A pair of glowing purplish eyes, mad and round and gone in a second, are all most people see of wild Duscur. That is not to say, however, that they are shy, or rare, or even particularly elusive. In parts of Western Nybelmar this extraordinary predator can be heard hunting most nights. The eerie mimicking ability which Duscur put to such deadly use means they can confine most of their activity to dusk and dawn, when all other animals are caught in the in-between worlds of twilight that Duscur revel in. Duscur are also known under the name "Underwhelp", "E'enset" or "Sithe".
Appearance. Any observer able to get a clear view of a Duscur would instantly see that they are not canines in the usual sense. Indeed, by any measure, except perhaps the Nybelmarian, they are decidedly strange looking. Lanky and scraggy in build, they have naturally lean bodies, and long thin legs with big feet. The gait is springy and exuberant, almost puppy-like, with frequent leaps and bounds, making full use of the long, agile spine and flexible frame. They are not a large predator, rarely standing over a ped and a fore tall. The light frame adds to this graceful appearance – they are built for speed and stealth, not brute strength.
Almost entirely hairless, Duscur are covered instead with a leathery skin, which folds and creases at the joints much like a skinny pig’s. The colour of the skin is highly variable, though the majority fit into a few types: white or extremely pale skinned animals are most common in arid areas and often have red-orange markings; striking green individuals, though less common overall, can be seen in isolated populations, especially those living in forest; and dark animals, usually mottled, brindled or piebald (entirely black individuals are very rare) seem equally frequent in all habitats.
The only substantial hair is on the tail tips and the backs of the ears, and is usually a darker tone to the overall skin colour, though this too is variable. The hair is coarse and plume-like, somewhat akin to horsehair. The tail is unusually long, and held curled back on itself in an intriguingly heraldic position.
The Duscur’s face is very un-dog-like – large triangular ears tufted at the edges with longer hair, very round forward facing eyes of a strange, iridescent purplish-pink colour, and a muzzle unlike that of any known animal. Instead of the usual fur-covered snout of dogs and other carnivores, it has an apparently fleshless, almost beaklike muzzle, dished and toothless. In profile it has a head shape similar to a large fox, sharp and blunt, and rather intelligent looking, but in texture and details it is like some strange blunt ended beak. Examinations of a skull show that instead of teeth it has a reinforced and sharpened jawbone with serrated edge, and an unusually long, mobile tongue with an abrasive rasping surface much like a cat’s.
A pair of oversized ears sits very near the top of the skull, and they’re very mobile – a good indicator of an individual’s mood. Usually they are held upright to catch any sound, but if the animal is agitated or scared, the ears are laid back against the head, a clear sign of unhappiness.
Special Abilities. Its most important attribute, and one that should certainly be noted by any intending to study them in the field, is their mimicking ability. Though they can also hunt normally, by ambushing and chasing down prey, their preferred method is to mimic the sounds of their prey, in the hope of attracting, either by curiosity or in the belief that they are seeking out one of their own kind, vocal animals, including orcs and men, settled or nomadic.
The mimicking ability of Duscur is a little selective in comparison to, say, the gossiper bird, as they tend to focus mainly on vocalisations and sounds made to communicate. For instance, they usually ignore the calls of small insects, or solitary animals, which would be unlikely to react to the sounds of another of their kind. Young Duscur tend to show the greatest variety, with their repertoire refined as they learn which calls are likely to yield prey. That said, they are opportunistic and very quick learners. Many a curious wanderer has been drawn towards a Duscur when, idly talking or singing, they find that within a few minutes of their uttering them, their words are echoed back at them. The researcher Shabakuk Zeborius Anfang, who has had the doubtful luck of watching Duscurs calling to their prey, described their voices like this:
“The strangest thing was to hear the creatures speaking with human voices. Though they have the knack of copying the sounds very accurately, they seem to have trouble with inflections, and some of the delicacies of tongue and throat seem to disappear in the depth of the Duscur's carnivorous maw. The result of this is a strange, sibilant, almost singsong echo of human speech. One can well believe that the Underwhelp truly steals the voices of those it hunts, twisting them to its own ends.”
That said, Duscur by no means limit their mimicry to the voices of animals and people. Any noise which might merit interest from prey is used, from a remarkably realistic rendering of rustling bushes, to the high-pitched whining of flies, which will in turn attract insectivorous animals. Individual Duscur tend to specialise in a few calls, which they will practice to perfection. Often a single Duscur will systematically learn all the calls of a particular species, and even appear to use them in context, for example, only repeating mating calls on the appropriate breeding season.
