Orders for food punctuated the evening air, which was filled with the aroma of meaty dishes. Whether they were appetizing or not probably depended on who you asked, but it agitated Qrs to no end that nearly all of them smelled edible to him.
The roughly constructed building that they occupied had been renamed Café Anise, in honour of the Human Chef’s ‘advancement’ in the fields of cuisine, and the prisoners learned the names of all the meals that she came up with over the weeks. They were all made with a main course of Qrs, of course. As Pulcinella had promised, all they needed to do was ask.
They fed Qrs with those same dishes. He refused at first, of course, but the Human would eventually just make something out of him without asking. He turned his head at her offerings, but the fiends assisting her just pried his jaws open and forced them down. If he vomited, they would just use a spade to scoop it up from the ground and force him to eat it again, with an extra helping of dirt and filth.
Qrs howled as a knife entered his arm, and the Human peeled away a long slice of flesh. At some point she had received enchanted tools, and no longer struggled with his tough hide. She no longer flinched away from his reaction to her attentions, either. Over time, Qrs thought, she stopped recognizing him as a living being. He had just become a slab of meat – perhaps a somewhat noisy ingredient to work with.
The human female came up with new dishes every few days, and Qrs seethed when the prisoners eventually became used to the routines of their new jail, clamouring over one another to taste her new creations. Yet, he couldn’t blame them. These fiends broke down body and spirit like it was an endlessly satisfying meal of its own; their appetite for it, bottomless. All around him, week by week, he watched as the prisoners’ wills were twisted and warped, turning them into little more than base animals capable of speech.
Except for one. Except for the Human. She came as a prisoner, just like they, yet even the smallest suggestions cowed her into compliance. Like some pet, she turned docile, no longer offering complaint or showing even the slightest hesitation. A pet of the fiend Pulcinella, pouring her efforts into fulfilling his desire to grant happiness. It was not long until her chains came off, and she was allowed to roam freely. She had a number of fiends that answered to her call, delivering whatever she required for her ever more sophisticated ‘craft’.
After weeks of being subjected to her work, he still couldn’t understand it. Why would one need hundreds of ways to prepare food? Some of it he couldn't even recognize as meat any more, so different it looked and smelled. Humans were surely a soft and weak people, spending so much time on such frivolous pursuits.
He cast a baleful gaze to the Human as she worked at her table, but she simply ignored him. Was she getting stronger – strong enough to shrug off the intimidating presence that radiated from his raw strength? No. She ignored him because she knew he had been rendered harmless.
The Humans of the wall were much the same. So proud and fearless in their fortifications, shining equipment and teeming numbers. So brave, until they encountered a true warrior who proved all of that worthless. Every time, they were reduced to pitiful, wailing wretches that soiled themselves and cried for mercy. A disgusting race with weak bodies and even weaker wills, lacking the pride and resolve of decent living beings. It was a wonder that they hadn’t been wiped out of existence. If Qrs somehow managed to escape and regain his freedom, he figured that he would remedy this whenever the opportunity presented itself.
A trio of long shadows cast themselves over the floor. Pulcinella entered the building, flanked by two grotesque, tentacled Demons – the same as the one who had brought in his cage after his arrival. Pulcinella stopped to inhale deeply.
“Ah, tantalizing as always, this aroma,” he released a contented sigh. “Is there no limit to your skill, my dear Anise? Your talent was surely wasted on the aristocrats of the royal capital.”
The Human’s steps slowed at his praise, then resumed as she carried a platter to an Ogre nearby. Pulcinella waddled up to her, inspecting its contents.
“Hmm…it appears that something is missing,” he stroked his chin thoughtfully. “There were special instructions for this one, yes?”
Pulcinella reached into a crate placed near the Ogre’s cage, and withdrew a fistful of what Qrs thought was gravel. The pebble-sized fragments were sprinkled over the platter. The Human opened her mouth silently, then closed it again.
“You are confused, my love?” Pulcinella asked, “Well, I suppose these matters are beyond your expertise. Allow me to explain…”
His hand opened the cage, in which the Ogre was bound to a standing table. Pulcinella retrieved the platter of food from the Human’s hands.
“An exploration of our concept, of our theme,” Pulcinella continued. “Armat have a most wondrous biology; they can consume ore, which in turn allows them to grow fur as strong as iron, or mithril, or adamantite, depending on what they are fed! Ogres, unfortunately, do not: they only have their naked hides to protect themselves from the sting of swords and arrows. It is unfair – unjust, don’t you think?”
