There was a bump in the road. The stagecoach jumped, rocked on ironclad wheels. Inside, Ewan lolled, snapped awake. He straightened from his dozy slump, rubbed his eyes.
"Morning," said a wheezy voice.
Across from Ewan, a woman with scarred hands lounged on the purple upholstery. A fat backpack sat beside, bounced with every rock in the road. Ewan's own pack was on the floor. There, a sidesword clattered in its scabbard.
"Morning, Row," grumbled Ewan, scratched his beard. He sniffed. "Shite. What's that smell?"
"Just passed a crematory. Edge of town."
Ewan's eyes widened. "You mean we're here already?"
"Shouldn't have had that laudanum cocktail, mate. Ye've been asleep the whole way." *
With clumsy fingers, Ewan pulled away the curtains of the coach's window. "Blimey," he muttered. Row looked as well.
Outside, a clutter of wood-fronted buildings and spindly trees pressed at a choked and dusty street.
An eclectic throng bustled there. Just beside the coach, a dozen or more mice clung to a scaffold atop a donkey's back. Each wore red buff jackets and knives. Ahead of them, on a porch, a blood-soaked group in maille was attempting to sell the gory trophy of some bullet-headed beast to a woman in a top hat. Beyond that, a man with a bundle of polearms was hawking pikes to passersby. Far ahead, a fellow in steel plate was forcibly ejected from a bar by a bouncer with thorns on his face. In the branches above, a black-eyed girl waved, disappeared into the leaves.
Ewan gawked. All about, an armed and eccentric allsorts of cutters was making its uncouth way. "So this is Draum."
"Aye. Parnock, specifically."
"Row, look. There's a clockwork man."
"Aye. They pop up time to time."
"And that chap's selling explosives."
"Useful," said Row, massaging her squeaking knuckles. **
"And her. What's she selling, buckets?"
"Full of chum. For monsters."
Row grinned. "Look at ye. Ewan: Act like a big tough cutter half the time, turn into a kid when shown the genuine item."
"Aw, Row. You know how to show your love."
"Oi, shove it," said Row. She leaned out the other window. "Driver," she hollered. "Consortium, up ahead, thank ye."
She returned to her seat, nodded to the window. "Get a looksee at this one."
Ewan did. At the lane's end sat a rotund, circular edifice of brick. A crush of folk crowded the exterior, queued on ramps and steps. Even a hundred meters away, a clamour of voices and clinking coin could be heard pouring from the open doors.
"Biggest bank I've ever seen," said an awed Ewan, pulling back into the coach.
"Few like it exist. The Tiber and Fellowes*** desk alone hands out a hundred crowns an hour."
At the edge of the consortium crowd, the coach rocked to a stop. The cutters seized their packs, clambered out. Row tossed a gold coin to the driver. He cracked a switch, rambled off. Dust rose behind.
Row started through the throng, making ample employ of elbows. Ewan kept close behind. He picked his way with care, wary of the crowd's prolific collection open blades. Something touched his leg. He looked down. A mouse looked up, flicked him a rude gesture. Ewan kept going.
"Oi!" shouted Row, waved up the steps at a bank official wearing a Tiber and Fellowes pin. "Standing three, here. Standing three!" †
The official pushed through. "Licenses?" she asked, loud above the hubbub. Doxbells fled from a lit cigarette tucked in her lip. Ewan and Row proffered leather folds. The official checked them both, waved them forward through a rope barricade. "Very good. Tiber and Fellowes welcomes you. Please come ahead."
As they cut the crowd, Ewan earned sour glances. A bunch of spotty cutters with rude pikes, likely no older than sixteen, watched him hop the barrier with disdain. A bearded fellow with a bandaged head mumbled to his companion, a brown mouse, pointed at Ewan. Though their exchange was lost to the voluminous crowd, the word "standing" was easily read on the man's lips.
Row's wheezy voice cut through. "Don't be dawdling." She tugged on his sleeve. The T&B official lead them to one of three sets of high, open doors.
They stepped into the consortium floor. Ewan was again bedazzled. A hundred or more cutters and armored bank staff ferried incredible treasure about the many-pillared gape of the place. Piles of ancient coin graced scales and worn counters. Pallets of relics and salvaged materials, all gold, lapis, and ivory, were carted in through rear doors by teamsters. Cutters clutching fat coin purses emerged from the bustle, set off happy for inns and bathhouses. Though the occasional moaning stretcher or dot of blood showed on the brick floor, nothing dulled the buzz of incredible wealth.
A crooked smile split Row's face.
"Welcome, Ewan my lad," she said. "To the venture rush."
To many, the venture rush is synonymous with a particular frontier: The rolling wilderland of Draum. ‡ This vast and knobbly plain, spotted with odd copses, granite outcroppings, and black bogs, was once the heartland of an ancient race of sorcerers.
Draum is a land rich in ruin. Every square mile of mundane scrub holds antiquity in abundance. Any old hill may be a barrow. Any standing boulder a portal tomb. Any hollow oak a hidden climb, a deep gate into passages unknown for ages.
Many a ruin is yet alive, despite the mortal ages. The sorcerers‡ who once ruled Draum, the ancient Idrans, were both awful and ingenious in their art. Kept functional by churning gut-engines and hundreds of generations of purpose-made beast-men, Idran complexes are still guarded and alive.
These non-ruins, still stuffed with dead sorcerers' wealth, are as valuable as they are fortified. A veritable army of cutters is often required to breach and clear the larger complexes. ‡‡ Only by the quick and fatal employment turnover generated by these large-scale raids can banks accept the massive, daily influx of cutters to Draumic venturing towns.
* Laudanum is a popular substance of abuse amongst cutters, especially those of high standing. Though it is oft-romanticized, venturing is a profession of many horrors. Many a cutter requires balm for a disquiet mind.
** Practical magicianry often involves the replacement of hand bones with special surrogates made of ivory, metal, or glass. These are sometimes audible.
*** T&B is an old Firlish bank.
† High standing with banks may earn cutters a variety of benefits. These benefits are apt to draw jealousy from novice cutters.
†† Tombs with a capital T. These are rarely burial places. They are places to be forgotten, filled with things to be forgotten. In the language of the coast, place of burial are often regarded this way.
‡ Sorcery is an art chiefly concerned with the recombination of flesh. Different ages of sorcerers manifested the art in different forms. The sorcerers of old Draum were partial to organic engines and human-animal chimeras. These expressions of sorcery are especially hard-wearing, and many are yet active some two thousand years later.
‡‡ Such large-scale ventures are known as raids. They are, even for cutters, an especially fatal form of employ. Only the temptation of profit shares inflated by massive casualties can tempt a cutter to sign onto a raid.
‡‡‡ Notably, vastly more folk enter the place than leave. The employment found at Parnock is often of a terminal variety.
§ Patronizing such establishments is a major activity in a usual cutter's life. A craving for utmost luxury and fine service strikes hard after a bloody venture.
§§ It is necessary to burn the dead, to prevent plague. If Parnock is ever to die before the tombs run dry, it will be by plague outbreak due to mishandled corpses.