Pulcinella twirled away with a grace that belied his rotund appearance.
“Hey, how ‘bout letting me out?” Qrs shouted.
Without a glance in his direction, the figure in white disappeared into the closest building. Qrs stood in his cage, turning to look around. The rest of the place appeared to ignore his existence, and Jaldabaoth appeared to have disappeared without a trace while Qrs’ attention was occupied by Pulcinella. His new comrade’s gushing ramblings were nothing if not suspicious – no, they were more like the ravings of the deranged.
After some time, a disfigured-looking fiend of some sort hopped out of a building nearby. Qrs couldn’t tell what it was, even when it loped over to stand in front of him. To Qrs, it looked nothing more than a multi-legged blob of smooth pink flesh with mouths and tentacles that resembled thick, elongated tongues. He eyed the fiend warily, and was abruptly struck in the face by one of its tentacles, the blow leaving a smear of sticky mucus over his eyelids. Reeling back weakly, he brought his arms up to cover his head. A second tentacle came up and smashed into his groin; his legs buckled as he gritted his teeth.
The fiend reached out with three of its disgusting appendages, and the cage was tumbled into the air. Qrs’ face slammed into the bars on the way down. He opened his swollen eyes a crack and five of the fiend’s mouths opened below, each laughing in a different, high-pitched voice. It continued tumbling the cage as it hopped off towards wherever it was bringing him; Qrs’ world was too busy heaving and spinning for him to tell where.
As he was tossed along, the morning light dimmed and the cage stopped it’s chaotic movements. The fiend turned the cage until Qrs could face its five equally stupid-looking grins. Though nausea and pain assailed him, he kept his face a mask, frowning back at the thing. The grins slid off of the Demon’s head. Its eyeless face seemed to peer at Qrs as it shook the cage about again. When he offered no reaction, it chuffed and continued on its way, no longer tumbling the cage about.
The bits of lore that Qrs knew of when it came to fiends appeared to be at least partly correct. They were evil things that either promoted or reveled in suffering and anguish, and everything they did seemed to go out of the way to draw it forth. They quickly became bored if their playthings did not react in a satisfying manner. If they couldn’t get what they wanted, they would just kill you or leave to pursue the next promising victim. Either way, your misery would end.
This was also what puzzled Qrs. Even while behaving this way, there seemed to be some sort of underlying purpose to everything that they did. Up until this point, they had kept people alive, Jaldabaoth’s machinations dictating their cruel actions for the sake of some incomprehensible scheme.
His thoughts were interrupted when the cage was heaved into the air and slammed into a hard surface, bringing its journey to an end and Qrs face first into the bars again.
“Oh?” A familiar voice sounded from nearby. “Oh? Oh, oh Oh, OH? It seems our lovely volunteer has arrived! It appears that a new friend has appeared to spark much joy!”
A stout form waddled into view – it was the strange fiend with the beaked mask, Pulcinella.
“Welcome, my dear,” he said in a low voice that rose in volume. “Welcome, my fellow volunteer. Please don’t mind the mess; we were just situating our guests!”
Qrs looked around. He was in one of the open-walled buildings he had seen coming in. The edges were lined in cages, each with a prisoner inside. Some were bound to flat surfaces, while others were simply left free to roam in confinement. They were arranged in sets, in groups of a half dozen for each race. He noted Armat, Bugbears, Ogres, Hobgoblins, Gnolls and a few others he was not familiar with.
They all stared back at him, making Qrs shift uncomfortably despite himself. All were carnivorous to at least some degree, and being subjected to the gaze of a predator was never a nice thing, especially in his weakened and vulnerable state. He glared back, resolving to not show any fear before them, and, in doing, so realized that there was something not quite right with many. While some predictably fixed hungry eyes on him, others seemed not quite there. Even not being of his own race, he could tell that there were those amongst the others who looked dangerously unwell; he hoped that there wasn’t some sort of disease going around the place.
