TO SEE ONE'S HEART
Tri-colored flame was slowly heating up the furnace, causing the entire room’s temperature to rise. Folds of paper laid scattered on the floor alongside various materials and tools. Sounds of craning iron echoed out against the thick, concrete walls alongside sounds of hammer bashing against a metal plate. Lino was currently looming over the anvil, his upper body entirely exposed. Due to slight tan, his muscles were pronounced further, causing him to appear much older than sixteen. Though at one point his hair was tied up neatly, it was currently disheveled while some strands were glued to his forehead due to the sweat. Atop the anvil was a flat, squared metal plate, its surface entirely smoothed out. Picking it up, he examined it deeply before nodding with a satisfied smile. He went over the grindstone, cutting the plate’s edges slowly until they weren’t sharp but rather smooth. Finishing up the four corners, he went over to a simple, wooden table and laid the plate down. Lying neatly one next to another were three different herbs; a simple, white-leafed flower with seven yellow petals, simple-looking weed with reddish stems and a blue, lotus flower. Picking them in that order, he ground them with his bare hands bit by bit before placing his palms directly onto the metallic plate, infusing Qi into them and letting it seep into the latter alongside the herb’s remnants. It took him nearly fifteen minutes to repeat the process with all three herbs. Leaving the plate on the table, he scurried over to the corner where a large, poster-sized paper was latched onto the wall. Atop it were seemingly complex yet simple schematics of a chest armor piece; the entire armor was split into two – upper part which would be metallic, and lower part which would be made of leather.
Alongside the direct split in the materials, there were numerous lists at the side depicting various combinations. In addition to that, at the lowermost part of the paper were four circles with intertwining lines; all four were arrays he was still considering it. Though all four were basic ones, Lino actually attempted to modify them to his liking slightly, such as combining 70% of <Reflection Array> with 30% of <Amplification Array>. Although he had no idea whether it could work before testing, he felt rather confident. Blueprint read a simple, even slightly crude, name: Bisected Defender Plate. He decided to refrain from using ‘Celestial’ for everything and save it only for the most special items.
After checking over the designs once again, he nodded faintly before walking over to the newcomer in the room: leatherworking rack over which a brownish piece flattened and neatly cut was hanging. He ran his fingers over the surface and nodded in satisfaction, picking it up. Weighing it with his arm, he realized that it was slightly on the lighter side, causing him to frown.
“Hm… ah, it’s fine, I can just fix the balance with belts,” he mumbled, stroking the faint stubble on his chin while walking over to the table where the metallic plate was sitting. “I can also tie in some pouches for some emergency stuff. Hm, maybe I can array them with <Burst> by reconstructing the array to expel outwardly? Oh, not bad!” he was entirely in a daze as he spoke, his mind churning at the fastest speed possible. The chart of <Burst> array appeared inside his mind as he began scouring his memory for the arrays such as <Reflection> and <Repel>, taking bits and pieces of each and trying to combine them into a single one.
He slowly took the piece of leather and curled it up, tying it around his stomach and confirming the width before marking it gently with a knife. Bit by bit, the first armor piece was taking shape; throughout the entire process, Lino kept trying new ideas and experimenting, both inside his head and on the actual pieces. Occasionally he would walk over to the door where a meal would always be waiting for him, and when he finally felt tired, he’d sit down on a chair and sleep for a few hours before waking up refreshed. Soon enough, in such stupor, an entire week had passed. Lino was currently polishing the metallic plate strapped to leather beneath with two crisscrossing belts. After smoothing it enough, he took in a deep breath before picking up a special, chiseling knife and pricking the top of his finger with it. After confirming the sharpness, he calmly circulated the Qi within him and sent it over to the palm of his hand as well as the knife itself. This was the most important process, the thing that would tie the whole armor properly. At the moment, it was just a half-baked protective armor; however, if he successfully imparted arrays on it, and if his ideas were successful, it would turn into a bona fide life-saver.
