FWA 'Carnal Contendership 2023' || Promo Thread.

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SupineSnake

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The promo deadline for this show is as follows:

Sunday 23rd April, 2023 at 23:59 Pacific Time.
Monday 24th April, 2023 at 03:00(am) Eastern.
Monday 24th April, 2023 at 08:00(am) UK.
Monday 24th April, 2023 at 10:00(am) Turkey.
Monday 24th April, 2023 at 17:00 Melbourne.

Good luck!
 

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G-Rich and Sean Kelleher circle each other in the ring. The stakes are high as they can get. The world title is on the line. The footage of their match is shown in black and white owing to the fact that we are in the very distant past of 2007. During all of that, somewhere in the backstage, a man sits alone. Dreams of grandeur decorates his thoughts. With both of his hands, he holds his trusty accordion. In storytelling, they call this Chekhov's Gun. There's a musical instrument in sight, so that must mean that the man's gonna break into a song any time now, right? Well, this is not a promo that subverts your expectations.

A COMPLETE HISTORY OF CARNAL CONTENDERSHIP, THROUGH THE EYES OF A HUMBLE JOBBER

(
Reference Song)​
♫ To FWA I came seeking fortune
But they're making me job til I'm dead
The main eventers have it so easy
G-Rich’s having title shots on his bread
The undercard of the company is hungry
But think what a match there could be
If we had a battle royale with dozens in
That even a jobber like me could win ♫


The man is overjoyed backstage, watching Matthew Robinson's (probably) announcement with his fellow low-carders. Carnal Contendership is born. The year is 2008.

♫ I am the man who promo’d for CC
A few paragraphs are all there will be
They list some opponents and say ‘I’ll win’
Til’ I’m satisfied with what I’d written
Sometimes it seems that I have to do more
And my stuff won’t get the highest score
Then I see that I have underwritten it!
It was out of eighty, and I got forty-four!
Can I write a long one please?
Why must these promo ideas tease? ♫

♫ I am the man who promo’d for CC
Wrote more because I want top three
Honest and raw! Leave the graders in awe!
A collective work of blood, sweat and tears!
I worked so hard but Nate Richardson won
And after Ryan Hall, Nemesis got it done
But new faces will rise! We will not compromise
For the old main event scene must die
Long live Gabby, kill Ryan Hall!
What’s the story he wanted to recall? ♫

♫ I am the man who promo’d for CC
It’s the longest so my win’s a guarantee!
But all of WOLF’s rage gave him the big stage
A collective of growl and shout in every page
I have no choice but lose to Diamond Jack
They score in sixties at which I can’t crack
The rule of the game is don’t list and flame
No creativity and you’re the only one to blame
Long live Kennedy! His promo was rich!
Cross him and he’ll call you a dumbass bitch! ♫

As the verses of the song continue to go on, it becomes very apparent that the tempo gets faster, more zanier even. The background changes to a black and orange one, definitely a new scenery.

♫ I am the man who promo’d for CC
But I did it in a different forum, you see
Clark sold the site and Clique feels so much right
But no cigar as WOLF won one more fight ♫

♫ I am the man who heard Rondo’s pipebomb
Which had everyone inside his palm
Sixteen’s the year and now Cyrus is here!
And next year he’ll fight Shannon O’Neal.
We shall promo forever more!
Until no foot of mine touches the floor! ♫

♫ I am the man who promo’d for CC
But the champ’s grades turned out to be the key
Hip hip hurrah, Nova Diamond says voila!
Followed by a shit feud he could not foresee!
I work so hard in writing these promos
But each night I sleep on my computer with tears
It’s just a bad routine, when your promo is clean
But the champ can just handpick someone green?
Pointless show with a main event scene so slow
Another shot for Garcia, well that’s a new low! ♫

The tempo is slow now, a more somber tone overtakes the tune.

♫ I am the man who promo’d for CC!
And it’s about a metaphoric tree
The stump is the match, each opponent is a branch
But Michelle had it when her train had no scratch
Maybe we'd be improving it
If we brought a new brand split! ♫

The tone of the last verse is completely thrown out of the window. Now we are faster and crazier than ever.

♫ I am the man who promo’d for CC
If you ask me who won, of course not me
No chants for thee! It’s all for our boy Danny!
Tell me, why should I care for blood, sweat and tears?
No chants for thee!! It’s all for our boy Danny!
Tell me, why should I care for blood, sweat and tears?
Sweat and tears, sweat and tears? ♫

The accordion melody is suddenly cut down with a BIG BASS DROP! Everything goes dark for a few seconds before the only sources of light around are illuminated with neon colours. The man has a wicked smile on his face and over his eyes there's a familiar looking set of goggles. He continues.

♫ And now the Clique is down and Nephews frown
There are smarks wandering all over town
Well, in the fed, a new overlord is the head
Her beautiful music is widespread
Luna gave us the gift of trance
Which makes everyone sing and dance
And now that she’s sent her promo in
Who else but her is going to win? ♫

♫ So we stand as her allies
Tennessee will see TheTranceQueen rise
Prepare for your life’s greatest recital
When she eventually wins the world title
She shall never know a rival
She shall put on a show of survival
She shall be your only idol
Forever and a day ♫

♫ GAME OVER ♫

The history of Carnal Contendership did not matter in the end. All the years of struggle, all those years of winners, their legacies. They remain nothing but text. In the very near future, there's only one reality. Luna Piper. Luna Piper. Luna Piper. You chucklefucks didn't actually give me 40 this year but you'll certainly do it this year. Or else...
 

