The morning was relatively uneventful as they broke down camp. Kuzari was used to the sudden transition at this point and would often wake up early to cycle more shadow mana from the night sky before daybreak. He still didn't comprehend how it happened, one moment the moon would be in the sky, and the next moment, the sun was there. It almost felt as if time just skipped forward, but there wasn't any evidence that this was the case.
Kuzari put the thought behind him as they began their hunt anew for the day. If they didn't find the shaman today, there wouldn't be any time left to search before they had to head back to the city. Magni did not tolerate tardiness.
The patrols they encountered started to increase to a disturbing degree. There was an uncomfortable feeling of organization going on that was on a grander scale than usual. Odai speculated that there could be more than one shaman working in unison which was virtually unheard.
They eventually had to start hiding from patrols to conserve power. With this many Mas'Quin traveling it seemed unlikely that any of the shaman caste would be with mere patrol routes.
For several hours they weaved their way through the dunes, heading deeper into the lizard's territory. They stopped when Adara sent a pulse and was shocked a the response.
"I, I can't see them all." She stuttered with a trace of fear.
"What do you mean?" Odai asked, feeling alarmed.
"There's too many. A couple of miles down the way. I'm getting dozens and dozens of responses, more than I'm capable of picking up."
"This is bad, very bad. It must be a settlement."
Kuzari was feeling worried. The two apprentices were far stronger than he was if they were panicking, then things had to be bad.
"What do we do then?" He asked, nervous about the response.
"What can we do? We don't have the firepower to deal with these numbers," said Odai.
Adara cast her eyes down. As much as she wanted to be able to help Kuzari, she didn't have a plan either.
"But the crystals, I need them!"
"Look, I understand, but if we go in there we are all dead," said Odai.
"And if I don't get that head I'm also dead. I can't go back to the city without it. What are you about to hand me the amount I need?"
Odai sucked wind through his teeth; the air was tense as his refusal went unspoken.
"I'm going in whether you all are coming or not."
"That's suicide!" Adara spoke up, alarmed.
Kuzari faced Adara, and his expression was grim.
"Teach me the detection trick you use."
"Teach me how you're detecting the monsters. We wait till its dark, and I'll go in. I just need to find a single shaman for the job, right? I'll cut its throat while it sleeps and drag it back before they know what hit them. That gives us just enough time to make it back. "
Both apprentices eyes widened in shock as it seemed too crazy to work. Kuzari sensed their apprehension and elaborated.
"Look, in my world, I was an infiltrator, to begin with. Here I have shadow magic, Ill blend in with the darkness and be stealthier. With the detection technique, I can evade guard patrols easily, and with the storage device you have, I can stuff the body inside and leave. As far as the lizards would be concerned, the shaman would have just vanished." Kuzari glossed over that his escapades in physically breaking into places to steal data were rare and relied more on deception and fitting in than actual stealth, tricks that wouldn't work on lizard monsters.
Odai had to admit there was some merit to the audacity of the plan.
"They may be primitive, but with numbers this large it should be a settlement. Tents and camps would provide opportunities for cover. A shaman would destroy you in a straight fight, but if you can find one first, there's a chance."
"No no, it's too crazy. You can't learn the detection spell in a matter of a few hours." Adara said.
Kuzari shrugged in response, "Why not? I learned minor telekinetic pull in a couple of hours."
Adara stared at him intensely. She had no words to describe how ludicrous that sounded. She would have called him a liar if he didn't seem so sincere about the claim. After a few minutes of deliberation, she sighed and gave in.
"Okay, I'll teach you. But if you don't learn it by nightfall you're not going in, we will think of something else."
Kuzari smiled in response, and the two began to work.
Kuzari didn't understand why Adara thought learning the spell would be so difficult. The principal was pretty simple; it used glyphs to pulse a wave of neutral mana through the air, which would rebound off the energies of life forms that the mage could then pick up and process. It was very similar to echolocation. All the difficulty in the spell was interpreting the response, much of the spell's heavy lifting was in glyphs that sorted the feedback and gave the user the information they could pick up from their internal awareness.
