Joshua sat down beside Dina for a bit longer.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“I’m worried about the kitty. She sounded so sweet and so lost.”
“You aren’t worried about us?” he asked her.
“You’ll do something. You always do.”
He patted her on the head and went back to his new kitchen. Lucinda and the twins had already fashioned a new vent out of rags and scraps of cardboard.
They heard a cackling laugh in the distance and cringed as it got closer.
Hook Nose returned. He tossed two pieces of metal through the bars. Joshua picked them up. They were remnants of some knife or tool. There was barely an edge left on them.
“Here are your knives, you. Get to work. His majesty expects a feast,” Said Hook Nose.
“These wouldn’t cut butter,” Joshua protested.
“You make them work,” Hook Nose growled back.
“What about ingredients?” He gestured at the bench the meager stores. “Is this all you have?”
“You’ll get more. Fresh meat.”
Joshua could practically see Hook Nose’s evil smile beneath his face wrappings. It made him sick.
“Fresh meat? From where?” he asked.
Hook Nose jabbed a boney finger to the corner. A furry grey rat scurried across the floor. Sophie screamed.
“Sewer rats aren’t safe to eat,” Joshua warned.
“There’ll be more than rats. Anything with four legs is to be caught and killed and put on the table.”
“No!” cried Dina.
Hook Nose gave the bars a swift kick then shuffled off. After he left Joshua saw the smaller rag man standing in the corner. He said nothing, just stood there and watched.
“You. Who are you?” Joshua asked.
Their guard looked nervously down the tunnel as if he feared Hook Nose would hear. He brought a finger to the side of his nose.
He’s telling me to be quiet?
Incensed Joshua mouthed the words, “Why should I be quiet?”
The small rag man tiptoed to the bars. He took off the rags around his head revealing a familiar face.
“Benjamin Bastion! I might have known you’d end up down here with the rest of the filth. And you’re still a bully. How many people did you beat today?”
Benjamin just stared back silently. Joshua noticed the flesh around his eye was purple and badly swollen. His lower lip was split and covered with dried blood.
They heard Hook Nose’s cackle as he returned. Benjamin quickly wrapped his face and backed away from the cell.
Hook Nose reappeared with two bulging sacks over his hunched back. He handed the sacks to Benjamin who struggled with their weight. Hook Nose fumbled with the key and opened the door.
“Back away! All of you,” he warned. Then he grabbed the sacks from Benjamin and tossed them inside.
Inside one were pots and pans and pieces of coal for the brazier.
“What’s in the other?” Joshua asked.
“Told you you’d be getting fresh meat,” Hook Nose taunted.
Joshua opened the bag. Out spilled the carcasses of several small animals now skinned and sliced in half.
The others winced and gagged.
Dina looked at them mournfully.
“The kitty?” she asked.
Joshua examined the pile. There were all sorts there. He couldn’t tell if one of them was cat.
“Meow,” Hook Nose taunted. He laughed and meowed as he shuffled down the tunnel and out of sight. Benjamin stayed behind.
Dina started to cry.
“I’m sorry, Dina,” Joshua said.
He got to work. His plan started to form.
It’s madness, he thought. There’s no way it can work.
But part of him, the Lazlo part assured him it would.
You just have to cook and then concentrate.
He piled the brazier with more coals. He set the carcasses on spits and roasted them over the fire. He put the feed corn in a pot with water and simmered. He scraped off every bit of mold on the root vegetables and threw them into a pan to cook and caramelize.
He looked at the roasting meat. Most of them were rats. He could tell by their long tails which were still attached. But the others he couldn’t be certain. He checked for anything that looked like cat’s claws but found none.
“Dina, I don’t think any of these are your kitty,” he said.
She didn’t answer.
Joshua turned around to look for her.
Lucinda and the twins adjusted the vent over the brazier to accommodate for the additional smoke. Sophie and Heathcliff stacked the remaining supplies and looked for anything useful.
Dina was crouched next to the bars talking in hushed tones to Benjamin Bastion.
Joshua flew across the room and shoved him away.
“Stay away from her!” he yelled.
Benjamin looked up at him. His eyes were red. He was crying.
Then Joshua heard something meow.
