Chapter 419 - Into Harm's Way (1)
"We're still ten barrels of water short." Arjun gestured toward the long column of carts that stood waiting in the early morning light. While the middle-aged Ranger's calm was usually difficult to break, today, his anxiousness was impossible to miss.
"Those arrived last night," Sassun said. In contrast to Arjun, he still maintained a stoic facade, with the only sign that he was equally anxious the unusually dour expression on his face. "The problem are the arrows. We still need—"
"The last batch of arrows was delivered yesterday," Kaleesh interrupted him. "The supplies are all here, and if anything is still missing, we'll just have to go without it."
Neither Arjun nor Sassun seemed content with Kaleesh's words. As soon as he finished speaking, anxious looks shot across their faces.
"But what about the salted meat—"
"What of the bandages—"
"Enough!" Kaleesh cut them off. "We are done preparing. As soon as the troops finish forming up, we march. The both of you, go make sure the others don't dally. I mean for us to reach the Desolation by midday."
Arjun and Sassun both nodded — if somewhat reluctantly — and as they hurried off, Kaleesh gave a deep sigh. "If those two had their way, we'd be stuck here for at least another month. More than that, probably."
"It's a big responsibility." Arran eyed the thousands of soldiers who were slowly grouping up on the training fields a few hundred paces away. "Though you don't seem too worried."
Unlike Arjun and Sassun, the captain's composure hadn't suffered in the slightest. If anything, it seemed like he was relieved that their journey into the Desolation was finally at hand.
"The time for fretting is over." Kaleesh sighed as he glanced at the army. "When we make camp tonight, it will be in the Desolation. I can't afford to be distracted by worries there."
"There is no time for worries in battle," Arran agreed. That every moment in the Desolation would be as dangerous as any battle was something they both had long since come to understand.
Though they hadn't encountered any Blightspawn during their journey from Knight's Watch to Sacrifice, the situation west of Sacrifice would be different. There, bands of Blightspawn roamed the lands. And the further west they went, the more frequent those would become.
As they stood watching the soldiers, Arran noticed a figure approaching in the distance. "We have company."
Kaleesh frowned as he looked over. "I hadn't expected that Old Baqi would come to see us off."
Arran watched with some interest as Baqi approached. Though Kaleesh had made ample use of Baqi's services, Arran had only seen the old man once, with the encounter barely lasting a minute.
"Master Kaleesh!" Baqi called out, giving the captain a polite bow. Turning to Arran, he gave another bow, slightly deeper than the first. "Lord Arran."
Though Arran wasn't a Lord, he had long since learned that Knights in the Imperium were often addressed as Lords by those wishing to flatter them. He gave a friendly nod, then said, "Master Baqi, I hear you have been of great help in supplying the army."
"I have been compensated well for my efforts," the old man responded, a beaming smile on his face. "Compensated very well indeed."
"And you've earned every coin," Kaleesh said. "But what brings you here today?"
The old man looked around furtively. "I have something else to offer you," he said in a low voice. "Something that will be invaluable in your travels."
"Oh?" Kaleesh raised an eyebrow. "And what might that be?"
Baqi cast a wary look at the soldiers in the distance. "Not where others can see. We need a quiet place for this."
Though Arran and Kaleesh shared a puzzled glance, their curiosity won out over their misgivings. "Very well," Kaleesh said. "There's a secluded spot nearby."
When they'd left the troops' eyes some moments later, Arran gave the old man a studious look. "So what is it you have to offer us?"
"A great treasure," Baqi replied. He carefully reached into the bag that hung from his shoulder and produced a small shadowmetal box. Then, a nervous tremble in his hands, he opened the box and revealed its contents — several dozens of small pills.
At once, Arran's eyes went wide with surprise. The moment Baqi opened the box, he could tell that the pills inside contained a startling amount of Natural Essence. It wasn't quite as much as the power in Roshan's pills, but even so, each of these pills was a priceless treasure.
And there were dozens of them.
A triumphant look appeared on the old man's face when he saw Arran's surprised expression. "These pills strengthen the body," he said, "and they will help heal even the most grievous of wounds. Having these pills will save many lives on your journey."
Kaleesh shot Arran a questioning look, to which Arran responded with a small nod. As far as he could tell, Baqi wasn't lying.
Kaleesh stroked his chin as he gave Baqi a wary look. "Where did you get these pills?"
The old man hesitated briefly, his expression quickly turning tense. Finally, in a careful voice, he said, "They were misplaced by the church some years ago, and I happened to be the one to find them."
Though the words were chosen carefully, their meaning was clear. The pills had been stolen from the church. Which meant that they were most dangerous treasures to possess.
