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: Giant Scorpion
Salma Al Aleagrab and her family flee across the deadly sands of the Great Sandy Wastes atop their scorpion mounts, pursued by a seemingly unstoppable predator. Unexpected allies and unexpected new ideas might be the only way to stay alive, free, and uneaten.
This story is based in the same setting as The Birth of Cities and Captain’s Log, although no knowledge of either is required before reading.
The nomads’ enormous scorpions fled across the Great Sandy Wastes with the bandit city in pursuit. Light bleached the sky as dawn quickened in the east. Already the backs of the scorpion mounts were a hive of activity.
Black or brown and bristly, each scorpion hosted open roofed structures that grew from their shells. Each scorpion home to a different family, the structures were shaded with sails of cloth and buttressed with planks of moultshell. Scuttling across the Great Sandy Wastes’ endless dunes, they left scars of footprints in their wakes which the bandit’s predator city would have no trouble following. Throughout the night, in the vast blackness of the desert, the nomads had been unable to steer and were forced to rely on their mounts’ other senses to keep them ahead of the bandits and slavers. Dawn revealed how close the tribe was to destruction.
Of the half a dozen arachnopolis scorpions, the largest and most developed hosted the largest family. The wives, children and household of the head of their tribe, Waheed Al Aleagrab. Even in his late fifties, Waheed remained a powerfully built man. His steps adjusted automatically to the violent rolling and pitching gait of his scorpion as it fled across the sands. Thick at the shoulders and the hips, tall and upright, his face was half-hidden behind a luxurious beard. Strapped to his hip was a heavy sword with a curved blade. Voluminous robes swept around Waheed as he hurried from the head of their mount to its tail. At the head, multiple eyes glistened like large, dark pools in the carapace above complex mandibles which were longer than Waheed was tall. Massive pincers remained tucked beneath its chin. Its tail, curved and segmented and ending in a bulbous head and barb, arched above Waheed and the man already on lookout.
“What is the latest?” Waheed asked.
Ajmal, the lookout, was young and slim in loose, pale robes. He passed Waheed a battered looking glass in a brass casing.
“See it for yourself, sir.”
Distorted by imperfections in the magnifying glass, Waheed swept his gaze over the desert. Golden dunes rolled behind them, marked by their scorpions’ knifelike footprints. Nothing but waves and waves of dry sand soaking up the dawn sunshine. And then, Waheed’s gaze settled on what looked like a moving mountain range. A greater rockback, tamed and inhabited by an army of bandits and slavers in much the same way the nomads travelled atop the arachnopolis scorpions. Turned into a predator city. Greater rockbacks were the largest predators to inhabit the Great Sandy Wastes and even wild ones were a threat to the scorpion nomads. The gigantic lizards moved on four clawed feet, with huge, blunt heads hidden partially beneath rocky brows that were balanced by heavy tails. Their backs, as their name suggested, were covered in carapaces of rocky growths that formed jagged hills and peaks down the length of their spine. Through his eyeglass, Waheed could see balconies and walkways strung between the rock growths. Tunnels and caves had been bored into the creature’s carapace. Like ants, bandits swarmed among the walkways. Head lowered, the rockback fixed on their trail.
Waheed dropped the looking glass and scanned the wastes around them. He already knew what he would find. Low islands covered in stone and scrub grew above the oceans of sand but none large or complex enough to lose the greater rockback.
“We cannot stay ahead of them forever. As the day heats up, the rockback will gain speed while our homes cannot keep up this pace. Make sure everyone is ready to fight.”
Staggered in a rough line, the nomads’ scorpions scuttled over the lip of another dune. Flags were used to signal between scorpions like ships at sea. Women and children were secured in the inner sanctums of their mounts’ buildings. Men scurried around the defences. Mostly they carried swords or spears but a few had long and skinny flintlock rifles in their possession, muzzle loaded firearms bought from traders. Paths and barricades were made from moultshell, tough but flexible, partly translucent. Waheed Al Aleagrab’s larger scorpion took up one of the central positions while smaller scorpions, with only room for a single outcrop building on their backs, remained on the outskirts.
Wriggling between walls, Waheed’s daughter from his youngest wife escaped from the cluster of buildings on the largest scorpion’s back. She’d slipped away from the attention of her mother and Waheed’s other wives as they tried to keep the children distracted. Salma Al Aleagrab was fourteen, not a child or a woman, small and skinny and dressed in a long robe with her hair tied back and covered by cloth. Taking cover beneath one of the massive shade sails, Salma peered out at the activity happening around her. Cloth sails and other extensions were typically added to the structures growing out of the arachnopolis scorpions by the nomads but not so much as to inhibit their movements or their tails.
Salma watched as her father, Waheed, observed the progress of the other scorpions and the predator city following them. He was attended by Ajmal. In his early twenties but unmarried, Ajmal was nonetheless competent and handsome enough that all the girls and unmarried female members of the Al Aleagrab household had crushes on him, which Salma was not immune to. Waheed and Ajmal parted ways. As Waheed disappeared into one of the buildings, Ajmal started in Salma’s direction. Salma tried to duck out of sight but he spotted her small oval of a face.
“What are you doing out here? Your father ordered all the women and children inside,” Ajmal said.
“I wanted to see what was happening,” Salma said.
“If we’re caught the bandits will kill us, and sell you and the other women into slavery!”
“Maybe I can help!”
“You can’t, there’s no role for you in this.”
