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Paragon of Destruction 413 Fruits of a Poisonous Tree

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"That's the fifth group so far." Arran lazily stretched his arms as he walked with Kaleesh, pointedly ignoring the small group of Rangers who stood watching a few dozen paces away. "At this rate, the entirety of Sacrifice will know where we are by sundown."

They had set off for the Sanctum a half-hour earlier, traveling through the city's western outskirts in an attempt to avoid drawing attention. The effort had proved to be in vain, however, as it quickly became apparent that there was no avoiding the Rangers' inquisitive eyes.

Kaleesh shrugged. "Both nobles and soldiers gossip more than kitchen maids. Give it another day or two, and it will be impossible for us to travel Sacrifice unseen."

Though the captain sounded unconcerned, his words caused Arran to sigh in displeasure. "If someone is planning another attack, they'll have an easy time finding us."

Kaleesh remained silent for several seconds, then finally shook his head. "I do not expect another attack. Not soon, at least."

It only took Arran a moment to understand his friend's reasoning. "You think our connection to Lady Merem and Roshan will protect us?"

"It should," Kaleesh said. "Word of your talk with Roshan will have spread by now, and it won't be long before our visit to Lady Merem becomes common knowledge as well. Until the lordlings figure out what our relationship with the both of them is, none will dare attack us."

Arran gave a slow nod. "And with the number of eyes on us right now, it would be impossible to strike unseen."

"Exactly." Kaleesh waved at the Rangers in the distance, his friendly smile widening into a mocking grin when he saw their dumbfounded expressions. Turning his attention back to Arran, he continued, "Right now, the eyes of our enemies give us all the protection we could wish for."

"For now."

"For now," Kaleesh admitted. "But by the time that changes, I expect we'll have bigger things to worry about."

Arran could only nod in agreement. Once the church discovered their deception — as it eventually would — the lordlings in Sacrifice would be the least of their worries.

But there was no point in fretting over the matter. Serious though the danger might be, the threat remained a distant one. And before they became enemies to the church, they would first seize the treasures it had to offer.

When they approached the Sanctum's immaculate white walls nearly two hours later, Kaleesh gave Arran a cautious look. "I'd suggest not antagonizing them any further."

"I don't intend to," Arran replied. "At least, not without cause."

This time, as they passed through the Sanctum's gates, neither of them had eyes for the splendid temples and pavilions within the Sanctum's grounds, nor did they pay attention to the curious glances of the priests and Rangers who filled the paths between the many temples.

Instead, they headed straight for the Hall of Blessings. Their purpose in coming was to receive greater bloodlines, and although they did not say so out loud, neither wished to linger in the Sanctum even a second longer than necessary.


Fortunately, they met with no obstacles or delays. While the guards inside the Hall of Blessings looked at them with more curiosity than before, the Warlocks' amulets they carried meant that none barred their way. And so, it wasn't long before they entered the third section of the Hall of Blessings once more, finding themselves faced with the same priestess who'd received them on their previous visit.

A hint of despair flashed across her face when she saw Arran, but a forced smile took its place an instant later. "You have returned," she said, unable to fully mask her displeasure. "Have you reached a decision on which bloodline you wish to receive?"

"We have," Arran replied curtly. He turned to Kaleesh. "Captain?"

"I shall take the Guardian's bloodline." As he spoke, Kaleesh glanced at the painting on the far right wall that supposedly depicted the Guardian — a fearsome existence said to be nigh-impervious to injury.

The priestess frowned — apparently, she had not expected that Kaleesh would select a bloodline as well — but after a moment, she gave an approving nod. "A wise choice. The Guardian's bloodline will be of great value in the Desolation." Then, a trace of unease in her eyes, she turned to Arran. "And you said that you have reached a decision as well?"

Arran nodded. "In addition to the Master's bloodline, I've decided that I will take the bloodline of the Sage."

"The Sage?" The priestess briefly fell silent, her expression troubled as she appeared to struggle for words. Finally, she said, "Are you certain of this?"

Raising an eyebrow, Arran asked, "Is there a problem with that?"

"It's not a problem, exactly. It's just…" The priestess hesitated before continuing, "The Sage's bloodline is not a common choice."

"It's a greater bloodline, isn't it? Are you saying it's lesser than the others?"

"Of course not!" the priestess hurried to say, her eyes darting toward the painting of the Sage on the far wall as she spoke. "But the full benefits of the Sage's bloodline are slow in coming. Even if your comprehension increases, that will do little to protect you in the Desolation."

