Mervyn wasn’t alone in the corner of the the dark tavern. He wanted to be, but circumstances had conspired against him.
“If you know the location of the treasure, and all of the traps that are guarding it, I’m not clear on what you need us for?” the dark haired girl sitting across from Mervyn said.
She was clad in the rough armor and robes of a traveling priestess. An experienced one, Mervyn guessed, based on the state of her gear. It was all in perfectly serviceable condition but the luster and polish had been smashed off it. That kind of wear took more than one battle to acquire from what Mervyn had observed. From her physique, Mervyn took the young woman for a spellcasting Priestess. She didn’t have the height or mass to go toe-to-toe with an ogre, but the cloak she wore bore all the marks of an Ogre Magi’s spell cloak and those weren’t given away or sold.
“There’s the monsters to consider too.” the man with the white hair sitting beside the girl said.
“Your friend Mr Pen has it exactly.” Mervyn said. This wasn’t the first time someone had pointed out his cowardice nor, he imagined, would it be the last. Mervyn took pride in the fact that his research had outstripped all of his colleagues decades ago. He took pride in his reputation as both a sage and an inventor. Mostly though, he took pride in the fact that he was old, a state he was certain he would not have reached had he not been wise enough, even as a youth, to pay others to venture into dank tombs and burrows filled with the horrors of bygone ages for him.
“I find it hard to believe with as many defensive spells as he has active, here, in a peaceful tavern, Mr Mervyn would encounter all that many difficulties with the creatures in the ruins.” the priestess said.
Mervyn had heard that argument before as well. It tended to precede negotiations for better rates for the contracts he and the adventurers agreed on.
“I am adverse to encountering any ‘difficulties’ of the kind you refer to Ms. Jin.” Mervyn said. “For young people like you, the quick path to fame and fortune has much to offer. For myself, there is little need for such heroics. I am what I am and no more.”
It was the best case he’d found to support the idea that the dungeon was safe enough for them to explore but too dangerous for him to risk. Often, the unstated appeal to the adventurers’ bravery was enough to close the negotiations. For all their cleverness, adventurers were similar to ornery cats. Difficult to work with and prone to fits of foolishness, but predictable and useful for someone who knew how to manage them.
“I see.” Jin said. Mervyn didn’t like how her eyes narrowed as she said that. He felt like he was under a magnifying glass and she had noticed all the faults that ran through him.
“So if we agree to explore these ruins, what sort of arrangements do you have in mind for the treasure we will find?” Pen asked.
Mervyn felt more comfortable speaking with the wizard, as he guessed Mr. Pen to be. The long white robes were common among adventuring academics. Not only could they be woven with as many spells as there were threads in the garment, but only someone with access to a wizard’s supply of petty magic was able to keep the troublesome clothes so pristine with all the mud, dirt and grime the typical adventurer waded through.
“My information comes at a cost. Ten thousand gold coins. Before you object that you don’t have that much gold, allow me to explain the standard contract I use.” Mervyn said, cutting off the inevitable protests which adventurers always raised.
“Payment for the information I provide will be deferred until your return. The treasure in the ruins should be several times that value. I am not interested in any of it however. What I want are the non-functional artifacts that are of Old Dwarven make which you will find there. For each of these which you bring back I will pay one hundred gold pieces, the value of which will be subtracted from your debt for the information I will provide.” Mervyn said.
This was the point where he would lose the interest of the more idiotic adventurers. “But I can’t pay ten thousand gold” they would say. He was glad to finish the negotiations on that note. Anyone that brainless couldn’t be trusted to handle the relics he was hoping to obtain.
The slightly more clever adventurers would grasp the notion that he was offering to “pay” them for bringing back what was to their eyes “junk”. They would salivate at the notion of all of the “real treasure” being theirs for the taking. These adventurers made up the bulk of the people he employed.
Then there were the adventurers Mervyn enjoyed working with. The ones who knew to ask more questions about the deal. These were also the adventurers who Mervyn trusted the least. The ones who were potentially smart enough to out-think him.
