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This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue

This flying creature has grown into a dangerous nuisance throughout the whole Spinward Marches. It originated on one of the border worlds of the Zhodani Consulate and spread to the Imperium during a time of relative peace and mutual trade. For a period of time it was believed in the Marches that kellika were deliberately spread to Imperial worlds along the border as part of a Zhodani plot. The rumour is still around and takes its own time to die down, although it has since been proven that the sudden spread was due to egg-clutches travelling undetected on the undersides of cargo pallets and containers in the holds of free traders. Kellika proved to be highly adaptable to new environments, and have successfully carved themselves (no pun intended) niches in a wide variety of ecosystems.

The original name for the kellika is “qliap”, a Zdetl word meaning a curved knife used in harvesting. “Kellika” is surmised to be a mispronounciation of this. Other common terms are “clipper” (again a rendering of the original Zdetl word), “sabrewing”, “axebird” or “slasher”, referring to the creature’s usual mode of attack.

Although their body structure is similar to a bird’s or bat’s, their behaviour, intelligence and breeding habits are more similar to insects. Kellika are classic r-strategists, producing a high number of offspring with a limited lifespan, and little energy is expended increasing the survivability of the individual, especially in terms of intelligence.

Mottled gray, tan or brown, a sabrewing’s hue reflects the dominant colour of the environment it lived in as a nymph. The belly and sinuous neck are somewhat lighter than the dorsal region. The hind legs are very short, barely more than short hooks able to grip a branch or rock for perching. If forced to move around on the ground, a kellika uses an awkward slow waddle or short hops assisted by the wings. The head has a prominent, hard, curved beak, and adults also sport a large axe-like crest on top of their heads. Actually, this is composed of a spongy substance that cushions the head and especially the eyes from collisions if the kellika misjudges the distance or hits a harder target than intended.

A kellika’s leathery wings have a span of 80-100cm. Like the inner skeleton, the edges of the wings are made of lightweight silicates, providing a rigid, blade-like edge with which the creature strikes its prey. Attacks are made from overhead, with the kellika dropping down, catching itself at the last instant and striking with one or both wings before circling upwards again. Without favourable updraughts, it takes about three rounds to gain enough height between strikes.

Kellika (N)2 (A)8 20m
SKILLS (N)Recon-1 (A)Brawling/Wing Slash-2
ATTACKS Flee on (N)8- (A)3-;
Attack on (N)10+ (A)5+;
Wing Slash (N)1D-2 (A)1D
TRAITS Small (-2); Fast Metabolism (+2 to Initiative);
BEHAVIOUR (N)Scavenger/Hijacker (A)Carnivore/Killer
NOTE (N) for Nymph phase; (A) for Adult phase
Morphology Bilateral symmetry, tetrapod (four-limbed), biped (two very short hind limbs used for grasping, sitting and limited locomotion), winged (two winged forelimbs)
Biochemistry C, H, O, N, P, S; broadly compatible with humanity; high SixOy compounds
Respiration Oxygen-nitrogen inhalant, Carbon dioxide exhalant
Ecology Diurnal (active during the day)
Habitat Open areas, steppes, deserts, hills, mountain ranges
Diet and Trophics Scavenger/hijacker (in nymph phase), carnivore/killer (in adult phase), exothermic (cold-blooded)
Reproduction One gender, conjugal intercourse, oviparous birth (laying a clutch of about forty hard black eggs), semelparous (reproducing only once a lifetime). Progeny are not cared for. (r-strategist)
Lifecycle and ontogeny One month as a nymph, moulting/ gestation, two months as an adult. Dies after egg-laying.

Kellika have no real social structure or cohesion, but while circling for prey will seek out the vicinity of other visible kellika. A typical proto-swarm is made up of ten to twenty individuals, but in times of frenzied hatching (see below), swarms comprise over a hundred adult kellika each.

Adult sabrewings will attack anything that moves on the ground regardless of size, dropping down in waves and striking again and again until the prey is dead. They cannot distinguish between animate and inanimate objects – their brains are a single and none-too-complex central ganglion running down the length of their bodies – and will attack cars, tumbleweeds or drifting logs with the same abandon as they do live prey. They cannot hurt a closed vehicle, other than a lucky hit shaving off an antenna or cracking a window pane, and if striking a hard surface like a car roof a swooping kellika takes 1D damage itself. Large swarms of sabrewings have been seen to dash themselves to death on armoured vehicles. The swarm will immediately veer off if the prey manages to get out of sight (burrowing in the sand, taking shelter or entering a ditch).

Larger groups of objects moving together in cohesion are seldom attacked, but straying from a travelling party while shadowed by a flock of kellika will immediately draw an attack.

In flight, the creatures are very difficult to hit unless with a laser weapon or shotgun; all other weapons get a -4 modifier to hit a flying kellika. Hand weapons can be used to hit a swooping kellika, but this requires a DIFFICULT dexterity check first, and if the check is failed, the creature will hit automatically. On particularly infested worlds, sand-filled shells are available for shotguns and grenade launchers, which can punch a hole in a swarm 1-3 (shotgun) or 1-6 (grenade launcher) creatures wide but will not harm humans (other than a nasty bruise for point-blank hits) if they are wearing jack or better and have their faces covered.

