"Get ready to move!" he shouted even as he and Arran rejoined the soldiers' ranks. "We depart at once!"
Some dissatisfied mutters sounded among the troops, but there were no real complaints. With the excitement of the duel beginning to fade, the soldiers quickly realized that Garvan's challenge meant there might be other enemies out there yet. And although Garvan had been a fool, the next attacker might prove a more serious threat.
"Should I scout ahead like before?" Arran asked, casting a wary glance toward the lumbering mass of Sacrifice in the distance. The closer they came, the larger the mountain seemed — more like a vast wall that stretched across the horizon than a single mountain.
Kaleesh considered it for a moment, then shook his head. "I will not risk having you away from the army. If trouble finds us, we need you here. The scouting parties should discover any dangers our path still holds."
Arran gave an uncomfortable nod in response. He understood the captain's concern, of course. If the army was attacked, even the mere moments it would take him to return could prove disastrous. And with Sacrifice this close ahead, any enemies they encountered were more likely to come from the flanks or rear than from the front.
But although he knew Kaleesh was right, he could not help but feel some unease at trusting others with his safety. Accustomed as he was to relying only on himself, putting that much faith in others was a difficult thing.
A knowing look appeared in Kaleesh's eyes when he saw Arran's troubled expression. "You can't do everything yourself," he stated. "Not with use leading an entire army. That's true for anyone — even you."
"I'm more than happy to let you handle the supplies and provisions," Arran replied. He frowned slightly, then added, "Though perhaps next time, I should be the one recruiting the cooks."
Kaleesh rolled his eyes. "I'd like to see you do better with only a single night's notice."
"Don't see how I could do any worse," Arran replied with a shrug.
They set off again some moments later, the soldiers quickly forming up behind them as they departed. Though it took some time to get the entire army back on the road — an unavoidable consequence of having well over three thousand troops — Arran could see that just the week of travel had helped improve the soldiers' coordination.
Perhaps the former prisoners couldn't quite match the well-trained troops that the Darian lordlings commanded, but with each passing day, they seemed to draw a little closer to that target. Another few weeks of training in Sacrifice, and they might actually begin to resemble a real army instead of an overly large band of brigands.
After the encounter with Garvan, the day produced no further surprises. The Wolfsblood Army progressed toward Sacrifice steadily, with the scouting parties finding sign of neither Darians or Blightspawn.
Still, Kaleesh pushed them hard in marching, traveling at the highest pace the carts could maintain and only ordering the army to make camp when the light grew too dim to continue.
After another unpleasant meal, Arran sat with Kaleesh and a handful of Rangers at one of the campfires as they discussed the next day's journey — the final one before they reached their destination.
"I don't see us meeting any more trouble." Barric took a swig of lukewarm ale and frowned in disappointment, then continued, "After today, only a fool would dare attack us."
"I don't expect us to find enemies before we reach Sacrifice," Kaleesh agreed. "But," he continued with a glance at Arran, "once we arrive, I imagine we'll face problems of a different sort."
"I suppose the untimely demise of a Knight will not go unnoticed." Arran smiled wryly. Although he'd known his actions would have consequences, he now wondered just what shape those consequences would take.
"Garvan's the one who challenged you," Barric said. He paused to drain his mug of ale, the taste of it bringing a brief grimace to his face. Then, he went on, "Nobody can blame you for that poor bastard's death."
"It might not be a matter of blame," Ifras said. The young Ranger looked around uncomfortably, almost as if he was surprised at himself for speaking up, but he continued nonetheless. "A Ranger who defeats a Knight is bound to draw the church's attention, especially if that Ranger only just gained the title."
"My thoughts exactly." Kaleesh gave the Ranger an approving nod before turning back to Arran. "The church will want to talk to you when we arrive. Though they have no cause to do more than talk, I would suggest you be careful. There's no telling what their intentions are. And if they insist you return the dagger…"
"Then I will return the damn thing," Arran said. "I defeated a Knight, but I'm not fool enough to think I can take on the church."
