T´Cha is a gnome-like race native to the smoke-filled caverns and lava-conduits beneath the volcanic peaks of the Thunderhead massif. Standing no taller than 4 feet at the most, and with a basically humanoid - although apish - body-type, at first glance, they appear distantly related to other humanoid races. A closer inspection, however, reveals them to be one of the most alien races of the vast, motley menagerie of Locastus.
The T´Cha are evolved to withstand temperatures vastly exceeding those tolerable for humans, and, in addition, needs a (to humans) highly toxic sulphur/methane-saturated atmosphere to survive.
When confronted with a T´Cha, one of the first features one would notice is the face, dominated by a single, fist-sized eye, opalescent, lidless and nestled within intricate folds of nictitating membranes. The head is cone-shaped, sitting directly onto powerful shoulders without any neck. There is no nose, ears or lower mandible bone - just a circular, sphincter-like mouth, lined with concentric rings of arrowhead-like teeth, seemingly made from crystal.
The skin is granite-grey, pebbled and elephantine, hanging in leathery folds all over the body, and covered in an intricate web of wrinkles, especially around the joints and where the head joins the torso. Sparse, steel-wool like hair sprout from the head and forearms, like bristles. The arms are long and apish, while the legs are short and bandy. The hands are comparatively large, and bear three, flattened, stubby digits and an opposable thumb, while the legs end abruptly, in a stump-like, calloused pad reminiscent of an elephant´s leg.
There is no external genitalia and, insofar as can be determined beneath that leathery skin, an odd absence of traditional muscular and skeletal structure.
T´Cha never wear conventional clothes, instead adorning themselves with multiple straps, harnesses, belts and bandoliers, tied in intricate skeins around every part of their body, with many hooks, rings and holsters holding an impressive array of intricate, weird-looking tools and mechanisms.
If forced to venture outside their smoke-filled warrens, they wear thickly insulated, alchemically heated suits and baroque glass-and metal breathing masks, supplying them with the thick, scalding smoke they breathe. Without these measures, human-tolerable temperatures and atmosphere would kill them within minutes.
The T´Cha are well suited for existence in the extremely inhospitable conditions in the volcanic caverns, where temperatures commonly soar to 200C and the air is laden with sulphurous compounds, carbon monoxide, methane and nitrous oxide.
Oddly enough, T´Cha are also chemoautotroph, and as such able to sustain themselves solely on non-biologically-derived nutrients. They seem perfectly happy to subside on a diet of coal, ash and mineral salts.
Their weird metabolism is also able to incorporate many of the unpleasant chemicals in their preferred atmosphere, although a high oxygen content seem detrimental. Moreover, their processing of these human-toxic chemicals gives as its end product inoffensive compounds, such as carbon dioxide, water and hydrogen.
From T´Cha corpses dissected by scientists, it appears that they have no real internal organs; their bodies just a rubbery, spongy, tar-soaked mass held together by inch-thick skin, where circulation seems to function mainly through osmosis. If their rhino-like skin is cut, they bleed an oozing, black, tar-like fluid, as well as wisps of heavy, turgid smoke. Any wound, even is a limb is severed, is usually closed within minutes.
T´Cha are able to regenerate a lost limb in a few weeks´ time, and are incredibly resistant to heat, acid and radioactivity, although they quickly perish if cooled below 155 degrees C, which is their approximate core temperature. They are able to handle white-hot metal with their bare hands, and can, albeit for short periods of time, swim a magma-river.
T´Cha are also facultative hermaphrodites, able to conceive alone or by mating with another. Their clutches of slate-grey, spherical eggs are incubated in glowing slag-piles for several weeks before hatching.
T´Cha are intelligent, but possesses an intellect so different from other races that meaningful communication is problematic. They seem to have an instinctual understanding of mechanisms and thermodynamics- especially high-temperature exothermic reactions - but also seem unable to decipher the behavioral cues of other races.
