This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue.
|ATTACKS||Flee 8-; no attack*; Nettle fronds (1-2)|
|TRAITS||Slow metabolism (-2 initiative); Small (-1);
Poisonous (V. DIFF., incapacitation & pain/2D min.)
|SKILLS||Athletics/Dexterity (leap)-1; Climbing-1;
|ATTACKS||Flee 2-; attack 6+;
Nettle fronds (1-2); Ovipostor (2D)
|TRAITS||Fast metabolism (+2 initiative); Small (-1);
Poisonous (V. DIFF., incapacitation & pain/2D min.);
Camouflage (-2 spot); Bright Coloration (+2 spot)
|Morphology||Bilateral symmetry, octodecapod (eighteen short stub-limbs used for clinging and locomotion), many frond-like quills extending from back|
|Biochemistry||C/H/O/N/P/S, broadly human-compatible|
|Respiration||Oxygen-nitrogen inhalant, Carbon dioxide exhalant, tolerant of a wide range of tainted atmospheres|
|Ecology||Circadian (active day and night)|
|Habitat||Forested areas, from subtropical to the cold end of the temperate range|
|Diet and Trophics||Herbivore / grazer, ectothermic (cold-blooded)|
|Reproduction||Two genders, very little sexual dimorphism, conjugal intercourse, viviparous birth (laying twenty to thirty nymphs into a host’s organs), semelparous (reproducing only once a lifetime). Progeny are not cared for.|
|Lifecycle and ontogeny||Five weeks as nymph gestating in a host body, several moultings, up to ten years as an adult. Dies about a week after laying nymphs.|
Startlingly beautiful creatures, Leliax have been used in a few terraforming attempts during the Ramshackle Empire era, mainly to curb the growth of trees or tree-like plants in areas that should remain sparsely forested for meteorological reasons. They have long since spread to the habitable zones, where they have proven to be a dangerous nuisance. Zoological gardens are very fond of them for their beautiful displays of colour, keeping them hormone-suppressed and confined to plastoglass-domed habitats for the safety of visitors. But when wild Leliax are encountered in parks or the outskirts of a city, they are usually caught or exterminated, both because of the damage they do to the tree population and because of the danger they pose to humans and other sophonts, especially in the mating season.
Their native planet is surmised to be one of the original Solomani colonies, but other sources suggest that the Leliax were a “present” from the Daryen (who aimed to help the Humans’ terraforming attempts) that turned out to be a bane rather than a boon. The Solomani expression “a Darrian gift” means something that looks like a good opportunity but backfires horribly, and may have been coined for this or a similar instance of Daryen help.
Interestingly, many Aslan worlds have deliberately imported Leliax and introduced them to their ecosystems. Aslan, it seems, are more inclined to accept danger as a part of their everyday lives for the sake of beauty. They also value the Leliax as a “special prey” – and as an admonition to never let down one’s guard, even in one’s own garden. In Trokh, the creatures are called realeakh, which is simply ’Leliax’ using Trokh pronunciation rules.
Leliax look much like a one-meter-long caterpillar, with a long, pointed stinger at the end of its abdomen (folded over the back to point upwards at a sharp angle, like a scorpion’s stinger) and many tufted fronds jutting out from dorsal joints. The fronds are clustered above the groups of short leg-stumps that are used to anchor the Leliax to a tree. The entire facial dome is optically sensitive, with surprisingly accurate depth perception for a composite visual organ. Leliax have no sense of hearing.
Leliax attach themselves to trees and slowly nibble off the bark, along with the mosses and fungi that grow on it. The constant feeding weakens the tree, cuts off its circulation and makes it susceptible to rot; such trees usually lose their leaves or needles over the course of several years and finally develop severe phytopathogenic fungal infestations. Gnawing patterns are long, winding lines and spirals, like an ambrosia beetle’s, that will slowly cover the entire tree during a Leliax’s lifespan.
Leliax are not particular about which trees or tree-like plants they feed on; they will attack the giant spiral ferns of Gelenn with the same abandon as they do the wire dendrites of Zirkon or the bioluminescent glass-bark trees of their supposed home planet Elenvine. (A few species of alien trees are poisonous for them; Leliax who feed on those kinds of trees usually sicken and die within a few months.) Since Leliax are territorial and mark their own tree with a pheromone that keeps fellow species members away, the infested trees are evenly spaced several meters apart, leading to a natural lightening of the forest’s density.
