Benjamin found the signpost just as he was beginning to consider taking his chances back at the asylum, a splintering, ancient thing that seemed to have merged with a raggedy bush. He'd walked alongside the ravine for hours, cold and miserable, as well as terrified that Sedor or one of those helmeted wolves would catch up to him at any moment. There didn't seem to be any way across the ravine other than the asylum's bridge, and he would surely freeze to death before he reached the end. Wherever Cunninghorn had ended up after Sedor was through with him, the cheetah hoped it wasn't nice.
The signpost was a godsend, he was sure of it. He parted the branches of the bush so he could better see the signs. There were three in total: one for the asylum pointing back the way he came, one for a place called Swinetown Mine pointing further up the mountain, and a third for a place called Rockmaw Lookout pointing further along the ravine. Benjamin had no idea what Rockmaw Lookout was, but it sounded promising. If he could get a lay of the land, he could find a way back to the city. He looked closer. Something had been scratched into the third sign, a word and a number, 'Subject 12'. He didn't know what that meant and he didn't care.
With renewed hope he pressed on, wary of the occasional crumbling sound he heard coming from the edge of the ravine. Aside from his steadily growing fear that he wouldn't make it off this mountain, his thoughts kept returning to the asylum. The silence Cunninghorn had received from the building prior to Sedor's ambush had been even more frightening than if Benjamin's would-be captors had actually emerged to collect him. Something very illegal had been going on in that place, if the isolation and choice of location had been any indication, and it had involved Sedor and those other missing mammals. Benjamin doubted that they were the ones Cunninghorn had tried to sell him to and wasn't happy at what he pictured what had happened to the original inhabitants.
Something violent had happened in that place, but in terms of survivability the forest wasn't proving a better option. Still, it would take far more than potential hypothermia, dehydration and donut deprivation to make him go back to that place.
At least the forest was more pleasant to be in. A light drizzle had begun, disturbing the leaves and making the trees seem alive. The shadows mixed with the vegetation seemed to pulse and dance, and had him flinching at anything that even remotely resembled another mammal. At least there were no blood and bodies.
He stuck to the edge of the trees, always listening for signs of those monsters from the asylum, until his ears caught the sound of flowing water. Dawn was on its way, but it was still dark enough that he didn't see the steam until he stumbled and found himself standing in soupy mud. The stream poured over the edge and cascaded into the river far below. The river seemed higher up than it did before. "Oh, thank goodness." Benjamin breathed, his mouth having steadily gotten drier over the last few hours. He got down on his knees and reached into the water- omigosh!
The feline recoiled, backing away from the stream like a fat round spider. It wasn't until his heart stopped pounding enough to hurt that he had the courage to approach the river again and take another look at what had scared him.
Staring up at the cheetah like a macabre warning sign was a skull, aged to resemble the rocks that wedged it between them. Benjamin had never seen a skull outside of the Natural History Museum. When he was little, the big centerpiece of the Ice Age Exhibit had been the skeleton of a Mastadon, an extinct species of elephant. When the teacher had told the class of this, he'd thought she'd been lying. The skull could only have belonged to a monster; the massive single nasal cavity in the front of the skull could have been the single eye socket of a cyclops. Elephants couldn't have ever had such awful looking teeth if they only ate vegetables. The skull overall looked so bizarre that the little boy had thought it had come from an alien.
The smaller skull in this little stream was worse than that unnatural monstrosity, because he knew right away what animal it was; a bovine. He could see the large horns curving out from either side of it. This could have been a cow, or a bull, or a buffalo.
Three weeks ago, it could have been Bogo.
The skull and the rocks around seemed to turn a shade lighter as Benjamin stared down at it, and he looked up toward the blazing pink and orange colors of dawn rising up over the silhouetted trees. Above the trees he saw a distant shape that looked vaguely like a cabin.
Benjamin couldn't believe he hadn't realized it sooner. Rockmaw Lookout was a fire lookout tower. From his location by the stream he had no idea if it were occupied or not, but his chances may have just doubled. He could hide from the cold and the crazies for a while, see how far from Zootopia he really was. Maybe he'd even find some stuff he could use. A map, some cans of food, a radio that didn't run out of juice before he could figure out how to use it… heck, a flare gun or even a crossbow and arrows would be great. Some donuts, fresh preferably, would really make his day.