Even the alchemists of Alembic Row, who have had more interaction with T`Cha than any other group in Locastus, admit that making their T`Cha workers understand instructions is more a matter of luck and persistence than any real insight into T´Cha psychology. They seem to be born with a complete set of genetically encoded skills and have a very limited capacity for ad hoc modification of their behavior or to internalize any other information.
The T´Cha are also consummate tool-makers and build intricate, albeit mysterious, mechanisms. It is speculated that these complex clockwork contraptions and exquisitely fashioned gadgets are the T´Cha equivalent of art, and a way of exhibiting their skills, much like a medal or a guild badge would be worn by a human.
Despite their asexual manner of reproduction, T´Cha are extremely social creatures, preferring to move about in groups of 5-8 individuals and constantly communicate in their own, alien language, consisting of metallic chirps, clicks and hoots. Their human name is derived from how their language sounds to human ears.
The T´Cha were originally found beneath the great peak called "The Duchess", a gigantic dormant volcano in the Thunderhead Massif. This area, rich in minerals and unusual elements, is dominated by a large meteor crater, gouged deep into the base of the cone-shaped mountain, in which many rare ores are exposed to the open air.
Deep beneath the peak, where some residual volcanic activity is still present, is a vast labyrinthine warren of old lava-arteries, intestinal passageways, caverns and smoke-vents, all filled with scalding, caustic smoke, where the original T´Cha hive used to live.
Unfortunately for the T´Cha, the rich mineral deposits in the area drew the prospectors of the Locastrian mining companies to this spot, sinking deep sampling shafts in the basaltic bedrock and doing blasting tests on the exposed veins. In the year 161, one of the powerful, steam-driven mining excavators breached the warrens of the T´Cha, and vented the toxic fumes within.
That day, the vast majority of the T´Cha hive died, exposed to the toxic air and frigid temperatures above ground. Some were able to withdraw deeper into the ground, sealing the passageways after them, forever disappearing beyond the reach of mining drills or explosives. However, a prospecting Locastrian scientist, an alchemist hired by the mining company, saved a clutch of T´Cha eggs from a hatching chamber and managed to transport them intact back to Locastus in the only fashion suitable to withstand hatching temperature - the furnace of a steam-locomotive´s engine.
The alchemist, after allowing the eggs to hatch within one of the ever-burning quicklime kilns of the Alembic Row alchemical processing plant, recognized within the young T´Cha a great asset, a way of improving high-temperature alchemy.
Soon, the various kilns, distillation towers and reaction furnaces of Alembic Row had been reconfigured to allow T´Cha to monitor the processes therein on a hands-on basis, stirring the crucibles and raking out the white-hot slag with their bare hands. Moreover, the bizarre biochemistry of the T´Cha acts as a living exhaust catalyst, removing many of the unhealthy byproducts of the alchemical processes, consuming sulphur, methane, carbon monoxide and toxic slag and leaving only water, nitrogen and carbon dioxide to be released into the air.
The T´Cha hive of Alembic Row now numbers around 250 individuals, possibly the last ones of their kind left in the world, and allows the plant to produce quicklime, ammonia, bitumen and carbide - all necessary components of Locastrian daily life - of unsurpassed quality.
Scientific investigation (including dissection of live and dead specimens) suggests that the T´Cha are not native to this world. One hypothesis that has been put forward suggests that the meteorite that struck the Thunderheads tens of thousands of years ago may have contained T´Cha eggs, hatched in the near-thermonuclear environment left by the impact, and establishing the original hive.
Another, less credible, theory states that the T´Cha are a constructed species, created by some higher intelligence for use in adverse environments. While unsubstantiated, it would certainly explain their uncanny affinity for exothermic alchemy.
Gnomes are boring. I needed something that resembled a gnome, but alien enough to be a credible non-human race. And so the Oompa-Loompians from hell were born…
These guys have been with me for ten years or so, ever since I was in school being stretched on the rack of thermodynamics, entropy, Gibb´s free energy and partial gas pressures.
I believe you could use these guys in a sci-fi setting as well, especially if you like the star trek idea of all-humanoid aliens… Otherwise, rip it to bits and use what you like!
Hope you´ll enjoy it! /David