“Maybe I could see something, spot something, that no one else could?”
Long days crossing the sand, apart from telling stories and playing music the tribe often played games of memory and strategy. None of Salma’s brothers or sisters would play with her anymore though, she was unbeatable. She played against members of their household or men from the other families but they posed little challenge as well. Her mind worked too fast and around too many corners. Only her father posed any challenge, when they played together, and he still won only one out of every three or four games.
“This is not a game,” Ajmal said. “Your father has enough to worry about, if he sees you he’ll be distracted.”
“I’ll stay out of the way, he won’t see me.”
Ajmal didn’t look convinced but the conversation was keeping him from other tasks. “If they get closer, promise me you’ll go back inside before the fighting starts.”
Salma nodded, but she didn’t actually promise. Ajmal moved on, down the side of their scorpion. Crouching low, Salma watched but she couldn’t see much. Their mount shook, steps rolling down its segmented back. Clouds of fine silt hung in the air.
The nomads continued to race ahead of the bandits but the giant scorpions flagged as the sun rose higher and hotter. Whistling exhalations came from their mandibles. They wheezed and hissed, scrambling over towering dunes. Meanwhile, the greater rockback only gained speed. Through the looking glass, Waheed began to make out the features of individual bandits climbing up and down the rocky carapace. He touched the hilt of his sword. Ajmal stood beside him, awaiting orders to pass to the other families.
“Send the signal to the others, we don’t have any other choice,” Waheed said. “Split up, all of us go in different directions. One or two will be captured but the others will escape. We reconnect again at the nearest gathering place.”
Ajmal knew as well as his tribe’s leader did that in the event of the scorpion riders splitting up it was Waheed’s own arachnopolis scorpion that would represent the greatest prize to those chasing them. “What about your wives? Your children?”
“There’s no time to move them, they will have to stay. We live or die together.”
Via semaphore, the message went to the other families to split up and keep running. Heads of the other families might have disagreed but there was no room for discussion. From a staggered row, they fanned out and headed in different directions across the wastes.
Salma saw her father give the order and watched in horror as it was enacted. Each scorpion was separated into a distinct family unit with a patriarch at the head, along with his wives and children, his or his wives’ unmarried siblings, and potentially elderly parents as well as household retainers. But all the members of the tribe were related in some way. Siblings or cousins or through intermarriage, an impossibly complex web of relationships that stretched back generations. The tribe was a family. To lose even one part of it through sacrifice was unimaginable. It was like having to cut off a limb, and it was only through chance that it would be decided who died or was captured. Salma knew the decision hadn’t been easy for her father, no easier than it would have been for her, but the fact he made it was part of the reason he was the tribe’s chief.
Salma knew she should return. Her mother was probably wondering about her, although Salma often disappeared into private spaces to read or study. Instead, she wriggled between the outskirts of the buildings and sails toward the back of their giant arachnid home to watch what happened.
The arachnopolis scorpions fanned across the wastes. Given the emptiness, they all remained in sight of one another. They remained within sight of the tremendous greater rockback and its bandits as well. Salma’s home represented the juiciest target, the largest scorpion with the best fixtures and supplies. But as the largest it was also the strongest and fastest, and kept travelling in a relatively straight line. The bandit city broke off in pursuit of one of the smaller families, the Al Eads.
Salma wished for some kind of miracle. Her heart thudded until she felt like she might be sick. Quivering, she felt tears run down her face as the inevitability of it took over. Life in the wastes was cheap, and harsh, and cruel. No one had ever told her it was fair, but the unfairness of just how mismatched the scorpion nomads and the greater rockback were overwhelmed her. Although they were a long way off and Salma didn’t have a looking glass like her father, her eyes were sharp. She could see bandits swarming the balconies and bridges on the rockback’s carapace, cheering, as others steered it above the head.
Arachnopolis scorpions had a symbiotic relationship with their human passengers. People helped clean them, kept them free of parasites, and steered them clear of predators. Greater rockbacks did not have the same relationship and had to be raised and tamed from the moment they hatched to serve as mobile bases for the likes of these bandits and slavers. Instead of immediately seizing the Al Eads’ scorpion in its mouth, as a wild rockback would have done, the predator city clawed at the scorpion’s back. It had been trained to tear the buildings and as many people loose as possible so the bandits could scavenge the wreckage and enslave survivors. The process was torturous. Salma saw puffs of gunfire as the Al Eads fired up at their attackers. Bit and pieces of shell and ruin went flying as the greater rockback swiped at the scorpion’s back. People spiralled through the air as well. Thankfully Salma was too far away to see exactly who they were but she would have known them, all of them. Assuming they survived their landings they wouldn’t survive long on the open sand.
The wounded scorpion turned on the bandits’ greater rockback, lashing out with its pincers and barbed tail. While the area around the greater rockback’s mouth, nostrils and eyes wasn’t protected by stony carapace, greater rockbacks were natural predators of arachnopolis scorpions. The attacks drew little blood and elicited even less of a reaction. It bit down, seizing one of the Al Eads’ scorpion’s pincers and its head in its jaws. With a crunch Salma of course couldn’t hear but felt like she could, it chomped through the black scorpion’s thick shell. Green-white goo spurted from the point of impact. Tail uncoiling, legs spasming, the scorpion went limp. It fell to the sand. Hungry, unleashed, the bandit’s greater rockback feasted on the scorpion’s remains. A loyal mount, home and companion for the Al Ead family and the Al Aleagrab tribe for years now, chewed and swallowed and gone in seconds.
