Paragon of Destruction

Chapter 418 - Final Preparations

Chapter 418 - Final Preparations

"There's a secluded field behind the barracks." Kaleesh gestured toward an area at the edge of the camp. "We should find some quiet there."

They set off at once, and as they passed the training fields, Arran cast a studious look at the training fields, where hundreds of soldiers were practicing battle formations. "How are the preparations going?"

Kaleesh hesitated before giving a shrug. "As well as can be expected. The troops have been training day and night these past few weeks, but even so, it will be difficult."

Arran nodded in understanding. "There's only so much you can achieve in a few months."

Several months had passed since Kaleesh recruited several thousands of prisoners in Knight's Watch, and the captain had spent those months working tirelessly to transform the disorderly group into a proper army.

He'd done as well as could reasonably be expected. Over the months, the soldiers of the Wolfsblood Army had gained the appearance of disciplined warriors rather than common thugs, and a single glance at the training fields was enough to know that their skills had improved drastically.

But even so, a gap still remained between them and the lordlings' armies.

Where Kaleesh's soldiers had months of training, the lordlings' troops had years of experience — decades, when it came to the Rangers. And unlike the Wolfsblood troops, many of the lordlings' soldiers had already experienced the dangers of the Desolation.

Such a gap could not be closed in mere months. The only way to erase it was through the kind of experience that came from years of training or dozens of battles.

"What about the Rangers?" Arran asked. "Anything new with them?"

"Domar has been quiet of late," Kaleesh replied. "It seems Barric's lesson did him some good. As for Ifras…" He hesitated before shaking his head in disapproval. "That one tries too hard to win my favor. If I offered him rotten meat for dinner, he would praise how tender it was."

Arran chuckled. "You can't blame him for trying to gain an advantage. But what of the others?"

Kaleesh gave a dismissive shrug. "It's the same as before. Arjun and Barric are still the strongest among them. The others have shown some improvement, but nothing spectacular."

As the captain detailed the troops' progress of the past weeks, they reached a small field behind the barracks. Secluded and surrounded by trees, it seemed to be a quiet place.

At least, it would have seemed that way, had the small field not currently held half a dozen soldiers and at least twice as many bottles of wine, many of which were already empty.

At once, Kaleesh's eyes went wide with fury. "You worthless donkeys!" he roared. "Who gave you permission to take my wine?!"

All six of the soldiers went pale in an instant, looks of shock on their faces as they hurriedly stumbled to their feet and lined up in a disorderly row.

Kaleesh remained silent long enough that the soldiers' uneasy looks turned to ones of fear. Then, finally, he said in a low tone, "I asked a question."

After a moment of hesitation, one of the soldiers stepped forward. It was a young woman with dark-red hair — the same woman who'd complained about the weapons back in Knight's Watch, Arran recalled.

"Captain," she began, a tremble in her voice, "we did not know this wine was yours. We thought—"

"All the wine in the camp is mine," Kaleesh snapped. "Or did you believe supplies were free, soldier?"

The woman did not reply immediately, though her eyes showed a trace of relief as she realized that they hadn't stolen wine from Kaleesh's personal supply.

"I apologize, captain," she said after some seconds. "With the journey ahead…" Her voice trailed off, and she cast an uneasy look at Kaleesh.

Kaleesh raised an eyebrow. "You thought you would take the opportunity to celebrate while you still could?"

The soldier nodded silently, a hint of shame now visible in her eyes.

"And you believed," Kaleesh continued, his voice growing colder, "that this moment of celebration was worth missing one of your last chances to prepare for the dangers you will soon face. One of your last chances to learn the battle formations that will protect not just your own life, but your comrades' lives as well."

The young woman's eyes went wide with shock. "No!" she hurried to say. "We didn't think—"

"That much is clear," Kaleesh interrupted her. "You didn't think. All of you will immediately report to Arjun for punishment. As for you…" He cast a thoughtful look at the woman. "Come see me after you finish your punishment. Now leave!"

The soldiers scrambled to leave, and as they disappeared, the anger fled Kaleesh's face in an instant. "Idiots," he muttered, "to get caught like that."

"I can't say I blame them," Arran said. "Not with months in the Desolation ahead."

"Of course not." Kaleesh sighed. "In their position, I would have done the same. But this is an army, not a mercenary company. And an army needs discipline. Otherwise, it will fall apart at the first sign of hardship."

Arran nodded, understanding Kaleesh's reasoning. "What about the woman? Why did you invite her?"

