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Ibrahim Asimu Tanko

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About Ibrahim Asimu Tanko

  • Rank
    Fresh Faced

CHARACTER PROFILE

  • GENDER
    Male
  • PLAY-BY
    Andile Gumbi
  • SEXUAL ORIENTATION
    Heterosexual
  • RACE
    Veil-crosser (Ihr)
  • JOB
    Silversmith, locksmith, woodcarver
  • LOCATION
    New York
  • FACTION
    Factionless

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  • All My Characters
    Additional information about this race:

    In Ibrahim Tanko's own world, the race were known as ihr, pronounced [iħr] or [iʔr], a word that came from the local lingua franca. The ethnic minority he originally came from had turned it into eyrbi.

    Flaws:

    The race was affected by a set of four distinctive weaknesses known, after their origin legend, as "the curse".

    1. Susceptibility to sunlight (the UV component):

    All the members of his race were sensitive to natural UV radiation, and their ability to accumulate melanin in their whole body was a true blessing in that it was the one reason why sunlight was painful and debilitating to them, as opposed to fatal. For "black" ihr, the sun could only inflict fast-healing and, by the their standards, superficial burns that didn't quite reach fourth degree. Wearing thick woolen or leather clothes and a wide-brimmed sunhat or hood was enough to block it out. For "white" ihr, the sun was more dangerous and caused serious burns even at dusk and through closed heavy drapes or several layers of thick wool, though to be killed by it one had to be chained or stranded outside in direct sunlight for one to several hours, which was plausible only in the event of premeditated murder or suicide. There was a handful of darker-skinned subjects who suffered seriously too, due to a peculiarity of their genetic pattern, although, of course, this was far less common.

    This was why light-skinned human candidates for being made into ihr were avoided as a general rule, unless they were to live in suitable conditions (for example, in catacombs underground) where they wouldn't be in constant pain or wouldn't need to take precautions at each step to prevent it, and wouldn’t risk being killed by exposure to sunlight while asleep.

    While not life-threatening to those of them who had black tissues, exposure to direct sunlight caused excruciating burns – anywhere from first- to third-degree, depending on the time spent out in the sun, and on whether or not one's skin was covered by (sheer) fabric. On bare skin, third-degree burns could occur in less than an hour, sometimes even in minutes, depending on the time/solar angle, distance from the equator and the presence of reflective surfaces such as snow, ice, water or concrete. Even slight, short-term contact with sunlight caused tenderness that started with the outer side of the hands and the area where a UV-sensitive human would have a butterfly rash (lower forehead, nose, cheekbones), then spread to the rest of one's face and any remaining unprotected skin - followed by tingling, a burning sensation, searing pain and, finally, pressure or numbness if one was severely affected. In some situations, this was used as a punishment or a handy way of inflicting serious pain.

    Their eyes were much more light-sensitive than those of humans, which makes sense for a nocturnal creature that has a natural instinct to sleep throughout the day and is harmed by sunlight to this extent. Even in humans, the ocular tissues are just as sensitive to UV radiation as the skin, or even more so, and the same is true for them – when exposed to sunlight, the eyes were hurt first, before enough time passed for any epithelial wounds to appear.

    If pushed out into the sun, their instinctive response was to squeeze their eyes shut as tight as they could, giving a loud open-mouthed hiss from pain both in the exposed skin and in the eyes as their face uncontrollably gained more feline features. Those who lacked self-control go into frenzy. Those moments were enough for them to develop severe photokeratitis - within seconds, not hours, and outside the usual conditions, such as proximity to surfaces whose reflectivity is particularly great (the sea, ice sheets, snowed-over fields, solid whitewashed streets and walls), exposure to strong sunlight for an extensive period of time, or looking at an artificial source of UV radiation like a welder's arc or high-intensity flash without any goggles or other protective gear. At first, one was blinded; over the following ten minutes to two hours, one's vision was restored, but residual symptoms could persist for one or two nights, including sharp pain from any brighter light, itching, a sensation that there is sand, dust or some other foreign body in the eye, extensive watering (tears), general discomfort, and floating reddish, greenish or multi-colored circles.

    If one of them was forced to stay up during the day and refused to go outside without a bulky blanket, hood or jacket to use as a makeshift shield for the head and face, it was because of this. It was not so much the fear of instant burns to the face and hands, which were very painful, but healed fast and didn‘t pose even a fraction of the danger they would have presented to a human, as they could easily survive full-thickness burns to well over 70% and up to 100% of the total body surface area that would have been guaranteed to kill a regular human; these didn't produce any of the common complications, such as septicaemia, wound infection, pneumonia, respiratory failure or renal failure, and there was no risk of permanent disfigurement. The short-term loss of eyesight was just as painful, but its immediate consequences could be more serious. Any situation that had forced one of them to stay awake while the sun was up and was about to drive them out of their shelter had to be grave enough as it was, and the last thing one wanted was to be crippled and completely powerless as well as in agonizing pain.

    Depending on its intensity, artificial UV radiation also harmed them. For instance, a welder‘s arc would instantly blind them, just as the sun would have, and caused skin burns if one was standing too close. However, most human-made sources of UV light in their world, as in ours, tended to be weak and weren't much of a problem; certain lamps caused pain and watering in the eyes, but that was about it.

    The ihr were characterized by a type of pervasive melanism - or melanosis, depending on whether or not one chose to see it as a condition or disorder – where melanocytes proliferated not just in the skin but also in the osseous, muscle and connective tissues and internal organs, making their flesh and bones look jet or coal black. This is what gave most ihr their distinctive appearance, which many found intimidating and bizarre: black eye sclera, black mouth, tongue and gums, and palms that are just as black as the outer side of the hand. Flesh wounds were black, too, and oozed dark deoxygenated blood, which again looked black, especially in poor lighting or at a distance.

    The skin din’t have to be quite as melanin-rich as the internal tissues. Not all ihr were hypermelanistic; their complexion varied from pure black to mid-brown, perhaps even lighter, and, in the cases where the skin is lighter than the flesh, due to being translucent, it seemed to have a darker tint underneath.

    According to popular legend, all ihr were "black", "white" ihr were just a figment of people's imagination and didn't exist, though once in a while the friend of a friend of a friend of a colleague's grandfather claimed to have seen one. In actual fact, the quantity of melanin was tied to one's genetic heritage. The vast majority of ihr started out with a phenotype we would identify as African, Afroasiatic or Southern Caucasian (Mediterranean), which were linked to the highest concentrations of melanin. For fair-skinned people who didn't tan that easily, there could be a considerable variation in outcome depending on their genetic pattern, with different degrees of melanin saturation, and the most diverse shades of brown, being possible. In a typical Northern Caucasian (Nordic) person, the concentration of melanin was low, close to negligible, and an albino or person with red hair, freckles and gray or green eyes had none whatsoever.

    Pallor, if present, disappeared during the transition from human to ihr and was replaced by a healthy, flushed, rosy-cheeked complexion often described as "blossoming" (though their flush tended to be darker than human due to the darker hue of their blood, and was more ruddy, rust-red or brownish-red than pink). There may have been white ihr, but there weren't any pale ones.

    Over the years, the more or less constant sunburn, ranging from mild to severe, eventually made the melanin production in the epidermis go haywire; who knows what the melanocytes even looked like at that point. In the same conditions, a regular human would have long died of melanoma, but their physiological defenses prevented any cells from becoming malignant in the straightforward sense of those words - as in, capable of causing metastases and destroying the entire body - so the skin simply changed its properties.

    In those whose skin was brown, the uniform pigmentation was lost and a darker jet-black pattern started to show against the brown background, similar to the ghost markings on melanistic felines - the faint spots or rosettes on a black panther or the faint tabby stripes in a black domestic cat.