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“ドラゴンズゲートでお会いしましょう。そこから、本当の仕事が始まります。”

“See you at Dragon's Gate. From there, the real work begins.”



Cherry petals float in the air with their pink shine covering the sky. The sun continues to rise, removing the darkness from the world. In the distance, the sounds of water roars as it crashes down from a waterfall.

A familiar scene with the woman known to the FWA world as “Vampyra” walks down a path, her chosen one. Maskless, she has her black hair flowing down to her shoulders. Her purple tips are replaced with a silver, a small mix up from her normal appearance. She has her white and purple kimono dress on, with flower designs on it as she heads down the stone path. Along the path a mix of cherry blossom trees along with some more traditional greenery. Time alone has led her to refocus herself for her FWA return and now, a new beginning in FWA. But, the real question she thinks to herself is: “Am I ready?” There are no issues of ring rust, wrestling for her home promotion during her time in her native Japan, but is she mentally ready? Especially for a match she needs to outlast thirty other wrestlers.

The sounds of the waterfall becomes louder as Katsuki heads down the path. Peaking above the trees is the faint outline of a red gate, a torii. It stands high on a cliff with water beginning to flow from it. The Dragon’s Gate. One of those creatures takes flight around it, going through the air with grace and majesty. Despite their traditional violent depictions, this one appears to be a gentle creature with its long and slender scaled body and majestic wings. Along the road is a collection of vibrant and colourful flowers. At the end of the path, a familiar figure stands. A tall Japanese woman with black locks, and a stunning kimono with red and white flower designs. A warm smile is on her face. Katsuki’s Guardian. Katsuki speaks to her in Japanese.

Katsuki: “It’s been sometime.”

She bows her head slightly to her. “I thought it was you in my ear.”

Her Guardian folds her hands together and speaks to her with a very gentle voice, grinning as she does.

Guardian: “I was just asking you to consider all options. It was all about you making the best choice. And I was correct. Welcome to Dragon’s Gate.”

Katsuki’s Guardian motions with her hand towards the scene behind her and Katsuki sees the tall cliff in which a waterfall flows from. The water crashes from above as the large gate stands on top, its red beams peeking out from the edge. Going down into the river, the water appears to be violent and rugged as the river flows away from the mountain. Despite this force, we see fish leaping out from the water, fighting all their might against the current. These fish have vibrant red and orange scales with splotches of black and white on them. Koi.

Guardian: “Quite strong these small creatures are, aren’t they?”

Her Guardian looks at the river.

Guardian: “Despite a strong current pushing them the opposite way, they are doing everything they can to make it. Reminds me of a certain strong young woman.”

She looks at Katsuki, showing confidence in her.

Katsuki: “But why?”

She blinks, confused.

Guardian: “Have you heard of The Dragon’s Gate, dear?”

She asks and Katsuki shakes her head.

Guardian: “I am surprised. It is a legend in multiple Asian cultures, though the core of the story stays the same. Legend tells of a gate that is located at a waterfall cascading from a legendary mountain. The current from it is strong and yet many carp swim against the current. Many try, but few are capable or brave enough for the final leap over the waterfall. Through the gate, they are reborn into a mighty dragon.”

Looking up high, Katsuki sees the dragon flying around the gate, one of the few who have made it. She is in awe of it. The grace it has as it flies.

Guardian: “Does this not sound a lot like a match you have?”

Her Guardian asks.

Guardian: “A match with many, yet only one can win?”

Turning, Katsuki mutters.

Katsuki: “Carnal Contendership?”

And her Guardian slowly nods.

Guardian: “Correct. Before you go through your match, I believe you also desire something greater? Your own rebirth. So, I brought you here for you to make the climb up. It will take great ability, self-control and courage. Go through the Dragon’s Gate. Show what I know is in you.”

Katsuki blinks, a touch confused.

Katsuki: “So…You think climbing a mountain like a fish would solve my problems?”

Her Guardian gives a friendly laugh.

Guardian: “Not exactly. Your climb will be different than theirs. You will see. In fact, here. I believe you may need this.”

Reaching behind her back, seemingly out of thin air, Katsuki’s guardian hands her… a katana. It is in its sheath. The sheath has red markings on it, somewhat abstract in their design with a kanji symbol written on it. “克”

Katsuki takes a long time to examine it, confused as to why a sword is needed to climb a waterfall? But, she has yet to truly steer her wrong. She puts the strap over her shoulder and it is on her back.

Katsuki: “I suppose I do not have any other choice.”

Guardian: “Good luck. I will see you at the top.”


And her Guardian waves.

Katsuki walks towards the base of the mountain. She takes a long look at the terrain in front of her, it is mostly vertical. Taking a deep breath, she puts a foot on the terrain as a question comes to mind.

