January 16, 2023

The Competition

The wall was cold against his cheek.

He lay there, stunned, panting through his teeth. Smoke, thick over the floor, darted into his lungs. Freshly combusted ballistite and kerosene. He pressed into the wall as if to stand, faltered. The tile, a sumptuous dioxazine mauve, crackled and flaked where he had hit it. Red, wet fragments under his scalp. He sagged, failing. His front teeth grated over ancient grout. Somewhere nearby, the hammer-strike of a gunspring split the smoky, lamplit air, and something wet folded to the floor. He startled, sped by terror, redoubled his efforts to stand.

A crunch of footfalls, approaching. Hobnails over delicate marble. The man froze. One swollen eye fluttered open. Down the ornate, smoggy hall of tile approached a ragwoman in jackboots. She clinked as she walked, heavy maille shifting under the padded exterior of her armored suit. Behind her, armored shapes labored in the dim, turning through lumps of cloth and flesh still shedding ribbons of smolder. A derisive laugh in the dark.

Wet, pointed teeth glittered at him. "This one was only stunned," she tittered, eyeing him.

"Which one?"

"Young kid." She glanced behing. "Red hair. Greenleaf."

"Put him out of his misery. No toying, Clyo," a voice suggested.

"Perhaps," said Clyo, crouching. She crouched, leaned in. This close, tiny, spindly points showed, jutting under the cloth of her forehead. At this, the stunned young man whimpered. Red goo stretched between his parted lips.

"This wasn't your contract, Greenleaf. Bank owns this place," whispered the ragwoman, poking him with the snub barrel of a pocket gunspring. His eyes fixed on it. "There's rules in this trade, d'ye ken? You and yours' caught a grenade cause you didn't follow them."

"D-didn't," he stuttered, heaving, coughed a gobbet onto the floor. "Didn't know there was a contract."

She smiled faintly, displaying a crooked, animal-sharp canine.

"There's always a contract; ye'd best assume that. Tiber and Fellowes owns every tomb and oubliette in the lowlands. And where they don't, ye better count that another fecking bank does." Speaking, she traced a gloved finger through the red smear he'd left on the tile, licked it pensively.

"Damn you, cannibal," growled the young man, weakly. "And your banks!"

"'Damn you,'" she mimed, giggling. "Avethan, hah? Can't curse me with that; we don't have souls, remember?" * She displayed more crooked, long teeth. "Can still pop yours out yer body, though." She nosed the gun at him. "Seems unfair."

"You going to finish him off or what? We'll pick all the swag without you," jeered a voice nearby.

"Soon, Ferring."

The young man hiccupped, choked. A sob. He curled against the wall, tucking his legs against his antique padded gambeson. Flakes of ancient, shattered tile dusted him. "You wouldn't even give us a chance," he muttered.

"Oh shut ye the feck up," said Clyo. "Gonne cry when you get out-competed? Playing at the most dangerous trade there is? Pah. Venture without a contract: you risk meeting real cutters." She gestured to herself and her comrades, bristling with steel and thick armor.

"And even if yer licensed, there's always the competition. I've tussled with more than a few Peridot Firm idiots who thought their boss owned the same fecking hole, I have. Risk ratings don't account for them, but you pop 'em when you see 'em."

At her feet, the greenleaf shuddered, near senseless. "Why's it gotta be that way? Why not even a chance to run?" he stammered, furious and weeping.

"Because that's the rules." She sneered.

"Shoot me then, wretch. If those're the rules, I lost." He slumped, eyes screwed shut.

Clyo scowled, the trappings of her brows crinkling. "Feck's sake," she muttered. "It wouldn't be good sport, Greenleaf. I don't have a taste for you, and ye don't even have a rival license to cash in. So," she leaned close, pressing the gunspring muzzle and her snaggled teeth close to the greenleaf's ear. "So if you're quiet, I'll call this a catch and release."