    These markings were somewhat like watercolor blooms in that their edges were serrated or indistinct, as if the darker brown were creeping into the lighter brown and gradually dissolving in it. Their texture differed from that of the surrounding skin; they were thicker, more smooth and velvety to the touch, with a mild sheen. In certain types of lighting, they could make one think of a satin-weave fabric that has a glossy design on a duller background. In the beginning, they were difficult to discern and were only obvious upon closer examination, or if one studied the creature’s face or hands for a longer while. The effect was not unlike the one where a glass of tea has been brewed so strong it seems black, but once it's been lifted against the sunlight, one sees that the liquid is translucent and has a reddish-brown gleam, or, say, a cat looks black in the street, but when one examines its fur, it turns out to be an uneven brown that varies from chocolate to near-black. Later, the markings became sharper and more noticeable.

    In those whose skin was already pitch-black, the color did not change, but the same shiny, velvety textural pattern appeared and became more prominent with time.

    The lips darkened to a somewhat shiny black that extended for some 1-2 cm outside their boundary and then faded gradually into brown, and gained the same thick, velvety texture as the other skin stains. In some cases, the stain covered the entire nasolabial fold and formed a triangular streak extending to the middle of the chin. The same happened to the area around the eyes. The eye stain helped protect the tender skin around the eye against sunburn and prevented light from being reflected back into the eye, which was one of the factors that contributed to, or aggravated photokeratitis, one of their persistent problems, performing the same function as generous black or coal-gray makeup applied to the lower eyelid.

    The look this created could be at once enigmatic, uncanny and frightening. Much like Western-type makeup, the black stains produced an impression of impenetrability and distance, and the same formal air. If they just barely outlined the contour of the eyes, one could come to resemble a figure from a mural in an Egyptian tomb, and if they were wider and began to fade some 1-1,5 cm short of the eyebrows or filled the entire eye cover fold, one could seem to be wearing a venetian half-mask, and maybe look a little like a ghost. The image could be especially striking if one developed "tear marks" that ran from the inner corner of the eye downward, along the wings of the nose, and from the outer corner of the eye sideways, toward the temple, slanting down beyond the edge of the cheekbone, and a fleur-de-lys mark on one’s forehead in the form of the letter "M" or the inverted letter "M" ("W"), like those seen in cheetahs or domestic cats with a classic or mackerel tabby coat. These then merged with the eye stain and, later, with the lip stain, creating an astounding and complex facial pattern.

    The skin staining could be seen as yet another sign that one's metabolism was completely disoriented and was trying hard to protect itself from what it took to be casual torture by fire, so even the precious few physiological mechanisms that had still functioned in a sane manner up to this point no longer were.

    If one compared a daara-conditioned warrior and an elder, both of whom could no longer shift out of the frenzy mode, the face of the former would seem a lot more "normal". It'd be a homogenous dark brown or black, the lips would be the same shade and wouldn't stand out; because of the way they blended into the background, he or she would look "lipless" from a distance. The elder, on the other hand, would have thoroughly black lips and eyelids and a sort of black watercolor wash all over their face.

    2. A strictly nocturnal sleep-waking cycle that precludes full functioning during the daylit hours:

    At dawn, their metabolism started to shut down; the heartbeat slowed, the body temperature dropped and levelled out with that of the environment and one sank into hibernation that lasts until sunset. In this state, they were paralysed, oblivious and unresponsive to their surroundings, and, as a result, vulnerable to various threats. Their limbs were cold to the touch, there was no palpable pulse, the pupils were dilated and didn't respond to light. In some, the eyes rolled back into the head, leaving only the white visible when the eyelid was lifted. The muscle tone varied; some became completely limp and manipulable, like waxen dolls, while in others every single muscle would lock up. In the latter case, their bodies became so rigid it was impossible to change their position, bend their limbs, or, for example, unclench their finger or toe talons without breaking the bones and ripping the tendons apart first. Unless specialized testing was performed, this condition was indistinguishable from clinical death.

    It was not impossible to fight the urge to go to sleep and force the body to continue to function even after the sun rose, but one would be extremely weak, sluggish and drowsy, and could lose consciousness any moment. Typically, one exhibited many symptoms of moderate or serious muscle weakness (paresis): the fingers could not grasp objects strongly enough and they were likely to slip out and drop to the ground; the eyelids drooped, forcing the eyes to close; the tongue seemed to be made of cotton wool and wouldn't turn fast or well enough, making the words came out slurred as if one were drunk; there was a pronounced feeling of weakness in the thighs and knees and the legs appeared to be about to give way and buckle under one‘s weight, as if made of stretchable rubber or cotton wool. Reduced sensation or numbness (paresthesia) was also common, as was a heavy sensation in the extremities, described as having invisible weights tied to them or lead coursing through the veins instead of blood. Physical and psychological responses were considerably delayed, and to an unsuspecting observer, the person seemed to be drugged or sick with a high fever. On the night that followed, one was bound to be fatigued, much more so than a human who hasn't slept for one or even a few nights, and was un able to use one’s abilities to their full capacity because one’s body hadn't received the rest it required.

    On the whole, it was easier to stay up after sunrise than to wake during the day once one had gone to sleep. Often, one was able to regain consciousness, and, in some cases, open one’s eyes, provided there were no bright lights around, but not to speak or stir, and faded out again in a few seconds.

    The deep daytime slumber was an energy conservation mechanism that enabled the ihr to sustain their inefficient, high-maintenance metabolism, and it was been theorized that diffuse sunlight might serve as the trigger that signals the body to begin shutting down its vital functions.

    There was an inverse correlation between the depth of the muscle paralysis and the quantity of melanin in the ihr's tissues; higher concentrations (a darker skin tone) were linked to better muscle functioning, shallower sleep and a limited capacity to respond to certain outside stimuli, which were part of the same general daylight resistance package, as it were. It was possible that the genes connected to the two were linked or a single gene determined both. In terms of survival for the race as a whole, though, it made less sense - one would think that it's the "white" ihr, who could be burned to death if left comatose outdoors for the whole day, that should have been able to awaken from the pain and at least crawl away into the shade or dig themselves into the ground, while a "black" one could well sleep on, as all they risked was having their skin burned off, which was painful, but not fatal and healed back quickly.

    Just before daybreak, when the sky began to brighten, every ihr experienced an odd sensation most of them had trouble putting into words. Some chose to describe it as a strong, pervasive sense of an impending disaster, or of something being seriously amiss, an anxiety that was almost palpable in the air; one's skin crept and one's hair stood on end, though one couldn't tell for certain why. Others likened it to a sound, smell or subtle tactile sensation that was below the threshold level and therefore not registered by the senses, but still produced a response in another part of the body or in one's being as a whole. The most commonly used example was hearing a dog's ultrasound whistle while wearing tight ear-plugs. This was the body's signal to seek shelter before one collapsed or the sun came out and burned one's skin and eyes, a biological alarm clock of sorts. For the younger, the injured or the weakened, it could mount to a panic at the prospect of going into a coma while still out in the open and becoming vulnerable to every threat imaginable, and that, in turn, triggered frenzy. The sensation was euphemistically referred to as "the call of the earth" or "being called (back) to/into the earth" (used not only by those who slept in the ground in the literal sense, but also virtually by everybody who didn't), or the need to "go home" (also used by those who didn't have one, except for a self-dug grave in the bare ground).

    Rest as we understand it - that is, lack of physical activity, relaxation, remaining in a reclining, lying or sitting posture - did little (if anything) to restore their strength and relative sanity. For this, they required the deep, coma-like daysleep. They were biologically incapable of human-like shallow sleep, but even if they had been, that wouldn't have been sufficient for bringing their nervous system function back to normal.

