After talking with one of the laborers, the party discovered that a tournament was to be fought. It was a gold piece to enter and all the gold pieces would go to the victor. Quite a few adventurers were here for the event, as well-evidenced by their expensive gear and rugged demeanors, as well as the stink of dungeons that wafted from their bodies. They had stripped down to win glory and to pay the rent, since breeches served as the only armor in this combat.
A man in a torn top hat and faded, once colorful, clothes swung about a cane in a way that dizzied the eyes and well attracted their attention.
“Come hither and thither,
friends of mettle,
for soon we have a score to settle.
Be it thug, rogue, or man of rage,
the skills of many shall grace this stage.
A battle fierce with a win to one,
and a fortune made when the battle is done.”
“Come, one and all,” he shouted. “Adventurers, townsfolk, jilted husbands and cheated spinsters. Do you have what it takes? Prove your mettle in this test of skill. Honor and glory await the winner. Don’t hesitate, because, if you do, you’ll miss that one amazing shot you always find yourself asking for. The one shot that you say you need to make it rich. Heyo! Eyes to here, eyes to here!!”
His long baritone echoed off of rooftops and through alleyways, drawing in people here and there, more to watch than battle, which suited the promoter just fine. A sizable crowd was growing and milling about.
“This might well be it here,” the promoter stated in a loud, but nuanced bellow, thick with charm. “We’ve got your shot at fame, glory and fortune, all in the space of a few ticks. You don’t want to lose this chance!”
Yenrab’s eyes widened and lit up. He stopped and shoved two thick, dirt-laden fingers into his mouth, whistling to get the rest of their eyes upon him.
“Guys, I have, just, this tremendous, stupendous, plan. We are all about to get rich.”
Yenrab shifted a little, hunching over and rubbing his hands, looking about to ensure that no one was watching them. The rest of the party stared at the man. “Now, I’ve been planning it out and this, well, it feels right. Okay, listen, I’m going to fight.”
“Mate, it costs a gold piece! That is more than most make in a month! Do you really think you can win? I’d hate to waste a gold piece like that,” grumbled Bern.
“No, no. No, no, no,” stated the half-orc with unshakeable confidence. “Better than that. I’m going to lose!”
“What? Are you out of your mind?” asked Carric, his face suddenly nervous.
“Look and listen, my friends. See all of those patrons betting on the sidelines?” continued Yenrab. “You put everything we have on whomever I need to fight. Spread it out as much as you have to, but get that money out there. I’ll put on a bit of a show, get tired and bam, he’ll take me to the ground. You scoop the cash and we’ll have a hell of a night on the town and then some.”
Carric was skeptical. “Won’t they see that we’re friends and come after us? I am not a fan of angry mobs.”
“No worries, buddy. We can just drink somewhere else after we’re rich. Heck, just to make sure, I’ll loop around and come to the tavern from a different angle, so they don’t see us come in together. Eh? Eh?!” Yenrab said confidently. “I even made a name for the idea. Operation Bit O’ Coin . . . get it?”
“Sounds killer,” Bern said with a grin.
“Yeah. I’m in,” Tracy said with a smile.
“Bitcoin?” Carric frowned, getting the expression wrong. “As in we all get a bit of coin? Ha ha ha, very funny, but let’s be honest. This idea will never take off.”
“You’d be surprised, Carric,” Yenrab said with a beaming smile and wide-eyed interest. “You guys, scout out a block of bettors and saturate them with money. We’ll make a chain of those bettors that, when I lose, will give you the money quick-like. And then we can scram.”
“Oh gods. Let me guess. You call that part of the plan a blockchain?” Carric asked, rolling his eyes.
“You are a smart man, friend. A real gentleman and a scholar,” Yenrab stated, still beaming, with a wink. “So, do you want to help us mine the masses?”
“This really feels like a cryptic way in which to retrieve currency,” Carric protested.
“Aren’t you listening?” asked Bern with a deceptively deadpan face. “He’s simply giving us a lode to mine from, like any lucky man in the mountains. Bro, he’s asking us to do the Bit O’ coin by mining your so-called cryptic currency by means of an established blockchain.”
“Somehow that doesn’t seem right. The terms and methods you describe just don’t really fit . . .” Tracy said.
“Pishposh, guys, this is big money fast. Just say yes. Tell me that you are all ready to invest into Bit O’ Coin!” Yenrab thundered enthusiastically.
“Alright, I guess. Tyranny of the majority and all that. Count me in. Do your double-back and let’s make some money!” mumbled Carric with that sort of forced enthusiasm that comes to people who are in no way convinced but do not want to go against the majority opinion. “But, honestly, this better work because I don’t think it is a very sound idea. If this doesn’t work, then everything we just won might well be gone.”