Kaleesh remained silent for several moments. From his expression, it was clear that he had more than a few misgivings about the offer. Finally, he asked, "How do we know they're real? They could be filled with poison, for all I know. We certainly have plenty of enemies."
A nervous look crossed Baqi's face. "You have my word that they are real," he hurriedly said. "I would not dare betray—"
"I can test them," Arran interrupted. "Give me two, and we'll see if you're speaking the truth."
Although the pills might well be poisoned, that posed little danger to Arran. The Blood Ruin would make quick work of even the most potent poisons.
"Please!" Baqi anxiously said, almost shoving the small box toward Arran. "Test them, and you will see that the pills are what I say!"
Arran calmly picked out two of the pills, then spent a few moments studying them. They were smaller than the pills he'd received from Roshan — peas rather than marbles — but they had the same dull-green appearance, and a similar aura of power, albeit a weaker one.
When he was satisfied that the two pills he'd picked were no different from the others in the box, he put them in his mouth and swallowed them.
The effect was immediate. A wave of Natural Essence spread through his body as he ingested the pills, nourishing both his body and the Blood Ruin. Although the effect was weaker than that of Roshan's pills, there wasn't a trace of anything harmful.
Arran allowed the Blood Ruin to consume the Natural Essence before giving a slow nod. "He's speaking the truth."
A small smile crossed Kaleesh's face. Turning his eyes from Arran to Baqi, he said, "You understand that we must be careful. But since the pills are real, I'll offer you two pure shadowmetal coins for them."
It seemed a reasonable offer, if hardly a generous one. Though Arran knew little of the prices of pills in Sacrifice, he guessed that the true value of such pills was at least ten times as high. Yet these particular pills were stolen — and from the church, at that.
Baqi shook his head before Kaleesh could even finish his words. "No shadowmetal," he said. "It's impossible to spend without the church learning of it. Every coin inevitably finds its way to their coffers."
Kaleesh raised an eyebrow. "Even if I had enough gold to pay for this, I doubt you could carry it."
Again, Baqi shook his head. "Not gold. All I ask is a promise. When you return from the Desolation…" He paused, his eyes tense as his gaze darted between Kaleesh and Arran. "I want you to sell me a Shadowblade."
"A Shadowblade?" Some disbelief in his eyes, Kaleesh shook his head. "You overestimate the value of your pills. They are precious, but not so much that they're worth a Shadowblade."
"All I ask in exchange for the pills is a promise," the old man replied. "If you bring a Shadowblade from the Desolation, I ask that you consider my offer before selling it to the church. That is all I want — the promise that you will take my offer into consideration."
Though Kaleesh still appeared hesitant, he finally gave a short nod. "Then we take your deal."
"Perfect!" Baqi smiled broadly as he handed over the box of pills. "I promise that when the time comes, my offer will not disappoint." He gave a deep bow, and continued, "But I will no longer impose on you. I wish you good fortune on your travels."
As Baqi departed, Arran gave Kaleesh a sideways glance. "He didn't seem nearly as feeble-minded today as when we first met him."
"That's because he isn't," Kaleesh said with a sigh. "Baqi is a thief and a smuggler. The foolish old man you met was merely an act. He dropped the pretense when he was certain I wouldn't betray him to the church."
"I already got the thief part," Arran said. "Though I'm surprised you'd trust a thief to supply the army."
Kaleesh shrugged. "His prices are good, and the church has no laws against buying suspiciously cheap supplies." Narrowing his eyes, he handed the box of pills to Arran. "Still, it's best we keep these out of sight until we reach the Desolation."
With a small gesture, Arran stored the box in his void ring. "When we make camp tonight, we can dissolve a handful of these pills in wine. One pill to the bottle, and a single gulp should help a soldier survive injuries that might otherwise kill him."
In truth, Arran had saved two of Roshan's pills for that very purpose. Potent as those were, a single pill dissolved in a barrel of ale or wine could save the lives of hundreds. But it seemed he had no need to sacrifice his own pills.
"They will be useful, then," Kaleesh said, a pensive look in his eyes. Yet after a moment, he shook his head. "But enough of this. Arjun and Sassun should have the troops about ready to move."
The captain's guess proved overly optimistic. Another half-hour passed before the last preparations were finally completed, and had Kaleesh not intervened with a few well-placed shouts and threats, it might easily have taken twice as long.
Still, when the Wolfsblood Army finally stood ready to depart, Arran could not help but be impressed by the sight of it.
Over three thousand soldiers stood in orderly ranks, separated into groups of several hundreds each, all headed by a single Ranger. And although the soldiers all carried swords at their sides, those in most of these groups also carried either spears or bows.
There were smaller groups, as well. These groups, of which there were over twenty, comprised about a dozen soldiers each, with Rangers leading only a few of them. Yet despite their smaller numbers, Arran saw at a glance that these small groups contained some of the most experienced soldiers in the army.