"Good," Kaleesh said, a hint of relief in his eyes. From his expression, it almost seemed like he'd feared that Arran might try resisting the church.
They spent the next hour going over their plans in Sacrifice, but the discussion yielded little of value. None of the Rangers had any experience leading an army of this size into the Desolation, and few had any idea about how either the church or the other armies would react to their presence.
Arran only listened with half an ear as Kaleesh and the Rangers spoke. Instead, his attention was on the camp and the soldiers, and it wasn't long before he began to notice a peculiar change among the troops.
During the previous days of the journey, he'd had a hard time getting more than a few moments of quiet, with soldiers constantly approaching him to ask whether he could join in their practice.
But this evening, no such invitations came. Although he found soldiers staring at him more than once, they only did so from a distance, hurrying off when he returned their looks.
When he mentioned this to Kaleesh, the captain gave a shrug in response. "It's to be expected," he said. "The gap between you and them has grown too large. Having witnessed you slay a Knight, the troops consider you one as well — in truth if not in name. And few common soldiers would dare ask a Knight to join them in practice."
Before Arran could respond, Barric rose to his feet. A wide grin on his face, the giant Ranger grabbed the hilt of his sword, then said loudly, "The troops might not dare demand your attention, but I want to see just how you killed that bastard. Care to instruct me?"
Arran accepted the invitation happily, glad for the diversion. Important though the Imperium's politics might be, he much preferred the simplicity of swordplay.
As they set to sparring, it wasn't long before other Rangers and soldiers joined in. Perhaps the soldiers no longer dared to invite Arran themselves, but they clearly had no such qualms about joining in when he was already practicing with others.
Their practice lasted well into the night, and although the soldiers initially faced Arran somewhat uncertainly, apprehension soon gave way to the focus of sparring. On the training field, at least, there was little room for fawning and flattery.
The next day, the army broke camp before dawn. Kaleesh appeared to have no intention of wasting even a single moment of daylight, and with the towering shape of Sacrifice looming ever-closer and ever-larger, there were few in the army who disagreed with him.
They made good progress through the morning, the long column of soldiers finding no obstacles in its way along the winding road through the densely forested landscape. Yet although the landscape was pleasant, few of the soldiers had eyes for anything but the looming shape of Sacrifice.
This was true for Arran, as well. Though much of his attention was taken up by his Sense, his eyes barely left the mighty mountain that now stood only a few hours' travel away.
He had thought the mountain unnatural even when he first laid eyes on it, but as they gradually drew closer, he began to see just how strange it truly was.
The lower part of the mountainside was so steep that it resembled a vast wall more than any natural structure, with its dark rock smooth enough that it almost appeared to be shaped by human hands.
Yet if it resembled a wall in shape, its size was undeniably that of a mountain. Just the smooth lower part was nearly a mile high, and above that followed another mile of sharp, jagged rocks that jutted from the mountainside like thorny spikes.
If Knight's Watch was like a fortress built to withstand endless armies of Blightspawn, then this was like a fortress created to break the assault of gods and titans.
Warlocks might have the power of Archmages — outside the Desolation, at least — but Arran did not think even they had the strength to damage this towering mass of rock. It was too tall to scale with ropes or ladders, too steep to climb without those, and massive enough to weather even the strongest magic.
But for all its might, there was one thing about it that Arran did not understand.
He turned to Arjun, who walked beside him near the head of the column. "Sacrifice — the city, I mean — it stands atop the mountain, right?"
The Ranger gave him a curious look, as if he was surprised at the question. "It's more than just a city," he explained. "Although the basin atop the mountain holds a city and several towns, it also has many miles of farmlands and villages. Crossing from one side to the other takes a good four days of travel."
Though Arran had not known this, he needed only a single glance at the mountain to realize it must be true. He'd guessed the mountain was over a hundred miles across, and steep as it was, the basin that lay at its top should not be much smaller.
But that wasn't what had drawn Arran's curiosity. Rather, he was concerned with a more practical matter.
