Chapter 37 - Forging, Praise, Flame...
Hephaestus started the process by taking a rough piece of metal that had been soaking in solution to remove the impurities contained within the ore. She then inserted it into a heat-resistant container that could withstand the heat of the 'eternal flame' within the forge. She would periodically remove the super-heated metal before inspecting before hammering away any slag buildup.
Vahn watched the process and marveled at how methodically she performed each step. She seemed to be extremely relaxed, but there was an intense focus in her eyes which created the illusion they could see through anything. Every small change in the metal was easily noticed by her gaze, and she used the magical hammer within her hands to beat out the imperfections within the ore. After what seemed like several hours, which was in fact only a few minutes, she finally withdrew the purified metal and began shaping it into the shape of a bar.
"This is the process for refining an ingot. The metal you saw me use is the magisteel alloy used in some of our higher end products. We use mana to force out any impurities within the raw iron ore and then enhance the structure of the resultant material using pressure. During this phase, you can use your hammer to reinforce the structure of the metal and give it a magically charged nature. This allows it to conduct mana for use in skills, and with enough practice, you'll even be able to incorporate special qualities into the metal."
Seeing the befuddled look on his face during her explanation, she began to laugh before setting the metal on a nearby platform to cool. "You don't have to worry about it too much, Vahn. What you just saw was the process of countless hours of effort and experimentation. As long as you understand the basic principles, you'll get the hang of it as you acc.u.mulate more experience. Here, give it a try. I'll walk you through it step-by-step."
She offered the hammer she had used to refine the magisteel, and Vahn took it into his hands. His first impression was that it was much heavier than he expected. If not for his increase in strength the past week, he may not even be able to lift it. He was half tempted to put it into his inventory for analysis but decided to focus on the task at hand.
Removing a piece of raw iron from the solution, he began trying to replicate the process of creating the ingot. He noticed it was very difficult to position the ore within the flame, and even small miscalculations would result in the loss of iron to the fire. Understanding this was probably the reason why Hephaestus would often remove the ore from the flame, he began trying to look for any change in the metal to indicate it needed to be removed.
Hephaestus watched and gave an appreciative nod seeing his progress. Though it was very obvious he was a beginner, his attention to detail when making mistakes showed he possessed the observational prowess to become a blacksmith. She continued to watch as he processed the ore and offered him words of advice when necessary.
Vahn's focus began to increase to it's maximum allowance, and he began to struggle while trying to handle the raw iron. Whenever he removed it from the flame to beat out the impurities, he noticed it was actually very difficult to shape the material. The hammer's weight aided in the effort, but he was unable to shape the metal as he desired.
"Remember Vahn, you need to focus and channel your mana through the hammer strikes. It will make it easier to shape the metal." Hephaestus understood why he was having difficulties. Because of his monstrous stats, she had decided to pressure him by allowing him to use a hammer from her personal collection. Without proper control, he wouldn't be able to shape the metal, but she believed that his SSS magic stat would allow him to adapt to the situation with practice.
Hearing her advice, Vahn took a deep breath and tried to relax. If it was an issue of control and focus, he just had to use his trump card. He activated his [Will of the Emperor] and his domain spread throughout the entire forge.
Hephaestus frowned a bit at the act, but once she saw him continue working the metal she gave an appreciative nod. The moment he activated his pseudo-divine state, she noticed his control over his mana increased exponentially and he was able to easily infuse it into the hammer. She was surprised since the internal mana conduits of the hammer are typically impossible to use without an understanding of their internal structure. She believed his aura allowed him to perceive the flow of mana within the field he generated, and she wasn't that far off from the truth.
Vahn used his enhanced perception and control to finish removing the impurities. It took nearly five times the duration required by Hephaestus, but he still managed to keep more than 70% of the initial amount. He immediately started shaping the raw metal into the shape of an ingot, but only managed to form it into a lumpy oblong shape.
Hephaestus saw the final product and laughed a bit on the inside. Even though he seemed to have an incredible talent for refining the metal, it would still take a lot of experience before he was able to control shaping the metal. She could see the reason he failed at the end was due to how he let the metal cool while observing it. If he had begun immediately shaping the raw metal after removing it from the forge he would have been able to generate better results.
Seeing the dissatisfaction on his face, she decided to cheer him up. "Don't worry Vahn, you did very well for your first time. Remember that this is the material we use in our higher-end products, as well as your first time forging. If you had succeeded in your first try, that would have been abnormal."