Survivors lay crumpled and exposed on the hot sand. Given the chaos they were alive, for now, surrounded by the wreckage of their home. Attached to ropes and pulleys on cranelike poles, tied to harnesses around their chests, bandits dipped from around the rockback’s shoulders and sides. They collected supplies and people from the sand before they were reeled back to the safety of the rockback’s carapace. Salma watched in horror, tears streaming down her face, knowing slavery awaited those caught. Maybe death would have been better.
“Salma! What are you doing out here, child?”
Waheed, Salma’s father, rounded the moultshell boards on the outskirts of their scorpion. His looking glass dangled from one slab of a hand. Their home continued to charge away, putting more distance between them and the predator city. Dust spilled over the sides of the walkway.
“Does your mother know where you are?”
“Papa, no, no, she was busy with the little ones,” Salma said.
“Then you should be helping her, not running away.”
“I thought I could help out here! I thought maybe I might see something-,”
“You shouldn’t be out here! You shouldn’t have seen what happened to the Al Eads.”
“Papa, it was horrible!” Salma collapsed into sobs. “They’re all dead, or captured! Their home is gone!”
Behind his thick beard, Waheed’s face softened. He had a duty to the whole tribe, however, and that came first. Torn, he wondered if Salma might actually spot some solution or clue that he himself would miss. She was bright, but she was also only a girl. She had no experience and was clearly already overwhelmed.
“Your tears help no one,” Waheed said. “Stay down, or return to your mother, but stay out of the way.”
Sniffling, Salma wiped her eyes with the heel of her hand. Waheed turned back on the expanse between them and the bandits. Every so often, he touched the handle of his sword against his waist.
Having risen high into the sky above them, the sun felt like a weight. Like droppings, several furry bundles fell away from the rear section of the bandits’ greater rockback. Unlike droppings, they kept moving after they hit the ground, unfolding and dashing clear of the rockback. One of them ran down the rockback’s long, stiff tail and launched itself off of it. Tuskrats, desert hunters and scavengers, with pairs of bandits riding each one. Much faster than the titanic rockback, faster than the arachnopolis scorpions, they circled around and started sprinting after the nomads.
Two of the tuskrats headed toward Salma and Waheed’s home scorpion and two of them headed after one of the other fleeing families. Waheed hurried to alert the others. The tuskrats hurtled across the desert at tremendous speed. Scrawny and sinewy with long limbs and fur the colour of the sand, the tuskrats were of course much smaller than the rockback or the arachnopolis scorpions but large enough that carrying two bandits along with saddles and weapons on their backs didn’t slow them down at all. Pairs of curved tusks, for rooting around in hard packed dirt, bristled from the corners of their mouths.
Rifles loaded, Waheed hunkered behind a low barricade with Ajmal and one of his older sons. As the tuskrats got closer, Waheed could see the equipment the bandits carried. It was obvious they didn’t intend to take Waheed’s scorpion with such a small force, they just wanted to harry them and slow them down to give the greater rockback an easier time catching up. One of the men carried a long pole with a hook on the end like a shepherd’s crook, for boarding. Long ropes with weights on each end, bolas, dangled from their saddles. Thrown with enough skill and luck they could tangle around an arachnopolis scorpion’s leg joint and slow it. Both men on the closest tuskrat carried the exact same long, skinny rifles as the nomads as well as other weapons.
Running hard, the two tuskrats peeled off to either side of the Al Aleagrab scorpion. Across the wastes, the other tuskrats harried the second largest nomad scorpion. Waheed’s fighters tracked and fired at the rats. Puffs of flame and smoke erupted from the muzzles of their needle barrels. Hitting the fleet footed tuskrats or the bandits riding them was a difficult prospect, however. The nomads reloaded. Bandits fired back, bullets whining through the air, but reloading was difficult when riding the tuskrats. One bandit slung his empty rifle over his shoulder and pulled out a pepperbox revolver, six winding barrels arranged in a circle. He had to manually turn the barrel with each shot to align with the gun’s lock mechanism. Waheed dipped low and almost felt the rounds above his head.
Salma crept her way forward. She kept her head low but amidst the chaos of battle the flat cracks of gunfire didn’t really sound that threatening. On her hands and knees, Salma caught sight of the nearest bandits, their tuskrat, and their variety of equipment and weapons. The men were wrapped in thick clothing for protection, scarves tied around the lower halves of their faces. Salma’s eyes took in every detail. They dropped their firearms. One of the men steered the tuskrat’s reins while the other wrestled with another weapon. Salma had never seen anything like it before. Shaped like a rifle but short and squat instead of long and skinny, wooden, with two arms that curved backward from the nose of the weapon. Seeing Salma at the same moment, the bandit aimed vaguely in her direction. He fired, a cord twanged, and what looked like an arrow flew from the weapon. Salma, for all her rapid analysis, failed to really react. Wobbling through the air, the arrow sailed toward the scorpion and landed in a wall several lengths behind Salma with a whack. Although it had missed by a considerable distance, the realisation that she could have been hit gave Salma a shock and she scrambled backward. Even after seeing the Al Ead family taken, their scorpion killed, she’d been removed enough by distance to still find the possibility of it happening to them unreal.