While very nimble in an attack on ground targets, sabrewings are nearly defenseless against flying predators; they have a -3 modifier to hit a flying creature. Along the border, a common tactic against kellika is the release of flying raptors such as skestrials or kites into the wild, which tend to make short work of the pests.

After a successful period of kills and feeding, kellika mate by injecting each other with a spermatophore, which each individual then uses to fertilise a clutch of about forty eggs. The eggs are laid in a single cluster in an enclosed, dark space – usually a rocky crag, but the undersides of overhanging roofs or cargo pallets are modern favourite places. After egg-laying, the adult ceases eating and will die within a week. Eggs are rather robust and can stand hard vacuum and extremes of temperature up to 200° C for a short while. They can lie dormant for up to twenty years until the environment is favourable for hatching. If the climate is unfavourable, few of the egg-clutches hatch. If this happens for several years in a row, a single mild spring can result in a sudden hemisphere-wide mass swarming that can be very dangerous to anyone travelling in the countryside.

The young are smaller versions of adults, lacking the distinctive axehead-shaped crest. They are harmless at this stage, living as scavengers and feeding on carrion and dirt or sand (for the necessary skeletal silicates) until they moult into imagos (adults). Only one of thirty survives to adulthood in any environment where there are other predators present.

Adventure Seeds

  1. The travellers are moving cross-country in an ATV and come under kellika attack. The swarm dashes itself to death on the vehicle, and after several tense minutes in the closed vehicle, everything is over. However, the creatures have managed to damage the radio antenna, and one or two have wedged themselves into the air filtration system. There will be no filtered air or radio contact until repairs are made – and another swarm is coming closer.
  2. The travellers are expecting a courier, who is overdue. As they investigate, they come across his vehicle and xir flayed remains in the middle of the road – xe stopped to attend a call of nature and was attacked by kellika. The creatures are still around, and the travellers need to go outside into a hail of slashing wings to retrieve the coded message cylinder from the body.
  3. An outlying colony experiences a mass swarming of sabrewings. Children have been attacked in the street, and the city seeks volunteers who go outside with improvised protective suits and sandblast shotguns to cull the swarms.
  4. The travellers took on board a batch of environmentally controlled cargo containers – with kellika egg-clutches sticking to their bottoms, which hatch during flight. The nymphs will not deliberately attack, but they are frantically zipping around the cargo hold. Travellers may get injured if they move around the hold, and delicate equipment will be damaged. Several cables are slashed, causing the temperature control on the containers to fluctuate. This may set a dangerous substance free or damage an important batch of vaccines for the destination planet. Not to mention that the authorities will order the ship quarantined until every air duct and crawlspace is scoured and every one of the kellika nymphs disposed of.
  5. The travellers and their ship or air/raft are pressed into service in an infested area, to spread an enzyme which will damage the egg-clutches´ cellular membranes and keep them from hatching. The task is enormous: it is impossible to get the liquid into every nook and crevice from the air. Several caves will have to be investigated on foot and sprayed by hand. Sheltered in one of the caves, they find a family of five who weren’t evacuated and now are very sick from getting exposed to the enzyme. They need to be taken to a hospital, but the authorities are adamant that the operation continue on schedule.
  6. A visitor from the Consulate is abducted by a violently anti-Zho mob who subscribes to the rumour that the spreading of the kellika was part of a Zhodani invasion plan. They marooned xir in the middle of a sabrewing-infested wilderness “to give the dirty Zho a dose of xir own medicine”. The travellers have to find xir before xe is flayed alive, or diplomatic affairs will take a rather frigid turn. The area is huge, and an aimless search could take weeks, so first they need to find one of the activists and get xir to talk where they left the Zhodani.
  7. The travellers come across the remains of a dead prospector getting gnawed on by a flock of kellika nymphs. They will be able to shoo most of them away to get at the equipment belt the man was carrying, but a few of the nymphs are loathe to leave their food and will try to fend of the grasping hands with their sharp wings.
  8. Travelling overland in an open-topped car, the travellers spot a flock of saberwings. Alone on the plain, their vehicle presents an inviting target. They have to take refuge in a herd of grazers and need to approach very carefully to avoid startling the animals.
  9. The travellers explore a cave and discover thousands of hibernating egg-clutches. They need to find a way to mark the cave’s exact location, as the next sandstorm will probably change the appearance of the terrain beyond recognition. If the cave cannot be found again, next summer could see a huge invasion of kellika as the eggs hatch.
  10. Exiting a subterranean base or natural cave, the travellers find themselves eye to eye with a whole colony of hundreds of adult kellika roosting on the rocks around the cave´s mouth. They have to move very carefully (with several excruciating DEX checks) to avoid scaring up the saberwings, or they will take flight and cut the travellers to pieces.
  11. As the travellers approach a hidden prospector camp, their air/raft triggers a proximity mine that scatters sand into the air (similar to the sand-filled bullets mentioned above, but on a much larger scale). Nobody is hurt, but the sand has clogged the exhausts, and they need to land and repair the damage. The mines were placed by the prospectors to protect the mining ’bots from kellika attack.
  12. In a battle zone, the combatants have to hunker down in tunnels and bunkers for the day and can only come out to fight during the night, because of frequent kellika attacks in the daylight. One side’s commander proposes a surprise day raid, which would involve constructing camouflage equipment or moving from cover to cover. The risk of falling prey to the kellika is high, but the enemy would be taken unawares.