The clang of metal filled the world, jolting Qrs from his slumber. He jerked upright, pulse hammering through his veins. A bowl of food landed in front of him with a dull clatter.
“Breakfast,” a tentacled Demon spat.
Qrs peered through raw eyes as it loped around the room. Another bang filled the building, followed by the startled yip of a Gnoll. Amusement from the Demon’s multiple maws filled the air.
He glanced at the edges of his cage. The tentacled Demon had been bashing the cages with its metal rod again, drawing amusement from their flinching reactions and startled cries. Over the past few weeks, the hinges of his cage were slowly being worked loose. Qrs relaxed and closed his eyes again, leaning against the bars.
Surely enough, the cage jolted, and the sound set his ears to ringing.
“Food’s getting cold, ya lazy swine!”
Qrs jumped up with a fearful cry, looking wide eyed at the eyeless Demon, who ‘peered’ back at him with several grins. Qrs reached down to take his meal, and the Demon continued on it’s way.
It was shameful, but the act worked. As long as you entertained it, it would continue performing the same actions to draw more amusement. He looked to the hinges of his cage again. They were never let out, so it seemed that the Demon didn’t notice as a result.
Could he force the door? He could. He was sure of it. Qrs had forced himself to take as much food as he could, and the weeks that had passed allowed him to recover by a significant amount. He took inventory of the prisoners and looked around for any other fiends. It appeared that the tentacled Demon was the only one present, and it was one he could quickly overwhelm with the right circumstances.
Qrs exchanged glances with the Hobgoblin across from him and nodded.
A retching noise filled the room, and a putrid stench permeated the air. The Demon turned and looked up at the Hobgoblin, who was crying and retching and making all sorts of pitiful noises.
“Oy! What’s this now?”
“I-I’m so dizzy…the cage…everything’s spinning…hurgphblg!”
The Hobgoblin fell onto her hands and knees, retching again. The Demon loped over towards her cage.
“Eh? This again? You wanna be taken for another spin? No problem, sweetie!”
The Demon leaned its rod against the central counter and lifted the cage with its tentacles. The Hobgoblin wailed as she was tossed and spun in the air, joined by the raucous laughter of the Demon.
Qrs grasped the bars of his cage.
“「Greater Ability Boost」.”
The Martial Art filled his body with strength, and he gave the bars a solid push. The hinges came off, their light clink masked by the clamour on the other side of the building. He quietly worked the door the rest of the way open, then set it down softly before padding forward.
He darted around the table and snatched the studded rod, working it around and over his head.
The Demon’s bulbous body collapsed with a wet crunch. The spinning cage with the Hobgoblin landed on top of it.
Qrs eyed the crushed Demon, alert for any sign of life. It didn’t move, leaking strangely-coloured ichor over the ground. There was a gasp to his right, and he turned his head: it was the Human, still holding her knife.
White hot fury filled him at the sight of his tormentor. The rod swept out across the table, swatting the Human’s head off of her shoulders. Qrs leapt over in a rage, smashing the decapitated corpse on the ground over and over again.
“Hey, stop wasting time! Get us outta here!”
He looked up, breath heaving. A Gnoll was calling out to him from a half-broken cage. A few of the other prisoners had managed to wrest open their own, but several still looked stuck. He raised his weapon, and the Gnoll stepped back.
The lock and latch came cleanly off of the door, and it creaked open. Imitating that pest, Buser – just how far had he fallen? The irritating thought cooled his rage, and he let out a complicated sigh. A half minute later, all of the cages were open. Qrs leaned on his weapon, watching the Hobgoblin who had distracted their warden wobble out of her own cage.
“Thanks for that,” Qrs said.
“Hey, I’m just glad it worked,” she replied, “I–blorpgh.”
The Hobgoblin vomited again.
“Gross,” Qrs stepped back from the expanding puddle – how did she have so much stowed away?
“Your ass is gross,” she retorted after wiping her mouth. “And I mean that literally. I have no idea what that Human kept adding when she was cooking you up. They can keep their high cuisine to themselves – I can’t wait till I get my hands on some proper food.”
The Hobgoblin walked over to the headless Human, prying the knife out of her hands. She walked back to one of the other Hobgoblins, who was still chained up. Its dull gaze still stared forward as she slashed its throat out.