As a largely crepuscular animal, the Duscur is able to see very well in twilight, as its unique eyes seem to be extremely adaptable to the changing light levels in which Duscur hunt. Duscur also have extremely sensitive ears that can distinguish subtle differences in sounds, as well as locate with supreme accuracy any hidden prey unfortunate or foolish enough to betray itself by making a noise.
In hunting, Duscur display considerable intelligence, and although they are at the outset reluctant to chase anything that can’t be persuaded to come to them, they show great speed and agility. Long, springy legs and a light build enable them to move across a variety of terrain in great bounds, the large feet absorbing the shock of drops that would break the ankles of other animals. A highly flexible spine and long tail help to increase the agility of a Duscur at high speeds, so they can turn on their own footprints without breaking stride.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Duscur is the partnership the species seems to have struck up with the gossiper bird, a regular migrant to the forests of Nybelmar which also has a reputation for mimicry, though in a less sinister vein. In places where the two species share territory, however, they seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in each other’s company. Gossiper birds follow Duscur, and Duscur follow gossipers. The reason for this partnership isn’t entirely clear – it seems likely that they were originally drawn to each other in the belief that they were seeking out members of their own species.
A Duscur would benefit from hanging around with gossipers if that increased the likelihood of attracting prey – the gossiper would be likely to mimic the calls of potential prey, and even to imitate the Duscur itself. But as to what benefit the bird receives from following Duscur, there are many hypotheses, none of which fully account for the behaviour. Both males and females, of which only the latter performs a mimicking song, are associated with Duscur. It could be that gossipers are simply taking advantage of the Duscur’s preference for meat riddled with maggots and other insects, or even that they think they are spending their time with a strange local variant of their own species.
Territory. Duscur are unique to Western Nybelmar, where they frequent almost any kind of plains or forest habitat. Throughout the more intensely desertified areas they are largely absent, but they have moved into the Kaerethi Deserts, where they appear to live comfortably in the shadow of the Orcristh civilisation. They also seem to flourish in the Zhunite Plains, and are more likely to be seen in large packs, but this is as far East as they’ve been recorded, and seems to be an isolated population, suggesting that Duscur were much more widespread in past times.
Habitat/Behaviour. A versatile and widespread predator, the Duscur is found in plains, forests, and everything in between. They are very variable socially, forming packs depending on resources available, which can be anything up to fifty animals in one pack – which, the researcher can confirm, is a terrifying spectacle to see when they are on the hunt.
The favourite method of hunting is to mimic the calls of their prey, enticing it towards them until they can surround it. Usually only one animal will call, whilst others are concealed waiting for the target to move within reach. When hunting, Duscur lose their usual argumentative, playful tendencies, and seem to streamline themselves, a whole pack focused on the single aim of catching their prey. Often a pack will use a natural trap in the terrain, such as a gully with a dead-end, to help them trap prey. Often they will re-use such areas again and again, until local animals learn the hard way not to venture near.
Packs are quite loose, and often break up if there is a food shortage or another problem. There is no real leader, and an anarchic lack of organisation in all the pack’s activity is clear to the observer. The main function of pack living seems to be to allow some animals to stay behind to raise pups, whilst others hunt. Young are very vulnerable, and Duscur do not build dens, so it is important that adults stay near to the pups at all times.
Duscur, though efficient hunters, are not particularly strong or dangerous when defending against attackers. Their main predators are men and orcs, who treat them as a dangerous vermin, but they are also hunted by large predators such as lingra, and smaller animals will react aggressively to their presence, mobbing them in an effort to prevent future predation.
Apart from helping protect against such aggression, pack living also allows hunting parties to venture into more hostile terrain, such as desert, to forage, and bring their catch back to younger or weaker animals, so all can benefit.
Diet. Duscur have to eat regularly, and the majority of their diet is meat, with some fruits, insects, and even honey for those prowling the Scepteres. They eat carrion mostly, congregating around any carcass, however old or putrid it may be, where they bicker noisily and viciously over the corpse. Common prey include zaniskari, burrow bachik, small rodents, reptiles and insects.
They are quick learners, and fearlessly tackle even poisonous animals, using dexterity and patience to exhaust and disable dangerous prey. They seem to have a sweet tooth, and there are stories of them being appeased by offerings of chocolate or cake.
Duscur feed their young, and any non-hunting pack members, by bringing home whole pieces of meat, or by regurgitating food. They have unusually small stomachs though, presumably to keep their weight down, and so must eat regularly to stay healthy.
Mating. Female Duscur seem to come into heat on a fairly random basis, though quite often the females within a pack will roughly synchronise. In an unusual reversal of roles, a female in heat approaches a male, rather than the other way round, and leads him away from the pack to mate. If there is a shortage of males in a pack, or one particularly desirable male, he will often end up chased by several females before the less keen ones give up.
