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Hlagocyte (new monster)

February 19, 2014

I’ve been reading Flashing Swords!, the 1970s “sword and sorcery” anthologies edited by Lin Carter. The first volume closes with a story by Carter himself, entitled ‘The Higher Heresies of Oolimar’. It’s easily the worst story in the book, although – considering that the others are by Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance and Poul Anderson – that’s hardly surprising and not inherently disgraceful. It is a slight and silly piece, but eminently plunderable for gaming ideas nonetheless. There are some interesting magical devices (I might deal with them another time) and a few memorable monsters. One of these is the hlagocyte. I wasn’t sure whether the word was a “real” one, so I googled it and was quite surprised to get only a single hit: a short review of Carter’s story that focuses on the monsters. So the name is evidently the author’s coining. Carter must have been quite taken with the hlagocyte, because he describes it at some length:

Imagine something very like a honey-bee, only swollen to the proportions of a giant elk […]

The head was half as big as the body, a great pear-shaped horny bulb, clad in a glistening carapace reddish-brown in color. To either side of the head swelled huge twin patches of eye: they seemed glittering masses of twinkling black crystals; actually they were compound eyes, made up of many thousands of tiny ocelli. A complicated set of toothed mandibles thrust out below the front spur of the head, complete with a long, obscene proboscis […] Two branched and bulb-tipped antennae grew from the base of the mandibular jaws. These twitched about in a mechanical, jerking way, tasting the air. The top of the thing’s head was fronded with long feathery hairs […]

Behind the head came a narrow stalk of neck, then the abdomen swelled into a monstrous egg-shaped thorax mailed with interlocking plates of darker red-brown. The horny, chitinous armor of the giant hlagocyte had a waxy sheen and exuded a not-unpleasant, sharp, medicinal odor, rather like the clean stench of iodine. The thing had three sets of legs, also thickly covered with long feathery hairs […]

Folded back against the top surface of the thorax were two pairs of stiff membranous wings. They glistened glassily, like thick sheets of mica, and flickered with tints of brown-gold, dark blue and cloudy grey.

This beast is not a foe for the tale’s protagonists Amalric and Ubonidus, however; it’s transport. Effectively, it’s a two-seat light aircraft:

Wooden saddles were built just behind the hlagocyte’s head, strapped securely to the rear portion of the horny skull and to the jointed short neck. They would ride together, and side by side. The wooden saddles were padded with leather and looked not uncomfortable, actually. With a long-suffering sigh, Ubonidus permitted Amalric and the innkeeper […] to strap him in.

The narrator then explains how the creature is controlled:

[T]he rider holds two long hardwood batons wherewith to guide his mount by tapping it adroitly on one or another of the flat protuberances that rise between and to the back of the huge glittering compound eyes […] By rapping the nodes in various combinations it is possible to communicate a remarkably complex set of instructions to your steed, and the hlagocyte can comprehend such instructions, for it possesses a remarkable intelligence, although it has been fully domesticated and is quite docile and even friendly, in a cold insectoid way, despite the ferocity and horror of its physical appearance.

We are even told that the hlagocyte was developed 6,000 years ago by the sorcerer Lokoto Xodar, who was “a real genius with the breeding vats”. (He certainly seems to have spent his time more profitably than did the insane wizard whose genetic experiments spawned the owl bear.)

Anyway, time for some stats.

HD 8; AC 4 [15]; AT 1 slam (2d6); MV 6/150 (flying); AL N. Special: Can carry up to two human-sized passengers.

Yes, you read that right: an hlagocyte’s flying movement rate is 150. Not 15. One hundred and fifty of your old-school game inches. That’s my best estimate based on this sentence:

The monstrous insect-steeds could fly a mile high, and could travel at the astounding velocity of seventy-five miles per hour.

That’s a game-changer right there. Aboard an hlagocyte, your player characters (or two of them, anyway) can travel 600 miles in one eight-hour day. That’s twenty 30-mile campaign hexes, which means they could cross the territory covered by the World of Greyhawk map, east to west, in a week. (They could cross the Carcosa map in a morning.) They can easily catch or outrun a flying dragon. Even rocs and pegasi – hitherto the fastest things in D&D skies, with a movement rate of 48 – are utterly outclassed by the hlagocyte. All of which means they should be rare, exorbitantly expensive, and learning to control one should be difficult and time-consuming. Moreover, they require hlagocytic syrup, a concentrated nutrient in gluey liquid form (usually supplied in a kind of “nosebag”), to provide the energy for long-distance flight. Too little syrup, and the hlagocyte becomes fatigued. Too much, and it can become drunk, with unpredictable consequences.

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