Waheed’s fighters fired down at the tuskrats. One of the bandits stood straighter, bracing against the saddle with his thighs. Gathering one of the bolas ropes, they swung the weights over their heads and threw them, aiming to tangle it around one of the scorpion’s legs. Ajmal, rifle butt pressed to his shoulder, took aim and fired. The bandit’s padded robes failed to protect him as the shot tore into his chest. Losing his footing, he toppled backward and rolled off the tuskrat’s furry haunches.
The remaining bandit ducked low over the tuskrat’s shoulders but spurred it on, ignoring his fallen comrade. Whoever their leader was, the bandits were clearly fervently, fanatically loyal to them. More shots missed or pocked the large rats’ hides harmlessly. The two bandits on the other side of the Al Aleagrab scorpion continued to drag at them. Waheed turned away in disgust.
“Unleash our home! Direct it to use its claws, and tail!” Waheed said.
Using their arachnopolis scorpion to fight off the tuskrats would overwhelm the bandits easily enough but it would slow the scorpion down just like they wanted. The greater rockback rumbled across the desert, closer and closer. One of the men went toward the head, where one of Waheed’s servants steered the scorpion.
Legs stabbing at the sand, their scorpion staggered to a halt and hissed. The two tuskrats circled around on the dune in front of them. The scorpion bucked backward. The Al Aleagrab household had to scramble and adjust their footing. Extending its pincers, the scorpion gave a couple of warning snaps and rattled its tail.
The rats first kept their distance. The bandits took the opportunity to reload their muzzle-fed guns. On the sand though, they had to keep moving. Nomads fired from the front end of the scorpion. Its enormous pincers snapped shut on empty air and its tail lanced forward. A pair of bolas was tossed, catching on the lower teeth of the scorpion’s right pincer and dangling there harmlessly. All the bandits had to do though was keep them distracted and in one place for the rockback.
The tuskrat with only one remaining rider strayed too close and the scorpion lunged. One of its massive pincers caught the rat, jagged points digging into fur and flesh. The rat screamed and tried to squirm free. The giant scorpion bore down harder, bones crackling. Blood started to run from the places where the rat was held. Meanwhile, the rider spilled out of their saddle along with some of the weapons and equipment. He landed hard, rolling, and struggled back to his feet.
Squealing, the tuskrat bit at one of the pincers but the carapace was too tough for its teeth to get through. The scorpion’s tail thrust forward. Holding the rat, it struck several times with the curved barb. Gore and tufts of fur splattered from the impacts. Poison pumped deep into the oversized rodent’s body. It thrashed, part fight, part spasm, losing strength rapidly. Stiffly, the scorpion cast the tuskrat aside. Its mandibles threshed, wheezing.
The other two bandits fired off a couple more stray blasts but were backing away as they did so. The bandit unseated from the dying tuskrat attempted to run after them. His feet pounded the loose sand. His allies abandoned him, however, and he was doomed on the open sand. There was a reason that people only crossed the Great Sandy Wastes on the backs of creatures like the arachnopolis scorpions or the greater rockback. Even tuskrats could only survive through a combination of both size and speed, forced to keep moving to avoid the largest of the creatures below the sand. But the battle would have already attracted attention, and the lone bandit was nowhere near fast enough to escape it.
Seemingly peaceful sand behind the bandit rippled. The man shouted and begged for the others to come back but they continued to retreat toward their walking city. A small hillock formed and followed the bandit, something tunnelling under the sand. Suddenly, a blunt nose broke the surface. Sand spilled off a thick, pale, snakelike body. It struck like a serpent, or a shark. An open grave of a mouth filled with teeth shaped like cones, rows and rows of them grinding together, yawned and caught the bandit around the waist. Wormy tentacles around the mouth latched to the bandit as well. He let out a short wail. Folding at the middle, the man was crushed rather than lacerated by the sandwyrm’s jaws. It slammed back into the sand. Wriggling and writhing with clawed flippers arrayed along its sides, the wyrm disappeared back underground. Quiet as it might have looked, the desert swarmed with sandwyrms under the surface. Several others of similar size had already appeared to attack the dying tuskrat. Their jaws seized at the rat’s sides, chewing and wresting their heads from side to side to rip away hunks of meat and hair.
Waheed glanced behind him, despite the way their scorpion pitched. Its tail withdrew, arching back into place. In that short period of time, the greater rockback had gained a shocking amount of distance on them. Its clawed feet tore across the wastes.
“Underway! Get moving again, go!” Waheed yelled.
The scorpion’s tender spurred the giant arachnid on. It scuttled around the feeding frenzy that was pulling the dead tuskrat deeper and deeper into the sand. There was no sign at all of the bandit that had been taken. In spite of the threat of the predator city, the scorpion was slow to pick up speed again. It was exhausted and believed instinctively in its primitive brain that it was using up energy that might be better applied trying to fight or hide without it quite grasping how hopeless those efforts would be. Nomads grabbed for handholds as the scorpion lurched to get back to a greater pace.
Salma, nestled in the crack between a sail and one of the shell buildings, watched the bandits’ rockback gaining on them. Across the wastes, in the direction they were headed, an outcropping of rocky, weathered islands rose above the sand. There were hills and canyons where they might have lost the bandits before meeting back up with the rest of the tribe. But it wasn’t going to happen, not for them. The predator city gained on them too fast after the distraction of the tuskrats.
