Chapter 417 - Breakthrough
Kaleesh watched in bemus.e.m.e.nt as Arran hurried back to the cottage. From the confounded look in the captain's eyes, it almost seemed like he believed his friend had finally gone mad from training too much.
Arran did not notice Kaleesh's puzzled stare, however. While the weeks of wasted effort hadn't quite driven him mad, his failure to strengthen the bloodlines had caused him no small amount of frustration. Now that he had found a new path forward, he naturally had little thought for anything else.
Still, as he entered the cottage and once more sat down on the creaky wooden chair, he did not act immediately. Instead, he took a brief moment to calm his nerves and consider what he was about to attempt.
His initial excitement passed quickly, and as it did, he could not help but feel some anxiousness. This time, the cost of failure might be more than just wasted time.
The idea he had was simple enough. Rather than trying to strengthen the bloodlines, he would instead allow the Blood Ruin to consume them.
That's how the Blood Ruin had come into existence — the Dragon's Ruin had consumed the Blood magic that was threatening Arran's life, and in doing so, it had absorbed its power.
If that feat could be repeated, there would be no more reason to worry about strengthening the bloodlines. Rather than relying on their own meager strength, they would instead share the seemingly endless power of the Blood Ruin.
But simple though the idea might be, that did not mean it was safe.
At best, failure would mean losing a bloodline. That would be an inconvenience, though not a disaster. Arran was certain that Lady Merem would replace the Hungerer's bloodline if he lost it, even if that would involve some awkward questions.
But there was another, more serious danger — that the attempt might damage his body.
While they were weak, the Imperium's bloodlines had nevertheless already taken root within Arran's body. Thus, to let them be devoured was little different from allowing part of himself to be destroyed.
If such a thing went wrong, it might well cause lasting injuries or even cripple him.
Moreover, as much as Arran wanted the plan to work, he knew there was ample reason to doubt whether it would.
When the Blood Ruin had attacked the corrupted Hungerer's bloodline, the latter had been destroyed without a trace, not the slightest trace of its power remaining.
That might be because the corrupted bloodline was too far gone, more poison than power, with the remainder too insignificant to have an effect on the Blood Ruin. In that case, the outcome might still be different for the other bloodlines.
But it was also possible that the fusion of the Dragon's Ruin and the Blood magic had been a stroke of luck — something that could not be repeated even if he tried a thousand times. If that was the case, the consequences of trying to duplicate the feat were hard to predict.
Nevertheless, Arran was not deterred. Even if he had plenty of reason for doubt, he still believed that his plan would work.
This wasn't a belief born of rational consideration. Rather, it was something instinctive, a confidence that seemed to come straight from the Blood Ruin itself.
Unlike the Imperium's bloodlines, the Blood Ruin was truly part of him, as integral to his body as the limbs he was born with — more so, perhaps, as his limbs were something he could lose without dying. And as he imagined using it to consume the bloodlines, the idea of doing so seemed no less natural than walking or breathing.
Whether that intuition was correct remained to be seen, but there was no point in pondering the matter any further. The question could only be answered in one way, and that was by actually making the attempt.
Arran clenched his teeth in determination, then pushed aside his lingering doubts, closing his eyes as he focused his mind on the task ahead.
It was time to take a chance.
With a single thought, Arran took command of the Blood Ruin, the action as quick and natural as consciously controlling his breath. Even if there rarely was a need for it, it was something that required no effort whatsoever.
Then, without hesitation, he attacked the Hungerer's bloodline.
If the battle between the Dragon's Ruin and the Blood magic had been like a fight between two fierce predators, the confrontation between the Blood Ruin and the Hungerer's bloodline was wholly different. Rather than a battle, it more resembled a pack of hungry wolves chasing down a crippled rabbit.
In a matter of moments, much of the Hungerer's bloodline had already disappeared, its power ruthlessly devoured by the Blood Ruin. In terms of strength, there simply was no comparing the two.
But quick though the victory was, it was anything but painless.
The instant the Blood Ruin began to consume the competing bloodline, Arran was filled with a sensation of incomparable agony. It was as if liquid metal had been poured into his veins, scouring every fiber of his body.
This pain passed almost as quickly as it had come, but even so, it was enough to drive Arran to the brink of unconsciousness. And even after it passed, a blank look remained in his eyes, with even the memory of the torment too much for him to handle.
He sat like that for a good quarter-hour, motionless and pale-faced, his mind devoid of thought. Yet as the color slowly returned to his cheeks, a faint smile finally emerged on his face.
