The tavern noise scrambled all over me as soon as I opened the door. Some of my latest crewmates were already celebrating with tankards in hand, yelling my name when they saw me. They pounded on the bar and told the barkeep I was one of them tonight. He nodded; he knew what that meant. Captain Coe had a policy that the night after a long expedition he’d set up a tab at a tavern and all his crew could drink to their hearts content. It came out of the ship’s profits, and not his personal funds, so it was like another advance on our payroll. The crew didn’t see it that way, however. They loved him for it.
A few of the arithmetically minded ones understood that the tab came from the payroll for the whole crew, so their bill was averaged with the next man’s. If one guy begged off and went home early, he was essentially paying for his fellows’ drinks. It became a race to see who put down the most and so get the better economical deal than the rest of the crew.
I ordered a meal first. I hadn’t eaten all day and getting drunk on an empty stomach never felt good the next morning. It was early in the evening; things hadn’t gotten wild yet. A pair of elves who had been sitting in the corner still got up and left as they realized the tavern was going to turn into a party they weren’t a part of. This wasn’t a humans-only tavern, but some businesses tended to segregate themselves. Most elves who went to sea wanted to spend time with other elves on their return, and I knew of a tavern on the other side of the wharf that specialized in cuisine from Elessar. The food there was interesting, but I could never get used to drinking wine in a tavern.
The food here satiated me but didn’t get me any buffs. Why would good food go to a group on a tab? I belched and brought my tankard over to where a few others were playing poker for coppers. We’d play poker on the Essential, but the stakes were trading watches if anything. Even playing cheap made the game feel more intense.
I watched a round before joining, mindful that a handful of coppers was all I had in my purse. We could settle debts when we received the rest of our pay, but it was poor form to gamble with money you didn’t have yet.
When I took my cards, I knew I was in trouble and folded immediately. Bad start to the night, but it turned out to be the right decision. Joel had a better-than-average hand, but then he had made a skill of gambling. I couldn’t remember what level he was at, but it gave him bonuses to luck and bluff chance. My own observation skill helped me out. I was at level 9, and just a short bit of progression away from making 10 and getting the extra bonuses that came with it. I wouldn’t tell my shipmates if I got it tonight though. It was poker, after all!
The thing about poker is it’s not usually a matter of lying or bluffing. Most of the gameplay passes quickly. The question is how confident people are in their hands. More confidence could mean a better hand, or they might just be comfortable in the odds no one has anything better. My observation skill wasn’t a game-winner, just an edge. The other guys had their edges too. That’s what made it interesting.
I made enough in the third hand to keep playing. We celebrated whenever one of the crew entered the tavern, drank like there would always be as much beer as we wanted, and yelled at each other to keep the tankards off the cards. It was shaping up to be a great night when the adventurers came in.
Their gear gave them away, that and their stats displayed for the whole world to see. I’d swear you could identify them by their swagger alone. They wore well-crafted gear as a minimum and had plenty of it. At least one had an enchanted bag that had way more space inside it than it should, the crowning tool of the trade for adventurers and scavengers. They didn’t take professions, or if they did it was combative and not until they had plenty of levels under their belt.
None of these four had professions, but they had the levels. Their leader was a 21 and wore a sword and plenty of knives. The man in heavy armor was a 20, the female archer was also a 20, and the last girl was 17. She had her level and HP’s visible, but obscured the rest. Probably a stealth fighter, by her dress. Ending a fight quickly and brutally from a hidden position was a mindset I could get behind – but I didn’t like it when opponents shared that thought.
They didn’t make themselves obnoxious at first, we were simply leery of them. It proved to be well founded. The leader was the instigator, moving about the tavern laughing at people, trying different ways to pick a fight. Most of us just ignored him. Those that didn’t were cowed by his equipment and his backup. I knew that not everyone would be, though. It was only a matter of time before he picked a fight with someone who wouldn’t back down, and the adventurers didn’t seem to realize that nearly everyone in the tavern was part of a group.
When the leader came by our table he laughed. I decided to call him Braggart. “Coppers? What kind of game is this?” He threw a handful of silver onto the table. “Where can a man get a real game?”
Joel was the soul who spoke. “You can buy in, but you’ll have to wait ‘till the hand’s over.”
If Braggart had taken him up on it, we would never have forgiven Joel. Luckily, his bluff won out.
