415 A Path Forward
Arran sat in complete silence, his body completely unmoving and a blank look in his eyes. Had it not been for the faint smile on his lips, it would have been easy to think that he'd fallen into a stupor.
But while his exterior seemed frozen, the picture within his interior was completely different. There, strands of Essence circulated continuously, the energy incessantly forming various intricate patterns as it permeated every fiber of his body.
This Essence consisted of two distinct types.
The first of these was Shadow Essence. Perfectly controlled, its motion followed Arran's commands without the slightest effort on his part, the patterns it formed changing instantly at his slightest thought.
He was, after all, a Master of Shadow magic, his control honed to the extreme by the countless years he'd spent trapped in the Shadow world.
The second type of Essence was Natural Essence. And although its flows mirrored the flows of Shadow Essence, its movements weren't quite as smooth, its patterns not quite as perfect. A single glance was enough to know that Arran's control of it was lacking compared to his mastery of Shadow Essence.
But with every hour that passed, his control improved. The patterns grew more intricate, the flows of Essence more precise. And if a tremendous gap still existed between his skill at manipulating the two kinds of Essence, that gap was gradually growing smaller.
"Two weeks," he said to himself. "Less, maybe. By then, it should be possible…"
If he wanted to strengthen the greater bloodlines he'd received, there were only two paths from which he could choose — the church's path and the Imperial Knights' path.
He'd already rejected the former, as it was slower than he could accept. And as for the latter, all he knew was that it involved finding a way to control the bloodlines.
By any reasonable standard, that tiny shred of information should be useless. Knowing that magic existed did not make one a mage, and knowing that bloodlines could be controlled did not allow one to do so.
But Arran had things that others lacked. Not only was his Sense was sharper than any Knight's, but he'd also had years to observe the Blood Ruin within his body, gradually gaining an understanding of the Body Refinement method it contained.
Most crucially, he'd spent years trapped inside the Shadow world, where he was forced to use Shadow Essence to nourish his body, using as if it were Natural Essence.
None of that would let him control his bloodlines. But then, what he needed wasn't full control. Just being able to strengthen them directly would be more than enough.
And that was well within his reach.
All it required was for him to control the Natural Essence that fed the bloodlines — to focus its power on a single bloodline of his choosing, rather than letting it be used to strengthen his body and his other bloodlines.
The first step toward that goal was honing his skill at controlling the Natural Essence already within his body. And for that, he needed practice.
The hours passed quickly, with Arran fully absorbed in his task. Time after time he formed patterns of Shadow Essence, and each time, he would replicate them with Natural Essence. Then, he would use his Sense to seek out the differences between the patterns.
The method was simple but highly effective, far better than anything a teacher could provide. After all, each mistake he made — and he made plenty — would be obvious at once, allowing him to correct himself at once.
But effective as the method was, it was also tiring. After half a day of rapid improvement, Arran felt he could go no more. By now, he could tell that his control was actually beginning to weaken, his focus all but completely drained by the constant effort.
He did not attempt to push through his exhaustion. Instead, after a moment's thought, he decided to take the opportunity to get some rest.
The task he'd set himself was a difficult one, after all, and succeeding would require his full concentration. With that the case, trying to rush things would do more harm than good.
The next morning, Arran was roused from his slumber by a light knock on the door.
Although he had half a mind to ignore the voice and go back to sleep — he doubted the priests would dare barge in — he forced himself to rise, adjusting his clothes before opening the door.
Waiting behind it, he found a cheery-faced priest. Short and round-figured, the man more resembled an affable innkeeper than he did a clergyman. Had it not been for his neat white robes, Arran could easily have believed he was a servant.
"I trust the morning finds you well?" The priest gave Arran a friendly smile, apparently not the least bit annoyed at having been kept waiting.
"Well enough," Arran replied. "I suppose it's time to leave?"
"It is," the priest said, a smile on his face. "Your companion should be ready to leave, as well."
Arran gave the man a nod. "Lead on, then."
It only took a few minutes before they reached the large chamber where he'd parted ways with Kaleesh the previous day, and as he stepped inside, he saw that the captain was already waiting for him.
Kaleesh's expression was thoughtful, though there was a subtle hint of dissatisfaction in his eyes. From the look on his face, it wasn't just Arran who was been disappointed with the church's offering.