"Elena?" The captain laughed. "I plan to have her train with Sassun. Once she gets a little stronger, she'll make a good commander. She has a good head on her shoulders." He cast a glance in the direction the soldiers had fled, and added, "Usually, at any rate."

A soft chuckle escaped Arran's lips. Then, turning his eyes toward the small field, he said, "So are you ready to see my new tricks?"

Kaleesh gave him a flat look. "This is going to hurt, isn't it?"

Arran shrugged. "Probably. Now draw your weapon."

As the two of them faced off and drew their blades, Arran awakened the Titan's and Guardian's powers within the Blood Ruin. While these were not the most valuable powers he'd gained, to an opponent, they would easily be the most impressive ones.

"I'll attack first," Arran announced. "And when you block my strike, you won't be able to hold on to your weapon."

"You're that confident?" Kaleesh raised an eyebrow. "Even with me knowing what you're planning?"

Arran grinned. "You'll see soon enough. Now ready yourself."

Kaleesh took a step back, grabbing the hilt of his sword with both hands. Now that he knew what Arran intended, he naturally did not plan to allow it.

Arran waited as Kaleesh readied himself. Then, he stepped forward, his sword striking as he moved.

It was a basic blow, so simple that even the greenest of novices would see it coming. Kaleesh was no novice, however, and he effortlessly struck an expert parry — one intended to deflect Arran's strike rather than face its full might.

At least, that was what should have happened.

But instead, even with Kaleesh deflecting all but the slightest fraction of Arran's strength, the captain's weapon was ripped from his hands.

Kaleesh's expression instantly turned to one of shock. "Son of a—" He turned to look at his sword, which now lay three dozen paces away. "How did you do that?!"

"The Titan's bloodline," Arran said, unable to keep himself from grinning. "I've managed to strengthen it a little."

Kaleesh frowned as he went to pick up his sword. When he returned a moment later, however, his expression had turned ponderous. "What about the Guardian's bloodline?"

The reason for his interest was obvious. Kaleesh had also received the Guardian's bloodline, and he'd been nearly as disappointed as Arran with its power. Now that he had the chance, he was obviously eager to see the bloodline's true potential.

"I'll show you," Arran replied. "Attack me, and don't hold back."

Kaleesh gave a questioning look. "How will that help show the Guardian's bloodline?"

"Just trust me."

Kaleesh sighed. "Very well." He attacked even before finishing the last word, striking a swift blow to Arran's left side. From the look of it, he was unwilling to suffer another pitiful defeat.

Yet even as he struck, shock once more filled his face. Because although Arran moved to block the attack, he did not use his blade. Instead, he used his hand.


Horror was written across the captain's face as the blade connected, but it turned to astonishment when he saw that the only injury Arran had suffered was a tiny cut, only barely deep enough to cause a single drop of blood to roll down the blade.

"That's…" Kaleesh stared at the blade, a dumbfounded expression in his eyes and his mouth half-open. "That's impossible."

Arran gave a wide grin in response. "The Guardian's bloodline turned out to be more useful than I thought."

��If I—" Kaleesh halted mid-sentence, as if he was at a loss for words. Then, a sudden sharpness in his eyes, he asked, "Can I learn to do the same?"

At this, Arran slowly shook his head. "You can't," he began. "Not yet, at least. What I did was…"

Arran quickly detailed what he'd done to strengthen his bloodlines, and soon, a forlorn look appeared on Kaleesh's face. When Arran finally finished his explanation, the captain let out a deep sigh.

"So it's impossible, then."

"That's not what I said," Arran cut him off. "You have no way of doing it right now, that much is true. But once you join the Imperial Knights and they give you the Ruiner's bloodline, I suspect this will be among the first things they teach you."

Understanding dawned in Kaleesh's eyes. "You think this is what Lady Merem meant when she talked about controlling bloodlines?"

Arran did not answer immediately. Instead, he glanced at his hand, where the small cut Kaleesh's blade had left was already beginning to heal. Finally, he shook his head.

"What I did — I think it's just a first step. The Imperial Knights should have techniques that go beyond that."

Though Arran knew little of the Imperial Knights' secrets, he was certain that he was right about this. While he had learned to awaken and suppress his bloodlines' powers, that was still a long ways off from the mastery of which Lady Merem had spoken.

"I suppose they would." Kaleesh let out a sigh. "When I returned to the Imperium, I actually thought I had some strength."

Arran gave a shrug. "In the Borderlands, you did. But I may have something to improve your spirits." With a small gesture, he produced two pills from his void ring. "Roshan gave me these pills. For you, they should be of no small benefit."