"A small kingdom, then," he said with a shrug. "But if it lies atop the mountain… how do we actually get there?"
He'd already considered the question for some time, and he had yet to find an answer. The mountainside was clearly too steep to climb, but he had seen no signs of paths or passes, either. Instead, there was just the smooth rock face, unbroken wherever he looked.
"Tunnels," Arjun replied. "At the foot of the mountain stand four fortresses, to the east, west, north, and south. Each of them guards a tunnel that leads up through the mountain and into the basin."
"Tunnels?" Arran raised an eyebrow. "If there are tunnels leading up through the mountain, doesn't that mean that the Blightspawn have to overrun just one of the fortresses for the whole of Sacrifice to fall?"
Defenses were only as strong as their weakest point, after all. If Sacrifice had tunnels running up through the mountain, then the mountain's sheer cliffs were of little consequence. Any attacker would surely focus on the tunnels, instead.
Yet even as he thought this, he realized it would not be that simple. The Imperium certainly would not have overlooked so obvious a problem, which meant there had to be another explanation.
Arjun chuckled. "You'll get your answer soon enough," he said, amusement clear in his voice. "The tunnels aren't easily taken."
Arran gave him a sideways glance, but decided against asking pressing the matter. As the Ranger had said, he would see the truth soon enough.
The morning's journey was smooth, and although Arran Sensed several patrols along the way, none of them paid the Wolfsblood Army much attention. He surmised that these were patrols from Sacrifice, hunting for any Blightspawn who might have entered the region — and doing a good job of it, too, as Arran had yet to Sense any of the creatures.
For most of the morning, the road led them through dense woods, with only the occasional clearing along the road for passing armies to rest or camp.
Yet just after midday, the woods suddenly cleared, making way for open grasslands that stretched all the way to the foot of the mountain, where a large walled fortress stood pressed against the steep mountainside.
Arran recognized at once that these grasslands were not the work of nature. Rather, every tree and shrub for several miles around had been painstakingly cut down, creating an open field of view that made it impossible to approach the fortress unseen.
"They're thorough, I'll admit that much," Kaleesh remarked, apparently having the same thought as Arran. "Between this and the patrols in the woods, I doubt even a single attacker could get close without being noticed."
Arran nodded in agreement, though he could not help but think that a single attacker might be all that was needed to take the fortress.
Formidable as it looked, with hundred-foot walls and hulking towers, mere walls were a poor defense against magic. And if the Desolation held Blightspawn stronger than Warlocks, they might consider the fortress little more than a nuisance — even with their magic suppressed.
Yet the fortress still stood, and from that, Arran guessed that its defenses included more than just walls.
The soldiers moved across the grasslands at a rapid pace, any weariness they felt all but forgotten now that their destination was in sight. And barely an hour later, the Wolfsblood Army came to a halt before the fortress's massive steel gates, which currently stood closed.
By now, Arran already had some idea of what defended these gates, as he'd Sensed no less than four Living Shadow swords within the fortress. Lords, then, and enough of them to effortlessly break most armies. And further into the fortress, he Sensed what appeared to a vast mass of starmetal.
One of the Lords stood atop the walls beside the gate, dispassionately regarding the Wolfsblood Army as they approached. He was a handsome man, clad in a simple white uniform that Arran could Sense hid an elaborate suit of starmetal armor.
As the army came to a standstill, the man called out, "State your name and your purpose for coming here." There was barely veiled contempt in his voice, as if the Wolfsblood Army's very presence offended him.
Kaleesh ignored this, and offered the man a polite bow. "Greetings, Lord Paladin," he replied, his tone friendly enough that it almost seemed to mock the cold welcome they'd received. "My name is Kaleesh, and these are my troops. We have come to seek shelter in Sacrifice, to prepare ourselves for facing the Blight in defense of the Imperium."
Understanding dawned in Arran's eyes. The man was a Paladin, then, rather than a Lord — even if he carried a Lord's weapon.