    3. An elevated body temperature that produces an extreme sensitivity to cold:

    Their body temperature was elevated to about 55-65 C, which produced a continuous sensation of being cold that was their – perhaps one shouldn’t use the word "curse" here because it'd be too strong, and there were far worse aspects to their condition (such as a much higher incidence of neurological and psychiatric disorders, psychological fracturing, a plunge in self-awareness and severe disruption in one's perception of oneself and one's surroundings) – but let's say that, despite seeming negligible on first sight, this aspect of their altered physiology was permanent and so all-pervasive that, for many, it drove home the point about [coming back wrong] or [no longer being human]. there was no escape from the cold - it was there every night, every hour, every minute, creeping into their bodies whenever a cooler wind began to blow, or they stood still a bit longer, or, say, their garments happened not to be thick enough. Most eventually grew used to the sensation, learned to live with it each moment of their waking lives and didn't expect to be warm most of the time.

    As a result, all of them experienced a deep and perpetual physical discomfort, occasionally described as being about to catch fire on the outside and being about to turn into an icicle or having an icy wind blowing on the inside. There was a sort of feverish state, even a feeling of malaise, not unlike having a high fever of 38-39 C and being unable to tell whether one was hot, or cold, or both. If one was outdoors on an overcast day, the surface of one's skin burned, but inside, one felt a deepening chill. It was common to experience alternating heat waves and chills, accompanied by shivering and "ants crawling up one's back", comparable to the symptoms of influenza and other viral infections, or those developed by some women at the onset of menopause. It was very hard to combine the layers of woolen clothes, indoor heating or the intervals at which one took hot foods and drink so as to find an optimum balance that would feel just right and result in genuine physical comfort.

    The rare moments when this did occur were sheer bliss. When it came, the warmth they had been craving so much caused their bodies to "zone out" on them, making them drowsy and sluggish, so they dozedand/or went to sleep (which could be as deep as the semi-comatose state they lapsed into during the day). Before they did so, they could spontaneously switch to pleasure-frenzy, called [naqtaara], and act a little crazy - laugh, purr, go through a peculiar cat-like set of movements where they opened their mouth wide, demonstrating the cat-like canines, threw back their heads and watched each other through the corners of their half-closed eyes. To an observer, they looked drugged. Warmth was intoxicating to them in the most literal sense of these words.

    Note: the so-called ihr "purr" is a a series of short, intermittent rumbling sounds, rather like their growl or roar. Both resembled the sounds made by lions or leopards to show affection (but not the soft continuous sound made by domestic cats, servals or caracals). They were so loud they could hurt the ears, and quite startling or frightening, especially when they weren’t expected.

    The extreme susceptibility to cold went beyond a mere subjective sensation. The cooler it was, the greater the gap between their internal temperature and that of the immediate surroundings, and the more heat was radiated into the environment and lost. If the thermometer showed less than -5 C, they began to grow lethargic and their reactions slowed down; at less than -10C, their bodies' attempts to compensate for the wasted energy became futile and they could no longer retain the temperature necessary to function, so a near-complete metabolic shutdown was initiated and they were forced into long-term hibernation. In their own world, this was why they never migrated into temperate and subarctic latitudes, where the climate would have caused them to remain asleep for half a year or so and to suffer from the cold throughout most of the other half. Even in subtropical climates, they experienced constant chills and were notorious for their unseasonable warm clothing, their fondness for hot drinks and their wide use of space heaters, primus stoves and other devices that allowed to maintain a higher background temperature. A typical sight was one of them swaddled in a woolen winter shawl or cape, "nursing" a thermos mug or "hugging" an indoor heater.

    4. Pyrophobia:

    The race suffered from an irrational fear of fire. Flames were less of a hazard to them than to humans, because their burns healed much faster and easier and with none of the usual complications, and only turned into a serious danger if they were engulfing and one was trapped in a burning building or forest fire with no chance of escape, but the sight of them caused a deep instinctive dread.

    Unlike most other phobias, it didn't lessen after continued exposure to the object and repeated reasoning or self-assurance, but could be controlled or tolerated through an ongoing effort of will. Most small, stationary sources of fire tended not to be an issue. Upon seeing a candle, an oil lamp or a torch on a wall sconce one was likely to be startled and to feel a momentary wave of fear accompanied by trembling and a sudden weakness, but these would soon level out. However, if the same torch, or even something as tiny as a lighter were unexpectedly thrust in one's face, one would have a full-scale panic attack. A campfire or the opening of a wood stove inside a home felt like a considerable threat, and those who hadn't undergone fire-conditioning training found it difficult to force themselves to venture closer, even when they were shaking with cold. A larger conflagration, such as a house fire, triggered an intense and overwhelming fear even from a distance. In those who were younger or recently weakened by an injury or intoxication, the fear was much stringer and harder to manage, and got out of hand more frequently, resulting in devastating panic attacks; their instictive response upon seeing fire in any form was to shudder, shrink back and flee.

    If one watched a feral pack sitting or standing around their trashcan bonfire, one could observe a curious ambivalent response: a wary, cautious, almost timid edging closer to the flames, step by step, stretching out their palms to warm them, then starting back as soon as there was a louder crackling sound or a larger tongue of flame leapt up.

    Large, tall bonfires were widely used at facilities for daara-conditioned warriors, in some situations, to foster their self-control through teaching them to overcome the fear, and in others, to work them into a frenzy on demand. During rites of passage, walking through or jumping over one served as an additional test of courage; in bonding rituals for the members of the same unit, the frenzy caused by the close proximity of fire, combined with self-mutilation (whipping, slashing or stabbing oneself with a dagger), wild dancing and chanting, produced a special ecstatic state where all of them appeared to become a single organism. Sticking one's hand into a fire, having opened the nose clip and taking breaths to feel the stench of charred flesh and staring at the flames with a stony expression was a common method of demonstrating one's endurance and strong will.

    In times when natural fire was the only source of warmth and lighting, they had to choose between two equally distressing options - that is, cold or fear. When electricity was invented, their nightly lives became somewhat easier, but warfare became worse due to the extensive use of explosives and incendiary weapons, which were effectively employed not only in their direct capacity, but also to induce terror and demoralize the enemy.

    Diet and metabolism:

    Ihr were obligate carnivores - in other words, they required the animal proteins contained in meat, eggs and dairy products to survive. Only they could be digested in full and serve as a source of the most essential nutrients. Apart from that, they needed the simple sugars (monosaccharides) in honey and most fresh or preserved fruit, such as glucose and fructose. These two components had to comprise, respectively, 75% (or more) and 15% (or more) of their diet, with the rest left for other, optional foods.

    Colder weather or greater physical exertion increased their need for sugars, which were a quick, easy source of energy, including that converted into body heat, and, to a lesser extent, for fat. In contrast, injuries increased their need for protein, which was required to build new tissues or mend those that were damaged.

    Dairy products were an important constituent of their diet, with milk, butter, cream, sour cream and soft cottage cheese forming about half of their protein intake. Their capacity to metabolise lactose was much higher than that of humans (who don't digest milk that well and sometimes suffer from lactose intolerance) and domestic cats (most of whom are lactose intolerant), though, ironically, this was a dietary habit most likely to be thought of as "cat-like". This went even for those of them who used to be lactose-intolerant as humans; apparently, the physical conversion eliminated the problem, as not a single ihr was ever known to have had it.

    They could eat grains (wheat, barley, millet, rice, buckwheat) and products made from flour, but their capacity to digest them was limited; it was roughly the same as that of the felids or slightly lower, and much lower than that of the canids or humans. In their pure form, and in larger quantities, these foods produced indigestion accompanied by an unpleasant stomachache and diarrhea. Those of them who did choose to eat these products, for example, due to liking their taste and texture, would typically mix cereal or pasta with meat, lard and/or butter to improve the flavor and reduce the chances of getting an upset stomach. Bread was hardly ever made as it wasn’t worth the bother.