The pheromone’s odour is undetectable by human noses; Aslan and Vargr may notice it as a faint, not unpleasant, whiff. Droyne (and, interestingly, psionically gifted humans) detest the pheromone’s smell and will develop a strong headache if they remain too long in the vicinity of Leliax (-1 to all actions after 1 hour of exposure). The pheromone fades in the mating season, to be replaced by the female’s sexual attractant odour.
Both the Leliax’s skin and its fronds are very brightly coloured, with swirling patterns in many hues of green, white, blue, turquoise and lavender, sometimes interspersed with garish stripes of emerald green, red or yellow. No two Leliax have identical patterns. The intense colouration serves as a warning to would-be predators: the fronds are covered with stinging cells (nematocytes) connected to nettle-glands that secrete a potent neurotoxin. While not actually deadly to sophonts of human size, the venom causes intense spasms and pain. (Droyne react more heavily to the toxin, suffering the equivalent of cardiac arrest in extreme cases).
If attacking a Leliax with a weapon shorter than a sword or cutlass, every attack must be followed by a VERY DIFFICULT; appropriate Weapon or Melee skill or Athletics/dexterity; DEX check (AVERAGE if using a sword-length weapon, -2 if the weapon has a basket hilt or similar protection). Failure means the attacker has touched the nematocyte fronds and been stung. A sting delivers 1-2 points of damage and injects the toxin if it causes at least one point of damage. Armour applies only if it covers the arms and hands entirely.
A person affected by the nematocytes’ poison often (6+) develops striated reddish marks around the stung area, which last a lifetime unless removed by plastic surgery. Some victims (roll 9+) also report recurring periods of mild fever (-1 to all actions) about once per standard year. Such a spell of “Leliax fever” lasts from two to three days. On the positive side, once a victim has recovered from the first bout of fever—which, if it occurs, will be about 2D months after being stung—xe will develop a complete immunity against Leliax poison.
When attacked, the Leliax’s usual reaction is to climb into the tree’s top to evade its attacker. This strategy, together with the poisonous secretion, is usually enough to discourage predators. The Leliax will not attack by itself, relying on its nematocytes for protection.
Leliax meat is near-translucent white, turning milky when cooked or fried, and is considered a rare delicacy by humans who appreciate its subtle flavour. It takes skill, though, to prepare the meat without the neurotoxin from the nematocyte glands seeping into the fibres and spoiling the dish (ROUTINE; Steward ; INT for a specialist, but VERY DIFFICULT; Steward; INT for someone not extensively schooled in the fine art of Leliax cooking). Skilled chefs who are able to prepare Leliax are much sought after, and in some places are as famous and eccentric as media stars.
Aslan tend to dismiss the meat’s taste as “weak”, but since killing a writhing Leliax with a knife or dewclaw without touching the fronds is a rare feat of huntsmanship, the creature has found its way to many noble Aslan’s tables (invariably heavily spiced) as a “trophy dish” that demonstrates the host’s prowess – and challenges his guests’ trust in him. On planets with a Leliax population, a claw-killed Leliax carcass is also a common gift of a subject to his liege – demonstrating the warrior’s willingness to enter dangerous situations and endure pain on the liege’s behalf. Many ihatei try to reinforce their plea to be taken into a lord’s service with such an offering.
During the mating season, which strikes on average once every ten years, male Leliax are drawn to the scent that the female produces (which has been described as a mixture of lavender and liquorice with a sharp hint of lemon, and which can be smelled throughout the forest). Shortly after mating, the male perishes. Triggered by the hormones injected with the spermatophore, the female changes colour to blend in with its surroundings, and attaches itself to the underside of an overhanging branch. In its abdomen, about twenty to thirty tiny embryos are gestating.
Once a creature of sufficient size (dog- to horse-sized) comes into its striking range of about five meters (in game terms: if the Leliax achieves surprise at close range), the female launches itself at its victim with a powerful spasm. It will grapple the victim in a frenzy and writhe around, trying to paralyze it with its fronds. Armour will protect only if it covers the entire body, otherwise it takes a successful VERY DIFFICULT; Melee/grappling; DEX roll each round of combat to keep the Leliax away from the vulnerable parts.
If the victim has been successfully grappled or paralysed, the Leliax will try to inject it with the stinger—which is actually an ovipositor for the centimeter-long larvae. Every successful stinger attack that gets through the victim’s armour (which applies in this case!) and causes damage also injects 1D larvae into the victim’s body. A pregnant Leliax will ignore all other threats and keep attacking its designated victim until it is killed or until it has injected all its young, at which point it dies.
