The Birth of Cities

For 2022, I’ve been wanting to write more ‘creature features’ and generally improve my short story writing. My partner got me a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my birthday so I came up with the idea of writing a story every week based on a different creature from that – All There in the (Monster) Manual. Hope you enjoy!

This Week’s Inspiration: Dragon Turtle

Once in a century, the city of Yoruga goes ashore at the site of her ancient hatching ground to birth a clutch of eggs that will hopefully grow into a new generation of cities. Seeking a purpose in life, young Jairo stays behind with a force of volunteers to help protect the eggs. At first it’s a grand adventure, but the work, and the hatching itself, are fraught with lethal dangers.

This week’s story is a long one, the longest one I’ve written for All There in the (Monster) Manual so far. So if you have an ereader and would like to take away a copy with you, feel free to download this MOBI file instead!

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Jairo returned home to find his mother already packing the good porcelain in its chest, wrapping the plates and bowls in blankets. The worry on her face contrasted with Jairo’s breathless excitement. Naturally, living as they did, every piece of furniture was bolted down. Cupboards and shelves were strapped closed. But Jairo’s mother, Marivella, had clearly combed through the house for anything that might need extra security to keep from getting broken or falling.

“Have you heard? The city tenders say Yoruga is going ashore to give birth!” Jairo said.

“Of course, what do you think I’m doing here?” Marivella said.

“Aren’t you excited?”

“Excited? No, of course I’m not excited, I’m frightened! Your father and brothers have already gone to see what is happening with the boats.”

“But this only happens once in every hundred years, it’s a historic moment!”

“That might be so, Jair, but you’re a boy. You have no concept of how dangerous, how devastating, an event like this can be.”

Marivella spoke as if she knew from experience but she had no more experience of a city-birthing than fourteen-year-old Jairo. Marivella was in her forties and had lived on Yoruga all her life. She only had the histories and stories from other cities to make conclusions from. Cities didn’t live to human scales but birthings happened once, roughly, every one hundred and ten years. But the city had changed course and the city tenders said all the signs were ready for a birthing.

“Make yourself useful, they are looking for volunteers at the church,” Marivella said. “Depending on how violent the beaching is, the city is going to need teams of volunteers to make sure people are alright. To dig through buildings or check on people, bring them food.”

“Sure, okay, I can do that! You’re sure, if you’re worried about it being so dangerous?”

“You need an apprenticeship next year! This might be a good opportunity to find someone to take you, and to do some good for the community.”

Jairo was the youngest of five brothers, and much younger at that. His two eldest brothers worked with their father on his fishing boat. The others had graduated from apprenticeships to work as a blacksmith and builder, respectively. Jairo had come as a surprise to his parents and his mother wanted what was best for him but pushed him toward independence quicker than she might have done for the other four.

Jairo left and headed upshell, toward the cathedral. Other houses crowded the street. Gulls clucked and squawked in a nearby coop and the smell of saltwater hung omnipresent in the air. Only wide enough for two carts to pass side by side, the road had been worn smooth by generations of foot traffic and wheels but one could still see the deeply embedded whorls and patina or greens and browns and yellows. Some houses grew out of the ground, made of the same incredibly hard, bonelike material. Other houses, wood and canvas or sometimes stone, clustered between them or stacked on top of one another.

The cathedral loomed at the highest point of Yoruga, by far the city’s largest and most spectacular building. Grown from living shell, the structure was tall and narrow with crenellated walls that had been further shaped by human hands. The spire at the front of the cathedral looked like a long spur of yellow bone, snapped off and blunted at the top. Its interior had been hollowed to create a belltower with open windows and a huge copper bell at the very top.

Out in front of the church was the city’s largest public space, the park. The park was popular on long summer days and always surrounded by market stalls but Jairo had never seen so many people there at once. Thick, grassy moss filled the park along with twisting pathways and stunted trees that grew out of the shell. Across the park was Yoruga’s parliament, also grown from living shell and refined by human hands.

Jairo joined a line of young men and women in front of the church. Tables sat at the foot of the cathedral’s steps, manned by some of the city’s neighbourhood leaders. Yoruga only had a population of a few thousand people, Jairo recognised faces in the crowd. The man at the head of his line, tall, well muscled, was Hernando Javier. Dark eyed and weathered from working on trading ships, he looked Jairo up and down as he approached.

“What would you like?” Hernando asked.

“I want to sign up to volunteer, after the beaching,” Jairo said.

“Do you have any special skills, or know what you’d be good with doing?”

“Not really.”

“We already have plenty of general volunteers.”

“Well, I just wanted to help in any way I can, I guess.”

Hernando studied his clipboard, crowded with names already. “I suppose we can always use more people to run water. After the beaching, you report to the corner of Fourth and Chainway.”

“Okay, I can do that!” Jairo added his name to the paper where Hernando showed him.

Hernando seemed to at least admire Jairo’s willingness, and he gave the boy a solemn nod before moving on to the next person in the line. Jairo milled around, unsure of whether to return home. The crowd surrounding him exchanged information, rumours, or stories from other cities about other birthings. Many stalls sold bales of dried kelp and pallets of fish as people stocked up for potential disaster.

“Jairo! Hey, Jairo!” A voice called.

Another boy Jairo’s age, Cruzito, threaded through the crowd with a couple of others tailing behind him. Jairo was something of a loner and Cruzito was the closest thing he had to a best friend. He was shorter, with dark hair and dark eyes.

“What are you doing here?” Cruzito asked.

“Seeing if I could volunteer to help, my mother sent me,” Jairo said.

“How close do you think we are? Do you think we can see land?”

Jairo’s eyes went to the cathedral and the spire that hosted the belltower. “We could find out.”

Sneaking into the bell tower was a common rite of passage for kids on Yoruga. Jairo and the others entered the cathedral. The route to the belltower was hidden but they quickly made their way to it unseen. The inside of the spire had been hollowed and steps carved from the living shell material, although they were worn smooth by hundreds of years of use. Jairo and Cruzito led the way with the others, Julieto and Braulio, trailing behind. Sunlight lit the shaft from the wide windows in the belltower itself. Fresh sea breezes flowed from the openings as they reached the top. Jairo was surprised no one else had the same idea as them but they were alone with the giant copper bell as they reached the platform running around the top. He’d seen it a dozen times before but the view never failed to amaze.

