The scorpion balances itself upon a leaf as it surveys the river. It hears a muted roar and then a brief commotion behind it, turning all its eyes toward the sound. It sees nothing at first, then detects movement from behind the shadow of a tree.
A leopard emerges from the shadow with Stygian fur and eyes burning red like dying stars. It glances at the scorpion but says nothing as it saunters over to the edge of the riverbank. There, it dips its snout down to the water, though it doesn’t open its mouth to drink.
Perhaps Leopard pretends to drink to watch the riverbank for prey, the scorpion thinks.
“My friend, Leopard,” the scorpion says, calling out. “It is good to see you again.”
The leopard raises its head from the water and turns to look at the scorpion sitting upon the leaf. “Hello, Scorpion,” it says. “How long have you been watching me?”
The leopard’s tone feels more to the scorpion as a statement than a question, more certain than doubtful. The scorpion shivers.
“Not long, my friend, not long at all. I hope I am not bothering you.”
The leopard says nothing as it lowers its head back down to the water, though it still does not drink. The scorpion leaps from its leafy perch and skitters over through the dirt.
“Say, my friend, Leopard…” The scorpion’s voice rises obsequiously, “could you do me a little favor?”
Without looking up, without moving, the leopard says, “Would you like me to swim you across the river?” Its tone again more affirmation than inquiry, more answer than guess.
“Yes,” the scorpion says, nodding, clacking its pincers, hopping from one set of legs to the other. “The best prey is across the river, as you know.”
“As I know.”
After a brief pause, the leopard says, “You may crawl upon my back and I shall swim you across the river, since we are friends.”
“Thank you, my friend, Leopard. I truly owe you a favor for your kindness.”
The leopard doesn’t respond.
Bobbing its stinger happily, venom sloshing within its glands, the scorpion skitters up the leopard’s hind leg and across its back. It settles into a nest of fur between the leopard’s shoulders at the base of its neck.
Without a word, the leopard pads into the river and then slowly begins to swim against the current at an angle so that it makes a straight line toward the other side.
Here is my chance.
When they’re a little less than halfway across, the scorpion reels its stinger back and strikes, plunging its sharp spike between the leopard’s shoulder blades, squeezing its glands to inject its poison deep into its victim’s golden flesh.
“I am sorry, my friend, Leopard,” the scorpion says. “But I am afraid I kept something from you. The truth is, I can swim.”
The leopard says nothing, continuing to swim at the same languid pace, angled against the current, straight toward the riverbank on the other side.
What is this? My poison has failed to take effect? This does not make sense.
Hissing in frustration, the scorpion rears its stinger back and strikes once more at the leopard’s flesh, spewing its toxins, compressing its glands until they’re empty.
The leopard fails to respond, continuing to swim at the same cadence, the same angle. A pang of fear creeps down the scorpion’s cephalothorax; a primal, ancient feeling it has not experienced since it was very young and did not yet know how to hunt.
Something is wrong.
“Scorpion,” the leopard says. “You have stung me.”
“Uh, y-yes, m-my friend, Leopard. You see, it is in my nature to sting whenever the opportunity presents itself. It is not my choice, you understand, nor my fault. You cannot hold me responsible. It was your choice to give me a ride, after all.”
The leopard chuckles, a grating, empty sound like that of hollow logs grinding together. The scorpion’s fear intensifies. A strange numbness expands throughout the fleshy parts beneath its carapace, spreading across its preabdomen and down its metasoma, and it realizes that it cannot remember how it got there, sitting on the back of the… what is it, the name of the creature upon which it sits?
“Leopard,” the scorpion says, blurting out the word as if answering a question. “What have you done to me? I thought we were friends.”
“I am not the leopard.”
The scorpion’s mind stops, paralyzed as it sinks into the shadow that glides upon the surface of the water like an oil slick. Its final thoughts are of its infancy, that same primal fear now enveloping it completely. It manages to say, “What are you?” before it dissipates into the formless umbra upon which it rides.
Several long moments pass, each like its own eternity.