"This is the first you've encountered such a thing, Coroner?" * said the man in white. He touched the brim of his wide hat, pulled it low. Beside strode a fellow in a grey apron, shirtsleeves rolled. Sweat glistened on his forearms and brown brow, coaxed from wide pores by heat and anxiety. A brick wall clad in tropical creepers staged the walking pair.
"Yes," said the Coroner, twitching a hand. "Well, not the first I've heard, Señor Investigador, but the first I've seen. The cutters at the Heron's Perch are full of tales."
The Investigator kicked a small stone over the mossy pavers. Momently, he waved away a sticky gnat.
"What is it these cutters say?"
The Coroner stopped, leant an elbow against the wall. "Investigador," he said, turning open a pink palm. "Before I speak, I need assurance. For my safety."
"May I ask why?"
Nervously, the Coroner glanced to a badge on the Investigator's jacket: A little silver eye with many points about it, like spiky lashes. "Ah," said the other man, noticing. A thin smile split neath the shadowed hat brim. "Of course. You have my assurance. Your connection to this investigation is merely incidental."
An uneasy grin stretched the Coroner's lips. "Of course," he echoed. He resumed walking. The man in white followed. Beside, the wall ended, gave way to tan brick tallhouses spidered with oily ivy. Green and yellow birds flitted cross the lane.
"The tales?" prompted the Investigator.
"Yes. The cutters speak of ruins within our island, made long ago by the dead Nôr."
"Everyone on Illa Corvoy knows this place is lousy with ruins, Coroner."
"That is not all. The cutters trade tales of a certain enclave within the deep boscage. They say the ancients lured a creature there from another place."
"What manner of creature?"
"One shaped like a great man. Some eidolon."
"Like the specimen we are going to see?"
"Yes. But head and shoulders greater. They say he is broad like the statue of Saint Tian in Giora Square."
The white hat tipped, looked at the other man. "I will admit some surprise, Coroner, your tongue is educated. And you have been to Carro. ** You are not some back-island corpse-lugger."
"I attended la Academia, Señor," said the Coroner. He pawed sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. "My mother was a merchant. She paid my way."
"You are wasted in this job."
"I enjoy it. Not too boring, not too exciting."
"And there will always be bodies to burn." ***
"Yes," said the Coroner, slowly. He stopped at a yellow door. The man in white stood behind him, noted the hanging sign. It read “Mortuorio.”
"Who first told you of this eidolon?" said the Investigator, watched the other man put a key to the lock.
"A Belvirinian mouse. Returned on venture from the interior. She had a charcoal rubbing taken from a relief. An image of a huge man with a beard of chains. Evocative."
The Coroner paused a moment, one foot through the open door. A bead of moisture crept down his temple. “Indeed.”
They stepped through the threshold. A small office lay beyond. Creamy light fell from opaque, long windows clogged with ivy, lit a desk, a sparse rug, a heavy curtain at the back. A dry tang of grey salt met their throats. “Through here,” said the coroner. They passed through the drape. “Mind the dark.”
There was a click, a spark, a greasy flutter of flaring oil. Pale light fell from an iron hood, revealed a table. There lay the bare shape of a woman, indistinct under a pale sheet.
“One hundred eighty-two centimeters in height,” said the Coroner. “And ninety kilos. Took a couple fellows to carry it in here.”
The Investigator nodded, circled the body. Bright, staring pinpricks glimmered under the shadow of his hat. “Tell me again who discovered it?”
“Customs office. Found some cutters attempting to smuggle it out of port. Poorly, at that. Had it in a crate marked 'opals'.”
“Likely no less valuable, to a buyer.”
The Investigator stopped his circling. Abruptly, he pinched the sheet, tugged. Cloth fluttered under the light. Bright porcelain and steel gleamed under the oil lamp. A twitch of disgust flared the man’s nostrils. “Like a doll,” he said, pulled a long finger over the thing’s sculpted ceramic lips.
“Yes, but perfectly proportioned.”
The Investigator traced his finger over an unyielding cheek, round an open glass eye. “If it were crude, it would somehow be less blasphemous.” He tapped the eye, sneered, withdrew his hand.
“It is undamaged,” he stated.
“But it was dead when found?”
“As still as it is now.”
“You have examined it for life?”
“I suspect it never lived,” said the Coroner.
“Bien. Little more than perverse statuary, then,” said the investigator. Teeth flashed neath his hat brim. “A shame for the foolish cutters that their sentence will not be reduced.” He waved a hand at the body, turned away. “Have it crushed and slagged.”
“I will contact the smelter, Señor Investigador.”
The man in white extended a hand, took the Coroner’s sweaty palm. “The Inquisition is glad for your cooperation, Coroner. I am surprised you asked for assurance. You are a fine and righteous man.”
