A cigarette wobbled under the clerk's scrubby mustache. "Next," he said, bored.
A young woman stumbled to the counter, shoved by the queue. Mousy brown bangs curtained her face, brushed in an attempt to conceal the veiny, wine-red blotch around her left eye.
The clerk fixed her with a rheumy stare. "Have you worked with the company in the past?" he said, dully. Dusty doxbells buzzed around his balding head.
"No," said the woman. She clutched a beaten, sheathed sidesword. Her thin hands worried at the worn leather scabbard.
"Name?" said the clerk, plucking up a pen.
"Mel Binder, of Fir Reach."
Behind his iron grille, the clerk scribbled in a ledger. Little sheets of smoke dripped from his mouth. "License?" he said. Ash dribbled from the smoldering straight pinched in his lips.
"I haven't got one," said Mel, tugging hair over her eye.
Mel grimaced. She rummaged in a pocket, dropped a jingling pouch on the wooden counter. The clerk swiped it behind the grille, emptied it. He divided coins with a bony fingertip: A pile of copper halfpennies, sixty silver pence, four shillings, and a single, scratched golden pound. For a laborer, it was a month's wages. *With a small scale, the clerk measured the pound's weight and diameter. He harrumphed, tipped the coins into a till. From a stack, he took a small leather fold, stamped its inner page, and slid it over the counter. "Sign this and keep it," he said. "And see the photographist, once you're done here." He coughed. "Now, you signing on to a venture?"
"Yes," said Mel, taking the leather fold.
"Leader's name?" said the clerk, producing another ledger and beginning to scribble.
"Marcazy Hadocland, of Norole."
The clerk quit scribbling, removed the cigarette from his lips. He blinked slowly at the woman with watery, cynical eyes. "Hadocland's leading the venture to Lieudepur Climb," he said, inclining his head. "It's the third attempt."
Mel shifted, clutched at her sword and license fold. "I know," she trembled.
"It's your skin, lady," said the clerk, shaking his head. He pulled the smoldering straight back to his mouth, produced a document, and began to read aloud.
"The share for a cutter with no standing with the company is point two percent of revenue gleaned, if any. Share increases commensurate with fatalities. Tiber and Fellowes provide no assurance to the safety of this venture or the nature of the tasks which you may be required to perform. Do you agree to these terms?"
"Yes," said Mel.
"All right. This copy's for you," said the clerk. He slid an envelope over the counter. Mel took it. "Thank you," she said. The clerk didn't meet her gaze. She turned from the counter.
"Lady," said the clerk, suddenly.
Mel looked back.
Gold is both the specie and standard of Coastal currency. Millions of golden coins circulate through pockets, vaults, and hoards. It is, above all other goods, supremely desirable. It is also scarce.
The gold mines of the Coast are long ago abandoned. They are either entirely depleted or dug so deep as to be infeasibly close to the dreadful Underworld. New mines are rarely constructed by those with the means to do so. Prospective locations are either too meager or too wild to safely and profitably excavate. As a result of these risks, the banks of the Coast have turned to other methods of obtaining fresh capital.
Gold yet lies beneath the surface of the world. It was buried by ancient hands, interred in the dark and elaborate depths of Tombs. These are occult places defended by ancient sorceries and hungry monsters. For the task of raiding Tombs, banks acquire the services of cutters: Errant specialists and adventurers for hire.
The word "cutter" is a relic of naval privateering, in which independent parties licensed themselves as freelance combatants and raiders for war and security. Such privateers frequently commanded small, fast ships known as cutters. A hundred years after the decline of privateering, the name remains.
Cutters are mercenaries, burglars, madmen, and thrill seekers. Charmed by visions of treasure, they embark on ventures to the darkest places built by ancient humankind. **
They do so by the behest of hungry banks. These organizations organize and dispatch expeditions from Eastern wilderness settlements. On these dangerous fringes of civilization, there is no shortage of Tombs to sack, and no lack of folk brave, foolish, or desperate enough to raid them.
The occupation of raiding Tombs under a cutter's contract is known as "venturing." Hopeful cutters traveling East are said to have joined the "venture rush."
When a would-be cutter arrives in a wilderness town, their first stop is the local consortium. Any settlement of reasonable size will have such a place, where all the present banks and mercantile powers hold offices. Here, a new cutter may buy their venturing license.
A venturing license marks all legitimate cutters.
At the price of two golden crowns, such a document is a major purchase. It serves as a cutter's mode of identification with a bank. With it, they track their standing with the bank, their specialization, and the number of successful ventures which they have embarked on. Higher standing is awarded to more effective cutters, who are granted a higher decimal share of any profit yielded from a venture.
The dangers encountered on a venture depend on the variety of Tomb to crack. Agadese tombs are likely layered with all manor of traps. Idran ruins are unspeakably old, but yet hold a quantity of gold. Naussian crypts are among the most terrifying to raid; they run the risk of connecting to the near-inescapable Underworld.
Many cutters are discharged soldiers. They find it easy to continue a life of danger. Some are criminals, fleeing to independent fringe settlements to escape prosecution. Many more are foolish, idealist farmhands or bored nobles blessed with too much coin and no great deal of sense.
Some call cutters heroes, paragons of bravery, skill, and romance. Others know them as woeful wretches, folk willing to indenture themselves to the deadliest of tasks out of desperation, boredom, or greed. In reality, no cutter is the same.
They are united only by the danger of their shared profession.
This article has been the starting place for many tales. It also happens to be the first to feature a Patron anagram.
Since writing this, some have asked me if cutters are supposed to be "realistic adventurers." To this, I say they are believable adventurers.
I have been asked why more cutters don't just raid tombs on a freelance basis, taking 100% of acquired loot. In my games, freelancing is doable, but carries the risk of encountering bank-hired competition. The competition have license to kill, and are as tricky as a party of player characters.
Thus, when discovering an uncracked tomb, it's worth a ponder whether someone knows of it before giving it a delve. In some areas, there’s a great enough plethora of tombs that competition appears ⅓ of the time. In the deepest wilderness, the chance reduces notably.
In my experience, competing cutters are a plentiful, memorable font of recurring villains and dramatic character death.
* Most folks have a shilling at their disposal per day. Most of this goes to rent and food.
** Or even of inhuman construction.