Alba Mendez led his fleet of trucks along a barely visible road in the Kobold Steppes, the highland plain at the southern end of the Cromag Range. It was the early morning and the kobolds now occupying the land he wanted would still be sedentary, so it would be easy to find them and give them their eviction notice.
Up ahead, he could see a large mound in the road. “There’s an ant hill up ahead,” he said to his driver. The human nodded and took a long circular route around through the grass, which the others followed. Last thing they would want to deal with was a swarm of angry giant ants.
Despite its reputation as cold and desolate, the Kobold Steppes most of the year was the opposite, full of tall grasses and populated with various fauna, including foxes, antelope, buffalo, gryphons, giant insects and various types of oozes. The dominant intelligent specie was the kobold; large, bipedal and highly intelligent grey wolves. Most led a nomadic life, though many lived in Tirkvah, the only permanent kobold settlement, which revolved around their biggest export, cooked gelatinous cube gel. It was nutritious, delicious and a beloved dessert all around Hominia.
Gelatinous cubes were the only ooze that had been domesticated. Starting in the third month of the year, several groups of gel-herding kobolds would drive a single cube via fire behind the buffalo and sheep nomads. As the cube ate the herd’s waste, it would grow and split and so in the eleventh month the gel nomads would be driving thousands of cubes per group. The groups would bring the cubes into Tirkvah, where in the winter months, the cubes would be killed in giant kilns. Once dead, the gel became loose and runny. The gel would be bottled and sold in large markets where various hominid buyers would pay top credit for it.
It was an ancient way of life that was hadn’t changed since long before the start of recorded history. In prehistoric times, the kobolds simply kept the gel for themselves. Now, most was exported, and afforded the kobolds relative luxury. Tents became alcohol-powered trailers and torches became flame-throwers.
And where there was wealth, there were greedy people looking to steal it, like Alba Mendez, representing a group of wealthy New Deltan investors who wanted to mass market cooked cube gel. His plan was simple. First, he would evict the kobolds from their native lands. Then they would fence in the area and farm a stationary herd of buffalo and just send the cubes behind the herd and continually kill of the cubes to keep them manageable. This idea was so obvious; he was shocked the kobolds never tried it. While Alba would have loved to just send a bunch of cubes to the more accessible Deltan plains, due to the soil and climate the cubes would die within a day or two and the gel would be inedible. They had to be farmed on the Steppes.
Finally, Alba had the kobold group in sight. As he suspected, the small caravan was stationary, a dozen trailers circled in front of a massive herd of a few hundred cubes in a large flattened area. The cubes were all clear, silent and just shimmered in the early morning air. The cubes were of various sizes, depending on how many other cubes a cube ended up absorbing, the average was about four feet to a side. While some worried about eating shit-fed gel, the truth was the cubes would eat anything, including unlucky kobolds, and all would be digested within hours, even the bacteria. The only thing the cubes didn’t eat was grass, which they simply flattened as they moved over it. The ecosystem relied on this.
Alba had his trucks form a semi-circle, pinning the kobolds against the herd. Alba then put on his wide brim hat and beige jacket and stepped out of his truck, slinging a laser rifle over his back. The rest of his crew were a mixture of ogres, dwarves and humans, all hardy, all armed to the teeth with guns and grenades.
Alba looked around and spotted the kobold males running through the cube herds on all fours with the flame throwers strapped to their back, doing a quick count of the herd. The females and the pups were in the trailers. Pregnant females or those with pups rode in the trailers when on the move, while non-mothering females also tended to the herd while not doing household chores. Right then, the females were cleaning up after a breakfast of dried buffalo and lamb meat as leftovers, solid waste and other garbage were being tossed out to the herd, with the lucky cubes getting an early meal.
Alba stepped forward and whistled. Doors and windows opened and females and pups peered out. The males among the cubes came forth. When all the kobolds were looking at him, Alba said, “This is our land and our cube herd now. Get back in your trailers and leave or we’ll be forced to open fire.”
The kobolds laughed, which sounded like quick, rapid howling.
