Will wished he knew how he remembered his name.
He wished he could remember how it all started, how he knew that this world wasn’t natural and how he, or anyone else, ended up in it and why he believed it could be another way, or ever had been.
The thought tasted bitter, but not nearly so bitter as the cheap brown ale in his cup, itself a cheap earthenware mug shaped roughly like a small bowl with a small depression sized for his thumb. He sluiced the nutty flavored beverage through his mouth and swallowed the mouthful, wiping excess foam off his lips with the back of his hand.
He seemed to stay the same, whenever he was incarnated as a dungeoneer. His hands had the same coloration and texture, and they had that single half-moon scar over his left index finger knuckle. His face felt the same, his hair and eye color were identical every time. The styles would change, he might have a few extra scars as appropriate to some imagined background, perhaps a birthmark of some kind showing a strange origin, but never a debilitating injury. He had never started an incarnation with a bum eye, amputated limb, or even a hobbled gait.
He’d wound up with those, in the past, usually shortly before dying, but he never started with one.
Unless he started an incarnation as a penitent.
Then again a dungeoneer never started out as a penitent if they could afford it.
But then the philosophical question that he liked to ask, that no one else seemed to care about, was how they afforded it. The best he could figure out, he, and everyone else, had a balance of some sort of nebulous points. He had settled on calling them karma some time ago, perhaps a leftover from some other fellow he’d worked with or fought against some time ago. It was hard to remember past his last thirteen or so incarnations.
But just thinking about it brought up his balance, as if he could see a tally in the middle of the table. Seventy-five points.
He drank another swig of the ale. He’d taken a gamble on this one. A starting dungeoneer incarnation cost one hundred. At that level he would be fresh meat for anyone more experienced, easy pickings. His starting currency and equipment would be taken almost immediately, his corpse left within two miles of where he woke up at with those flat memories of a past he’d never lived.
Thank whatever gods existed that he couldn’t remember all of those lives.
Seventy-five would rate him a red penitentcy. Reds were good for city-bound menial tasks. He could earn some karma points back that way, but the penitencies were horribly dull, and occasionally terrifying.
He’d spent fifteen hundred points this time around. He’d saved a lot to get there, done several turns in the blue, taken a trip or two as a purple, even suited up as a yellow a few times to serve as another dungeoneer’s private mercenary. Yellow penitents were good for that. They could fight well, didn’t feel as much pain as a regular incarnation did, not nearly as much hunger, and nowhere near the same level of pain.
A green walked up to his table. In the dim light it sure looked human, but lantern at his table shown off the green skin. There was a sway to the creature that said it was being run by a woman. Valeria.
Valeria was one reason he liked started in Hobblesmith. It was a shit town, the epitome of a dungeoneer’s boom town, with the over-inflated prices, the twitchy locals prone to all sorts of violence, and the sullen looks of people beat to within an inch of their life, but the Silver Tankard, which didn’t have a single troy ounce of silver to its name, was a decent place to socialize, and Valeria was a full half of that.
She was a green penitent, and unlike every other penitent he had known or been, she was a she. Not a one of them had plumbing of any kind. They didn’t need to eat, they didn’t need to shit, and the certainly couldn’t do the horizontal mambo. They just weren’t equipped for it, Valeria included, or so they said.
Will suspected it was so that penitents wouldn’t have to serve their time as harem slaves. It didn’t entirely stop the practice. A penitent could do whatever it wanted to within the confines of its type. Greens were service creatures. They fulfilled menial duties that required some degree of dexterity wherever required. Serving drinks at a tavern frequented by dungeoneers fit the bill as good as working in a kiln or carving scrimshaw.
Locks of pale auburn hair drifted to one side as the androgynous face turned to him with a pleasant smile. “Another ale, William?”
He’d always admired that wig. “No, V, thanks.”
She cocked her head the other way. “You spent big this time, didn’t you? You know you could’ve started in Toningen, maybe got something with a little of that extra starting gold.”