Larvae burrow deeply into the host’s internal organs and start feeding on its tissue, causing one point of damage for every larva per interval (2D×10 minutes). Organ damage is irreversible and cannot be healed naturally; only transplantation of re-grown or artificial organs can restore damage caused by the larvae. The pain to the victim from the feeding larvae is excruciating and will incapacitate xir completely.
Placing a larva-infested person in cold berth is not recommended—the larvae will burst when frozen, and the probability of the perforated organs being ruptured is high. Medicinal Fast drug affects the larvae to some extent, slowing the interval to 2D hours. After half a day, the larvae develop an immunity against the drug, though, and the interval will slowly pick up speed again.
Larvae can be dug out with successful surgery, but only at a facility equipped with surgical scanners to locate them; a successful Medic check will take 1D×10 minutes and remove 1D larvae, with the difficulty being (2×the number of hours that have passed since implantation). Each attempt at surgery, whether successful or not, also causes 1D damage, which can be regenerated through rest or regular medical treatment.
As a last ditch measure, a victim can also be dosed with tiny amounts of ricin to kill off the larvae in xir system. Ricin can be extracted from the Terrestrial castor bean or certain alien plants, such as the berries of Gelennian shreekith bushes. Dustspice in its unprocessed form also contains traces of ricin.
This is a very unreliable treatment, because ricin is a potent toxin—the dosage must be very closely matched to the patient’s body weight, general health and liver activity (DIFFICULT, Medic, Int, at -2 if attempted without a medical scanner) or the patient will either die or the dosage will be too small to take effect. Even if properly administered, the dosage of ricin that makes sure the larvae are killed is very close to a human’s own lethality threshold, and the patient needs to make an AVERAGE END check with xir current END modifier to survive. Primitive conditions, such as an insanitary cave in the woods, impose a -2 penalty to the test, while a well-stocked medical facility and proper care may grant a bonus of up to +2.
Common symptoms of ricin poisoning are severe inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract and damage to liver and kidneys. Note that an antidote for ricin is discovered around TL 14, making this kind of treatment much less risky if it is available.
If the larvae have been killed off, they will still have to be removed surgically, but they cease feeding (and stop causing further damage), which takes some of the urgency out of the patient’s rescue.
If left untreated, the larvae eventually kill their host and devour its soft tissue; afterwards (now about the length of a finger) they migrate to individual trees, where they moult several times until they emerge as their final form (imago). Each larva will mark its tree with its own scent to keep other larvae away.
- In a rural area far from the large population centers, a child has been attacked by a pregnant Leliax and injected with several larvae. The travellers need to get her to a hospital quickly before her inner organs are irrevocably damaged. Unfortunately, their air/raft (or other civilian transport) is simply not fast enough. They will have to override flight safety regulations (and argue with furious traffic controllers threatening to have them shot down), flying their ship into a city bustling with air traffic, and then abseil the child on a stretcher from the airlock to the hospital’s roof while balancing the ship on its auxiliary thrusters. Not a mean feat for any pilot, but if they pull it off, they’ll have something to brag about in every bar from here to Central. (Not to mention the parents’ eternal gratitude).
- The travellers move through a forested area and are greeted by an eerie silence. Several carcasses of dead animals and perished Leliax are lying around. A few moments later, they pass a tree with a camouflaged pregnant Leliax and are attacked.
- Through an attendant’s carelessness, several Leliax have escaped from the city’s zoo. As soon as the hormone suppressants wore off, they entered a premature mating phase, and now there are several pregnant Leliax at large in the mall abutting the zoo. Citizens have been warned to keep to their homes. The police are busy channeling the frightened masses into safe zones, and now the emergency board is looking for a few experienced spacers able to catch the dangerous critters and rescue the few people still holed up in the mall. Collateral damage is supposed to be kept to a minimum, and further panic should be avoided at all costs.
- The travellers are hired to go out into the infested woods to hunt Leliax for a high-class restaurant. It’s not the mating season, but still, Leliax are dangerous game. A wounded animal may “play possum” and suddenly become very lively when it is collected.
- An ambitious Aslan ihatei hires the travellers as wilderness guides for a trip to a rural area, where he intends to find a magnificent specimen of Leliax and kill it in single combat with his dewclaws. He hopes to be able to present it to a certain lord, and be taken into the noble’s service. Unfortunately, his rivals show up just as he has spotted his prey. The travellers need to employ either their combat or their persuasion skills to keep them at bay so their employer can concentrate on the kill.