Yoruga, the city, fanned out, sloping downshell in every direction from their position. Directly below was the park and the front of the parliament building, swarming with people. Across the city, warrens of wooden and stone houses covered boxy structures grown from the shell. Concentric rings of streets, with side streets connecting them, ran between the houses, buildings, and small, mossy marketplaces. Along the ridge of the shell was the richest part of town, the neighbourhood surrounding the cathedral and parliament with the biggest, finest houses. The city’s poorest all lived around the edges of the shell, in areas that might get partially submerged from time to time, or deluged in storms even Yoruga couldn’t entirely avoid. Every bit of space was at a premium on Yoruga, as an older city.

“Do you see land?” Cruzito said.

“No, I don’t,” Jairo replied after careful study.

All around Yoruga was open ocean, nothing but open ocean. Jairo looked ahead but saw nothing but sunlight glinting off vast, blue water. Towed behind Yoruga was a flotilla of ships. Jairo’s father’s fishing boat would be out there among them. A kind of floating wharf system attached to the city by a couple of enormous cables, where the fishing and trade ships would moor to avoid bashing into one another.

At four points around the city, four magnificent flippers disturbed the water and sent up terrific wakes. Each flipper was considerably larger than the cathedral. Bigger than the cathedral, the park, and the parliament building put together. Ahead, where Jairo and the others searched for land, rose the back of Yoruga’s enormous head, bald, green and leathery, dotted in mollask growths. The city-turtle’s head shifted up and down. Yoruga roamed the oceans endlessly, grazing on vast fields of kelp floating just beneath the waves, and Jairo, his family, everyone they knew, lived atop her. Only occasionally did they pass other city-turtles, although there were ships that ran and traded between them and other settlements.

“Wait, is that it? Could that be it?” Jairo said.

On the horizon, maybe only part of the heat haze, Jairo thought he could see a glimmer of green and gold. Yoruga moved tirelessly forward. A groaning exhalation rippled across the city, as they did from time to time. If Jairo was right, Yoruga was heading for it. Land.

xXx

An air of tense anticipation hung over the city. Streets were emptied of all movement. Bell chiming, the cathedral was stuffed with people who thought prayers were their best defence, strapped row upon row into the pews. In their homes, most of the city’s inhabitants, including Jairo, his mother, and two of his brothers, secured themselves to beds or other pieces of furniture that were bolted to their floors. Jairo’s father and eldest brothers followed Yoruga in the flotilla of ships that usually berthed against the floating wharves towed behind the city. Those wharves had been disconnected for the time being and were towed by some of the ships instead.

Yoruga had approached land for the past couple of days, and drifted along the coastline outside the shallows. The city-turtle looked for her birthing ground. The section of shore where she, herself, had been laid and hatched centuries ago. Where she planned to return for her once-in-a-hundred-years birthing.

Jairo tried to hide his excitement. His mother did little to disguise her terror. Manny and Javi, Jairo’s brothers, did a better job of hiding their emotions for her sake but were both clearly anxious. Sitting around the kitchen table, they were literally belted to their chairs, bolted to the floor, and faced one another.

“Hold on,” Marivella said.

The cathedral bell had fallen silent but began to clang again, urgently, with the noise floating across the city. Other bells across the shell matched it. Yoruga’s tenders, practically regarded like priests themselves, indicating she was making her final approach to shore.

Yoruga raised her magnificent head and front flippers. The city, filled with thousands, tilted on her back. Her underbelly came to rest in the shallows still some distance from the actual beach given the turtle’s tremendous size.

The crunch of impact felt like nothing Jairo had ever felt before, not even when Yoruga battled the very greatest of deep ocean swells. The world slammed to a stop. Belts attached to Jairo’s chair bit into his chest and waist. Food, plates and utensils crashed inside the cupboards. Timbers shrieked and shifted, as if the floor was about to slide out from under them, and clouds of dust sifted from the ceiling. Marivella cried out, burying her face in her hands, and Manny reached out to comfort her. Their home held but outside Jairo heard something, another building, collapsing with a boom and clatter.

Yoruga dragged herself through the shallows, up the shoreline. Her underbelly dug a monstrous trench in the wet sand and pushed a mountain of it ahead of her. The city on her back quaked with every movement. None of the moves were as violent as that first impact but some houses had already broken and collapsed across Yoruga’s shell while others, weakened, teetered on the verge of collapse.

Where Yoruga had come aground, her ancient birthing ground, fat, golden dunes of sand rolled away in both directions, forming an exceptionally wide stretch of beach. Walls of greenery cut off the dunes at the top of the beach, blending into thick and humid jungle. Yoruga filled the beach. Wheeling around so that she faced the ocean, she crushed hundreds of trees to splinters and sent flocks of birds and other animals fleeing. Her back flippers kicked and ripped apart great gouts of sandy earth. Immense, and unwieldy on land, Yoruga breathed heavily then began to relax so she could start laying.

Jairo and his family waited. Their building groaned but held. Once he was sure the worst of it was over, Jairo attacked the buckles on the straps holding him to his chair.

“Jair, where do you think you’re going?” Marivella asked.

“I volunteered to help in the aftermath, remember? You told me to,” Jairo said.

As he’d been directed, Jairo hurried to the corner of Fourth and Chain. Many of the houses in his neighbourhood looked okay, except for a lot of broken windows and loose debris. Voices cried out from the surrounding streets, however, and clanging bells signalled alarm. Strange rumbles ran underfoot through the shell.

People began to fill the streets. Some, like Jairo, hurried to stations to help while others just wandered outside to take in the damage. Jairo came across a couple of houses at the end of one block which had come together and collapsed like dominoes. Panicked shouts came from inside. People were already helping and Jairo wondered if he should stop and help too but he decided he would do more as part of the team which he had signed up to help. On another block, a water tower had fallen over and flooded the street. Water gushed downshell, pulling bits of debris with it.