Pulcinella tilted his head slightly, leaning closer to the Human. She only stared back silently as he continued.
“In an act of overflowing compassion, our dear Demon Emperor Jaldabaoth has resolved to rectify this unreasonable reality. You see, we have taken this one’s stomach out…and replaced it with one from an Armat!”
The fiend spread his hands out at the gleeful revelation, and Qrs’ fought to keep from retching.
“Such genius!” Pulcinella proclaimed, “Such kindness! Such is our Demon Emperor Jaldabaoth! Our dear Ogre friend will now be able to consume Ore and grow an armoured hide. Or was it fur? An armoured Ogre – such an improvement, don’t you agree? To be certain, we have performed the procedure with this pair: one will consume his food normally, and the other will have it put straight into his belly – just in case chewing matters, you see. We will leave no possibility unexplored! No possibility…hm…since Armat gain their traits while they are still young…I wonder how many children we have left in stock…”
In a demonstration of his insane methods, the muttering Pulcinella scraped the plate of food out into the gaping wound propped open in the Ogre’s stomach. The Ogre only drooled like an invalid in reaction.
“But…but what about the Armat?” The Human asked.
“The Armat?” Pulcinella replied, “Which Armat? Oh, those Armat. They are making everyone else happy, of course.”
“By knowing the unfortunate conditions that have been visited upon them, everyone else knows that they are in a better situation by comparison – thus, they are happier! It is a clear and logical thing; the beauty of countless people provided happiness by those loving few is a solution of such elegant simplicity.”
Pulcinella reached up to pat the cheek of the drooling Ogre.
“Think of our good friend Armat,” he said, “and be happy! Be strong! Do not spurn his love!”
He continued moving about the room, inspecting the surrounding prisoners and offering his insane commentary. It wasn’t long after he arrived that Qrs realized that all the ‘guests’ were experiments, subjected to various conditions. One of each race was fed raw meat, another had raw meat pushed straight into its stomach through a slit in its belly, just in case chewing took something away. Another had prepared meals introduced in the same fashion, for the same reason.
The rest had various…alterations. Some, like the Ogre, had their organs replaced with those of other races. One of the Armats had jagged stones grafted into its skin in place of fur. There was a Hobgoblin with its eyes replaced by the compound eyes of some insectoid race. There were a half dozen each, and each was fed Qrs, rendered into various complex dishes by the Human Chef.
The Human returned to the counter and walked up to Qrs, raising her knife.
“Ah, hold if you will, my dear Anise,” Pulcinella raised his oddly-shaped hand. “We have come to the conclusion that feeding strong individuals, even with meals created through your considerable talents, does not make weaker ones stronger. So we are done with this one.”
The two tentacled Demons came forward. The Human began to shake uncontrollably, clutching at the counter with her free hand.
“You…no,” her voice was frantic, “you said…y-you told me – no, don’t send me back! I can’t go back to that…that…”
She collapsed to her knees, knife clattering to the ground. Pulcinella turned towards her at the sound.
“Hm? Oh! No! No no no no no…shh…shh…”
Pulcinella spoke in soothing tones as he came up and embraced the quivering Human, gently stroking her hair.
“You need not worry now, my precious,” he said. “Your esteemed contributions are still required here.”
“What do we do with this one?” One of the Demons asked, and Qrs tensed.
“Throw him back into his cage for now,” Pulcinella waved his hand towards them without looking. “Bring in the new materials as well.”
Qrs chains were removed and fleshy tentacles wrapped around his body before he could react. He flew into his cage, casually tossed from where he had been bound. The door slammed shut even as he reeled from the impact.
“Careful, now,” Pulcinella said. “Careful. We’re done with healing our volunteer until we find more work for him.”
The second Demon came in with a covered cart, rolling it in front of the Human Chef.
“For your new menu,” Pulcinella gestured grandly towards her.
The Human stretched her arm towards the tarp covering the cart.
“What is it?”
“I’m so glad that you asked, my bright and lovely Anise!” Pulcinella gushed, “A wondrous, exotic and plentiful supply of materials from the north has come into our possession.”
The Human’s hand stopped at the fiend’s words.
“Not Humans, of course,” Pulcinella answered the growing look of horror on her face. “You have graduated beyond the need to practice with the materials most familiar to you. No, we are past that – we are going international! Cosmopolitan! A world of fine dining awaits, my magnificent Chef Anise!”