It wasn’t the mocking of Hook Nose. It was a sweet tiny little meow.
Joshua looked down at Dina and saw her cradle a tiny reddish kitten in her arms.
They both looked at Benjamin.
“Thank you,” Dina said.
Joshua couldn’t reconcile the Benjamin Bastion he knew with this act.
Benjamin fumbled for words. He let the rags fall from his face. It was then Joshua saw Benjamin now had bloody gums where his front teeth used to be.
“It’s not what I wanted,” Benjamin mumbled.
None of this was what Benjamin Bastion had ever wanted.
After being beaten and kicked by his own gang, his own friends, Benjamin thought the worst had been over. His Little Voice warned him that it was just beginning.
He was only vaguely aware when they dragged him to the drain in the center of the warehouse. Benjamin knew about the drain. Once while waiting outside the warehouse he heard a terrified scream from within. When he entered the drain was uncovered. One of Wormsworth’s thugs said a man had gone in alive and conscious. Benjamin shuddered when he heard.
He didn’t shudder as he lay there on the floor while the large drain cover was flipped open for him. He could barely move.
He made only a weak sound as they rolled him into the hole and let him drop.
He fell. He didn’t know how far. It was utterly black all around.
Then he hit the water. It was freezing cold and fast moving.
The cold revived him but drove the air from his chest.
He hurtled along with the current.
Benjamin started to lose consciousness. He thought he was dying and for once his Little Voice was in total agreement with him.
The world went black and he thought he would never see anything again.
But he woke later. He was in a tunnel. Next to him the water rushed by. Above him stood the twisted men wrapped in rags.
When he could walk they took him to the Rat King’s throne. The King regarded him like a stray mongrel.
“What were you up there?” he asked pointing at the ceiling.
“I was a thug,” Benjamin mumbled through his broken teeth.
This brought out howls of laughter from the King and his followers.
“It’s true!” Benjamin protested.
“I was a miserable little thug. I beat up children to get money and valuables from them.”
He wiped his eyes with his wet sleeve.
He told them about every boy and girl he beat. The details just spilled out of his mouth. He wasn’t bragging, he was confessing. He’d never before admitted to himself what he had really done. He’d told himself he wasn’t “beating up children” he was simply educating them. They weren’t his “victims” they were his “customers.” Part of him always knew that was a lie. He’d called it his annoying Little Voice. But now, bloodied and at the feet of the Rat King he realized that it was his own voice that had been saying those things. It was his own voice he’d been trying to ignore and muffle this whole time.
He was done with that now. When his Little Voice spoke it would be out loud.
When he was done confessing, the Rat King slapped his thigh and guffawed.
“A little wolf cub,” he said. “I have need of wolves. They watch my sheep.”
Benjamin shook his head, refusing to go back to what he’d been.
“You’ll do it!” yelled the Rat King. “There are only wolves and sheep down here. Trust me boy, you don’t want to be one of my sheep.”
Benjamin trembled before the bellowing giant. His fear got the better of him and he agreed. His wet clothes were taken away and he was given the rags of the Rat King’s soldiers to wrap around his body and his face.
He was assigned to Hook Nose and they went around from tunnel to tunnel. Inside he found the “sheep” the Rat King had talked about. People huddled over weak braziers for warmth. They’d spent the days combing the tunnels for whatever refuse they could scrounge. The Rat King’s men would come by in the evening and take their share. If the wretches were lucky, they’d have enough left over to survive the night. It was all too painfully familiar to Benjamin.
The poor wretches were timid as church mice. They’d cower at just a raised voice.
Hook Nose did a lot more than raise his voice. He whipped and kicked and beat these people at slightest excuse. Often he’d deliver a beating for no reason at all.
Benjamin hung back and watched and grew sicker and sicker. Hook Nose would turn his fists on him for his lack of enthusiasm.
After his first day down below, all Benjamin wanted was to return to the surface. But he knew what that would mean. He’d been with Hook Nose when he caught a poor man who tried to escape.
“No sun for you!” Hook Nose cackled over and over again. “No sun for anyone ever again!”
It was then that he heard that a group of soldiers were headed towards the surface to find the boy that cooks.
Joshua, Benjamin thought.