Katsuki: “Question, I never got a name from yo-”

She turns around and her guardian is no longer there. Disappeared out of thin air. Well, she’s on her own now. Taking a deep breath in, Katsuki looks at the imposing mountain in front of her. It is now or never. She steps onto the first rock and proceeds to make a long climb up.

A cold wind blows in the distance. The beautiful sky dims slightly. The vibrant flowers and grassland slowly get covered in darkness of a shadow. The darkness comes together in a blob before taking a vague shape. A long neck shoots up, connected to it, a head with long hair with split ends. A sinister smile appears on the creature’s face, bearing fangs, as it looks towards Katsuki. The shadowy creature slowly fades into the ground and slowly approaches the mountain.

The climb is daunting, though it does not seem to be impossible. Katsuki takes her time heading up the mountain, carefully placing her feet before pulling herself up and up by the next rock, grunting as she moves on. Eventually, she sees a somewhat flat area and pulls herself up to sit on it, catching her breath. Looking below her, she’s already getting a distance up, the flowers below are becoming a blur of colour. A small smile is on her face. A sense of accomplishment.

Katsuki: “This is not so bad.”

She mutters to herself.

Katsuki: “It can’t be this easy. That woman must be hiding something-”

Glancing up, Katsuki sees just how far she has to go. She’s maybe a quarter up at best. On top, with the near-by waterfall leading to it, the red gate towers over the rest of the mountain along with the few dragons brave enough to make the trip to it. She sighs.

Katsuki: “Of course… Something tells me I will be here for some time.”

Leaning against the edge of the cliff, she continues to give herself a brief rest. She’ll need it. Closing her eyes, she listens to the roar of the waterfall. The water crashing down below. A loud, vicious sound, and yet, one that is peaceful, relaxing. Breaking up the noise is the squawking of a bird. Turning to her side, a majestic bird flies down next to Katsuki. It stands with tall slender legs, a long beak and wings. Its white feathers are pure with black tips. A crane. There is something comforting with its presence as Katsuki nudges near.

Katsuki: “Why hello, little creature.”

The bird seems calm as Katsuki reaches forward. It leans its head towards her and she gently pets it.

Katsuki: “Why, you must be a friend? Here to give me good luck now, are you?”

The Crane honks and spreads its wings before resting.

Katsuki: “If only there were 999 more of you. Then I would get a wish.”

Katsuki quips, remembering a story from childhood which she was told, often around Peace Day on August 6th.

Katsuki: “But I will just see you as a good sign. Take care, bird friend.”

Katsuki pets the crane on its head once more before turning around and begins her climb again, pulling herself up on a rock and slowly making the climb with a long way still to go. The crane pokes at its feathers, standing on the flat area as Katsuki continues to make her climb up. But-

A chill in the air comes. A shadow is cast on the area and the crane, sensing danger, honks madly before leaping off, frantically flying away. The young woman continues to climb up, but the cold front starts to catch up and she lightly shivers.

Katsuki: “C-Cold. I did not think I was this high up yet.”

She pulls herself closer to the face of the mountain as… a shadow begins to cast on her. A sense of unease is over her.

Katsuki: “Did a cloud block the sun?”

She says, hoping it is true, but it isn’t. She knows it. A shadowy figure slithers up the side of the mountain, pursuing Katsuki as a dark voice mutters… something familiar in Japanese.

???: “うそつき”

Or, in English.

???: “Liar.”

A chill goes through Katsuki’s spine. Not again. She closes her eyes as the figure approaches. Leaping up, it envelopes her-

And Katsuki opens her eyes to see a familiar sight.

Gone from the mountain, Katsuki sees herself in her childhood home.

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It is a fairly lavish home, modern in its design. A mix of whites and greys with a lovely oak hardwood floor. Whatever Katsuki’s family is, they appear to be somewhat well off. Standing in the living room, Katsuki stands on the carpet. It is evening. The lights are somewhat dimmed as she sees a Japanese man in a shirt and tie in the kitchen. He has a laptop open and papers all over the countertop. His hair is beginning to grey and has thick glasses on. Her father. A busy man, even late at night, stuck doing work. Holding his cell phone with his shoulder, he shouts into it in Japanese.

Father: “I do not care, we are not delaying this trial again! The victim’s family has been waiting two years for this case to be decided!”

He’s speaking to his staff. Katsuki’s father is a lawyer by trade, a prosecutor in Japan. A busy life and one he worked hard to provide for his family, but one which leads him distant from his children with his work swamping him regularly. Katsuki looks on, confused as to not just how she ended up here, but why is it familiar? She’s seen this before. Looking to the side, she sees, walking sheepishly through the living room.

Her.

She looks to be around 15, still young. Her hair is well kept with squared off bangs and she is in her pyjamas. In her hand is a piece of paper. On top of it is a familiar logo, the one for COSMIC Joshi Wrestling, her future home promotion. Written in Japanese text, the title of the form is:

“Parental Permission”

Nervous, the young Katsuki looks at her paper and carefully folds the top half, trying to hide any reference to wrestling. Putting the paper behind her back, she nervously walks into the kitchen.