    Leguminous crops and nuts were seen as a famine food because, in smaller quantities, they could serve as a partial substitute for meat due to their high protein content. However, these proteins had a different structure, lacked certain indispensable aminoacids, and were metabolized with considerable difficulty, one could survive on them for only so long before one started to exhibit the symptoms of starvation and became a danger to anything that moved. A common name for protein deficiency could be translated as lentil or bean madness, as it tended to occur in those who had been driven out of their hunting grounds or had wiped out any game within a wide radius and were forced to subsist on legumes.

    Staple foods included milk, cream, fresh and dried dates, figs or grapes, raw or fried eggs, raw meat, raw liver and a thick broth made by simmering meat, bones and cartilage over a low flame for several hours, which was supplemented by the boiled meat left over from making the broth. Sometimes the broth was left to congeal into a jelly together with the shreds of meat. Aged honey and buckwheat honey, alone or mixed with milk and cream, were considered exquisite delicacies, as palatable as they were easy to digest, and were reserved for the most reverred persons, such as elders and distinguished free warriors.

    Most ihr shared a taste for citrus fruit, and it was common to use lemon or orange juice to soak meat before it was cooked or consumed raw, or to flavor black coffee. Another popular favorite were fragrant fruit with a strong soursweet flavor, such as quince, mango or melon, which were often eaten chopped into small cubes or slices along with raw meat, or as part of cold, boiled meat rolls. It was common to like fresh fragrant herbs, on their own or as an addition to meat and broths - mint, thyme, basil and dill being the most popular but by far not the only ones - and crunchy, juicy green vegetables.

    All members of the race were fond of pickled olives and tuna fish in any form, as they triggered the production of endorphins and other chemicals in the brain that brought about an elevated mood and a sense of well-being - much like dark chocolate, mint oil or vanilla do in humans - and were frequently used as comfort/mood foods. As such, they could be somewhat addictive.

    The ihr had one food allergy (or aversion) in common with the domestic cat: any vegetables belonging to the genus Allium, including garlic, onions, shallots, chives, scallops or leek, caused a debilitating sickness that lasted several nights. The symptoms resembled anemia in a human and included fatigue, dizziness, feeling drowsy at night and a paler - or, rather, grayish or earthen, considering their complexion - shade to the skin and sclera. The substances contained in these plants caused the red blood cells to rupture, disrupting the supply of vital elements to the tissues. The body eventually overrode and rectified this, but the process could take 2-5 waking-hibernation cycles.

    The poisonous properties of these plants were retained when cooked or processed, so it wasn’t just the raw bulbs or leaves that were toxic - any hot meal containing them would have had the same effect, and so would, say, garlic salt or granulated and powdered extracts.

    The ihr did not necessarily dislike the flavors, however; some didn't care for them, others could be curious and/or enjoy them and eat these vegetables eagerly, unless warned in advance about their being poisonous (or "not good for us"). With onions or garlic, the gamut of reactions was the same as in humans and ranged from extreme fondness to disgust.

    On a relative scale, the degree of toxicity may appear considerable, as other poisons that were much more dangerous, and perhaps deadly, for humans produced no physical response in them whatsoever, powerful beings that they were, while innocuous and universally common foods left them sickened and weak. But on an absolute scale, it wasn't that serious at all; the greatest risk was being incapacitated by the poisoning at a crucial moment when one had to be at one’s strongest and most alert. Theoretically, it was possible for the poisoning to be fatal, but no such incidents were reported in practice, as for this, one would have needed to eat about a kilogram or more in a single sitting, which was, well, impossible.

    Their metabolism, on the whole, was closest to that of hummingbirds or certain insects. They had an insane basal metabolic level, 10 times greater than that of a human, at a modest estimate, which meant that they were constantly hungry and had to spend the greater part of their waking lives searching and hunting for food. Whatever was eaten was burned almost as soon as it was consumed. Feeling genuine satiation was as uncommon for them as feeling warm and comfortable. If an ihr had no animal proteins for two to three nights, they would go into a frenzy, attacking anything that came close enough; this was accompanied by a delirious state of mind with hallucinations, delusional thinking and profound disorientation. Afterward they would weaken rapidly, their movements and responses slowed down and they went into hibernation. That said, their bodies did seem to retain a small reserve of usable energy "just in case"; when an ihr lapsed into a coma due to starvation and was little more than dead for several decades, they could suddenly awaken and attack if they sensed a living creature approaching them. If substitutes such as leguminous vegetables, seeds or nuts were available, the starvation-fuelled frenzy could be delayed for up to ten nights.

    Regeneration:

    Their healing factor was massive. Broken bones mended quickly by themselves, even without immobilization; the entire skin epithelium grew back in the event of fourth-degree burns, and, if severe eye injuries were sustained, the ocular tissues were reproduced from the remainder of the retinal pigmented layer. Each tooth ould be grown from an odontogenic stem cell in the dental lamina that remained in standby mode while the tooth was intact, and, once that was lost or extracted, developed into a new tooth, which was situated under or just behind where the old one used to be, and, if necessary, could be moved forward a little as it became larger. Even entire internal organs were regrown in full after surgical removal, and lost limbs grew back over the course of several months. In effect, they could heal most injuries that would be lethal or life-threatening to a human with no special treatment other than the passage of time and quality food.

    Decapitation, dismemberment, longer-term immersion in concentrated acid or lye, a massive explosion at close range or a major fire with no possibility to escape were guaranteed to kill them. A heart injury wasn't lethal, but caused severe weakness and inability to move around much; it also interfered with the circulation, thus disrupting regeneration in any other parts of the body. Injuries to the lungs or diaphragm made speech painful or impossible until the gaps in the tissue healed over and most of the coagulated blood was expelled through coughing. Brain damage was also dangerous. While nerve cells could grow back and heal just like any others, injuries to the cerebral cortex could cause permanent and rather unpredictable changes in their personality, behavior and memory. In a race already notorious for its mental instability, this had better be avoided at all costs. Neural tissue took longer to mend, too, so that, for instance, the partial or full paralysis and paresthesia produced by a broken spine could last around two or three months and disappeared from the top of the body downward, the legs being the last to regain their mobility and sensitivity (preceded by control over bladder and sphincter functioning).

    However, regeneration could only occur if two conditions were met: there had to be plenty of food and as much rest as possible. When not in frenzy, an ihr was able to ignore deep slashes, stabs through the torso or multiple bullet wounds that would have been fatal to a human, and could continued to fight without showing any outward signs of the pain they were in (in frenzy the pain simply didn‘t register until one came back to one‘s senses, when it was bound to hit with a double force). However, straight afterward they would succumb to a sudden fatigue and a voracious hunger that could trigger frenzy. If the injuries were more severe, they grew drowsy as their body minimized or shut down the physiological mechanisms that weren't strictly vital and mobilized any resources available to repair the damage. In this state, they were apathetic and oblivious and did nothing but sleep and eat in repeated cycles; even when it was dark, they spent most of the time dozing and could only be roused if there was a need to move closer to a source of warmth, or there was a prey animal that could be killed and devoured. Their sleep was deeper, longer, more difficult to wake from, and more similar to clinical death. In the most severe cases, with extreme injuries and/or a drastic shortage of food, the coma-like state became constant and they could lapse into hibernation for many years to come.

    As a rule, after sustaining an injury, the ihr was in a clouded, dim state of consciousness. Their higher intelligence went "offline", as it were, and they functioned on a very basic instinctual level where they were no longer capable of distinguishing between categories like "prey species", "my former species" or "my current species" - to them, any living creature was just a shape, warmer than its surroundings, smelling and moving like food. In this situation, cases of primary cannibalism (attacking other ihr as prey) and secondary cannibalism (attacking humans as prey) among them were common and well-documented, and there was a risk of killing a person they knew and were attached to simply because they hadn‘t been able to recognize him or her on time and were overpowered by predatory instincts. That it was unwise for a human to approach a severely wounded ihr with the intenion of administering first aid went without saying – their body would take care of itself, and whatever one could do for them wasn’t worth becoming lunch.