Joshua Sage, the boy who could cook, the boy who fed the poor, the boy who stood up to him. He was the reason he was down here suffering. It wasn’t fair. He should be here too and share the torment. Benjamin wanted to see Joshua before the Rat King.
He managed to tag along with the hunting party. A small red kitten was spared from the Rat King’s dinner to act as bait. Benjamin was given the job of holding the kitten since she hissed and scratched the others who tried to carry her.
Benjamin followed the party through the maze of pipes and tunnels. Scouts sent ahead would peak through the city’s drains and report back to the main group.
They came to the pipe near the Charity Kitchen. Benjamin crept forward just to the point where he could see the daylight on the other side. Just a few yards away was freedom and sunlight. Benjamin’s heart ached to run for it. But he felt the breath of the other men right on his back. He’d never make it.
He held up the kitten and it let out a pathetic little meow. He heard the small girl answer it.
Benjamin’s heart sank when he heard her sweet, innocent voice answer the kitten’s pleading cry. He wanted to yell out to her to run away but he couldn’t.
All he could do was watch with the kitten cradled softly in his hands as the little girl wandered into the tunnel and was grabbed by the others. The two little boys followed her. Then the two older girls came. He remembered the short plump one from before. He’d pushed her down before at the Charity Kitchen, not far from this very spot. The other girl he didn’t recognize. She was thin and pretty with golden curly hair. She was still pretty even after she tried to escape down the small pipe and come out covered in grime. They put the golden haired girl with the rest of them in a corner. The twisted rag covered men surrounded and taunted them. They hugged each other close and cried.
Benjamin cried too. He wanted to tell them he was sorry. He didn’t want any of them to be hurt. He just wanted to see Joshua. He wanted the boy responsible for his downfall to know what it felt like.
They sent the golden haired girl away to fetch Joshua and Benjamin was sent back along with Hook Nose.
He kept the kitten hidden beneath his rags. No one bothered to ask him to return it. He kept it with him, not knowing what he’d do with it.
The next day he was summoned along with Hook Nose to the throne room. There was Joshua along with all his friends. He looked scared and miserable. But Benjamin didn’t feel any better. All he’d done was spread his misery to seven others. They should be up on the surface, playing in the sun. So should the kitten he kept hidden beneath his rags. So did the wretches who toiled for the Rat King’s pleasure. Benjamin could think of only one who deserved to be down here in the dark with these mad, cruel men. That was Benjamin himself.
That’s why he gave the kitten to Dina. That’s why he cried while he tried to explain to Joshua and the others.
“I just wanted to do something nice. Something right.”
Benjamin blubbered uncontrollably. Joshua suddenly realized he didn’t really know Benjamin Bastion at all.
“I want to go back,” Benjamin cried.
“We all do,” Joshua said.
He thought about telling Benjamin his plan. It was so insane he’d probably laugh at it. But just then they heard a voice screech.
Hook Nose returned. He grabbed Benjamin by the neck and shook him.
“What have you been doing, boy?”
The kitty let out another tiny mew.
Hook Nose whirled around.
“That’s for the dinner pot!”
Hook Nose shot his arm through the bars. Dina retreated out of reach with the kitten. Hook Nose cursed at her and jammed the key into the padlock.
“You’ll be sorry! You’ll be sorry!”
The lock popped. Hook Nose kicked open the door. He was halfway inside when Benjamin yelled.
Hook Nose turned around.
Benjamin brought a large rock down on the man’s head. Hook Nose fell back and lay sprawled on the floor of the cell motionless.
They all stood silently stunned for a moment.
“Run!” Benjamin yelled.
They scrambled out the cell. Joshua was the last to leave.
What about his plan?
It was crazy anyway, he told himself. It never would have worked.
“Which way?” he asked.
“That way!” Benjamin pointed down the tunnel.
They ran as fast as they could.
“You know the way out?” asked Sophie.
“Yes. But it’s a long way off.”
“Isn’t there a closer way?” Heathcliff asked.
Benjamin shook his head.
“You’d have to go past the throne and the-“
Benjamin didn’t get to finish his sentence because just then a line of rag men stepped out of the shadows and blocked their way.
They turned but another line of guards approached from the other end.
They were trapped.