Young Katsuki: “F-Father?”

She can’t even look up. She’s too nervous. Seeing his daughter, Katsuki’s father sighs.

Father: “Give me a moment. I will call you back.”

And he hangs up.

Father: “Katsuki, what are you doing? You’re supposed to be packing for tomorrow. I am not paying that much for your position in that academy in Tokyo for to be late or having to fly back because you forgot something.”

Looking slightly up, Katsuki quietly mutters.

Young Katsuki: “I just have a form for you to sign.”

Father: “Another? Couldn’t your mother sign it?”

Young Katsuki: “She is working a late shift at the hospital, again. Remember?”


Katsuki responds back.

Father: “How many brain surgeries does she need to do?”

He jokes.

Father: “What is this one for?”

Her father asks as he motions his hand forward, asking for the paper. Delaying a touch, Katsuki mutters a response.

Young Katsuki: “It- Is for the gymnastics' program.”

She mutters quickly, probably the closest thing to wrestling her parents would allow her to do.

Young Katsuki: “You wanted me to get involved in extracurricular activities, so I c-chose that. Just like I did when I was younger.”


Her father looks at Katsuki and jokes.

Father: “First your brother becomes a draft pick for Nippon Professional Baseball, and now this? I did not expect to raise two future Olympians.”

Katsuki has a nervous laugh.

Young Katsuki: “Y-yes, haha.”

Father: “But I am glad you have something you can be passionate about. Better than you trying to be like those wrestlers you watch on television.”


She freezes. Her father continues.

Father: “I know it is fun and entertaining to you, but I would rather not have to worry about my daughter getting dropped on her head for a living.”

Young Katsuki: “Right, father. Leave it to those crazy enough. Just stick to being a fan.”


She mutters, incredibly nervous.

Father: “See? I knew we raised you right.”

He tussles her hair.

Father: “Better to stay healthy and focus on your studies.”

Katsuki's father extends his hand.

Father: “Well, what are you waiting for? Hand me it so I can read it.”

Her father asks. Katsuki freezes. She should have known her LAWYER father would have wanted to read something before he signs it. He reaches forward and Katsuki nervously takes the page out from behind her back-

As her father’s phone rings again. He gives a frustrated and tired groan as he takes his phone out to answer, annoyed.

Father: “What is it now?-”

He listens on the other end and has a look of dread on his face.

Father: “They did what!? Do they not know their discovery obligations? How long has this been going and they still refuse to-”

Katsuki’s father groans.

Father: “I will head to the office in the morning after I drop my daughter off at the airport. I will send an email to them when we hang up. Bye.”

With his work coming in the way again, Katsuki catches a break. Her father grabs a pen on the kitchen island and grabs her paper. No time, he simply signs the bottom of it, not reading through.

Father: “There. Now pack up and be ready early tomorrow.”

There is a pale look on young Katsuki’s face. How did she manage to get it signed? She doesn’t even speak and instead nods her head and rushes to the bathroom. Watching this scene, the adult Katsuki peaks around the corner and sees her younger self in the bathroom, looking long at her paper. Signature in hand, she can start her wrestling dreams… But dread is on her face.

Looking at herself in the mirror, shame is on her face. She lied to her father. Her mother doesn’t know either. Without her parent’s knowledge, she is going to be a professional wrestler. She's going to have to hide something from her life to her parents. Slowly, tears begin to form on her face. Watching her younger self cry, Katsuki feels embarrassed. Embarrassed in herself and what she did. And the dark voice returns.

???: “Such a bad person…”

She shivers.

???: “Breaking the trust of your family. Lying pig.”

The younger Katsuki cries even harder, slamming the door shut to keep privacy.

???: “Always will be-”

Closing her eyes, Katsuki is uncomfortable. A great shame of her’s. She tries to calm herself down. Opening her eyes.

She is back on the edge of the mountain. Looking down, she sees that, somehow, she had ended up higher than before. Over halfway. But, how? She was seemingly climbing while stuck in a day dream. Breathing heavily, she is freaked out. What happened?

Katsuki: “It is bad enough I have to climb this mountain… But what? Why- Why did I have to relive that? It hung over my head long enough…”

Her grip begins to slip as she quickly has to grip onto another rock, trying to settle her feet. A pebble falls down.

And keeps falling some way.

Katsuki shakes, trying to maintain her grip. This is already taking a toll on her, but most importantly, mentally. Her anxiety is beginning to rise already.

Katsuki: “W-What is the point of this?”

She asks herself.

Katsuki: “Why go through all this? I am not brave enough to make it to the top. I’m still that scared girl. Why do it? I know what will happen. I will come close and then fall short, again. Just like against Bedlam, Black, Michelle, defending the Television Championship , everyth-”


Her grip weakens. She slips, but grabs onto another rock, saving herself. She lets out a frustrated yell.

Katsuki: “Gah!”

Katsuki looks down at her right knee and it bangs against a rock. Skin is scraped from it and blood begins to show on the surface. Same knee she hurt when she won her title.

Katsuki: “Shit…”

Yep, some profanity.