Swiftly, she whipped him in the temple with the gunspring. Before he could fall, she placed the nose of the weapon beside his ear, facing the wall, and discharged it, cracking the already shattered and bloody tile with a lancing flechette. The greenleaf crumpled with a sigh, as if shot.

Kylo stood, looking covertly at her comrades. She sneered at the greenleaf.

"There's yer fecking chance."

A live anchovy languished in the glass.

Dardennes beheld it, doubtful. A cigarillo end hung from his lip. His eyes were red and swollen from drink and smoke. Behind him stretched a thicket of low tables covered in glassware and ashtrays, populated by young creatures flirting, shouting, boasting, overcast with smoke, doxbells, and hissing green lamps. Over it all, a band clamored on; a ragman in peppermint-striped trappings slapped a bass in time with a snare drum. The drums themselves, populated by a trio of mice, their shirtsleeves rolled to furry elbows, chopping wildly away. A Firl in a red dress jacket chased her spidery hands over a piano, as if they were attempting to flee her wrists. Dardenes hunched over the table, boozy, as if compacted by the intensity of the surrounding club.

But in front of him, there was the anchovy, gasping its last in a louche of ouzo and ice.

"Do I have to drink the fish?" he begged.

"Yes, it's lucky. It's a Rialtan tradition," said one of his tablemates, a muscled, scarred woman in too much rouge. She raised her own fish, swallowed it. "See? Nothing to it," she said, grimmacing fiercely, exhaling fumes of ethanol and coriander.

At that moment, a shaggy head whipped up from the table, followed by the wide, gold-pierced ears of a mouse in a blue jacket. The shaggy man fanned his hands rapidly, shook his curly locks, face screwed up. The mouse wheezed, painedly. They had both snuffed a line of red-gold dust from a silver saucer. "I, for one, feel extremely lucky," said the curly-haired man. "The fish must be working." He bent to consume another line.

"You want a sniff?" squealed the mouse, smiling, eyes watering.

"That the stuff with nitro powder mixed in?" said Dardennes, cringing. **

"Damn right it is," exclaimed the shaggy man. His pupils were ragged inkblots.

"Then no," said Dardennes, growing louder to cover the crashing drums. "I'd rather risk the fish."

"Come on," said the woman. "Bottoms up. We all need the luck we can have, for the Undercroft."

"Give my stomach a moment to collect its resolve." Dardennes clumsily stubbed out the cigarillo. A pair of dusty doxbells launched themselves from the ashes, spiraled into the flame of the lamp overhead to disintegrate into dust. As he struggled to light another, his arm jerked: Someone clapped him on the shoulder from behind.

"Dardennes, Raicourt, gang," he slapped Dardennes again. "You've gotta meet these cats I met in the cloakroom." Dardennes turned, met the eyes of the speaker: A ragman in leather strips, grinning broadly. "Cutters, you see?" Said the ragman, indicating two creatures beside him: A fellow ragman in green velvet, and a tall woman in a flatcap. Both wore expensive, glossy, studded leather jackets with conspicuous, bulky substructure and bits of metal at the shoulders, elbows, and chest. Not unlike the vests and armored jacks that Dardennes' crew wore even now, or had slung over their chairs.

"Cutters huh?" grinned the woman in rouge. "In Vistambique? Thought we were the only ones in town. I am called Raicourt."

"Rogiera, and this is Pince," said the woman in the flatcap, indicating her companion. "Thought this town was flat of out good company, too, till we met your mate Saffiano here. He's got very fine dust."

"Very fine, very fine," mugged Saffiano. "Sit with us! Let me get us another round of anchovies. We can all drum up some luck for our jobs." He dashed off to the bar.

The cutters merged together at the table. The ragman Pince squeezed next to Dardennes. He smelt of sandalwood, sweat, and gun cleaner. Idly, while transacting a vial of dust for some heavy golden pounds with the shaggy man, Rogeira looked to Dardennes. "You got jobs here too?"

"Yeah," slurred Dardennes. "Péridot Firm gig."

