Garen watched as his small wife gathered their children together. He was up in the vent on the side of the building, and she and the kids were down on the ground near a tuft of grass. With a wave to let them know he was okay, he turned back into the motel.
People needed saving. And he might be the only one around who could help.
An insidious poison was leaking into the walls, infecting their homes and killing any that remained. Now that his family was out and safe, Garen could focus on any others that might still be trapped inside.
He didn't wonder where the poison had come from. He already knew that the humans would have their precious pest control do the dirty work, wiping all the small families from existence in the course of a single day.
The moment he was out of sight from Risa and the children, Garen was off and running. With them safe, he focused on the next most important task - saving as many people as he could before the poison could catch them.
The closest home to where he was would be Bardolph's. Garen angled in that direction, trying to increase the length of his strides. With the motel being sprayed for pests, there was no reason for him to try and be quiet. No humans would be around and he had to get there in time. The kid had no one else looking out for him after being separated from his family a year back.
As he ran, he ripped off the bottom of his shirt, tying it around his mouth and nose to form a makeshift mask. At this point the poison was starting to infiltrate even the air that looked clean and clear, starting to spread to every corner of their homes and passageways.
It wasn't long before he heard a voice calling out in the murk, "Garen? Risa? Y'all okay?"
A brief, pained cough interrupted Bardolph's calls. Garen's heart lurched. Bardolph was already small for his age, barely reaching Garen's shoulder, if that. Hell, Risa had height on the kid. And, from his life before coming to the motel he was frail from years of malnutrition. The last thing he needed was another health problem.
After he'd arrived, Garen and Risa had taken the 21 year old under their wing, helping him find a new home and offering him food whenever they could. He was a good kid. It wasn't his fault he'd lost the only home he knew.
Bardolph had lived with his family in a large human apartment complex, states away from the motel Garen and Risa called home. One fateful morning, he'd been up early gathering what he could find for supplies in the kitchen. From the way he'd explained it, the family that lived in that particular apartment was never awake before nine in the morning, so early morning expeditions there were common. In fact, the human teens that lived there were always up late at night, leaving the morning far safer.
As luck would have it, the human family had been planning to leave for vacation that one fateful morning. When he'd slipped up to the counter, they'd woken up. People were suddenly in and out of the kitchen constantly, stranding him hiding near the chips they had with nowhere to run.
In the pandemonium that followed, no one had noticed when Bardolph was swept into the bag of snacks along with the chips.
After a harrowing, twelve hour drive trapped in a bag of food, surrounded by humans constantly, they'd arrived at a motel.Garen's motel, in Colorado.
He'd confided in Garen that it had been the most terrifying twelve hours of his life. The only thing going for him during that time was that the chips and crackers hadn't crushed the life out of him the way other human items might have if he'd been trapped in another bag. None of the humans had peered in far enough to see him cowering down at the bottom, but he'd had to dodge massive hands more than once, almost scooped up along with the rest of the food. It would be all too easy to end up between a hand and its goal, and he was small enough that they might not even notice at first. That alone could cost him his life.
Each moment in there could have been his last.
The moment the humans had left the bag of food alone in their room, he'd dashed off, finding a crack in the wall that he could slip into to hide. Luck had finally won out and he'd discovered a passageway in the walls that the borrowers living there used for travel. Garen has been the one to discover him, curled into a corner in tears after realizing just how far from home he really was.
That family had left before they'd been able to find him a way to get him back on the road to home, and ever since Garen and Risa had treated him as family. His strange accent and polite ways endeared him to anyone that talked to him and he continued to give off a bright-eyed innocence even after everything he'd lost.
Bardolph's thin voice spoke up again in the murky dark, calling out to anyone that was close by. Garen covered his face with his arm, adding an extra layer of protection as he dove through a cloud of poison that separated them from each other.
He stumbled right into the younger man, unable to see past the tears leaking out of his eyes.