To Arran's surprise, Kaleesh instantly shook his head. "I can't accept those. They should still have use for you."

"They do," Arran said. "But they will help you far more. Besides, Roshan will give me more of them in the future."

Kaleesh hesitated, but only for a moment. "Be that as it may, I still can't accept them. You need your strength."

"I can't protect all of you in the Desolation." Arran held up the two pills in front of him, then continued, "After you take these, you should barely have the strength to protect yourself from a Reaver."

Surprise flashed across Kaleesh's face. "They're that powerful?"

"For you, they are. For me, they would only make a small difference."

That was the reason Arran had saved four of the twelve pills Roshan had given him — although each represented a month or two of consuming Natural Essence, he'd already reached the point where that would not make a substantial difference.

Yet for Kaleesh, the situation was different. For him, each pill would rival not months but years of arduous training — enough that it would considerably improve his chances in the Desolation.

Though Kaleesh still seemed reluctant, he finally gave a short nod and accepted the pills. "Do I just eat them?"

Arran thought for a moment, then shook his head. "Dissolve them in a bottle of wine and take one sip a day. If you just swallow them, absorbing the Essence will take you weeks of effort."

Kaleesh glanced at the spot where the soldiers had been drinking earlier. "I suppose I'll need to guard my wine more carefully in the future."

"I would suggest so," Arran replied. "The church is generous, but not so much that they'll give me enough pills to supply the entire army."

"If only we could be so lucky." Kaleesh chuckled, but a moment later, he furrowed his brow in thought. "How's your adjustment to the Desolation coming along?"

"I haven't quite gotten around to that yet," Arran said. In truth, busy as he had been with absorbing the bloodlines, he'd all but forgotten about the matter.

Kaleesh stroked his chin. "I figured as much. The army will be ready to depart just under a week from now. Will that be enough time for you?"

"It should be," Arran replied. Now that he had the power of the Sage's bloodline, he suspected that even a day or two should be plenty. As for a week — that was definitely more than he needed.

"Good," Kaleesh said, appearing more than a little relieved. "Then I suggest you get to training, and I'll get back to work. Old Baqi said the bulk of our supplies should arrive over the next few days."

Arran raised an eyebrow in surprise. "You let the old man handle the supplies?" Trusting Baqi to gather information was one thing, but letting him provide supplies was something different altogether.

"He hasn't let me down so far." Kaleesh shrugged, then added, "And he's found supplies for half the price that others charge."

As they headed back to the training fields, it was hard not to notice how Kaleesh's eyes kept returning to the two pills in his hand. Army to command or not, it seemed that today, his attention would be on things other than supplies.

At this, Arran could not help but grin.

Ever since Knight's Watch, Kaleesh had worked tirelessly on strengthening the army, achieving something that most would have considered impossible. In just a few months time, he'd managed to turn a chaotic group of prisoners and mercenaries into a proper army.

Yet all that effort had left Kaleesh with little time to focus on his own training. While Arran's strength increased by the day, the captain's strength had fallen ever further behind.

The two pills weren't enough to close that ever-growing gap, of course, but they would easily make up for the time Kaleesh had spent building the army.

The way Arran saw it, that was a reward well-earned.

As Kaleesh headed off to start work on the pills, Arran turned his attention to the Rangers and soldiers who were training on the fields. Most of them were drilling battle formations — the intricate positions and movements that allowed groups of soldiers to wield power far beyond the sum of their individual strength.

Arran understood the importance of this type of training, but he did not join the soldiers in their drills. His strength lay elsewhere, as did his importance to the Wolfsblood Army.

Instead, he looked around until he saw a large group of soldiers sparring against each other. He was unsurprised to find Barric at the center of the group, testing his might against half a dozen common soldiers.

"Barric!" Arran called out. "Stop bullying the troops and try your hand against a real opponent, you overgrown bastard!"

At once, the giant Ranger looked up. "Finally! I was beginning to think you'd locked yourself away forever!"

The soldiers who'd been sparring against Barric immediately stepped aside, their eyes already filled with expectation for the spectacle ahead.

While Arran was undoubtedly the strongest fighter in the Wolfsblood Army, Barric was among the strongest of the Rangers. For the soldiers, seeing the two of them fight each other was a rare treat.

"I must warn you, I've made some progress these past few weeks." Barric gripped the hilt of his sword as he gave Arran an appraising look. "So you might not win as easily as you expect."

