Benjamin was either lucky or very unlucky. He was lucky in that he'd fallen on a large couch laden with thick cushions.
He was unlucky in that he and his friends had plunged into a cloud of Nighthowler gas full of savage prey mammals.
He'd lain there for a bit, trying not to scream from his ribs and the shard in his side. He didn't know how Judy and Nick had landed, but they were quickly up and firing, bringing down mammal after mammal. A bison had pinned down Vercus nearby, and he was holding it at bay by rapidly punching its face with both fists.
Benjamin felt for the shard, at first finding his own blood and noticing how warm and damp it felt even through the fabric covering his fingers. Where was the shard? He looked down. His heart dropped to his stomach. The shard wasn't in his side anymore. It was stuck in one of the cushions, soaked in crimson. He looked at his body and saw the small slit in his suit, ringed with red.
Other than the pain he didn't feel anything wrong. Not yet. He stared through the plastic visor at his friends. "Guys! My suit's torn!"
They didn't have much time to show anything other than looks of horror. "Ben, the glass!" Judy cried.
Benjamin knew. He was already pressing a paw to the tear and the wound underneath, but he was sure it was already too late.
Sure enough, as he watched Vercus force the bison off him and immediately get accosted by a ram, he caught a whiff of a floral scent.
Daybreak. It was his only hope.
He didn't know if it was sheer terror or the toxins already suppressing his common sense, but the cheetah staggered for the only door in the lounge. Nick and Judy called out to him, but they only got a hiss in response. They tried to run to him, but were held at bay by the very savages that had been drawn by their aggression. Benjamin pushed the door open and forced his way through.
Down. Down. He needed to go down. There was fire in his lungs now.
There was nothing in hallway. Nothing that could threaten him. He couldn't go to the stairway near the dining room. That was past the entrance hall, and that place was a no go. He'd seen the savages as he'd crept past the walkway. He needed to do down. A place this big must have more than one way down. He needed to go down.
He had to reach Daybreak.
He tried the door straight across from the lounge. Only bathroom in there. Empty, too. Good. Bad, too. Nothing to eat in the bathroom.
Benjamin smacked his head as he made his way to the next door. The poison was not coming quick enough. Not enough to make him go mad quick. But he had so little time. So much fear. So much pain. So little time.
Fight it. Get more time. The fire in his lungs was spreading.
He smacked himself again as he reached the next door. He heard Nick call his name in the distance.
Or was it the rabbit?
Second door opened to darkness. A barren wooden hallway. Short, too. Nothing to eat here, either.
He hissed in anger. He needed to stop thinking like that. The darkness was strongest at the other end, almost black. So black there didn't seem to be a floor.
Maybe there was reason for that.
The fire inside was almost everywhere now. His brain was fuzzy.
He stalked forward, finally seeing the steps. There was a bare bulb halfway down, smashed in half. A door at the bottom marked with a blue symbol.
If the horned monster showed up, Benjamin would kill him.
No, he wouldn't.
Yes, he would.
He would have to.
The monster would hurt him.
He would hurt Mansa more.
Not if Benjamin hurt him first.
Stop thinking like that!
He reached the bottom. Shoved the door open with a bang.
The blue clouds were worse here. Everything was new and cold. Metal instead of wood. So much glass. Some broken. Broken glass hurt him. Stay away. Other door on other side of benches. Cages. Must be for test subjects. Horrible. Where are they? Most of lab black and burnt. Blown up. Fire. Stay away.
The lab. He'd made it.
What does it look like?
Gold. Like sunlight. Fauna's documents said so.
No. Grenades bad. Blow up. Hurt. Blow up like lab.
Not these ones. Need these ones.
Friends will die without them.
Need to eat.
Fight it, Clawhauser!
Yellow liquid in big bottle. Not Daybreak. Label said Pepper Spray Mix for subduing violent test subjects.
Glass cabinet in corner. Black, burnt and broken. Gold and white guns. Many smashed. Not all of them.
The cheetah made his way over.
White plastic guns. Golden glass barrel. Not guns. Syringes.
The label on the ruined cabinet was still intact. Daybreak shots.
Not grenades. Next best thing.
The cheetah unzipped his suit and pulled one arm free.
Somewhere above he heard a loud crash.
He can't remember his name anymore. Almost out of time.
Daybreak is what matters now.
He reached past broken glass. He pulled out a syringe. He pushed the needle into his forearm below the elbow. It stung but he kept it there. He pulled the trigger. The gold vial turned clear.
The cheetah dropped the syringe, a sudden convulsion sending him falling back against the charred wall. Was it working? Was he turning? Manchas had convulsed before he'd turned. Judy had said it in her report.
He convulsed again. He'd made a mistake. Daybreak wasn't his salvation. He hoped Mansa wouldn't see him like this. Maybe he'd bleed out first.
His body hurt so much, but the fire inside was dying. His eyelids grew heavy. The hunger was changing. He wanted sweet stuff again. Killing Vercus wasn't acceptable anymore.
He could remember his name now.