Jairo joined the team of volunteers at Fourth and Chainway. As Yoruga rested, basking on the sand, they went looking for people in need of rescue or for dangerous wreckage. Thankfully, the damage was a far cry from some people’s worst fears. But there was damage, in terms of houses toppled or people injured in the impact and shakeup. Most of the worst structural damage seemed in the mid-tier region of Yoruga where Jairo and his family lived. Atop the shell, the richer neighbourhoods were built with solid shell, stone, and thick beams of wood. Houses in poorer areas, around the edges of Yoruga’s shell, were crude but built to withstand rogue waves or temporary submersions, even attacks from sea predators.

Jairo’s job was to run water between the nearest water tower to other volunteers as they went about clearing debris and treating the injured. He carried a bucket and ladle for them to drink from. First, they returned to the two collapsed houses Jairo had passed. The family was pulled out of the wreckage, all alive just with a few broken bones and minor injuries. They stopped to assist another man with a head injury, wandering the streets in a haze of confusion.

They started to lose sunlight as the afternoon lengthened but teams continued to work. Jairo’s group joined a couple of others upshell where several larger houses had fallen. Residents were pulled out, badly injured. Unfortunately, as they kept digging, the volunteers withdrew several dead bodies. What looked like a young family, a man, a young woman, and two kids younger than Jairo. They were carried to the street and covered in sheets. Jairo had never seen bodies outside of funerals where they’d been prepared, made to look at peace, not broken and scared and trapped in their final moment. Shaken, he stayed on task and kept transporting water. When it no longer seemed necessary, given the amount of young men and women doing the same thing, Jairo joined in trying to sift through the debris.

Hernando Javier, the neighbourhood leader, was among the volunteers. He worked tirelessly. As night fell and the site had to be lit by torchlight, however, men and women started to filter away. A count of the injured and dead seemed to confirm everyone from the collapsed housing was accounted for, according to a neighbour from one of the nearby houses.

“Alright, that’s enough for today! Thank you, we’ll resume sorting the wreckage in the morning,” Hernando said.

Volunteers pulled away from the wreckage, straightening their backs and dusting off their hands. Jairo, atop a pile of splintered boards, lingered. He wasn’t totally sure why at first but he remained where he was and stayed still as possible, head cocked to one side. As the sounds of activity and talk quietened down, Jairo heard something else. Distantly, under the rubble, he was certain he heard a muffled cry. Jairo sidled closer, lowering his head. It was faint, a thin, shrill wail, but he was sure something was down there.

“Hey! Hey, wait, I hear something!” Jairo shouted.

“Give it up, kid, they’re all accounted for,” someone said.

“No, really! Come over here, I think it’s a baby!”

At Jairo’s insistence, some of the volunteers returned. Hernando was at the head of them, his hands and face dirty, tired but alert. He stopped and listened where Jairo gestured.

“I don’t hear anything,” Hernando said.

“It’s there, I’m telling you!” Jairo said. “Come on, help me!”

Jairo attacked the pile. It wasn’t as easy as tossing the wood aside piece by piece though, they had to assess and move things gently to make sure the whole heap didn’t collapse. It required help from some of the other volunteers, many of whom looked doubtful about what they were working toward. But as more of the debris shifted the baby’s cries became less and less muffled.

Buried deep under the wreckage, they found a narrow hollow. Squalling, its tiny fists raised, a baby thrashed against the straps of its shattered crib. The house had fallen in just such a way to create a small chamber around the baby, leaving it unharmed.

Hernando looked at Jairo with something like amazement, and gratitude. “You saved them. If it hadn’t been for you, we’d have walked away and the child might have died down there.”

Unfortunately, it seemed the child belonged to the family who’d died which was why no one had known to look for them. The neighbour who’d claimed everyone was accounted for hadn’t even known the woman was pregnant let alone that she’d had another child. It was taken to one of the nearest field hospitals. Other volunteers congratulated Jairo and slapped him on the back. He tried to feel proud but after the long day and the horrors he’d witnessed, Jairo felt too tired to really appreciate their praise.

xXx

Enormous rope ladders trailed down the hard shelled and leathery side of the city-turtle to the beach below. Yoruga hadn’t moved overnight as she rested, body going through the changes required for birth. Hundreds of people, in spite of the difficulty in climbing the ladders, teemed down to the ravaged shoreline. Some only stayed briefly for the novelty of setting foot on solid land, all too aware that not only was the journey treacherous but that land was dangerous as well. Some of the ships anchored just outside the shallows, and their crews and passengers rowed into shore.

Naturally, Jairo and Cruzito were among the dozens of teenagers who made the trip down to the shore. Along the beach, outside the leviathan turtle’s shadow, the place took on a carnival atmosphere. People sprinted along the sand or tossed handfuls of it like snowballs. Some of the bravest or most foolhardy splashed in the surf although they went no deeper than their thighs. A few enterprising market sellers had arranged for their food carts to be transported down with them so they could sell to the crowds. Others set up organised games. Some people took the opportunity to marvel back at their city in full, beached and exposed with her front half hanging into the ocean. Artists painted and sketched the historic moment from different vantages.

No one entered the jungle at the top of the beach, of course. Miles and miles of uninterrupted greenery stretched away from the golden shore, impenetrable for anything the size of a puny human being. In the distance were sharply peaked mountains, like huge, grey teeth, rising over the jungle canopy. Flocks of birds or aerial predators, like wyvern, flew above the trees. Guards with flintlocks and even small cannons lined the top of the beach looking inland to protect the civilians on the beach from wild incursions.

“Walking on land feels so weird,” Cruzito said.

Both Jairo and Cruzito removed their shoes to feel the sand between their toes. Strange as the sensation was, it wasn’t the most unsettling part of walking on solid ground. Every time their feet left the ground it was always exactly where they left it when they came back down. For teenagers born and raised with the constant gentle pitch and swell of life on the shell of a giant turtle, the unyielding consistency tripped them up. More subconsciously, the pair were also used to sensing Yoruga’s heartbeat through the soles of their feet, or their backs when they slept. It was a constant presence through shell and shoes and floorboards. But the land felt dead and inert, a weight that seemed to push back against their legs.