"Not what you expected?" Arran asked as he approached.
"Good morning to you, as well." Kaleesh sighed before continuing, "As for the bloodline, it's…" His voice trailed off mid-sentence, as if he wasn't entirely sure of what to say.
"Weak?" Arran asked, raising an eyebrow in curiosity. While he'd been disappointed with his bloodlines, it should be different for Kaleesh. After all, his friend had no powerful bloodlines to suppress the new one.
"Not weak, exactly," Kaleesh said. "But not as strong as I expected, either."
At this, a laugh sounded from the priest who accompanied Arran. "Don't be too quick in judging your bloodlines," he said. "You have to remember that you are in the Desolation. Right now, the bloodlines are only able to show a tenth of their true power."
"A tenth?" Arran's eyes went wide with surprise. Though the Blood Ruin was suppressed by the Desolation, he guessed that it still had half its power available. He'd assumed the same was true for these new bloodlines, but now, it seemed the difference was far greater than that.
"More or less," the priest confirmed. "The effects can vary slightly, but you have to understand that bloodlines suffer more from the Desolation's suppression than other parts of one's strength."
For some moments, Arran was too stunned to speak — not so much because of this new information, but because he knew he should have realized it far sooner.
Upon entering the Desolation, he'd noticed almost immediately that its suppression seemed weaker for him than it was for the Rangers in the Wolfsblood Army. And although he had no explanation for this, his suspicion had been that it must be related to the Blood Ruin.
Seeing Arran's dumbfounded expression, the priest grinned. "I see you're beginning to understand how potent the bloodlines truly are. Besides, what you have now is just the beginning. As you grow stronger, so will your bloodlines."
Arran nodded quietly, though his surprise was not for the reason the priest thought. Instead, he realized that in underestimating the bloodlines, he'd inadvertently stumbled upon a great fortune.
The method he'd devised to strengthen the bloodlines was one born of a misunderstanding, but that made it no less useful. If anything, with the bloodlines more potent than he'd thought, it would be even more valuable. Rather than sharpening a rusty blade, he would be polishing a treasure.
"But that's enough from me." Though the priest still spoke in a friendly tone, a hint of impatience had appeared in his voice. "You will come to appreciate the bloodlines' power in due time."
"We'd best leave, then," Arran said, understanding that the priest was ready to see them off.
The priest nodded. "I understand that your camp lies a few days to the south. If you wish, I can arrange for you to be escorted—"
"There's no need."
"That won't be necessary."
Arran and Kaleesh spoke at the same time, rejecting the offer before the priest could even finish his words. Having the church look over their shoulders as they traveled was the last thing they wanted.
A frown crossed the priest's face. Clearly, he hadn't expected his offer to be rejected to easily. "Very well," he said, a trace of annoyance in his voice. "Then I will see you to the Sanctum's gates."
A half-hour later, as Arran and Kaleesh found themselves outside the Sanctum's white walls once more, the captain gave a displeased sigh.
"Had I known how weak the Guardian's bloodline would be, I would've chosen a different one." He poked his own arm as if to illustrate it, a look of annoyance in his eyes. "This would barely stop a commoner's blade."
"Still better than falling to a commoner's blade," Arran said with a shrug. In truth, he knew that Kaleesh was right. He had the Guardian's bloodline as well, and if Kaleesh's version was as strong as his own, then it would offer little protection from the Blightspawn. "At any rate, as the priest told us, it will grow stronger. Give it some time, and we might grow impervious to blades yet."
Kaleesh narrowed his eyes. "You have the Guardian's bloodline as well?"
Arran nodded. "Roshan came to offer me the Guardian's and Titan's bloodlines. Naturally, I accepted the gift."
"In addition to the other two?!" Kaleesh stared at him in shock for several seconds, then finally spat a curse. "Wealth truly seeks the rich. The things I could do with four bloodlines…"
"Not too much, I reckon," Arran said. "Haven't you ever wondered why Knights and Lords never take more than a few bloodlines?"
Kaleesh frowned. "Because it's costly?"
"That's what I originally thought," Arran said, "but I'm not so sure of that anymore. Bloodlines need Natural Essence to grow stronger, so the more of them you have, the slower it will be to develop them."
Kaleesh clicked his tongue, some concern on his face as he looked at Arran. "Then you have a problem?"