She grabbed the malformed ingot before reheating it using the 'eternal flame'. "Watch closely, I'll demonstrate again. You have to begin shaping the metal the moment it reaches its critical state. Due to the conductive nature of the material, it will quickly cool down by absorbing the elements from the air. You only have a brief window to shape the metal before reheating and repeating the process."
This time, instead of immediately forming the shape of the ingot, Hephaestus showed him the normal process a blacksmith had to go through. She repeated the process of shaping and reheating the magisteel a total of seven times before it had taken the same shape as her previous ingot, albeit smaller in size.
When she was done, she set it on the shelf before turning towards the observant Vahn. "That'll be it for today. I can tell you have a lot of latent ability when it comes to forging. I'll have someone teach you the basics in the future, and when I have free time I'll give you some personal lessons. Make sure you pay attention when the time comes because my time isn't cheap."
She gave him a playful grin while speaking the words, but ended up losing her smile after seeing his reaction. Though he was obviously listening, and even nodded when she spoke, he seemed more focused on the metal within the solution than her words.
('Does he want to try again?') She appreciated his motivation but understood it was dangerous to overexert yourself, especially when first starting out. The build-up of physical and mental exhaustion would just make the process more difficult. As she was about to try and convince him, she stopped after seeing his current state.
Vahn had picked up the hammer and grabbed a piece of raw iron. The aura that had spread throughout the entire forge had converged to an area of three meters around him. Perhaps it was due to his embarrassment at his previous failure, or maybe the emergence of his competitive nature, but Vahn decided to purchase manuals on blacksmithing within his mind to absorb the teachings within.
He spent a total of 17,000 OP to purchase all the manuals he could use at this current soul tier. As his brain processed the veritable tidal wave of information, Vahn almost lost consciousness but managed to hold on by pushing his [Will of the Emperor] to the limit.
From the outside, Hephaestus could see an actual fluidlike energy forming a bubble around Vahn. Though she could sense it originally and make out its area using her eye, this was the first time she had seen a physical representation of his mana. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that it took a god-like level of control to reach such a state. She worried that anything she said or did would break the mysterious state Vahn entered, so she remained silent and continued to observe.
After his brain had finished sorting all the information, Vahn suddenly felt as if he had been a blacksmith for decades. He knew his practical skills were a bit lacking, but with enough effort, he would be able to quickly improve in the future. Since the information he obtained included a variety of 'records' outside of Danmachi, he very likely had more theoretical knowledge in the basics than even Hephaestus. He might not be able to match her in actual skill or experience, but he would be able to innovate and master his 'otherworldly' techniques given enough time.
Vahn entered a state of absolute focus and began refining the metal. Though there was still a bit of loss, he managed to retain around 83% of the total raw material. After he removed the newly created magisteel he quickly began forming its shape, this time using his mana to forcibly mold the basic structure of the ingot as he hammered away.
He repeated the process of reheating the metal and shaping it until an idea popped into his mind. ('If I can use my mana to hold the shape of the ingot, can't I do the same while heating it up?') He immediately attempted to verify his conjecture, but quickly understood the difficulty involved. While the influence of the flame was negligible when he was just refining the metal normally; when he exposed his energy to the flame in a concentrated amount he was able to feel an actual burning sensation within his body, almost as if the energy of his body was on fire.
Hephaestus had been closely observing as he worked the metal, and immediately noticed the change. Through her eye, she could see that he was using his mana to 'cast' the ingot within the forge. As the 'eternal flame' was a mystical fire that could burn anything, it was very dangerous to concentrate mana directly into it. If he were unlucky, it could lead to a rebound within Vahn's spirit and cause harm to his foundation.
Though she wanted to stop him, she feared that interrupting at this moment would hasten the arrival of the worst case scenario. Hephaestus began to feel helpless as she watched him struggle. Had she known he was such a hothead, she would have prevented him from taking action earlier.
A tense atmosphere began to permeate throughout the room. On one side there was a boy, Vahn, focusing his mental energies beyond what he thought to be his previous limits. But no matter how much he pushed himself, it seemed as if failure was close at hand. On the other side of the room was the veteran Goddess, Hephaestus, who began to blame herself for the current situation. She held her breath and began to feel a strange emotion tugging at her heart.