Benjamin Clawhauser slid to the floor, shrouded in blue mist. The flowery smell was still everywhere, but it didn't burn him anymore.
He was tired, now. So, so tired. The documents said Daybreak acted as a sedative too. It didn't look like he would be going anywhere for a while.
There were footsteps coming from the stairs, too heavy to be Nick and Judy. Benjamin felt a slight pang of fear, very slight, as the Hound of the Casels stepped into the room.
The Hound grinned as he saw Benjamin.
He stalked forward.
Benjamin couldn't move his body.
"No more running." The Hound said softly. "No more hiding. You're coming with me."
As he drew closer he lowered himself on all fours. Closer and closer he crept forward, as Benjamin struggled to widen the distance between them.
"True or false." He was so close he reached out for Benjamin's face. "Bogo is false... Beneath his shiny stars… and golden badge… he is nothing more… than a filthy street rat. I alone am true. Why can't you understand?"
"I… I understand." Benjamin managed to say. "But you are false."
The Hound's fingers froze just inches from the feline's cheek. "What did you say?"
"This isn't you." Benjamin pleaded. "It's the serum. That's what made you this way. You're Vercus Casel, not the Hound of the Casels. Please. You have stop this."
The False Hound's half-scarred visage contorted. "I'm not a Casel anymore! Elgen made certain of that. Not that I still give a damn!"
"You don't have to be a Casel, but you can still be you." Benjamin gestured with his head to the cabinet of Daybreak shots. "The antidote's right there. You can be true again."
"I know." The Hound replied, calming down. "Daybreak is what I came for… But I know what it'll do. I can't take it. Not yet. Not here. Not until we are far, far, far away, and I have completed my revenge. Everything that survived here is coming with me. And so are you."
With that his fingers closed around the fabric of Benjamin's jacket.
In his slightly dazed state, Benjamin didn't initially understand what had happened when the Hound suddenly receded from him.
Then he realized that someone was throwing the elk-deer back into the stairway, and it wasn't the fox or the rabbit. It was an immense being so black it could have been a silhouette. As the creature shoved the Hound into the steps, Benjamin saw horns clothed in shiny black, curved like sickles. In its wake it left smeared black footprints.
For one Daybreak-addled moment, Benjamin thought that the true Hound of the Casels had come to claim another sinner. Then the being turned its head and locked eyes with Benjamin. Its mouth was a filter. A visor shimmered above it. Behind the visor stared two reddish brown eyes.
No. Not the Hound.
"Ben." It whispered.
The creature in the black hazmat suit turned back to the Hound and raised a dart gun to put him down. The Hound's hoof shot out and grabbed the barrel, tilted it up, and with his other hoof knocked his assailant back with a punch. The Hound threw the dart gun to the floor, shattering it to pieces, and stormed back into the misty lab.
There was a name for the creature in black, Benjamin thought as it blocked another punch and tried to put the Hound in an arm lock. The Hound squirmed out of the hold and kicked the creature in the knee. The creature grunted, but stayed standing. As the fight continued, Benjamin tried to remember what the name was. The creature shared the same name with a terrible event that happened in the middle ages. The nickname came from its infamous capacity for violence in its home continent thousands of years ago, long before predator and prey evolved enough to discover fire. Nowadays it could be considered a slur in a certain context.
What was it, Benjamin wondered as he watched the creature punch the Hound into a metal cabinet, knocking them both to the floor with a crash. The Black Demon? The Black Beast?
The Black Death. Yes, that was it. The Black Death had come.
Benjamin groaned and rubbed his weary eyes. Daybreak must be really doing a number on him if he was letting himself ponder over such silly things. There had to be something he could do, something that could help Bogo stop this maniac.
The Hound, Vercus as Benjamin reminded himself rolled away from the cabinet, which had fallen open in the fall. Inside was a case of silver cylindrical grenades, scattered in a heap inside the cabinet. Vercus got up and slashed with his sickle, forcing Bogo to back away. Vercus advanced, drawing them both away from the cabinet. Now was Benjamin's chance to see if those grenades were full of Daybreak.
He rolled onto his front, his arms and legs frustratingly heavy, but the shock and relief of Bogo showing up had given him the strength to start crawling. The top half of his hazmat suit trailed behind him, along with a faint trail of blood.
It was hard to see through the blue mist, even when he tried to blow it away. He couldn't tell if he was making any progress, but he could see Bogo and Vercus above the mist, trading blows. He hoped Bogo would be able to get through the fight without tearing his suit.
Then Vercus kicked Bogo over a fallen stool, sending him to the floor. The False Hound pounced, pinning Bogo to the floor, and tried to plunge the sickle into his throat. Bogo caught the fiend's arms and tried to keep the serrated blade from piercing him. Vercus persisted, snarling as he tried to force the blade down. Bogo grunted as Vercus's knee dug into his side. He was pressing on the stitches. Benjamin crawled faster.
His fingertips touched the warm metal of the cabinet. He dragged himself closer and pulled out one of the grenades. On the side was D-BRK.