"It worked," he said softly, some wonder in his voice. "It actually worked."
Although he was still in a half-dazed state, he could already tell that his gamble had paid off. The Hungerer's bloodline had been merged into the Blood Ruin.
Where the Hungerer's bloodline had previously been so weak as to be useless, merging it into the Blood Ruin instantly increased its strength several times over — enough that Arran could already feel a gentle stream of Essence from his surroundings steadily flowing into his body.
This flow of Essence was gentle, but the amount of power it contained was by no means small.
At a guess, Arran thought that a month of absorbing Natural Essence like this could easily match the church's pill he'd consumed earlier, or several months of eating dragon meat.
This realization caused him some shock. With a source of power like that, he could double his strength in just a year or two. And with a few decades, it would be hard to even imagine what he could accomplish.
Though the breakthrough caused him no small amount of excitement, he knew that this was just the first step.
There were four more bloodlines waiting to be consumed, after all.
Still, while part of Arran was eager to continue — even if he now knew the agony it would cause him — he did not move on to the next bloodline immediately.
Brief though the shock of absorbing the Hungerer's bloodline had been brief, its sheer intensity had left him reeling with shock, and even now his mind remained half-dazed and his body weakened.
Before he faced another such force, he first needed to steady himself.
Over an hour passed as he sat in silence, eyes closed while he slowly calmed his nerves and let his body recover.
The effort was only partly successful. Though Arran's mind was quick to stabilize itself, weakness continued to linger within his body even after an hour of rest, as if the blow from absorbing the bloodline had strained every fiber of his being.
Had the situation been different, he might have chosen to take a few weeks' rest. Yet as it was, he had no time to spare — not with the Wolfsblood Army's journey into the Desolation fast approaching.
He hesitated briefly, then took one of the church's pills from the small wooden box and threw it in his mouth.
The amount of Natural Essence in the pill was vast, but the Blood Ruin made quick work of it, rapidly using the energy to strengthen Arran's weakened body. A single breath's time was all it took to remove most of the weakness he'd felt before.
To his surprise, however, the weakness he felt did not disappear completely. Though much of it was gone, a trace still remained — enough that it caused Arran to frown in wonder.
Each of these pills contained enough Natural Essence to equal several months of normal consumption. If even that wasn't sufficient, wouldn't he have needed months to recover without the pills?
Arran considered taking another pill, but quickly decided against it. With four more bloodlines to be consumed, it was best to save the rest of the pills until after he finished.
He took a deep breath, then closed his eyes once more. The Hungerer's bloodline had already been absorbed, and now, he would absorb the Master's bloodline.
A tremble went through his body as he seized control of the Blood Ruin and directed it to attack the second bloodline.
Then, the pain struck.
Although he'd been prepared, there was no resisting the sudden surge of utter agony. But once again, his suffering lasted only an instant — even if that was nearly enough to make him fall unconscious.
When the pain passed and Arran's mind began to clear, he knew that his second attempt had also succeeded. The Master's bloodline was gone from his body, and the Blood Ruin now carried its power.
This time, the change was subtle. The only indication that something had changed at all was that his control of the Shadow Essence in his body had slightly improved.
This caused Arran some surprise. His control of Shadow Essence had long reached a point where further improvements were hard to come by, and even this small step forward might normally have taken months of practice.
Still, had that been the extent of it, he might have been disappointed.
Yet the true power of the Master's bloodline wasn't to make him a slightly stronger mage. Rather, it was to let him control Essence that wasn't his own, allowing him to resist other mages' attacks.
Now that the Blood Ruin had absorbed the Master's bloodline, that power should be his. As for his improved control of the magical Essence within his body — that should only be a fortunate side effect.
Arran had no chance to rejoice, however, because as his mind cleared further he became aware of something else — a feeling of weakness that pervaded his body.
The same thing had happened after he absorbed the Hungerer's bloodline, but this time, it was far worse than it had been before. Where he'd previously merely felt weak and exhausted, it now felt as if he'd fallen ill with some terrible disease.
Despite this, no panic appeared on his face. Instead, his expression briefly turned thoughtful, after which he slowly nodded in understanding.
"So that's how it is."
He recognized almost immediately what the problem was. It wasn't damage from absorbing the bloodline — painful though the ordeal had been, there were no signs of any harm.
Rather, he now understood, the problem came from the Blood Ruin.