The greater rockback’s wide mouth, lined with teeth as tall as Salma, knotted at the corners as if scowling. Its dark eyes glared from under hoods of scaled flesh and rocky spikes. But really there was no emotion at all on the giant animal’s face. It was a predator driven by hunger and need and the whims of the tiny creatures capering over its back which it had been trained by pain to respond to. It would come up on them and claw apart their lives, their home, because they were in the way. It would knock Salma and her family to the sand, hurt and exposed. If they were lucky or unlucky, Salma couldn’t decide which, bandits on long ropes and pulleys would descend and capture them before the sandwyrms did. They’d be abused horribly and either kept as slaves or sold on. That was the fate awaiting them. Salma’s father knew there was nothing to be gained by trying to surrender or negotiate so he didn’t even try. In the straightest line possible they continued toward the islands but stride by stride the monstrous lizard gained on them, bandits teeming across the bridges, caves and buildings on its back.
Suddenly, out of the cloudless sky, several winged shadows appeared like a miracle. They swept over the arachnopolis scorpion and headed across the wastes in the direction of the bandits. Salma craned her neck back, mouth falling open. Roks, half a dozen flying in a kind of loose formation, the birds almost as big as tuskrats with wingspans several times the length of their bodies. Although impossible to see from below, each rok had a rider. Straps from their saddles could be seen belted across the birds’ breasts. Each rok carried some strange object, a basket of some sort, shaped like a wooden sphere, clasped in their talons.
“Rok flyers,” Salma gasped.
Powerful wings beating, the roks and their riders sailed out over the wastes. The bandits went wild, pointing and shouting. Guns, bows and those gun-shaped wooden weapons Salma had seen before were trained at the sky. Puffs of smoke showed where the guns were being fired but the roks were too far overhead to hit. Arrows arced into the air but fell harmlessly again to the sand.
Beyond the bandits’ range, the rok flyers took their time to line up their aim. Swooping, the first two dove at the greater rockback’s head and released the spheres they carried in their talons. One plunged straight into the top of the rockback’s brow, the other falling to the sand. Both broke open, wooden ribs shattering to release clouds of swirling, orange-yellow dust, spice, thick storms of it. The bomb that hit the rockback’s brow coated its face, getting in its eyes, and the creature reeled back. The other roks released their packages. A couple more exploded open on the rockback’s head while one connected with a shoulder spike and puffed high into the air. The bandit city staggered to a stop. Spice stung its eyes. It was sucked into the giant lizard’s nostrils and mouth and clung to the delicate lining, choking the rockback and giving it breathing trouble. It swung its massive head from side to side, blinded, gagging. Bandits raged or fired their weapons at the retreating roks.
Nomads cheered. While the spice bombs would not kill the greater rockback, they would certainly disable it for long enough to give them a chance to get away. They spurred the arachnopolis scorpions onward. Salma felt their creature lurch and continue at speed. In their loose formation, the roks passed overhead. The scorpions tore across the desert toward the rocky outcropping of the nearest island.
Legends claimed that the Great Sandy Wastes were once composed entirely of solid stone, and then the wyrms appeared. While adult sandwyrms were predators that hunted endlessly below the wastes, their extraordinarily numerous young fed on rocks to extract their minerals and excreted sand. Someday, some thought, there would be nothing but sand and wyrms, even the mountains would crumble, and the wyrms might move out to the wider world.
As prearranged, the tribe’s five remaining scorpions met in a hidden spot on the far side of the island, surrounded by swathes and swathes of sand. The nomads knew the islands and always had prearranged places to meet in case they were split up. Walls of the bowl-shaped ‘harbour’ where they gathered were high enough to hide the five scorpions. They clustered along the shoreline, scooping at the sand with their monstrous pincers. The scorpions were exhausted and needed to rest and refuel. Fortunately, the rock edges of the island teemed with wyrmlings. The scorpions pulled masses of squirming, fat, pale bodies into their mandibles. Wyrmlings were roughly the size of a man’s forearm and largely no threat to humans unless someone buried themselves in a whole pile of them. They formed the bottom of the food chain for a lot of the wastes’ animals and could be eaten by people as well, although their flesh was tough and gritty.
Waheed and his elder sons, and other men from his household, marched uphill to the lip of the rockface overlooking the harbour. Other members of the tribe joined them. Some were enraged and clearly saddened by the loss of the Al Eads, and ready to blame Waheed. Lookouts had already taken up stations in hidden positions at the heads of the harbour and on high points of the island to report on the bandits’ movements.
The six roks landed a short distance away and their riders disembarked. The birds rested, preening their magnificent feathers. Regal animals, proud, they fixed the nomads with piercing stares, powerful breasts rising and falling. The rok flyers wore lightweight leather armour over white robes, leather helmets and eye protection. Weapons and exotic pieces of equipment hung off their belts and vests. They were evenly divided between men and women. Both genders wore the same clothing, which scandalised some of the nomad men as they approached. Their leader appeared to be a tall, lean man with thick hair and a scarred face. Waheed approached him cautiously, wanting to express gratitude but not wanting to appear weak.
“Thank you, my family thanks you and my tribe thanks you,” Waheed said. “Without your intervention, we would have been overcome. Name a reward and anything in my power I will grant you.”
“The slavers will be slowed, but the beast will recover overnight,” the flyers’ leader said, not even acknowledging talk of a reward. “Do you know what your plan is next?”
Waheed admitted he did not have a plan. Some of the other patriarchs bristled. After a few moments, introductions were made. The flyers’ leader was named Ehsan. Waheed introduced himself and the other members of his tribe, and Ehsan introduced his fellow flyers.