Of course, this was something Arran had already guessed. While the Sage's bloodline might shorten the time it took him to set another step into Enlightenment, it would still take years of effort. By then, he would long have left the Desolation behind.

Yet although the Sage's bloodline would do little to help him survive the Desolation, it should help with something equally important — to break the seal left inside him by the oath disc.

Even now, he could Sense two seals within his body, one left by the Shadowflame Society and the other by the Imperium. The two of them together formed a deadly trap which he'd barely avoided, narrowly saving his life by restraining the seals.

But the seals were still there, created by someone who clearly did not wish for him to keep his life. And if there was one trap, there could yet be others, ready to be sprung at any moment.

Moreover, the oath he took should prevent him from betraying either the Imperium or its secrets. If that was indeed the case, then he would have to break the seal before returning to the Shadowflame Society.

In the end, the choice was an easy one.

"I choose the Sage's bloodline."

For a moment, it looked as if the priestess was about to object, but she finally gave a small sigh. "Very well. The decision is yours to make. The both of you, please follow me."

Without speaking any further words, she led them through a large door and into a large spiral stairwell that descended below the Hall of Blessings. It took several minutes before they reached the bottom, but eventually, they emerged into a vast hall.

Arran looked around with some surprise. He could see at a glance that this hall was larger than the entire building that housed the Hall of Blessings, and the numerous passages along the distant walls suggested that an entire city lay beneath the Sanctum.

There were people, too — numerous priests, hurrying along the vast underground space as they cast inquisitive looks at the newcomers.

The priestess waved one of them over, a white-clad youth with a nervous look about him. "These two are to receive greater bloodlines. Escort them to their chambers."

"Of course, Prelate Shula," he said, bowing clumsily as he spoke. "Please, come with me."

Arran and Kaleesh followed behind him as he immediately set off for one of the passages on the side of the hall, but after a few moments of silence, Kaleesh asked, "She's important, then?"

A nervous chuckle burst forth from the young priest's lips. "Naturally! She's a Prelate! She's only a single step away from becoming an Archon!"

Kaleesh shot Arran a meaningful look. "Then we'll have to take care not to offend her."

The priest gave a small gasp. "To offend a Prelate…" He didn't finish the words, instead shaking his head as if the very idea of it bordered on blasphemy.

They spent a quarter-hour passing through a series of hallways and passages, until finally, they reached a large chamber that held a number of marble statues, several of which Arran recognized as gods from the paintings in the Hall of Blessings. Then, after the young priest exchanged a few words with a white-clad man, two young women appeared.

"These acolytes will see you to your chambers," the priest said. "Your bloodlines will be brought to you shortly. Once you receive your bloodlines, you are to remain here for a single day in order to properly integrate them."

Arran furrowed his brow. "We have to stay here? Why?"

"These are greater bloodlines," the priest said. "Fully integrating them will take some time. And should something go awry, it is best that you are here, where help is at hand."

"Do things often go… awry?" Kaleesh asked, his expression wary.

"Not at all," the priest replied. "It is extremely rare for problems to occur. Still, for those rare occasions that trouble does emerge, it is preferable that you are here in the Sanctum. Now, unless you have further questions, I'll have you escorted to your chambers."

Kaleesh nodded, then turned to Arran. "Good luck."

"Same to you."

A few minutes later, Arran found himself in a spacious, well-furnished room. Simple but elegant, it was something befitting the Knights who would normally be the ones receiving greater bloodlines. If not for the location, it would have been vastly preferable over the inn room where he'd spent the past few days.

Yet here, in the catacombs of the Sanctum, the pleasant setting did little to ease his worries. After what he'd learned from Lady Merem about Roshan's intentions, he knew that the church was his enemy. Of the bloodlines that would soon be brought, one would be corrupted — a poison to put him firmly within the church's grasp.

Lady Merem had given him a complete bloodline to counter the threat, but he was fully aware that there was no certainty with such things. If her prediction was incorrect and the church used a different method, then the Hungerer's bloodline would do nothing to help him.

In that case, escaping Roshan's schemes would be a difficult matter.

Arran's misgivings grew further when an hour passed without sign of any priests carrying bloodlines. The young priest who'd escorted them had said the bloodlines would be brought shortly, and by now, Arran was clear that something was amiss. 

Still, there was no leaving now. All he could do was wait and hope that the church had not caught on to his plans.

Nearly two hours had already passed when the door finally opened, revealing a figure that was unwelcome if not unexpected.

"Archon Roshan." Arran feigned a surprised expression. "I had not expected to see you again so soon."