“Thank you, Señor.”
They passed through the curtain, back to the office. Shapes of ivy leaves, stenciled by the windows, fell over the floor. “You will, of course, report any future abominations of this variety.”
“Good day, Coroner.”
“Good day.” The office door clunked shut. The Coroner locked it. He produced his handkerchief, dabbed sweat from his face and neck. He set an elbow to the closed door, leaned there. A shuddering breath pulled through him. A small smile of relief crinkled the corners of his eyes. “He is gone,” he called, softly.
Behind him, past the curtain, there was a scrape of movement. Ceramic toes clicked as they met the floor, pattered over boards. Segmented fingers with sculpted nails parted the cloth, cautious. bluebottle glass eyes peered around, flitting and alive in the unchanging porcelain visage.
The Coroner turned. “We must find you some clothes, a disguise,” he said. The blue eyes nodded.
“And we must find you an escape from Illa Corvoy.”
Thunder shuddered over the low, slate peaks. Blue rivulets of lightning crawled, continuous, through the night. Somewhere on the slopes, a pine flared up, match-like, licked by a dripping tongue of plasma.
On one hill, a blonde head peered from the mouth of a sheltered cave. Adaline the cutter surveyed the storm-lashed scree, withdrew into the rock. She plucked up a dinged, blunt sidesword, poked her small fire of pinecones disconsolately. † There, a spitted teacup hog burbled its meager fat into the hissing flames. Smoke ran up and out along the ceiling, sucked out by wind. A crack of thunder rippled through the rock. Adaline rubbed her ears, made a face, glared into the fire.
Outside, there was a crunch of scree. Adaline startled, snapped to face the cave entrance. The grating of mountain gravel neared, louder, rhythmic. The cutter looked to her shoddy weapon, rolled her eyes at it, gripped it nonetheless. “I don’t suppose you’re a hungry ragman, come to eat me?” said Adaline. Her tone belied only a little fear.
A black-gloved hand gripped the cave edge, pulled a body into view. A tall woman in a leather coat and full casque. “No, Señora,” said she, metallic inside the helm. “Merely a cutter seeking solace from the storm. I saw the smoke.”
Adaline exhaled, put down the sidesword. “Then it seems we’re alike. Join me.”
The tall cutter stepped through. “My thanks. Few caves here are not filled with wretches.” She crunched over to the fire, tossed down a pack and a barrel-fed gunspring. Adaline ogled the expensive weapon, the spare alloy coils. “I am Ópal,” said the helmeted cutter. Adaline took her offered hand, found it hard and strong. “Adaline Northing, of Dour.”
Ópal settled to the dusty floor with a thump and a small crash of steel. “I am pleased to find a fellow venturer in these crags, Adaline. What brings you here?” She said, tugging at the laces of her helm. A glint of blue eye showed through the mesh visor.
“Ah, well,” said Adaline, glum. “Venturing, I suppose. Not much of a cutter, though. Left the family farm a winter back, thought I'd get rich.” She gazed at the fine steel and soft leather of Ópal’s gear. “Had one good job, but my partners ran off with my cu—”
She broke off, stared at the other cutter. “Is that a mask?” said Adaline uneasy.
“No,” said Ópal, setting down the helmet. She fixed Adaline with cobalt eyes, the only moving item in her pretty porcelain face. A permanent turn of amusement curled her sculpted lips. “I have afeared you,” said the metallic voice, concerned.
“No” said Adaline, trying to drop her concerned frown. “Well. A little.”
A weird, chirruping burble of a laugh emanated from the small plates of Ópal’s throat. Adaline tried to return the chuckle, grinned, uncomfortable. “I know this is very rude, but, is all of you like that?”
“Yes,” said the ceramic woman. She stripped off a glove, extended a long, creamy-pale hand to Adaline. Gingerly, the human woman took it, marveled at the statuesque detail of the digits, the weird grey cords neath every segmented finger-plate. The hand was hard, cold, but pliable at the joints. The fingertips were scratched, rough. Adaline lingered, touching them. She pulled suddenly away. “Sorry.”
“You’ve done no wrong,” said, Ópal, stripping off the other glove. She sat quite comfortably, elbows draped on knees. Outside, thunder rippled immensely.
"It’s not every day you have to ask what someone is. I feel like a child.”
"A fair question. I’m told we are not many.”
"I am not entirely sure,” said Ópal, tilting her head. A drop of sadness tinged her tone, incongruent with the glad expression. “I have been told of clockwork people, animunculi, on Illa Corvoy, where I first have memories.”
"But, weren’t there more like you, on Corvoy?”
“I suppose there must have been, but I do not remember. My first recollections are of kind Alagórian cutters. They said they found me, taught me to speak.”
“Where are they?”