    Predictably, the ihr never had any proper medical science to speak of. In modern times, they were still using the same primitive treatments that had survived intact since the bronze age, and never evolved beyond basic first aid for mechanical injuries meant to facilitate healing: sewing together the edges of large wounds and applying tree pitch or sap to the stitches, extracting bullets and other foreign bodies lodged in soft tissue, reattaching severed appendages, relocating joints, setting broken bones, using tight bandages, casts, splints, braces and other forms of immobilization. Most members of the species chose to forego them in favor of waiting and consuming as much fresh milk and meat as their stomach could hold to supply their body with energy and materials for building new tissue. On occasion, simple on-the-move treatments were used, such as licking the wound, using a cotton wool dressing soaked in saline solution, or bathing in the sea. if the damage was massive, they were likely to go underground or underwater to hibernate for a few months. Being immune to infection, they needed no disinfectants or instrument sterilization and sanitary norms were practically unknown. Anaesthesia was very rare, as the ability to bear pain in silence was seen as a sign of internal strength and courage.

    The ihr didn't need to breathe and used their lungs only to speak, smoke, play a musical instrument, or, say, give a human CPR. During the transformation, the metabolism switched to anaerobic and the red blood cells were re-adapted to bond with, and transport an element other than oxygen, which is what gave ihr blood its dark burgundy hue. They did have a residual breathing reflex, but that was suppressed for social and cultural reasons.

    Lifespan:

    While their average life expectancy was even lower than that of humans due to endless vicious conflicts between clans and larger political formations (most were killed in their third or fourth year), potentially, they were a very long-lived race. A select few were rumored to have survived around five thousand years. As the centuries went by, their demand for energy and animal protein grew; eventually, they lapsed into permanent hibernation and died because their metabolism had crashed and their bodies literally consumed themselves.

    Abilities absent in this dimension:

    In their own world, the ihr were a distinctly supernatural race. They could shape-shift at will into leopards (mostly melanistic ones) or dissolve into a flock of long-eared desert bats or white-lined hawkmoths for fight-or-flight purposes. The claws on their fingers and toes could lengthen and become scythe-like in a matter of seconds; they sliced through flesh as if it were butter and carved stone or metal with ease, and the scars left over from wounds inflicted by them never healed, even in members of their own species. They were able to meld with the ground to avoid being dug out, or, alternatively, turn into a cloud of mist or dust, which was especially useful during the day, as this form was nearly indestructible and enabled them to sleep safely. Their perceptual capacities went beyond having heightened senses. For example, they could call forth a bird's eye view of their location, single out one sensory stimulus, such as a distant sight or faint sound, and make it clearer and more distinct, or see in pitch darkness without requiring any lighting whatsoever. The ihr and their clothing, or the personal possessions in close contact with their bodies wouldn't cast a shadow or reflect in mirrors and other shiny surfaces. The ihr had a close affinity with certain animals and were able to speak to them telepathically, to summon or command them, or to soothe them, making them docile, as long as the animal could make contact with them or see their body language; they were also able to taint the land or streams in ways that made various creatures stronger and more loyal to themselves after treading on the soil or drinking the water. The same ability allowed them to reach out to the animalistic side of humans, sending them into states of panic, rage or apathy, or to their own kind, producing or quelling frenzies. Other abilities included mind-melding with an animal to probe its thoughts and memories, sharing its senses and use them to explore one's surroundings, or possessing its body for a short time. Older ihr developed the powers of telepathy, empathy and mind-control/mental suggestion. The eldest ones, or large conglomerations of youngsters on a limited territory, could affect the weather and attracted strong winds, sandstorms and dry lightning.

    All of these abilities were stripped from Ibgxe after he passed through the Veil.
  • Typist's Interests
    Literature and literary criticism, pastel and pencil graphics, cross-stitching, postcolonial theory, cats, biology, wildlife, xenofiction, collectivism, photography, linguistics, foreign languages, cultural studies.
  • Typist's Role Play History
    Diagnosis: too much "Vampire: the Masquerade". Prognosis: incurable.
  • Role Play Sample
    The trail is clear. The animal's feet had pressed down into the brown moss, creating little pools of dark glistening water. Its scent is hanging in the air - a sweetish musk akin to sweat, faint at first, but becoming stronger and stronger with each breath until it becomes all-pervasive. Her prey is right ahead, just beyond the turn of a hill and not far. Soon, any moment, she will see it trudging away in that unmistakeable manner, deceptively slow and clumsy-looking. If it turns round, she will see the tiny black beads of its eyes and the massive horned beak capable of crushing the toughest stems and leaves.

    She hops swiftly from hummock to hummock. With each step the soft marshy ground gives way, molding to the shape of the foot. The oilskin of her thigh-boots is watertight, with special double stitching, and there is not a chance that the moisture might seep through, but she can still feel the cold water through the soft thin sole. The sensation is invigorating, thrilling, and she catches herself thinking that this had never occurred to her before.

    She slows down to a jog, then to a fast walk, and looks around. The flat reddish-brown plain stretches out as far as she can see, merging in the distance with the blazing milky-white sky. The streamlets and miniature lakes scattered across its surface are gleaming through the thin whitish haze. She squints. It is too bright to be outdoors without a sun-shield and she chides herself for forgetting hers, then wonders why none of the others had thought of bringing it along.

    There is nobody in sight. But the others must be nearby, still within reach despite being invisible. She is still held just as firmly by the network of presences that has made her who she is, and the voices are rolling through her in a steady rhythm. Yet something has to be amiss, though she is uncertain what it might be. The voices have become more disjointed and are swimming in and out of focus. Far away, an echo of a cry that is not a cry. There are murmurs, whispers in an indecipherable tongue, now so distant she has to strain to catch them, now so close that someone seems to be standing beside her, gazing over her shoulder. She turns, but there is no-one there.

    She climbs onto the top of the hillock, but her quarry is gone. The entire landscape has shifted; she is surrounded by dull, grayish-yellow limestome cliffs with scarce mottled patches of shrubs here and there. They speak to her in soft sighs, moans, as if singing the same few piercing notes that reverberate through the air again and again. She shivers. The scents brought by the wind are causing a stirring inside, and she glances around, unnerved. But there is nothing familiar about the sight and the internal churning continues to intensify and becomes sickening.

    She finds herself gazing at one of the shrubs down the slope. One of its upper branches is touching her chest, and she reaches out and examines the clusters of glossy young leaves at the tip. They are wider, longer, more strap-like than the rest, and their bright coppery ochre makes for a sharp contrast with the dark milk-green of last year's foliage. She lets the branch go and watches it sway with each gust of wind. The sight of the leaves trembling against the gray sky is captivating and sorrowful; as she stands there, something within starts to resonate through her whole being like a taut metal string, stronger and stronger, until it is on the verge of snapping.

    By the time the thrall breaks, the voices of the shrubs have become shrieks and formed a single disorienting chorus. The nausea comes in waves and, when she makes a a step sideways, she is so dizzy she stumbles and nearly falls. her legs wobble and seem to have a will of their own. She must seek a safe location, she thinks, somewhere close and dark where she can crouch until the tension subsides and she can make more sense of where she is. She notices a small, semi-rounded opening further down the slope, half-obscured by two young shrubs. She clambers down, holding on to ledges for support and feeling the hard rocks through the fine hide of her soles. Pebbles break out underfoot and roll down with a rustle. She climbs into the soothing shadows of the cavern, curls up and closes her eyes, trying to clear her mind and concentrate on who and where she has just been.

