Paragon Of Destruction 147 The Dragon's Proposal

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"What do I have to do?" Stoneheart asked, his eyes s.h.i.+ning with eagerness at the chance to redeem himself.

Arran did not share the tall novice's enthusiasm. Although he was still anxious to regain his strength, the benefits of the Tempering made his need less pressing, and he still remembered that Snowcloud had told him Elder Naran might try to entice him to ally himself with the Soaring Sun.

Elder Naran glanced at Arran, seemingly waiting for the same kind of response Stoneheart had shown. When it didn't come, he eventually sc.r.a.ped his throat, then spoke.

"Some weeks ago, the two of you faced an army of Body Refiners. That army still exists. Although they lost many of their numbers to the fire, and more to the adepts I sent to drive them off, thousands still remain, and their leader still lives."

He paused briefly, then added, "I am offering you a chance to correct that."

"You want us to lead an army to defeat them?" There was a hint of excitement in Stoneheart's voice as he spoke.

"No," Elder Naran said. "I want the two of you to defeat them."

Stoneheart's eyes went wide with shock. "You want us to fight an entire army?!" For a moment, he was silent, appearing at a loss for words. When he finally spoke again, his tone was one of resignation. "If you give the command, we will do as you say, but…"

He didn't finish the sentence, but his expression made it clear that he thought it was a mission they would not survive.

"He doesn't want you to fight the army," Arran said flatly. "He intends for me to kill the army, and for you to kill its leader."

Although Elder Naran hadn't said it outright, it was easy enough to understand the man's plan. With the Blood magic, every enemy Arran killed would fuel his strength, and against an entire army of weak Body Refiners, he would have a near-unlimited fount of power to draw upon.

Most of that power would dissipate within hours after the battle, but even then, the permanent strength he would gain should easily make up for whatever he had lost to the Tempering.

Stoneheart gave Arran a worried look. "Can you do it? I mean, even with Blood magic… it's an entire army."

Arran scrunched his brow in thought, then nodded. "I think so."

Mad though the idea sounded, he knew it should be possible. As long as he managed to control the bloodl.u.s.t, their enemies' numbers would be a weakness rather than a strength.

Still, the plan wasn't without danger. If Stoneheart failed to defeat the mage who led the army, Arran doubted mere strength would save him from being taken down by magic attacks. And if he failed to control the bloodl.u.s.t, the result would obviously be disastrous.

"What strategy you choose is between the two of you," Elder Naran interrupted them. "I'm offering you the task because I believe you can handle it. If you accept, the rest is up to you."

"I accept," Stoneheart replied immediately. Clearly, he was desperate for a chance to reclaim his honor, even if he believed it could cost him his life.

Arran, on the other hand, wasn't convinced as easily. Although he wanted the strength the battle would give him, he had little desire to get caught up in the Valley's factional warfare, and even less to be bound to any one of the factions.

"The army," he asked with a thought. "Are they allied with any of the other factions? The Waning Moon or the Iron Mountain?"

"Not that I know of," Elder Naran replied. Casting a knowing glance at Arran, he added, "And even if they were, n.o.body could blame you for killing an army that's been hunting novices."

Despite the words, Arran remained doubtful. He was well aware of how little he understood of the Valley's factions, and if Elder Naran intended to deceive him, it would be easy to do so.

"I'll need to discuss it with Snowcloud," he said. He expected the Elder to object, which would give him a good reason to refuse the offer.

To his surprise, however, the man merely nodded in agreement.

"Of course," Elder Naran said. "But remember that she is not allowed to join in this task. My nephew must earn back my trust, and he cannot do so if others do his work for him."

"I won't fail you," Stoneheart said, voice soft but determined.

Elder Naran paused briefly, then said, "I expect you not to." Next, he turned to Arran. "Let me know your decision in the morning."

They left the Elder's quarters shortly after, but almost as soon as they were in the hallway, Stoneheart stopped Arran, his expression concerned.

"What will you do if Snowcloud tells you not to go?" he asked.

"Then I won't go," Arran answered honestly. If Snowcloud thought that attacking the army would bind him to the Soaring Sun, then he would not do it. He had enough enemies as it was, and he had no interest in adding two of the most powerful factions in the Sixth Valley to the list.

It clearly wasn't the answer Stoneheart was hoping for, and the tall novice sighed deeply. "If you don't go, I'll have to go by myself."

"Don't be an idiot," Arran replied, slightly annoyed at the novice's dramatics. "You'd just get yourself killed, and no honor is worth your life."

"You don't understand," Stoneheart began, his expression troubled.

Arran interrupted him before he could continue. "I do understand. Back in the Valley, you were a scion of one of the most powerful families, respected and feared by the other novices. And now that your fortunes have changed, you think it's the end of the world."

Stoneheart shook his head. "This isn't about my pride. In the Society, your standing decides what resources and training you get. If I don't redeem myself, I will fall behind the others, and the further I fall behind, the harder it will be to survive the Society's tests and challenges."

For some seconds, Arran was silent, realizing that he had underestimated Stoneheart. He had thought the tall novice was only concerned with honor and pride, but now, it seemed he was fighting his own battle for survival — one that Arran knew little about.

"It's still a dumb idea to throw away your life," he finally said, though his tone was milder than before. "All the training and resources in the world can't help you if you're dead."

"You're right," Stoneheart replied, "and I know I can't go up against an army by myself. But I need to find some way to redeem myself, or things will only get worse."

"But what about your family?" Arran asked. "Won't they help you?"

Stoneheart laughed cheerlessly. "My family cares about strength, and little else. Blood is worthless if you lack the power to defend the Society and the Valley. Right now, my uncle probably values you more than me."

Arran frowned. "But I'm not even part of the Soaring Sun."

"It doesn't matter," Stoneheart replied. "The Soaring Sun seeks to strengthen the Society, not itself. That's what separates us from the other two factions: they fight for their own power, while we fight for the Society."

Although Stoneheart spoke the words with conviction, Arran doubted the members of the other factions would see things the same way. But then, he could hardly expect Stoneheart to be impartial.

"Either way," Arran said after a moment's thought, "I will speak to Snowcloud before I decide whether I will accept Elder Naran's task."

Stoneheart nodded reluctantly. "I hope to see you in the morning, then."

Arran said his goodbyes to Stoneheart, then hurried to Snowcloud's quarters. There was much to discuss, and they had little time.

He knocked on her door several times without an answer, and he was about to go check the alchemists' quarters when the door finally opened. Behind it stood Snowcloud, her eyes half-shut and her hair tousled.

She gave Arran a confused look. "It's the middle of the night. Why are you here?"

"Elder Naran wants me to fight an army."

Paragon Of Destruction 147 The Dragon's Proposal

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Paragon Of Destruction 147 The Dragon's Proposal summary

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