A small smile crossed Arran's lips. "As it happens, I've made some progress as well."

They sparred for a good-quarter hour, and Arran quickly learned that Barric hadn't lied about his progress. While the large Ranger's strength was impressive as always, his technique had improved drastically, with hints of insight now pervading his movements. Another few months, and he might be ready to set his first step into Enlightenment.

But impressive though his progress was, it wasn't enough to make him a match for Arran.

After a quarter-hour of fighting, Barric suddenly stepped back. He wiped the sweat from his brow, then gave Arran a suspicious look. "You're holding back."

"I am." Arran made no attempt to hide it. Strong as Barric might be, there was no comparing the two of them. If he didn't hold back, it would barely take him a second to defeat the giant Ranger.

Moreover, only part of Arran's attention had been focused on the fight. The rest of his attention, he used to study the effects of the Desolation, with the awakened Sage's bloodline helping him adjust far quicker than he'd managed before.

Barric groaned in mock annoyance. "You should hold back some more. You're making me look bad in front of the troops."

Although Arran couldn't help but chuckle, he did as Barric asked. His goal wasn't to defeat his opponent, after all, but to adjust to the Desolation and help Barric hone his skills.

They continued for another hour, until finally, Barric lowered his weapon. Red-faced and covered in sweat, he looked like he could collapse at any moment.

"That's enough for me." Barric took a moment to catch his breath before glancing at the soldiers who had gathered to watch the fight. "Someone fetch Arjun. It's only right that he also gets to suffer." Turning back to Arran, he asked, "You have time for a few more matches, right?"

Arran laughed. "I have nothing else to do before we leave."

"Good." Barric gave a contented nod. "Then I might challenge you again, once I recover. Our little match has been most instructive." There was a thoughtful look in his eyes, as if he'd gained some new insights during the fight.

In the days that followed, Arran spent most of his time in the training fields, sparring against any of the Rangers and soldiers in the Wolfsblood Army who wanted to test their skills.

Sometimes he fought only one, and sometimes as many as half a dozen at once, but none of his opponents posed a serious challenge. Arran's step into Enlightenment alone was enough to create an insurmountable gap between him and the others, and that gap had only grown larger after he absorbed the Imperium's bloodlines.

Oddly, he found that even when he suppressed the bloodlines, some of their strength still seemed to linger, as if the memory of the bloodlines' remained within his body.

This caused Arran some pause, but he had no explanation for the effect. Nor, for that matter, did he have the time to properly examine it.

Far more useful was what he learned about his allies during these days.

Although Arran had trained with the Wolfsblood Army before, he'd never taken the time to truly learn about his allies' strengths and abilities. This wasn't an intentional omission, exactly. Rather, he'd simply been too busy with his own training to pay much attention to others.

Yet now that he finally got a better idea of how the Rangers compared to each other, it soon became clear that four among them stood out from the rest.

The first of these was Barric. Whether it be in terms of physical strength or skill and technique, none of the other Rangers had any hope of rivaling the giant Ranger.

This wasn't much of a surprise, of course.

Imposing though Barric looked, what truly set him apart from most others was his passion for battle. It was rare to find him anywhere but on the training fields, and Arran had yet to witness him pass up even a single opportunity for a sparring match.

The second-strongest among the Rangers, Arjun, was equally unsurprising.

The middle-aged Ranger might not be as enthusiastic in his training as Barric, but he made up for that with his unfailing diligence and attention to detail. Where Barric might spend an evening challenging every Ranger in the army, Arjun would stoically train the whole day long, practicing his techniques and sword strokes to perfection.

It was an unassuming path, but no less effective for that. And if it caused others to underestimate Arjun's prowess in battle, that was a mistake they would quickly come to regret.

More surprising was the third-strongest among the Rangers — Ifras.

Arran had already sparred against him in Knight's Watch, but now, he discovered that the young Ranger's true skill exceeded what he'd previously seen.

While Ifras couldn't match Barric or Arjun in strength or experience, his techniques had a refinement to them that none of the other Rangers could match — a kind of refinement that could only be gained through instruction from skilled teachers.

But then, it was no secret that Ifras picked his teachers carefully. He'd openly said he'd joined the Wolfsblood Army for a chance to learn from Arran, after all.

Finally, last among the four strongest Rangers of the Wolfsblood Army was Domar.

Domar was easily the most talented of all the Rangers the army held, with potential that might even exceed Arran's own. Yet where Barric, Arjun, and Ifras each had their own unique path, Domar seemed to lack a path altogether.

