Qrs roused with a start, bolting upright with the first faint grey of the dawn. He forced away the cobwebs of his sleep-addled awareness, driven by the shadows of a paranoid fear. Ignoring the cramps and bruises from sleeping on the small and hard floor of his cage, he forced his mind to work. How much time had passed? Days? Weeks? No – months. He remembered…or at least he thought he remembered.
Though the dreary days trapped behind bars blurred into one another, events and scenes could be clearly recalled. Months since Jaldabaoth fell upon the Dale of Defiance. From his vantage, he could see that the river was swelling, the harsh dryness of the land abating somewhat, and hardy shrubs turning lush and green. He didn’t remember the specific turning of days, but he did remember when he had come here, and how much should be missing from his recollection between now and then.
His cage had been placed where he was currently stuck, atop a pile of identical cages stacked near as high as the tallest treetops in the valley. He had watched as more towers of cages were stacked around him; then more across the river. More clusters of towers rose up and down the river on either side, stretching on over the horizon. The scenery was reminiscent of the view from the top of the massive Human wall in the west; painting a distant skyline of their clustered settlements and towers.
There were tens, no – hundreds of thousands of prisoners, stuffed in cages and left exposed to the elements, half starved and slowly going mad. How many more cages were there? What was the point? Did Jaldabaoth mean to hunt down and imprison every free being in the Abelion Hills?
The sound of fiends working in the morning gloom turned his attention to the ground below. Over a half dozen moved about…where did they come from, anyways? Jaldabaoth had at least a small army, judging by the number of places where the cages rose and what it took to tend to them, yet there was no news or sign of invasion preceding his ruinous arrival in the Abelion Hills. Was it some tribe’s fault? Some foolish ritual enacted in the midst of a festival commemorating the fall of the Demon Gods that doomed them all? Maybe an Imp or some other weak fiend for entertainment…but he couldn’t imagine how summoning an Imp could call forth a Demon God instead.
There were powerful mystics in his tribe, who might have a real explanation for Jaldabaoth’s appearance, but Qrs was not counted amongst them. He was a warrior through and through, and all of his knowledge of warfare and personal combat availed him little when pitted against these too-often stupendously powerful beings.
“Need to pick up a few for the labs,” a thin, reedy voice floated up from below.
“Which one?” The warden asked.
“It’s starting already?”
“Still a ways off,” the reedy voice replied, “but we’ve got prep work.”
“Hmm…that bunch over there looks fine. Any diseases or other weirdness crop up recently?”
“Nothing the Torturers haven’t reported.”
“Then we’re good…we’re good, right?”
“Ah right, right, we didn’t need those before…”
Qrs squinted down at the pair conversing below. The huge figure of the winged warden blocked the view of the other fiend from his angle. The other fiends were hulking brutes, though nowhere near as imposing. Behind them, a short procession of beasts drawing some sort of travois awaited.
“Looks like you’re clear,” the warden said.
The fiends below started moving about again, unloading cages from the towers and adding them to the caravan nearby. Qrs counted six cages, whose occupants remained mostly silent. The one who did make noise simply had his cage dropped from where it was being flown across from, then roughly rolled over to its destination.
This was something Qrs remembered. Twice a day, fiends would drop by: one group to take prisoners away, and the other bringing new ones in. Unlike today, most of the outbound prisoners went to something called ‘Processing’. Regardless of their destination, they were never seen from again. It was one of many similar scenes that repeated itself for weeks and months, and Qrs nodded to himself as he watched the caravan vanish to the south.
They would be left to waste away for the remainder of the day, and nothing further would happen until the evening. That was when the problems started.
He could remember the last time; he could remember his son being taken to feed the masses of slavering prisoners. He could also remember the condemnation of those surrounding him; the mocking voice of the female Demon with her bat-like wings. They told him it wasn’t the first time – that it had played over for weeks and months…but he only remembered the last time. The only person he could trust to confirm their story was his son, and he refused to speak with Qrs at all.
Evening came, accompanied by the sound of cages being opened and prisoners being led to their tables. The female Demon flew up towards them. At the sound of keys being withdrawn from a leather thong hanging from her waist, Qrs went over to the edge of his cage.
