THE MISSING ELEMENT
Moss covered walls rose up and forged a large, almost three hundred square meters castle. Cracks and dents ran rampart across their surface, their once glistening appearance now doused in ashened gray of time. Eerie silence enveloped the large castle lying in a gorge between two high-rising mountains, strange, gray fog shouldering it. There was no clear path leading to it; the whole of what was once a road was covered with shrubbery, trees and overgrown weed. The downward, spiraling path rounding the mountain in front of the castle was long since buried in the vestige of time. Perhaps there was not a living soul who knew when was the last time this place had prospered.
Currently, within one of its damp, cold and suffocating rooms whose entire wall shielding it from the outside was crumbled, a faint flicker of a candle swayed in the hazy wind. Next to it, a strongly enunciated figure stood in silence, covered entirely in black cloth from head to toe, only revealing a pair of clean, blue eyes. They appeared dull at the moment, as though the focus escaped them, and their owner’s thoughts had wandered away from reality. After a few minutes, a sound of approaching footsteps caused the pair to regain their sharpness as they looked toward the source; there, another figure appeared, similarly draped in entirely black cloth with only a pair of pitch-black eyes showing. He came to a halt roughly five meters away from the figure who waited for him, leaning on the crumbled pieces of wall while faint wind swayed his black cloak.
“Why call a meeting in this accursed place?” the newcomer asked in a harsh, low tone.
“… is it really an accursed place?” a pleasing, melodic voice of a woman replied. Her eyes suddenly shifted away from the newcomer and looked around the rather spacious, but hauntingly empty room. “Do you know what this room was used for back then?”
“Should I?” the newcomer asked indifferently.
“… we all should know bits and pieces of history,” the woman said. “It’s rather marvelous. Though we proudly claim to be the most prosperous era since the dawn of time, our words hardly account for much. These walls… ever after nearly three billion years… they still stand, however parched, beaten and broken. Tell me… isn’t that simply marvelous?”
“Perhaps, such number is astoundingly vague for us,” the woman said, sighing lightly. “After all, even the strongest of us are yet to live and breathe an entire era. However, these walls… they have seen it all. According to the records, this used to be the secret stronghold of Human Clan after the Fall of Titans. Nobody knows what type of stone they used to craft this, and we have no way of replicating it. This place… has never been found by any of the other three ruling Clans, and was only discovered when cultivators became aware of the flight. It is really amazing.”
“What was this room used for?” the newcomer asked with some interest.
“… it was a research facility,” the woman replied as she looked back at the man in front of her. “The only bits and pieces that were excavated here still rest in our home. Just a bit deeper than either one of us can reach.”
“… fascinating.” the man said as his tone returned to that of indifference. “Why did you call a meeting? It’s too early to move.”
“New orders came,” the woman said. “We are forbidden from making any moves until told otherwise.”
“Don’t give me that look,” the woman shrugged her shoulders as she spoke. “I am as baffled as you are.”
“… are they trying to root out the source of the problem itself?” the man’s tone clearly grew colder as he spoke. “No, that’s insane. Even the order itself is insane. Nobody from the Sect would ever order that.”
“Yet they have.”
“… show me.” the man said as his alertness suddenly increased.
“You don’t trust me?”
“I don’t have it on me.” the woman said calmly, seemingly unaffected by the man’s behavior. “It is your choice to believe me or discard me. I have no reason to lie to you, or prevent you from taking any action.”
“Never before in the history had we sacrificed countless Mortals just to pursue some vague figure,” the man said harshly. “What changed?! This isn’t any different than any other time; they’ve corrupted a few high-standing hearts and opened up the portal. It will take less than a year for the portal to be able to transfer Crucible Devils, and less than two for the entire capital to diffuse Qi enough for Devils to sustain themselves.”
“… in theory,” the woman said. “But Qi here is far from enough to meet your estimates. They can complete the portal’s complete connection, but there’s no way Devils would be able to come here within two years. They’d be lucky if they could come within next two centuries.”
“Humph,” the man coldly snorted as he turned around to leave. “I’ll let you know if I have any more questions.”
“…” the woman watched the man disappear like a shadow, as though he was never there, in complete silence. Her brows suddenly knitted together as her eyes flashed in cold glint. “Were you able to discern his strength?” she asked seemingly the air itself yet the voice, as cold as winter, still replied.
“No. At the very least, he’s stronger than us.”
