Wednesday 10 February 2016

Monsters from Central Asian Mythology 6: Shurale

All the taiga cultures have stories of the strange not-quite-human creatures that dwell in the forest depths. In some tales, they're clearly spirits, like the Leshy of Slavic mythology: forest guardians, shape-changers, teachers of sorcery, rulers of the beasts. In others, though, they're basically just weird, wild beast-men who live in the woods, and it's in that form that they're probably most useful for D&D purposes. The Shurale, which appears in the legends of what was once the Khanate of Kazan (now the Russian Republic of Tatarstan), is a good example. In Farid Yurullin's ballet, Shurale, the eponymous creature is clearly a (malevolent) nature spirit, complete with a court of servitor spirits; but in Tuqay's 1907 poem it's just a rather dim, troll-like creature lurking in the woods. According to Tatar folklore, it resembles a furry man with long claws and a single horn on its forehead; it hides deep in the forest, where it plays spiteful tricks on passing humans, hiding the axes of woodcutters, stealing women, and luring unfortunate victims into its thickets where it proceeds to tickle them to death. Unfortunately, the Tickle Monster of the Taiga doesn't quite strike the requisite note of dread, so it's probably a good idea to downplay that bit if you want them to be taken seriously by your players.

So: deep in the taiga, far to the north of the Wicked City, live the Shurale. Tall, shaggy, long of limb, and covered in greenish-brown fur, they blend easily into their woodland environment: seen at a distance they are usually mistaken for mossy trees. Their fingers are too long for their arms, and their arms are too long for their bodies: a six-foot Shurale could easily have four-foot arms ending in twelve-inch fingers, allowing them to suddenly snatch up people or objects from surprising distances. They aren't quite men, or beasts, or spirits, and no-one's really sure where they came from, least of all the Shurale themselves. They all seem to be male, and unless something kills them they live pretty much forever. Given the chance, they will steal pretty things - clothes, jewels, young women - and hide them away in the depths of their thickets, where they will spend long hours laughing and gloating over them; and this, along with their taste for the playing of cruel tricks and their habit of murdering travelers who trespass too close to their hidden lairs, mean that they are usually regarded with deep hostility by nearby communities. Fortunately, they are not nearly as clever as they think they are, and quick-witted woodsmen and maidens are often able to turn the tricks and traps of the Shurale against them.

Most Taiga clans would love to shoot the Shurale on sight: but the creatures, as well as being weirdly difficult to actually kill, are also astoundingly knowledgeable about the woodlands they inhabit. They know the lairs of every animal, the health of every tree, and the personal history of every local spirit: it's often not clear how they know this, given their general dimness and laziness, but the information they provide always turns out to be correct. As a result, most communities grudgingly permit the Shurale to live unless they go too far; even when a beloved daughter has to be stolen back from them, the taiga peoples prefer to beat and humiliate the Shurale rather than actually kill them, in case their knowledge turns out to be needed later. When a deal is to be struck, the trick is to always allow the Shurale to believe they are getting the best of the bargain: and many a Shurale has sneaked back to its thicket with a bag full of worthless glass baubles, congratulating itself on its cleverness in obtaining such priceless gems in exchange for their knowledge. They are vengeful beasts, however, and if they ever discover that they have been tricked they will be ruthless in their pursuit of retribution.

The Shurale consider themselves to be the honoured brothers of both the Wise Folk and the Children of the Pines. The Wise Folk and the Children do not always share this perspective.

  • Shurale: AC 15 (agility, tough skin, and thick fur), 3 HD, AB +3, claws and headbutt (1d6 damage), FORT 12, REF 12, WILL 14, morale 6. Heals 1 HP per hour. 

If a Shurale hits someone in melee, it can chose to grab them instead of clawing them: this does no damage, but its grip is so strong as to be effectively unbreakable, allowing them to carry their victims deep into the forests. (Armed victims can keep attacking them, of course, so the Shurale usually only do this to unarmed targets.) In forests, the Shurale is so stealthy that it has a 5-in-6 chance of surprising its enemies. They can move at full running speed through even the heaviest woodlands, weirdly contorting their bodies to fit through the spaces between the trees as they go. They have perfect, intuitive knowledge of all animals, plants, and spirits who live within a hundred miles of their lairs.

Konstantin Zverev performs the title role in Shurale.

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