Trouble on the Peak

Five leaves ginseng, two petals lotus, and one petal nevia – muddle with care until aroma strengthens, ensuring the leaves remain partially intact. Measure three parts water to one part milk – only the floral Duldrusian variety for this trial. Imbue with pure mana and stir well – always mixing clockwise. Affix the proper label – Specimen 05826 – and notate accordingly in the trial log for specimens in the "Magic Resistance" category. So far, so good.

But this time, he would also make sure to write it down on the correct row – and thus avoid a mistake that he made all too often under the dim torchlight of the underground apotheca. One such mistake, and the entire piece of parchment would need to be tossed. Which, while frustrating, was a small price to pay for superior results: for it was exactly this dim sort of lighting in which the cleric worked best. Perhaps it was something about the way the light, or lack thereof, ensured that his focus would remain solely on the work in front of him: anything else to the side of his desk would be out of sight and out of mind. Or perhaps it was just the way the dancing torchlight played on the colors of all the potions, as they lay stacked neatly atop shelf after shelf, row after row, creating all manner of fascinating shadows and patterns and tricks of the eye (one needed to keep the imagination running, after all). Or perhaps it was even something about how that one particular shadow looked quite like the shape of a man standing right behind him, one who was beginning to move toward him with alarming realism—

Immediately Lans spun around, reaching for his dagger – and then the shadow spoke.

"Helloooo!"

"Oh." Lans froze. It was Ryen. "Oh yes of course. Come in, come in."

But the wizard had already trotted all the way in, and was now squeezing Lans's shoulder blades with vigorous energy. "Wow, it's been so long, huh?" Suddenly Ryen stopped, and squinting hard, looked the cleric up and down. "You changed your hair! And those black leathers you've got there, are those new? Man, we are looking gooood!"

"Heh. Never you mind about that." Lans peeled himself out of his chair, still shaking with adrenaline. "But yes, welcome back, and congratulations on scaring me half to death there. I guess this means you found my summons?"

"Oh, you goon." Ryen ambled over to the nearest shelving unit and started inspecting a bottle of poison. "You know I can't resist an invite!"

"Of course." Lans moved a step closer to the wizard, half expecting him to accidentally knock over a bottle. "And yet," the cleric went on, "somehow I'm not at all surprised you took your sweet time in accepting this invitation in particular."

With a faint and silent smile, the wizard danced over to the other side of the chamber, stopping right in front of the specially marked preservation case in which Lans had very intentionally placed a single bottle – a bottle that contained liquid of a certain swirling, multicolored hue, and which emitted a faint, otherworldly glow casting the entire room in shades of sea-green and turquoise.

"Oo!" said Ryen as he pressed his hand against the glass. "What's this one?"

"Careful with that!" Lans dashed over and pulled back on the wizard's arm. "Don't you recognize it?"

"Uhhh...nope."

"It's the Elixir of Zimm, you simpleton. Our only specimen. And if I what I've heard about your poison bottle dumping incident in Marali is even the slightest bit true, then you aren't allowed within ten feet of it. No exceptions."

Ryen threw his hands up. "Okay, okay, ya caught me! So I got a teeny bit overexcited up there—"

"Uh-huh."

"—and maybe it wasn't the best idea looking back, but I'm telling ya, the Maralians weren't gonna do a damn thing about those ants, and it's all thanks to those bloody climatologists!"

"You mean myrmecologists."

"That's what I said." The wizard sighed with abandon. "Okay, look man, I get that it was out of line, I do – if you think I need to go back up there and apologize, I'll do it. But to tell you the truth, I'd say I did them all a real big favor, and you can quote me on that." He emphasized this last point by poking a finger squarely into Lans's chest, before turning his attention back to the shelves. "Hell, they'd probably even thank me if they didn't have those musicologists breathing down their necks."

"You mean—ah." Lans took a deep, controlled breath. "Well, my friend, I don't necessarily... disagree with you. The ant question was most vexing. But let's think about it from an organizational standpoint. If we want to continue to succeed, then we'd need to make absolutely sure that we aren't getting tripped up in any diplomatic scandals, wouldn't you agree?"

"Of course!"

"Good – and defying a direct order from an armsman isn't exactly the best way to avoid scandals, wouldn't you say?"

"That I would."

"Good, good. I've worked much too hard for this organization to see it fall to something so silly."

"Totally – and we appreciate it so, so much!

"You're welcome. And...bah. I don't know how you do it, but it's impossible to stay mad at you – which is saying quite a bit of course. Truly, my friend, you used to annoy the hell out of me!"