Raiourt nodded, sucking on a piece of ice. "We all sign on together. Been at it a few months now."

"Very nice. We're Peridot as well. You're making returns, I see?" said Rogeira.

"Bloody right we make returns," said the mouse in blue, squealing over the music. "They let us in here, after all!"

"This place is swell. D'you like jasm?" said Pince, leaning in and indicating the band.

"Immensely!" proclaimed the mouse.

They spoke of music awhile, while Rogeira and Raicourt discussed the politics of Rialta in their unique dialect, making faces and gesturing violently. Dardennes smoked passively, silent. Glazed, he watched the anchovy in his glass, dead and hanging in cloudy solution amidst chips of ice, its own eyes flat and waxy. Low overhead, the heavy green-cased lamp hissed. He ashed the cigarillo in a saucer. Bodies and backs of chairs bumped intermittently into Dardenne's own, and he stooped, receding into the high collar of his jacket, lids drooping over his reddened, gibbous eyes.

"Hey mate, no sleeping." Saffiano slapped him on the back of the head. His other hand waved forward a mouse, who held a platter of tall, narrow glasses filled with ice, ouzo and a single anchovy each overhead.

Dardennes grunted, wakened, eyes sticky. His fingers were lightly burnt, covered in ash.

The cutters, Dardennes' gang and newcomers alike, took up the little glasses, weeping condensation, and raised them in anticipation. Dardennes hurriedly grabbed a fresh one and raised it. They grinned madly.

"To good fortune, and a fat payout!" Raicourt proclaimed. There was a chorus of "fortune" and "money!" They upturned their glasses. The fish wriggled faintly, salty and awash in liquor, coriander, and anise, in Dardennes' throat. He gagged.

"So," said Raicourt. "What horrid venture you lot off to? How's the risk profile?"

Rogeira, wiping tears in her eyes from the volatile ouzo, spoke. "Moderate danger, medium-high yield, long commitment. Decent, for an urban site. We've two more boys with us, on it. Out sampling the local ragdolls, of course. Team of four should be sufficient." ***

Raicourt nodded appreciatively. "How about it; we've a gig with similar stats. Love me a tomb under town; you can come up for hot sandwiches when it gets tiring."

"We must be around the same standing, all of us," said Rogeira. "May we witness similarly obscene payouts and swag, as well!"

Dardennes' eyes focused, suddenly. He straightened. "Where's this hole you're raiding, anyway?" he asked. "Urban ruin, yeah?"

"Oh," put in Pince, looking over from his conversation with the mouse. "Just some shitty undercroft is all."

The table near-immediately silenced. The cutters' eyes did not meet once. Nearby, the band established the tumultuous end of a crescendo they had been ad-libbing for some time. The club cried in delight. A titter of applause. A new beat commenced.

"The Old Convent Undercroft," said Rogeria, finally. Her tone was almost hopeful.

"Aye," said Dardennes. Rogeira's face fell. Pince stood to leave, almost tripping.

"Why would Péridot do thi-" started the mouse in blue, outraged, before Saffiano silenced him.

"In that case," said Rogeira. She stood. "We wish you very good luck indeed."

Strife

Cutters do not abide the competition.

It is not their nature to cooperate with others of their woeful caste. Should they meet in pursuit of the same venture, they are often swiftly bound to violence. In the field, or in the hole, as it may be, a gang of cutters faced with a fellow gang will near-invariably set upon each other like lions. Cautious, skirting diplomacy may sometimes occur, rarely. But when it does, it is backed by a slow retreat, by hands left uneasily to rest on gun-grips and axe handles. Either one gang stands down and abandons their aims, or they fall on each other with all their plentiful tools of war.

Cutters joke often that, despite their close association with banks, no financial institution will ever sell them insurance on their lives, for danger and death abound in the cutter's trade. They delve into ancient sorcerer-tombs, trapped ruins, haunted undercrofts, and miserable oubliettes full-well prepared to risk life and limb. They equip themselves, steel their minds at the prospect for battle with gruesome plague, pigmen, chimeras, eidola, and otherworldly horrors. But in the uncommon event they, in some miserable, dark hole, turn corner in a dungeon hall and meet fellow cutters, creatures with whom they might reason and cooperate with, they often enough throw themselves into mutual slaughter, as if cutters were merely another brand of wandering monster.