Really Kuzari though much of the spell was unnecessary. Why not just process the response directly? He wasn't sure, and Adara just shook her head when he asked. The far more fascinating aspect of the spell was the new glyph structures involved. Entire series of glyphs dedicated to calculations for him? With the amount of math required in more complicated spells, that aspect seemed abusable. It was information he filed away for later. He was itching to start modifying the detection spell, but doing so right before a high-pressure mission on a brand new spell would have been reckless.
He was worried about the initial pulse of mana, remembering how he could feel it with his core before he even properly learned how to use magic. Adara assured him that a creature would need a core to sense it and also most monsters didn't have one.
"What about these shamans? They sound like magic users to me," he asked.
She shuffled her feet a bit and seemed uncomfortable.
"Well...yes they do have magic, but these at least don't have cores."
The news was startling.
"I thought cores were a requirement for magic?"
"For humans, it is. The entire purpose of a core is to filter and store mana. Most magical monsters don't need to do this, their bodies filtering mana automatically." said Adara.
Odai nodded his head, "Don't get it wrong, there are definitely monsters out there with cores, and some that can detect the mana pulse without one so be careful. Fortunately, Mas'Quin are not one of these creatures."
"Huh, so cores are more to level the playing field than anything else." Said Kuzari.
"Correct. Though there are rumors that Magni doesn't need a core for magic despite that not being a known property of Ifrits." Odai stared at Adara as he said this. Kuzari felt there was some subtext in his words directed at Adara, but she feigned ignorance on the matter.
Kuzari took the pause of silence as an opportunity to attempt the spell. He built the spell construct around his navel meridian and channeled the necessary mana. He felt the pop of mana as it pulsed out and within a few seconds, his awareness lit up with sparks of various lifeforms. He could feel the presence of the nearby apprentices, and distantly he could feel an overwhelming concentration of bright flashes.
He smiled and opened his eyes.
"I got it." He announced confidently.
Both Odai and Adara shook their heads in surprise. It felt hard for them to accept how quickly he took to the spell. They didn't know if it was some weird talent of his or some property of Contractors. Kuzari just thought it was less annoying math than other spells and besides, interacting with information was his daily activity back home.
The spell sufficiently mastered, they agreed to meet up there later once the deed was done. If he wasn't back by morning, they would leave without him and report back. Adara handed him a spare storage star to use. He quietly hoped he wouldn't have to return it after the mission; it was a useful item.
He then set out for the monster's camp.
Kuzari took his time reaching the camp dodging patrols with the aid of his new spell. By the time he approached, night had already fallen. Thin shadow circulated through his channels the grace empowering his stealth and muting his presence.
Curiously enough he saw another blue fox hoping around a dune right before the camp. The weird part was how it stared right at him before running off into the camp. Kuzari shook his head; the Mas'Quin would probably eat it or something if it got caught.
He peaked over, and his pulse quickened once he viewed the camp. It was more accurate to call it a village. Not just tents, but rough shacks were thrown up in a haphazard arrangement. Fires and smoke dotted the area, and he could smell cooking meat. The level of organization was rough but far beyond that of a 'primitive' monster race. He felt there was something more going on here but was more concerned about finding a shaman.
He darted forward seeing no lizards in the immediate area and hid in the shadows of a shack. He was wary about the acute sense of smell some lizards had. He didn't have a countermeasure for it, so he had to keep on the move in case they smelled him.
He slinked from shadow to shadow, being conscious of his noise, thankful for the sand muting his footsteps. The lizards seemed largely inactive at night likely being cold-blooded reptiles, but occasionally he spotted guards patrolling the streets. He tried not to think too much about the dark armor they wore and the implications that held.