Salma had been discovered by her mother, and disciplined. Most of the women and children stayed with the scorpions but some had crossed the narrow bridges onto the shore. Salma scurried up the slope to watch the meeting. She felt stunned by the rok flyers. Rok tribes lived in a mountain range to one edge of the wastes, in places totally inaccessible to those without wings. They were romantic figures. Some used their untouchable nature to raid other tribes, and some stayed completely out of the affairs of the outside world. But some, like Ehsan and his people, used their creatures to enforce their particular view of fairness and justice on the peoples of the Great Sandy Wastes by preying only on those who preyed on others like the bandits and slavers.
“We could fly you on from here, but it would take time. Only one, two at most, at a time,” Ehsan said.
“What of our homes? Our arachnopoli?” Waheed asked.
“I’m afraid there is little we can do for them, or most of your possessions.”
“We can’t just abandon them, they’re our homes! Our way of life!”
“I can’t make your decision for you. Perhaps the slavers will think they’ve lost you and move on. But if they find you, you could be trapped here or forced on the run again.”
Waheed turned away, his face dark with anger. Some of the other patriarchs began to argue and talk over one another. Salma watched from a nearby outcropping of rock. Part of Salma couldn’t help fantasising about what it would be like to take flight on one of those magnificent beasts, the roks, preening and pecking nearby. It would be an impossibility, something beyond anything Salma could have imagined before. But they could abandon their arachnopolis scorpions. The scorpions were raised and trained from pups until the connection between them and their riders was almost psychic. It would be like cutting off a part of themselves, and abandoning all that they ever knew. Better to die out on the sand as themselves, true to their blood, than become creatureless wanderers. At best, they might reach some of the other scorpion tribes at a meet and be disseminated among them, the tribe of Al Aleagrab at the very least coming to an end.
“We could fight them,” Waheed said to Ehsan. “You, and us, together. Do you have more of those spice bombs?”
“No, do you have any idea how long it takes for us to gather and trade for that much spice?”
“Are there no other weapons we could use?”
“To eliminate a greater rockback? A predator city? No, it is too dangerous.”
Looking over the flyers’ equipment, Salma noticed that on their hips they carried a similar kind of weapon to the bandits. Wooden, gun-shaped, with two bent arms extending off the sides in front of it. Salma sidled closer for a better look. The lead flyer, Ehsan, noticed her attention but indulged by pretending she wasn’t there.
“At the very least, the women and children, we could take them with us while you stay with your homes.”
That started more debate among the family patriarchs. The Great Sandy Wastes were a dangerous place and men worked hard to protect their families. To deliberately separate from them and leave them entirely in the care of strangers ran counter to everything they knew. Salma was too fixated on the weapons to pay much attention. A shadow, however, fell on her from behind.
“Salma Al Aleagrab, what are you doing? Come away there, the men are talking!” Salma’s mother, Maryam, snapped at her.
“I just wanted to see what they were talking about, mama!” Salma protested.
“There is nothing for you here, I don’t need you getting more ideas! You’re already in trouble for sneaking away during the fighting!”
“I just want to help!”
“You can help with your brothers and sisters, not sneaking off!” Maryam admonished her.
Maryam pulled Salma away by the arm and the two of them headed back to where the scorpions were feeding. Her father and the other men, and the female flyers, didn’t pay much attention to the two of them. Salma and Maryam returned to the shore where the younger children, ignorant of the dangers that still plagued the tribe, were enjoying the novelty of playing on solid ground.
“There, stay here and watch them for a while!” Maryam said.
Salma sat down and watched the children play. Some, obviously inspired by the rok flyers, held their arms out like wings and steered themselves around in circles. The kids had more than enough supervision already, although the other women talked among themselves in hushed, fearful tones. Eventually, Salma stood up and slipped away again.
Salma hurried uphill, through a maze of spiny cacti, and along the rim of the harbour. Several small valleys split off from the central bowl. She was careful not to go too far. The lookouts were keeping watch, there were no signs of trouble, but she didn’t want to be too far away if the bandits came looking for them. She certainly didn’t want to be isolated, found and caught.
Safe places like this island were often used by nomads to meet or to restore themselves temporarily. Salma came to the lip of one of the small valleys. Below, the ground looked like some kind of graveyard. It was filled with what at first glance looked like dozens of motionless arachnopolis scorpions, dull in colour, broken, and baking in the sun. They weren’t bodies, however, but hollow shells, the moulted exoskeletons of scores of scorpions in a variety of sizes. Scattered pieces littered the floor of the valley and even the most intact bits had huge rents in them where the scorpions they’d once housed had wriggled free.
Arachnopoli moulted every couple of years as they got too big for their exoskeletons. It required a safe spot to do so as those families living atop them when they moulted had to disassemble their sails and buildings and remove all their possessions while they did it, and of course the scorpions were especially vulnerable during the process. The advantage was, however, that each time they moulted the human structures growing out of their shell became more complex and more desirable. The structures would come out soft and wet but harden, and darken, over a couple of days in the sun. And moultshell, the leftover material from their old exoskeletons, made an excellent building material. Strong but lightweight, hard, flexible and easy to shape. It was the primary building material used by the nomadic tribes and many others in the Great Sandy Wastes. Salma could see many of the exoskeletons below had been carved up, neat sections missing. Suddenly, an idea struck her like a slap. Turning, she hurried back to where her father and the men were meeting with the flyers.
