This story is for the Terribleminds Flash Fiction Challenge: Choose Your Random Words.

Out of a list of ten random words, we had to pick three. I let a RNG do the picking and wound up with:

– Scorpion

– Moon

– Holiday

And that led to this story…

“Bets down! Combatants prepare!” Hul, the thick wasted ring master, gave the order and the crowds pressed in around Ferr as coins started changing hands. Holiday crowds were always rowdy, and the full moon wasn’t helping. He wished Ruvi was there to keep the shouting tumult off his back.

She’d gone home for the holiday, everyone with a home did, but that left him without his partner on a night he was sure he’d need her. The full moon made night travel across the desert possible. That meant strangers with fresh coin, but also fresh trouble. And here he stood, all alone, facing such a stranger. Light skinned, almost eastern, hair long around his collar, he held a small metal canister in one hand. Another stranger, shorter and thicker of chest stood beside him. Even a foreigner knew enough to have his second at hand.

“Time!” Hul called. “Combatants to the ring!”

Doing his best to clear his mind and focus on the fight, Ferr sat down his wooden box, then opened the lid.

Whiptail sat curled inside. Even for a scorpion, he didn’t look happy.

“You ready, Whip?” Ferr whispered.

The black scorpion hissed in response, but mad or not, the well trained scorpion allowed himself to be moved to the ring without incident. As his opponent lowered his creature into position. Ferr froze.

A crimson centipede writhed and curled around the man’s fingers. Twin mandibles, already snapping, protruded from the insect’s head. Ferr had never heard of such a thing. It’s inhumanity must be incalculable. Only a fool or a master would attempt to fight with such a creature, and this man did not look like a fool.

Ferr swallowed and settled himself cross legged on the worn cobblestones, one finger resting atop Whip.

“Ferr Whiptail vs. Ean Lockjaw!” Hul shouted. “Bind and begin!”

Ferr reached out through his finger and touched the creature. He felt the tiny, stiff hairs along the scorpion’s carapace, the tension in his stinger, the cool grains of sand beneath its feet. The world snapped, warped, then the centipede twisted across from him in the arena. Three times as long as himself, his opponent’s hundreds of legs writhed as it twisted upon the sand. Keeping his claws up and ready, his stinger curled, he scurried forward.

The centipede moved lateral then forward. Tiny droplets of toxin gleamed along its jaws. Geysers of sand flew up from the furrows cut by its hundreds of legs.

Almost in range now, he moved sideways, letting the scorpion’s instincts guide him while he looked for an opening. Unlike some handlers, Ferr wasn’t stupid enough to suppress his creature’s instincts, and had come to trust Whip’s abilities. The centipede lunged and he snapped his claws threateningly. The long red monster withdrew.

Far above, and not above at all, Ferr’s ribs ached and shivered as this brain dealt with input from limbs he’d never possess. His hands picked up the signals from the claws easily, but the closest thing his brain found to those alien legs were the muscles along his sides. He had to focus or the tingling, twitching bones would drive him mad. He ignored the feeling, the centip–

The creature lunged, faster this time. He batted the attack aside with a thick claw, snapped hard with his other hand. They wound up in a tangle on the sand, snapping and stabbing at each other. With other eyes he glimpsed the stranger across the ring. His face was calm, his eyes not on the fighter but on Ferr. He fought without even looking. Cold washed through Ferr despite the stifling heat inside his burnoose. He had no time to wonder how the man did it, the squirming bug broke free and drove toward his face.

At the last moment he locked onto its head. Burning pincers snapped a hair’s breadth from his eye. Using all his strength he held it back, then his tail came clear. His stinger crashed flush atop the centipede’s skull, driving it down into the sand. He wriggled free, pinned it with a claw and coiled for a killing blow.

Victory! Ferr was gathering himself to finish the creature when a soft voice and a hard object intruded on his focus.

“Not this time, young one.” The breath was hot in his ear, the accent foreign, but the sharp prick of a knife against his ribs all too clear.

Ruvi wasn’t at his back this time, he remembered, then searing pain shot through his neck. He snapped back to Whiptail to find the scorpion pinned head down in the sand, the centipedes writhing form atop him. Somehow his tail was trapped, he was finished. Tears of pain and frustration leaked from the corner of his eyes. He forced the scorpion limp, mercy his only hope. Mercy rarely granted.

The killing moment drew out, long and painful and tight as a sailor’s knot.

Then with a shock he felt the centipede withdrawing.

Ferr blinked and snapped back to himself, the nerves in his skull throbbing. Whiptail was limping back toward him across the sand. On the far side of the ring, the stranger scooped up his cylinder as the centipede slithered back inside. Hul offered him the purse but the man ignored it. Instead he slipped the metal cylinder back inside his jacket and through blurred vision Ferr saw the flash of a spider engraved in a metal sun upon his lapel.

A Sand Rider’s badge. The masters that controlled the big bugs, fighting monsters the size of houses, way out in the desert. His eyes went to the man’s face. The stranger nodded, stood and disappeared back into the crowd with his two partners.

Ferr barely noticed as Whiptail limped back into his hand. His mind was still on that badge, on that man, and the look on his face. He’d lost the purse, but he knew one thing. He knew he was going to follow that man, and see where he led.