The world rolled and lurched, jolting Qrs awake and into a groggy daze.
He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to will himself into wakefulness. The floor beneath him lurched violently again, and his head banged painfully against metal bars. The scent of blood tinged the air and he felt a wetness trickle over his cheek, dripping off of his chin. Lifting a hand to his head after steadying himself, he discovered a wicked gash over his temple.
“Hey, you. You’re finally awake.”
Qrs set down his hand and twisted towards the source of the voice, wincing as his cramped muscles protested the movement. He stopped halfway, feeling pressure against his right leg. Shifting his weight gingerly, he tested what he last recalled was a grievous wound where his haunch had been carved out by the Devil butcher. He felt around: the flesh was slack, but unmarred.
Still in half a daze, he leaned back against the bars of his cage, trying to collect himself.
“What’s going on?” Qrs asked as the cage continued to shudder, “Where is this?”
“Who knows?” The female’s voice said lightly, “They’ve been dragging us upriver for days.”
Days…had he really been out for that long? His stomach growled.
“Hey now,” the voice piped up at the sound. “I’m pretty inedible, so don’t come groping over here.”
Curious over her claim, Qrs turned enough to look over his shoulder. A frown formed over his face as he saw nothing but an empty cage behind his own.
Near the floor of the cage was a small being: a short creature with gangly arms and legs, wild black hair and dusky skin. Two yellow eyes with large, round pupils looked back at him from over a compact nose. A Spriggan.
“You…I think I saw you there…” Qrs furrowed his brow, “When that Demon Emperor first showed up.”
“At the festival?” She replied, “That wasn’t me.”
“How did you end up here, then?” Qrs asked as the cage lurched again.
“My tribe’s from the eastern part of the hills,” she replied. “We lived under some cliffs near the river. Jaldabaoth’s fiends overran us just after midwinter…right after the festival, I guess. We didn’t even stand a chance. At first, I thought we were going to be eaten or have our souls taken or something, but then they split us up. I’ve been on top of a tower of cages ‘till today.”
Worry furrowed his brow. The portion of the Abelion River that the Spriggan described as her home was a day or two north of the Dale of Defiance. If Jaldabaoth’s forces kept going north up the river, they would eventually encroach upon his own territory. At the thought of his family, he looked around.
“Is it just us?” He asked, “There’s no others in this caravan?”
“Caravan?” The Spriggan gave him an odd look, “It’s just us and this big dumb animal I’ve never seen before. First time I saw you, you were alone on this travois being dragged in from somewhere else. They brought my cage down and added it to yours.”
They had separated him from his son. After keeping them together for months, why would they do that? His head pounded as he tried to make sense of what was going on.
“So you’re from another set of those cage towers,” he said slowly. “I saw others from where I was imprisoned before.”
“There weren’t just one or two,” the Spriggan nodded. “I was stuck on top of mine, so I could see them all up and down the valley. It’s as if they’re trying to capture everyone.”
The sight of the valley from his cage returned to him, and he sighed in relief. Maybe he still had most of it right. Still, the Spriggan’s location had been a day away, yet she could see even more stretching to the north. The sheer scale of Jaldabaoth’s activities beggared the imagination.
“I see…then, have you heard about some place called a ‘Laboratory’?” he asked. “Jaldabaoth mentioned moving me there before they knocked me out.”
“You might know more than I do about that,” the Spriggan said. “I only heard it once before they tossed me onto here.”
Qrs examined their surroundings. The Spriggan said that they had been going upriver for days, yet the valley was nowhere to be seen. They were instead travelling through a dry gulch filled with shrubs and grass. Based on this, he thought they should still be somewhere in the hills, which were arid and covered in windswept shrub and grassland. At their speed, they would still be in the east.
“Why don’t you escape?” Qrs asked, “This place is so perfect for you to hide in, and it doesn’t seem like there are any sentries or patrols.”
“Oh don’t think I haven’t tried,” the Spriggan said. “Once we left the valley and entered this gulch, I did my damndest. These cages aren’t made of any metal I’ve ever seen, though. I wasn’t able to use my ability to grow in size and pop it open, and the bars are too narrow to slip out of.”
The last was spoken in rueful tones, and the Spriggan shifted in her cage.
“Anyways,” she said, “I’m Senara…and I don’t feel like calling you ‘hey you’ forever.”
After all that had happened, his name brought only sour thoughts to mind.
“Qrs, huh…” Senara mused, “Well, we’re going to need all the ‘Qrs’ we can get if we’re going to do something about this.”
Qrs looked back at Senara with an incredulous look.
“Do something?” He said, “How? Jaldabaoth and his servants are so powerful…what do you think we can do?”
“Who knows,” Senara replied. “But I didn’t get as far as I have by giving up at the first discouraging thing.”