Bardolph caught him in surprise, helping the taller man remain standing. "Garen!" he gasped out in startlement. "You're alright? Where's miss Risa an' the young'ns?"
Garen grabbed his shoulders, wasting no time glancing around for openings. The poison had at last covered the passageway he'd come from. There was no way back. "They're fine. Safe," he informed Bardolph. "We'll find them once we get out of this hellhole."
He bodily turned the disoriented Bardolph around, pushing him into a run and quickly following. He directed the younger kid down the last open passageway left to them.
Away from Risa. Away from his family.
Through the twisting passageways, they ran. Garen's mind was laser focused on his goal, sorting out a familiar, dangerous path from his memories of the layout of the passageways he'd traveled for years now. This path would lead them in the opposite direction from where he'd left his family. Instead of exiting to the fields and forest behind the motel, this exit would lead them into the parking lot, a massive area of hot blacktop and straight-edged sidewalks, with very little cover for two vulnerable borrowers. They'd have to find cover fast out there. Humans could be anywhere.
Halfway there, Bardolph started coughing again, a dry, hacking cough that filled Garen with worry. "Here," he mumbled quietly, trying to keep his vocalizations down to a minimum in the still air. He ripped the makeshift mask off his face and tied it around Bardolph's. "This should help."
Glassy blue eyes blinked thankfully back at him. Garen winced at the yellowed tears etching long trails down his face, knowing he must look about the same at this point.
He forced them both into a run, knowing the stinging in their eyes and the hacking, painful cough was just the beginning. If they didn't move, they'd die, lost and forgotten in the bowels of the motel. They had to get out of this deathtrap.
The exit soon came into view - a small air vent that lead to the outside. It was only suspended a few feet above the ground, an easy climb for either man. He let go of Bardolph's arm, dropping to his knees to dig through his bag to find a familiar scrap of metal. Once it was in hand he wedged it in the vent, creating a makeshift lever to pry open the slots. They were thick enough once opened for them both to slip out of, easily. Bright sunlight leaked through as soon as he managed to open it enough.
Garen anchored his hook, feeding the string he used for climbing down the outside of the wall. "Okay, kid. You're up," he said, leading Bardolph to it. He didn't give the other man a chance to argue, practically shoving him out the opening. Bardolph was as agile a climber as anyone, he'd be able to handle a few feet with a string, no problem.
Garen waited a few seconds before following to give the kid enough time to get clear of the vent.
He was too busy glancing behind him to track the progress of the poisoned haze that was following him to see the shadow that moved the moment Bardolph was outside.
Glad to see the misty wall of poison had stopped advancing towards his position, Garen slung his bag across his shoulders, preparing for his own climb. He went to swing down the rope, peering down to see how far his smaller friend had gotten in the moments he'd been gone. His eyebrows furrowed.
Bardolph was gone.
Before that thought could sink into his mind, another shadow moved. Garen glanced up, paling when he saw the massive hand heading straight for him.
With a yelp, Garen let go of the string. He plummeted over a foot before grabbing on again. His hand was shredded open from the friction as he tightened his grasp, slowing his descent before he hit the ground. His feet dangled a bare inch off the ground at the end of his fall.
Letting go of the string, Garen hit the ground running. Two other humans stood near the vent, backed against the wall so that they were out of sight. One was standing with something clasped in an unforgiving fist. Garen't heart dropped when he realized what it must be.
Should have looked out the vent, shouldn't have had him go out so fast... crap. This is all my fault!
He'd led them both into a trap.
Before he could get more than a foot away, a huge black shoe slammed down in front of him. Garen skid to a halt, darting to the side without a second to spare.
A voice rumbled overhead, chuckling at Garen's pathetic escape attempt. "See, boys? What did I tell you. They're like rats. A little poison in the right places and they all come scurrying out."
Another shoe blocked his second attempt. Garen cursed this time as he backed away, hands out to the side for balance. He looked skyward at the giant, taking in his foe. Sharp silver eyes met ice cold blue.