Katsuki: “I am tired of this. What kind of person am I? Running away after some adversity, running home? What kind of big scary ‘monster’ am I? A Vampire… I would have been better suited to wear a chicken mask. I might as well quit now. Just-”

Guardian: “Keep going.”


A warm, familiar voice whispers to her. Her Guardian from afar, giving support. Shutting her eyes, Katsuki leans against the rock, keeping her scraped leg off the edge until she gets some strength in it. Trying to get the negative thoughts out of her head she reaches up and pulls herself further.

Katsuki: “...Not done yet…”

She scowls under her breath and she climbs. Further and further she heads up the mountain, carefully moving with each inch climbed. Without her noticing, her guardian leans over the edge of the mountain, looking down at her as she moves. The mysterious figure has a gentle smile on her face, showing pride.

Guardian: “Her greatest obstacle on this journey will be herself. Sometimes a little push is all we need. She will make it”

Katsuki moves up until there is a sudden part which peaks up at a 90 degree angle, a long part of a cliff, fairly flat, nothing to grab on. So, she needs to go around. Looking at the nearby waterfall, there is a distance between the crashing waterfall and the rockface. Hopefully a route up. She struggles on the side of the mountain, muscles aching. Getting a better view behind the waterfall she sees… a cave. Maybe that can be a good spot to catch her breath? Slowly, she pulls herself over and is under the waterfall, some mist blowing in her face. With every bit of strength she pulls herself over the edge and onto flat ground.

Taking several deep breaths, the climb is starting to take its toll on her. Katsuki looks outside of the cave at the cascading water, trying to find some calm.


Katsuki: “Okay… You have already made it this far... Somehow.”

She continues to breathe heavily. Running her hands through her hair, she gets her bangs out of her eyes. Her gentle brown eyes are often concealed by coloured contacts, but now are clear. Looking around the cave she notices a collection of crystals along the wall, clear with some reflection. Katsuki gets up and admires them. There is a twinkle in her eyes.

Katsuki: “These are… beautiful.”

She runs her hand along the edge of a rather large one. Smooth, unnatural yet somehow just as magnificent. Then, her eyes take a look at her reflection. As clear as a glass mirror, Katsuki takes a look at herself. Every feature of her with her smooth skin, dark hair with vibrant streaks in it, now silver to mix it up. But yet, still foreign to herself.

Katsuki: “I couldn’t see myself before…”

She thinks back to the first time she met her guardian, taking her to the edge of the creek, removing her mask to see her reflection.

Katsuki: “-And I am still lost.”

Running her hand against her reflection, she moves her fingertips along her reflection’s cheek.

Katsuki: “-I have put on a show for much of my life. Hiding my face to prevent shame. I lived two lives for such a long time. I got so used to people calling me Vampiress, or Vampyra, that it has been foreign to hear my own name. In some ways, I wish I never had to. Just being honest…”

She closes her eyes and reopens them, seeing her mask in her reflection. The signature fangs and horns of Vampyra. A menacing look, maybe not quite reflective of Katsuki herself.

Katsuki: “So much pain from it- and yet there is something special.”

Turning it around, she tries to speak of the positives.

Katsuki: “Crafting a new identity. Being able to step through the curtains and pretend to be someone you're not. Throw yourself into an identity which becomes part of your own. Your history. And being a masked wrestler is in some ways an honour. A tradition from Mexico with a great commitment to your masked self. Larger than life. Someone people can believe in. Like a superhero. The ability to express yourself in new ways…”

Blinking, Vampyra’s reflection is gone, just her again. Katsuki takes a long sigh.

Katsuki: “But am I really doing that?”

Turning her head slightly, she looks deeper in the cave at the path of crystals. The path goes father and

Begins to go up. Perhaps a slightly less daunting road to the top? She takes one step forward and thinks.

Katsuki: “W-Would I be a coward to take this way to the top? The easier way…”

Katsuki looks back and forth from the deep parts of the cave and the waterfall. A koi swims up against the current, but quickly is overtaken by the flow of water and falls back down, flopping. Even if the task is near-impossible, that small fish is pushing through anyway and is going to make the daunting swim again. She thinks longer about it before turning back to the cave entrance. Looking at the side of the mountain, she sees a somewhat climbable part on the other side of the waterfall. Grabbing the rocks, she places her foot down and continues with the climb up, with a renewed sense of energy.

There is still a great distance away. The mountain’s terrain is uneven and jagged. But it is possible and that is enough for Katsuki to keep going. A small smile appears on her face as she makes her way through the rocks. There is a bit of fun to the challenge.

Katsuki: “I have this…”

She mutters to herself as she looks up to the gate at the top of the mountain.

Down below.

A cold breeze returns. A shadow is cast as a shiver returns to Katsuki’s spine.

???: “私は決して離れません!”

A cold voice shouts in Japanese.

???: “I will never leave!”

Katsuki freezes in place. Again? The darkness comes closer to her.

???: “私はいつもあなたを所有します”

The voice shouts, then repeats.

???: “I will always own you!”

Katsuki closes her eyes and… once again.

Sees herself having a front row seat to her past.

