"All right, maybe it wasn't the best way to start off a conversation."
Gerki only gave Fiona a sideways look. He knew she hated being lectured on the ways of the world outside the Undercity of Greyport, and she always hated being treated like a child. Still, this world was very new to Fiona, and in all fairness, she had not had all that much experience communicating with others: only him.
He knew this was a foolish idea. Fiona had finally decided that she wanted to "officially" go adventuring and made him promise to go with her on her first real excursion. Instinct told Gerki that this was a bad choice. His personal motto was, "There are times to stay hidden and times to flee." Not one part of that motto said, "Go out, fight, and possibly get sliced in half." Yet, here he was.
Gerki owed it to Fiona. After all, this was the first time she had willingly suggested coming to the surface after all those years. No amount of convincing, bribery, or promises of food and safety could do that before. This was a big step for her, and he had to be there for his friend. It still did not change the fact that what they were about to be doing would be very dangerous.
"No, it wasn't," he said, finally answering her. He jogged alongside her, her longer legs allowing her to walk at twice the speed he could. "Going up to random thugs and asking them to accompany us on an expedition to Shadowed Labyrinth is like saying, 'Oh, here, won't you just walk to your deaths with me? I promise it'll be fun.' Fiona, we'll never get a team at this rate."
"Okay, smart guy, what's your plan then?"
Gerki smiled. Masterful thief he may be, but he always believed his greatest skill was in reading people. "Everyone in this world wants something, Fiona. They will do whatever it takes to get it. Power, money, adventure. Whatever it is, it's a drug to them, and they'll do anything to get their next fix. You want a team, you got to find what it is people want and be able to offer it to them."
Fiona raised an eyebrow. "So, lying?"
"More like stretching the truth, and it's not entirely lying either. Trust me, if we find the right people looking for the right things, we can promise and deliver."
Fiona abruptly stopped in front of a blacksmith who was working over an anvil. Gerki had to give it to her: the girl knew how to spot good quality when it came to weapons and armor. He pulled himself up on the side of the fence so he could see better.
She continued, "You talk as though you already have something in mind."
The halfling could not contain his grin. "As a matter of fact, I do. You see, I haven't been entirely idle while I'm up on the surface."
* * *
At the moment, he and Fiona had found a quiet table off to the back, and they were carefully watching the figure just two tables away from them. If there was anyone who seemed out of place at a location like the Red Dragon Inn, it was this woman. Like any elf, she was tall and thin, but then again, everyone seemed tall to Gerki. She was dressed in pristine blue robes, and the moon-shaped amulet was a dead giveaway. Indeed, a priestess of the Goddess was one of the last people anyone would expect in a place like this.
Fiona had already grown bored of this little watching exercise. "I don't get it," she said. "She doesn't look like she could fight her way out of a crate, let alone an underground labyrinth."
Gerki only sipped at his ale. "Ah, and that's your first mistake: underestimating her."
She rolled her eyes. "Okay, who is she supposed to be and how do you know her?"
"That happens to be Deirdre, a priestess of the Goddess, one of the best, in fact. She makes a bit of a pilgrimage to Greyport once a year to help the Mage's Collegium. They send her with a handful of students going on their first expeditions. She's mainly the reason they come back. If the rumors are to be believed, many think she's some kind of vessel of the Goddess herself, hence all the healing abilities. I only saw her a handful of times when I was at the orphanage, but I've kept an eye on her since she arrived this year."
"You don't really believe that, do you? About being a vessel of the Goddess?"
Gerki shook his head. "Not entirely, but one thing is certain: she's good at what she does. Now the way I see it, since you don't listen to me when I say there are times we need to run away from danger, I figure a good cleric with some healing magic might come in handy."
Fiona watched out of the corner of her eye as a man approached Deirdre and began a conversation. "So, how do you propose we go about this? You didn't like the way I start things."
He waved her off. "Religious types like her are pretty easy to persuade. You just have to convince her she's helping the greater good and all that. Believe me, I've been watching her closely. She's one of those types that's so sweet and generous, it's nauseating. But one word of warning: if there's one thing she hates, it's being seen as the damsel in distress. Observe, in three...two…"
The two would-be adventurers watched from across the room as Deirdre's expression turned sour, and she proceeded to throw her drink in the man's face. He left just as swiftly as he came, muttering a few curses on the way out.
"What was that all about?" Fiona asked.
Gerki smiled. "Well, halfling hearing isn't the greatest, but it's better than yours. I believe it went something along the lines of he approached her claiming to be interested in her religion, she bought into that for all of a few minutes, and then soon discovered he was really interested in something else, if you catch my drift. Attractive she may be, but she's not so easily won over. Now then, we'll give her a few minutes and then we will approach. Remember, focus on the good our little excursion will do, and…" He signaled for the bar wench to come over and whispered a quick order in her ear. "And a couple of glasses of elven wine can't hurt. The Goddess may protect her from a lot of things, but when it comes to alcohol, she's a lightweight."
Within an hour, Fiona and Gerki had managed to strike up a decent conversation with the priestess, and, as Gerki assessed, it seemed to be going in their favor. At least, that was what he thought.
