“Nothing can’t be worse than death, because that’s exactly what it is. Put aside religious speech on the topic; they really don’t know what they’re talking about. They just think they do. Death is nothing, and that is to be feared. Why wouldn’t it be? You’ve never felt that before, because it’s something you can’t feel. Everything possible to feel is something, it’s a stimulus of some sort, and nothing is the absence of feeling itself. Death is the absence of feeling itself, in every way. No thoughts, no feelings, no consciousness, because that’s exactly what consciousness is. It’s the experience, moving from one thing to the next, or at least that’s what it is to be conscious. To feel things. Because you are an illusion. You are not the thing that experiences. You are the experience itself, the feeling to the stimulus, the emotion and sense that comes off of an action. You, consciousness, are the exact, diametric opposition of death. And that is the only thing truly beautiful, worth all the suffering in the world to protect.” - Excerpt from Ramblings, the memoirs of the Fell Hunter and philosopher Alinex “Thousand Lives” Montrean.
Lyfoma tipped the cylinder of his revolver to the side and glared inside. Two rounds. He raised his sword, formerly a cutlass-style blade, now reduced to a jagged shard of Eisenous chitin. Its broken edges were coated in a spongy growth that wept a clear fluid. And that’s no good either, he thought to himself. Risk dying, or risk it getting stronger? The sword would take another week at least to be of any use, and he couldn’t grow new bullets while the blade was recovering. He was a Fell Hunter, a creature - it was debatable whether or not they were human - whose killing force was the stuff of legends. They’d slain monsters whose death tolls could fill cities and, depending on the Hunter’s path, could depopulate cities of their own.
And here was Lyfoma, hunched over in an alleyway with his sword broken by a lesser changeling. His stomach was clawed open too, but that wasn’t so much of a worry – for now, at least. He was bleeding, but the edges were already being closed up by a creeping layer of matter that looked something like eggshell, or perhaps pearl. He stopped the process before it could close all the way. Too much more and he wouldn’t be able to pay back the debt. That, or he would lose control again, and it had been a close affair last time.
He tried to stand and staggered, coughing up something. He studied the mound of blackish red and yellowy green for a moment, but it didn’t look like anything important. He would have to pull on his burden more after all, the fall had done more damage than he’d thought. He sighed, pushed himself out of the garbage heap, and started his walk. There was no point chasing after the beast if it would just take him down on sight. It had run too, so chances were the thing didn’t know how badly it had injured him. If he was lucky it might just keel over and die.
Lyfoma was never lucky though.
He pulled his coat higher and slouched, hoping no one would notice the mound of cancerous flesh on his shoulder. That was his burden, the thing that gave him away as a Fell Hunter, and gave him his power. The more he drew on it the larger it grew, and he was one of the rare few who couldn’t slough it off through using The Hunters’ Ritual. That required a team, and he was a hunter who didn’t need one – which, in turn, meant he couldn’t join one. He was a better infiltrator than most teams, but a worse fighter – couldn’t pull on his burden as recklessly as they could, though his would evaporate over time, unlike theirs. It meant he got the “easy” jobs, the ones without glory, like hunting a metaparrot in the backwoods.
He laughed at the name, coughed, and spat a bit more of his insides onto the street he was shambling down. It drew looks. The name didn’t suit the creature very well, but that’s what they were called. Master Embry had said they were called that because the first found had been mimicking a parrot kept as a specimen. Either it had been a young metaparrot, or a different sort of changeling - Things that fit the modern definition of metaparrots ate humans, blending in by mimicking their facial features, wearing loose clothing, and preying on people who roamed the streets alone at night. Only the old ones were smart enough to speak like humans and copy the fine details, but of course an old one was what had moved in here. They got stronger with age too, and hungrier. The town had gone from a murder every couple of months to every couple of days now, any time the thing wanted a meal. He’d been here for a month tracking it, and found it twenty minutes ago, just as the sun had started setting. It had taken thirty seconds for the creature to break his blade, claw his stomach open, rip through his left calf, and get him to waste three bullets. The fourth hit the thing and took its arm off, that was why he was still alive. Luck, and an animal instinct to survive. Not a very good story to tell the local fixer.
He was halfway surprised there was a local fixer, but then the right person would buy anything. The parts left over from a creature like a metaparrot were valuable, and it was a fixer’s job to know the right people to sell them to. What really surprised him was that he’d heard tell of a Logerflawe earlier. With the way his shoulder was twitching he didn’t seem to have a choice whether or not to go see the thing. He felt something poke at the inside of his skin and upped his pace. It was probably just another spike growing out, but he’d grown a hand from there a few months ago. That was the last time he’d gone to a Logerflawe, and the experience had left him…shaken. He passed a storefront and caught a look from the man inside, who shrank away at the sight of him. Lyfoma didn’t blame the man, not with how many people had been dying here lately. He had hair so dirty he couldn’t tell the color, though he knew it was the same as straw. His skin was in the same condition, though that was a ruddy pink under all the grime, with a scruffy beard on his jaw. Of most concern, though, was his burden. He looked like a hunchback, even when he stood up straight, and there were no fewer than three spikes propping up his duster. Their positioning made them look like a misshapen shoulder blade, at least. Everything else was covered with dusty leather or canvas, though the canvas of his shirt was bloodstained now and shredded. All in all, he looked like a broken beggar, albeit a particularly malformed one. People looked at him, but only once. After that, they made an effort not to do so again. That was how Lyfoma preferred it though, he was no Tsallborn or Oocelean, the more famed combat paths. He wasn’t really sure what path he’d gone down, even. He could reshape parts of his burden into coins like those of the Myzzer path, but their burdens were threaded with gold. His burden was beneath his skin, like those of the Harlestymme, but he had no ability whatsoever to shapeshift like them.
