“Chand,” said Vilimar, “a group of slaves managed to escape the slave camp. We don’t know how long they planned this in advance, but their plan worked because among them was a mage.”
“A mage?!” asked Chand in shock. “How did a mage end up among slaves working on the tower? I thought we killed all enemy magic-users as policy?”
Vilimar nodded grimly. “A mage, indeed. He was captured along with several other Midrythians a few months ago, and at the time it wasn’t known that he was a magic-user. He carried weapons, wore leather armor, like the others. He must have hidden his spell book near the area in which he was captured, because had he been found with it on him, he’d have been slain on the spot, as is our policy.”
Vilimar looked out over the desert to the northwest. “But he had nothing on him that indicated he was anything other than a normal soldier, part of yet another reconnaissance team sent to spy on our defenses. So he was taken, with the others, straight to the Kaphmus Tower slave camp to toil like the rest.”
Chand’s eyes were open wide. “So for three months—”
“A magic-user has been watching, observing closely what is going on here, even handling cut stones being prepped by our Blood Mages and placed in their homes in the tower,” finished Vilimar. “This means that he cannot leave Ulaphia alive. He can never tell the Midrythians what he knows… it would make all our work here for naught.
“I need you to take four of Salenda Athysh’s troops and find these slaves. As for the others, they can still be used by us, so either dead or alive is acceptable. But the mage…”
Chand nodded. “The mage will die where he stands. He’ll never see Kaphmus Tower again, nor his home. It will be done.”
Chand was briefed on the escape, and discovered that the magic-user had charmed a guard, and as his spell was still in effect, had a four day head start before anyone even knew that they had escaped. They had taken with them a number of weapons they had stolen in the process, and Vilimar surmised that they were heading northwest, deep into the Black Desert so as to escape notice and make an attempt at reaching the Wynn River, far to the north.
Since Sergeant Veskin was among the unit that had originally captured this group of slaves, she was able to show Chand and the others exactly where that had taken place. They all combed the undergrowth of the forest on the other side of the Ulaphian Wall and eventually found a backpack containing the human magic-user’s travelling spell book.
They spent a week scouring the desert northwest of Kaphmus Tower, trying to pick up their quarry’s trail, but found nothing. All the while, every night when they camped, Chand studied his opponent’s spells, trying to get a notion of what they might be facing.
And it didn’t look good. This mage was more powerful than Chand, and had a much broader grasp of spells than he did, and was clearly a very dangerous man. But more dangerous still was the possibility that this mage might escape their grasp, and take the secret of Ulaphia’s defenses back to their enemies.
Keeping this in mind, Chand tried to work this knowledge into his strategies as they searched the desert for their prey. But still they found nothing.
Until one morning as they went aloft at dawn after a particularly frigid desert night, they saw a wisp of smoke only a mile away from their camp.
“Sergeant Veskin,” Chand pointed out over the hills. “It looks like our human friends were cold enough in the night to make their first mistake.”
Veskin squinted and saw what Chand saw. “They made a fire last night. Now we have them.”
Chand sent Sulorand up to scout the Midrythians’ campsite and when she returned she had good news: they were all asleep, packed in tight around the smouldering remains of a weak campfire.
The Ulaphians approached the camp on foot and Chand blasted them awake with a Blood Missile, sending the others in to wade in with tridents, and Sulorand at his left with her heavy crossbow. The human mage rose upon Chand’s spell casting, and was struck in the chest with a crossbow bolt.
In the melee, two of the humans were slain almost immediately, but the other two engaged in combat with Emdar, who fought bravely and held them both back from Chand, who was at the moment unable to cast any further spells for lack of a sightline.
Suddenly the human mage created eight Mirror Images of himself, and the fight became interesting again. Sersh and Veskin ran towards them and started eliminating illusions one strike at a time.
Which was just what the mage had in mind. He struck Chand with a Blindness spell, and a minute later he struck Sersh with a Lightning Bolt in the chest, dropping him to the ground in agony, just as Sersh and Veskin approached within melee range of the human mage.
However, it was the last thing he ever did. Veskin struck him down where he stood, and Emdar finished his two opponents with ruthless efficiency.
Chand’s blindness was magical in nature, and didn’t diminish with the mage’s death, so he had to be carried back to Khaj-Mari. Sersh recovered from his grievous electrical wounds, and Vilimar was pleased to have been presented with the head of this mage as proof of their success in the desert, and he dispelled Chand’s blindness.
Chand then flew to Khaj-Mari for a week’s training and rest.