4L1UtgPz_VlZPGcFw-QM5Ad0NEFEdM_Qte13iwwu1IJUQkwE8QHGrtZhEcI8aKrKHwcvdg9j99pJzH5hb4iRPXjTse1tqEEbx3r30fa7Cc-D9uTtiNuPHGUUaYGiq4wXkhrVrXhriqbVJGzZWNyVHyY


Standing behind a row of photographers, Katsuki sees herself backstage at a COSMIC Joshi Wrestling show. An interview backdrop is set up on the wall. Pink wallpaper with a repeating pattern of company logos mixed with some sponsors. From the look of the media, with very few wearing face-masks, this is clearly prior to a pandemic world. Their cameras flash as they turn down the hall to see four wrestlers. There are two girls, looking to be related, with similar face paint on, two horizontal lines on each cheek, one on the forehead vertically. One’s slightly taller and older to the other, both wearing similar black and red gear. They both look PISSED. Behind them is a woman with long black tights and boots on, matching bra, a fierce look. Her hair is black with some red streaks in it and she is dragging the third person.

A young Vampyra, or rather, Vampiress. She has the group’s colours. Sin, black and red. The woman dragging her, Queen Yoshiko, the master of the group. Vampiress looks beaten down after a match physically and emotionally. Getting in front of the crowd, Yoshiko kicks Vampiress as she leans against the back wall. Turning to the media, she shouts in Japanese.

Queen Yoshiko: “Look at her! Look at this girl!”

She gets down on a knee and grabs her by the face, squishing her cheeks.

Queen Yoshiko: “This is what FAILURE looks like. Here she is, given an opportunity to team with former tag team champions, the Itsuki Sisters. They lead her to her first championship in her career, our Trios Championships, a starter prize.”

Looking at young Vampiress, she slaps her across the face.

Queen Yoshiko: “And you failed them! First defence and you cost them!”

Some of the members of the media reel back in shock. Vampiress looks down, distraught, trying to hold back tears, hiding her face from the cameras.

Queen Yoshiko: “Look at me!"

She pulls Vampyra’s face forward and gets nose to mask.

Queen Yoshiko: “I took you in when you had nobody. You were just a nobody in a mask. You BEGGED me for guidance and THIS is how you repay Sin? What were you tonight…?”

Vampiress looks away. Katsuki, reliving these harsh memories, stands there, shell-shocked. Queen Yoshiko pulls Vampiress by the mask.

Queen Yoshiko: “WHAT WERE YOU!?”

She shouts. Vampiress slowly mutters.

Vampiress: “A F-Failure.”

Queen Yoshiko: “Louder…”


Queen Yoshiko has a great deal of tension in her voice. She DEMANDS her group’s young prospect to humiliate herself. Vampiress reluctantly raises her voice.

Vampiress: “A failure, my Queen.”

Grabbing one of the “Fangs” on Vampiress’ mask, Queen Yoshika looks. Her voice has a cold calmness to it.

Queen Yoshiko: “I created Vampiress. I gave you an identity when you lacked one. A monster. A dark force who indulges, not hesitates. I demand better than you. Remember, I own you. I will always own you. Know your role… Say it.”

Vampiress is too scared to speak. Her lip quivers.

Queen Yoshiko: “SAY IT!”

And Queen Yoshiko steps on her chest.

Vampiress: “I serve you-”

Vampiress coughs. Queen Yoshiko pulls Vampiress up and she gets on her knees.

Queen Yoshiko: “This is a long term project. I need to craft this young girl into a true cold blood killer! She needs a taste for blood! So, she needs to taste it…”

She motions for Vampiress to get up.

Queen Yoshiko: “You, face the wall!”

Scared, Vampiress turns around. The leader of Sin whispers something to the sisters and each of them grab an arm of Vampiress.

Queen Yoshiko: “You! Belt!”

Queen Yoshiko shouts at one of the photographers and raises her fist, intimidating him to taking off his leather belt. She rips it from his hand and folds it, evil intentions in her eyes.

Queen Yoshiko: “Go… Beg for forgiveness-”

And Queen Yoshiko CRACKS the belt against Vampiress’ flesh! Katsuki winces upon hearing the sound of the leather snap, reliving a terrible memory. Vampiress yells out in pain as she goes down on her knees.

Queen Yoshiko: “BEG!”

Queen Yoshiko cracks the belt against her back again and again!

CRACK!

CRACK!

Vampiress: “I AM SORRY!”

Vampiress cries out, but her faction leader cracks the leather belt again on her back and again. She is out to make her suffer. The media members are shouting for her to stop as the young Vampiress begins to sob out.

Queen Yoshiko: “WE DON’T ACCEPT FAILURE! ONLY FILTH LOSES THEIR FIRST DEFENCE!”

Crack! Crack! Vampiress sobs.

Vampiress: “Forgive me!”

Someone rushes over to try to take the belt but Queen Yoshiko punches them in the face and it only motivates her to hit Vampiress harder with the belt, red marks forming on her back! But finally, unexpected heroes come.