As the pressure continued to increase, Vahn began feeling as if he was teetering on the edge between consciousness and unconsciousness. He had long noticed something had gone wrong but refused to give up after seeing how close the ingot was to taking shape.
Finally, after several painstaking seconds which seemed to stretch for an eternity, the ingot had been formed. Its surface had a flawless metallic l.u.s.ter and each edge was well defined. Unfortunately, Vahn didn't have time to celebrate as he found himself unable to remove his energy and awareness from the flame. It seemed intent on consuming his energy to the brink, almost as if it possessed a spirituality of its own. And on a very rudimentary level, it did...
The so-called 'eternal flame' had been a unique possession of Hephaestus since she obtained her divinity. It had even accompanied her to the mortal world to continue aiding in the production of thousands of peerless items. But during that time it had begun to grow bored of the tedium of the mortal world. It longed for the days when it could process celestial metals and create artifacts fit for use only by the gods themselves.
When Hephaestus allowed this novice to work metal using its flame, the 'eternal flame' began to focus all its resentment on the foolish human in front of it. He made almost imperceptible adjustments to the balance in the flame, which resulted in a greater loss of the materials. It even mocked the boy for his inability to adapt to the changes, completely ignoring any blame owed to itself.
After the boy had completed his shoddy product, the 'eternal flame' watched as he failed to convert it into an ingot. At that moment, if it could laugh, it would have done so uproariously. After Hephaestus had reheated the ingot in its flames, it allowed her to demonstrate what true mastery was so as to discourage any hopes he may have about being a blacksmith in the future. But what did Hephaestus do? She slowly worked the metal and demonstrated the process of forging used by novices. It had to reheat the same piece of bland metal over and over until the ingot had finally taken shape.
The 'eternal flame' had begun to resent the human child even more, for dragging its master down to his miserable level. When he saw the boy try to work another piece of metal, he tried to get revenge but was unable to because of the control the boy showed. The 'eternal flame' began to burn with a vengeful fury seeing that the boy had managed to retain so much of the metal even with its interference.
As the boy began shaping the ingot, its rage had begun to peak...until the boy made a foolish error! The idiotic child had the audacity to try and infuse his mana directly into the flames internal energy structure. The moment the 'eternal flame' realized this, it attempted to create a spiritual lock around the invading energy but was surprised at the result. The energy possessed by this human seemed to suppress its pure elemental nature, causing an instinctual fear within the flame.
The fear it had felt caused its rage to reach the absolute pinnacle of its meager intelligence. It began trying to consume the energy of the boy and convert it into its own, and was surprised by the absolute purity of the energy. It seemed to be able to nourish its 'core' and make the flames even stronger. All the hate it had built up for the boy turned into jubilation as it greedily tried to consume the energy.
Vahn could feel the suppression of the flames grow increasingly stronger, and began to grit his teeth till his gums bled. He tried forcibly removing his energy, causing his 'soul' to scream out in protest. Every failure brought him closer and closer to collapse, but he adamantly refused to yield to the flame. His desire to escape the flames imprisonment grew, and he could feel his spiritual strength compound.
Within Vahns eyes, the image of a warrior appeared. If the unfortunate kobolds that had experienced this previously were around, they would note that the illusion had grown far more tangible than before. The figure raised an awe-inspiring sword towards the heavens before cutting down with an unstoppable might.
Vahn could hear the resonating sound of chains being shattered as he finally wrested control of the ingot from the flame.
He held the flawless ingot and gazed at it in a fervent manner before presenting it to the befuddled Goddess who had observed the series of events. "I did it..." As the words left his lips, Vahn entered a state of 'Mind Zero' as he continued holding out the result of his efforts.
Hephaestus stared at the unconscious boy who stood proudly displaying his achievements. She slowly relieved him of the ingot before carrying his body to a couch within her office workshop. After laying him down, she continued to stare with both of her eyes for several minutes.
"What kind of kid did I accept into my Familia...to be able to contest against the will of the 'eternal flame' and pull away as the victor...." As she continued to stare into his sleeping face, an anticipation for the future began to build within Hephaestus.
"His sleeping expression is very cute~. He looks like he worked so hard~"
The cool Goddess began to smile and laugh like a fool, completely contrary to Vahn's impression of her. Sadly, it would be a long time before he was able to see this adorable side of her for himself.