Yoruga’s head raised, eyes like dark, massive pools half-lidded above a blunt and beaky snout. Her face looked ancient. Back flippers scooped at the shoreline, tossing up gouts of sand and rock. Trees spiralled into the air, completely uprooted and broken. With a great, groaning expulsion, Yoruga started to lay her clutch of eggs. People cheered. Yoruga would lay half a dozen in one spot and then cover them. Daintly, she shifted and shuffled sideways, dug with her back limbs, and laid more. People caught on the rope ladders as she moved held on for dear life. Others scrambled to get clear of the city’s titanic movements and clouds of choking sand. Given her symbiotic relationship with the humans, Yoruga attempted to be careful not to crush any of them or do too much harm but she was so very big and they were so small. At least the motions were mere tremors for the city of Yoruga’s back compared to yesterday.

Besides the guards and their cannons, and the food vendors with their setups, another large group busied themselves unloading what looked like bundles of tools, materials and other supplies from boats that rowed into the shore. Way, way more supplies in barrels and crates than they would need in the couple of days before Yoruga headed for the open ocean again. Jairo recognised some of the men and women who’d been volunteering the day before. Hernando was there, again leading the work.

“What are they doing?” Cruzito said.

“I don’t know, let’s find out,” Jairo said.

The two boys sprinted over. Raising his head, Hernando saw them coming. A mix of emotions played out on his face. Happy as he was to see Jairo, he seemed to carry some guilt that he’d almost left the baby buried in that wreckage the night before.

“Thank you, again, for what you did last night,” Hernando said.

“Of course,” Jairo replied. “What are you doing now though? What’s with all the tools and supplies?”

“Haven’t you heard? Some of us are staying behind, to protect the eggs.”

“What? That’s crazy!”

“Once Yoruga is finished laying, she’ll leave and the eggs will be vulnerable to scavengers. Predators too, once they hatch. Yoruga will lay at least one hundred eggs but only three or four of those will usually make it to adulthood. Maybe less, maybe none. So, some of us will stay behind until the hatchlings make it to the water, to give them the best possible chance. A couple of ships will remain behind as well and after the hatching we board them and return to Yoruga again.”

“Really? Who is staying?”

“The city guard can’t, so it’s volunteers again. It’s our way of ensuring our way of life has a future, that there’ll be more city-turtles for the next generation.”

xXx

“I want to stay behind and look after the eggs,” Jairo said.

Jairo sat across the table from his mother, flanked by Manny and Javi. Although Yoruga sidled sideways from time to time, and her midsection rumbled, this time they were not strapped into their chairs. Marivella looked stunned.

“What are you talking about?”

“Around a hundred volunteers are staying behind. They’ll protect the eggs and hatchlings from predators, to give them the best chance to get to the ocean after they hatch,” Jairo said. “Hernando Javier told me about it.”

“On land? The eggs won’t hatch for months,” Javi said.

“That’s right.”

“Do you have any idea how dangerous that could be?” Marivella said. “My God, I was afraid to let you go down there just for today!”

“And why? You know the hatchlings won’t be any use to anyone for years, right?” Manny asked. “It’s decades before they’ll be big enough for people to even start moving onto them.”

“But to give enough of them a chance to survive until then, we have to help.”

“No, no, absolutely not!” Marivella said.

“If I do this, I can apprentice with whoever I want among the other volunteers,” Jairo said. “My board will be covered, it will take the burden off you.”

“You-, you’re not a burden!”

“I know, mother, I know, but I want to do this! It’s the first time I’ve ever felt sure about really wanting to commit to something.”

xXx

Eggs buried in the ruins of the sand dunes and jungle, the next day Yoruga recovered and took to the ocean again. The carnival atmosphere and most of the people were gone from the beach. Around one hundred volunteers stayed behind to watch the old girl slide back into the sea, feeling the tremors of each movement through their feet. Piles of tools and supplies surrounded them. Jairo and Cruzito stood among them, packs shouldered.

Yoruga’s return to the ocean went much smoother than her beaching, pulling herself forward with her enormous, neighbourhood-sized front flippers. People, antlike, lined the streets and parks to watch them leave. Carried on the wind, the folk on the shore could hear the bell ringing in the spire at the city’s tallest peak. Yoruga slid through the shallows until her underbelly and flippers were swallowed by the sea, and then kept paddling toward the horizon. A couple of Yoruga’s ships remained behind, with the egg’s guardians, but the rest of the flotilla followed Yoruga out to the point where they could reattach the floating wharves to her shell. Jairo was stunned by how small the city-turtle soon looked. Apart from some trips on his father’s boat and setting foot on a couple of passing islands, Jairo had never left Yoruga. He’d never been so far from home and home swam further away with every passing minute.

“We need to start cutting down trees to build defences around the eggs,” Hernando addressed the crowd. “Everyone works in teams, no one goes close to the jungle alone. We also need to set up shelters, and get weapons ready. Line up, and we’ll get you assigned quickly.”

Yoruga’s eggs were buried under heaps of sand and jungle debris over an area that stretched almost as far as Yoruga was long. Each egg was roughly the size of a fishing vessel, the nests forming small hills that were difficult to climb because of how loose and uneven they were. In order to protect the eggs, first the guardians intended on building a first line of defence, a wall, between the nests and the jungle. Tools were divided among the teams. Broken trees, smashed by Yoruga, littered the dunes. Some, if they were big enough, were dragged apart and began to be stripped and prepared by certain teams. Other teams attacked the edge of the jungle without going too deep.

Jairo and Cruzito cleared debris, piling it back at the camp for firewood. Jairo was surprised to see just how fast the wall took shape, even if it was only composed of unevenly sized pillars planted in the sandy soil with narrow gaps between them. In some places that Yoruga had flattened, the jungle already started to recover. Vines wound their way out to bask in the sunshine like serpents. Other guardians set up shelters on the beach. They didn’t look like much protection, wooden beams and canvas roofs, and canvas walls if they had any walls at all. They avoided setting up too close to the water or the trees. Trenches were dug for defence and for latrines, campfires were lit as the day got longer.