“That means he’s at least at Amaranthine Realm,” the woman said, slightly shocked. “What’s someone from the Sect’s lower strata doing here?!”
“… I don’t know,” the voice replied though there appeared to be no one else besides the woman in the room. “But, he’s very dangerous. I’ll have to make some preparations in case he decides to act against us; stay alert for the coming months. I won’t be able to protect you.”
The woman didn’t speak again, merely staring at the place man stood. She fell in deep thought as she reexamined everything she gleamed from the three meetings they held; he didn’t speak much, never showed any overt movements, and didn’t appear interested in anything but completing the mission. What she found exceedingly strange was that she was given the leading role, despite being the weaker. A thought that someone was onto her creeped in for a moment, but she immediately discarded it; her backer was no lesser, such mistakes were impossible to occur.
Shaking away the useless thoughts with a bitter smile, she once again looked around the empty room. For some reason, she felt a strange wave of nostalgia overcome her. Though it wasn’t her first time coming here, it definitely didn’t warrant such a strong emotion. But, she quickly sorted it out and realized why. Although most of the world had forgotten its history, she hadn’t. Rather, she was devoted to it more so than her own ideals. Even if she never lived in this place, she felt she knew it like the back of her hand. The basement was used to store the first Fiends humans discovered back then… the first floor was a Welcoming Hall… the second floor was where they researched alchemy and the existence of Qi… every room, every wall, every lever… they all served some sort of a purpose. And whatever their individual purpose was, in union they were meant to strengthen the mankind. After the Titan’s Fall, the world was feeble, and mankind was scattered. The few clans which survived the Titan Era by hiding underground finally surfaced and reunited. It didn’t take long for them to meet other Clans; Devil Clan, Beast Clan and Godly Clan. Though the current era is called Warring Era, she felt it was more appropriate to swap the names. The New World Era from back then should have been called the Warring Era, as, according to the records, wars between Clans – and in extension races – lasted for its entirety, all the way until the Clans were either wiped from the face of the world or went into seclusion. However, it was through the myriad of wars, the seas and oceans of blood, the symposium of agonizing screams, that they paved the way for cultivation. It was because of them that she was now able to live past the age of eighty while retaining her youth. It was because of them that mankind now stood as the top race in the world, completely having driven out Devils back to their dimension, subdued beasts or banished them into mountainous seclusion.
Sighing once again, she lamented over how the world always was and still is cruel. No matter which of the five grand eras with extensive enough records one looked at, none were void of grand wars. Skyhaven Era – to this day mankind’s proudest moment – was full of extensive race genocide committed by humans against other races in order to keep their seat of power. Titan Era – an era that caused a complete reshape of the world’s terrain, where every race but the Titans had no other choice but to sink underground to survive the sheer onslaught. New World Era – where four clans of four different races fought for dominance since the start until the end, where millions if not billions of humans alone died, to say nothing of other races. Even Cultivation Era, during which the whole of the world experienced a massive boon both in cultivation as well as technologies… such knowledge was always predestined for war, for massive bloodshed. That never held truer for the current era – the Warring Era. Since the start, Holy Grounds were held by over seventeen thousand different Clans and Sects. Each and every time there was a change, it was preceded by a complete extinction.
Dissipating the thoughts which caused her heart to sink, she took one last glance at the castle before disappearing into nothingness, much like the man who left before her. The once massive, grand castle was once again doused in silence of eternity, remaining as one of the few vestiges of long-gone times, forever to wait its inevitable collapse.
Lino was currently sitting in on a chair in his room, his head loomed over the table, eyes completely bloodshot red, his black hair a complete mess. He stank so much one could nearly see it materialize around him. On the desk in front of him, aside from a sketching pencil and a sharpener, were dozens of papers. Some were flat and smooth, some were half-crumbled, and some were torn into several pieces. A week had gone by since he’d returned, and he hardly had any rest since as he focused entirely on creating designs for his armor-to-be. However, he realized that it was much, much, much harder than he imagined. The only reason he was able to quickly develop the [Celestial Rod] was because he already had a specific idea for it; he had harbored the concept of a multi-form weapon for a long while, so it was much easier to implement it into a design. However, the only thing he ever took into consideration when it came to designing pieces of armor was the notion of ‘cool’. Heavy, flat colors, sharp angles, spiked accessories, flame-like patterns, shiny! However, he realized that his entire thought process was fraudulent. He couldn’t implement it like that at all! Heavy and flat colors stood out too much! Sharp angles stiffened the body’s movements! Spiked accessories, he realized, were just ugly! Flame-like patterns were just a waste of resources! Shiny! That’s the only thing he was left with – shiny!