At this, Arran shook his head, a small grin appearing on his face. "Of course not." He cast a glance around, and continued, "But I'll explain it to you once we're out of the city. Too many people here."
Indeed, several people along the busy road to the Sanctum had already recognized them, and although none were close enough to overhear their words, this was a matter Arran could not let others know about.
"Then let's hurry," Kaleesh said. "We've been away from the army for too long already."
It took them several hours to leave the city behind, but when its many buildings had finally faded in the distance, they soon found themselves completely alone.
Busy as the route between the entrance to Sacrifice and the city at its center had been, the roads to the more distant parts of the vast bulwark were decidedly less traveled. The only people to be seen were the farmers working the lands in the distance, and even those were few and far between.
"So are you going to tell me?" Kaleesh asked. "Or do you think those farmers might be spies as well?"
Arran hesitated for a moment, then began, "As you know, I'm a mage…"
It took him a good half-hour to explain what he'd learned about the bloodlines and how he planned to address the matter. It was a complex subject, and several times, he found himself having to explain various intricacies of magic and bloodlines to Kaleesh, who knew little of either.
The captain proved a quick study, however, and it wasn't long before he recognized what Arran intended to do.
"It sounds like your strength is about to take another leap forward," he said, forehead creased in a deep frown.
"You say that like it's a bad thing."
"It's not that," Kaleesh replied. "It's…" He paused, then asked, "If you were forced to fight the entire Wolfsblood Army by yourself, how confident would you be in winning?"
Arran had no need to ponder the question, and he did not hide the truth. Even if forced to fight the entire army by himself, he did not see any possible way he could lose. The gap in strength was simply too large for that. Facing just common soldiers and Rangers, he'd be like a dragon among sheep.
"What if you had to fight Lady Merem?"
"I'd lose." Again, Arran did not need to consider his answer. Just like he could effortlessly defeat the Wolfsblood Army, Lady Merem would have no difficulty in defeating him.
Even if she'd never revealed her actual strength, what little he had seen was already enough to convince him of that.
"And Lord Rannoc?"
This time, Arran hesitated, but no more than a moment. "I'd lose," he said again. "Now, can you tell me where you are going with this?"
Kaleesh nodded. "After I left the Imperium, I spent years building up my strength, training for the day of my return." A mirthless smile on his lips, he continued, "When I came back, I actually believed I had some strength. But I understand the truth now. I'm just a mouse playing with wolves."
"Perhaps," Arran admitted. "But you'll get stronger. Lady Merem has invited you just like she invited me. With the Imperial Knights' techniques, you might eventually become as strong as her."
"That's too far away," Kaleesh said with a shake of his head. "It won't help with the dangers we're facing now."
"And you're worried you don't have the strength to protect the Wolfsblood Army?" Arran remembered that Kaleesh had worried about that before, and he could imagine that the captain's concerns had only grown further.
"I am," Kaleesh replied, "but it's not just that. You can protect yourself, but if you have to defend the rest of us—"
"Then I'll find a way to do that," Arran cut him off, finally understanding what the captain was worried about.
Though Arran had joined the Wolfsblood Company as just one of its commanders, he had long since outgrown that role. By now, he was the army's protector in all but name — a position that carried many risks and few benefits.
With his current strength, he could easily choose to join forces with one of the more influential lordlings in Sacrifice, receiving both benefits and protection in return for his allegiance.
But even if he set out by himself, that would still be safer than having the Wolfsblood Army to protect. Alone, he could escape notice far more easily. And should he meet an enemy he could not defeat, fleeing would still be a simple matter.
Kaleesh knew this, and now, he worried that Arran faced unnecessary danger by choosing to remain with the Wolfsblood Army. Yet to Arran, the very fact that Kaleesh worried about this meant he was a friend worth having.
"I do not plan on leaving," Arran said. "Not until I depart the Imperium, at least."
"Are you certain?" Kaleesh asked. "It would be wiser—"
"I'm certain," Arran interrupted him. "Now, enough of this foolishness. We should hurry and make our way back to the army."
"That we should," Kaleesh replied, a thoughtful look on his face. "As much as I trust Sassun, most of the troops were prisoners, and not all of them innocent. If we delay any longer, we might not like what we find when we return."