Benjamin passed over the stream and continued on. He could always return to it later on, drink upstream from the skull, and hope he didn't get the poops.
His surroundings grew steadily lighter as he walked, but it was still mostly night when he reached the bottom of the hill on which the tower sat. The decrepit sight of the wooden sign and its unintelligent writing wasn't a good sign, but he'd take what he could get. The path upward was overgrown and steep, and there was no rail to make his ascent easier; the ground was wet and full of rocks, with only the occasional tuft of grass. By the time he reached the top, he was wheezing like a pair of bellows. He stepped onto the wooden deck, noticing that it was grey and speckled with age. He looked through the window, but there wasn't enough light to make out what was inside. It looked like several bundles hanging from the ceiling. It didn't seem to be occupied by any living being, so he tried the handle.
The door turned out to be unlocked. He pushed it open, ready to run at the first sign of movement… and froze, stunned by the new nightmare he had walked into. An oven, sink and minifridge lined the right hand side of the room, beside a sitting area consisting of padded chairs with dark wooden frames set atop a lavish red rug. It was like a trophy room in a Eweropean hunting lodge, only its trophies were being displayed in a manner that was nothing short of chilling. It wasn't bundles that Benjamin had seen through the windows, but birds. Ducks, geese, pigeons, crows, ravens and even a great horned owl hung lifelessly from the ceiling by their talons, wings splayed out in glossy feathered crucifixes, dangling above funnels sunk into small plastic bottles, their red contents reflecting the muted dawn light that fell upon the elegantly crafted coffee table in between the chairs…
Benjamin softly gasped once before finding further breathing difficult.
On the table lay the headless skeleton of a large hooved mammal, its white coat ripped to ragged shreds and discolored in reddish brown stains. The bones were yellowed and covered in what looked like bits of cloth and dirt, or at least that was what he hoped. Benjmain was starting to suspect this was a dream and he was still unconscious in Cunninghorn's car when a greyish black bundle hanging from a beam suddenly unfurled its leathery wings with a loud shriek. The cheetah fell back with a cry, his back hitting the wall beside the open door. It was a bat, a little creature hanging upside down right above the skeleton in white surrounded by dead birds and bottles full of blood. Benjamin pressed himself against the wooden wall and window glass, staring up at the bat, which stared right back with red, curious eyes. Then it flapped its wings once and made sure its featureless red mask was secure. "Oh. I do beg your pardon. I thought you were one of my acquaintances." He spoke with a neutral Animerican accent. For some reason Benjamin had expected Transylmanenian. The bat beckoned the cheetah with a wing. He sounded friendly, but Benjamin wished he could see whatever expression the masked creature was making. "Come closer, stranger. You look thirsty." The bat gestured to the minifridge as he spoke.
Benjamin glanced at the nearest dead bird and quickly held up a paw. "T-thank you, but I don't drink. Blood, I mean."
The bat didn't seem offended, but with the mask on it was impossible to tell. "I meant water. There is clean water in the fridge, if you wish to have some. Would you like some tea? I have power. The kettle works."
Benjamin became aware once more of the dryness in his mouth, which by now had spread to his throat. If he didn't take the bat up on his offer, his chances of survival were halved. Reluctantly he started making his way over to the minifridge, ducking low to avoid the birds. "How do we know it's clean?"
"I keep purifying tablets in the drawer. Better safe than sorry, you know?" The bat almost sounded assuring, but the way his gaze darted around at all his dead birds was unnerving, like he was expecting one of them to suddenly come back to life at any moment. Benjamin reached the minifridge, dreading what he would find. When he opened it, he found more bottles of blood. The narrow shelves on the door contained the water the bat offered. The water looked innocuous in its unmarked bottles, and when he tasted it, it tasted like it had come straight out the tap.
"Thank you." He said, taking care to be polite as he stepped closer to the coffee table.
"Are you Benjamin Clawhauser?" The bat asked.