Late in the afternoon they’d been working tirelessly for hours when the alarm went up. Shouted cries travelled the length of the workers. People sprinted away from the furthest nests as Jairo and Cruzito craned around to see what was happening.

Three sailbacks shoved their way through the treeline, crocodilian heads swinging from side to side. Each was three times as tall as a man at the shoulder, heavy upper bodies hanging forward and balanced by thick tails. Clawed hands dangled from their chests, perfect for digging. Their scales were mottled green and brown with yellow striations. Their most obvious features though were the huge fins running along their spines. Each sail was again taller than a man at its highest point, adding to their size.

“Cannons! Weapons, weapons ready!” Hernando’s voice bellowed over the dunes.

The three sailbacks could have easily snapped up the fleeing workers in their jaws but they were after more than the mere morsels the humans represented. Talons raked at the sand. One of Yoruga’s boat-sized eggs filled with protein-rich yolk was a far greater prize. Sailbacks were little more than egg thieves and scavengers when it came to the greater food chain. Not for the first time in his life, Jairo reflected how unfair it was that thinking, feeling human beings were so much smaller than so many of the other creatures that inhabited their world. That was why so few people lived on land in heavily protected, static settlements. They were better off forming symbiotic relationships with seafaring giants like Yoruga and other city-turtles, or with other enormous animals that roamed above the world’s swamps and jungles and deserts.

“Fire!”

Intelligence gave human beings some other ways to fight back, however. From behind Jairo and Cruzito, the rattling cracks of two dozen flintlock rifles split the air. Smoke and flame flared from their muzzles as the rifle stocks drove backward into the shooters’ shoulders. Heavy rounds peppered the trio of sailbacks. They drew back, hissing and snarling, but only momentarily.

Shooters hurried to reload. Paper cartridges were torn open with their teeth and tipped into pans and barrels. Ramrods, slipped out from beneath the barrels, tamped down the powder and balls. Jairo and Cruzito dived to the sand, staying low amidst the battle. The rifles were only a distraction though, as other crews wheeled two cannons into place. Their wooden wheels struggled in the sand. Each cannon was a hulking iron device with three rotating barrels. Loaded, aimed, black powder was poured into the pans at the tail ends of the cannons and set alight.

Jairo could feel the explosions of the cannons through his chest. Both the first balls missed. Aims were adjusted and they erupted again, one after the other. A cannonball slammed one of the sailbacks in the ribcage, just beneath one of its gangly arms. It took it in the same way a man might take a musket ball to the chest. Rocking backward, the sailback wailed. Dark blood spilled heavily down its side. The second cannonball hit a second sailback in the haunches, tearing out a bloody furrow but bouncing off rather than embedding itself.

“Fire!”

Stocks against shoulders, the barrage of flintlocks clattered again. Bullets ripped across the three sailbacks’ scales. One, struck in the eye, drew back with a hiss. Cannon barrels rotated into place and fired again. That emptied all three barrels for both weapons but others were hurrying over with more balls and black powder. One of the cannonballs skimmed off a sailbacks’ throat, sending up a spray of blood.

The sailbacks retreated, deciding the prize wasn’t worth it after all. Two of them, wounded but intact, slipped back into the dense jungle greenery and disappeared out of sight. The creature that had been struck in the ribs, however, weakened. Taloned feet going out from under it, the sailback collapsed to the sand. Blood continued to pour out of it, its eyes rolled back and its long jaws fell open. A cheer went up among the guardians across the beach. Their first challenge had been faced and they’d beaten it.

xXx

And so it went, more challenges came and were beaten back. They built a wall along the face of the jungle, between the trees and the eggs. Vines rapidly clustered around the pylons. The sailbacks had uncovered the leathery curve of one of Yoruga’s eggs but the guardians buried it again. As for the dead sailback, it had to be cut up and dragged off to other parts of the beach to draw scavengers away from the eggs. They couldn’t eat it themselves, the meat was too tough and too bitter. As a large predator, its flesh was filled with heavy metals.

They hunted to shore up their supplies. Sandrats, their flesh was also tough and gritty but they made a nice change for most people from dried kelp and fish. They also managed to capture a herd of duckbills that passed along the shoreline. A couple of the towering, two-legged lizards were butchered and used for meat but the others were saved in a makeshift corral for use when the hatching occurred. Going into the jungle was too dangerous for hunting or for any other purpose. It represented a constant threat, to both the eggs and to themselves, day and night. One of the guardians was killed by a titanboa after venturing along the inlet where the group sourced their fresh water. Another got spiked by a bishop mantic that blended almost invisibly with the treeline before it struck. Two other people died while nearly a score were injured during continuing attacks on the eggs, while several eggs had to be abandoned as lost to scavengers.

Deaths and hardships aside, Jairo felt like the whole thing was a grand adventure. They spent nights sleeping under the stars or beneath tents. He was hundreds of leagues from his family and home. Land creatures were threatening but also fascinating and strange. Even the sandrats were exotic. He learned how to cook and dig trenches and erect structures. To handle tools, and weapons. Everyone needed to know how to hold, load and fire a flintlock, and help with the cannons. And everyone respected him, people didn’t just treat him like a kid with no prospects in need of an apprenticeship. Even if he and Cruzito started out in smaller roles with less responsibility, they were guardians too and deserving of the same respect as the adult volunteers.

Roughly three months after Yoruga laid them, a couple of the city-tenders who had stayed with the guardians indicated the eggs were ready to hatch. Yoruga’s young stirred restlessly inside their buried shells, ready to break free, climb through the sand, and fight their way to the sea. Unfortunately, their timing coincided with the gathering of an enormous storm. The guardians had seen several big storms since the wetter season began but nothing the size of the one stirring now. Clouds darkened the sky. Turning to slate, the ocean began to froth as winds picked up and whipped the tops of the waves into foam.