“I think we’re well beyond discouraging things,” Qrs snorted derisively. “We don’t even know where we are, or where we’re headed.”
“You might not, but I do.”
Qrs frowned over his shoulder.
“I thought you said you didn’t know where this ‘Laboratory’ was, or where we are, for that matter.”
“I don’t,” Senara said. “But I do know where we were, and in what direction we’ve been heading in. We’ve been going north – following the river that comes down from the Baafolk lands to the northwest. Earlier today, we split off and started heading north after the river started to bend.”
Qrs tested the air. Based on how much moisture there was in addition to Senara’s claim, it meant that they were almost to the edge of the hills. Why had they come so far? When Jaldabaoth had mentioned a ‘Laboratory’, Qrs figured that he would be put to work as a slave at some place, since he was apparently too costly to be harvested for flesh.
Did the reach of the Demon Emperor really extend this far? He reflexively tensed up at a twinge of fear – his tribal lands were just beyond the edge of the hills, in the aspen forests to the northeast.
“Seems like you’ve thought of a reason to fight,” Senara noted from her cage. “You want to do something now?”
Qrs rose in his cage, struggling to keep his balance as the travois was dragged along. Some sort of beast was drawing it, one that he had never seen or heard of before. He couldn’t see past its massive form. Behind them was only the rugged trail, with the fresh marks of their passing leaving a long pair of lines that disappeared behind the turns of their path.
“Are you sure we’re the only ones?” Qrs asked, “This beast can’t be dragging us off to wherever it is on its own.”
“Well, it did arrive back there with you the same way,” Senara answered, “so apparently it can. We haven’t been given food or water for a few days, so we must be getting close.”
“Or they could have just sent us out to die,” he muttered.
“I don’t know what happened where you were kept,” Senara said, “but they sure went out of their way keeping everyone alive where I was. They’ve got their own thing going on, and I’ve no idea what it is aside from making people suffer as much as they can without killing them…so at least we can cross that possibility off, eh?”
Now that she mentioned it, Qrs understood it to be true. Everyone he had seen in his prison was kept alive, to the point of being forcefully healed. The only time their numbers diminished was when they were taken away, never to be seen again…which he supposed was what was happening to them now.
“I don’t understand any of this,” Qrs mumbled. “Why go through all this? Why attack everyone in the first place?”
“They’re fiends,” Senara shrugged, “who knows why they do anything? They certainly don’t care for what we think, and they don’t seem to think in any way that I can make sense out of. All we can see is that they’re pure evil.”
“Then…what? Do we just wait for a chance?”
“Pretty much,” Senara nodded, “We’ll watch and wait. Everyone screws up at some point – even fiends like them.”
Qrs had no reason to doubt her. Spriggans lived long lives, and she had probably seen far more than Qrs ever would.
“You’ve fought against fiends before?” He asked.
“A few times,” Senara answered. “Angels and Elementals too. They’re all a different kind of nasty, but I’ve never seen ones so powerful as Jaldabaoth and his minions before.”
“Then you don’t think we can win?”
“Win?” Senara snorted, “Who cares? We survive, or we die – and I would rather be free either way. You can waste your chances going down fighting, but I’ll be running as far away as I can.”
“Run?” Qrs frowned, “You’re not going to fight to free your people?”
Senara furrowed her brow, then shook her head.
“You said it yourself,” she told him, “Jaldabaoth is too strong. No one is fighting that – just take your people and run the hell away. What he did to my home…he can probably do to your village or whatever it is just as easily.”
“But where can we run?” Qrs asked her, “We’ve been dragged all the way to the edge of the hills – that must mean his control must stretch at least that far…”
“For you? East, probably – through The Neck. Going south will drag you too close to that whole mess that we just came through. There’s the foothills and mountains to the north, but I hear that the Zern make their home up there somewhere. Even if you survive trespassing, there’s tales about even more powerful things lurking in the northern ranges that no one wants to mess with.”
East...Qrs’ home village was a few days northeast of the Abelion Hills, in the forests below the foothills of the mountains. If the opportunity arose; if he could make it out alive; if Jaldabaoth hadn’t stretched his hand that far yet, he could raise the alarm. Save for his eldest son, his entire family was waiting for him still. It was still months to winter, so they could make their way eastwards a fair distance, but how far could they go? Was there even a place for them to live beyond their ancestral homes?
There should be – there was no reason that it wouldn’t be the case. The wilderness was vast, and the spine of the northern ranges stretched far beyond the horizon. There should be plenty of forests and rivers provided they traveled along the foot of the mountains.
The travois followed the trail around a soft turn downhill, and the scent of woodsmoke drifted in the air as they continued on their way. Qrs thought he could see their destination: at the bottom of the forested gulch below, there was a makeshift cluster of crude buildings where rows of cages could be seen peeking out from between the trees. Figures milled about, but, at their distance, Qrs could not make out whether they were fiends, prisoners, or something else entirely.