“It’ll work,” said Bern, with a lopsided grin full of expectance. “It is trick plays like these that make the world turn.”
The fights were impressive. Some of them were completely one-sided, but tremendous fun to watch, as experienced veterans used the wisdom of their experience to thrash unprepared and woefully idealistic young men from the city. Other matches lasted a full five-round draw, with brawny and able-bodied competitors giving and taking masterful blows and, at the end, shaking hands and complementing each other on their skill and acumen. Bodies were pummeled, stretched, kicked and belted, showing red welts and styes, but also showing the oft-forgotten endurability inherent to the humanoid form. Arms wheeled, grappled, smashed, hammered and even made hay. The occasional young upstart won with a sneaky uppercut, or a chance blow, to the tremendous applause of the audience around their ring. When Yenrab was finally up, he made a brief show of things, raising his arms in victory, flexing his body here and there and trying to show that he was the big man on campus. Yenrab knew the drill—bouts like these were a Sunday regular back in the tribe.
He strode to the ring with a great show of confidence, raising his arms and bellowing. Coins clinked and changed hands. In the skies, there was a peal of thunder, as if the gods greatly approved. More coins made their rounds. In the air, the sky stank of fate.
He felt nervous tension flicker through his body.
This isn’t me. I’m not the kind of guy who likes to battle.
His mind was cast back to his life in the tribe. The fights. He was challenged often. He was the biggest and strongest in the tribe and also the most pacifist. He often preached to them about how much better it would be if they just all got along with the settlers. And they didn’t like that. They thought it made him weak. And so they challenged. Every week. And he won.
Ya know, I don’t know how to lose. This is going to be a new experience for me. Maybe a good one?
He felt that spark of adrenaline and momentary dread course through his veins, while his philosophical mind theorized that every fighter, bloodthirsty or not, feels that same spark before the bout. It was an interesting thought well worth pursuing at a later time.
But, with greater dread, he realized something else. Not only was he going to lose, but he had to do so in a way that convinced everyone else.
How in the seven hells am I going to do this?
His opponent stood in his corner, having arrived first and was skinny with large biceps and calves but, overall, not a largely muscled build. He hopped about with vigor and enthusiasm.
Oh, man, he looks a lot like those city kids who tried it out earlier.
The only one of them who had done any damage was the one who shocked the barbarian he faced by screaming like he was terrified and sprinting in and punching him in the face. He hadn’t done much, but at least he’d hit.
Great Bear, give me weakness, for I know not what to do.
Still, he postured and bellowed and made signs of his might to the crowd as he got into the ring and pranced about. The mixed-race crowd of dirty farmers, rowdy adventurers and drunken city folk hooted and hollered, showering the big man with appreciation.
An old human, of large but diminished build came out to the center of the ring. His hands rasped out against each of the fighter’s fists, crinkling like parchment as they rolled over their smooth and young skin. Yenrab had watched him do this same thing so many times already and knew well what would come next.
Well, here we go.
The old referee’s voice croaked out, “Fight!”
The massive behemoth that was Yenrab, the half-human and half-orc barbarian, made a show of berserk anger, biting into his lip and tasting copper. He growled and let his bloody saliva drip before beating his chest.
Yenrab danced, popping left and right, making a great show of defensive caution and intelligent analysis. Then he moved in, with his opponent doing the same. Yenrab hopped in quickly, swinging out his massive ham-sized fists. Southpaw. Southpaw, cross to the north. Jab, jab. Gotta seem slow. Gotta be inaccurate.
Smash! The skinny guy moved quickly. He seemed to fly as he bounded here and there, slamming Yenrab in the stomach with an elbow and kissing his face with a well-planted kick. The half-orc stumbled back in surprise. This guy is good!
He was sure that the blasts that hit him hurt, but the adrenaline coursed through him cool and powerful, locking it and setting his mind straight. Fight, then hurt.
His opponent bludgeoned him twice more in the face with what seemed to be quick jabs but landed with the power of roundhouse swings. Yenrab wheeled, blood coming down from a cut over his eye. Sweat poured out as he struggled to keep himself in check. The stink of it burned his nostrils.
He reached out to grab the human’s leg, only to get kicked in the balls. Yenrab dropped to his knees and moaned.
“That’s just fricking wrong, man!” he squealed.
His opponent, looking more and more proficient with every second, paused in front of the half-human figure before him and looked him over with a scornful eye. To all in observance that folk hero, Yenrab the Animal Chief, Flee-er from Trolls and False Hope to Villagers, seemed to be kneeling in obeisance to his lord and leader in combat.
The crowd booed him with glee, the smell of alcohol wafting from their breath.