“Tonight will be the real test of everything that we’ve worked toward,” Hernando said to the gathered crowd. “Yoruga’s hatchlings will be digging their way to the surface and trying to make it to the water but it will not be easy, for them or for us! We know these events attract predators who will see both us and the hatchlings as food. We will lose people, and we will lose potential cities, but we are giving them and our people the best chance at a future we can give them! You know your places, you know your roles, have faith and stay strong!”

Ranks of guardians lined up to get their flintlocks and other weapons. Out on the ocean, on the bobbing waves, the ships left with them also made preparations. Cannons and defensive structures were set up around the nests and the hatchlings’ presumed path to the sea. Jairo and Cruzito, along with most of the other younger volunteers, would be running ammunition and water to the fighters rather than fighting themselves.

“What about a rifle? Don’t I still get a rifle, just in case?” Jairo asked, collecting sacks of black powder and bullets from the armourer.

“If it gets desperate enough that you need a rifle, trust me, there’ll be plenty of them lying around on the sand by that point,” the armourer said.

Rain started hammering across the beach like sheets of iron. Thunder roared, and lightning illuminated the dying day. Lanterns and covered torches provided light to the guardians’ positions. All held their breath. They looked very small in the face of the storm. In the face of the sea, the jungle, and this historic moment. In the face of what was coming.

Motion rumbled through the jungle, casting birds and swarms into the air. The ocean looked no safer. Out past the shallows, the spiked and sinuous coils of a juvenile kraken roiled between two of the ships. Beneath the waves they could see the telltale glows of massive lightning fish patrolling the length of the shoreline. The predators could somehow sense the change in the air, same as the guardians’ egg tenders had done.

“It’s happening!” Someone shouted.

Mighty cracks, like the hulls of ships peeling apart only muffled by sand, came from beneath the ground. As if by some prearranged signal, all of Yoruga’s remaining eggs began to open. Craters sunk into the sand in some places. In others, wet sand erupted from the small hills. As the sky went dark, thunder became an almost constant presence. Staccato bursts of lightning ripped across the ocean and jungle to bathe the beach in blue-white light as rain pounded into the sand and the human defences.

The first wave of attack didn’t wait for the hatchlings to emerge. Sailbacks, half a dozen of them, exploded from the jungle with claws raised, teeth lining their open jaws, and scales wet and rippling. Several smashed through the wall that had been built between the jungle and the nests. It was obvious the wall was merely a deterrent as they battered it apart easily. The reaction from the guardians was immediate. Flintlocks rattled and cracked, although many failed to fire in the damp air. Cannons swivelled on their bases and roared. A heavy iron ball caught one of the sailbacks in the mouth. The hinge of its jaw broke with a horrific crack and the ball slammed into its throat. The sailback recoiled and vomited a froth of dark blood.

Jairo had a front row seat, crouched between two of the sandy hills containing nests. Sand ran in eddies down the dunes as eggs hatched and hatchlings began to dig themselves free. Jairo carried a lantern as well as his ammunition sacks and water. White lightning bathed the scene as a sailback battered through the wall in front of him. Jairo had forgotten how towering the creatures were. How insignificant humans looked beside them. Armed guardians surrounding Jairo raised their flintlocks almost vertically and fired, battering the underside of the creature’s jaw and throat. The creature cast around and came down with a snap on one of the guardians. They disappeared into the sailback’s mouth except for a pair of kicking feet. The sailback crunched down, tossed its head back, and crunched again, and in those few seconds the woman was gone. Somehow, their flintlock had been flung free. It spiralled through the rain and came back down like a spear, barrel spiking into the sand only a few arm lengths from Jairo. Suddenly, Jairo understood what the armourer meant when he said there’d be plenty of guns lying around if Jairo needed to use one.

The sailback turned, surveying. People reloaded, swiping their damp pans and firing to no effect. Jairo felt the cold, reptilian gaze of the sailback fall on him. They’d come for the hatchlings but in the midst of the slaughter these tiny, noisy, soft things would do. Jaws yawning, the sailback started toward him. Jairo felt he could do nothing but stare in mounting horror as the full realisation set in. He was about to die, messily, horribly, hundreds of miles from home. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, its blast lost among all the thunder and cannonfire, a cannonball drove itself into the side of the sailback’s head and caused it to virtually explode. Pieces of scale and skull, and a torrent of blood, splattered the rain. The sailback teetored and crashed to its side.

Guns and cannonfire tore apart the jungle beyond the defensive wall. Grenades exploded, small black power bombs with short fuses and sticklike handles to make them easier to throw. But violence wasn’t the only way the guardians tried to deal with the creatures attacking. They also tried bribery. An enormous titanboa snaked its way out of the jungle down the far end of the nests. A ribbon of solid muscle as thick across as a man was tall, impossibly long, anything they could do would have little effect on the giant snake. A crew of particularly crazy guardians drew it away, shouting and swinging lanterns. With them, they herded one of the captured duckbills from the makeshift corral. The duckbill bleated, digging in with its two powerful legs. Between the storm and the presence of so many predators, the duckbill was terribly stressed. Better that it was targeted than one of the hatchlings, however. The titanboa’s huge, diamond-shaped head drew upward and fixed on the duckbill. It struck, fangs like swords sinking into the duckbill’s midsection. Loops of the giant snake’s body coiled across the sand as the guardians scrambled to get clear. Shrieking, the duckbill disappeared into the coils and was crushed, like a fist closing around an insect. Other duckbills were staked out, lanterns hanging around their necks, to attract potential predators away from the hatchlings.

Bald, leathery heads and bladelike flippers began to break through the loose hills of sand. Yoruga’s babies wriggled their bulky bodies free. Bleary eyes blinked and took in the world around them for the first time, thick with rain and in the heat of battle. Each hatchling was a miniature version of their mother. Each many times larger than a human being, even freshly hatched, roughly the size of the small fishing vessel that belonged to Jairo’s father. Jairo had no time to admire them. He was too busy identifying who needed more ammo and sprinting through the rain to get to them. Crews burned through ammo fast, especially with the rain dampening so much of their powder. Others called for medics, as people lay bleeding and mangled in the sand.

