Valkyria stared intently at the beggar-looking youth sitting across from her with eyes of doubt, expectation and worry at the same time. It wasn’t hard to understand why, though; the Dimensional Pocket within the Clan’s own Ancestral Grounds has been a source of the Clan’s worry for generations. Nobody who entered it returned alive, and they couldn’t destroy it or move it no matter what they did.
The trouble escalated especially so recently as the Pocket began spitting out strong and strange beasts one after another, even showing signs of whatever was guarding it wishing to break out.
In reality, Erkhaan could have broken out whenever he wished but the price he would have to pay to simply dissolve the Pocket was too high. It was only after Lino defeated him in a duel that he swallowed the bitter pill and left, leaving behind even the Fragment. His losses this time around due to Lino were simply magnitudes larger than what the latter thought.
“It’s done.” Lino nodded lightly and smiled, understanding just how big of a deal this was not only to Valkyria but her entire Clan.
“R-Really?!!” she jumped onto her feet and nearly over the table to hug Lino as her eyes shone like brilliant gems. “Y-you’re not fooling me, are you?”
“... jeez, does everyone really have so little trust in me?” Lino questioned.
“So... so it’s finally done...” she lumped back into her chair and breathed out a breath that seemed to have been corroding her soul for hundreds of years. What surprised Lino even more that she actually managed to increase her cultivation --- jumping from the Peak Imperial to Early Stage Eximious. What the hell?!! Even this is possible?!
“Looks like your rewards are bountiful.” Lino commented. “Congratulations.”
“Ha ha, thank you. I’ve long since hit the bottleneck... but due to my restless soul, I was never able to cross it. Thanks to you, now not only do I don’t have to worry about the Pocket, but can further secure my Clan’s standing in this world. You’ve really been a huge help this time around.”
“Ha ha, don’t mention it. No, wait, mention it. I still want my rewards.” Lino quickly corrected himself afraid Valkyria might renegade on her promise.
“Tsk, who’s not trusting whom right now?” she clicked her tongue and looked at him with contempt for a moment before fishing out a fingernail-sized piece of stone from her void storage. On the first glance, one might think it’s nothing more than an ordinary pebble, but when Lino landed his eyes on it he couldn’t help but let literal drool spill out the corners of his mouth.
[Hervan’s Divine Stone]... even if one scoured the earth and the sky, only luck would enable them to find even a grain-sized piece. It was by far the most precious treasure Lino had obtained so far -- it wouldn’t be wrong to say that everything combined so far couldn’t actually make up the value of that small piece. Lino even expected to receive much smaller one, yet it was actually fingernail-sized. No matter how self-contained he was ordinarily, he nearly jumped at it like a wolf.
“It’s... i-it’s calling me...” Lino slowly extended his hand toward the stone, completely ignoring Valkyria.
“Wow! You really are a smith, aren’t you?” she flashed him a smile but didn’t dare play tricks with the stone. She was afraid the beggar would explode and collapse her entire Clan.
“... aaah, it’s... it’s mine...” Lino moaned profusely -- causing even Valkyria to blush briefly -- as he held the stone in his hand. He coddled it as though it was his daughter, kissing it gently, rubbing it with both his fingers and against his cheeks... Valkyria was simply unable to look at him anymore as she felt the image of a peerless expert she built of him collapsing faster than the house of cards.
“I know... it’s precious... but, seriously...” she mumbled out.
“Precious?! This is god-defying!! I’d have fucked a dog just to get a chance to look at it!” Lino exploded.
“Khm, thank you.” realizing what he had spoken -- as that mortifying image nearly appeared in his mind yet again -- he quickly shifted the subject. “You’ve no clue how much this means to me.”
“Oh, I think I’ve realized a bit.” Valkyria said, looking at him strangely. “Now onto the second part of our promise. How confident are you in being able to enhance our Clan’s Artifact?” as the time for games and jokes was over, her tone shifted abruptly. Clan’s Artifact was its bloodline -- there was simply no room for humor there.
“... eighty percent.” Lino replied honestly after a short thought. This was something he calculated over and over as he thought about just how strong Clan’s Artifact was; even if it was only slightly stronger than what he expected, his chances would drop down to measly thirty percent.
“... eighty, huh?” Valkyria mumbled, entering deep thought. Even though it was probably more than any other smith on the entire continent could guarantee... it was still not a certainty. Should anything go wrong with the process, damaging the Artifact, the repercussions would be such that Valkyria shuddered at the mere thought of it.
“I won’t cheat you,” Lino said as he saw the struggle in her eyes. “I can with a guarantee promise I won’t damage the Artifact. However, in addition, should I fail I’ll gift you this.” he took the rather simple-looking sword from his void world and put in the table, unlocking its stats. When Valkyria looked at it, she couldn’t help but draw in a cold breath. This was a Legacy-level treasure!! Even if one looked for it for their entire lifetime, they’d be lucky enough to hear a rumor about it let alone actually see it!
“Alright.” Valkyria immediately nodded. “Follow me. Of course, I trust your discretion.”