One of the shoes roughly nudged him from behind. He was sent sprawling to the ground, gravel and dust embedding into his palm.
The human was toying with him!
Like a cat with a captive mouse, the human corralled the far smaller man with simple nudges of his shoe. Every time Garen tried to get up and slip away he was sent rolling until he just stayed down, glaring up at the humans snickering at him with an angry, hateful glare. Bardolph was still trapped in that massive fist. Garen was afraid to know what it was like. He couldn't even see any of his friend sticking out.
The man with the blue eyes stooped down at last, plucking him up between two fingers. Garen struggled mightily against fingers the same size as him, trying to get out of the unforgiving grasp before he was too high off the ground.
Then it was too late.
Almost six feet in the air, he was held up in front of the human's cold eyes. "This one's a fighter, boys!" he said gamely, turning Garen about every which way to take in his new captive. "He'll last much longer than that other one, that's for sure. That little guy won't last a month from the look of things."
Garen's eyes widened in outrage. They were talking about Bardolph. Sweet, innocent Bardolph who was ever-failingly polite to everyone he'd met and had never hurt so much as a fly. Hell, Garen doubted he'd ever so much as yelled at another person.
"If he won't last a month," Garen spat, "why don't you just let him go. He doesn't belong to you!"
The eyes narrowed. The pressure where he was pinched on his sides increased in increments. "Now, I don't think you know what you are, insect. You are a specimen, not a person. A specimen can't make demands." He glanced away, lowering Garen like he didn't matter as he addressed another human that was lurking near the motel being sprayed for pests. Trying to find any other of Garen's people.
Thank god Risa and the kids made it out back... they might escape these humans yet.
Garen started struggling immediately. None of the fingers would budge. He realized that the man was calling for specimen containers right as the other human holding Bardolph captive unfurled his hand, revealing the small blonde man, shaking fearfully in place as he stared up at the massively thick fingers around him. Any one of those fingers could crush the life from the small southerner.
Another human appeared with two boxes in hand, holding one out to the man with Garen. He was stuffed inside against his protests, the opening sealed behind him with a sickening click.
Xander kept to himself for the most part, arms wrapped around his legs while he sat curled into a corner.
His cagemates had never talked much. It was an unspoken rule among them to never mention their past lives before the lab. There was no way to know when the lab techs were listening with all the strange, unknowable human technology spread out in the room around them, and no one wanted to risk the lab techs figuring out that there were others they could trap.
His fist clenched on the simple white outfit he wore. Lab techs. Another name for the disgusting humans that kept them captive. Huge, grabbing creatures that had abducted them from their homes, trapping them in sterile cages and keeping them prisoners.
Xander hadn't bothered acknowledging his fellow prisoners in months. Of the two others, the younger had taken to staring out at their surroundings with blank, dead eyes, and the older... well, after his last round of testing, he was blind. He'd been taking the time to try and find his way around the cage without being able to see. There had been talk among the lab techs the last time Xander had been taken out of using specimen ten for their latest LD50 test.
Xander knew what that meant all too well.
It was a test that had a 50% survivability rating, at the most. It was only ever administered to test subjects that had a low chance of survivability, due to how difficult more borrowers were to obtain, or to those that were... intransient.
He'd been shocked that he'd made it. Watching that huge needle lower towards his small arm while a huge hand held him motionless and helpless... he'd thought it was the end.
Somehow, a rare stroke of 'luck' had hit (if you could call it luck to still be trapped by humans), and he'd survived that day. Ever since, he'd taken to glaring out of the cage at his captors instead of yelling at them. He wasn't suicidal. Not yet.
Even after being trapped in this sterilized hellhole for the last three years of his life, longer than anyone else, there was a tiny spark deep down inside that held out hope. One day, he wanted to see the sun again. Dive down dark, reassuring tunnels, eat food that wasn't in concentrated pellet form, or drink water from a bowl. More than once, that spark had almost been snuffed out. Seeing his family torn asunder. Watching the relentless approach of the needle. The realization that the humans considered them disposable.