As the hatchlings broke free from their eggs then lumbered toward the water, the battle moved with them. Guardians did their best to surround the hatchlings as they pulled themselves along on their underbellies. They left deep furrows behind them. Predators from the jungle broke through the human line to attack the hatchlings. Some were flipped onto their backs, squealing, and teeth and muscle worried at their hard shells to get at the meat below. Some had to be abandoned, to focus efforts on those that could be saved. Jairo saw a pack of wyverns descend on a single hatchling, squawking like gulls. They bit and clawed at the hatchling until they were all cut down by a barrage of gunfire.

In spite of their clumsy appearance on land, some of the hatchlings were surprisingly fast. They reached the breakers and nosed into the water. More dangers awaited outside the shallows but Jairo couldn’t help but smile. He ran to the team of guardians who’d just shot down the wyverns.

“We’re winning!” Jairo yelled.

Suddenly, between flashes of lightning, Jairo caught sight of an island that appeared just outside the shallows. Forks of lightning lit the sky, accompanied by bowel-clenching rolls of thunder, and the island moved closer. A hard curve covered in jagged spikes, it drifted toward the hatchlings. As it got near, Jairo got impressions of dark, pitiless eyes, mandibles, and threshing limbs. Someone else also spotted it and let out a cry of alarm.

A titanus crab, it rose out of the breakers like a small mountain. The creature was as big as a church, as big as the cathedral on Yoruga. Dark chitin covered its body, shaped like a boulder, as well as its claws and its six spiny legs. Eyes like black wells peered from beneath a spined brow, above mandibles designed for cutting, crushing and slicing.

“Cannons! We need support, we need support!” Someone screamed

Flintlocks crackled. Jairo did his best to distribute powder and bullets where needed. The balls bounced worthlessly off the monster crab’s shell. Even those that hit the crab’s only vulnerable spot, its eyes, did little but upset the giant. A cannon team, already pointed at the waves, aimed and fired. A ball flew into one of the crab’s massive claws and literally bounced off without leaving a scratch. Annoyed, the titanus crab lunged. Its claw came down on top of the cannon, crushing it into the sand, and then swept the ruins sideways as guardians scrambled out of its path. Far, far larger than any of the humans, there seemed to be nothing their weapons could do to the beast. Hatchlings scrambled to get out of the way as well but they weren’t fast enough.

“Bait! Watch out, spicy meal coming through!” Someone said.

Another crew dragged a terrified duckbill through the rain, toward the titanus crab. Like the duckbill the other crew used to draw off the titanboa, the duckbill had lanterns hung along its side to attract the attention of the predator. But this one was made ‘spicy’, the guardians’ most ruthless weapon. Kegs and sacks of black powder were slung against the herbivore’s sides as well. Flames hissed along waterproof wicks that had already been lit, attached to the makeshift bombs.

“Get clear!”

Guardians scrambled to get out of the potential blast zone. Jairo tripped and staggered but then looked back when he hoped he was safely away. The crew drove the duckbill into the crab’s path and then ran to get clear as well.

The crab descended on the innocent duckbill. One of its huge claws snapped shut around the duckbill’s side and lifted it into the air, breaking a couple of kegs and spilling some black powder. The intention was that the crab, or whatever giant predator the trick was used on, would eat the spicy meal and the blast would cause serious damage to them from the inside. Unfortunately, the giant crab hesitated. It wasn’t stupid. Holding the duckbill away from its face, it studied the animal with its round dark eyes as the wicks burned down. Before it could make a decision on what to do with the animal, black powder flashed and the duckbill exploded. The blast drowned out even the thunder that rolled constantly over the shoreline. In an instant, the duckbill was reduced to a shower of tiny chunks of cooked meat. Smoke and shrapnel and gore erupted out of the crab’s claw and engulfed its exposed face for a moment. The crab shrieked. Rain quickly washed away the smoke and revealed one of the crab’s eyes had been mangled by the blast but it looked otherwise unharmed.

Enraged, the cathedral-sized beast turned back on the beach. Claws swept human beings aside. A hatchling was knocking, flailing, over and onto its back so it couldn’t get up. The crab looked ready to slaughter everything it could get a hold of.

Jairo felt the warmth of the lantern hanging off his side. The other guardians used lanterns to attract the crab’s attention. An insane idea occurred to Jairo. If he could attract the crab to him, draw it away, he’d give the hatchlings a chance to escape and the guardians time to regroup. Jairo’s eyes swept around the beach. He saw several packs abandoned in the chaos. Jairo fell on one of them and found three grenades strapped to the outside. He dropped some of his own packs to rid himself of the weight and took the grenades instead.

The titanus crab’s footfalls speared the beach, sending up blasts of damp sand. Lightning lit the whorls covering its dark shell. Opening a panel on his lantern, Jairo lit the wick on one of his black powder grenades. It hissed, burning quickly. Racing forward, Jairo hurled the grenade with all his strength and momentum. It spiralled through the air, hit the side of the building-sized crab and rolled down its shell before exploding. After the blast of the duckbill bomb the grenade meant little to the crab, particularly against one of the thickest parts of its armour, but it did get the creature’s attention. It swung around and its one good eye fixed on Jairo, alone on the beach.

Jairo sprinted along the beach, up and away from the flood of hatchlings. Close to a hundred hatchlings filled the beach. Jairo kept the lantern in view. Taking another grenade, he lit it and tossed it wildly behind him. It landed in the wet sand and exploded, leaving a small crater. Working in unison, the crab’s six legs were much more ponderous than Jairo’s two but they covered far more ground. Other guardians, spotting Jairo’s mad dash, yelled advice or warnings that he couldn’t hear over the rain and thunder.

Blood waterfalled down the titanus crab’s face from its mangled eye. Jairo drew it toward the jungle. He hoped, given its wounds, other predators might be attracted to it and attack it rather than the hatchlings.