Looking at the patterned arrays carefully drawn on the paper on the side table, he closed his eyes for a moment and opened them; they seeped out concentration and focus as he gently laid the tip of the knife on the plated part of the armor. He then carefully began moving it, first forming a full circle on the left breastplate, before beginning to draw crisscrossing lines and further inner circles. After finishing it up, he slashed a full line across the center and onto the right breastplate where he drew another full circle and began drawing more lines within, slightly different ones. After finishing the right side, he drew the line down, at the breaking point between the two parts of the armor; there, a disk-shaped protrusion connected the two sides. He slowly drew in another array within, gently pouring Qi in it; by now, he’d surprisingly spent over half his rather considerable reserves. Without any notion of time, he only felt sweat pour down his forehead, but he didn’t even dare wipe it from fear of breaking his concentration. After finishing up the final circle, he carefully drew the last line which connected it to the left breastplate, forming a triangular connection. The moment the last line was connected, the entire design fluttered in faint gold and began glowing in a slightly darkened room. Momentarily blinded, Lino closed his eyes and took a step back from surprise.
The golden shine shimmered down only a few seconds later. When Lino looked at the armor, he suddenly felt strange presence coming from it, as though it was slightly alive. His heart froze for a moment; he’d read about these cases, and they only ever appeared when a blacksmith poured out his everything, from heart, soul and mind, into creating something. An indescribable bond would form between him and the creation, and as though to reply to the blacksmith’s deepest love, the piece of weapon or armor or amulet or any other creation would gain sentience… becoming Soul Creation! He created Soul Armor! Just like Eggor created [Heartseeker] a long time ago, he finally created it as well. No, ‘finally’ would perhaps be a bit of an over exaggerated claim. After all, he hadn’t even been a blacksmith for two measly years. But, the strange thing about Soul Creations was that they didn’t seem to care how experienced or masterful of a crafter someone was; as long as the conditions were met, anyone would be able to craft them. Strangely, though, the moment Lino tried thinking back through the process, he realized that… he couldn’t remember. The whole past ten or so days were somewhat blurry, as though covered in deep haze. It felt as though he had entered a strange state where he separated himself from the world, being bigger than it. He suddenly felt a pulse inside his mind, as though something was calling for him. Looking up, he saw that the half-plate half-leather armor piece was actually wriggling, as though trying to move! The pulses were like baby’s cries for his mother, startling Lino. He suddenly felt a sort of innate desire, one quite different than the primal urge he’d felt a few times now; his heart convulsed, as though a part of it was missing. He walked forward as if he was being pulled by invisible strings and extended his arms, picking up the rather strange-looking piece of armor. The moment he held it up, the strange feeling disappeared and was replaced by peace. The pulses turned from chaotic into pleasant, as though eternal laughter was resonating inside his mind. He could feel the joy seeping out into him from seemingly nowhere. Suddenly, he ceased to think about the armor’s stats, or whether it could protect him. The only thought he had was to protect it instead; it was rather strange, much stranger than anything he ever felt.
His lips curled up in a subconscious smile as his fingers traced the cool surface of the metallic part before falling down to crude, yet strangely warm, leather part. Pulses of joy grew stronger, and he couldn’t help but feel slightly giddy. He barely held back from bursting out into joyous laughter and lifting up the armor toward the sky and screaming something silly like ‘You shall be called… God-slaughtering Breastplate!!’. Pushing back the urge, he ripped open the void and carefully placed the armor into a corner before sitting down, completely exhausted. He figured he’d check out the stats later on, when he calmed down for a bit and got a hold of his emotions. Just then, the doors to the forge opened and Lino glanced at the entrance, seeing Ella slowly walking in, holding two still-steaming cups of tea on a plate. Flashing him a warm smile, she walked over and sat next to him before casually waving her hand; a mere moment later, the empty table in the corner flew over and stopped in front of the two. She placed the plate atop of it and looked at him deeply.
“You finished?” she asked.
“Yep.” Lino replied with a gratified smile.
“Oh? Can I see it?” Ella asked, slightly surprised.
“He he, not yet, not yet. It’s not time for such a grand creation to be unveiled to the world yet! He he…”
“… ha ha,” Ella laughed lightly before continuing. “Alright, if you say so. How are you feeling?”
“Ah, now that you mention it, I am kind of exhausted,” Lino said, sighing. “Where’s Eggor?”
“He’s fixing up the holes on the walls.”
“Oh? You finally convinced him that holed house isn’t a cool house?”