Running over, Saori Suzuki, MAYHEM’s leader, rushes over! Her hair is longer and she doesn’t quite have as much weight as she does now. But, most importantly, a main rival to Queen Yoshiko. She rips the belt from her hand and pushes her, shouting at her in Japanese. She may not know Vampiress well now, but there is something wrong about treating someone the way Saori is to her young wrestler. Rushing in after is Miho Watase and Miss Fuka and they separate the sisters from Vampiress. The two groups push and get in a shouting match as Vampiress crawls on the floor away from the melee.

Katsuki walks over to her younger self. She’s holding back tears, reliving what she went through years ago. She sees herself on the ground, back covered in welts, crying. Suffering from abuse. Vampiress looks up and behind her future group.

Ririko. She’s younger, looking to be about what Vampiress’ age is. But, this is not a time in which she is a close friend. If anything, a rival. She looks at the brawl between the two stables which security is rushing to break up then at her future friend. Her makeup is starting to run from her crying. A feeling of sympathy goes over Ririko and she gently approaches.

Ririko: “-Are you okay?”

She asks. Vampiress reels back and shakes.

Queen Yoshiko shouts in the melee, making threats to Saori and her group.

Queen Yoshiko: “Stay out of SIN affairs! I’ll crush you!”

Vampiress glances over but Ririko, heart of gold, calmly asks. “Does she treat you like this often?”

Vampiress doesn’t respond. She’s too scared to speak out against her abusive leader. Yet, her silence is a sufficient answer. Ririko tries to lift her up a bit.

Ririko: “If it means something from me. I don’t think you’re a failure.”

Vampiress glances up, tears welled up in her eyes.

Ririko: “You can be a mean… But you’re talented. I fought you enough to know that.”

And she extends her hand. A token of respect and maybe a way to escape the abuse. Ririko has a small smile on her face. A genuine one. Not too long down the road, she’d accept it and reluctantly accept Ririko’s many extra tight hugs. But today-

Is not that day. Not yet.

The brawl moves over to Ririko where Queen Yoshiko gets the young wrestler involved, pulling her hair and forcing her to fight back! Vampiress, scared, runs the other way, leaving her current and future groups behind.

Katsuki rushes after her younger-self, maybe trying to catch up with her as she sees her younger self head through two double doors and heading outside. Katsuki slowly follows. She knows what is coming next. She slowly creaks the door open to see her younger self sitting behind the building. The night sky is filled with rain, pouring like buckets. Face buried in her hands, Vampiress is sobbing. A stark contrast to what Sin envisioned her. A ruthless killer? A high speed bewitching force? No. She’s a young scared little girl. She cries and cries, scared and sad.

Vampiress: “Why did I become a wrestler?!”

She cries out.

Vampiress: “Why did I trick dad those years ago? I didn’t think this is what I would get?!”

She wails out in tears. Katsuki frowns. A low point in her life. Trapped in a group who abuse her and force her to be something she isn’t. Now she is all alone in the rain, crying. All Katsuki can do is walk over to her younger self and sit down beside her, forced to watch.

Vampiress: “What- hic What kind of ‘Vampire’ am I? Crying in the middle of the night, failing my team every single night.”

Vampiress covers her face crying. Katsuki looks up and her face becomes white as a ghost. Two people approach Vampiress without her noticing. In a suit, her father. Next to him is a short Japanese woman with a black somewhat long bob cut. She has a business skirt on with a button up shirt. Her father holds an umbrella.

Father: “Katsuki!”

He shouts and Vampiress freezes.

Father: “Don’t you have something to tell us…?”

She looks up and sees both her parents standing in front of her. The jig is up. They know. They know what she is doing. Vampiress fakes a deep voice.

Vampiress: “Uhh, who are you talking to, strangers. I am Vampiress, pro-wrestler and-”

Mother: “Enough with the games!” We know what you are doing! Wrestling?! Don’t you know the risk of concussions from it? Neck injuries!?”


Yep, she’s a doctor all right.

Mother: “You could be in a wheelchair by the time you’re 30!”

Vampiress leans against the wall, nowhere to hide.

Vampiress: “But- I love it-”

Mother: “Love it enough to risk your life over it!?”


Her mother shouts with concern.

Father: “I knew something was wrong when your grades slipped.”

Her father adds to the conversation.

Vampiress: “But I only got two B’s…”

Vampiress mutters.

Father: “After being a straight A student your entire academic career!? had to do some digging and found out you attended a wrestling school here when you moved here for the private school WE paid your fee for when you got accepted. Turns out I signed a permission slip? Don’t you know that would not be enforceable as a contract if I wasn’t aware of what I was signing?”

Once again, you can tell what career paths they went to.

Mother: “We’re worried for you!”

Vampiress’ mother leans down.

Mother: “When we sent you off to Tokyo, we thought you were going to go to school to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or even a teacher. You would be such a good teacher, or be in gymnastics. But wrestling? You might as well have joined the circus!”

Vampiress: “But… It is my dream!”


Vampiress shouts, trying to plead to her parents.

Vampiress: “And Ryo played baseball and you have no issues with him pursuing those dreams. Look at him now. He is playing for the Yomiuri Giants!”

Father: “There is a big difference between baseball and pro-wrestling. You could get hurt. You could DIE in the ring and we have only ourselves to blame!”


Her father plays the guilt card.