As Jairo closed in on the treeline, however, he got more than he bargained for. Lightning forked above the jungle. Another dark, monstrous shape rose above the canopy like a second living mountain. A huge mouth parted, lined with fangs longer than Jairo was tall. Footsteps shook the ground as the creature came toward the jungle’s edge.

“Oh, flip me,” Jairo said.

Erupting from the treeline, a rockback lizard loomed even larger than the titanus crab. If atop Yoruga, the rockback’s nose to tail would have stretched from one end of the city park to the other. Rockbacks were built much like the sailbacks Jairo had seen but many, many times larger and heavier. Its head was heavier and blunter in comparison to its body. Shrunken, its arms were almost vestigial to balance its huge head and jaws. And instead of a tremendous sail, the creature’s back was covered in spines and plates and spiky growths of rocklike material. The giant lizard’s roar filled the beach, drowning out the thunder, drowning out the waves and the explosions. The beach must have been part of its territory. The human settlement, protecting the eggs, had escaped its notice until now when like everything else it was attracted to the hatching.

Jairo, hands shaking, lit his third and final grenade without thinking. With its wick burning, he pitched it, end over end, as high and as hard as could throw. Even with all its bulk pulling its head forward, the rockback was taller than any building on Yoruga. The grenade sailed to a point roughly level with the rockback’s head and exploded. The flash illuminated an enormous eye, the pupil shrinking back against a red and speckled iris. Shrapnel pecked the rockback’s cheek and the rocklike helmet over its brow but left it unharmed. It recoiled from the flash then snarled, and lunged.

The size, the raw, primal power of the rockback, was almost enough to sweep the titanus crab out of Jairo’s mind. Sand roiled behind him, however. Taking the lantern strapped to his shoulder, Jairo cast it aside to the sand. Breaking open, oil spilled and caught for a moment to flare even brighter. It attracted the attention of both monsters. Using his small size and the cover of darkness, Jairo fled sideways out of their path.

The two titans crashed into one another. A loud, screaming hiss came from the crab. The rockback roared, shaking the air. Rockbacks roamed and defended enormous swathes of territory from similarly sized predators. Titanus crabs rarely left the water, and this one was confused and angry. Neither backed down. Lowering its head, the rockback lizard barrelled into the crab. Feet tearing apart the shore, it was forced backward but snapped one of its claws shut on the rockback’s side. The rockback’s stony armour caught most of the serrations. Swinging around, the rockback caught the crab’s other claw in its jaws and bore down. The crab’s dark shell let out a loud and sustained crack, like a section of ice shelving breaking away, and the crab screamed.

Jairo fled down the beach, back toward the torches and lanterns. Rain eased but lightning continued flitting over the clouds and making the sand glow. The two titans behind Jairo fell backward into the treeline, tearing into one another. Some of the others, who’d seen what Jairo had done, cheered. Most of the land-based predators had disappeared, or were busy feeding. Craters and scraps of leathery eggshells, as well as discarded weapons, cannonballs, and the corpses of various creatures littered the nests. Out on the water, the guardian ships dumped barrels of black powder overboard. They exploded and sent up geysers of seawater, the shockwaves attempting to drive back the kraken and other underwater predators to clear a path for the hatchlings beneath the waves as well. Once they reached deeper water, the hatchlings would be on their own but would be able to seek out the forests of kelp where they could both feed and hide.

Cruzito ran out of the rain to Jairo’s side, carrying another lantern. “You’re crazy, man! You’re crazy!”

“Are they all safe?” Jairo asked.

“The last of them are making their way to the water now,” someone else said.

Jairo hurried to the shoreline, where most of the guardians gathered to watch the hatchlings slip into the breakers. Danger would pursue them, regardless of what the humans did. All of them would spend the next few decades largely out of sight, growing rapidly. When they reemerged, spending more time on the surface, they’d be spotted by humans and, depending on their shells and the uses different settlers saw in them, they’d be adopted, defended, and the architecture grown into their shells would be remodelled and built upon.

One of the hatchling city-turtles that Jairo watched enter the water wore a miniature factory town growing out of its green-brown shell. Boxy, utilitarian buildings and skinny smokestacks that would have to be hollowed out by humans before they’d be of use. It pulled itself forward and disappeared. Another’s shell was covered in more exotic architecture made for museums, theatres and orchestra halls. Yet another had mushroom-domed mosques growing out of its shell and a maze of open roofed buildings and marketplaces. Fringed with spikes, one more turtle’s shell held a city built for war with squat and defensive armouries and fortresses. If it lived long enough, it might be adopted by humans with designs on conquest just as the others might be adopted based on what their settlers valued most, art or religion or industry. Jairo felt a flush of pleasure as the last of them disappeared under the waves. Given the timescales involved, he might never see what shape any of the cities on the backs of Yoruga’s hatchlings would take but here at their birth he’d flung a light forward into the future and helped give them the best chance they would get to live. The hatchling cities, and the people who would come to call them home.

======

Sean: Thanks for reading all this way! I’d been thinking of doing a ‘turtle island’ story, inspired by the Dragon Turtle, since coming up with the All in the (Monster) Manual idea. But I didn’t know what shape it would take, whether it would be a sailor caught in a mysterious shipwreck who washed up on a strange and ultimately living island, or a giant turtle with ancient ruins carved into its shell suddenly emerging in the modern day.

Ultimately this story was secondly inspired by a trip I took to Sydney Aquarium with my nieces. One of them was really fascinated with one of the final exhibits, which is a projection of a sea turtle coming ashore to lay eggs, and the hatchlings going back to the sea. It all came together from there.

I wrote this story over Christmas 2021 and it gave me a lot of time to think about the story, so I did a lot more world building than I might have otherwise. I’ve got some other stories lined up now that will be revisiting different parts of this setting, so if you enjoyed the concept make sure to keep your eyes on my website, and for more updates you can find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Next Week’s Inspiration: Minotaur Skeleton

2 thoughts on “The Birth of Cities

  1. Pingback: Captain’s Log | Sean E. Britten

  2. Pingback: Halfway Through a Year of All There in the (Monster) Manual! | Sean E. Britten

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