"I understand your need to find someone with my kind of skills for your expedition," Deirdre finished after hearing their argument. "However, I do have an obligation to the Collegium. They are also sending out young explorers, and it is my job to protect them. They rely on the kindness of the Temple to send them people with experience like myself. I'm afraid I just can't make that kind of promise to you."
Gerki slid the second glass of elven wine over to her. "Well, yes, of course, I understand your predicament," he said in his most pleading tone, "but you must realize that we're not talking about just any exploration here. The Shadowed Labyrinth is rumored to have some incredibly important relics, some of which have been rumored to cure diseases. Mistress Deirdre, what I'm asking is no mere favor, but rather an opportunity to do more than just the trivial odd job with the Collegium. We're talking about real change here. Why, if our studies are correct, we're likely to find -"
With a sly sort of smile, Deirdre held her amulet up near the glass of wine. In a shimmering glow that lasted only a couple of seconds, the drink turned to water. Gerki's jaw dropped. "I didn't know you could do that," he said. "Can you do the reverse?"
"Not a spell I use often, and yes, I could, but that's not the point. I believe I have given you a resolute no. Under better circumstances, I would have considered it, but I just…"
Fiona finally spoke up. Up until this point, she had been content to let Gerki do the talking for them. However, seeing as how his plan was failing, she had to step in.
"But we'd be in some serious danger if we didn't have someone like you!"
Deirdre paused, a bit surprised that the otherwise quiet woman had spoken so abruptly.
Fiona took a breath and continued. "Look, I know that those mages they send you with are only students, and they're inexperienced too, but at least they've got magic on their side. We've got nothing! Gerki and I have been friends since we were kids, and we've always wanted to do something like this. But the closest we've ever gotten to real exploring is poking around some of the old vaults in the Undercity. We're really, really, and I mean, really green at this. We need an expert who can make sure we come back in one piece. You're our only hope."
She thought pensively for a moment before meeting Fiona's gaze. "You do know you do not have to do this…"
"I'd be doing the memory of my parents a disservice if I didn't. You may not understand it or agree with it, but it is something I have to do."
The priestess nodded with a smile. "Very well, then. I shall be in your service, temporarily, mind you. Exploration season for the mages does last a long time, so I do not have to be there every day. I can spare a week at most."
Fiona's eyes brightened. "We'll be back long before then."
"Don't push it," Gerki said in a snide whisper.
Suddenly, it seemed that Deirdre was all business. "Now then, is it just the three of us, or have you others for your crew?"
"Um…" Fiona began.
Gerki winced. True, he had envisioned them employing others to their cause, but it had taken so long for him to scope out Deirdre that he had neglected others. He had merely hoped that he could just as easily have spotted a few odd characters in the inn.
"Well, yes, we do plan to interview a few other possible candidates," he lied. "You're just the first we reached out to. Of course, if you knew someone…"
She nodded. "I might. He specializes in the arcane arts."
"A wizard?" Fiona said, excited at the possibility of meeting a real wizard.
"Yes, a former student I worked with. You'll find he is quite skilled. Survived the siege of Greyport by being stuck in a time stasis spell at the Collegium."
Gerki tilted his head in confusion. "Well, that's...interesting."
Deirdre grimaced. "To hear him tell it, it wasn't exactly his decision."
"So, who is he?" Fiona asked.
* * *
"Zot may be a tad peculiar," Deirdre admitted, confirming Gerki's thoughts, "but he does mean well, and he is...was a particularly gifted student. Truthfully, I haven't seen him all that much since the siege. Anyway, just one word of warning: keep all hands and fingers away from the rabbit."
Fiona and Gerki shared a look. "Wait…" Fiona began.
Deirdre ignored her and opened the door. Inside, hard at work over a cauldron was this mysterious Zot that she had spoken of. He was a human man, a bit older than either of the two had expected, as indicated by his long, fluffy grey beard. He worked about his table, grabbing this and that ingredient, and a few times, Fiona was certain that he might get the large sleeves of his long, brown cloak into whatever it was that he was working on. Judging by how it smoked and bubbled, there was a very good chance it was not something entirely safe.
On the table, handing him a few of his ingredients was an adorable, white rabbit. It hopped to and fro fetching a few bottles for him.
Gerki pulled Fiona aside. "Alright, I think I've got this one figured out," he said. "These wizard types are always after one thing: knowledge. So long as we emphasize all the great discoveries of the ancient world we're going to make, he's sold."
Fiona only laughed. "Oh, you have it figured out, just like with Deirdre? Remember, she listened to me."
He rolled his eyes. "Beginner's luck. Now listen, be careful about the rabbit. Zot may be the brains of this operation, but the rabbit's in charge."
"Now, I know you're crazy."
"Fine, don't believe me."
Zot, meanwhile, finally seemed to take notice of his guests. "Deirdre, it's been far too long...and you brought friends."
Deirdre smiled kindly. "Work keeps me away from such pleasantries. May we?"
"Of course, sit. And these two are…?"
"Fiona and Gerki, they have a bit of a favor to ask of you."
Zot smiled. It was the smile of someone who thought they were about to come into some money. Gerki knew that look all too well. Hopefully, they were offering more than a little meager coin.