“Don’t worry,” Lino smiled faintly. “I swear an Oath of Soul to never speak of the Kvalend Tribe’s Defensive Artifact to another soul -- living or dead -- lest I die immediately after.”
“...” Valkyria stared at him for a moment, shocked; very few people in the world were willing to even swear an Oath of Heart, and those willing to swear an Oath of Soul could be counted barely in double digits. “You really are a strange beggar, aren’t you?” she flashed him a brilliant smile before opening up another vortex and leading Lino inside.
As he put the foot inside a massive hall, Lino felt a massive pressure descend upon him. This wasn’t a pressure of difference in realms or strength, but a primal pressure of Heaven itself. After all, Defensive Artifacts weren’t products of any one’s hands -- they were creations of Nature itself, compilation of entire Clan’s Wills into a singularity from which the Artifact is birthed.
Lino quickly located the source of the pressure; it hovered above a beautiful, hand-carved platform. Its bottom end over fifty meters in diameter, it blossomed out into a flower-like shape of swords toward the end, opening up a clearing. At the very heart of that clearing, a blob of crimson danced around like a body of water, occasionally trembling and shaking.
The Artifact hovering before him was miles stronger than the one he destroyed previously; after all, Su Clan didn’t even have a single Exalted, nor did they have a history as long and as prosperous as Kvalend’s. Artifact wasn’t nurtured through materials and resources, but through the Clan’s prosperity, and Su Clan and Kvalend Tribe stood miles apart from one another.
“This is my Clan’s Defensive Artifact,” Valkyria spoke with absolute reverence and awe as well as pride in her voice. “Crimson Sky.”
Lino nodded lightly, wholly understanding of the pride. After all, the more imposing the Defensive Artifact was, the more prosperous the Clan was. It was a game of mirrors, a symbiotic relationship that lasted till one end died. If the Clan died, so would the Artifact. There was simply no way to steal a Defensive Artifact of another Clan. Similarly, if the Artifact was destroyed... the Clan would cease to exist. No amount of struggles and strength would ever allow them to create another one.
That is why Su Clan was doomed to eternal demise. Even though they still had numerous members alive and could easily increase in number, they would never be recognized as a form of unity by the world itself. At best, they would be a Clan in name. But a Clan without a Defensive Artifact was like a self-proclaimed Noble.
“... it has already reached a Second Awakening.” Lino sighed, marveling at it. His chance of success immediately dropped down to forty percent. “You’ve really surpassed my expectations, Matriarch Valkyria.”
“... as you have mine.” Valkyria looked at him in shock. “Nobody besides me in the entire Clan knows that the Artifact had recently underwent its Second Awakening. How did you know?”
“... it spoke to me.” Lino said with a solemn expression. “Its heart resonated with mine.”
“...” more so thank shock, what Valkyria felt at the moment was complete befuddlement. Even she was lucky to only once experience the synchronization to a such a degree between her and the Artifact. Yet, this beggar had merely been here for a few seconds and he’d already experienced it. Not only that, the Artifact even spoke to him. What the hell?! Is he the leader of the Clan or am I?!
“Ha ha, don’t stare at me like that,” Lino laughed for a moment as he looked at her. “Rather than with me, it’s probably better to say that it resonated with my Flames. After all, its sentience is like child’s after the Second Awakening and it understands the concept of evolution beyond simple, instinctual desire. It realized it had a chance of it because of my Flames.”
“... Flames?” what Valkyria didn’t know, though, that the Artifact didn’t reply to Lino’s standard flame -- Level 85 one -- but rather his recently acquired Void Flame, Level 465 [Lunar Scorch]. Haii, you’re quite greedy, Lino smirked as he focused on the Artifact for a moment. Looks like I’ll have to trouble that bastard once again...
“It would go a long way to securing my help if you stopped calling me a bastard.” the Writ’s voice resonated inside Lino’s head. Instead of replying, he focused his eyes to determine the Artifact’s stats. After all, only through a complete understanding would he even stand a chance of upgrading it.
[Crimson Sky -- Defensive Artifact]
+100% to Cultivation Speed of all members of Kvalend Bloodline
+300% to Cultivation Speed of all members of Purified Bloodline
+1000% to Battle Attributes of all members of Kvalend Bloodline when defending Clan’s Tribal Grounds
Form of Ceaseless Sky -- Enrobe the World in Crimson, commence Rain of Blood, inflict Sanguine Curse, decrease Vitality
Form of Haunted Heavens -- Devour the World in Darkness, commence the Illusion of Dread, inflict Terror Curse, decrease Sanity
Form of Consumed Firmament -- Devour the World in Agony, commence the Baptism of Anguish, inflict Curse of Throes, decrease Will
Vault of Heaven -- Devour the World in Hell, commence the Infernal Baptism, inflict Demonic Curse, decrease Soul
Celestial Sphere -- Devour the World in Loss, commence the Baptism of Death, inflict Wailing Curse, decrease Heart
Final Form -- Crimson Sky -- Devour the World in End, commence the Baptism of Sacrifice, inflict Acquiescence Curse, decrease Heart, Soul, Will, Sanity, Vitality