He picked up skills and techniques with ease, learning at a pace so rapid that others could not help but feel jealous. But fast as he might learn, his skills never seemed to truly become his own. Instead, all the different techniques he learned remained disjointed, without a foundation to unify them.

Nevertheless, sheer talent was enough to bring him to the forefront of the Rangers. While his lack of a path would eventually become an obstacle to his progress, that moment had yet to arrive.

As for the other Rangers in the army, none of them made much of an impression on Arran.

Though they were all skilled fighters in their own right — as all Rangers were — they had yet to reach a level of skill that would set them apart from others. And while some showed signs of greater potential, that potential had yet to blossom into actual ability.

Yet instructive though all of this was, after three days of sparring against his allies Arran was beginning to feel some impatience for the journey ahead.

He'd already done everything he could to increase his chances in the Desolation. He had set a step into Enlightenment, had gained and absorbed several potent bloodlines, and had fully adjusted to the suppression of the Desolation.

All that remained was to put his power to the test. And for that, he needed enemies rather than sparring partners.

He'd already slain two Knights in the past month, but neither battle had seen him make full use of his true strength. In the first confrontation, he'd relied on trickery rather than skill, and in the second, it was luck more than ability that had defeated his opponent.

At present, however, he was confident that he could face both Knights and Warlocks without relying on luck. Now, the only thing left was to find out whether his confidence was justified.

But Arran's growing impatience had little effect on the army's preparations. Though the number of carts carrying supplies increased with each passing day and Kaleesh became increasingly agitated, there was little he could do but train and wait.

Several more days passed like this — enough that they should have departed for the Desolation already. Yet their supplies were slow in coming, and although Old Baqi repeatedly assured them that the last of the supplies should arrive any day now, they remained stuck in the run-down camp.

It was on one of these seemingly endless days that Sassun suddenly came running while Arran was out on the training fields.

"The captain needs you," Sassun said. "Right now."

Arran raised an eyebrow. "What's the matter?"

The commander shook his head. "He wouldn't tell me the details, but we have visitors. Two Knights, from what I could see."

The mention of Knights was enough to set Arran running immediately. While it was unlikely that they would be attacked in their own camp, he'd witnessed too much of the Imperium to put his faith in the supposed safety of Sacrifice.

He burst into Kaleesh's cottage some moments later, hand on his sword and ready for battle. He'd already Sensed that Sassun had been right — two Knights were inside the cottage.

Yet when Arran saw the people inside, he came to a sudden halt. Aside from Kaleesh, there were two Knights, one of whom he recognized. But there was also a young woman — the Knights' mistress.


"Arran." The young woman gave a friendly smile. "So kind of you to join us."

Arran gave her an appraising look. "I was beginning to think you'd had a change of heart."

"I'm afraid that isn't too far from the truth," she replied with a sigh. "You've made an unfortunate enemy — someone even I would not lightly provoke. The attack you suffered in the city—"

"You know about that?" Arran interrupted her.

"I have my sources," she said. "Sources which have also informed me about the instigator of the attack."

"Shir," Arran said. "We already know."

Surprise flashed across her face, but she recovered in an instant. "How did you find out?"

"We have our sources," Kaleesh interjected. "But Lady Nisra, you have yet to tell me your purpose in coming here. From your earlier words, I take it our proposed cooperation is off the table?"

Nisra nodded. "It is, for now. If you know that Shir was behind the attack, then you are doubtless aware of his reputation. The man has little sense, but he more than makes up for that in viciousness. He would not hesitate to attack me if I publicly allied myself with you." She let out a frustrated sigh. "I could easily crush him, of course, but in defeating him I would invite a great deal of trouble."

"What sort of trouble?" Arran asked.

"Shir might be a vicious imbecile," she replied, "but he wields significant influence within the Martial Alliance. If I were to put my foot down and crush him for the bug he is, I would earn many enemies — both for myself and for Mother."

Kaleesh frowned, some frustration in his eyes. "So you have no intention of working with us. Is there a reason you needed to bring that news in person?"

"There is," Nisra said. She gestured toward one of the Knights — a tall man, nearly as large as Barric — and he took out a roll of paper which he laid out on the table. A map, Arran realized.

"This," Nisra continued, "is a map of the southern Desolation. And this—" she pointed toward a small mark on the map "—is where Shir intends to attack you. A valley just over a week's travel from Sacrifice."

Kaleesh raised an eyebrow. "I won't question how you discovered this, but I cannot help but wonder why Shir would expect to find us in that specific valley. The Desolation is a large place."

