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Flay Beetles

Extraordinarily rare and unimaginatively named, very few will ever encounter these terrifying desert creatures and fewer still will be able to tell their tale thereafter.

Despite there being representations of and references to them in artefacts from as far back as the first century CE, the existence of Flay Beetles was long thought to be apocryphal: the evidence of their work usually destroyed by other predators, opportunistic scavengers or the harsh climatic conditions of the Sahara Desert - their native environs - before the bodies of their victims were discovered. Even most of those from the nomadic societies whose territories intersect with the Flay Beetles' very limited habitats often only know of them as myths or legends, fleeting mentions in oral histories. Even what little that has been ascertained through more certain sciences and direct accounts show that these stories, as is the nature of information shared in such a fashion, are a mix of truth with exaggeration and perhaps offer more insight into the cultural fears of those who tell them than into the nature of the creatures that they describe.

A large part of their mystique appears to come from their scarcity. Apparently remaining underground for the majority of their life-cycles, emerging only to feast, Flay Beetles appear to deal with the relative paucity of suitable prey by entering a somewhat dormant state between hunts. Not quite hibernating, a colony essentially stops all movement and other activity and focuses, hyper-vigilant, on sensing the vibrations caused by any potential prey that might approach. Sensitive to these signals they respond quickly, emerging en masse to engulf their quarry in a violent swarm, using both of their individually specialised pincers to lift and cut away surprisingly neat swathes of the skin (epidermis and dermis). The speed of this brutalising harvest is astonishingly swift, with the pain and shock killing most victims quickly, after which the beetles can work largely unimpeded to remove the prey’s remaining skin and return to their subterranean dwellings with it. Nonetheless, given how far back the scant references to them go and the factor that chance plays in their ability to hunt and feed, it seems apparent that they must be able to survive extended periods in their dormant state.

Extrapolating from the descriptions of a hive which was uncovered and almost entirely cleared out by a particularly vicious storm (and only later attributed to the work of Flay Beetles), we know that their dwellings are formed of networks of tunnels beneath the sand. They are spiralling labyrinths, their passages and chambers hardened and fixed with secretions of an organic binding agent seemingly released through carapaces of their architects as they burrow them out. In the deepest, most secure parts of these networks, a cluster of eggs is nestled in each wrap of the wet and bloodied folds of the skin they have harvested: a nutritional meal for the hatching larvae which then feeds them until they have grown enough to lend their pincers to the harvest. The rest of their prey’s remains are quickly consumed by less-discerning carnivores, with anything that isn’t eaten variously destroyed, scattered and buried by the unforgiving winds and the harsh, scouring sands.

Assorted verifications, clarifications and refutations for many of the anecdotes and myths surrounding the Flay Beetle were received in 1937 by Dr. Joaquín Alejandro. A naturalist from the University of Murcia, he was the leader and sole survivor of a five-person scientific expedition to study the various microclimates of the Sahara and the differences in their various flora and fauna. A few days after the party missed a scheduled rendezvous (where they supposed to resupply and restock their food and water) Dr. Alejandro wandered into the path of a Tuareg caravan maddened by dehydration, exposure and agony. While the first two causes of his suffering were rooted in the obvious hostility of the desert, the last was a result of the encounter which cost him the rest of his party. The skin of his left arm was flayed away entirely from below the elbow and in his clenched left hand, slightly crushed and bonded to the exposed flesh with dried blood, serum and the Flay Beetle’s own secretions, he clutched the remains of one of his attackers.

Despite the damage done to that Flay Beetle it was, and remains, the most complete specimen of its kind ever recovered. Roughly three inches in length and two across it appears very typical of the scarab family, apart from the pair of elongated and individually specialised pincers, with a brown exoskeleton that has a bronze burnish to it. Other fragments of the beetles have been recovered since, mainly pincers that were presumably snapped off as their prey writhed and thrashed in the unimaginable pain of being skinned alive, piece by piece, but some pieces of carapace have also been found. Some of these were found by Dr. Alejandro himself who, although he never regained full sensation or movement in his damaged arm, nonetheless returned to the Sahara several more times throughout his career in an attempt to conduct further studies into the Flay Beetles. While these searches were, unfortunately, largely fruitless he nonetheless authored many academic papers that extrapolated from his experiences and any older sources that he was able to obtain.

As a result of the limited physical samples Flay Beetles only have a tentative taxonomic classification: Scarabaeus Amputatis, and the prevailing belief among those who have made further studies into these creatures is that they are an aberrant but dominant mutation of another species. No specimens, not even any anecdotal evidence, has been found of scarabs which represent the interstitial evolutionary stages between the far more common species that abound in the area and the Flay Beetles. This has lead people to conclude that they may be so rare as to be confined to only a handful of independent colonies, a supposition which is borne out by the rarity of evidence for even their very existence. The combination of their aggressive response to anything unlucky enough to encroach on their territory and the general ignorance regarding their existence means that they remain a threat capable of turning one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet into something even more frighteningly deadly.


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