Benjamin felt a jolt in his chest. "Yes, I am. And you are?"
The bat's response confirmed the cheetah's suspicions of his mental state. "Twelve. Subject Twelve. But I prefer to be called Levvar. Lev, if you stay on my good side."
"Subject… Twelve?" Benjamin took another sip of water and his body shivered. He was still wet and cold. "You said there was tea?"
"In the drawer. Subject Twelve is what the Knave of Hearts called me."
"Knave of…" Benjamin started to consider seeing himself out.
"Slothfeld." Levvar spoke with a hateful hiss that had Benjamin pressing his body to the oven. "I see you are afraid, but do not be. You are more fortunate that you realize. Had the Queen of Hearts' knight brought you here several months ago, you would have ended up just like all the others."
Benjamin poured the water into the kettle and looked for a mug and tea bag, looking again at the dead, drained birds. He paused a bit longer when his eyes fell on the skeleton.
"They never suffer." The bat said as if reading his mind. "After the wolves hunt them, they bring the birds here to be drained for my own meals before they are taken to the asylum to be prepared."
Benjamin's paws clenched around the mug as the kettle hissed behind him. Levvar was one of them. Worse, his 'acquaintances' could come back at any time. Benjamin looked out the windows, but he saw nothing but trees. For now! This guy knows who I am! He knows I'm the guy Sedor's been chasing for over a month! This isn't an out of the frying pan and into the fire scenario, more like out of the fire and into the god-damned trash can! Yet the more Benjamin thought about it, the more he felt bad for Levvar. Just like Sedor and those wolves, something had driven him mad, and was almost certainly this Slothfeld's doing. God only knew what horrors those mammals had been through.
"And that…" Levvar said with another hiss, pointing straight down at the skeleton beneath him. His pupils were dilated, red eclipses blazing down upon the corpse. "Is Slothfeld's assistant. He tried to use our escape to his advantage. He stole the Vorpal Blade and fled with three others, but they died like all the rest."
Benjamin froze in the middle of sipping his tea. All… the rest?
"You said I would end up like the others. What exactly did you mean?" He asked shakily.
"Another chomper for the experiment. Project Twilight. You would not be completely feral, so you couldn't be called savage, but neither would you be sane. On the other hand, you missed one hell of a feast."
Benjamin drank his tea with shaking paws, but it was no longer the cold that affected them. He was getting the wrong idea, he had to be, but the implications were making his skin crawl. What Sedor had done to that ram…
"He only had himself to blame, you know. They all did. They wanted monsters, they created monsters, and then they got monsters. Then the Red Queen and her knight set them free to destroy their makers." Levvar's demeanor had become jovial as he gazed upon the death doctor. "Subject Eight helped me with this one. Knew a toxin that could cause paralysis without erasing the ability to feel pain. To think I once thought floristry was a soft job…"
Benjamin put down his mug without finishing it, physically sick with terror. Shit, shit, shit, he's not just crazy, he's a frickin' mass murderer…
"Thanks for the tea. I-I think I'll be going home, now!" The bat looked him dead in the eye, those crimson irises following the cheetah as he slowly made his way back to the open door.
"I don't think that's a good idea."
Benjamin grabbed the gently swinging door. "I'm sorry, but I really need to go."
Levvar tilted his head. "You don't know, do you? You must have been taken before it happened."
Benjamin paused halfway out the door. "Before what happened? Did something happen in Zootopia?"
Levvar turned his entire body toward the window and observed at the view. The bright orange color was fading away as the weather gradually turned cloudy. "They only had themselves to blame."
Benjamin stared at the bat. "What did you do to the city?"
Levvar removed his mask and turned back to face him. Benjamin saw the uneven grin spreading across the creature's face. "What should have been done a long time ago. Go back to the city, if you wish, but you're no safer down there than you are up here."
"And what is the best way to get there?" Benjamin asked, hoping the answer wasn't the asylum.
"At the end of this ravine is a colliery. Look." Benjamin looked where the bat pointed; he saw some kind of tower with a wheel on it. "An hour's walk, but when you get there you will find a path that will take you straight down to the city. Can you drive?"