    When she opens her eyes, she finds herself leaning back, sitting, but not in a way she is familiar with. She cannot move. She is surrounded by bright white lights, too steady and sharp to come from oil-lamps; as she watches, they sway, recede and start to close in on her. When they merge into a single field of blinding white and the pain in her eyes becomes unbearable, she shuts them tight and screams.

    When her eyes open again, the lights are still swarming around her, but at a distance. As they begin to converge, a sudden weakness shoots through her limbs. The glare, though closer now, grows dim and the room beyond begins to sink into darkness. Between frantic gasps for breath, she struggles not to drown, not to let the dark water close over her head, stifling another scream rising in her throat.

    There are some untrackable moments that stretch outside time and, once gone, leave a black gap in its fabric that cannot be stitched back together. Then her surroundings grow brighter. The lights, once again further away, have flared up, and it is a little easier to breathe. but her heart is still pounding, and she tries to steady its beating and to fortify her shaking, softened body. Focus on the sights and the sounds only. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Do not think.

    There are green shapes hovering behind the lights - dull, shadowy, but she thinks she sees a strip of brighter, more vivid green flash past as one of them moves, and shudders. It should not have been there. The shapes, their shade, their outlines, which are somehow familiar, the odor that hangs about them - all of this fails to connect, to come together into a cohesive whole, though the thought seems to linger just outside her comprehension. When she tries to concentrate and grasp that elusive thought enough to give it a definite form, the weakness and the darkness are back and she has to fight hard to keep them at bay.

    [Where are we?]

    There are muttering sounds, slurred and indistinct. She senses the hair on her head and at the back of her neck begin to bristle.

    [You shall tell us where we are]

    More mumbling, as incomprehensible as before.

    But something has changed. The light is no longer the same; suffuse and gray, it is filtering from everywhere at once. For reasons she cannot fathom, she is not as bothered now.

    She stands, looks around. The wind is moist and green and she senses, with a thrill of recognition, that she is back on the tundra. But the location is strange. All around her there are dilapidated walls, crumbling and overgrown with moss. Most of them are a familiar rust-red, but some sections are brown, gray, yellow, even white. The structures are positioned at odd angles, as though sinking into the mire.

    There must be other survivors, she tells herself. There must be others around. No-one wanders alone. We do not wander alone.

    She looks down at her chest. Her clothing is now different. She is wearing light leather armor: a padded vest, elbow and shin guards, thick tube-shaped gauntlets with large openings for the thumbs. The tips of the claws that protrude from the suede undergloves are not as she remembers them - pale in color, almost yellow-white, like old ivory.

    She realizes that this is a memory. And not hers, but of one who came before, ages past, when there were cities, or at least ruins of them. The end, and the beginning.

    She is walking, as her predecessor had done, along a narrow passage. Underfoot, horsetails are sprouting through the reddish tiles and pushing them upward, their brittle segmented stems surrounded with webs of concentric cracks. The walls towering on either side are solid save for the occasional vertical slits, which, she knows, were intended for observing the street below. She raises her head and sees, high above, the remnants of the gallery that used to connect the two buildings; there is a large gap in the middle, and she can see the vaguely triangular, dual-lobed leaves of unknown plants over the sharp edges of the stones.