Waheed continued to debate with Ehsan, trying to convince the flyers to fight with them. The other tribal patriarchs interrupted endlessly. Salma’s father shrank in on himself. Big and bearded as he was, he looked smaller by the minute as if crushed by the weight of the situation. Salma ignored the others and slipped into the group behind him then tugged on his sleeve.
“Salma, what is it? Is there some sign of the slavers?” Waheed asked.
“No, papa, nothing like that. Just one of their weapons, can I see it? The bandits had the same kind.”
Salma pointed to Ehsan’s hip. Waheed looked at the flyer and shrugged as the rest of the group fell silent. Confused and faintly amused, Ehsan removed the gun-shaped weapon from his belt and made sure it was unloaded before handing it to Salma.
“It’s called a crossbow, a trader sold us the design,” Ehsan said.
“Thank you.” Salma carried the crossbow a short distance away and sat down in the dirt, unaware the men and flyers were now watching her.
The crossbow may have been unloaded, but Salma had already seen one of them in action. The arms bent backward and each end attached to a cord that slid along a kind of rail system, back to a trigger mechanism. Salma began to sketch the dimensions of the weapon into the dust.
“Salma Al Aleagrab, what do you think you are doing back here?” Maryam appeared over the rise of the hill.
Waheed held up a hand to stop Maryam. “No, no, leave her be, love.”
Salma sketched a crude outline of the weapon’s shape. The design and mechanics were simple enough. She broke its dimensions down into numbers then did the maths to multiply them. Innately, although she’d never been taught, Salma understood a number of factors would come into play in applying a new scale to the crossbow. The stresses on the material would increase exponentially, not in a straight line. Eventually, when it looked like she was slowing down, Waheed walked over and squatted beside her.
“What are you doing, my daughter?”
“Papa, I think I have an idea. I do, I have an idea for something that could help us fight back against the bandits.”
Over the next two days, the nomads remained hidden by moving around the valleys of the island. The predator city did not give up and instead lingered in the wastes. The bandits sensed an easy meal and an easy score from the nomads. After the first night, the greater rockback was mostly recovered from the spice bombs used by the rok flyers. Seen at a distance though, its eyes were bloodshot and bleary. Bandits on tuskrats occasionally patrolled or combed the islands, hunting. They found enough signs to know the nomads were still close.
Every moment they could, the nomads worked to implement Salma’s idea. The other families had been convinced quickly. For one, they had very little choice unless they were willing to split up and go with the flyers. But secondly, the possibility of striking back at predator cities going forward was too tempting. Even the flyers stuck around, intrigued to see how the plan would be enacted.
Ponderous, with clawed feet that sunk deep into the sand, the greater rockback circled the scrubby island. Suddenly, a couple of the bandit lookouts scrambled across platforms on the highest peaks of the creature’s back. Pointing, they spotted half a dozen massive birds taking off from the island. The roks and their riders gained altitude almost vertically. Rather than head home, angling away to the distant mountains at the edge of the wastes, they circled and watched. They weren’t carrying any more of the spice bombs they’d used to disable the greater rockback the other day, meaning they were beyond being attack but also largely harmless. Scouts were sent out on tuskrats and they confirmed the roks appeared to be keeping watch on behalf of the nomads. The remaining five arachnopoli fled from the far side of the island. Bandits spurred the greater rockback to follow and the enormous lizard started to pick up speed, moving directly across the island and then back onto the sandy wastes.
The nomads’ scorpions fled across the Great Sandy Wastes with the bandit city in pursuit. They found themselves in the same dire straits again, it seemed. The giant arachnids, well rested and fed despite the need to hide over the last couple of days, accelerated to their top speeds. Dust clouds kicked up behind them, leaving pale streamers in the air. Sails used for roofing and shade as well as boosting their speed rippled and flapped. Buildings and defences were secured against the possibility of being boarded. On the three largest scorpions, new structures lurked under tarps of sail material. Unseen, they still gave off the impression of being angular and dangerous.
Fleeing without confronting the bandits would have been preferable. Salma’s plan contained no certainties. Even if they’d gotten away from the island cleanly, however, they knew the predator city would soon be on their trail. No one was surprised as the bandits were spotted crossing the island and setting out after them.
“Here they come, are you sure they will work?” Waheed asked.
“Sure? No, I mean, theoretically, but sure?” Salma said, voice shaking.
Salma’s older brothers and other male household members positioned themselves around barricades on the scorpion’s back. They stayed low, with skinny rifles in hand. Women and children holed up in the inner structures. Salma stood beside her father on the platform across the arachnopolis scorpion’s head. This time, she wouldn’t be hidden. It wasn’t just that Salma had a right to see how her plan played out, Waheed also worried she might have some necessary insight he would otherwise miss in the heat of battle.
Bandit scouts tailed the scorpions but kept their distance rather than engaging. Instead of splitting up, the five of them remained together in a tight knot. The sun rose almost directly overhead as the greater rockback gained ground. A slab of a tongue lapped at the edges of the gigantic lizard’s mouth. As it got closer, nomads could again see the individual features of individual bandits on the city’s balconies and swaying bridges.
“We should do it! We need to do it now!” Salma said.
The bandit city stormed toward them. The scorpions were smaller, slower, but more agile. Fanning out, the three largest arachnopoli wheeled around in half-circles. Nervously, the scorpions raised their tails and snapped their pincers. The bandits looked surprised but delighted by the strange turn of events. If the nomads wanted to perform a last stand it would only make it easier to take and kill them all at once. The greater rockback regarded them with cold, alien hunger. Overhead, far overhead, rok flyers circled apart from it all.