"Scouts?" he guessed.
"Correct," Kaleesh said. "I'll need more eyes than just yours to keep the army safe. I was caught off-guard by Blightspawn once, and I don't mean to let that happen again."
Arran could only nod in agreement. As bad as their first confrontation with the Blightspawn had been, in the Desolation, getting caught by surprise would carry a far higher cost. And while his strength had increased much since that first battle, guarding an entire army was still beyond him.
Just then, a young soldier came running toward them. "Lord Captain!" he blurted out, striking a quick bow without so much as stopping to take a breath. "Commander Sassun reports the army stands ready to move at your command!"
"Tell him we'll join him in a moment." As Kaleesh finished his words, the young soldier struck another bow, then immediately ran off again, moving with an urgency that seemed more suited for battle than for a morning that had been filled with waiting and little else.
Arran suppressed a grin. "No speech before we leave, Lord Captain?"
"The troops came up with the name." Kaleesh forced a sigh, though his eyes betrayed some satisfaction with the title. "And no, there will not be a speech. The soldiers will soon risk their lives in the Desolation. There is no need to make them suffer beyond that."
"I'm sure the troops will be most grateful for your mercy," Arran said. "But we should get moving. If we linger any longer, I'm afraid the church might charge us for another day's use of the camp."
Arran spoke in jest, but his words caused a worried frown to appear on Kaleesh's face. "I don't think they would go that far," the captain said, a hint of doubt in his voice. "But we should hurry all the same."
With Kaleesh's newfound sense of urgency, it wasn't long before the Wolfsblood Army set into motion, the column of soldiers slowly moving across the roads of Sacrifice like a giant snake that had just awoken from a long sleep.
Though Arran had traveled with the army before, he hadn't yet done so in Sacrifice, and now, he was surprised to see many of the Darian commoners along the roads wave at them, with some even cheering as they passed.
"It seems they like us." He looked at the bystanders with some curiosity. Although not all Darians had met him with hostility, the Imperium had done little to make him feel welcome in the past. Yet now that they were finally heading into the Desolation, it appeared that the locals had finally taken a liking to them.
"The way they see it, we'll soon become heroes," Barric said. The giant Ranger had joined Arran and Kaleesh at the head of the column, along with several of the other Rangers in the army. "Or martyrs, if we're less fortunate. But either way, we're risking our lives to defend their homes." A wide grin appeared on his face, and he added, "When we return, you should visit the city with me. See how the women of Sacrifice welcome heroes."
Kaleesh gave Barric a sideways glance. "I suggest you focus on safely returning, first. I don't know how they welcome heroes, but I doubt you'd get much enjoyment out of a martyr's welcome."
"I've faced Blightspawn before," the giant Ranger said with a dismissive shrug, "and they haven't killed me yet."
"No wonder," Kaleesh replied flatly. "The way you look, the creatures probably mistook you for one of their own."
Several hours passed as the army slowly made its way past the fields and farmlands of Sacrifice, with the Desolation drawing ever-closer. Though they had originally entered through the eastern tunnels, their camp had been close to the southern edge of Sacrifice, and it wasn't long before they reached the small town around the fortress that guarded the tunnels into the Desolation.
As they passed through the town, they were once more welcomed with waves and cheers from the locals, with the attention bringing proud smiles to the faces of even the most stoic soldiers. Most of them had lived as outcasts in the Imperium — prisoners, outsiders, and mercenaries — but in this brief moment, they were heroes rather than rejects.
"I hope they enjoy it while it lasts," Kaleesh said in a dour voice. "It will be a long time before we see friendly faces again."
The captain's dark tone caused Arran a brief pang of annoyance. Like the soldiers, he couldn't help but be affected by the Darians' cheers of admiration, and Kaleesh's cold reaction seemed jarringly bitter — malicious, almost.
Yet after a moment's thought, he realized there was something off about the locals' cheers. It was as if they were playing a part, the enthusiasm in their voices never quite reaching their eyes. Moreover, with how many armies must pass through this town, to cheer and wave whenever one came along hardly seemed natural.
"Think the church orders them to do it?" he asked in a low voice, careful not to let the others overhear.
"Almost certainly," Kaleesh replied. "Give the soldiers some encouragement before they go and risk their lives." He shrugged. "I suppose there's no harm in it. If nothing else, the troops seem to like it."
While Arran had no counter to that, he nevertheless felt some relief when they finally entered the tunnels. Now that he knew the likely reason for the locals' cheers, there was something about the whole thing that made him deeply uneasy.
It wasn't that the church would resort to trickery to give passing troops a final bit of courage. Even if the cheers were fake, they were no less well-deserved for that. Any soldier who passed here would be risking his life to stop a ruthless horde of monsters that threatened the lives of all within the Imperium.