The Paladin did not respond to Kaleesh's words. Instead, he looked to his side and shouted to some unseen soldiers, "Open the gate!" Without giving either Kaleesh or the army another look, he turned around and disappeared behind the wall.
The gate swung open some moments later, revealing what looked to be a small town behind it. Yet even as Arran and the others prepared to move forward, the Paladin emerged from the gate, and he immediately moved toward Arran.
"You are the one who killed the Knight."
It was a statement rather than a question, but Arran gave a nod in response. "That I am."
"Once you enter Sacrifice, you will seek out Archon Roshan at the Sanctum, and you will do so without delay."
Without waiting for a response, the Paladin turned around and headed back through the gate, leaving Arran behind with a puzzled look in his eyes.
"Friendly fellow, that," Kaleesh said, a bemused expression on his face. "As far as Paladins go."
"Are they all like that?" Arran asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Certainly not," the captain replied. "Most are nowhere near as amiable." Though he spoke in a casual tone, his expression suggested that the words were not just mere jest.
Arran remained silent for a moment, then shrugged. As curt as the Paladin had been, the man had not tried to attack or capture him. If nothing else, that had to be a good sign. "So what's this Sanctum I'm supposed to visit?"
"The Sanctum is the church's enclave at the heart of Sacrifice," Kaleesh said. "A den of priests, Paladins, and Archons, where the church weaves threads of intrigue around all who enter, and where even the whisper of blasphemy means certain death."
The words elicited a barking laugh from Barric and uneasy smiles from several of the Rangers, but Kaleesh merely shrugged before continuing, "Or so I've heard."
"Sounds pleasant," Arran said. "I don't suppose I can reject the Archon's invitation?"
"The Sanctum also happens to be where the church keeps its bloodlines," Kaleesh said. "So there's no avoiding it. But we've wasted enough time. We should move on before they decide to close the gates on us."
At a gesture from the captain, the army set to moving once more, the long column of soldiers slowly making its way through the gates and into the fortress.
Behind the tall walls, Arran found that the fortress looked much the same as the Darian strongholds he'd seen before, albeit with far more soldiers and priests filling its ample grounds.
Few of the Darians paid the Wolfsblood Army much attention, however, and what little attention they got came mostly in the form of contemptuous looks. Clearly, the locals were well-used to seeing armies pass through the fortress.
But Arran barely even noticed this, as his eyes were immediately drawn to the far side of the fortress, where he could see a large rectangular entryway cut into the dark stone of the mountain.
Fifty feet wide and nearly as high, it was lined with intricate carvings made to resemble walls and pillars, as if it was the face of an ancient temple rather than a passage into the mountain. Guarding the entrance stood over a hundred white-clad soldiers, led by another Paladin.
Yet what caught Arran's eyes weren't the carvings or the soldiers, but the opened gate that stood beyond the entry.
He looked at it in astonishment, briefly uncertain whether his eyes and Sense were deceiving him. Finally, some shock in his voice, he said, "The gate is made from starmetal."
Though Arran's void ring held a vast amount of starmetal, the massive gate looked like it held nearly as much. There should be enough of the metal to equip a small army with weapons and armor, but instead, it had all been used to construct a single formidable gate.
Finally, he understood Arjun's earlier words. Even if the fortress was overrun by enemies, it would slow the attack enough that the gate could be closed. And once that happened, it should take even an Archmage months to get past the barrier — enough time to bolster any further defenses, or perhaps even collapse the tunnels that lay behind the gate.
"The rock is said to be nearly as tough as starmetal," Arjun noted, a satisfied look on his face as he glanced at Arran. "If an attacker tried to dig his way around the gate, it would still take years."
Arran nodded silently, though he knew the Ranger's words weren't exactly true. Even if the rock truly was as tough as starmetal, an attacker with a Living Shadow weapon would not need years to break through.
His thoughts were interrupted by Kaleesh's voice. "Unless any of you knows of a way for us to take that gate," the captain said, "there's little point in staring at it. Now, let's move forward. Sacrifice awaits."