A coin clattered on the polished bar top. A stool scraped. A pair of bandaged palms clasped beside it.
"What's this?" said the barback. She plucked up the coin, turned it round. It was old and dented. Cleanly cast with bas reliefs: Some runes on the obverse; and on the reverse: the cruel-eyed face of a woman with spiral horns. A scent of mildew and copper rubbed off in her hands. "Ain't no regulation golden pound," she quipped, twiddling the coin, looked to the man who'd sat across the bar. Her expression soured. "Oi, you're dripping on my bar."
He, young and crop-haired, was indeed dripping. Bleeding, but smiling broadly. A trickle of mingled red and clear liquid ran from one swollen, ruined eye, down his cheek to drip just below his mugging lips.
"Don't you worry, Eavan," he leaned forward, and his clasped palms trailed a smear of red and drit as they went. A pair of broken teeth showed in his smile. Sour air washed off him. "That right there's more 'n sufficient to account for whatever damages I inflict on your bar." He nodded to the coin.
Mingled concern and detestation knitted Eavan's brow. "Have you passed a mirror recently, Flatwich?" she said. "Since you crawled from whatever fecking hole you got that coin out of?"
"Ach. It's nothing. Pour me some medicine, if you're so worried."
"Your ear is barely hanging on."
Momently, Flatwich's hand twitched towards his shredded ear. He sneered, clasped his hands again, knuckles cracking. "Is my gold fair tender here, or not?" His eyes gleamed dully in the bar's orange lamps.
"Doctor Stotz is in town. Let me call for-"
A sack jangled. Flatwich dropped another fat coin on the counter. It resounded, rang spinning; glittering gold edges reflecting in the oak polish. "Gimme a stout n' a back of whiskey," growled the bleeding cutter.
Eavan's lips went thin, but she acted, nonetheless. She pulled a frothy pour of stout from a nearby bank of taps. And, covertly, while the foamy head settled, scribbled a brief note, tore it off, passed it to a mouse mopping under the counter. The furry creature nodded, propped up his mop, hopped away. She flicked her eyes to Flatwich as she poured the top-up, found he was occupied spinning the pair of coins. Two gold disks, whirling in a growing pool dripped from the mangled man's head.
As soon as the beer appeared before him, Flatwich tipped it back. He drank it down in four long, slow gulps interspersed by gasping swallows. In that time, Eavan plucked up the spinning coins, placed an amber glass of booze before him. Soon enough, it too had disappeared. Up went a tiny splash of droplets as he slammed the snifter down.
"Och, that hits just right," he grumbled, shook his head. The stool legs squeaked. Flatwich made to stand.
"You're off already?" said Eavan, eyes wide as she beheld him. Now that the man stood, a hilt could be seen protruding just above his right hip. Not the hilt of a belted knife, but an antique, rusted dagger still stuck, crusted in the cutter's side under the seam of his armor jacket. Eavan blanched at the sight of it. Flatwich moved as if the impaled blade bothered him not at all.
"Indeed, I'm off. Lots more where this came from, down the hole." He slapped the jangling sack on his belt. "Gotta lug it all safely home, you know." Eavan watched, incredulous as he limped for the saloon door.
"But what about the others? Flatwich, your gang, your friends: Are they coming?"
Flatwich paused, door latch in hand. "Oh, yes. They're down there, too. Salted. Don't worry."
"Don't worry. I'll carry them up." He rounded the doorframe. "After I get the rest of that gold, of course."
Everyone's got a teaspoon of salt in their coin purse. Everyone civilized, at least. And not typical salt, either, but the magical and curative grey salt, grisodate; the mineral by which tenuous civilization survives. * Steely grey grains, crushed to powder among the pence and little farthings.
You'll get a unified** explanation for why it's there: Wisdom. The wisdom to treat one's money well; to spend discerningly and choose a degree of asceticism and moderation over greed. How or whether at all this works, none could tell you for sure.
None can say, as it is indeed working. City folk couldn't tell, though. It's not they who are at risk of unnatural greed. They, with their purses full of grisodate and freshly minted, uncorrupted specie, need fear only the materialism contrived by their own minds.