At Pulcinella’s continued prompting, the Human threw back the cover. The prisoners around the room all looked curiously at the contents. They watched as the Human reached in and withdrew a furred arm, tipped with long claws. She placed it on the table, poking and prodding it experimentally.
“Smells like Armat,” one of the Gnolls said.
The Armats placed in a corner of the room froze. The largest one turned an accusatory glare at Pulcinella.
“Y-you lied to us!” She shouted, “You said you wouldn’t feed us our own kind! You promised!”
Was there a promise like that? It certainly didn’t apply to Qrs.
“My dear friends,” Pulcinella parted his hands in a disarming gesture, “Would I lie to you? When have I ever failed to deliver on my promises?”
The prisoners around the building fell silent, and audible swallows could be heard. Their faces – the ones Qrs could read, anyways – made it clear that whatever promises were made, the results were undesirable, at best.
“Now, my lovely Anise,” Pulcinella turned back to the Human, “work your culinary magic. Fresh, new discoveries await!”
The Human brought several pieces to the counter, laying them out separately from one another. Her brow furrowed as she frowned down on the seemingly random assortment. Qrs peered at the nearby countertop to the closest piece. It was a mess of blood and fur: a limb that looked like it had been ripped off. Rather than being separated at a joint or even at some point along the arm, half of its shoulder was still attached. Protrusions of bone where the shoulder had been shattered by some brutal blow glistened in the firelight.
The fur and hide gave off a reddish, metallic sheen: it was clearly not Armat, but it did share some similarities. If this was the case, the appearance indicated the strength of the individual it came from – like the Armat, whatever race the parts belonged to might have consumed ores that strengthened their natural defences. Even a moderately strong member would have fur that offered more protection than the best of what the Humans of the wall used for armour.
Qrs questioned whether he could have done this himself, let alone in such reliable frequency. His gaze went to the other pieces on the counter. They were in a similar condition to the first, but they were all from different bodies. The coloration, textures and size were all different, no two exactly the same.
The Human continued her work, turning out dish after aromatic dish. The cart was emptied, and Qrs wondered what great warrior had fallen upon these people. He couldn’t imagine the sort of battle that had ensued to produce these grisly results. That was, until a Demon came in with another cart.
“How much more do you need?” The Demon asked the Chef.
The Human looked up from her work. Her mouth twitched as her eyes fell over the grotesque form across from her.
“H-how much?” She looked at the orders strung up in front of her, then around the room, “We’re about one third done here…is there enough? Or do we have to…”
The Human turned her gaze towards Qrs in his cage, and he felt himself bristle. A dull anger rose out of the pit of his stomach. If not for the bars of his cage, he would tear this disgusting creature apart. These Humans had no pride; no honor: they were filth below even the most desperate Goblin.
“No need,” the Demon said, “we got plenty. Should last a place like this for years.”
Qrs’ mouth fell open. He stopped keeping track of all of the different corpses. Years? It wasn’t a battle: it was a massacre. An endless tide of bodies shredded the force of some unfathomably powerful monster. Maybe this was the true power of Jaldabaoth, who so frivolously toyed with so many of the greatest champions of the wilderness tribes. No one could fight this. They could only run, and pray that he did not pursue them.
A loud bang jarred him out of his thoughts. A tentacled Demon holding a studded metal rod had struck the corner of his cage.
“What’s your order?” It demanded, “Chef’s closing up soon.”
Qrs glowered silently at the Demon, and it returned his look with a sneer.
“Ah, I get it,” it spat out of a side mouth. “Just can’t get over the taste of yourself, can you? You Demis really are hopeless animals.”
A tentacle reached over and snatched a metal bowl from the counter.
“Hey!” Someone complained, “That’s my order!”
“Shaddap,” an unseen mouth shot back, “Chef’ll make you another.”
The bowl was tossed between the bars of the cage, landing in front of Qrs.
“Have a taste of civilization, you filthy savage.”
Qrs stared at the bowl until long after it had cooled. He finally reached out to take it.
Without the constant haze of pain visited upon him during previously prepared meals, cold reason returned. Senara was right: he needed to escape, somehow. To maximize his chances, he needed to recover and keep his strength up. He would wait for the opportunity that must eventually come. He needed to return home to his family and tribe; to get them away, before they were all subjected to the sick touch of Jaldabaoth. He prayed to his ancestors that he wouldn’t be too late.