quickly left, afraid he’d get his ass spanked by the old man. A surge of warmth bewildered his heart on his way back; after all, receiving kindness was on the rare list of things he got in life. With three copper coins, he decided to go to the small bakery near the orphanage and bought two jam buns, one copper each, deciding to save the last one just in case. He pressed the still-warm buns against his bosom, warming them up quickly, as he took the same path back to the orphanage. It’s usually around this time that Ally would be waiting for him in the small, slightly isolated corner of the orphanage, beneath an old tree with a thick trunk.
Just as he predicted, she was there, wearing an oversized coat as she played with snow. A subconscious smile crept onto Lino’s face as he slowly approached her; instead of calling out, he sneaked behind her and leaned into her ear before whispering ‘Bo’. The girl suddenly screamed lowly as she slipped on the small branch and fell head first into the snow. Lino immediately burst out into laughter as he saw her struggling to get up with a face-full of white snow. With knitted brows, she growled at him as she took a handful of snow and shoved it at him. Almost instinctively, he dodged sideways and evaded it while his laughter continued to resonate.
“It’s not funny!! You scared me!!” Ally cried out, pouting.
“Ha ha ha…”
“Okay, okay, calm down,” Lino said, smiling as he took out the two buns and handed her one. “Here, it’s still warm. Let’s eat it, quickly!”
“Eh?” Ally exclaimed softly as she looked at the small bun in her hands before glancing up at Lino’s honest expression. Her already reddened cheeks flushed further as she hid her expression, slowly nibbling on the bun. “I’ll… I’ll pay you back, somehow…”
“Hm? What are you talking about?” Lino asked, tilting his head sideways while wolfing down the bun.
“I know!” Ally exclaimed as she suddenly moved close to him and unbuttoned her coat, pulling him in. “Hehe, isn’t it warmer now?”
“…” Lino said nothing as it was his turn to lower his head and slowly nibble on the bun. “Thank you.” he mumbled softly.
“… no problem.”
“I got us a book to read.” Lino said after a short moment of silence.
“Eh? A book? What book? Where’d you get that?” Lino slowly took out the <Tales and Fables> from his bosom and showed it to Ally with a proud grin plastered on his face.
“Awesome, right? He he, you don’t have to be so shocked!”
“You snuck out again!”
“How do you think I got the buns then?!!”
“Ugh… you should stop sneaking out!” Ally said. “If they catch you, they’ll lock you out again!”
“… like there’s a difference anyway.” Lino growled lowly. “Do you want me to read it to you or not?”
“Read, of course!” Ally said as though she already forgot her berating him.
“…” Lino rolled his eyes at her for a moment before slowly and carefully opening the first page of the book. The two sat down at the tree’s roots and leaned against the thick trunk while plastered against one another beneath the coat. “Oh, okay. So, uh, the first is… uh, it’s called F-fable of… of the… Sneaky Fox! Yeah!” Lino exclaimed as he struggled to read.
“… do you want me to read it?” Ally asked.
“I can read!”
“You don’t sound like it!”
“… fine, you read!” Ally said, snorting slightly.
“I will!” Lino exclaimed before averting his gaze back onto the letters on the page. “Khm, so, long, long, long time ago… there, there was a fox, and… uh, v-village people called it—“
“Just give me! You read slower than a snail!”
“I didn’t know snails can read!”
“Just give me the book!” Ally growled.
“Fine, here you go! Read Mrs. I-can-read!”
“A long, long time ago, there was a fox and village people called the fox Sneaky Fox.” Ally slowly began reading in a gentle and soothing voice as Lino listened attentively. “Sneaky Fox would come to village often and demand that villagers give it food. One year, the winter was really harsh, and villagers didn’t have enough food, but Sneaky Fox came once again. It demanded that villagers give it three pounds of meat or she will begin stealing babies from them after three days. As villagers were unable to give it three pounds of meat, one day, a brave young man Hero said to the villagers ‘I will go and kill the Sneaky Fox, don’t worry!’. On a cold, winter morning, Hero left the village and headed off into the woods where the Sneaky Fox lived. After journeying for two whole days, he finally came in front of Sneaky Fox’s lair. It was a big, cold cave with evil air about it. Hero, however, braved onward and entered, holding nothing but a rusty sword in his hands. In the depths of the cave, Sneaky Fox was lying and sleeping when Hero came. However, instead of killing it while asleep, Hero waited in front until the Sneaky Fox awoke. When it saw Hero, it was surprised and asked ‘What are you doing here?’. Hero replied ‘I came to kill you, evil fox!’. ‘Then why didn’t you kill me while I was asleep?’ the Sneaky Fox asked. ‘Because that would have been sneaky, and I would be exactly like you!’ Hero said. The Sneaky Fox was surprised, thinking that this human was truly foolish. ‘Instead of fighting,’ the Sneaky Fox said. ‘How about we play a game? If you win, I will never bother your village again but, if you lose, you will be my slave forever’. Hero agreed after a short thought. ‘What’s the game?’ he asked.” Ally slowly turned the page and continued while Lino was completely immersed in the story already, not even noticing the pause.