"Large, but predictable." Nisra pointed at the map, and went on, "The areas marked in red often see Warlocks. For an army like yours, with only a single Knight, it would be unwise to venture far into these areas."

Kaleesh spent several moments gazing at the map, and when he finally raised his eyes again, there was a hint of frustration in his eyes. "These areas shouldn't be too difficult to avoid. Why would he think we'd travel southwest?"

This time, some surprise could be seen on Nisra's face. "You don't know?" She shook her head in disbelief. "Had I not come here today… No matter. Further to the southwest, beyond the valley where Shir awaits, lie the ruins of an ancient city that was destroyed by the Blight. It is a common destination for new Knights who wish to bind their weapons, as well as a place where many treasures still remain undiscovered."

Kaleesh narrowed his eyes. "Treasures?"

"Starmetal weapons, shadowmetal coins, and many other valuables." Nisra shrugged, then added, "Most who go there return empty-handed, but those without strong backing have few better options available. With luck, they might return with a fortune — and not necessarily a small one."

As Arran stared at the map, a single thought emerged in his mind. They had to visit this ancient city no matter the cost. Not because of the treasures it held, but because of the other thing Nisra had said — that Knights used it to bind their weapons.

Still, he could not help but feel some doubt. "Even if what you say is true," he began, "why would you warn us about Shir's plans?"

"Because I hope that you will defeat him," Nisra replied. "If I were to do so, it would be seen as an act of war. But if you defeated him, it would merely be a terrible humiliation — and doubly so if he lost a Knight or two."

"So you want us to act as your mercenaries?" Kaleesh raised an eyebrow.

Nisra shook her head in response. "Though I would like to see Shir receive a much-needed lesson, no real conflict exists between me and him. I am merely offering you a warning."

Several moments passed in silence as Kaleesh considered her words. Then, he asked, "If we defeat him, won't that earn us the enemies you are so anxious to avoid?"

Again, Nisra shook her head. "If an army like yours defeats him, the shame of it will be enough to keep him from pursuing the matter any further. Of course, that's assuming you don't cross any boundaries — if you lash out in anger, the consequences will be dire." She turned to Arran. "You now hold the status of a Knight, which means you cannot kill common soldiers or Rangers without cause."

Arran frowned. "What about Shir himself? Can I kill him, at least?"

At this, Nisra's eyes widened in shock. "Absolutely not! If he were to die…" She shook her head, as if the very thought of it was outrageous. "Under no circ.u.mstances should he come to harm. Should he die, you will instantly unite the Martial Alliance against you. You can defeat his army, but Shir himself cannot be touched."

A mirthless smile on his face, Kaleesh asked, "I don't suppose the same courtesy will be extended to us?"

"It won't," Nisra answered curtly. "So I suggest you avoid being defeated. But now, I must leave. Even this brief visit might raise suspicion, and I do not wish to become embroiled in this conflict of yours."

Kaleesh gave her a small nod. "Then we thank you for the warning."

After they said their goodbyes and Nisra departed, Arran turned to Kaleesh.

"Think she was telling the truth?" he asked, unable to suppress the lingering doubt he felt.

Kaleesh sighed deeply. "I know she was." He walked to a bag that lay in a corner of the room, then took out a large piece of paper which he rolled out on the table.

It was another map, almost identical to the one Nisra had left behind, if perhaps not quite as detailed. And on this map, a thin line was drawn that led straight through the area Nisra had marked on her map — with another mark in the same position.

"I got this map from Old Baqi," Kaleesh explained. "The route, I set out myself." He gave a wry smile, then added, "I hadn't thought myself quite as predictable."

"But what about the mark?" Arran asked. "How did you know Shir would choose that location to attack us?"

"It's one of the most likely places for an ambush," Kaleesh said. A grin appeared on his face as he spoke, and he continued, "But if the target knows what's coming, it's also one of the worst."

Arran nodded slowly. Though he didn't know what had brought his friend to this conclusion, he understood that Kaleesh would not say such a thing without reason. "I take it that means you intend for us to fight him?"

"It's either that or wait for him to attack when we don't expect it." Kaleesh shrugged. "There's only one problem…"

"Which is?"

Kaleesh looked at Arran uncertainly. "Shir still has three Knights. They shouldn't be together when we face his army, but for us to have a chance of victory, someone will need to defeat them."

"Three Knights?" This time, it was Arran who grinned. "I don't think that will be a problem."

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