The largest kobold, the alpha male, stood up and walked over on two legs. His bumpy grey fur was streaked with silver. His face was scarred from years of hardship and danger.
“IF you want our property,” he said, “you need to only pass a simple test.” Kobolds spoke in barks, growls and howls, but could understand hominids and hominids could understand them.
“And what test is that?”
The alpha howled. Another male drove towards Alba a tiny cube, one foot to a side, with small controlled jets of flame from his thrower. The male shot the flame at a steep angle, hitting the dirt directly behind the cube, sending it forward. A female walked out of a trailer with a lit torch.
“See that boulder over there?” The alpha pointed southwest to a large boulder sticking out of the grass. “Drive the cube over there and bring it back. If you can do so, the herd is yours.”
While the ogres in his group might fall for this if they could understand the bipedal wolves, Alba wasn’t that stupid. Alba raised his arm and his group leveled their guns at the kobolds. “I don’t like being tricked.”
“No trick,” the alpha said. “This is how pups learn to control the cubes. If you do not know how to control one small cube, then you stand no chance of driving a herd of much larger cubes.”
The kobold did have a point. “I’ll take your challenge.” Alba dropped his rifle and took the torch. The kobolds and the hominids stepped back, leaving just him and the mindless but living gel.
Alba had read up on cube herding before he came. First, one never, ever touched a cube for any reason at all. If you did, it would suck them in and devour them. While the cube he had to take to the bolder was too small to eat his entire body, it could eat his hand off. Second, the cube would always move in the exact opposite direction of the flame. Third, one must control the flame with finesse, or it would light the grassland on fire, especially during the dry months.
Alba swung his torch low to the ground. The cube sprung into the air, rotated over his head and landed behind him with a nice loud splat. Maybe he didn’t do it right.
Alba bent down and slowly pushed the torch forward. The cube slid to the left and circled around his body.
The kobolds broke out in laughter. “Now do you understand?” The alpha said.
Alba groaned. “I’m new at this, give me a minute.”
Alba bent down again. This time he blew into the flame, sending it billowing out. The cube went the bolder. He continued blowing the cube forward, even into the tall grass. Eventually, he made it to the boulder. The herd would be his in no time.
But then he heard screaming and turned around. The herd had congealed into a humongous cube at least fifty feet high. His men turned and ran in terror. The cube spilled in an arc over the trailers and kobolds and landed directly on top of them and the trucks, doubling in volume as the gel enveloped Alba’s entire entourage.
His men flailed in the goo, but quickly went still and started to float. Everything inside the living gel would slowly disintegrate in full view.
Alba tossed the torch against the bolder, which the boulder enveloped. The boulder wasn’t a rock at all, but a mass of brown pudding ooze. The ooze shot through the air and surrounded Alba, crushing him to death. Then the ooze began to devour Alba’s remains.
The small cube returned to the kobolds and joined the massive cube.
The kobolds howled and danced in victory and would enjoy a nice day of rest while the cube ate its prey and then split apart back into smaller cubes.
Hominids who tried to steal the cubes always fell victim in the same way. The cube to boulder trick had worked for millennia as the hominids never learned. This was because the hominids never respected the cubes, treating them simply as a commodity, not a living creature to be respected and cared for. The kobolds might have killed most of the cubes at the end of the year, but it was the way to keep the environment alive.
Without someone to tend the cubes, the most powerful of the oozes, the Steppes would become a lifeless wasteland in a matter of a few years at most, with even the grass being devoured. The greedy hominids always claimed they wouldn’t let that happen, keep the environment healthy, but the toxic sludge fed by trash and the dead at the bottom of the New Deltan towers proved otherwise. The kobolds never visited New Delta for that reason.
But the kobolds didn’t direct the cubes to kill the greedy; the cubes did in on their own. The cubes might not have had a brain like other creatures did, but they weren’t stupid. They benefited from the symbiotic relationship as much as the kobolds did. They somehow knew that if they killed the environment, they would die along with it.
Alba Mendez wasn’t the first greedy hominid to die, nor would he be the last.
The circle of life would continue without him.