"I've come to bring you your bloodlines," the Archon said. He put down a small wooden box on the table at the center of the room, then continued, "But first… I understand you visited Lady Merem this morning?"

"I did. As I told you in our previous conversation, she took an interest in me before I came to Sacrifice. Naturally, I could not reject her invitation."

Of course, there had been no invitation, but he did not expect the Archon to know that. While their visit to the Citadel was impossible to hide, an Imperial Knight should have the means to deliver an invitation without the church knowing of it.

Roshan silently looked at Arran for several seconds before giving a small nod. "Very well. Now, as for the matter of your bloodlines…" He opened the wooden box, revealing four small vials and a dozen marble-sized pills from which Arran Sensed a terrifying amount of Natural Essence. "I understand that you have chosen the Sage's bloodline. While not necessarily a bad choice, it will do little to help you survive the Desolation. After giving the matter some thought, I have decided to grant you two additional bloodlines."

For a moment, Arran was dumbstruck. "Two?" he finally asked, a tremble in his voice. "Which ones? And why?"

"The reason is simple," Roshan said. "I value both you and your bloodline, and I do not wish to see your life wasted in the Desolation. While growing your strength will ultimately depend on your own labor, these bloodlines should help grant you a better chance of survival. As for the ones I chose…"

He took two vials from the box and carefully placed them on the table, then continued, "Within these vials are the Guardian's bloodline and the Titan's bloodline. Together, they will greatly help increase both your strength and your resilience. I do not think I need to explain how useful that will be in the Desolation."

Arran briefly remained silent. Then, he asked, "Is this because of my visit to Lady Merem?"

A slight chuckle escaped the Archon's lips. "I can not deny that I wish to earn your loyalty. Hopefully, these gifts can serve as a first step toward that goal. Receiving this many bloodlines carries a small risk, however."

At this, Arran frowned. "What sort of risk?"

"To receive four different bloodlines at once takes a toll on one's foundation. This shouldn't be a problem for someone with your strength, but nevertheless, I've also added several pills that will help strengthen your foundation. With those, the risk should be minimal."

Arran's frown deepened. "But there is still a risk?"

"There is," Roshan confirmed. "If your foundation is insufficient, taking these bloodlines may cause a backlash. Thus, whether you choose to accept them must be your own decision. If you wish to delay the matter, that is fine as well — if you return several months from now, I will naturally still grant you these bloodlines."

It took Arran some effort not to burst into laughter.

Roshan was even more crafty than Lady Merem had predicted. By giving two additional bloodlines the effects of the corrupted Hungerer's bloodline would be masked, and when Arran fell ill, he would only have himself to blame for the decision.

By then, Roshan would graciously offer to help, winning not just Arran's dependence but also his gratitude.

As for him refusing the bloodlines, that was clearly an impossibility. No warrior would pass up the chance to gain additional strength before braving the dangers of the Desolation.

Had Arran not already learned from Lady Merem what Roshan intended, the plan would have been a perfect one. But as it was, all the Archon would accomplish was to hand treasures to a future enemy.

"I thank you for these gifts," Arran said, the joy in his eyes entirely real. "This is an opportunity I cannot squander — not with my journey into the Desolation this close."

Roshan nodded slowly, a small smile on his lips. "The Desolation is a dangerous place, even for one as talented as you. If these bloodlines help keep you safe, then I am glad to bear the cost."

There was a core of truth to that, Arran knew. With the effort Roshan had put into this, he would doubtless feel no small amount of anguish if Arran lost his life in the Desolation.

"Speaking of cost…" Arran produced a single Warlock's amulet, which he offered to Roshan. "For the Sage's bloodline."

Roshan laughed, then shook his head. "Keep it. With what I've given you, a single amulet makes no difference whatsoever."

Arran did not object. While the Archon seemed intent on feeding him as many bloodlines as possible, Kaleesh wasn't as lucky. For him, a single amulet would still be worth a great deal.

"Now then," Roshan said. "I will leave you to absorb your new bloodlines. As for the pills, I suggest you take two every week, starting tomorrow."

"Then I will do as you suggest," Arran said. In truth, he'd already Sensed how potent these pills should be, and he already knew they would help him greatly.

After Roshan said his goodbyes and left the room, Arran turned his attention to the box in front of him, a wide grin on his face as he looked at the unexpected windfall.

In a single morning, he'd gained four bloodlines from Roshan, a fifth bloodline from Lady Merem, and a dozen pills whose value he suspected would nearly match a single bloodline.

Even if the price of these treasures was to become mortal enemies with the single most powerful faction in the Imperium, he could not help but feel that it was well worth it.

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