Thursday, 17 November 2016

ashen-faced and ashen-hearted

Keith Thomson
The society of Chirica is made up of men, and gnomes, and elves; and of goblins, and vampires, and demons; and of homunculi, and the merpeople known as agnates; and of the ashborn. The ashborn are the quiet petit bourgeois of Chirica: they are accountants to the guilds, majordomos to the noble houses, clerks to the warehouses, modest, respectable wheels in the vast, stuttering, rust-caked engine of the city.

They look not unlike men. They dress neatly, soberly, in dark colours set against the icy pale of their hairless skins and in concert with the black orbs of their eyes: although, in darkness, a faint flicker of coppery light can be seen therein. They lead lives of determined respectability amid the creeping entropy of Chirica, doing the bidding of their employers and retiring home - generally to narrow houses in the well-ordered streets of the district called Amadoro - to discuss philosophy. Phenomenology, hermeneutics, epistemology, the more abstract the better.

They have no gender, though they don and doff the gendered styles of other peoples as they please. They do not eat, and drink nothing but salt water. They are impervious to extremes of heat and cold. They do not breathe. They are chill and papery to the touch. Their grip is strong, glacial, numbing. When they die - after a half century or so, perhaps - their skin and their doubtful flesh flakes away as if on a sudden
wind, and in their absence is left a wrinkled, coal-black thing, like a tree root or a shrivelled lizard. It writhes, gently. It is hot to the touch.

Other ashborn come for it. They carry it - carefully, carefully - to one of the great brick cones that rises above Amadoro, spitting embers and smoke endlessly into the dark sky. Close to, through the archway at the base of the great chimney, it can be seen: the massed-up banks of blazing coal, the shimmering roil of unbearable heat rising from it. Bound demons bank up the fire endlessly, creeping around its margins: and in its centre move a handful of white-hot forms, crawling like hallucinations through the conflagration. They grow, gradually, and after a span of years, their forms increasingly elongated, manlike, their bodies beginning to cool away from incandescence, they are tempted out by their brethren, out from the heat, and stumble into the world, into frock coats and bookkeeping and philosophy.

They insist they remember nothing of who they have been before.

Mechanically, ashborn are ghouls: their larvae are magmins. They like doing their jobs and talking philosophy and staying out of trouble (not easy, in Chirica). They’re basically 18th century Germans who are also quasi-undead, quasi-insectoid beings made of ossified thermal energy.