“You peasants probably couldn’t scrape a gold together between the lot of you.” When we ignored him, he drew a dagger and slammed it into the wood of the table, gouging a copper. “What do you weak-spined whores think you’re doing?”
That we were ignoring him because the fact he was a brat looking for trouble should have been obvious but saying so wasn’t wise. Types like this group cropped up every so often. They took local contracts for nuisances – whether they be monster or outlaw. They farmed XP from their objectives the same way a man farms wheat. If they were too good and grew too fast, the power that came with their growth often went to their head before it could be tempered by experience and senior Adventure Society people. Sometimes they returned from their hunts and didn’t really care if their next source of XP came from killing people in a tavern brawl instead of slaying monsters.
I took the heat of Braggart’s attention this time, continuing our group effort to dissuade his eagerness for a fight. Unhinged he might be, but if he didn’t even have a plausible excuse for violence then the city would label him an outlaw himself. But if some sailors died in a tavern fight on the docks … the city saw that often enough.
“You’ll have to speak to the barkeep about the table damage.”
It took a moment for him to understand what I meant, then he deliberately stabbed the cheap table repeatedly. I hoped the barkeep was watching.
“Are you sailors on leave or what? I’ve never seen a more cowardly batch of whisker biscuits in all my life!”
He was getting people angry, but I kept his attention. “We’re here to get drunk and carouse, because we haven’t had a full tankard and room to move in months. We’re efficient about it because we’re going to turn around tomorrow and restart. Next tavern on the wharf might bring you better luck.”
He sneered and moved on, leaving his coins in the pile. He didn’t care to force the issue – thankfully – and risk being so overt he earned himself criminal status. He needed someone who would square up with him and accept a fight.
Unfortunately, he picked his next target well … Fink.
I respected Fink, and he’d been around the block more than once. He’d even invested some of his XP from the Hammernose into leveling instead of his profession after what it did to our boat, bringing him to 12. But he took his position as first mate to mean that nobody could disrespect the ship and crew in front of him. Situations like this where the smart thing to do was walk away bugged him. I knew he’d been watching Braggart make his rounds, hoping for the fool to stop and try the same crap with him. He got his wish.
Watching them square up was like watching two gorillas. Not that either of them was built like the primate, but they had a similar attitude. Fink’s derision and scorn dripped through his few levels of speech, and the whole tavern supported the put-down he placed on the adventurer. Braggarts face burned red, but it was still playing into his endgame. His companions had spread out like they’d done this before, though only a few others seemed to notice. My observation also noticed that braggart had a hidden blade in his left sleeve.
The fight unfolded like a script. Braggart, the ‘offended’ party, threw the first punch. Fink had been expecting this and blocked, caught the Braggarts’ weaker left, made a solid cross to his jaw, and completely missed the blade Braggart had procured in his left hand.
Sailors aren’t unaccustomed to dirty fighting or brawls. When things turned deadly though, and you knew how many HP’s a person had and what it would take to drain them, that was nastier than just beating another crew up. There had been a chance that the fight could just be between Fink and the adventurer, but that went away as soon as I saw that Braggart had a hidden knife he planned to use. I knew I’d be stepping in, and then it would involve the whole tavern.
So it was that as Braggart held his knife in the low-ready position, I was coming up behind him. Heavy Armor moved to intercept me, also realizing that things were moving into a mass fight. I slid under his arm and into Braggarts heel, weakening his stance but not tripping him. As I moved into a crouch I drove an uppercut as hard as I could between his legs, hoping I crushed something. Judging by the agony debuff he got, I succeeded. My last target in my combination was the knife. With the new debuff he had it was easy to knock it from his hand.
“Knife!” I yelled as it clattered to the floor. Then it was pandemonium as everyone got involved.
I was fortunate someone else had taken Heavy Armor’s attention while I incapacitated Braggart. The only way we could handle Heavy Armor was to overload him with people and drag him down. I trusted Fink to finish handling braggart, he just needed to keep him out of the fight, and his debuff helped with the level difference. I saw that the archer had hesitated to draw her bow and had missed her chance. It really wasn’t the place for it anyway. Now there were a handful of people surrounding her, not making the first move on a woman so long as she didn’t attack. An uneasy stalemate, then, but the advantage was with the crowd there.