    She is searching, as her ancestor was searching. But these are empty ruins. What can she find here?
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  1. Without thinking, he began to draw Mbuta's face superimposed upon the box. His hand laid light, uncertain lines for what may have been the outline for her face. What came out clear and bold was the eyes: dark and sedate, they had a deep, subtle glimmer, not the hard shine that made him think of inserted mirror discs. Between the eyes, over the bridge of the nose, he drew the cruciform mark, a large circle overlaid with four shapes that might have been spearheads or leaves. When she wasn't working, the slit in the middle couldn't be seen unless he ran his finger across the skin or gently pulled it in opposite directions. On her chin, there were the three round dots, one just under the lower lip, in the center, and two more below, arranged in an upward-pointed triangle. He thought of the night the two of them had spent in that horrible cluttered room. He had switched off the electric light, which was making him sick, as was the sizzling of the dust-coated and flyblown bulb that dangled overhead on a single cord. In a further corder, he had found a bundle of firewood and five-ounce bottle of lamp oil and started the fire in the hearth. Once the room was bathed in a softer glow and the shadows were shifting and flowing on the walls and ceiling, they sat down cross-legged in front of the grate. Though languid and thoughtful, Mbuta was more talkative than she‘d been before. As she smoked her long wooden pipe and warmed her hands by the fire, she told him how her wenxa-dyem was taken and how one night she, too, barely managed to escape with her life. An unseen barrier seemed to have melted; her cautious, guarded bearing was gone and there was nothing left but a deep calm. Once or twice, he had turned to find her gazing straight at him with a strange look on her face, earnest and watchful. Eventually, Mbuta trailed into silence. He had forgotten how exhausted she was, that she hadn't had any rest in the past three nights, until he felt the back of her head lean against his chest. He was surprised that her face hadn't changed - he'd heard all those rumors about the Aska Bere being "special", but hadn't had the chance to see for himself - but her teeth had come out, her eyes were a dark wool-gray and he could swear he saw them shimmer with a soft light of their own. She touched cheeks with him and rubbed, squinting at him through the corner of her eye, and he responded, pressing closer against her cheek and nudging at her nose with his. In what may have equally been two minutes or two hours her head had rolled, her body slumped and went limp. When he gathered her into his arms, she was already in the day-sleep. He put a couple of pillows under her head and back, covered her with the ragged old quilt and tucked her in to save more of the warmth and prolong that delightful sleep as much as he could. When she grew cold to the touch, he carried her over to the opposite wall, where a quantity of soil had been spread on the floor. He sat by her side until daybreak, weaving a shade for the bulb from some strips of bark (even without the dim unnatural light and the thick fluid shadows it threw onto the bags scattered on the floor, or the buzzing and flickering, and even after cleaning it with a cloth, he still couldn‘t stand the sight of it) and watched her as she slept. There was a blissful smile on her face. The warmth was everywhere, inside him and outside, surrounding him and swelling in great waves like an ocean. He lifted his head and looked at the sheet. Mbuta's face was like a light shadow cast over the box. He had drawn the thing in the middle of her forehead as open and she was staring at him from the sheet, all of her three eyes fixed on him in reproach and dismay. He shuddered. He failed her. He let her slip through his fingers, as he'd done with so many others. That he had had no choice wasn't an excuse because those who wanted to have a choice always ended up with one. He simply hadn't tried hard enough. Now he was forgetting her and had nothing to hold onto. The Fadda Bidya excelled at severing the links that connected the dead to the living. That night, he had been surprised to see the concrete block lying slantwise across the road and the dark silhouettes, surrounded in silver against the solid whitish wall of rain. A roadblock in that area was strange to say the least, because there wasn’t a whole lot to monitor. As he drove closer, the indistinct shapes turned into gray figures in wide-sleeved coats down to the knee and double harnesses over their tactical vests. The slightly curved tips of the massive single-sided swords that hung under their left arms almost trailed along the ground. He could see the badges, the white emblem strips sewn into the uniforms, the odd glimpse of a nose clip in the shadow under a hood. Fadoshan. As many as four of them, though even one would have been trouble enough. This had to be the welcome party they had had in store for him, he thought, the one he’d been anticipating all along. Two others stepped out of the darkness at the further end of the barricade. They were in full riot armor, with straight black face-guards and shields made of the same shiny black material. No, he corrected himself - make that an honorable welcome party for very important persons. Or for non-persons. One of the lower-ranking Fadoshan walked over to the cabin and signaled for them to get out. His face, shaded by the watertight hood, was ashen, without the most distant hint of the dark flush. The rectangular reading-lenses in his glasses turned his eyes into swimming, out-of-focus black blobs. The tips of his thumb and forefinger were smeared in black, and there was black under his nails from the type of ink that wouldn't wash out for weeks. On his upper arm there was the obligatory band - green, or so Ibrahim had been told, but to himself, a dingy and nondescript gray, much like the man's own skin. The two councilors stood a few yards away and waited. The redundant armor made him think of overgrown grotesque insects, and the revulsion that rose in his stomach was much the same – he wanted to squash and stomp on the vile thing just to be sure it was no more, as if he’d seen a giant black scorpion scamper from under a rock, pincers raised and tail poised to strike. The folk by-name was spot on, except they were showing no signs of going down alongside those they had stung and drowned as they rode on their backs across the stream. What happened then? As soon as he had opened the door and stepped out of the cabin, he was grabbed, pulled down and shocked with a stun gun. His jacket was yanked off. Then he was sprawled flat on his face in the cold muck in the downpour with his hands duct-taped behind his back and the cold hard nozzle of a machine gun pressed against the nape of his head. He was patted down from head to toe, his pockets were turned out, his boots pulled off. They continued to press him into the mud until he was submerged, holding him down with such force that he was sure he was going to walk away with broken bones, if at all. Had he needed to breathe, he’d have suffocated. He was too cold to shiver, but the touch of the soil was soothing and he was beginning to drift off. There was a mild, pleasant weakness and a distinctive sensation in his skin, similar to being rubbed with cotton wool. He was floating inside a soft cloud, weightless, beginning to melt. Sounds grew duller, although he could discern distant thudding and jangling coming through the loud rustle of the rain. No, he told himself, this wasn't the time to sleep. They hadn't buried him just yet. The tape that bound his hands was cut through and in a moment the weight was gone from his shoulders and legs. He rose on one arm, wiping the mud from his face. One of the councilors was stretching out a hand to him; with the other hand, he had started to lift the face-guard, so Ibrahim could see his blanched chin. Ibrahim had bared his teeth and hissed at him as he staggered to his feet, tore off the remainder of the tape from his wrists and began to put his boots back on. Fuck you, he had thought. No, I don't want to see your sick-looking mug. Show it to your underlings. There must have been other words, too, he was sure of that, though he, on his part, had nothing to tell them. Back inside the truck, he had watched the wipers drive the torrents of water back and forth. There were no sounds save for the deafening roar of the rain. If it weren’t for the lining of the seats being cut open, and the dirt, and each of them being soaked and caked in half-dried mud, one could well think it’d been a bad waking dream. He had wondered whether it'd been their dose of mindfuck for that night, which the Fadda Bidya, for reasons known only to themselves, had decided to double. Perhaps they wanted to remind him who was running the show and have him lie face down in the dirt while they combed his truck and clothes simply because they could, just so he didn’t forget his place. But his inside was dark and muddled, and he knew it went beyond the usual frustration at their status games; he wanted to reach home sooner. What came next? They must have gotten stuck in yet another pit along the way. The roads in those quarters often were more impassable than the open countryside, especially during periods of heavier rainfall, when they turned into a mire. He had climbed out and leaned against the back of the truck, almost knee-deep in the sticky, slippery clay, as he thought to himself: Was the councilor the one who murdered her? Did he watch her die? No, he could never be their friend, or engage in an ongoing collaboration effort that entailed civilized communication, whatever they chose to call it. What was he to do, shake that councilor’s hand and be glad he’d shown his face? After he had hoisted up the truck, he became aware of a sharp stabbing pain in his side. The dull ache must have been there ever since they let go of him, but the effort brought it out. Broken ribs – two, or three or four, he’d never have bothered to count in that state. His mind was growing more and more clouded with a hunger that in itself was painful. He climbed out, let Initran take over the wheel and walked home alone, making his way more by the faint hints of scent than by sight or hearing. What then? The ear-shattering sound of the water smashing down onto him in streams. The cold that seeped through his skin and beneath, into the marrow of his bones. Falling to his knees, scrambling back up, falling again. Sharp burning pain in his side. Pain from the spasms in his stomach. Flushes of heat, frequent because of having to wade through the muck, but not even breaking the surface of the cold. Darkness. Mbuta didn't have the chance to see who her murderer was. He must have killed something because Sunim told him that he was covered in blood as well as dirt and reeked of forest beasts. By then, the hunger had diminished enough to be ignored, and the pain in his chest had begun to fade. She said he seemed to have just come back from the dead or some such, and he felt like telling her that no, he had already been back twice, first when Atyam took him and then when he had said his first words in that bricked-up basement. Third time around, nothing could get him. He had gone down the steps to find a room he didn’t recognize. The drawers in the cupboard had been pulled out, the contents scattered all over the floor – there were clothes, instruments, drawings, paper, stock sheets of metal piled on top of each other. The low table had been knocked over. The rugs had been ripped away from the walls and floor and some were still dangling with the sharp backs of the tacks visible. There were muddy prints and lumps of clay everywhere. The thick door to the side room where he slept had been taken off the hinges and stood wide open. His head was hollow and his tongue wouldn't move, as if he'd lost his speech again. He walked to the cupboard, already knowing what he was going to find. Never mind being incapacitated, humiliated and dunked into the mud with extreme prejudice - it hadn’t been about him. All of Mbuta's belongings were gone. Even the shoulder bags, which had seen better nights, and, before that, days, and the satchels and torn hand-wraps. While she was alive, he couldn't stand to see those wraps, but now he would have given a lot to have them. They, too, contained something of her - a wisp of warmth in the grazed and darkened suede, in the white threads that stuck out where the stitches had come undone. Her scent had been thick on them, and if he closed his eyes, he could sense her at his side. But no, they had to continue to obliterate her even after she was dead. The letter came last - machine-typed, unsigned, but stamped with the Fadoshan