A line of fiends appeared, carrying great cords of wood in their arms and claws and tentacles. The scene tugged at a fragment of Qrs’ hazy memories, but before he could pin it in his mind, Pulcinella came around again.
“We are prepared, my friends!” He said in a ceremonious voice tinged with barely-concealed excitement, “Prepared to prepare. As the newest of our new friends has arrived, let us become familiar with our volunteer – let us partake in joyous fellowship!”
The beaked thing’s meandering words only added to Qrs’ confusion over what was happening. Were they being asked to get along with one another? To cooperate in some task?
“Now, my dear friends,” Pulcinella continued, “I have an important question for you: have you heard of the saying ‘you are what you eat’?”
The prisoners responded to the question with silence and, into that silence, the clatter of chains came.
“Why, of course you have!” Pulcinella spoke over the metallic sound, “It is in your ways, your culture, after all. To become strong, by eating the strong!”
Qrs turned his head to the source of the clattering chains. At the entrance to the building, a slight figure shuffled in, followed by a fiend nearly identical to the Devil warden from his old prison. By its thin build and pale skin, the figure in chains appeared to be a Human. Whether it was male or female, he could not tell. Recalling his own, recent experiences, he wondered if they would be using it as a source of meat for the others.
When he was younger, Qrs had joined raids against the walls of the Human nation to the west of the hills, out of curiosity for a strange foe that he had never tested his mettle against before. The defenders were armed and armoured, but their equipment paled in comparison to that of Dwarven make. Individually – no, even in groups – they were weak. Why they had even built such a wall was beyond him: it was a declaration of strength; a monument that invited challengers, drawing those just like him.
His time there was a disappointing experience overall, but at least captured Humans had value as slaves to the Dwarves and could be traded for useful things. For that reason, he had never actually tasted their flesh before, despite capturing many. This Human looked even weaker than those of the wall. There couldn’t be that much meat on it. It was possible that it took fewer spells of healing to fully restore, thus saving on mana.
He looked to the slab in the middle of the room, and the fire that roared below: it was similar to the city of cages, so Qrs had a fair idea of what was to come. Except…what was it Pulcinella had said? Surely he wasn’t crazy enough to think they would become Human by eating Humans.
“Please,” the beaked thing in white said, “introduce yourself, my dear.”
The scrawny Human looked around at the dozens of prisoners around it through fearful eyes, ultimately turning its head down without a word. Pulcinella tilted his head at a right angle and shrugged.
“Our new Human friend goes by the name of Anise,” Pulcinella told them, “and you are most fortunate and privileged to have her here! She hails from the Human lands over the mountains to the north, from the Royal Capital of Re-Estize itself! A famous chef, she is, and so you will be treated to the most delightful of dishes; the high cuisine of nobles and kings! She will bring you happiness with her professional expertise, as she has with so many others.”
The Human female did not look up with Pulcinella’s glowing introduction. If anything, Qrs thought she looked even more miserable.
“Come, come, my lovely Anise,” the beaked figure said. “Your guests await.”
The Human looked up at Pulcinella, then at the slab in the middle of the building. The fiend behind her snorted, and she gave a fearful cry, scurrying forward. She stepped up onto a platform, where a wide variety of implements were arrayed on the slab. Qrs’ mouth watered at the thought of food. His last meal must have been days ago, before he was taken away from the city of cages. Pulcinella waddled over in front of Qrs’ cage, reaching up to open it.
“Out with you, now, our dear volunteer,” it said as the hinges creaked open.
Qrs stepped out. He looked around the building again, looking for something like the tables at his former prison. Finding nothing like it, he looked back at the beaked figure.
“…where am I supposed to go?” Qrs asked.
A hand gracefully gestured to a large cart near the slab.
Qrs’ eyes widened as realization dawned upon him, and he shot forward, dashing for the entrance. Despite his speed, which would cover the distance in a heartbeat, the Devil that had accompanied the Human into the building reacted, reaching out for him with a massive, clawed hand.