That left the stealth girl. With enough chaos she could dip in and out of stealth, making her extremely dangerous. I was right on that count. She’d identified Marsh as one of the most dangerous of our fighters. She appeared behind him, planted a knife in his back, and disappeared to shouts of shock around her.
I leaped onto the poker table and tried to use my observation skill to pierce her stealth. She had a high rating, I was sure, and I would have missed her if she hadn’t exposed herself by attacking me. She saw what I was trying to do and threw a knife to silence me. I dodged the knife and threw my own back at her. Her eyes went wide and she failed to dodge, the knife hitting her chest. It wasn’t a critical blow, and only took a small fraction of her HP’s off, so the tip hadn’t punctured lung or heart. Besides some cosmetic problems, she wouldn’t even need a health potion because of it.
As I was opening my mouth to point her out Heavy Armor crashed into the poker table with at least 5 people hanging onto him. My sea legs skill let me keep my balance as the table surged under me, but the cheap table legs collapsed, dumping me into the crowd. I tried to stealth, but too many people were focused on me for my skill level. I thought about where the stealth girl had been, and how she had backstabbed Marsh …
I tucked and rolled forward, observing the place behind where I’d been. I spotted her. Between my knife throw and predicting her attack I think I’d unnerved her. Good. Her backstab on Marsh had drained most of his HP and applied a bleed effect. If someone didn’t get to him soon, he’d be dead.
The girl attacked me with a blade in each hand. My throwing knife had been my only ace, the only other weapon I had on me was my rigging knife with its pitiful 2-4 damage. It was a tool, not a weapon! I wondered if I’d be more effective with my unarmed skill but decided against it. A weapon was a weapon, and my odds of disarming this girl were a lot worse than disarming Braggart.
I’d lost the flow of the rest of the fight but needed my focus to avoid an experienced killer twice my level. She tried to stealth after every attack, but it was hard when there was so much attention on her. The fact that she did it at all meant I would have had no chance without a crowd. My observation ability also helped keep her in sight most of the time. When it didn’t it was a deadly game of guess-where-the-knife-is. The steady accumulation of cuts and loss of HP meant I wasn’t so good at this game. I was down to 40% health with several small bleeds stacking up damage over time. I was looking for a chance to get away long enough to down my health potion when a shout made the girl stop her attack.
I blinked sweat from my eyes as I looked around. Braggart was tied up on the ground, still writhing. Archer girl had never moved past her impasse with the others. Heavy Armor was pinned to the ground but was no longer struggling and instead trying to get stealth girl’s attention. The rest of the eyes in the tavern had turned on her and me in our fight. She gulped. Her three comrades were out of the game, and she was a stealth fighter with a crowd turning towards her. She knew when it was over. She cast a wary glance at me as she sheathed her knives, as if I had ever been much of a threat. I’d actually done pretty well negating her, even if I hadn’t scored more than 30 damage to her the whole fight.
I looked for Marsh and found him quickly, the barkeep had come out with diluted minor health potions that would be charged alongside the damages. Marsh got a few of those potions to combat his continuous bleed. After a glance I got one too.
A healer was sent for and she came with guardsmen. The guardsmen took testimony from a few people, but it was the barkeep they listened to. Apparently he had seen Braggart disrespecting his tables. He laid the blame and the expenses on them, and the guardsmen took custody of them. The healer had to down a mana potion before she set to healing Braggart so he could walk.
When the healer tended stealth girl, the guardsmen by her confiscated my throwing knife. She’d left it in to keep from bleeding. I wasn’t going to say mum about it, but the girl nodded to me.
“That’s his,” she told them. “Which of your abilities let you last so long with me? You hiding a profession?”
I shook my head. “Luck. Adaptability, maybe, but you were going to win, no question.”
She didn’t seem satisfied with that, but didn’t press as she was escorted out, each hand bound to a different guard to keep her from dropping out of sight. The guardsmen tossed my blade to the ground near me, and I picked it up after everyone had left.
I didn’t know what their punishment would be, and since I wasn’t headed to a jail too, I didn’t care. A magistrate would hear the report and probably decide a hefty fine and a mark on their records would be punishment enough for a bunch of people fighting on the docks. They’d probably be back out on the road in a week. For better or worse, that stealth girl would probably be more wary of her opponents. I could only hope the pain I’d inflicted on Braggart would teach him some humility, but somehow I doubted it.
Adventurers were a weird lot.