“Now, fire! Fire at once!” Waheed said.
Salma’s creations had been covered by sails to avoid the bandit scouts getting a sense of their plan. Waheed’s sons hurried to remove the sail from their new weapon. Flags signalled the other scorpions to do the same. Beneath the sails were crossbows but expanded to tremendous size, with hefty, reinforced bodies and arms several times as long as the men surrounding it were tall. Gleaming and brown, semi-translucent, they were shaped from moultshell harvested on the island. Ajmal circled behind the giant crossbow on the Al Aleagrab arachnopoli. It was already loaded, a bolt twice as tall as Waheed nestled in a cradle on top of the weapon. A tightly wound length of stretched sail material was notched to the end of the giant bolt. Another couple of oversized bolts rested beside the weapon.
“Ready! Ready!” Waheed said.
The greater rockback loomed, showing no understanding. The bandits, in spite of their weapons being the original inspiration for Salma’s creations, didn’t process what they were looking at either. It was a combination of the crossbows and the rok flyers using spice to attack the rockback’s only real vulnerability, its eyes, that had given Salma the idea. The heads of the bolts weren’t just sharp and horribly jagged, they’d been poisoned by toxins milked from the tails of the arachnopolis scorpions. Salma called the weapons ‘Stingers’.
“Wait, wait!” Salma judged at what distance the Stingers could be effectively aimed and fired without the projectiles veering off course. “Now! Do it now!”
The Stingers rested in awkward cradles. It took three men to wrestle each of them into position so they could be aimed. Ajmal did his best to hold the Stinger on a line, and then yanked a lever attached to the trigger mechanism. Flags signalled the other scorpions and they did the same. Three Stinger missiles hissed toward the greater rockback’s eyes, two at one on its right and one at the left eye.
Miraculously, both bolts aimed at the right eye struck home. Barbed heads sunk into unresisting jelly, the bolt fired by Ajmal striking almost the exact centre of the black pupil. The third bolt missed, scraping harmlessly off the scales on the rockback’s cheek.
The greater rockback screeched, filling the air with a wall of noise. Bandits were thrown off their feet as their city bucked backward. The rockback blinked furiously but only drove the barbs deeper. Poison on the barbs would be working its way through the eyeball’s delicate structures, destroying them, ravaging the creature’s vision and blinding it.
“Reload!” Waheed bellowed.
Bolts bristling from its eyeball, the greater rockback lunged and swiped at one of its attackers. One of its house-sized claws crashed into the Al Alhazi scorpion. People were knocked, spiralling, into the air. Moultshell structures cracked and the scorpion staggered sideways. It lashed out with its own stinger, scoring the web of scaly tissue between the rockback’s talons but doing little harm.
The other two Stingers were reloaded. Behind the rockback’s head, the bandits had woken to the threat of the weapons and fired down on the nomads, bullets and arrows ripping through the air. Enormous fangs exposed, the lizard swung around, glaring with its one good eye. Salma watched it prepare to bite down and engulf her, her family, and a large section of their scorpion.
With a couple of matching sounds that cracked the air, the second barrage of missiles left their Stingers. Both sailed toward the rockback’s left eye. One missed, but the other again punched almost right through the centre of the creature’s pupil.
“Turn around, go! Go!” Waheed said.
The scorpions wheeled around and took off, scuttling away from the wounded predator as the nomads clung on for their lives. Bandits fired after them but they quickly fled out of range. The greater rockback thrashed, screaming, unable to claw the bolts from its eyes.
The nomads gained a safe distance from the enraged rockback. It was unable to follow and the bandits couldn’t steer it, it was in too much pain to pay any attention. Blinded, the great creature wandered off into the wastes. If the injuries proved permanent then it would be wandering off to eventually die, which would take the bandits with it. Waheed lay a heavy hand on Salma’s shoulder.
“This changes everything,” Waheed said. “We can fight back, all the tribes, we can fight back against the slavers! The entire order of things has just been thrown away.”
Salma wasn’t so sure. They had gotten away, but it would only be a matter of time before the story, and her idea, was across the wastes. The roks circled overhead. Soon, others would figure out how to manufacture the Stingers and make them bigger, better, and it wouldn’t only be other scorpion nomads. The bandits would learn how to defend their cities and make the weapons for themselves, and the nomads would have to come up with something new.
“Perhaps we can negotiate with them, get the survivors of the Al Eads back,” Waheed said. “This is a wonderful thing you have done.”
“I hope so, papa,” Salma said. “I hope so.”
Sean: As noted, this story is set in the same setting as The Birth of Cities and Captain’s Log. It’s a setting I’ve really fallen in love with, been having fun kind of worldbuilding with it, so although I don’t have any more stories drafted for it right now I’m hoping I’ll have some in the near-future! This one and The Birth of Cities kind of have a YA vibe about them to me, I didn’t really intend for it but obviously they’ve got younger protagonists and I guess because it is a very unusual setting it kind of went in that direction because of the themes of discovery and change in the stories as well. I went with protagonists who are going through that period of change while the world is also changing around them.
Scorpions are not traditionally the good guys which is exactly why I wanted to make them the mounts for our heroes here. I like exploring the good in races or animals pigeonholed as evil and if that’s maybe more of a theme that’s emerging across All There in the (Monster) Manual as whole.
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Next Week’s Inspiration: Beholder