He smirked. She was far more perceptive than any green had a right to be. “And how long have you been in there, V? Don’t you ever get bored of serving here? I remember you from what, my last three or four times through Hobbleston.”
She shrugged. A smirk plaid out across her face. It made the normally dull eyes of a penitent sparkle like living things. “Girl’s gotta eat. So tell me, how much?”
“Come on, V, you know I won’t spill that.”
“Depends on what I offer you, doesn’t it, Billy?” she smiled a slow smile and twirled her hair around a finger.
There were stories about Valeria. He’d never tried to investigate those. He just liked how she ran the bar, how unique she seemed among a sea of bland individuals who had chosen to simply go through the motions.
“Not your type, huh?”
“Nothing personal. I’ve been a green.” It didn’t stop some from trying though. He suppressed a shudder
“Suit yourself. You here to meet anyone? Make an arrangement in your last penitency?” Her painted-on eyebrows–penitents never had hair–rose and fell.
He shook his head. He hadn’t run into a trustworthy dungeoneer in at least five incarnations. “You know what we’re like. I haven’t run into a trustworthy dungeoneer in maybe five incarnations.”
Not since that time as a magic-user.
“Well, luck to you, William the Wonderful,” she said with a sunny smile. He groaned. That had been the magic-user’s name. Why did she have to remember that?
“Please, it’s Will Nimble Fingers this time.”
“You always pick the strangest names,” Valeria chuckled. She shook her head, hoisted her tray and moved on to another table.
There were another baker’s dozen of dungeoneers in Valeria’s tonight. He knew about three quarters of them. He’d killed or been killed by half that number. None of them looked to be quite at the Starter level, but none had the mean look of a dungeoneer starting a Name level either. He hadn’t been able to afford that. He couldn’t imagine anyone saving up the required ten thousand points to start there. Valeria, maybe.
When she finally incarnated as a dungeoneer the rest of Dungeonworld had best pay attention.
A chord strummed from a perfectly tuned mandolin announced the arrival of the person Will had been waiting for.
Saoirse the Bold stepped up onto a dais at the far end of the Silver Tankard’s common room and, without introducing herself (because, honestly, who among them needed to be introduced to her?) launched into one of her famous songs, The Battle of Isfallen Heights.
Will sat and listened, finishing off the last of his ale while he analyzed the lyrics. She sang beautifully, her voice a rich contralto that buoyed the music, supported by expertly time chords strummed from that mandolin. She swayed to the music, wholly invested in the tale and the tones. It transported her from a somewhat ordinary girl into an angel. It didn’t matter what she sang, he had always been enchanted by it.
Isfallen held interest to him. He’d heard it once, a very long time ago, but dismissed the words. Now, he knew better. Now he listened. He’d paid her dearly for this. A direct transfer of nearly a hundred fifty points, arranged on his last foray as a red penitent. She’d kept the song hidden, and no matter where he looked in her archives, he’d never found it.
Saoirse knew what he was about. It had been a game between them. As a red he was, unfortunately, easy to outsmart. They were excellent at recalling facts and figures, with nimble fingers and excellent eyesight, but they had tremendous difficulty turning that knowledge into useful wit and wisdom. But he’d still put up a challenge to the bard of bards. He was more than a little proud of that.
He listened intently to the words as they fell from her lips, trying to memorize every inflection, every tonality. They would be useful he was sure. And the key lay hidden in the third stanza, when the heroes of the lay faced off against one of the Dungeon Master’s generals. Isfallen was the last time such a force had moved in the Dungeonworld, and Will was confident that those four had succeeded where none others had.
Their names were rumored legend. Tostig, the bold warrior, Alathea the Sorceress of Pangal, Luthansa the Thief, who had stolen the Jewell of Life itself, and Zoab the Cleric, who supposedly spoke with gods no one had heard from before or since, who had granted him amazing powers, even, perhaps, over the life of other dungeoneers.
Everyone he’d ever met knew a hundred half-remembered and hopelessly confused stories about each of them. No one knew for sure how or when they met their end, or if they ever reincarnated.
But Will had bet that Saoirse knew.
He’d bet a lot.