“Wait,” he said.
The Demon turned her attention towards Qrs, a question vaguely painted over her smooth features.
“Take me,” Qrs told her.
The Demon tilted her head at his words, glowing amber eyes flickering under her fluttering lashes.
“Take you?” Her venomously sweet voice seemed to coax him, “Why? Should you not see to the needs of your child first?”
Qrs’ cheek twitched.
She was still trying to convince him to send his son? Did she not know? If he let on the idea that he knew what was going to happen, how would things change…or was she testing him?
He thought that, perhaps, he had developed a resistance or immunity against whatever was being used to cut out his memories. Everything seemed to play out in the same manner as what he could recall, so he figured that they did not know that anything was amiss. Perhaps everyone was in league with one another, putting on an act to ensnare him in a web of lies. In that case, who was lying to him, and what was the truth?
Maybe whoever was doing it to him had just messed up. Or maybe they just grew bored of tormenting Qrs and his son.
Maybe. But ‘maybe’ didn’t matter – he would do what needed to be done.
“I-I’m hungry, dammit!” His hoarse shout painfully cracked from his parched throat, “Let me go down first, before I start chewing off my arm!”
Out of the corner of his vision, his son looked up at him with wide-eyes. It took all Qrs had to not look in the boy’s direction to offer him some form of reassurance. The Demon appeared to silently ponder his words for several moments, then flapped over and opened the door of his cage instead.
“Very well,” she smiled, “We’ll have you join us for dinner first.”
A long, sinuous tail reached out and wrapped around his body, and he winced as its tiny barbs fixed themselves into his skin. The Demon carried him away, gliding down to the ground. Qrs stole a brief glance upwards after he was set back down and saw his son staring at him from high above. At least he would be spared, even if it was just this once.
Qrs wobbled on his weakened legs for a moment before he was tossed onto the awaiting cart. Even after resolving to submit himself, he couldn’t help but struggle in a vain attempt to escape what he knew would come. He felt hot chains close around his ankles and wrists, with more lengths wrapping over his torso. In the end, he was bound so tightly that he could only look down over the edge of the cart, watching the dancing shadows of the fiends around him in the firelight.
“Hey,” a deep voice sounded from behind him. “What’s this?”
The ground thumped as the lower portion of the Devil butcher entered Qrs’ field of view. Layered in ruddy, reptilian scales, the splayed claws of its long-toed feet dug into the dusty soil.
“Dinner,” the female Demon replied lightly
A hand came down on Qrs’ leg, and he squirmed as it roughly squeezed and prodded him.
“The other one looked a lot better,” annoyance filtered through into the butcher’s rumbling voice. “You trying to drive down the quality of my cuisine?”
“It’ll be a change of pace,” the shadow of the female Demon shrugged. “They must be getting tired of the same thing all the time.”
The Devil butcher let out a dubious sound in his deep voice, and a corner of Qrs’ mind agreed. How would it be any different? They were the same–
A sharp gasp filled Qrs’ lungs as something lanced into his leg, sending white-hot pain up his body. Despite his efforts to hold them in, grunts of agony filtered through gritted teeth as a piece of his leg was torn away. The sizzle of the grill rose, and the aroma of his own cooking flesh filled his nostrils. The clinking of metal utensils joined in, creating a sick caricature of cooking for several minutes, then stopped.
“I knew it,” the deep voice came from the direction of the grill. “This one’s tougher. Our guests are going to have a tough time choking it down – especially the ones without any teeth left.”
“All the better,” the female Demon said lightly.
“Maybe…but are we allowed?” The butcher asked, “Jaldabaoth told us not to take our fun too far. If we waste these materials selfishly…”
“It’ll be fine~” The female Demon’s voice lilted lazily, “It’s not as if they’ll die if they can only manage a bit this one time.”
The sound of utensils working the grilling meat continued as Qrs’ vision faded. He trembled under the chains, involuntarily shuddering as blood steadily dripped down onto the dry yellow clay below.
“Order for table one!” The butcher called out.