“You could say so.” Ella nodded, smiling lightly. “That’s not what I was asking, though.”
“… you don’t want to talk about it?” she said, any traces of smile completely vanishing from her face as she resumed a strangely tranquil expression.
“… not particularly.” Lino replied, feeling entranced by her sudden expression.
“I took my first life when I was eleven,” Ella said as she picked the cup of tea and took a gulp. “Do you think that’s strange?”
“… strange?” Lino looked at her oddly. “That’s insane.”
“It is.” Ella nodded. “But, truth be told, I was one of the late bloomers. Though this may be cruel to hear, you’re among the few lucky cultivators, to depart on your journey here.”
“How come?” Lino asked. Ella rarely spoke of anything non-technical when it came to cultivation, which is why he felt rather intrigued.
“… answer me something first. Honestly.”
“Are you thinking about helping us in the future?” Ella’s question startled Lino, but he still managed to nod faintly in response. “Ah… I don’t want that, Lino. Neither one of us does. Even if, one day, you grew so powerful that you would be able to help us, we’d still not let you do it.”
“… why?” Lino asked.
“World of cultivators is… magical,” Ella said, smiling faintly. “It truly is. Throughout my life, I can’t count the number of breathtaking vistas I’ve visited, the strange people I’ve met, and inexhaustible amount of knowledge I’ve obtained. Every corner held another secret, every mountain another strange flower, every valley another starlit river, every ocean spawned one strange creature after another… every bit of it infatuated me. I felt truly blessed to have been born in such a world, to have been given a chance to partake in it, to live and breathe in that kind of a world with the kind of privilege I had. Even the occasional battles weren’t able to dissuade me from extending my arm out into every imaginable reach, trying to unveil all the world’s mysteries. But, bit by bit… I began realizing that… there were layers to my world. As a young girl, I was only ever exposed to the topmost layer… but, the older I grew, the more I’d see. Bit by bit, I was slowly drawn in into the complexity of it. No, calling it complexity is just excusing it; as you’ve said, the world of cultivators is that of insanity, Lino.” Ella paused for a moment and looked deeply into him; her beautiful pair of eyes suddenly reflected immense pain, one that even stung Lino’s heart. “Eventually, I realized it all, I’ve seen it all. But, it was too late. Much like the rest, I’ve turned cold. I turned indifferent. I’ve turned crazed and mad. The smallest of slights could be used as an excuse to commence slaughter. My Junior Sisters and Brothers looked at me with envy, Elders looked at me with Pride, and Sect Leader and Ancestors would proudly display me to Sect Leaders of the ‘friendly Sects’. By the time I had wrapped my mind around who I was, I realized that… I was nothing more than a tool.”
“…” Lino listened carefully and could almost imagine the journey. However, he didn’t say anything as he knew there was more to the story.
“Then, one day,” Ella said, a sudden smile emerging on her face. “I met Eggor. I was leading some of my Juniors to the tempering session in nearby mountains when we encountered a small village halfway up. The entire village was made up entirely of mortals – not a single cultivator could be found. Naturally, neither I nor anyone who followed me paid any attention to them. However, one of my Juniors saw a man carrying a rather breathtaking blade as he went into the mountains to hunt. We soon realized that it was a village of blacksmiths, the weakest of which was a Master Blacksmith. We went over and demanded they come down to our Sect and craft for us, but they vehemently rejected, unwilling to abandon their home. When one of my Juniors lost patience, he killed one of the loudest ones. It was then that Eggor suddenly stepped out,” Ella chuckled lightly as she recalled the memories. “His entire body was enamored by dozens of different weapons, three different layers of armors, countless tools and whatnots. I found him both ridiculous and dazzling to the eye; however, only a tragedy followed. We started killing everyone who resisted, and tied everyone who accepted to join us.”
“… wow.” a soft exclamation escaped Lino’s lips as he stared at her.
