Too Weird to Eat
Chael rested against the bars, absently picking dried mud off their own elbow. Their two new cellmates were across from them, fast asleep, beaten into slumber by exhaustion and the spice rub sizzling beneath those coats of mud.
It was a healing powder, made from some sort of chilli that grew in the area. It healed in three stages. First was the hot, itchy, stinging stage. This was followed by a cold, itchy, stinging stage. Then finally, as the stinging faded, a wave of itchy, stinging drowsiness. Chael watched the two sleeping, and envied them. Angels couldn’t sleep. Ever vigilant and all that. Which meant Chael had spent the last forty or so hours with nothing to do but sit wearing their own mudcoat, watching kobolds go in and out of Mad Mesa.
Mad Mesa was the largest in the area, a towering wall of sandstone and basalt forming a natural border between the badlands and prairies. The kobolds controlled the badlands, the nomads controlled the prairies. The Cave of Odd Hopes was on the nomad side, but longstanding kobold-nomad treaties must have allowed for precisely one kobold man-trap to operate there. Probably a tuesday-thursday thing. And now Chael, who had no intention of even seeing a kobold, and who wasn’t even a man, had bum-tumbled into that man-trap, been dragged for miles around the southern point of the mesa into real kobold territory, then stripped, spiced, mudded, and left outside in a giant birdcage in the middle of The Jabber.
Kobolds lived in sprawling, complex underground formicaries. Like ants. And just like an anthill, each kobold burrow had a big pile of rubble outside it. What miners and dungeoneers called “overburden”, the rock and dirt left over from making a tunnel. The bigger the pile, the bigger the burrow. Over five hundred acres of gravel spilled out of Mad Mesa, the largest amount of overburden ever seen, a giant sprawling landslide the locals called The Jabber. And as The Jabber grew, so did the kobolds’ hunting ground.
All night long Chael had watched kobolds come out with small wheelbarrows of crushed rock and dirt, and go in with salvage, plunder, and meat. Bushels of dead bats caught on hooks like fish, quartered bison and wild horses, and the occasional piece of merchant or treaty-breaking nomad. All on its way to be boiled, brined, poached, roasted, cured, pickled, smoked, dried, fried or eaten raw with a squeeze of bush lemon. Welcome nutrients to enrich the kobolds’ otherwise bleak diets of earthworms, blindfish and whatever else they pulled from deep within the earth.
Chael watched a kobold walk by with a merchant’s head on a stick, licking it like a giant lollipop. If not for Chael’s height, iridescent skin, and lack of sexual organs, it could be their head on that stick. But Chael was too weird to eat, and just weird enough to keep caged up for as long as possible. The problem was, from what Chael knew of kobolds, not being eaten by them was probably the worser of the two scenarios. Kind-heartedness was not the kobolds’ cultural legacy. Traps, torture, and meticulous note-taking were. If you weren’t food, you were practice.
Chael watched the lollipop getting paraded around, enjoying its life outside the cage, casting smug, pitying glances toward Chael out of its half-opened eyes.
“Some people have all the luck.”
Chael spun around, startled. But it was just the nomad girl. Sitting up, still dazed, positioning herself protectively between Chael and the dirty little dretch she was brought here with.