He could pull off party tricks, summon little spurts of steam, but aside from the basics of faster healing, a general boost to his bodily functions, and some sporadic mental enhancement, he hardly seemed to be a Fell Hunter at all. If it weren’t for his burden, many of the order might not have even believed him. The burden, and the fact that he could wield what were clearly the weapons of a Hunter without them scalding his hands to the bone. He even had a steed, though he kept her outside the town - it was less troublesome that way, fewer people panicked.
He kicked open the batwing doors to the fixer’s store, and found he’d misunderstood, to the point he almost turned and walked back out. This “fixer” wasn’t the “anything you need for the right price” variety, she was the “fix your leg” variety. What was worse, this woman’s assistant was the town Logerflawe, currently switching out the bandages on a limp, almost lifeless man. Lyfoma sighed and staggered over to the nearest seat, trying not to stain the floor as he went. He wouldn’t make it much farther anyway, and this was better than dying.
“Money?” asked the Logerflawe.
“Money,” nodded Lyfoma, “And treasures, if you’ll take them. I’m a Hunter.”
The logerflawe eyed him for a moment, until Lyfoma shrugged off the shoulder of his duster and revealed his burden. Satisfied, the creature - another entity of debatable humanity - went to fetch the “Fixer” and stepped out of sight. As it went its lopsided, dragging gait reminded Lyfoma of his own.
The hunter did his best to keep as much blood on the inside as possible. He had only mostly lied about the money, but it would cost a far sight more than cash to return from the dead. He had a single coin, and aside from it the only thing of any value he could offer was the arm of the metaparrot, folded beneath his jacket. Its claws would make excellent weapons, but the fresh flesh of the beast would fetch the real price - it would be mixed into potions for smoothing out wrinkles, diminishing moles, and the like. There were few better ways to suck out coin than vanity.
When the logerflawe returned, with the fixer behind him, Lyfoma was not happy. Not surprised, either, but not happy. She was not a doctor. She was not a fixer either, or it was clear that was not her first job. She was a hacker - yet another colloquialism - because she hacked away at limbs, judging by the bonesaw at her hip, but what was worse, she was a Hackjob herself. Hackjobs were not sloppy doctors. They were people who, like a Fell Hunter, had joined their bodies with monsters, but a Hunter had a living symbiote. In the case of a hackjob it was dead flesh, which explained why such a remote place hosted a Logerflawe. A hackjob had to drain the excess from eisenous beings to fuel their limbs, and hunters always had extra to bleed off. It was a horrid symbiosis, and one that required a logerflawe as a go-between.
She was young, but showed an age in her eyes. They were a dull, green-ringed grey in deep, dark sockets. The left one had an opalescent tinge to its sclera. She was tall, taller than Lyfoma, with dark sun-tanned skin and spattered freckles that made a stark contrast to the knobs of parchment-colored Eisen and silvery scars that speckled her face. Her hair was dark, with a slight tinge of green, and bound up into a single, hard column almost like a knobby horn a foot long. Her left arm was missing at the elbow, tied up in a sleeve, but her right forearm was doubly thick in the long leather coat she wore, and with opposed hands that would have recovered some of her dexterity. From the buttons that ran up the sleeve, Lyfoma suspected the hands were joined at the elbow. The right arm was hers, or at least had the same skin color and freckling pattern, while the left hand that opposed it was a light blue - not the color of hypoxia, but the color and loose texture of a bebbran. In his job, one would not survive long without focusing in on details.
She smiled at him, the motion pulling at a scar that started at the left side of her lower lip and ran along down her chin, pulling the skin into strange wrinkles. Her left eye had crow’s feet, while her right eye seemed to stay serious. The left one looked him in the eye, while her right one darted to his hunch, the scabbard where he kept his blade, and the bundle held under his arm. She offered her arm in a handshake, letting him pick either hand. “Hello,” she said, and waited for him to take it.
Lyfoma shot an apologetic glance at his side, where he was applying pressure with his left hand, and shook her hand with his right.
She took his hand in a strong grasp with both of hers and shook.
“I’m Gettka,” she said with her lopsided grin. “My assistant said you had something to pay me with? I’m sure you understand why I need payment up front.”
Lymphoma sighed, considered leaving again, and withdrew the arm of the metaparrot. “Will this cover Logerflawe services, treatment, and a large meal?” he asked, suspecting she would haggle for more.
She held out her hands, and Lyfoma let her inspect it. She lifted it up and her eyes darted over it, noting the ragged tear on its joining end and poor pallor, but also that the blood was still moist, and the flesh toned. He saw questions swirling in her mind, and saw her blink them away just as fast. “Unless you have more of this, I suspect you’re in a hurry,” she said.
“Correct,” said Lyfoma with a grimace. “I have two bullets left, and I’m happy to stay awake while you work on me in case it…follows.”
She shrugged. “If you took off its arm I suspect it’ll hide while it heals. I’m not too worried. The arm will cover it nicely.”
“You didn’t ask what it was,” committed Lyfoma, his eyes narrowing.
“A heganfulge, or metaparrot,” she said. “The flesh is soft, giving, and loose, and there’s very little eisen except in its claws and the very surface of its skin. The feathers keep shifting color as well, so it had to be a changeling of some sort, and only metaparrots are this humanoid. Though I’m surprised it’s so large, so it was still only a guess.”
“Not only metaparrots are this humanoid,” countered Lyfoma. “But it doesn’t matter. Just help me before I keel over,” he demanded, and coughed. “And don’t you try to -”
“I’m not stupid. I know if I harvest you, and you die, I’ll die too,” she said. Then shrugged. “Besides, I have nothing against hunters. You’re my best suppliers.” She flashed him a grin, and retreated with the arm.