For the past week, he dedicated himself entirely to drawing up armor designs in hopes of suddenly being inspired. However, nearly each of his designs felt… off. From a technical standpoint, he realized, there was nothing wrong with them; they were actually rather perfect for the type of a fighter he wanted to be. Yet, he always felt something about them lacking. As headache and fatigue finally caught up to him, he picked up all of the papers on the desk and forced Qi into his fingers, transforming it into the Tri-Spirit Flame, burning all the papers to ashes. He quickly leapt onto his bed and fell asleep, figuring he needed some rest before diving into it yet again. It was a sleep filled with armors; shiny, brilliant, awe-inspiring, powerful, cool! They all had mouths and were sneering at him, mocking him, and telling him he will never be able to craft anything close to them. By the time he woke up, he felt even more exhausted and dispirited. Groaning lowly, he sat up and lowered his head, resting it on his hand. What am I missing?!! He roared inwardly as that maddening gaze returned to his eyes. Practicality?! Durability?! Seamlessness?! No!! What the fuck am I missing, dammit?!!
Jumping off his bed ferociously, he went to the drawer and took out another set of papers before sitting down and picking up the pencil once again. He first sketched out a few chest pieces on the topmost part of the paper – three to be precise. First was a rather simple-looking, full-enclosing piece of leather armor bound by stripes and belts. Second was mail armor, covering his head, neck and torso; it was rather primitive and simple, aimed entirely at efficiency. And the third was a full-plated steel chest piece. It had protrusions around breasts which sank down to flat angle at the abdomen. Backside and frontside were separated pieces linked by either flat, iron chain or sturdy leather belts. There were wide, angled gashes around shoulders and armpits designed to inspire flexibility. After looking at them for a while, he decided to elaborate on the first piece – simple, leather armor.
Taking up the central piece of paper, he first sketched it in a larger side, before taking some space to dismantle it at the side and lay it open; he then drew the belts and stripes separately, jotted down what he thought were best ingredients for base crafting as well as further enhancement, what tools he’d have to use as well as the best-suited technique for leatherworking. However, the moment he was done, he flashed an angry smile at the piece of paper and crumpled it with gusto before throwing it at the wall. He finally closed his eyes for a moment before breathing in deeply and getting off the chair. He first went downstairs and realized that neither Ella nor Eggor were in before taking off to the bathroom. Filling the wooden bucket with water quickly, he took off his stinky clothes and jumped in. Relaxing, he dozed off once again, but this time into a dreamless sleep. By the time he woke up, he finally felt rested after an entire weak. Leaving the bucket, he first tried himself with a towel before putting on a new set of clothes.
Exiting the bathroom, he headed off to the kitchen and noticed that Ella was preparing diner while Eggor was sitting down, reading some sort of a book. Ah, looks like I still have to ask the old fart what am I doing wrong… he begrudgingly admitted inside before moving over and sitting down next to him.
“Oh, thank god you finally took a bath!” Eggor exclaimed as he put down the book. “You stank worse than a corpse of a horse! Ha ha!”
“Ah, you’re really getting better!” Ella said as she flashed the two a smile.
“Of course, of course. I told you long time ago I’m quite talented at it!” Eggor said, puffing his chest out in pride.
“Old man, I’ve got a technical question for you.” Lino ignored everything and immediately decided to get it over with.
“Oh? What question?”
“I’ve been… I’ve been trying to fix up some designs for my armor over the past week,” Lino explained while smiling bitterly. “However, no matter what I draw up just… never feels enough. It isn’t that the armors wouldn’t fit me, or that they aren’t good enough, or that they are impractical or too practical… from the technical standpoint, I suppose everything is fine. It’s just that… whenever I look at the designs, I just feel something’s off.”
“… hmm,” Eggor thought for a moment. Wow, this brat is actually asking me a proper question for a change!! Looks like his little adventure really hit him hard… “Usually, when something feels instinctively off rather than technically, it’s because the design is lacking you.”
“Eh? What’s that mean?” Lino tilted his head in confusion.
“For instance, think back to your [Celestial Rod],” Eggor said. “You never hit a bump in the road during the design because you poured who you are into it, your own vision. However, from the sounds of it, you aren’t doing the same with the armor; you’re thinking of practicality – of the best way to protect yourself. While that’s admirable and a core teaching I don’t want you to disregard, it’s all for naught if the design is lacking you.”