Females are extremely promiscuous, and will often mate several times before giving birth, leading to mixed litters which prevent males becoming too jealous of each other’s offspring. As no one male can lay claim to any litter, there is nothing to be gained from males behaving differently to different pups, and thus behaviour such as infanticide is nearly nonexistent.
Litters of three to ten pups, each only two palmspans long and entirely hairless and blind, are born in the open after a gestation period of around forty days. They are suckled by any female who is old enough, and fed and cared for by all of the pack. In such a disorganised and apparently argumentative species, it has been argued that the need to look after the extremely needy pups is the main thing holding them together in such close packs.
Usages. Although they are despised by most people who live with them, Duscur do have their uses. They are often hunted, with the aim of keeping them away from habitations and livestock, and the carcasses are therefore put to any use possible. The meat is inedible, as a diet of mostly carrion means that toxins build up in what little meat is available on such a lean animal.
The leather, however, can fetch a reasonable price – it is soft, supple and well coloured, even if not particularly tough. It is often used to make gloves and clothes, and hides from well coloured animals, especially the greens, are a popular material for wealthy adventurers, particularly the boisterous Morchini.
If caught young, they make reasonable hunting animals and good pets, but the owner must keep in mind that they are never going to be as loyal, trainable or well behaved as any conventional canid, and require more food than most animals their size. Among wealthier societies, they have become popular guardian animals. Their sensitive hearing and adaptable vision allow them to spot the approach of any possible intruder, and this usually causes them to start mimicking. If carefully conditioned, the repertoire of an individual Duscur can be restricted to the calls of fierce animals or threatening voices, and at the very least will make it clear to any prospective burglar that his or her presence has been noticed.
Mention should also be made of the practice, now largely abandoned, among overseas traders of raising Duscur pups in human company, and then selling them in Sarvonia as “talking dogs”. Sarvonians, seeing, and more importantly hearing, the Duscur for the first time, tend to be so astonished at the sight of the purple-eyed, green furred canids apparently speaking directly to them, that they fail to notice that they are repeating a few stock phrases. The sheer unnerving appearance of the Duscur prevents them from treating its ability with the scepticism they might if presented with a bird, as people are used to the idea of birds using mimicry. Thus many Sarvonians are unwittingly tricked into buying an animal which will eat them out of house and home, and be no more able to speak than a trained bird.
Myth/Lore. As a relatively common, but still dangerous and bizarre animal, the Duscur has attracted a good deal of folk tales and superstition. Their ability to mimic sounds so accurately, and for such grisly purpose, coupled with their association with gossiper birds, has led them to be credited with great intelligence, and they are often seen as mischievous spirits, who relish chaos and like to steal children away to be raised amongst them. It is quite likely that such stories stem from real incidents of children being predated – their natural curiosity makes them an all too common target for Duscur hunts.
Although Duscur have many names, when referred to in folktales and superstition, they are almost always called "Sithe". The origins of this name are unclear, but among many peoples it seems to have associations with disorder and madness. They are believed to collect voices, stealing them from the creatures they hunt and using them to bewitch and ensnare others. The gossipers, or “Babbling Foreigners” as they are more commonly called in Nybelmar, add to the Sithe’s ill repute, as they themselves tend to be viewed, at least when in the company of Sithe, as strange and otherworldly creatures. Thus Sithe have an indelible association with deceit, theft and cunning. To refer to some one as “Sithe-tongued” is to infer that they twist people’s words to their own advantage. In the same way, to be “honest like a Sithe” is to use language in a deceptively cunning or manipulative way.
Sithe in this semi-mythologised sense have worked themselves into a lot of Nybelmarian language. In a reference to the female-led breeding habits of Duscur, a woman who is over confident of her attributes, or simply more forward than most men are comfortable with, is often called “a mad Sithe”. The term "delirious Duscur" is sometimes applied to a babbling drunkard, or to someone who is hallucinating - a saying which may express ordinary folks’ fear of both altered psychic states and the Duscurs.
Researchers. Shabakuk Zeborius Anfang was originally drawn to Nybelmar by his researches into the gossiper bird, a creature upon which he has become a noted expert. Upon reaching Nybelmar, he found that the birds he was asiming to learn about could often be found in the company of an animal which he was, understandably, somewhat less keen to spend time with. Nonetheless, the stories he heard about the Underwhelp, and its ambiguous relationship with gossiper birds, piqued his interest, and on his subsequent return to the continent, he has made several important observations on their habits, especially in the details of their mimicry and social structure.