"Fight this off if you can, Vercus." It may have been a residual effect of Nightfall, but Benjamin felt a vicious satisfaction as he pulled the pin and threw it in the corner farthest from the three.
In a few seconds there was a loud hissing sound as golden gas spewed from the grenade, quickly filling the corner of the room. Vercus looked up from his attempt to skewer Bogo when he heard the sound, giving the buffalo the edge he needed to throw him off and into the side of a bench, knocking off a half dozen glass beakers. Holding his side, Bogo started to get up while Benjamin reached into the cabinet for more grenades. The elk-deer grabbed a small cage and swung it into the buffalo's face, striking him down again. A crack formed in his visor. As Daybreak continued to spread, Vercus stood up and spun on the spot, looking for his sickle. Failing to see it in the blue and yellow mist, he pulled out a short knife and advanced on the fallen buffalo. As he descended on Bogo the suited mammal repelled him with a kick, sending the knife skidding across the floor and under a distorted metal table. Wiping blood from his mouth, Vercus seemed to spot something on the other side of the stool.
It was the sickle.
Vercus reached over the stool, but Bogo grabbed his shoulders and dragged him back. Vercus elbowed him in the side, making him reel back with a shout. Bogo fell against a bench and looked briefly stunned before he grabbed Vercus's tail, dragging him back again when he tried to retrieve his weapon. The buffalo lunged past him and grabbed the stool before scrambling to his feet. Vercus grabbed the sickle, stood up and started stabbing at Bogo. Bogo fended off each blow with the stool until he saw an opening to whack Vercus in the face. As the deformed stool fell to the floor Bogo grabbed the sickle and wrenched it from Vercus's grasp. As the elk-deer staggered back, Bogo slipped the bloody blade into a thin gap in a cabinet and twisted. There was a chink as the sickle snapped in two.
Bogo threw the useless handle aside and raised his fists in preparation as Vercus recovered.
They glared at each other from opposite sides of the destroyed laboratory as Daybreak swirled all around them.
"It's over, Vercus." Bogo said. "Nightfall's been neutralized and Veltro's being taken down as we speak. There's nothing left to fight for now."
"That's where you're wrong, Bogo!" Vercus snarled. "I have everything to fight for right here!" He gestured to Benjamin. Benjamin shrank back, hoping that Daybreak would hurry up and subdue him. It certainly seemed to be having an effect on the elk-deer's mind. He wasn't speaking in broken sentences anymore. "I'm glad you're here actually! Now I can kill you right in front of little Benji! Watching you die screaming and spilling your guts will be the first step in breaking him! His admiration, his affection, everything you take for granted, I will have it all! His adoration belongs to me! Ben is mine!"
Bogo snorted. His eyes flashed behind his cracked visor. "'Ben is yours?' Guess no-one teaches life lessons like Gaston."
He braced himself as Vercus charged, and Benjamin gasped when he saw the elk-deer pull out yet another blade from somewhere in his coat. Bogo grabbed the wrist of the arm holding the long knife. Vercus grabbed the knife with both hooves and tried to push it towards the buffalo.
Holding the knife at bay with one arm, Bogo reached toward a cone shaped bottle labeled Pepper Spray Mix.
The False Hound never saw it coming until it smashed into the unscarred side of his face.
There was no pause. No moment of silence. Vercus started screaming the instant the painful concoction splashed into his eyes. He staggered away from the buffalo, clawing at his soaked fur and streaming eyes. Cursing and howling, Vercus was helpless as Bogo stalked forward and shoved him into the largest open cage, barring it shut with the remains of the stool.
Benjamin felt a chill up his spine. Vercus's screams were horrible, and almost unnatural in the way they filled the room. Resting his hooves on the stool, Bogo stared at Vercus for a good long while as the elk-deer thrashed inside the cage, screeching vile threats, in too much pain to even attempt to break out. The sound of his limbs striking against the metal bars filled the room along with his screams.
Bogo turned away from the slightly shaking, noisy cage and walked over to Benjamin. The cheetah could barely keep his eyes open, or keep his hold on the Daybreak grenades he'd taken just in case Bogo needed them. The buffalo reached him and bent down. Then Benjamin saw that his cracked visor had a small jagged hole in it. He tried to point that out, but even speaking was too much for him. He felt two big arms slide under his back and knees, then felt the floor disappear as he was lifted into the air.
Vercus's screams were growing fainter. Either the blinded psychopath was finally beginning to succumb to Daybreak or Benjamin was about to pass out. The cheetah suspected it was both.
Bogo brought Benjamin to the exit and nudged the door open. He paused, and turned his head one more time to look at the source of the bellowing, cursing and clanging. Benjamin couldn't see Vercus for Bogo's large form, and didn't care. He never wanted to see that mammal again.
Bogo turned his gaze back to the steps ahead and walked out the lab with the bleeding, drugged up feline in his arms. With the remaining Daybreak grenades nestled in his own arms, Benjamin realized then that it was truly over. No more Hounds. No more Nightfall. No more Veltro. With that final comforting thought, he rested his head against Bogo's shoulder and drifted in a deep and dreamless sleep.