Several hours later, they arrived with the morning gloom painting the eastern skies. Before them lay a settlement of sorts where Demons moved unmarked crates and bags from place to place, loading, unloading and sorting out whatever it was that they were handling. Within the open-walled structures he had seen from above, gangs of prisoners were chained together before long tables where they appeared to be toiling away. Before he could see what they were doing, their cages were unloaded from the travois and dumped onto the ground, sending Qrs sprawling.
He fell forward, rolled twice, and slammed into the bars on the other side of his cage. In the faint light cast by the flames of the camp beyond, a shadow fell across him.
“Right on time,” Demon Emperor Jaldabaoth said. “Excellent work, my friend.”
Qrs struggled to gain his feet, backing away from the bars facing Jaldabaoth. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Senara do the same. Rather than walk up to stand before them, he went to the beast at the front of the travois.
“Now,” he said, “I wonder if there has been any mischief conducted along the way…”
Jaldabaoth leaned forward, and the strange beast turned its head.
“Hm, hm…is that so?” Jaldabaoth said, “My, even after I went out of my way to say so.”
The Demon Emperor came back to the front of the cages, stopping before Senara’s. The Spriggan female had pressed herself to the bars at the back of her cage.
“My friend here says that you tried to escape by enlarging yourself and breaking the cage,” Jaldabaoth said, “and that you continue plotting to do so. I believed I warned you from attempting anything of the sort. What do you have to say for yourself?”
“No, no,” he spoke right over her. “I suppose the time for excuses is long past. To think that you would spurn my mercy from the first incident.”
Senara looked up helplessly at Jaldabaoth, eyes filled with terror.
“A just and proper punishment is due for breaking the rules,” Jaldabaoth said. “For what are rules without the will to enforce them?”
Jaldabaoth straightened to his full height, firelight glinting off of the strange adornment resting on the bridge of his nose as he adjusted it with the middle finger of his right hand. From his mouth came a single word.
Qrs, flinched away, recalling the cursed voice that had stolen his will. It was not directed at him, however, nor did he think he could be commanded to ‘grow’. He looked to the side: in the other cage, Senara grew from a height of one metre to two.
Senara grew again, the panic on her face plain to see. She bent her back to fit into her cage, while her arms pushed desperately against the bars.
A keening wail rose from the Spriggan, trapped within her cage. She had curled up into a ball that pressed against its confines.
A mess of flesh, limbs and hair pushed out against the bars, Senara continued to enlarge, and her voice could no longer be heard. All at once, the bulging skin on one side ruptured, spilling its pressured contents over the grass. Jaldabaoth stood watching, arms crossed, a tight smile on his lips. Qrs fought the urge to retch at the stench.
“A fitting punishment for her actions, don’t you agree?” Jaldabaoth’s smile turned Qrs’ way, “Our friend has mentioned nothing against you, so it appears that you’ll be able to offer your contributions here. Alas, I cannot supervise things here directly – there is so much to do, after all – but, rest assured, your work will be of significant value! Before I leave, allow me to introduce you to your new comrade: I am sure you will find his bright outlook most refreshing.”
As if on cue with Jaldabaoth’s words, a stout figure appeared. It was adorned in a strange and unfamiliar outfit with stains of various colours smeared over its white material. Qrs suspected much of it to be blood and ichor. The long beak on its mask made Qrs wonder if it was some sort of avian Beastman.
“Welcome!” He said in a cheery voice, “Welcome – a thousand times welcome, good volunteers! I am Pulcinella, and I offer you the most joyful of greetings to your humble new abode.”
“Volunteers?” Qrs wrinkled his snout.
“Why, yes!” Pulcinella replied, “Volunteers…”
The beaked mask turned to Senara’s cage.
“Oh. How sad – how sad!” Pulcinella cried in mournful tones, “But at least you must feel better, knowing that you have not shared the same fate?”
Qrs furrowed his brow in confusion. How did he come up with that line of thinking?
“I didn’t volunteer for anything like this,” he told the strange being.
“But you did volunteer for something, yes?” The voice lost none of its cheer, “That would make you a volunteer!”
Qrs glowered through the bars of his cage. He had certainly offered himself in the place of his son, but that had little to do with anything here.
“Yes, yes, volunteers are so precious,” Pulcinella continued without prompting. “So brave. So selfless and kind. I love kindness! I love selflessness! Volunteers make people happy; that’s why I love volunteers!”
“What…what do you want, exactly?” Qrs asked.
The beaked figure waddled towards him: Pulcinella would barely reach his waist if Qrs was standing upright.
“What do I want? What do you want? What does anyone want? To be happy, of course! Worry not, my brave volunteer,” Pulcinella pointed to himself with both of his hands, “for I am a volunteer as well! Together, let us bring happiness to many…”