“… are you telling me to make a multi-form armor?” Lino asked as he looked at Eggor strangely.
“… yeah, sure, why don’t you just make a multi-form house?!”
“It doesn’t have to be something so grand,” Eggor elaborated. “Occasionally, when it happens to me, it’s perhaps because I forgot to include my favorite ingredient, or because I forgot to include various Void arrays for hidden weapons, or even something as simple as not including my insignia. This isn’t something I can help you deal with; you yourself have to find out what is it that’s missing, what of you you forgot to include in the design. Sometimes, you’ll even have to craft the item itself to understand what is missing.”
“…” Lino sunk deep into thought as he contemplated Eggor’s words. The latter was indeed right; he set out to design an armor that would specifically increase his defenses. His one-month-long-coma had frightened him quite a bit, and realizing that he’d be going to the Capital soon enough, he felt like he needed strong reassurance to protect himself. Though he did think about implementing various ideas, as long as he found they would downgrade armor’s overall defenses, he’d abandon them almost immediately. That’s it!! As though suddenly struck by inspiration, he jumped onto his feet and almost subconsciously began going upstairs. I never designed [Celestial Rod] with the damage or defense or such absolutes in mind!! I designed it with the idea of diversity; a multi-tool that can do many things that differ! That’s what the designs were lacking!! All armors were just… well, armors! They offered top-notch protection and practicality but nothing outside of that! I never wanted to be that kind of a blacksmith, one that just dealt in absolutes; didn’t I want to explore the craft to the very ends? To vary the very concepts and ideas that it’s defined by?! Why am I restricting myself by the traditions when I never gave single fuck about them anyway?!
“…” looking at Lino storm off, Eggor couldn’t help but smile faintly. “He’s come a long way, huh.”
“Are you finally starting to warm up to him?” Ella asked as she sat next to him while a kettle behind her began to wheeze.
“… are you sure about sending him to the Capital?” Eggor asked instead of answering her. “Looks like the events shook him up pretty bad. He hasn’t talked about it since, and has instead locked himself up in a room and focused entirely on designing armor to protect himself.”
“… I don’t know myself,” Ella sighed, shaking her head lightly. “I truly didn’t imagine something so ominous would be hiding here. Had I known, I wouldn’t have sent him to the Umbra Mountain Range in the first place. But, now, he’d already seen it. Perhaps, without understand it fully, he’d never be able to stop fearing it.”
“… perhaps.” Eggor nodded faintly. “I honestly don’t even know how he found it in himself to come as far as he did. When I was his age, I was nothing short of a scrawny coward afraid of the world… and I was even properly educated and had protection of various Elders.”
“Heh, even I wasn’t any better.” Ella said with a self-reproaching smile. “I was far, far, far stronger than he is currently and enjoyed treatment of heavens… yet, I was always paranoid, afraid, unsure of myself. Maybe it’s the ignorance that’s fueling his courage… or maybe that’s just how he is.”
“I’d rather say that’s how he is,” Eggor said as he looked at her and smiled lightly. “Something in his eyes tells me so. Perhaps, one day, he might even give us a shock.”
“That would be wonderful.”
“When are you leaving?” Eggor asked.
“After I have a talk with him,” Ella replied, smiling. “Don’t miss me too much, alright?”
“That’s impossible,” Eggor sighed. “Keep yourself safe, alright?”
“I will, don’t worry. You’re the one I’m worried about the most.”
“… heh, even your Grandfather would have to sacrifice both his balls to kill me,” Eggor said as he stuck out his chest proudly. “Let alone some half-baked Demons.”
“… why… why do you always mention my Grandfather’s balls?! Do you really want me to vomit?!”
“… khm, sorry. I just really want to squash them. The guy just pisses me off.”
“Ah, it’s no wonder you guys never liked each other,” Ella said, sighing. “Every time you’d leave, he’d always come to my room and hold a three-hour long lecture over how you’re just a brainless blacksmith who can do nothing but hold a hammer and how I’m ten clouds above you and undeserving of you. When he realized it wasn’t working, he started saying how he ‘researched’ into you and learned that you’re actually a very ugly woman too ashamed to admit it so you pretend to be a guy…”
“… I will kill that fucking bastard!!” Eggor roared in anger as his cheeks flushed in beet red.