In absorbing the bloodlines, it had gained two potent new abilities, both of which would require no small amount of power. And that power naturally had to come from somewhere.
Arran had already suspected that the Blood Ruin's power was no different from his own. The bloodline was truly part of him, and he'd never found any sign that it had a hidden reservoir of energy that it could draw upon.
Now, that suspicion turned to certainty.
The Blood Ruin's strength was simply his own strength. And just like using his arms required energy from his body, the same held true for using the Blood Ruin's abilities.
When its only powers were those of the Dragon Ruin and the Blood magic, that hadn't been a problem. But now that two new powers had been added, it seemed he had reached the limit of what his body could bear.
Fortunately, he already had the solution to this problem.
He already knew that he could suppress the Blood Ruin's consumption of Natural Essence, and with the two bloodlines now part of the Blood Ruin, the same should hold true for their powers.
Which meant all he had to do was suppress them.
To Arran's relief, this proved every bit as simple as he'd hoped. He managed to suppress the bloodlines' powers almost immediately, and after half a day of training, he could already suppress and awaken them at will.
He was pleased but unsurprised to find that his guess had been correct — as long as he kept some of the Blood Ruin's powers suppressed, the feeling of weakness disappeared.
"Two bloodlines," he muttered to himself. "Three, if I push myself. But I can't handle more than that. Not yet."
The result didn't disappoint him in the least. While he might not be able to use all the bloodlines' powers at once, he had still gained the ability to choose which ones to use.
And best of all, now that he'd discovered this, there was nothing stopping him from absorbing the remaining three bloodlines.
The first Arran chose was the Sage's bloodline. He'd known he wanted it from the moment he heard of its existence, and now that he finally had the chance to fully awaken its powers, he naturally wasted no time in doing so.
The bloodline did not disappoint.
After Arran merged it with the Blood Ruin, he found that it granted him an incomparable focus and clarity. Although it did not increase his insights directly — as he'd secretly hoped — its value for training was obvious at a glance.
With focus like this, both expanding his insights and practicing his magic should be far smoother. And just as importantly, it would also help him in understanding the oath seals that still lay within his body.
Nevertheless, Arran did not explore this new power's full potential after he absorbed it. There would be time for that later. Right now, two more bloodlines remained to be consumed.
The second he chose was the Guardian's bloodline.
This wasn't a bloodline he'd chosen himself, but even so, he found himself more than pleased with its power after he awakened it. While it wouldn't leave him impervious to harm altogether, the defense was strong enough that common Blightspawn should struggle to injure him even if he did not defend himself.
With the journey ahead, such a defense would be of no small value.
And lastly, there was the Titan's bloodline. This was another of the bloodlines Arran had received from Roshan, and when he felt its potency, he could not help but shake his head in astonishment.
Awakening the Titan's power in the Blood Ruin caused his physical strength to double in an instant. That would have been a shocking result for anyone, but Arran's strength already far outstripped that of others. Adding this ability, there would be few who could contend with him.
Arran could not stop himself from grinning in delight at the day's progress.
The bloodlines' powers had initially disappointed him, but now that he'd absorbed them into the Blood Ruin, they easily exceeded even his wildest expectations.
The Hungerer's and Sage's powers alone were enough to cause him to tremble with excitement. One would aid his future strength, while the other would help him hone his techniques and insights. Between the two, his progress over the next few years should be nothing short of astonishing.
And then, there were the other three powers. The Master's power to protect him from magic, the Guardian's power to protect him from his enemies' weapons, and the Titan's power to grant him unrivaled strength.
No matter what enemies he faced, whether they be Knights, mages, or Blightspawn, these powers would greatly increase his chance of victory.
Each group of powers by itself would be cause for celebration, and together, their potential was nothing short of astonishing. In a single day, both Arran's strength and his future potential had increased many times over.
There was only one drawback, and that was that he couldn't use all of the bloodlines' powers at once.
Including its origins, the Blood Ruin now contained the powers of seven different bloodlines. Arran could only barely sustain three of those at a time. Beyond that, the burden was too great for his foundation to carry.
That wasn't a problem, exactly, but it meant he would have to make choices in his future battles.
For example, while the focus and clarity from the Sage's power might be useful in battle, that benefit wasn't worth forgoing the strength from the Titan's power.
That was also why Arran had chosen not to absorb the lesser bloodline he'd received when he became a citizen of the Imperium.
While it would doubtless be far more potent as part of the Blood Ruin — possibly letting him go without sleep for years on end — that was of little use if it stopped him from using another power.