- A man with heavy striated burn marks on his face and arms approaches
the travellers in a spaceport bar. He is a former pirate on the run from
his old mates, and he wants to retrieve a cache of valuables he hid away
in a tree in one of the planet’s nature reserves. The area is densely
infested with Leliax, and he got his “Leliax marks” when he hid the
stuff. The former pirate wants the travellers to find the exact tree (at
the coordinates he provides) and get the valuables inside to a rented
locker in the city, while he distracts his former colleagues who might
be watching him.
Unfortunately, the pirates have noticed the travellers talking to the renegade, and will stealthily follow them into the forest, ambushing them once they have found the goods.
- The travellers are on a diplomatic courier mission. The Aslan ambassador invites them to go hunting with him in his “garden” (a densely forested hunting ground several square miles large). A treecat-like animal is released, and the first to touch it with hand or paw wins the hunt. The hunters are supposed to leap from tree to tree (touching the ground means forfeiting the hunt), and unfortunately some of the trees are infested with Leliax. They are brightly coloured and easy to spot—but taking detours around their trees means losing ground to the other hunters, and sometimes it’s worth the risk in order to get ahead in the chase. Success in the hunt may win the travellers the ambassador’s favour and greatly help their mission.
- A famous chef’s booking agent approaches the travellers. After eating one of his master’s Leliax dishes at a banquet, the agent explains, a noble connoisseur nearly died of poisoning. He is now in hospital, with his life hanging by a thread. The chef is in police custody and may be tried for manslaughter—or possibly even attempted premeditated murder: the noble and the chef have had a long-standing feud (concerning certain unfavourable remarks the noble made within earshot of the editor of an influential gastronomical magazine). The agent is convinced that someone tried to murder the noble, and that his master is being framed for the crime. He wants the travellers to investigate.
- A cargo crate holding several Leliax specimens in frozen berth is damaged in flight, and several Leliax escape. They are now abroad in the ship’s air ducts, maintenance crawlspaces and cable shafts, and while they don’t do any damage, it’s difficult to get them out of their hiding places without touching their fronds and getting a fist full of nematocytes. The ducts are much too narrow to be entered with any sort of protective clothing. And the port authorities are adamant that they will refuse permission to dock until all of the critters are accounted for. If the Referee is feeling especially nasty, there is also the possibility of a premature mating season triggered by the rapid “thawing out”.
- A local crime lord has captured the travellers. They are stripped naked and placed in single cells together with a Leliax each—and there is very little room to avoid touching the fronds. Falling asleep or moving a limb in the wrong way means instant excruciating pain, and the prisoners have to be very alert for every little move the Leliax make. The lord’s torturer is also rumoured to have found several other, very creative, uses for the creatures and their larvae.
- The Zhodani ambassador’s residence has been the target of an attack:
the culprits threw plastic bags of a clear liquid over the barrier,
which burst when striking the ground. No damage was done, but the
ambassador and his staff of nobles now complain about sudden bouts of
blinding headaches. The substance is later discovered to be refined
Leliax pheromone in an oily suspension. While an armed Zhodani courier
fleet is ready to evacuate the ambassador, by force if necessary,
Imperial system defense boats are drawn from the outskirts of the system
to blockade the couriers, biologists and doctors try to find out the
nature of the staff’s headaches, and all sides are frantically striving
to avoid a diplomatic disaster, an Ine Givar agent infiltrates the
embassy disguised as a prole officer. The pheromone was used to numb the
staff’s psionic abilities so the agent could enter the residence without
giving her intentions away to telepathic questioning.
The travellers may either be the agent’s accomplices, hired to provide a quick getaway; they may be suspects; they may be investigators; they may be called upon for (xeno)medical expertise on the mysterious headaches; they may be involved in the fleet blockade; they may be called upon to block the agent’s escape vessel. Also, the incident provides a great opportunity for enterprising smugglers, with the Naval assets’ attention focussed on the Zhodani courier fleet.
- The travellers were hired to release thousands of Leliax into the wilderness—supposedly to help curb a forest’s expansion in the planet’s uninhabited zone. They were successful, but on the way back, they spot several well-camouflaged primitive human settlements in the zone! Investigating, they find that the settlers are refugees from the planet’s oppressive government who founded their ramshackle villages out here where they could hope to be left in peace. The next mating season (which will be in about a month, due to deliberate artificial hormonal boosts in the specimens to ensure a quick spread of the creatures) will be a dire threat to the peaceful refugees. The travelers have to persuade the settlers to relocate—and they should ask themselves whether the release of the Leliax was not in reality intended by the government to flush those settlers from hiding?