“I do not know. They were caught trying to smuggle me from the island, from the Inquisition. †† I would not have escaped, but for a sympathetic coroner.”
Idly, Adaline pulled her hog from the spit. She held it up. “I don’t suppose you…?”
Ópal shook her head. Adaline noticed a spidering of little cracks in the turning skull’s base. “You’re damaged,” she said, chewing.
“Yes. It’s not so easy to find a sufficient craftsman.”
“Does it hurt?”
“No. I understand I do not hurt as others do.”
“But you can feel?”
Ópal nodded, drew her fingertips along the ground. They grated softly.
"You must be a valuable cutter."
"I am well paid by those who would pay me. I am journeying North, for this reason. Alagórians are not unkind to my face, but there are many who are afraid. They would do me no kindness. Most would rather hire a blighter."
"Yeah, but you're better to look at. Typical barmy Southerners."
"Typical, irreverent Firlesé," said Ópal, suddenly stern. ††† Surprise flushed Adaline's face. She quit chewing. She searched the impassive glass eyes.
The same burbling chuckle filled the cave. Ópal waved a playful hand. Adaline grinned, embarrassed, resumed her meal. "You must be amazing at cards."
"I have a certain advantage."
Adaline frowned, waved the spit. "How'd you become a cutter, anyway? I'd reckon a girl like a marble statue wouldn't ever have to get bloody and dirty. You'd dominate the Rue de Couture."
Ópal produced a contemplative, burring hum. "I was taught how to live by the cutters who found me. They were very much like parents. Venturing is all I know how to do." She tilted her head. "If you were raised by wolves, would you naturally become a statesman or a chef?"
"Suppose you're right," said Adaline. She nibbled pensively at the hog carcass. "Suppose I'm jealous."
Adaline made a face. "It's obvious. You're beautiful and strong and powerful. You'd make it big whether you were in a Tomb raid or a ballroom. Perfection."
"I disagree," said the metallic voice, suddenly sharp.
"Because I am equally jealous of you: Adaline Northing, who can walk in any Southern street without fear of the Inquisition, who knows her family in Dour, whose flesh moves and heals like a proper person." Ópal yanked back her sleeve, bared her forearm. Spidery lines of lead showed where the ceramic had been repaired like shattered pottery.
"Oh," said Adaline. Her gaze flitted between the arm and the cave floor. Thunder boomed through the rock. The fire popped once.
After a time, Ópal spoke. "You are also heading North?"
"Yeah," said Adaline, hesitant.
"Would you travel with me for a while?"
The blonde cutter's eyes widened. Seeing this, Ópal shifted, waved a hand. "Given you need a venturing partner and I, unfamiliar with the North, could use—"
Ópal hesitated only a moment. "Yes."
"I will," said Adaline.
"Good," said the porcelain woman.
For a small moment, though it might have been the fire, the light of a smile seemed to glitter in he glass eyes.
Somewhere, deep in the jungle interior of Illa Corvoy, there is a hidden enclave. It is far beyond the warm port city, past the placid bluet vineyards, amidst the thick boscage and drooling lion poppies. ‡
There, in a workshop from another world, labors a singular creature. His eyes are crystal. They have gladness only for toil. His hands are gauntlets. They idle only in sleep. His beard is silver chain. Its links are worn and melted by time and the lick of kilns.
He is an eidolon artisan brought to Nören by the ancients. ‡‡ He is older than the Lord of Humanity herself, and, to those who know of him, no less deific. Though none yet remember why he was brought to the world, it is easy to judge by his toil, for his works are living beings.
Some will say he is a myth, a tale constructed to mystify the island depths. Cutters will say he is real. They have seen his carven image on countless stones and stele in the green interior. They know him as the Worker in the Past.
To the animunculi, his sentient crafts, he is known only as Father.
Some decade or so past, tales of living statues began to flow from Illa Corvoy. ‡‡‡ Creatures of smooth, articulated ceramic skin, discovered in the ruins of the ancient Nör by venturing cutters.
The tales, as they so tend to be from the mouths of cutters, were truly unbelievable: Ceramic people, come from the jungle like large children with nothing but a curious capacity for language and skill. Beautiful, sculpted men and women with glittering glass eyes and faces like idyl masks. Clockwork cutters strong as two men. Animunculi, an astounding new variety of people. Unbelievable indeed.
Most everyone came to believe, though, for the animunculi were real. Animunculus cutters appeared in island inns and consortiums, dressed with armor and blade. The banks snapped them up for their might and durability. Animunculus sailors signed on with merchants and leviathan-catchers. The captains thought them lucky. An animunculus woman appeared at a Court of Empereaux ball in blue chiffon. The aristocracy of the Isles lost their minds.