The world slowed to a crawl as he activated a Martial Art. He ducked under the wicked claws and drove forward into the morning light…
…then he struck the ground, face-first.
Qrs felt himself being dragged back into the room, scraping over the dirt and gravel. He saw the base of the slab before he was raised, dangling from one leg. The scaly, black skin of the horned Devil’s legs filled his vision, and he looked up at his own. It had used a whip to snatch one of his ankles, and Qrs swung lightly from its coils.
“My, my,” Pulcinella’s voice drifted in lightly from near his head, “my dear volunteer…you did volunteer, did you not?”
“I changed my mind,” Qrs replied.
“Changed your mind? Changed your mind…” Pulcinella tittered, “Don’t be silly, my love – volunteers have no choice.”
Qrs’ surroundings whirled, righting themselves once more when he was slammed onto the cart. Shackles found his wrists and ankles, stretching him tightly over its surface.
“Why…why are you doing this?” Qrs’ winded voice called out, “I thought I wasn’t worth using for food!”
“Such a depressing outlook,” Pulcinella shook his head sadly. “We even found a place for you to share your kindness, where your selfless actions will bring happiness to your fellows. ‘To become strong, by eating the strong,’ I said – surely you didn’t think our frail and precious Anise was to be the main course? Who would want to become as weak as her? Forcing such meagre sustenance upon our friends would be most cruel! But you: you are strong, yes? A brave; a hero…or something like that? Our friends here are nowhere near as strong as you, but your kindness has given them a chance to see this hopeful future!”
Qrs couldn’t believe what he was hearing. It was true that some races had customs where they believed that eating the strong made them stronger: who engaged in rituals where they consumed a worthy foe that they had personally vanquished. There were even races that did get stronger depending on what they ate…but nothing like this. They were trying to feed him to others, as if consuming his flesh would directly grant them power.
“It won’t work,” he growled out against the cart pressed to his cheek. “You can’t become strong just by eating me!”
“Oh my, is this true?” Pulcinella said worriedly, “But we set up this building just to find out…”
The beaked figure came up to where Qrs lay, bringing his strange mask close.
"Are you certain of this?” He spoke in low tones, “Have you tried?”
“You’re insane,” Qrs snarled.
“You are too kind,” Pulcinella pulled away and straightened again. “Too kind!”
He clapped its hands loudly, waddling around the building again, raising his arms as if expecting the cheers of the surrounding prisoners.
“Come, come! Let us partake of the kindness of our friend!” He said, “Anise, my dear: you may begin.”
Qrs heard the sound of the metal implements being drawn nearby, and the Human came into view. A long knife was in her trembling hand, and she looked down upon him, reeking of terror. He watched her arm lower…then it stopped.
“What’s the matter, my dear?” Pulcinella asked.
“Is this fellow too unfamiliar for you? Should we perhaps bring something you’ve already become well accustomed to–”
“No!” She cried, “Please, no. Not again, Mister Pulcinella, a-anything but that!”
Qrs flinched as the blade touched his thigh. The cold edge drew across his skin but, surprisingly, he felt no pain. The knife slid over his skin again.
“This hide – it’s so tough,” the Human said.
“Come now, you’ve just barely started – put a little more love into it, hm?”
The point of the knife pricked his skin, then withdrew. If it were a battle, Qrs wouldn’t even have noticed it but, bound as he was, every action of the weak Human seemed especially pronounced. He twitched at the sting of pain as the knife stabbed into his leg again. The Human worked the knife deeper, striking the base with her palm, pressing her weight into it, and wiggling the blade around. Qrs gritted his teeth in discomfort as she struggled. She grunted with every effort, and her laboured breathing soon filled the room. The blade stopped again.
“Oh my, is that all you can do?” Pulcinella asked, “You were capable of so much more just yesterday! Is there something wrong? Did they forget to feed you?”