“I thought he died among those stubborn fools who resisted,” Ella continued, her expression quickly sinking. “At the time, I didn’t understand them. Why would they resist when they knew they stood no chance? They were just ordinary mortals, and we were lofty cultivators. However, about twenty years later, my Sect held a blacksmith competition because I wanted a new weapon.” Oh? Lino thought back to Fae’s story but didn’t interrupt her. “Eventually, that once chubby-looking guy whom I’ve already forgotten won. He created a Soul Weapon before the eyes of thousands. The story quickly spread that he’d done it out of his admiration and love for me and that such strong emotions resonated with world’s Qi, creating the perfect weapon. However, after the ceremony, when he privately handed me the sword, do you know what he told me?”
“He said, ‘I named the sword [Heartseeker] so that, one day, you may finally find the heart you’ve lost. I made it so that it would always seek to kill through the heart so you’d never forget what it looks like. I made it so it would always defend you so that you will never die. So that, one day, when you finally find your heart, you will feel every bit of pain, every bit of agony, every bit of absolute worthlessness that I felt that day. Perhaps, on that day, you’ll finally realize what it means to be a human.’” Lino listened in silence, but his heart was always beating madly. So it turns out that the true story behind the whole thing was completely different than what he heard! Rather, it was so different the two had no connection to each other! “After he handed me the sword, he left without even sparing me another glance. Before we met, I even considered asking him to be my personal blacksmith, believing it would be his utmost honor. But… that emotionless voice… eyes void of anything but emptiness… it was the first time in my life I saw something like that. I’d seen many eyes burning in hate and anger aimed at me, wanting vengeance. Those eyes weren’t strange to me. But his… hit me. Slowly, the dam around my heart began showing cracks. Bit by bit, I began collapsing. I couldn’t use the sword, yet I couldn’t not use it. It was perfect for me, yet it was my bane. I sought him every day, hoping he could modify the sword so that feeling would disappear. But, it was as though he disappeared from the face of the world.”
“Eventually,” Ella took in a deep breath; her eyes were already moist, as though ready to shed a lake of tears. “I gave up searching for him, and I gave up fighting back. I broke. I unearthed what every cultivator buries deep inside: empathy. I felt every ounce of agony he wanted me to feel. I felt every ounce of pain he wanted me to feel. I shed all the tears he wanted me to shed. I’d realized that the world of cultivators is… not worth the magic. He taught me all the things I’ve lost since I was a child… and, to this day, I do not know how he found it in his heart to forgive me, no less to love me. Lino,” she then looked at him deeply, smiling gently. “I don’t want you to become another me. I don’t want you to bury that guilt, that pain, that agony. I don’t want you to ignore it. I don’t want you to think you’re above it. I want you to embrace it, even if it feels as though you’re being burned inside out. I want you to take every bit of it and stuff it directly inside your heart. Live through every scream you’ve heard. You don’t need to help us. You don’t need to fight for us. The reason we showed you the path was because you needed it. The reason we gave you the tools was not to become a tool of our own, but to see you make something of yourself, for yourself. We don’t want you to move onward for us. Most importantly… we don’t want you to get woven into the world of cultivators. That place is… broken. There, people live for millions of years, yet you would nowhere else find more miserable, wretched, broken and agonizing heap of souls. No one is happy. No one is satisfied. Every day is a struggle to strive for more, yet, there’s never a feeling of satisfaction over it. Crossing one boundary means preparing for the next. That kind of life is… worthless.”
“…” Lino was at a loss for words. Truly, what could he say at such a moment? Something childish like ‘I can do whatever I want!’ or ‘How else am I going to repay your kindness?’? Even he wasn’t so thick-skinned, he realized. He truly saw in Ella’s eyes and heard in her tone that she didn’t want him to dive into the world of bloodshed and insanity. She didn’t want him to take on her burdens and carry them. She just wanted him to be… happy. Without realizing it, a trail of tears ran down Lino’s cheeks. A convulsion of emotions assailed his unprepared heart; guilt, pain, agony, joy, confusion, gratitude… sensation that felt bigger than himself assailed every ounce of his being.
“It’s okay,” a charming and a soft voice trickled into his ears before a pair of seemingly fragile yet incredibly firm and strong arms wrapped around his back and pulled him in a tight embrace. “No matter what, we’re always here for you.”
