"Does Carter know you're out here?" Dante asked Hazel when he felt her presence behind him. He was staring into the woods surrounding Leech Lake Park in the middle of the night. The answers he'd been looking for were in those woods according to Hazel, and he'd get lost in them all night if he had to. He needed to find their daughter and there was nothing short of death that would stop him.
"Yes. He's on standby with Elle, just in case something happens," she answered, as she zipped up her winter coat and put on her gloves. He found it odd since she always seemed to enjoy the brisk air this time of year.
"You trust them?"
"With my life." Hazel replied without hesitation when he looked down at her. He was called the most prolific serial killer to hit Minnesota state during his trial, thought to be a brilliant artist by the sick fans who were obsessed with all things that involved violent deaths and torture.
Dante wondered just how many of them would've killed to be him.
Flashlights helped them get through the darkness of the woods after they passed through the eerie and empty park. Nothing but the sound of their breathing and the crunching sound of broken branches underneath their feet echoing within their surroundings. To a normal person, this would've been a bad idea, getting lost out here. Although they had packed some provisions in their backpacks, Dante didn't know how long it would take to find the truth.
Weird noises were coming from the woman marching along with him and he turned the flashlight towards her instead of the pathway ahead of him to see what was going on with her. Hazel was abnormally twitching, her hand grabbing a hold onto the back of her neck, as the excruciating pain she was going through paralyzed her enough to make her stop walking.
"We're close, aren't we?" Dante asked softly, and she winced as she nodded, while she caught her breath. He reached to touch her forehead and realized she was burning with a high fever.
"I'm fine. I need to be." Hazel responded, exhaling deeply before she continued walking ahead of him. Once he caught up to her, he walked beside her until they were too deep into the woods to turn back.
"There it is," she acknowledged, aiming the flashlight towards an abandoned cabin built right into the middle of the woods. It was falling apart, but the foul smell surrounding it brought it to life. Hazel swallowed hard as they walked up the steps and stood in front of the boarded up door.
"Did you bring the gun?" she asked him, with nothing but worry in her warm brown eyes.
"Yes," he lied, and he was glad she was too terrified to call his bluff. They focused on pushing the door open together, and when they did, the musty smell combined with the scent of fresh blood filled his nose.
"Someone's been here," he observed as he aimed into the cabin, using his flashlight to try to find the source of the rancid scent. There was no furniture with dusty sheets covering them, no kitchen appliances, no sign anyone ever lived here. Which only meant someone did a good job at cleaning up.
"Follow me." Hazel insisted, and lead the way down a short hallway. They ended up at a rusty metal door, and he watched as she managed to open it. Her twitching had stopped but he could see the beads of sweat being absorbed by her light gray winter hat. He followed her down into what seemed to be a basement of some kind. The smell only got worse once they reached another door and he wasn't sure he was prepared for what he'd find on the other side.
"He brought me down here that first day. No gun pointed to my head, except for the invisible one his promise of killing everyone I loved held. Including you. Especially you," she started, her eyes watering as she spoke, and he realized it was the first time he'd ever heard her admit her feelings for him. Whether they held any substance tonight, he wasn't sure.
"I didn't know you cared."
"I cared enough to leave. To keep all of you and the baby safe. Please know that everything he trained me to do, everything I've done since then, and all the memories I forced myself to forget, was to keep her alive."
"But you escaped somehow. How'd you do it?" he asked, taking her hand in comfort. The only reason he knew she had escaped was because his mother had told him everything that had happened to Hazel after they arrested him. With each one of her visits came an update on Hazel Nash's life after being kidnapped. They'd shipped her off to a mental institution, the best her kind of health insurance could afford, which wasn't much. Her mother had heard rumors about Hazel's violent outbursts within the walls of Saint Catherine's Academy, but he had refused to believe it at the time. When he didn't hear a word from her during his trial, and she didn't bother to clear up the fact that he would never hurt her in any way, much less kidnap her, his anger had caused him to think of her as the enemy. The evidence against him had been purely circumstantial, but it had been enough to convince the jury he was at fault, and that he had kidnapped Hazel and the rest of their friends.
"Lets go in and find out," Hazel said, twisting the metal handle of the door before she opened it. Dante coughed as the smell of rotten fish and corpses flew into his mouth and surrounded his lungs.
"He kept me in there," she began, pointing her flashlight towards the cage sitting at the corner of the room, a crimson colored blanket covering almost half of it. His mind let him picture fourteen-year-old Hazel, crouching inside the metal cage, with his baby growing inside of her. It was enough to let the bubbling fury inside of him make his hands shake violently. "...and he didn't let me out unless it was to use the bathroom. Otherwise, he'd leave food and water for me in dog bowls. And shame on me if I refused to eat what he left for me..." she added, trailing off as she recalled her time here.
"I was four months pregnant when he finally decided I was ready."
"Ready for what?"
"For my first victim," Hazel replied, rubbing her temples, her fingers shaking as she rocked back and forth. Dante stared at her, swallowing down his shock as he waited for her to continue. "He wanted me to perfect the art of torture and I did. I had to. At least, that's what I kept telling myself every time he locked me up in that cage."
"He made you kill them, Hazel."
"Yeah, but after a while, he didn't need to force me anymore," she admitted, as tears streamed down her face and he covered his mouth with his hand, unable to process what she was telling him.
"You wanted to kill them?" he inquired, watching her walk around the messy room full of rotten fish guts scattered all over the floor.
"Yes. I wanted them to feel what I felt. And he used it against me, turned me into him in the end. That's why he didn't see it coming," she said, stopping in front of the same cage that had held her prisoner all those years ago.
"Didn't see what coming?"
"His own demise. I remember it clearly now," she continued as she rested against the wall and closed her eyes. "....shortly after he made me watch my family die in that fire, my water broke. He brought us back here, used everything he had in here to make sure I delivered a healthy baby, and he took her from me when I passed out from the pain."
"And the others?"
"I can't tell you what I did to them."
"Because it'll kill you too."
They stayed in the cabin for about half an hour, searching through the leftover mess the Skull Man left behind. Old newspaper clippings from the murders were plastered up against the wall, along with other articles about people he never knew went missing. But one picture stood out to him from the collection. It was a picture of a young girl, with long disheveled dark hair, an ominous look in her piercing eyes as she stared into the camera. Someone had been cropped out of the picture to her right, but the long and skinny fingers on the woman's shoulders reminded him of someone he and Hazel had come across before.
"Do you remember that man who used to come to the funeral services every week? With the creepy stare and the weird hands?" Dante described and Hazel froze in place as she began to whimper in pain. He caught her before she collapsed and held onto her shivering body.
"Please don't....please don't make me do it," she begged, before her eyes fluttered shut and pain began to spread on the back of his head. His vision blurred as soon as he collapsed beside her and watched as the hooded figure dragged her back towards the cage, locking her in. As Dante stood up to fight him, he was hit with a tranquilizer on his neck, which rendered his body helpless to him.
"I killed you. I know I killed you...." Hazel said shakily as the hooded man took off his hood, revealing his emaciated face to her. Dante wasn't so lucky. His mind went dark when he finally lost consciousness and stopped fighting the inevitable.
The Skull Man was going to force Hazel to kill him and there was nothing he could do to stop it.