"Oho! I see how it is now." The wizard grinned. "You wait 'til now to show your true colors. Well, say no more! Mmhmmmm. Y'know, I think I'll just get going to Marali tonight, so poor old Lans doesn't get annoyed, huh? How's that sound for—?"

"No no no, that won't be necessary! As a matter of fact we need you back here, in Duldrus. The valleys and mountains have gone unpatrolled for too long, especially in light of recent events, and there are few people here who can wrangle up the gapers quite as well as you."

"Aww, shucks."

"And what's more – I'll only offer this once, so listen up! – you take this reassignment, and we'll forget about the whole mishap. It shall be stricken from the records."

"Stricken, huh? And Duldrus? Well, it's been a while, and the lack of decent shopping will be an issue... but I accept! And actually, this'll be a great way to spend some more time with you and Amayza! This is gonna be great!"

"I can barely contain my excitement."

Just then, a dull thud was heard from upstairs, followed by the unmistakable chittering of the guard spiders. The two mages exchanged hurried glances before bolting toward the staircase. Lans was quickly outpaced by the more agile wizard – sitting in a desk all day had never been good for his constitution, after all. Still, he managed to reach the great hall just in time to see Yang snatching up a chair with his sinewy forelegs and flinging it across the floor. It landed on the opposite wall, crashing into another, already-overturned chair. The cleric took a quick glance around the room, and not seeing any immediate signs of trouble, marched right up to the angered spider.

"Yang, that's enough!" Lans gave the creature his most disapproving look, but without any noticeable effect on Yang's temperament – if only that look worked as well on spiders as it did on humans! Then, Lans suddenly noticed the light pitter-patter of footsteps coming from behind, and he spun around to see Yin, pacing quietly but furiously at the foot of the garden door.

"Bloody hell," said Ryen. "They're trying to tell us something."

"Yes..." said Lans. "Now if only we had a druid here to translate. Or... maybe not! I've seen something like this before – I'll bet that there is something amiss on the mountain. They always get antsy when trouble is brewing up there."

"Then let's roll!"

And with that, the wizard darted outside, leaving Lans with no choice but to follow.

"And as for you two...", he yelled back to the spiders as he reached for his reagent pouch, "Behave!"

The mages ran and ran, turning the corner around the fortifications, and within moments they had arrived at the mouth of the valley. As expected, a cluster of bracken awaited them. Immediately Ryen set them all ablaze, keeping a safe distance while the gnarled branches crackled and seethed.

"So much better than pixies," said the wizard. "I won't miss that part of Andris, that's for darn sure."

"Yes..." Lans stooped down to catch his breath. "How...was that...by the way?"

"Fun! And terrifying. I was with Rivv, and also Matthias, and oh yeah! There was some new, wide-eyed cleric from Brigobaen, off on her first mission outside the old temple, Adla Tholan I think it was. She was great."

"Tholan...? Oh, you mean Adla Thera!"

"That's it!"

"Hmmmmm." Lans was shaken back to attention as a low, painful moan announced the arrival of a sludge beast. One crack of lightning – two – and the thing was already trying to ooze away in the other direction, until a burning branch fell from the thicket above, charring the beast into oblivion. Lans glanced about and, once he was satisfied that there were no other creatures approaching, turned back toward the other, who had already closed his eyes in meditation. "Ryen, my friend, I hate to break it to you, but Adla's not new. Not by a long shot. We have records placing her in all sorts of other locations from all the way back to 439. You must be mistaken."

The wizard's eyes shot open. "Uhhh, no, she definitely told us it was her first time outside."

"Huh. How odd." Lans made a mental note to bring that up with Jedd some other time, before waving the thought away as the last of the bracken crumpled into ashes. "Onward, friend."

The wizard nodded assent, and once again they were off, though this time even Ryen seemed to be struggling as the path continued to grow steeper and steeper. They followed it wordlessly through all the winding twists and turns, as the frozen wind began to howl with fury, and the tundra grass became flecked with patches of snow. At last, they were nearing the corner before the wide open grassy meadow, which would surely serve as their stopping point. But just before they were about to stumble around the bend, Lans reached out and tugged back on Ryen's shoulder. Out of breath, all the cleric could do was point. There, up ahead under a thick blanket of fog, was what appeared to be a campsite surrounded by bracken, dracos, and all manner of fell beasts.

"This...", he panted, "is...beyond us."

"Y'know...", said Ryen, "for once...I agree!"

"We must hurry down... also, I will require... your messenger bat."

––––––––

(Day 33 of the Sleeping Moon, Year 449)
(Continuing events are described in News Flash, Page 2 (2nd post).)

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