“…” Lino sobbed quietly in the bosom of a woman he didn’t even know just a year and a half ago. All his grievances seemed to be stuffed in that overwhelming cry. He felt weak, feeble, broken. Yet, among the disparateness, he felt a surge of warmth. Is this how it felt to have a mother, he wondered? Is this how it felt to have a shoulder to cry on? Is this how it felt to always have a place to come back to? Is this how it felt to have someone who’d uphold even the falling sky, shoulder the world’s fury and reflect it all for him? Is this how it felt to feel warmth during chilling winter? Perhaps. Perhaps, he mused, such care wasn’t something that everyone could encounter. He realized that he was truly lucky. No, something as ambiguous and as vague as ‘luck’ couldn’t describe it. Rather, he would never allow those twos’ sacrifices to be ascribed to ‘luck’. He’d never let anyone besmirch their kindness, warmth and love by something so abstract. Everything in one’s life was a choice; they could have chosen not to extend their hand to him. He could have chosen to reject their kindness. Every point in life was a struggle over varying choices. Just as, now, he had chosen to cry. He had chosen to let it all out. And just as Ella had chosen to talk to him, to open her own heart to him and offer trust expecting nothing in return. How was she cold, he wondered? How was she different? How was she a part of the cultivators’ insanity? He couldn’t accept it. He didn’t care what she did in the past. He knew that Ella in front of him, the one with a warm smile and a voice full of kindness, was one who was the furthest thing from cold he could imagine.
One’s heart is greater than life, Lino realized. To what degree of insanity has cultivators’ world fell, he didn’t know. However, he realized that even there, hearts still beat. They’ve just been buried deep, in coffins sealed up by years of teachings. It takes something much greater than conviction and strength to pry open the steel surrounding your heart, and accept all that you are. To look yourself in the mirror and smile. To notice wrinkled skin, crooked teeth, long nose, dull eyes… and smile nonetheless. And then beyond that, to see that slightly evil part of yourself, to see things others would condemn, to gleam at parts of you which you never show to others, and still smile even broader. It becomes a strange sort of metamorphosis; no, to call it change would be to lie. Those parts were always there, nothing about them changed. Perhaps, just a door or two leading to depths of one’s heart opened up. To accept all that is to understand not only yourself, but others as well, Lino realized. He was still unable to accept all parts of himself; that cold, maddened, crazed part that bursts out from his depths when blood is sprinkled. That part of him that makes it nigh impossible for him to trust others. That part which is enveloped in deep, seething hatred that was bred for over fifteen years of his life. That part that told him not to trust Ella and Eggor completely, that he should entomb his heart entirely in cold ice, and forever remain alone, as that was the only way to never get hurt. He realized, though, that hurt is there for a reason; all people, one way or another, hurt. Though hurt inspires insipidity, anger, hate and agony, it also inspires change. He knew it was time he changed, however little. Though he felt his heart being grated by guilt and pain, he steeled his will to endure it.
“… thanks.” me mumbled meekly.
“Heh, it’s such a rare thing to have you answer honestly,” Ella chuckled lightly as she caressed his hair gently. “You’re rather cute when you do it, though.”
“Humph, what are you saying? I’m always cute!”
“Eeh, that was way too short! You can’t just go back to your routines!”
“Heh, watch me!” Lino exclaimed as he fought out of her embrace and stood up straight like a javelin, puffing his chest out. “Besides being the greatest blacksmith to ever grace this world, and also the handsomest boy that will win hearts of ten thousand women-no, wait, one million women-yes-and generally the greatest person to ever be, I’ll also become the best actor! Hah, when I spin my lines in the future, even slithering liars will be kneeling and kowtowing, begging me to accept them as pupils!”
“…” Ella rolled her eyes at him before parting her lips in a beautiful, warm smile. “Bravery and courage are displayed in different ways for different people, I suppose. Yours just happens to be a bit silly.”
“… khm, because you’ve been so nice to me today,” Lino said as he turned away, afraid she’d see him blushing. “I’ll craft you some necklace or something when I have time. Shoo now. I need to go back to being the best blacksmith in the world.”
“… alright,” Ella chuckled as she got up. However, before leaving, she suddenly hugged him from behind tightly. “No matter what happens, there will always be a place for you beside us two. Just know that.”
“… I already do.” Lino’s voice was akin to a murmur, barely audible. “Don’t ever go back on those words!”