“W-what are you doing!”
“Mercy,” she replied. “That’s no way to live. They were trading organs between a bunch of the prisoners here, and he was one of them…I don’t think any of them are fit to move. Best to put them out of their misery before they become part of some other insane experiment.”
“Did you know who that was?” Qrs asked.
“My mate, actually,” the Hobgoblin said flatly.
“Why?” She snorted, “You didn’t do shit. Well, you did give me indigestion.”
The Hobgoblin continued around the building, and Qrs looked about. Some of the prisoners had taken the Human’s other utensils, while the rest held firewood or whatever else they thought they could use. Despite their ordeals, those who stood looked ready to fight. He went to one of the openings where a Gnoll was cautiously poking its head out. The tall Hyena Beastman sniffed the air, rounded ears twitching this way and that as it surveyed the morning gloom.
“Anything?” Qrs asked.
“Nothing,” he replied. “Quiet.”
A rare mist accompanied the morning, clinging to the ground and slope beyond. There was no sign that anyone was aware of what had happened. Two Ogres made their way out towards the treeline, tall figures looking painfully exposed in the growing daylight. Nothing happened, however, and they disappeared into the trees. Several others started filtering out of the building, darting away into the mist. Qrs stepped forward as well, and he didn’t look back.
As he made his way through the sparse cover, he tried to get his bearings. The thinly wooded vegetation marked him as somewhere at the edge of the Abelion Hills, but the landscape could have been anywhere along a band that stretched across the north. If he kept on going north, there were three possibilities: he would find his own territory, end up facing his neighbors to the west of his own home, or he would be overwhelmed and eaten by the Zern.
There was also the matter of his son…Qrs shook the thought from his mind. He had no idea where he himself was, never mind where his son was, and his family and tribe were still out there somewhere. Tens of thousands of lives hinged on his warning – that was, if they were still there. Continuing on his way, he tried to pick his way northeast while staying clear of any outcroppings or clearings; fiends could often fly, and he didn’t want to risk being spotted by a patrol from above.
The sound of several others reminded him that he was not alone on his trek, and he glanced over his shoulder to see who was still following. Most of the prisoners from the building had dispersed, but some of them still trailed after him. As a warrior, he wasn’t exactly the sneaky sort so he didn’t think they would make his escape more noticeable than it already was, but the nine or so were still a curious sight.
Gnolls lived near his own people’s territory, so seeing them headed the same direction was not a surprise. They were natural hunters, however, so they should have been handily outpacing him through the rugged terrain. Perhaps they were sticking close for mutual protection against Jaldabaoth’s fiends…or there was something that they wanted from him. Several Hobgoblins and Armat followed him as well, which struck him as odd.
“I get why the Gnolls are coming this way,” he said, “but what about the rest of you?”
“Our tribes lived in the central hills,” one of the Hobgoblins said, "so our homes were overrun by fiends. There is nothing left to return to, and we have a debt to repay to you as well.”
“I don’t plan on stopping after I get home,” Qrs told them. “Once I get there, I’m packing up and running with my people.”
“We are of the same mind,” one of the Gnolls yipped in agreement. “Fighting is folly against this Jaldabaoth. We will convince our tribes to flee east as well.”
“Are you saying we should band together?” Qrs frowned.
“Yes,” the Gnoll nodded. “Beyond, we are simply intruders – they may not know of Jaldabaoth. If our pack is large, it would be harder for others to resist us, and easier for us to hunt down those who try.”
It was a straightforward line of thinking, the downsides being far outweighed by the benefits of the arrangement. The tribes of the Abelion Hills generally did not mingle, save for the ones who attended the festival – and only for that – but the threat represented by Jaldabaoth was so great that it had created a common cause: to flee far beyond the Demon God’s reach. For that, they needed enough force to punch through whoever didn’t get out of their way.
Qrs grunted his agreement.
“Do you know which way we should be heading?” He asked the Gnolls.
“We are going in the right direction,” one replied, “and it is too dangerous to cross high ground to shorten our journey. It will be two days until we are well within your territory.”
“Go ahead and blaze the trail,” Qrs motioned with a hand. “Your kind are far better at this than mine.”