Why, then, do cutters oblige themselves to such apathetic strife? These mercenaries, conscious of their exploitation by patron-banks, should be tempted to combine their strength. To dilute the ever-present danger in their endeavors. These cutters, who are so eager to embrace fraternity while in civilization, to soak comfort from their compatriots. Compatriots, who throw dice together, who throw themselves in bed together, who throw up fantasies of how rich they will all be someday over drinks together, should not so easily draw knives and throw down the gauntlet when they meet in the deep dark, places of the Coast.

The answers for this are as dire as they are difficult to suppose, for they defy reason, and cut at the heart of the cutter's condition, and their unfortunate niche in the modern world.

Gold fever, that insidious, affliction rumored to haunt ancient treasure, may be the answer. Gold fever, which twists a delver's mind, tempting him to commit the most desperate of actions in service to avarice and the acquisition of gold, may prompt a cutter to heinous traitorism against their own venturing caste. But some say gold fever isn't real. Or, they say it is no more exceptional than the common addictions which often drive cutters to fringe behavior, that it has no reason to exhibit itself more strongly in the wilds or dark deeps than in civilization.

The banks, the drivers of adventure capitalism itself, cutters' faceless employers, may be responsible. Not unknown are tales of cutters who arrive at the site of a venture only to find it already cracked and filled with a rival bank's minions; or even with cutters from the same bank, sent in a kind of careless, deliberate double-dip, or perhaps a logistical mistake, performed in an attempt to extract a tomb's riches at any cost of life. Banks care not for the effect that competing cutters have on each other, so long as the victorious venturing party, the one with riches in a sack, is one of theirs. Of course, few cutters will cease service to one bank if betrayed in such a way, so strong is the incentive provided by accumulated standing. Standing, the system of benefits built over many horrifying, laborious missions in service to one institution.

Or perhaps something simpler. Perhaps cutters, especially hardened ones, are so thoroughly changed by their experiences, their violent labors in the dark, that they really do assume a predatory nature. When miles deep in the earth, perhaps so deep that they have slipped beyond the fold of the world entirely, perhaps they depart common sanity as well. The most veteran cutters, grandmaster intruders and consummate killers as they often are, will often offer no explanation but this; that once one slips the civilized world and whatever social contracts come with it, that they are free to play by different rules.

Author's Note

Readers can have a soupçon of edgy articles, as a treat.

If you still follow this blog, I welcome you back.

I have resumed the work. The site is still under construction, but I wanted to get a new article out to feel like things were alive inside. I rebuilt it with Oxygen Editor after moving to WordPress from old Blogger, which I will miss. Need to figure out if I want to continue using images, as I am attracted to a text-only style. Old articles are a little messy, formatting wise. I will sort them out. Please offer suggestions for things, if you have them.

Footynotes

* Avethans hold that only humans have souls and are owed Paradise.. They feel supported in this belief by the fact that other creatures do not tend to experience faith. Or, at least, do not experience it in Aveth.

** Dust, known also, mysteriously and excitingly, as "Blood of the Dust God," is an amphetamine imported from Baramecca. The details of its manufacture are largely unknown. Cutters often mix it with nitroglycerin, or even raw ballistite grains, which acts as a dangerous potentiator for its effects.

*** Ragdoll is a crude term for ragman sex workers. Or, more often, humans pretending to be them, to simulate the experience.

8 comments on “The Competition”

  1. A light in the night; a welcome sight. The darkness splits and from within spills all manner of Incunabuli.

  2. As always, your posts are quite inspiring - I will take from this one the idea of hostile competitors for my D&D players, and a "Word of the Day" for my students: "soupçon"! The update to the website works great.

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