Still, at the moment, Arran wasn't too concerned about the matter.
Even if he couldn't use all the Blood Ruin's new powers at once, simply having different abilities to choose from was already a large step forward.
And as fruitful as the day had been, there were more benefits to be had. Ten of Roshan's pills still remained, after all, and there was little point in having them collect dust.
After a moment's thought, Arran stored four of the pills inside his void ring. Then, he placed the remaining six pills on the table before him.
A small smile crossed his lips when he looked at the marble-sized treasures.
With the bloodlines he'd received, it was easy to forget just how powerful these pills were. In truth, however, their value was only slightly lower than that of the bloodlines.
Just these six pills represented over a year's worth of progress. And that was with the Blood Ruin, which already gave Arran a giant advantage over others. For a normal Body Refiner, it would not be an exaggeration to say that even a single such pill could rival years of effort.
And potent though the pills might be, using them was a simple matter.
Arran consumed the six pills over the course of two hours, with the Blood Ruin effortlessly taking in their power. Unlike absorbing the bloodlines, this caused no pain or discomfort — only the sensation of his body rapidly growing stronger.
When the last shred of Essence from the final pill was absorbed, a satisfied look remained on Arran's face.
The pills had strengthened him considerably, and after testing it, he found that he could now comfortably sustain awakening three of the bloodlines' powers.
He could not help but grin as he considered what a single day's effort had brought him. Between the pills and the bloodlines, his overall strength had once more surged forward, the effect every bit as formidable as setting his first step into Enlightenment.
With the kind of power he now possessed, common Knights should no longer be the deadly threat they had been before. He would no longer be at a disadvantage in a fair battle against a single Knight, and if luck was on his side, he might even hold the advantage.
Of course, that was only true for common Knights.
Imperial Knights and Paladins were a different matter. Having caught a glimpse of the true power of the Imperium's bloodlines and alchemical treasures, Arran was all but certain that the Imperium's elite warriors would be even stronger than he'd originally thought.
After a brief moment of concern, Arran pushed the thought aside.
While he expected to face the church's Paladins eventually — his agreement with Lady Merem had all but guaranteed that — there was no point in worrying about them just yet.
Instead, what he should focus on was the Blight. The Wolfsblood Army would march into the Desolation in less than a week, and if he allowed himself to be distracted by distant enemies, he might well die to the ones he encountered before that.
He stood up from the desk and stretched his body, grinning as he felt his much-strengthened muscles move. Then, he exited the small cottage. Before anything else, he would naturally take the opportunity to shock Kaleesh with his progress.
However, as soon as he stepped outside, a look of surprise appeared on his face.
The area outside the cottage was overgrown with weeds and shrubs, which had looked to be in robust health just a day earlier. But now, they seemed weak and wilted — not so much that it would draw attention, but enough that Arran immediately noticed the change.
His surprise lasted only a moment. Almost at once, he recognized what was responsible for the pitiful state of the surrounding vegetation — the Hungerer's bloodline.
After he'd absorbed it into the Blood Ruin, the Natural Essence it could gather had increased many times over. But this Essence came from his surroundings, and from the look of it, that included not just the earth beneath him, but also the plants and trees that stood upon it.
A frustrated sigh escaped Arran's lips when he realized this. If the effect was this strong, he couldn't just use it anywhere. Not only would doing so draw attention, it would also quickly deplete the Natural Essence in an area.
Yet his frustration faded as quickly as it had come. Then, as he noticed Kaleesh in the distance, his earlier grin returned.
The captain was lazily directing a group of soldiers as they loaded various supplies onto a large collection of carts and wagons, but as he saw Arran approach, his bored expression instantly turned to one of interest.
"From that smug grin of yours," Kaleesh said as Arran came to a halt before him, "I take it you succeeded?"
"You don't know the half of it," Arran replied, unable to keep his grin from growing even wider.
Kaleesh gave him a flat look. "I suppose there's no point in questioning that luck of yours," he said with an exaggerated sigh. "Care to show me what fortune has befallen you this time?"
Arran looked around before giving a small nod. "I suggest we go somewhere more private for that. It's best we keep it a secret for the time being."
"It's that good?" This time, the sigh Kaleesh gave seemed unfeigned. "Sometimes, I wonder what you did to deserve such luck."
"Good things naturally happen to good people," Arran replied. "So I expect your luck will remain miserable. Now come, let me show you what I've gained."