"Yeeeahhh…" Benjamin doubted Levvar would care that Finnick had taught him to drive and that he didn't actually own a license.
"Good. Near the colliery is a car. Several months have passed since it was last used, but it will be useable."
That sounded too good to be true. "And why the dickens should I trust you?"
Levvar snickered. "You should be going now. They will be here soon to pick up the birds."
Benjamin stepped out and started to shut the door. Before closing it completely he took one last look at Levvar. The bat had curled his wings back into himself, sheltering his head from the coming daylight and returning to whatever dark fantasies he'd been dreaming before the cheetah had interrupted. "Bye." Benjamin said quietly. He closed the door, leaving Levvar alone with his exsanguinated birds. He managed to get down the hill quicker and easier than when he went up it, and continued on his way along the ravine.
It was a grey cloudy morning when he reached the colliery, an elaborate but dilapidated construction both atop and within the ravine. An orange brick chimney as big as a cell tower was the first thing that caught his eye. "It's a mine." Benjamin realized after an hour of wondering what exactly a colliery was. There was a cluster of large brick buildings situated just far enough from the edge of the ravine that it wasn't dangerous. That would be the best place to start looking for a car. If Levvar had been telling the truth.
Benjamin found wandering through the mine less unsettling than the fire lookout tower full of dead birds, but no less surreal. It was like going back in time while simultaneously being trapped in Purgatory. The place was deserted, and the dull weather had draped a grey, dreary hue upon almost everything his eyes fell on. There was green here too, from the trees, bushes and grass growing in places they shouldn't be growing, like the forest was slowly but surely swallowing the area back up again. Benjamin's unease faded as he explored the empty buildings and observed the abandoned equipment within, his unease giving way to fascination. There was a forge in one corner of the area, full of coal tubs left behind rather than having time wasted repairing them. There were stores and workshops full of things he couldn't even begin to name. The towers and chimney loomed over him like blackened skeletal trees. He found the vehicle in the street outside a building on the edge of the mine, on the far side of the ravine. It stood beneath a pine tree on the edge of the street beside the open doors to the building, a modern anomaly covered in fallen needles. It was an unmarked, bulky black jeep, designed specifically for wild terrain. Benjamin raced over and grabbed at the door handle. The door stayed put.
Sweet sprinkles, you just had to be locked, didn't you?!
Benjamin looked through the window. The keys weren't in the ignition, but the gas meter was full, and the lack of dead bodies was also a bonus. If God was real and actually gave a crap about his creations, then the keys wouldn't have gone far.
The cheetah kicked the wheel of the jeep before going to the open entrance into the building and stopping dead in the doorway. What he saw inside wasn't horrifying or even remotely creepy. It was just surprising.
He was looking at a camp site set up in the wide space between the entrance and the large grey shaft that housed the elevator to the mines underground, only it didn't look like the campers were here for hiking. Everything about the site screamed black. There were black cases, black sleeping bags, even a black camping stove covered in dust. There was also some kind of communication equipment complete with a dish and headset, but Benjamin wouldn't have known how to use it even if it didn't look broken. The only things weren't black were the weapons. Honey would have field day with this stuff. There were empty gun cases, but except for some hardcore tranq darts their contents were nowhere to be found. There was a box of items shapes like flashlights, except instead of lenses they had some kind of net weave. He found the net gun itself atop a black crate, but it was broken. Finally in one corner, there was a cage with thick bars. Somehow Benjamin doubted the campers had been hunting for birds. He wandered around the deserted camp, looking for his own quarry. The windows had been boarded up long ago, so there was little light to be had other than what came in through the doorway. With the help of a flashlight he found on one of the sleeping bags, he found what he was hunting for.
"Yes. Yes, yes!" Benjamin gasped, grabbing the keys to the jeep from underneath a small pile of maps on a makeshift table set up from two crates. Pocketing the keys, he noticing something curious about one of the maps. Unlike the other green colored maps of the mountain, this one was hand drawn, likely by one of the campers, depicting the system of mine tunnels beneath. It seemed to spread all the way across the mountain, to another colliery on the other side labelled 'Swinetown.' Benjamin looked over at the elevator, perplexed by the need of such a map. That elevator couldn't possibly work after so long. Could it?