In time, higher powers took note. The distinctly aesthete Court of Empereaux declared its Sovereign Isles a friend to the beautiful creatures. Firlund, Belvirine, and Lothyrhaim made cursory recognition of this new race of people, though they were never announced. The Holy Inquisition of Alagór, incensed at these perceived mockeries of humanity spawning within its borders, cracked down on Illa Corvoy.
Only two years after they had begun mysteriously, innocently emerging from the jungle, the animunculi were threatened. The Inquisition held a series of nocturnal displays, including the affixation of a limbless, still-living animunculus to the lamppost outside the home of his host.
Rumors of the porcelain people died down, lest suspicious yammering attract a fearsome Investigador. Tales were reduced to whispered secrets in cutters' pubs. This only piqued the cutters' interest, however. Stories of an exciting trade in smuggling animunculi from the island sprouted among independent venturers.
Of course, no cutters could yet tell where, precisely, the animunculi came from. Though the rumors would suggest otherwise, that information now belongs solely to a discrete few.
The mystery of the animunculi, who cannot even themselves say from whence they came, only grows. Whispers of the Worker in the Past only grow more impressive. Stories of a legendary workshop deep within the jungle only grow wilder.
The animunculi are crafted by tools and technologies unknown to Litorans. Their bodies are living cords of steel wrapped round alloy bone and plated in flawless sculptural porcelain. Their eyes are irreplaceable networks of silver wire, fine as candifloss and sealed behind colored lenses. Their brains, inaccessible in craniums of the hardest metal, are unknowns.
Each animunculus, with the exception of those who remain with their craftsman-father, begins its existence a blank page, save for its appearance. They have no memory nor knowledge, merely a exceptional and rapid ability to learn which lasts throughout their first year.
New animunculi are as absorptive as a child. They take to new skills with ease. As many are discovered by cutters, venturing naturally becomes their first pursuit. The strength and durability of their bodies makes them apt venturing professionals. Of course, this line of work is a hazardous one, whether one's body is soft flesh or porcelain.
Healing is no simple matter, to animunculi, despite their durable cores. While the structures which attach porcelain body segments to steel sinew are easily replicable, porcelain is expensive, and replacing body plates is no simple matter to the animunculus involved. While some revel in a fluidity of form, most are loth to unwillingly alter their appearance. Ill-matching plates are often upsetting. Well-matched plates require a rarely-skilled artisan. As a result, most animunculi would sooner repair their shatters and cracks with leading, much like a repaired pot, than accept replacements.
To many animunculi, this irreplaceability instills a fear. While they begin their lives as flawless works of art, the vagaries of time and violence show fast on their beautiful frames. No animunculus is yet eleven years old, but the eldest among them already fear mortality, decay, or worse: A long life of ugly decrepitude. Their lifespans are truly uncertain.
In answer to this fear, some have turned to another question: Their origin. Many an animunculus, long fled from Illa Corvoy, has returned to that island to gain answers at the jungle's heart. Many believe they are sent fresh out into the world that they might some day return. Many believe their return is a grand test: A test set by the enigmatic, hidden Father of the animunculi.
For use within retroclones and d100 systems, consider the following tentative rulings.
Animunculi are treated as human with the following alterations. They are:
Further, they are subject to one of the two following properties (as appropriate your system:)
Optionally, GMs may apply a sanity penalty (if they use such a stat) for missing or mismatched plates. Missing face-plates should incur the greatest ill effect. Willful alteration of appearance via place switching does not incur such a penalty.
Take care in using these stats, as they are untested. The classless Incunabuli system will necessarily include more nuanced animunculus rules.
While I've had some inkling of the porcelain people for a time, this article was surprisingly challenging to compose. Only at the end did the final points come together. Even yet, we may yet hear more about the animunculi (and certainty about Illa Corvoy.)
* The title of Coroner describes an official skilled in necropsy, investigation of death, and the hunting and termination of plague.
** San Carro is the capital of Alagór, the Coast's southernmost nation. Illa Corvoy is a large, island territory of Alagór.
*** Bodies are most often cremated, to combat plague
† In many areas, pinecones are sufficiently large to start and maintain a fire by their own bulk. They are useful arsonist’s tools.
†† The Holy Inquisition of Alagór, though thought to be dissolved by many, is still functioning both nationally and abroad. They pursue intensely humanocentric goals. They are categorized as a terror group by the Firlish Crown.
††† Alagórians refer to Firls as "Firlesé."
‡ Bluets are a variety of bulbous blue fruit. They sprout on vines grown on high trellises in the warm islands of the South. Their transparent flesh is truly succulent.
‡‡ "Nören" is an uncommon name given to the Coast. It is uncommonly used, spoken only by those who consider and realize this as a small and tattered realm among uncounted many.
‡‡‡ The first reports of animunculi appeared in the year 3.450.