With a malicious sneer, the human dropped his hands to the ground while delivering a tremendously powerful and vengeful strike with both of his feet. Yenrab’s head snapped back at an unnatural angle and his body flattened to the ground.
There was a pregnant pause as the crowd waited for the behemoth to rise. But they could smell it. Even those who had bet on the giant orc knew it. He was defeated.
And the crowd went wild, excitement boiling over into that realm of underdogdom. No one had expected the village boy to win and even those who had lost knew that this had been an upset well worth losing one’s shirt over.
Yenrab still wasn’t up.
Damn it, man, do something! Bern thought as he moved about, collecting his share of the winnings and chumming along with the men who tossed him their coins. He couldn’t help but keep casting his hooded head back to that ring where Yenrab still lay, unmoving.
He threw a look to Carric, whose acting chops were on full display as he cheered and even pantomimed the fight with bettors as he raked in their dough. But Bern felt he knew him well enough to see the distressed creases at the corners of his eyes.
A distressing thought rose within him—Tracy! How was Tracy?!
Godsbedamned, I better find him right now.
“Excuse me, mates, but I should duck out now and get the rest of my haul. Daddy’s gotta buy a new pair of slippers.”
“Yah, good luck to ya, mate. Next time, I’m letting you bet for me. Giant man-orcs be damned to hell. My wife is gonna kill me.” One of the men, with a ragged goatee, smiled as he bid farewell.
Bern moved away at a pace that he hoped was nonchalant. And he focused, listening out for some strange sound different from the rest of the crowd. And there was.
King Nemed and his men! the thief cursed in his head, drawing back on one of his favorite swears from his childhood on the streets. Through the din of the drunken crowd, cursed with the smell of farts and pits, was the sound of open weeping.
He’s blowing our cover. He’s blowing our cover! He’s blowing our cover. He’s blowing our cover He’sblowingourcover!!!!
The single thought ran round and round his brain as his expert ears led his way. He angled his body this way and that, shoving aside the occasional drunk bloke who couldn’t get his crap out of his ears and pay attention.
And there was Tracy, all forlorn and crying, facing a large array of confused debtors.
“I didn’t want him to fight. I wanted to tell him! I am such a bad friend,” Tracy was explaining through sobs.
“HE’SBLOWINGOURCOVER NRMPH!” Bern bellowed with fear and anger, squealching himself as he realized how dumb his brain had just gotten.
“’At the bloody burning hells is this then, ey?” asked one of the bettors, now looking weirded out.
“Ha. Haha. It’s uhm, well, complicated,” Bern said, desperately trying to think up something.
“Is complicated ‘e says. Tis what the wife says when she been out too late and come on home with ‘nother man,” another man, missing most of his teeth, added, nodding sagely.
“Tisss’ sssssssstrange,” a cowled lizardman noted. He pulled a small coin sack from his purse and tossed it to the feet of the crying half-elf. “I abhor ssssstrange.”
The lizardman walked away. Others, prompted by his act, followed suit.
A gray-haired crone in the fresh white clothes of a spring maiden spat black juice to her side.
“Well, I ain’t givin’ my bits ‘til I hear the ‘appenings.”
A story sprang to mind. Bern grabbed it and threw it forth.
“This is my brother, Tracy.”
“Boo! You isn’t no brother to ‘im. E’s an elf,” the man with the missing teeth interrupted, clearly a fan of heckling.
“Ah, yes, but he’s only half elf. Different father, same mother,” Bern said without missing a beat.
“Whore!” the old crone added, but with a jealous grin.
“Bah, uh, sure. Anyways, so my brother here is a bit of a clinger on. He likes to make friends with everybody and gives his heart away the minute he meets them. Right, Tracy?”
Tracy nodded and stared at the ground.
“Right. So we talked to the big guy there after we made our bets and well, I guess Tracy felt like best friends. So seeing him fall like that, well, you can see what happened.”
The crone snickered.
“Best friends. Sure. Well, bad luck to you lovers because ee’s dead.”
The woman threw her sack of coins down at the dusty ground and left. Only the original bettor now remained. He was well-dressed and smelled of perfume.
Bern was getting annoyed, while Tracy simply wandered off to go check on Yenrab.
“Look, mate, I’ll collect all of this for him. Let’s say you pay your fair share, hey?”
The man glared at him, wearing a sure face that said it didn’t get suckered often.
He raised his sack of coins in front of him and spoke, “I don’t believe I have ever seen anything so karmic as the death of a man planning to take a fall. The gods don’t look favorably on cheats.”
As Bern Sandros watched him nervously, the man dropped the sack to the ground, spun on his boot heels and walked away.