The lamp went first.
A cracked and swinging oil lamp, clasped in the thin hand of a stumbling girl. Her breath came quick, quavering; hushed for fear. Her dirty turnshoes scuffed over the rough and dusty floor, halting.
"Steady, girl," said the first behind. Three paces back. "Eyes on the floor."
The girl gulped, nodded. Her gaze twitched, nervous, over the cracked and mildewed details of the stone underfoot. Every line and grouted seam. Every pebble and chip of cracked bone.
As she advanced, the five did, too. Three paces back, always. If she stopped, they waited; abruptly halted in close file along the narrow passage. They wore old-fashioned helms and peaked bodyplates, clacked metallic when they bumped into one another. Bare blades and primed guns hung at their sides, clutched in nervous grips. Cutters, armed and wary.
The girl stopped. The cutters did, too; grumbling and treading on heels. "What is it? Said the first," a wide-eyed man. "What do you see?"
Ahead, the lantern quavered, wracked by the tremors of a fearful hand. The girl stood, shoulders bunched, staring at a lump slumped along the wall.
A bony, broken, small figure. Head tucked to chest; forearms wrapped in bandages stained in brown; brown that had pooled on the surrounding floor. Not armored, nor even armed. A shock of long, dry-rotted golden hair obscured its sunken face. The cutters craned to look at it, exclaimed, muttered woefully.
"Oh, aye," said the man, averting his eyes. Behind him, the others did, too. "That'd be Pellem." His tone was strained. "Had to leave her here, last month's attempt. Didn't think she'd run further in." He averted his eyes. "Don't worry; she had her salt. She won't bite."
The girl whimpered, kept staring. The lantern shook in her white-knuckled grip.
"Go on, girl. It's safe, I said."
Quaking, she took a fitful step. And another, lifted her foot high to span the corpse.
The corpse of a girl with a broken lantern still clasped in her bony hand.
"Hey, kid." A gloved fist knocked on the dirty shipping crate. No response came from within.
"Kid," the glove wrapped again. Its owner, a wiry woman swathed all over in woven trappings of leather and silk, spoke louder. She stood on the salt-encrusted deck of a dockyard, addressed a banana crate covered in tarp. At that moment, the tarp twitched aside.
The smudgy, unshaven face of a teen boy showed through, scowling. "Ai, what?"
"You want a job?" asked the rag-woman. A picketed yellow smile split her woven lips, overencouraging.
"What kind of job?" said the boy, lifting a dirty arm to scratch his chin. A flea fled his elbow. The rag-woman's smile wavered only a smidge. "A good one," said she, smiling wider. She knelt, bounced on her haunches. The steel cap of an archaic scabbard, hung from her belt, nudged the deck. It was not the only knife about her person. The boy looked her over, lingered on grips of blades, frowned. "What kind of good job?" he said, looking her in the eyes.
Those yellow eyes rolled under cloth-covered lids. "Good venturing job," insisted the woman. "That's what kind."
"Ai, I thought you looked like un maldido cutter," said the urchin, dismissive, attempting to slink back into his crate.
"You want some pesetas or not, Crate Boy?" said the woman, smile turned mean. "Bet you don't get soliciting employers very often," she said, looking around the nearby rotting crates and piles of redolent fishguts. "Given your neighborhood."
"How many pesetas?" said the crate.
"Ten per day," snapped a red tongue behind its picket-teeth.
The urchin reappeared, dubious. "Ten per day?"
"Ten," said the rag-woman, leaning closer. Her breath smelt of clove and whiskey. "And beer when we camp."
"Camping? Where is the job?"
"Down the long beach. Working on a cave with some treasure inside. We have a camp outside with lots of beer. And fish."
The boy licked his lips, emerged from his crate. Stood on the deck, he was tanned, shirtless, and his ribs stuck out. "What do I need to do?" he said.
Another grin. "Nothing complicated at all. Don't even need to do the heavy lifting," she gestured grandly. "Just have to hold a lantern while we walk. Just hold the light, so the rest of us can see."
"Just hold the light?" said the boy. He extended a hand, cocked his head. Reluctantly, woven fingers clasped round his greasy palm, shock tersely.
"Just hold the light."
On the very lowest stratum of the already-lowly caste that is the cutter, there exist linkenden: Lantern bearers.
Carriers of lanterns, candelabras, and torches for stronger parties. Always the first down a darkened hall, sent to scrub away the clinging shadows. Light is precious, to cutters, for the realms in which they labor are rarely graced by the weal of the sun. The dark is the deadly advantage of the enemy, of ragwretches and grues and the eyeless thralls of foul sorcery, and it must be lifted for their banishment to be prosecuted. For this reason, the light always goes first.
Linkenden, alternatively "linkers" or "link-children," are typically children. Orphans, usually, or members of some other disadvantaged societal rung. Folk with very little at all to lose, and quite everything to gain. That is, if a meal and a handful of pence equate to "quite everything."
Not all linkenden are poorly paid. Those whose services are officially acquired for bank-sponsored ventures are usually ensured a fair cut of profits. * More often, though, a linkend is simply some hungry urchin or foolish rascal talked, perhaps entrapped, into participation. ** A cheap attache, bereft of the few benefits afforded to cutters, acquired for the simplest and most deadly job in the venturing economy. For linking is deadly indeed.
Though no cutter would expose it, there is another, fatal purpose to the linkend's woeful task; an ulterior reason for their forward position: Bait. Bait, as vanguards down perilous dungeon passages are the first to meet the deadly traps populating those awful halls. The first to find the waiting claws of beasts sconced in wait, of ambushers hungry for bright and obvious flesh. The first to slip the bounds of earth and stumble, irrevocably lost, through the thin gaps into other worlds.
Linkenden are the disposable lures, the decoys of the venturing world. Unconscious of their peril, they march ahead, lanterns held high, while their gang of patron cutters hang well and safe behind.
And even those few linkenden who do survive their tenuous tenure do not betray the secret of their erstwhile art. These ex-linkers, now graduated and adopted as fellow cutters, are somehow prone to carry on the deadly practice that they served. Perhaps through some awful, traditional solidarity, or perhaps through raw utility, they maintain the deadly charade, dispensing pittances and smiles in exchange for simple marches down deadly halls.
The linkend is the pitty class (or "sort," as we call them) available in the Incunabuli playtest. Theirs is the one meager special ability you're offered if you rolled a stat line so poor as to not qualify for anything else. At that, it's a special ability that evolves you into a matured cutter, though you probably won't survive that long. Appropriate, given that's how it works in-world, too.
To check it out, see the Incunabuli playtest.
There'll be more articles, soon. I've rather been disengaged from writing for the site, as I've been developing the above playtest with my players, working, and creating the (still enormously in-development) setting map. Gradually, everything approaches a properly usable state. More to come.
In other news, I have a subreddit, and it is a very fine way to get Incunabuli updates served directly to you: r/Incunabuli.
* Child labor laws are rather unheard of.
** Most know the danger of signing on as a lantern bearer, officially or otherwise. Few who'd take such a job, however, are in a position to choose less dangerous work