But that spark of hope burned on and so he endured.
One of the doors to the room slammed open. Xander watched, as wary as a rabbit eyeing a hawk as it floated on the thermals above as the lab techs entered the room. Two boxes that he recognized all too well were clutched in enormous hands, carelessly dangling down by the side. Xander winced at what the two people inside must be going through.
He stood, tracking the human’s progress with unblinking dark brown eyes. He knew what was coming next.
Before removing their captives from the boxes, each lab tech put on a pair of rubber gloves. The snap! that echoed throughout the room as they did so made Xander flinch, remembering the times he'd been handled by those same hands.
The struggling figures were pulled out into the flourescent light of the room. A taller man with dark brown hair started shouting angrily the moment he was in open air, and the other...
Is that a... child?
Xander's heart sank at the thought. At least when he'd been captured the children had escaped, along with his sweet sister. For a child to be subjected to the horrors of this place... there truly would be a hell on earth.
He closed his eyes to the pained cries of the pair, knowing what they were going through right now. Stripped. Washed and deloused. Branded with their specimen number. Xander's own brand with a 1 on his back started itching at the thought. Dressed in the simple white clothing that the rest of the captives were already wearing. No socks, no shoes. Just bare feet and simple white clothes.
He didn't open his eyes until there was an angry, cursing shout, followed by a thin, wailing scream of pain. He saw the blonde kid held steady between fingers bigger than he was, the thin, metal rod that was used for branding the borrowers held between equally large and unforgiving fingers.
Once the first branding was finished, the humans started to chatter amongst themselves, like the captive audience in the cages nearby couldn't understand them.
"So, boss. Where should I put this one?" the lab tech that had just finished branding the little blonde kid asked. He swabbed a burn gel over the painful brand before forcing a white shirt over the struggling kid's head. The finishing touch was forcing the tiny guy in his hands to drink down a nasty concoction; Xander knew it was used to flush the poison from the pesticides these humans used to capture them with.
The blue-eyed tech jerked his head at the center cage of the five that lined the edge of the counter. Xander's cage. "Just toss him in with the others. He's pretty frail, he probably won't last the month. No use putting him in his own cage." He held the brown-haired man up to his eyes. "Twenty-two, on the other hand, is a fighter. With this kind of spirit we should get plenty of use out of him." He chuckled darkly. "He'll get the end cage all to himself. Can't have the other's picking on him. And did you see these eyes? I've never seen anything like them."
Xander backed away from the door as the first tech came over. The blonde-haired kid was dropped in, sent tumbling to the ground from the force. He curled into a ball as the human snapped the massive lock back on the door, tears streaking down his face as his body shook with silent sobs.
With one of his cagemates unresponsive and staring into space, and the other one unable to see what was actually happening, Xander hesitantly came over to the kid's side. "Hey, kid. You alright?" he asked softly, dark brown eyes flashing to the humans to make sure they couldn't hear him. He put a hand on the kid's shoulder, carefully rolling him onto his back so he could see his face.
Bright blue eyes stared up at him in confusion. Xander almost recoiled from the sight. The only man he'd ever known with blue eyes was the tech in charge of their prison, a cold, heartless human. But this guy was small and young, his eyes wide and innocent as he stared fearfully up. But he was older than Xander had thought. Instead of the expected nine or ten-year-old child, the blonde kid might be in his late teens, early twenties. It was hard to tell from such a trusting, innocent face.
And from what the tech had said, he might have a death sentence hanging over his head, just because he was a little smaller than everyone else.
As soon as he realized where he was, the kid was up in a flash, his blue eyes wide and desperate. "G-Garen!" he called out, blinking away tears.