But while the soldiers might be heroes, the lordlings who commanded them seemed more concerned with their own glory and power, using the Desolation merely as a means to gain the amulets that would buy them bloodlines.
Worse, they fought each other as much as they fought the Blight. Even now, Shir lay in wait in the Desolation, his troops a weapon he meant to wield against the Wolfsblood Army rather than the Blightspawn.
Arran sighed, then pushed the thought from his mind. Whatever his opinion on the Imperium, it didn't matter. He was, after all, still a mage — and thus an enemy to the Darians.
It was shortly after midday when they emerged from the tunnels and entered the fortress that protected the starmetal gates. Much like the eastern fortress, this one was guarded by a large number of troops and four different Paladins. Yet while they'd been received with contempt in the eastern fortress, the welcome they received here was a warmer one.
They were greeted by a Paladin as soon as they stepped outside, a middle-aged man who spoke in a cordial tone despite his stern expression. "I suggest you and your troops stop here for a quick rest and a meal before continuing," he said to Kaleesh. "Few Blightspawn travel close to Sacrifice, but it's not unheard of to see them. Best to enjoy the safety of our walls while you still can."
"Then we'll accept your hospitality," Kaleesh replied. "And while we eat, perhaps you can share some of your knowledge about the region with me?"
The Paladin accepted the offer — somewhat to Arran's surprise — and as the troops set up camp and ate their midday meals, he gave a short but succinct description of the enemies they could expect to face on the road ahead.
"You're unlikely to encounter Blightspawn within a day's travel of Sacrifice," he explained, "and any groups you find should be small and weak — a few dozen at most, led by one or two Reavers. About three days to the southwest, you might encounter larger packs — hundreds, more if you're unlucky. Still, with an army like yours—" he cast a look at Arran "—that shouldn't be too big of a problem."
"What about Warlocks?" Arran asked. "What are our chances of meeting those?"
The Paladin rubbed his chin. "We do our best in hunting those down wherever we can find them," he said, "but some manage to escape our eyes. Within a week's travel of Sacrifice, you're unlikely to see any Warlocks. Beyond that, if you're traveling southwest, I'd say you're as likely as not to encounter them."
Arran nodded thoughtfully, but the Paladin continued, "If you know what's good for you, you'll try your best to avoid them. Even in the Desolation, Warlocks are not to be trifled with. A single Knight has a chance against one, but any more than that, and your allies will pay a heavy price even if you escape." He hesitated, then added, "If you want my advice, I'd say you're better off traveling south. Fewer Warlocks that way."
"We will take your advice into consideration," Kaleesh said, frowning slightly. "And we thank you for the warning."
A half-hour later, as the army readied itself to move once more, Arran gave Kaleesh a circ.u.mspect look. "He was trying to steer us away from Shir, wasn't he?"
"I think that's a safe assumption," Kaleesh replied with a small nod. "Which means that the church knows about the situation, and that they're trying to protect us from harm — or you, rather." He gave a dramatic sigh. "If only they'd known that we're not the ones in need of a warning."
A dark grin flashed across Arran's face. "It's a good thing they didn't warn Shir. We promised to find Baqi a Shadowblade, and I'd like to have some spares." He absently touched the hilt of his weapon. "Besides, I really need to test the full strength of these new bloodlines."
Kaleesh scratched his chin. "We were greeted with contempt when we first arrived in Sacrifice. Now that we're leaving, we're being treated like old friends. I can't help but wonder what reception we'll get once we return."
Though the captain spoke in a lighthearted tone, his eyes betrayed a hint of unease. And for good reason — if all went as planned, when they returned to Sacrifice, they would no longer be just a band of outsiders. Instead, they would have defeated the army of a Darian lordling with three Knights at his command.
By then, others would no longer dare to underestimate them, which meant that hiding their true strength would become a far more difficult task.
"We could follow the Paladin's advice," Arran said reluctantly, "and travel south instead of southwest." Eager though he was to test himself against Shir's Knights, he knew that revealing part of his strength would bring danger — and not just for himself.
"We could," Kaleesh replied. "But we won't. Even if we avoid Shir, another will come to challenge us. And the next time, we might not have the luxury of a warning." He shook his head. "We will take this opportunity to send a message, and we will make it one the other lordlings won't soon forget."
Arran nodded. "Then we'd best get moving. It looks like the others are ready."
"So they are," Kaleesh said, his expression satisfied as he looked at the assembled soldiers. This time, it had taken them less than a quarter-hour to form up into groups. "If this continues, people might start mistaking us for an actual army."
He cast another lingering look at the soldiers, then finally stepped forward.
"Wolfsblood Army!" he called out. "We march!"