“’It’s very simple’, the Sneaky Fox said. ‘You just have to catch me, and you win’. Hero agreed and put away his sword. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘I’ll catch you, then!’. Hero then ran towards the Sneaky Fox, but the latter didn’t even move. Hero thought that the Sneaky Fox wasn’t so sneaky after all. He quickly reached it and wrapped his arms around its head. ‘Hah, I win, evil fox!’ Hero exclaimed proudly. The Sneaky Fox grinned as it replied ‘Foolish human…’. It lifted its head and bit at Hero’s neck, killing him.”
“… eh? That’s it?” Lino asked as he realized Ally hadn’t said anything for a while.
“That’s it.” Ally nodded.
“That was stupid!!”
“How is it stupid?!”
“What’s the point?! Hero died just like that?! Isn’t he an idiot?!” Lino said. “Why would he trust the Sneaky Fox?!”
“… that’s the lesson of the story,” Ally rolled her eyes at him. “That we shouldn’t just trust what people say.”
“… oh.” Lino mumbled softly. “Alright, onto the next one!”
“What are the two of you doing?!!” a familiar voice which immediately sent shivers down Lino’s spine interrupted the two. As he lifted his head, he saw a familiar, middle-aged face of an angered woman wrapped in nun’s cloth. Her brown eyes were staring at the two with fervor of fury as her two arms rested at her sides, her legs spread apart. Both Ally and Lino exclaimed softly as they jolted onto their feet, immediately trying to run away. However, two arms reached forward and grabbed them by their necks, pulling them back and throwing them down onto the floor. “What did I tell you two?! What did it say about sneaking out?!!” the woman screamed as she suddenly kicked Lino in the back, causing the latter to cry out in pain. “You bastard, when will you learn to listen?!” another kicked followed immediately after, hitting his kidney. “What is this?!” the woman bent down and picked up the book that was lying in the snow. “Where did you get this, huh? Where did you get this?!! Did you sneak out again?! I bet you snuck out again!” all the while, the woman continued kicking at Lino, merely avoiding his face while her feet landed on the rest of his body. He cried out over and over again and tears had already began trickling down his cheeks.
“S-sister, please stop, you’re hurting him!” Ally cried out as she grabbed at the woman’s leg, trying to stop her.
“Let go of me, you bitch!!” the woman kicked back and hit Ally’s chest, causing the little girl to fall back into the snow. “I tried to be nice to you, but how do you repay me?! Huh?! You hang out with this piece of horseshit and ignore all my good will!! You bitch!” she kicked her again, this time on the upper shoulder, causing Ally to scream out in pain. Lino suddenly sprung on his feet as he latched onto the woman’s leg and tried pulling her.
“Don’t hurt her!! I’ll kill you!!” he screamed out, closing his eyes.
“Huh?!! What did you say you little bastard?!” the woman’s gaze landed on him again as she grabbed his hair and lifted him up directly, causing pain to spread throughout every inch of his body as he screamed out. “You’ll kill me, you say?! Kill your mother! I’ll show who you’ll kill!” instead of using her legs, she now used her free arm and punched Lino over and over again, avoiding his face. After tenth punch or so, tracks of crimson slipped out of Lino’s mouth as his eyes rolled backwards, losing consciousness. When the woman noticed that he fainted, she landed one last punch and threw him down like an empty bag. “You, come with me! From now on, I’ll lock you in a room and throw away the damn key!!” as the woman carried her away, Ally screamed and cried over and over again, seeing Lino lying unconscious in the snow. However, all her pleas were ignored and instead answered by another beating.
In the snow lay a fragile, slender body of a boy, his eyelashes glistening with frost and trembling, his breathing faint and weak, and white of snow beneath his cheeks reddened by blood. His mind adrift in the ocean of nothingness, he was unaware of the world; he had sailed someplace where even the winters were warm.