They are blessed to never know the horrid avarice of real gold fever.
Civilization's gold is not mined. Not anymore.
It is stolen.
Stolen from the tombs and dungeon complexes of awful empires past. Of rich and terrible kingdoms, now buried, lain to rest uneasy behind locked vaults and ranks of undying guardians. To the financial institutions of the world, it is largely preferable to wrest gold from these ancient halls than to mine it. *** To do so, they employ cutters: venturesome mercenaries and weird errants madly bent on an often-unlawful life of high adventure.
Gold taken from the forbidden earth is no good bullion. It is, so say gossipful cutters over pipe bowls and cups of aqua vitae, horribly cursed. It is this ancient gold, they say, the twisted chalices, spired crowns, and fat, sneering-faced coins, that bears the curse of gold fever.
And they are correct. Gold buried long ago bears a sickness in its dusty luster: A mold, indistinguishable from spotty common mildew, that clings dormant to crevices and reliefs. A mold responsible, in part, for the madness of those venturesome souls who ferry it from its places of interment.
Scholars, those few who are aware of it, call the mold Rabeseductor aurum. This, the mold for which people unwittingly keep antifungal salt in their purses, is observed to grow and reproduce only on gold.
Those same scholars theorize that contact with R. aurum is observed to cause a sort of mania, one characterized by an overriding, antisocial avarice, particularly for gold. A dangerous drive accompanied by grandiosity, impulsivity, and a prevailing disregard for personal or public injury, all the signature symptoms of gold fever.
Anyone who has spent time among the fringe subculture that is cutters will know all the above symptoms to be more than prevalent. Though none among those cavalier, itinerant killers would recognize it, most cutters of moderate success are fully ensorcelled; enchanted by lucre just as effectively, if not more unnaturally, than the greedy financiers they distantly serve.
To learn of R. aurum and the mania it's thought to incur is to have one's perception of cutters, perhaps even of one's venturesome self, bespoiled; strewn to muddied doubt. What once seemed a natural range of behavior in debonair, Devil-may-care mercenaries with nothing to lose becomes more transparently concerning: Selfless stoicism becomes indifference and personal neglect; rollicking bravery becomes a penchant for unnecessary violence; and ambitious determination becomes suicidal avarice. †
After all, how often can one see a cutter, wounded beyond belief, stagger to the bar and gladly down a few drinks, only to return, weapon-hand twitching, back to the dungeon for more loot? What sane creature, after having seen the buried horrors of ages long ago, would gladly return to the deep? Indeed, to know the truth of gold fever is not just to doubt the cutter, but to doubt the integrity of free will. Without some madness, how should a sane person wish to be a cutter at all? And is R. aurum the vital madness that fuels it all?
The scholars who named R. aurum theorize that the venturing economy would not exist, if not for gold fever. They are wrong. R. aurum is not present outside stores of ancient gold. †† Instead, far more mundane drives exist to send cutters down horrid, deadly holes: Scarcity, curiosity, thrill-seeking, and, most notably, debt will all send a soul down the venturing life.
Gold fever, unnatural or not, simply serves to keep them there.
Murderhobos, justified for you by fantasy toxoplasmosis.
They way I use gold fever, I actually don’t stat it out. There are no systems attached. It’s simply a rumor. A rumor meant to unnerve the players and make them second-guess their behavior.
* Civilization as we know it would end if not for grey salt: The only preventative capable of combating plague.
** Purse salt is an uncommon superstition in that it is practiced by folk Coastwide. Usually, folk of the North carry different superstitions than those of the pious South.
*** In addition to plentiful, pure gold, tombs, catacombs, and dungeons are rife with the terrible
sorceries and magical technologies of millennia past; all unspeakably valuable.
† Curiously, gold fever does not dissuade a person from spending or handing away collected gold. R. aurum's sole drive is to distribute itself as far as possible to new people and to new, uninfected gold.
†† Gold that is melted and recast into new coins and products is safely rid of R. aurum, as is any bullion treated with grisodate. For this reason, gold fever is rare outside venturing boom towns.