Every five minutes, he sent a pulse and tried to move through the gaps between the sea of life forms, heading deeper into the village. He didn't have a way to tell a shaman apart from a typical specimen from the pulse alone, but he doubted they slept in the rough housings out here. Their social status would put them at the heart with more grandiose furnishings.
He got nervous the deeper he went in as the pings from his detection spell showed the groupings to be thicker and thicker.
Eventually, he found what he was looking for. Dead center of the town was a building that stood taller than the others as a large cube. More strangely it was built entirely out of stone. Two lizards stood guard in front of the entrance as light danced from within.
He knew it was too risky to approach from the front and started to slink his way around to back, casing the area.
The walls were too smooth and too tall to climb up although he did see windows towards the top. In the rear of the building, he did find a small crack in the base of the wall that looked like he could barely squeeze through. Kuzari peered inside, but couldn't see anything. Shadow affinity did give him a slightly better night eye, but he was far from being strong enough to see entirely in the dark. It was risky, but it was the only way he could see in. The Mas'Quin seemed not to be smart enough to cover or guard this back location. Gathering his nerves, Kuzari started to crawl through the crack.
He emerged into a room on the other side, but he could not make out the dimensions. He carefully felt around the floor, sticking close to the wall. He felt bits of stone and nearly bumped into a hard object. Poking around, it seemed to be some clay pot of sorts. He wasn't sure what was inside and soon found the room to be filled with them. He tread carefully to make sure he didn't bump into anything till he found a gap in the wall that felt like it lead to another room or corridor. He slowly crept through the entrance and felt relieved when he came across a window that offered a bit of moonlight to see by.
He indeed found himself in a hallway, but the strange part is the wall was painted with a mural. He didn't have enough light to make it out entirely, but it had crude images of massive winged beasts devouring what looked like people and creatures overrunning a city. Kuzari got the impression the mural was depicting some monster wave and wondered if this stone building was a weird religious building for the Mas'Quin.
He crept on down the hallway, checking for rooms. He found a few places branching off from the hallway, so he sent a pulse of mana looking for life. He found a few spread out through the building. He skipped a closed room with light peaking underneath that held several sparks inside and came to a room that had a single being inside. Kuzari elevated the shadow mana in his system to heighten the effects as she stepped inside, drawing a dagger.
A glint of moonlight showed a large lizard curled up on a bed of hay. While no doubt a Mas'Quin, the creature would have been a foot taller and much more massive than others of its species. Small spikes lined the top of its head and ran down its back. If it were not for the lack of wings, he could have seen himself mistaking it for a dragon. The creature was dressed an assortment of glass baubles and jewelry no doubt obtained from the raids on passing merchants.
The monster matched the description Odai gave him of a shaman, and Kuzari felt adrenaline rush through his system as he approached slowly. He hovered over the sleeping beast and stilled his breath, judging the right way to execute the thing swiftly and silently.
He didn't have long when the Mas'Quins eyes lazily fluttered open sensing something disturbing its sleep. Kuzari did not hesitate any longer and clamped down on its snout to stifle any screeching as he plunged the dagger into its throat. It tried to thrash about as blood gushed from its neck. Kuzari threw his body weight onto the struggling lizard, desperate to keep it still and it's noise minimal. He was worried the sound would attract attention and he wished it would just hurry up and die.
After what felt like an eternity, it came to a still as blood drenched Kuzari's hands and clothes. He quickly pulled out the star and almost fumbled it from the slick blood. He tapped it with a trickle of mana and then placed his hand on the corpse. He willed it inside. With a soft sucking noise, the body vanished.
Kuzari let out a small sigh of relief as he finished the deed. He gave himself a brief moment to collect himself before he headed out. He had the urge to scour the room for loot, but frankly, he did not have the time to risk getting caught.
He turned out to the hallway and took a left to head back to the room with clay jars.
He froze when he heard words spoken behind him.
"Who are you, and what are you doing here?"