A dark veil of weakness draped over this awareness by the time the empty bowl returned. Another presence came near to him.
“This isn’t the same one,” a voice said suspiciously.
It was the pale, gaunt fiend with the black apron.
“Just heal him already,” the female Demon told him. “He looks nearly done.”
The black apron drew closer with the shuffling of hidden feet. Gangly arms that nearly dragged their knuckles over the ground came into view. The fiend raised his hands, casting a spell.
“「Light Cure Wounds」.”
Qrs felt the healing magic wash over him, restoring a portion of his injury. With it, however came the return to awareness and the world of pain that it delivered. He winced and swallowed the rising agony, fighting to regain his composure against the raw sensation. The black apron stood by quietly, and Qrs thought he could feel the fiend watching him closely.
“This one does not even sing,” the aproned fiend lamented in wistful tones. “The boy was far superior – his voice so pure and sweet; so easy to tune.”
“Blame her for picking him out today,” the butcher grumbled.
“Oh whatever,” the female Demon sniffed dismissively. “We can just go back to the usual tomorrow.”
Were they trying to elicit a response out of him? Qrs held his tongue; there was no point in responding either way. The aproned fiend continued casting his spells.
“「Middle Cure Wounds」.”
“「Middle Cure Wounds」.”
He felt his condition improve, the waves of searing pain replaced by a dull, throbbing ache.
The aproned fiend’s confused voice sounded after the third healing spell was cast. The others standing over Qrs shifted to turn towards him.
“What?” The female Demon asked.
“Leg’s nowhere near done,” the aproned fiend answered.
“Dammit!” the butcher cursed, “I knew you shouldn’t have changed things up!”
“How should I know?” The female Demon complained, “They’re all so puny. What’s one or two low tier healing spells?”
“W-what should we do?” The aproned fiend said, “I still have mana–”
“Don’t you dare,” the butcher cut him off. “We’re on a budget; we’ll just fall behind even more if you use them on this mana sponge.”
“H-he won’t die now, right?” The female Demon reasoned, “I can throw him back up in his cage and he can heal up on his own. We’ll just stick to the young ones now, yeah? Lord D–”
The female Demon’s voice was cut off by a gasp that faded suddenly, as if she had been snatched away. A wet, crunching noise filled the air for a handful of heartbeats. The body of the Demon who had retrieved Qrs from his cage landed on the ground in front of him, rolling twice before coming to a stop. She had been wound so tightly on herself that what remained resembled a rag squeezed dry of moisture. Arms and legs; wings, tail and head – everything was twisted into a single gory length of bloody flesh and bone.
“Demon Emperor Jaldabaoth, if you please,” a smooth, unforgettable voice joined the conversation.
“A-apologies, Demon Emperor,” the butcher’s deep voice trembled. “We were just preparing dinner, but there’s been a…a…”
“Misallocation of resources?”
“…it is as you say, Demon Emperor.”
“That’s not good,” Jaldabaoth said. “Not good at all. Our work relies on smooth, efficient operations. The blood, sweat and tears of our precious charges depend on the healing touch of our Torturers.”
“Yes, Demon Emperor,” the horned Devil said. “We’ll return to our usual routine – it won’t happen again.”
Qrs idly entertained the idea of throwing himself at the nearby Jaldabaoth. He tested his restraints, but they were as tight and unyielding as before.
“What should we do with this one?” The aproned fiend asked.
“Hmm…well,” Jaldabaoth pondered. “Complete his healing. The laboratories have a large shipment on the way, but it will be some time yet until it arrives. He can work off his debt to us there.”
“We’ll prepare a cage and transportation,” the warden joined the conversation. “Which laboratory should we send him to, Demon Emperor?”
“The new one will do,” Jaldabaoth replied. “I-5.”
“It will be done, Demon Emperor.”
The thud of weighty footsteps approached, sending chips of dried clay dancing over the ground. Qrs attempted to turn his head towards the sound and was rewarded by a heavy blow to the temple. The world reeled, and he struggled to regain himself. A second blow came crashing in, and oblivion stole his awareness away.