Half buried in the Sulking Hills lies the City of Skarab. To reach it,travelers must take the Grim Road and take the path that branches north of the Ruins of Qo. From there they must find a Blind Monk to guide them through the Night Canyon where no light dares shine, before reaching those grey and half forgotten hills.
Following the road, at the crest of one of those low, brooding hills, travelers first see Skarab as a giant hulking scab over the landscape. Dark and sour looking, its walls are the color of dried blood in under the flickering sun. Drawing closer you will see no buildings beyond the walls, only the road leading directly into the round, open maw that is the city's only gate. The walls are not stone, but resemble the chitinous casing of a burrowing beetle. There are no windows or other openings and even the sky is blocked as the walls close overhead.
Visitors rarely venture beyond vast open space beyond the gate known as Craw Market. There they can they can trade bolts of fabric, fruits, glassware and forged tools for the rare alchemical distillations for which Skarab is famous. They hold no monetary system and are rarely interested in coins through they sometimes take them for the metals contained therein. Though the people of Skarab invite trade, they offer little fare for travelers. Food is free for the caravans, but they serve only a thick broth known to traders as snot soup, and a strange meat that is cooked in an alchemical bath. Its stringent, alien flavor is said to be an acquired taste at best.
Inside, the air is heavy, warm and moist. The city is a warren of twisting corridors and tunnels leading randomly into large rooms that are lit only by bulbous clusters of glowing orbs that give a watery and greenish light, for fires are not permitted in the living city. The walls and floors have a curious texture, dripping with moisture and solid, but curiously yielding, as if one were walking on a layer of thin ice over a pond. A fetid wind sometimes blows through the tunnels, and when it does, all the people of Skarab will stop and turn into the wind, chanting 'H'Bjulth Ska'rabblu', 'the breath of Skarab'.
The people themselves are a bloated, yellow-skinned race, who dress in colourless, membranous robes. In the wet, heavy air, many shave the hair from their bodies and wear only thin sandals or go barefoot. Though many speak the pidgin tongue of the caravans, their own language is a guttural and gibbering sound that bears no resemblance to any other known tongue. Their dwellings are cavities carved into the walls, closed off by curtains of the same membranous materials as their clothing and most daily activities take place in the communal halls found deeper in the city.
There is no king or ruling council in Skarab, no authority at all beyond the relationship between master and student. Children are raised by their parents only until they are old enough to become an apprentice at which time the bond of family is irrevocably cut. After that, their lives belong utterly to their new master, who assumes complete authority and may treat them as they see fit. Of the children
who fail to find a master, nothing is said.
The thing is that I like my fantasy WEIRD. Tolkien fantasy is great when I'm reading about Hobbits, but in my early teens I picked up a copy of the Talislanta Worldbook and immediately fell head over heels in love. From there I expanded into Lovecraft's Dreamcycle, the works of Jack Vance, John Varley's Gaea, Howard's original Conan books among many others and realized that limiting yourself to Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits was for suckers. I believe that Middle Earth ranks up there as one of the single greatest achievements in world building, and a goal
that every fantasy author should at least study, but the plethora of pale imitations can make even the original seem pallid at times, like watching a comedian scream 'Stella!' or doing 'I coulda been a contenda'. Then you go back and revisit the originals and remember what made them so iconic in the first place.