“The knife…I-I need a better knife,” the Human answered. “This one’s all dull and tarnished.”
“The knife? Hmm…”
The blade embedded in his thigh was suddenly driven through the rest of Qrs’ hide, punching through fat and muscle to glance off of bone. His pained howl filled the air.
“This knife seems perfectly fine,” Pulcinella said. “See? In and out and back and forth and swish and sw–oops.”
He interrupted himself, and the haphazard movements of the blade stopped.
“That might have been important…healer? Hmm…healer?”
Pulcinella waddled off, and Qrs’ strength rapidly faded away…
“「Middle Cure Wounds」.”
…awareness returned, but the chill remained.
“Ah! Too much!” Pulcinella said mournfully, “You closed up part of our good chef’s hard work. Alas, we must try again.”
The Human said nothing this time, and the attentions of the knife returned. It sawed and caught and tugged, opening his flesh as it worked in a way unachievable by the strikes of a skilled warrior. The knife trembled and the Human would back away with a cry whenever Qrs could no longer stand the slow torture and his agonized reactions came forth.
Eventually, the Human finished, taking a large part of Qrs’ leg with her. She heaved out a great sigh, looking towards Pulcinella.
“What are you waiting for, my dear?” Pulcinella said, “It’s time to work your culinary magic! Our hungry friends await…”
She glanced towards Qrs before working to slice up his flesh. Qrs, restrained as he was, was forced to watch. The aroma accompanying her preparations started to fill the air, and Qrs’ thoughts slowly grew dim.
The Human’s voice broke through the murky haze, and she released a ragged breath. Healing magic washed over Qrs, mending his leg and snapping him back to pained awareness.
“Excellent work, my dear chef Anise!” Pulcinella clapped his hands energetically, “I knew it wasn’t a mistake to choose you for this task. Now what is the dish called, my love?”
“It’s stir fried…um, leg…with roasted garlic mushrooms, sautéed onions and diced forest greens in a savoury sauce.”
“Hmm…that seems a mouthful,” Pulcinella said. “Surely there is some inspiration for this? Where is your inner artiste?”
“Then…Abelion stir fry à la Pespel.”
“Marvelous!” Pulcinella clapped his hands grandly, “Simply marvelous! Yet another revolution in the culinary arts by our dear Anise! Surely, your talents know no bounds. Everyone will be thrilled at this new addition to their menu.”
The aroma of the dish filled the air as Pulcinella brought it around in front of all of the cages, and the scent of Qrs own cooked flesh filled his nostrils.
“Now, remember, dear friends,” Pulcinella said. “If you wish for this special dish, all you need do is request it by name and our precious Anise will lovingly prepare for you a hearty helping!”
He inhaled deeply, releasing a satisfied sigh before continuing in a lively voice.
“My, this truly is a delight!” Pulcinella looked around the building. “Who would like to have this first course? Surely it would be better while it’s still hot.”
The prisoners around the room remained silent. Even the Ogres and Bugbears had the pride to turn down food after witnessing the reprehensible display.
“No one?” Pulcinella made another round around the room, “Come now, surely there must be some interest? Far better than the cold, raw mince from before this breakthrough in high cuisine, yes?”
Once again, silence followed in the wake of Pulcinella’s words.
“There’s no need to be shy – we’re all friends here, after all. Just one word; one gesture, anything to let me know, and this joyous entrée shall be yours. It wouldn’t do to waste good foo–”
The conspicuously loud noise of a growling stomach filled the air, and all present turned their gazes on Qrs.
“Heh?” Pulcinella let out a noise of its own, “Hehe…heheHEHEHEUHEEHAHAHA!”
Strange, squeaking laughter rose from the beaked figure clad in stained white garments.
“Fabulous!” He cried, “Wonderful! I was not wrong – not wrong…our brave volunteer has volunteered to be the first to partake.”
Pulcinella motioned excitedly to the horned Devil nearby.
“Give him the taste of happiness!”