He strode over to the elevator, and while he wasn't a Master of Engineering like Honey was he had caught on enough to know that something was off above the machinery. It should have been as old as decrepit as everything else, but the cables appeared to have been regularly maintained. The parts in the metal box up above looked almost new. For the sake of it he pressed the button on the side and drew back in surprise when the machine came to life with a sudden rumble. The cables started to move, lowering the elevator down into the darkness of the shaft.
Benjamin shone the flashlight down, watching the elevator descend until the beam could no longer reach it. There was a rattle, then the cables stopped moving.
To heck with this. He wasn't here to solve a mystery. He just wanted to go home. He turned away from the shaft and crossed the campsite. He stopped near the doorway and turned again, scolding himself for nearly forgetting the maps as he went back to retrieve them. With the maps in paw he stepped out the doorway, looked to the jeep, and felt his blood freeze.
Oh no, it's him!
Sedor Valentino was looking into the front compartment of the jeep, completely cutting Benjamin off from his ticket off the mountain.
Terrified for his life and furious with himself for not getting back to the jeep when he had the chance, the cheetah ran back inside the building and shut the doors as quietly as possible. Everything went black. He'd forgotten about the boarded-up windows. He turned on the flashlight. "Great. What do I do now?" He whispered to himself. Had Sedor heard him? Would he notice the closed doors? Had Levvar tipped him off? Why had he wasted time checking out the stupid elevator?
Benjamin ran over to the elevator, tripping over a sleeping bag on the way, and pressed the button again. The elevator started to rise with an ear-splitting grinding sound.
"Shut up, shut up, shut up!" Benjamin begged and spun round to check on the doors, just in time to see one of them open. He ran around behind the shaft, the only place in the room to hide.
Pale grey light shone on the walls, leaving a wide shadow right behind the shaft. Benjamin heard himself breathing loudly and covered his mouth. The room was silent. Had Sedor given up already? He looked around the corner and saw Sedor shutting the doors, casting the room in darkness once more, and twisting the handles together into a gnarled spiral. Then he turned round and pulled out a cave torch. Benjamin pulled his head away and flattened himself against the exterior of the shaft, squeezing his own flashlight in his paws, listening to the massive grizzly's heavy footsteps as he approached.
They stopped on the other side of the shaft. Benjamin took a peek through a rust hole and saw a button and black fabric from Sedor's coat. The bear was watching the rising elevator. It reached the top, blocking the hole, and stopped. There was a metallic rattling creak as the doors slid open. There wasn't any more footsteps; Sedor must be staying put. Benjamin could see the beam of the flashlight floating around the walls and floor.
The cheetah stepped away from the wall, wiping tears of fear from his eyes. He only had one shot at this. If he screwed up again, he was done. He heard footsteps. Sedor was on the move. He risked a peek to see the bear approaching the cage and shine the light through the bars, looking for anyone trying to hide on the other side. In his other paw he was carrying that massive cleaver.
Benjamin would have to count to three, otherwise he would never get off the spot he was rooted top. One… two… Sedor started to look around the communication equipment, kicking aside a heavy black box…
Benjamin grabbed the corner of the shaft and dragged himself away from his hiding place. The bear turned and spotted him just as he rounded the next corner and punched the button. Sedor tossed the torch aside and pursued. Benjamin entered the elevator and spun round to see the doors close between them. Sedor grabbed the doors, the black lenses of his plague doctor mask fixed on his prey, and started to pull them apart.
The elevator began its descent, pulling Sedor's paws down with it. The thing shuddered under Benjamin's feet as the bear tried to pull it back up. For one terrifying second it actually stopped, but then the rusted grating gave way and tore from its frame. Then Benjamin could see nothing but the side of the shaft as the elevator lowered out of Sedor's reach. The cheetah could no longer see the bear after that, but he heard him howling for blood. My blood.
The last trickles of light from the surface disappeared as the elevator continued its way down. He turned his flashlight back on, stared at the doors with their ripped grated windows, and harbored doubts that he would ever see his friends again.