Before Xander could react, he dashed to the edge of the cage, calling out for the other man. The tech that had dropped him in gave the cage a disdainful flick at his cries, knocking everyone over. "Pest."
Xander got his arms around the small, scrawny kid, stopping him from making another scene. "Hey, hey, hey... calm down. Trust me, you don't want them back over here."
"But... they gah Garen! He an' miss Risa are mah only friends!" The little guy was almost disconsolate, trying to wipe away tears at the thought.
The accent almost threw Xander off. He'd never heard anything like it before, yet it flowed naturally out of the other guy's mouth. Out of the corner of his eye, Xander caught sight of the little guy's friend, Garen, being held down. He focused on trying to distract the kid from what was about to happen to his only friend, talking fast as he could. "Only two friends? Well, we'll have to take care of that now, won't we." He wrinkled his nose. "No one should just have two friends." This, of course, was stretching the truth. Xander hadn't had friends in years. Just people that shared the same cage as him.
It was strange. It had been over a year since he'd even cared what someone else was going through, the constant exposure to the humans and their cruel 'testing' process burning that part of him away. He'd started to think it was gone completely, crushed to nothingness by cruel hands and careless humans, yet the sight of this small, fragile guy with his big trusting eyes ignited a surprising protectiveness in Xander.
"Whoa," he said as the other guy tried to look at his friend Garen again. "Here. Focus on me. You can't do anything to help him just like he can't do anything to help us, so there's no use fretting over him. You never even told me your name yet, kid." If he could keep the kid from panicking or raising a fuss, they'd all be better off, especially after what the humans had said about him being smaller than the others. They’d be waiting for an excuse to use him for their most fatal tests. "They call me Xander. How about you?"
The blue eyes blinked back at him. "Bardolph. Ahm Bardolph."
A shout of pain filled the room. Xander tried desperately to keep Bardolph's focus on him, grasping at whatever straws he could. "Bardolph? That's a mouthful to say. Say, how's Barry sound? I'm gonna call you Barry."
Barry stared at him in confusion, sufficiently distracted from his friend's pain. "Barry?" It almost sounded like he was trying out a foreign language. "Buh mister Xander sir..."
Xander cut him off. "What, you've never had a nickname before? It's perfect! Nice and short, just like you! And what's this mister sir business. I'm just Xander." Now that it didn't seem likely that Barry was going to dash off and make a scene, Xander straightened to his full height, almost a whole four inches. Barry only came up to his chest when he straightened in turn. The kid didn’t even top three and a quarter.
Xander brushed a hand through his sharp salt-and-pepper hair with a sigh. He was barely twenty four, but after three years living in constant fear and distress, stressing his way through every night, he was going grey early.
The humans, finally finished with Garen, stuck him in the empty end cage, locking it up behind the taller man. Garen glanced towards Barry and Xander, his own face full of the same fear and pain that Barry had. He walked tenderly to the side of the his cage, clearly trying to avoid the shirt rubbing against his own brand.
Xander couldn't blame him. And Garen didn't even have anyone around to help reassure him or offer comfort. What little they had to offer in this hopeless place.
After all, out of the now twenty-two captives that had been here since Xander's arrival as 'specimen one,' eight had succumbed to the testing, two were blind as a result, and the rest lived in constant fear of the same. There was no visible escape, no opportunities to run. Nothing but cold walls, unfriendly faces, and constant testing.
Pushing those thoughts from his mind, Xander gave Barry a friendly pat on the shoulder, careful to keep away from the 21 that made up the fresh brand on his back. There was no use scaring the kid and telling him what was going to happen to them in the subsequent days and weeks that lay ahead. Barry would need to keep his spirit and his strength up so that the humans never got an excuse to run their dreaded LD50 test. "Don't worry, kid. If Garen can't keep an eye out for you, you've got me. We'll watch each other's backs in this hellhole."
He forced a friendly smile on his face, hating that he was giving false hope. "That's what friends do, right?"