sigil, sealed in a neat envelope. Sunim and Initran read it out to him so many times he memorized the gist and most of the phrasing by rote. We regret leaving your belongings in such disarray, which must have taken considerable time and effort on your part to remedy. Be assured that no harm was meant to you or to your more, should one say, vulnerable associates - as you understand, we merely had to be certain there were no lingering traces of the blight, seeing how the descendants of Ofwo contaminate all things with their touch. We hope that no more bad dreams shall haunt you now that your shelter has been cleansed, and, with the taint gone and our duty fulfilled, we shall consider the events of the recent years, or the misguided decisions behind them, as a mere matter of miscommunication. The writing was stilted and indigestible. Every thought had to be untwisted and turned downside-up again to make sense and the long words were like boulders that both obscured the view and blocked the way. Not surprising, given that no-one could have swallowed that message if it lay on the surface. He was being spoken to, and had been for a while. Judging by the woman's raised and persistent tone, she wanted him to respond and he stared at her, unable to understand what she wanted. Some time had to pass before he realized she was the waitress. He had come there to eat, hadn't he? For once he was thankful for the sunlit time of day. The daze subdued him and made him watch his surroundings from a distance, without full involvement, which was safer for him and for others. At night, an interruption like this could have triggered a much more extreme reaction. He opened the menu and poked a finger into the pictures of the rare steak and the fruit plate – his favorite foods there, and the only he’d ever ordered - and told the waitress what he wanted to have. She said something again, he couldn't quite understand what because the words blurred together into one continuous noise, and he repeated his request. She asked him whether he wanted the usual, and this time he understood. He nodded and she scribbled something down in her notebook and left him alone at last. He looked around and noticed once again the woman in the nearby booth. She was writing something and seemed oblivious to the rest of the world, much as he'd been. She bore a distinct resemblance to someone he knew and this bothered him more than he was willing to admit to himself, but faces and names wouldn't break through the haze. Trying to recall them was like counting the pebbles at the bottom of a muddy lake. He stared at her for a while and wondered.
  2. He had been foregoing rest every other day for the past three months, or so he figured. Not that he kept track of time any better than he used to. The fever had caught hold of him, and, even when he wasn't working, all he was able to think about was the next leaf of metal to be added, the next section of the etching to be drawn, the curve of this line, the exact location for that dot. In his mind he was constantly holding and turning the box in his hands, letting his fingers tell him where the etched lines and dots used to be and how the layers of metal were structured. He had first made the box for Mbuta as a gift, some months after he joined the team. He had settled on using several copper alloys as well as silver, arranging the layers depending on the shade of shiny gray they seemed to be and on the contrast each of them formed with the dimmer, whitish-gray of the silver. There was something about them that he couldn't see, unlike everyone else, he did know that and was more than a little uneasy, but, after spending night after night drawing sketches in this or that lighting, with shadows that varied in thickness and fell in diverse directions, hesitating, undecided, debating with himself whether he should do it or not, he had made the choice. The design was simple in some ways, yet complex, grounded in a strict symmetry. The box was a cube with equilateral diamonds on the lid and on each of the four facets, positioned so that their angles divided the sides of each square into halves. The handle in the center of the lid was shaped like a truncated pyramid and consisted of three steps, each smaller than the previous one, and became slightly curved toward the sliced-off top. There was a pattern of slender lines filled with patina, which from a distance looked like a fine black web, including four stylized leaves that faced the angles of the innermost square on each facet and more leaves in clusters of two elsewhere. Inside there was an egg-shaped object he made from matching materials using the same overlay technique. It was to rest on the surface of the scented powder for the sake of decoration, or perhaps to be used as a pounder or grinder. He had no idea why he had decided on that particular gift. For his people, it was a traditional present to give to one‘ mate when she was expecting, either when it became certain that she’d conceived or when she was about to give birth. The egg stood for the new life concealed inside the mother’s body, for its mistery, while the leaf-like shapes represented life as a concept, the sum total of all the living creatures in the world and that which they had in common. The engravings were supposed to have a protective meaning for both the mother and the unborn baby, and the ultra-symmetrical design was to ensure that, once the child is born, his or her life would be well-balanced and harmonious, and that no harm would be done to them by external forces. Mbuta had no children and didn't want to try; she‘d rather be alone, she said, when the Fadoshan came after her. Nevertheless, he knew that giving her the box was the right thing to do. Once the thought latched onto him, it wouldn't let go and the fever swept him up and carried him through the following months, dim and full of distractions jumping at him here and there. Once the box and the egg were complete, he realized that he had made the right choice again one night as he thought about how to best tell Mbuta. There was a subtle trembling inside he'd never felt before, and he found himself sinking into a soft glow that enveloped him like a coccoon; he could almost see it as a visible light. He couldn‘t explain the way the design, Mbuta and himself were connected in his mind, but sensed it in each cell of his being. The best reward for him was to see her smile as she held the egg out against the light of the old white table-lamp (he had scrubbed and scrubbed it but couldn't get the dirt out of the gray scratches on the surface) - serene, contemplative, inward-focussed, as if she was listening to every small stirring that came from inside. He could have watched her for hours. Given that Mbuta was gone and he would never see her, even if he did find his way back to his dimensijon some night, replicating the box was twice, thrice, ten times as important. Now that Mbuta was no more, the box was her - an extension, a precious part of her that lived on to this night. All the more so that Mbuta was already fading from his memory. Her face was a blur and the little details were starting to elude him - the sound of her voice, the scratches at the bottom of her medicine-box, the leather satchels that used to dangle on her sash, the exact shape of her earrings. Taken together, these little bits made her who she had been and still was, and if he didn't remember her, he didn't know who would. Initran and Sunim, too, were dead, and by now, so could be Seshaewin and the others. Mbuta had said that about the wounded member of the Fadoshan-Dambarra clan she tended to in the shelled building before she was brought to Initran. There wasn't a single intact spot on him, not the size of a coin, she had said, if it hadn't been me, who else would have been there for him? Now the egg was nearly finished and he was impatient to see the final result, but he knew he had to take a break. Just before dawn, he had showered, rubbed his skin and hair with a mixture of argan and patchouli oil guaranteed to kill the odor and polished his military-style boots. Afterward he returned to his work and didn't raise his head until he had layered on the final leaf. All he had to do was highlight the spaces between the layers with patina. With an effort, he forced himself to leave the egg alone. He would return to it when he was back, if he had the strength not to collapse. For now, he would go to his favorite diner, just fifty yards from his shelter, which he visited on days like these, and have some roasted meat. He picked the egg up once more, examined the surface for the possible imperfections he might have missed, and set it aside. He slowly took out his street clothes from the cupboard and unfolded them. His dressing habits hadn't changed much. He missed his robe and thought about having one custom-made for him, but other than that, the more modern styles he saw in the street were almost the same, so that finding clothes similar to those he used to wear was not a problem. For a while now these have been a plain black shirt and loose boot-cut black jeans, which he tucked into his tall, thick-soled boots. The buckle on the black belt looked a little like his former sigil badge, and he liked that. On top he wore a long woolen overcoat, also in black, a habit that had stayed with him since the time when he had to keep warm while wearing robes. Underneath he wore a pair of jersey sweatpants and a jersey undersweater, and it wasn't just for the warmth. Denim scraped against his bare skin like sandpaper and jeans were out of the question unless there was an additional layer. Not all jersey was suitable either; some varieties were so prickly and coarse he couldn't stand them for more than a minute. The thick workout clothes made from modern synthetic fabrics he had seen looked durable and could be great for retaining heat, but he didn't trust them. Holding them was like touching an ugly creature from one of the dimensions Initran used to refer to collectively as "darkness and lightning"; he had sniffed one such shirt at a thrift store and the revolting stench made him sick, so much he hissed and spat in people’s plain sight, and the thought alone of having that against his body sent shivers down his back. No thanks. He wound the black scarf around his head, adjusted the band with the miniature silver box at the forehead and ran his fingers over the back, feeling and straightening each of the folds. Against the sun he wore dark goggles with a mirrored surface that hugged his face and fastened with a thick elastic strip and clasp at the back. They weren't much use because the light still seared his eyes and made them water, but at least he could tolerate it for several minutes and was able to walk across the road without going blind. The goggles doubled for his work when he had to use sulphuric acid to apply patina. Once outside, he threw on the hood, bowed his head and stuck his hands deeper into his pockets. The street swam underfoot. The sunlight was as thick as treacle, and he was walking - no, crawling through, one labored step at a time, stuck in the same everlasting moment. There was no chance of being burned, but when the light fell on him, even through the fabric, the weakness became much more stark. The sun was like a weight on his shoulders, bending him down to, and into the ground where he belonged - the only place he belonged, last time he had checked - and threatened to crush him. Soon the blinding white began to fade to black and he felt faint. If he stayed out there much longer he would lose consciousness. There was that door at long last. So far, so good; at least, he had made it there. He threw the hood back onto his shoulders, took off the goggles and looked around. The electric lights were too bright and the music too loud, but not so as to be unbearable. Thankfully, the hall was almost empty, except for two or three clients in opposite corners. He caught a casual glimpse of the woman in the one of the booths. Her wavy black hair was scattered over her shoulders and there was an organizer file on the table in front of her, but what he noted was her t-shirt, or tracksuit top, whatever that could be - gray, shabby and so stretched it could have been a sack. He felt a smidge of disgust. Such clothes weren't meant for being out of doors; the one good use for them was sleeping on his bed of dirt in the storage room, but they weren't to be shown to others. Apart from being ugly, they looked sloppy and lax, and, what was worse, they caused one to become that way on the inside. He walked over to the booth nearby, sat down at the table and pulled out a graphite pencil and a carefully folded sketch of the box from his shirt pocket. Once he unfolded the sheet, he forgot about the woman, or, for that matter, anything else.
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