“And what if none of the artifacts have survived the ravages of time and someone else has looted the treasure before us?” Pen asked.
“In that case, if you have explored the ruins thoroughly, you may return here and I will dispatch a representative with you for a return visit to confirm that the ruins are as empty as you claim. So long as, in her judgment, the ruins show signs of having been damaged or pilfered prior to our arrangement I will waive the debt. We will not do business again in the case of a forfeiture though.” Mervyn said.
It wasn’t a foolproof system. Mervyn knew that. Adventuring parties had ransacked dungeons and then made off with the loot never to return. Some had even cleaned the dungeons out and then tried to have their debt dismissed. Those were enough in the minority however that Mervyn tried to pay them little mind. In the end a successful adventuring party who reneged on the deal was only hurting themselves. Not only would Mervyn never work with them again, but by submitting their names to the proper academic circles, he was able to all but guarantee that no other researcher, sage or scholar would employ their services either.
“Why only the non-functional artifacts?” Jin asked. “Why don’t you want the working ones too?”
“No artifact that old should operational.” Mervyn answered. “Any that are have enchantments on them which I fear to trifle with.”
That was true, to a degree. The more accurate reason was that the non-functional artifacts were a prime fodder for making new breakthroughs in the Techno-magical arts. Even after selecting the choicest components for himself, Mervyn would be able to sell the remainder to his fellow researchers for many times the profit the adventures made on the gaudy jewels and ancient coins they discovered.
“Are we sure this is the place where your brother took Minnie?” Jin asked Pen.
“No. We can’t be sure of anything with him.” Pen said.
“Except that he’s a jerk.” Jin said.
“Excuse me.” Mervyn said. “Do you mean to say someone is already in the ruins? That someone was kidnapped and taken there?”
“Not in the ruins precisely.” Jin said.
“What my protege means, is that we believe a man we are tracking may have passed through the ruins. And yes, he did kidnap one of her friends. In a manner of speaking.” Pen said.
“In a manner of speaking?” Mervyn asked. It wasn’t uncommon for adventurers’ to have personal quests which intersected with the areas he was interested in. That was often why they sought him out. What was unusual was how circumspect the two people sitting across from him were being. Mervyn had never found it difficult to get adventurers to relate their tales of woe. The difficult part was getting them to shut up or skip the tales entirely.
Neither Pen nor Jin was inclined to answer his question.
Mervyn knew the strangeness of the two travelers should have warned him against dealing with them, but the hour was late and he wanted to conclude business and enjoy the latest pot boiler novel he’d purchased before turning into bed.
“If the terms are agreeable, come back and see me in the morning and I shall send for a letterer to draw up and witness the contract. Otherwise, I wish you luck in your endeavors.” Mervyn said.
“I’d feel better if he came with us.” Jin said.
“I am not that sort of man.” Mervyn said. The corner of his mouth twitched as he spoke and he fought down, for the thousandth time, the old urges to be a fool.
“Then your terms are agreeable.” Pen said. “We’ll want to get started early tomorrow, so we will see you at breakfast if that’s possible?”
“I wake before the sun rises. I’ll be here. The letterer doesn’t open his office until the day’s first bell though so you won’t be off before then.” Mervyn said.
“We will see you then.” Pell said.
Mervyn watched the two of them leave, glad for both the solitude and the promise of a new endeavor that would bring a wealth of knowledge for him to peruse. Sitting back in his cozy booth, he flicked on a small glow bug and set it to illuminate the pages of the book in his hands.
With the late hours already upon them, Mervyn looked forward to the quiet of the tavern as the remaining patrons dwindled away back to their homes. It was the final stanza in the rhythm of a normal day.
But of course, as Mervyn had discerned, this wasn’t a normal day.
He was alerted to that when the door to the tavern slammed inwards and an enormous Orc warrior, bloody battle axe in hand, stepped through the opening and surveyed the room.
Behind the Orc, stood five even larger Orcs.
None of them were smiling and none of them were unarmed.
Mervyn looked at them and knew that he was never going to see the sunrise of a normal day again.