The largest Gnoll stepped ahead, and their pace quickened. The days passed in silence as they saved their breaths: months of languishing in cages had stolen away much of their strength and conditioning, and it would take time to fully recover. Fortunately, there was no sign of pursuit. After stopping for two brief periods of rest, the arid hills gave way to the lush band of forested lowlands below the foothills of the border ranges. The scent of moisture rolled over them from the north. Mixed in with it now, however, was the scent of smoke.
“It’s woodsmoke,” he said around midday, “but it’s far too thick. Is it safe enough to climb up the ridge and check?”
Everyone exchanged glances, then looked up to the ridge above them. While the arid climate of the hills left their heights dry and exposed to the elements, the trees now gave enough cover that Qrs thought it might be safe enough to look around without being spotted from a distance by any pursuers.
“I’ll go,” an Armat with rust-coloured fur said.
It scurried into the undergrowth without waiting for a reply, disappearing within a few seconds. The group continued up a shallow riverbed that the Gnolls recognized would lead north towards their territory. An hour later, the Armat caught up with them.
“Smoke rises from the west,” he reported. “Fires, coming closer.”
The group slowed down as they digested the news. Worries crept out of the shadows of Qrs’ mind. They were well within his territory now, and the fires described were possibly the villages of the tribes under his leadership.
“How far away were they?” Qrs asked, “How fast were they advancing?”
“The closest fires are one day away, maybe,” the Armat looked up at him. “I didn’t stay long enough to see if anything new appeared. The smoke has not drifted too far – they are new, or perhaps strong winds have dispersed them.”
“The scent is new,” a Gnoll reasoned, “it must be recent or we would have caught wind of it days ago. We must hurry.”
“You Gnolls have farther to travel,” Qrs nodded, “and you’re faster than we are – go on ahead and find your people. We can meet again in the east.”
Qrs wondered if it would be as easy as he said. Gnoll tribes were nomadic, and wandered quite a bit; finding their tribe members wasn’t as simple as heading towards a permanent settlement.
“The river ford, then?” One of the Gnolls asked.
“It’s the nearest place for the both of us to cross,” Qrs agreed. “The other side will be rough, so we’ll want to gather our strength before heading in. If any of my people stop you…well, I don’t have anything on me that they’ll recognize, so try to avoid being detected.”
“Then we go,” the Gnoll replied.
The four Gnolls sprinted off and out of sight. Qrs looked back at the Armat and Hobgoblins.
“This place is far from our lands,” one of the Armat said. “We know not of this river, or its crossing.”
“I guess you’re coming with me, then,” Qrs said. “We’re still two days away from my place at this rate…can you run any faster?”
They all shook their heads.
“You’re far stronger than us – the reason for their profane experiment, yes?”
Qrs grimaced at the mention of the grotesque events. The group of former prisoners clearly deferred to him, so he felt obliged to lead. At the same time, he wanted to get home as quickly as possible: if he was on his own, he would be able to make it within the day. He looked around, scratching his head as he tried to think of a good alternative. His vision came across a familiar landmark, and he looked back to the group, stretching his hand out to the east.
“Do you see that bald hilltop over there?”
Their gazes followed his gesture. The Armat shook their heads, but the Hobgoblins were tall enough to spot what he was pointing to and nodded.
“If you climb up halfway,” Qrs explained, “you’ll see a big river on the other side coming out of a canyon. There’s a place where the rapids settle into the ford that the Gnolls were talking about. You should be able to make it there before we get our tribes moving, so you can start collecting food and whatever else you think you’ll need for the journey once you get there.”
“What if we run into others?” The Hobgoblin female from the prison camp asked, “We have recovered a portion of our strength, but we are still few.”
“You won’t have to worry about that,” Qrs answered. “This part of the wilderness is my territory, so you shouldn’t run into anyone on the way. Across the river is a big stretch of Bugbear territory, which is why we’re gathering there first.”
The Hobgoblin nodded with an understanding look.
“Very well,” she said. “We’ll begin organizing things once we arrive. When should we expect you, Qrs?”
“Not more than a week – sooner, if it looks like those fires are advancing. We’ll be bringing what provisions we can.”
“Then the time for talk has ended,” the Hobgoblin said. “We will see you when we see you.”