"Well, we'd sort of like to hire you," Fiona began as she scratched the rabbit behind the ears. It smiled with an unsettling sort of smile, one with lots of sharp teeth. "Ow!"
"Told you," Deirdre said.
Zot quickly scooped up the rabbit, more likely to protect Fiona than the rabbit. "Yes, well, that is the mistake most people make with Pooky. I'm afraid he's a bit deceitful. I'm quite certain he isn't a rabbit, but I honestly have no idea what exactly he is. Still, I've grown fond of the little fella, and he of me."
Deirdre seemed a bit uninterested. "Yes, I've heard mages' familiars can be unique that way."
"Indeed," Gerki said with a bored hum. "Anyway, before my friend here threw caution to the wind, she was saying that we were hoping to gain your assistance on a small excursion to the Shadowed Labyrinth. We've been hoping to make a full exploration of the ruins. Of course, it has been rumored to belong to an as-yet unknown ancient civilization. However, no one ever knows when a thorough search has not been conducted."
He proceeded to explain their journey, emphasizing the point of how they intended to solve the ancient mysteries of the old ruins, hoping to gain the wizard's interest. Pooky, meanwhile seemed bored and began to hop about the table, exploring the new visitors. Gerki tried not to notice and kept his hands out of the rabbit's reach. Still, occasionally, he addressed some of the main points towards Pooky.
Gerki had gone on and on for a while before Zot started to wave him off. "I think I'll stop you there, little one. I'm sure your cause is a good one, and it sounds like a great amount of adventure, but my adventuring days are behind me. As you can see, I much rather pursue the arcane arts from the comfort of home. I find that I make just as many discoveries than if I was out gallivanting about in old ruins."
Now Gerki started trying to pour on the charm. He had not dared try that technique with Deirdre as he knew that those kinds of conversations with her usually ended badly. But Zot seemed like the kind of ancient scholar who loved hearing their praises.
"Of course, I understand the concerns, and yes, why leave the comfort of your home if you can avoid it? But I think you're short changing yourself. You're still a very young and curious man, I can tell that. And as Deirdre here tells me, you've survived some situations in the most interesting ways. You seem like the kind of skilled individual we could use on our side."
Zot only smiled with a twinkle in his eyes, as if he was the one reading Gerki instead of the other way around. "Flattery will only get you so far. The truth is you have nothing of interest to offer me."
"Are you kidding?" Fiona slammed her fist on the table. "You were locked in a time spell, or whatever, for who knows how long. If that were me, that would be miserable. Once I got out, I'd be trying to make up for lost time."
"You and I have different ideas on how best to spend borrowed time, my dear."
Pooky looked over towards Fiona, waiting to see her rebuttal.
Fiona said, "Look, all I mean is that, you have an entire arsenal of magic at your disposal, you have a powerful familiar that is a...whatever it is, and you graduated from one of the best colleges of magic. If I were in your shoes, I'd want to have as much adventure as I could."
Gerki shook his head. Poor, naive Fiona.
Pooky, however, turned towards Zot, tilting his head. Everyone other than Zot was curious as they watched the wizard seem to have a conversation with himself, only to realize he was having a mental sparring match with his familiar.
"Pooky, no… No… Because I said… Oh, for goodness sake, quit acting like a child! Pooky, so help me... Well… But… Ugh, fine!"
The whole time, Fiona and Gerki looked at each other in confusion. They turned to Deirdre for some sort of explanation. She only shook her head, telling them to stay quiet while Zot and Pooky argued.
Eventually, Zot relented. "Yes, well, it looks like we will be accompanying you." He glared at Pooky. "You owe me big, especially after your last stunt."
* * *
He and Fiona had left Deirdre and Zot to make their necessary arrangements. They had agreed to all meet at the inn to make proper plans for their excursion.
Gerki continued, "True, Deirdre can be a bit temperamental and Zot is just...well, I'm convinced he's a little off, but I think we might come out of this alive."
Fiona was more excited by the prospect. She seemed to have a new spring in her step. "I think we'll do more than come back alive."
"Well, you did some impressive work back there," he admitted. "I still don't understand it, but you got both of them on our side."
She gave him a broad grin. "So, I do have a gift for words after all. And here I thought I would need you to do all the talking."
"Oh, you'll still need me."
Fiona's step slowed and she let Gerki catch up to her. "You know, I wouldn't have been able to do it without your advice. You're the one that knew that Deirdre was always compelled to help others and that Pooky was the way to win over Zot." She grinned. "So, will I still need to convince you to come along?"
She shrugged. "Well, you said I have to figure out what people want and try and find a way to promise it to them. So, do I need to convince you?"
Gerki shook his head and laughed. "If you insist. I've got more important things to take care of. First thing, you'll need a proper sword."
Fiona thought for a moment. "Well, you know you'll be missing out if you don't come. But, I don't think that's what interests you. I'm pretty sure that while we're in there, we'll find some interesting treasures, maybe some that are incredibly rare. I'm sure some collectors would be very interested in purchasing them."
"Now that is how you start a conversation," Gerki said with a laugh.