Mother: “And you lied to your parents! That is quite dishonourable, young lady. You hid it from us for years, wearing a mask playing dress up while risking your life when you should be in a school, getting ready for your future education-”

Vampiress: “But what if that isn’t for me?”


Vampiress interrupts her mother. She’s scared, but she’s standing her ground. Something that never gets you anywhere with a teenager is you telling them what to do.

Vampiress: “I know how much you two work. You put a lot into your careers for Ryo and I, but you’re never home! You are overworked and never had time for us! You never went to Ryo’s baseball games. When I was in Gymnastics as a young kid you never showed up. I am not sure if I would be happy doing that! Maybe I want to be a pro-wrestler instead? Do something different! I was scared to tell you. I was scared to tell you because of this. I don’t want to be forced to do something that will make me miserable.”

And the worst thing to do as a teenager to your parents, make valid points in an argument. Her parents, tired of her pleas, are standing their ground.

Father: “We’re done. You broke our trust!”

Her father shouts.

Mother: “Now take off that silly mask and come with us!”

Her mom reaches over and grabs her mask! She pulls and tugs as Vampiress tries to grab on.

Vampiress: "No! Mom!"

Her mask is soaking wet from the rain. After some back and forth tugging, it slips off her head! Her mother almost falls down from the force and in her hand, her daughter’s mask.

Katsuki looks up at her parents. Tears are rolling down her cheeks, but it is hard to tell from the rain. She is bawling her eyes out in front of her parents who look shocked.

Young Katsuki: “I-I’m sorry! I’m sorry I lied to you! I’m sorry I hid this from you! But- This was the only way I could chase my dreams. I want to be a wrestler! I know the risks, but I love this! I want to be good! I want to be the best I can be! I don’t want to be miserable the rest of my life and that should be good enough for you but I’m sorry!”

She buries her tears in her hands, weeping her heart out. Her parents look at each other before looking at their daughter. She lied to them. She hid a second life from them for years. But- she is right. Is it really right for them to force her down one path in life? Maybe they weren’t there for her as much as they should have? Her parents whisper to each other before…

Her mother gives her a hug. She lets her daughter cry it out a bit longer. Handing her mask back, Katsuki’s mother gets up.

Mother: “We will talk more about this another time. We will listen to you, if you listen to us.”

Father: “But we are still disappointed in you lying to us.”


Her father reaffirms that she isn’t off the hook.

Father: “Go back inside to your wrestler friends. They are probably wondering where you are…”

Young Katsuki: “-Bye… Love you.”


The young Katsuki mutters, looking at her mask. Her parents pat her on the shoulder. Maybe a little too upset to return the “Love you” back right now, but still acknowledge her and that they care. They walk away in the rain as the young Katsuki looks long at her mask.

Seeing this display again. Katsuki stands up. Speechless. Many emotions and memories rush back to her. She stands in the rain, closing her eyes.

As thunder booms in the distance.

Opening her eyes, she is back at the mountain of the Dragon’s Gate. Whatever day-dream she was in was long enough where-

She is just under the peak. She sees the point where the waterfall forms, some water splashing her in the face as Katsuki covers her face. She did it. She’s at the top. Though some mental hurdles were stronger, she made it. Shaking, she pulls herself up the final few rocks and collapses on her hands and knees at the top.

Looking above, she sees the tall looming red gate as a dragon flies in circles around it. It casts a shadow behind it as the sun is to their back. Shaking after a long climb, Katsuki stands up and surveys the mountain’s peak. Her eyes stop on the familiar gentle grin of her Guardian. Her hands are folded as she looks with pride.

Guardian: “That wasn’t so hard now, was it?”

She says and Katsuki rolls her eyes.

Katsuki: “No problem, just some really big mountain!”

She gives some sarcasm.

Katsuki: “Especially one where it gives me weird visions. Though I guess that was your test.”

Her Guardian’s smile fades. She shakes her head.

Guardian: “That was not me.”

Katsuki’s face drops… If it wasn’t her, then who was it? A chilling breeze blows over the mountain. A shadow creeps over the edge of the mountain, forming a blob in front of Katsuki. She falls backwards, her katana which was given to her falling on the ground. Despite the threat, her Guardian stands still, not acting.

Katsuki: “W-What are you?”

Rising from the darkness, a creature takes shape. At first, it appears almost human-like, taking the form of a woman until… Its neck expands long like a snake’s body. The eyes of the monster are piercing, staring forward at Katsuki. A sick and twisted smile appears on its face, bearing sharp fangs. Her tongue flicks, showing it to be long and sharp. Katsuki falls on the ground, crawling backwards, looking up in shock and horror.

???: “What’s wrong?”

The monster asks in Japanese.

???: “Don’t like looking in a mirror, Vampyra?”

Katsuki blinks. She looks and… She remembers the creature. Rokurokubi…

The reflection of Vampyra’s spirit. A blood thirsty woman born of sin.

Slithering her neck closer to Katsuki, she has a chilling voice. “Do not be afraid of me. We are one in the same. After all, you are Vampyra. You are the Dark Huntress. But I am a bit worried. I am worried you forgot who you are.”

Katsuki turns to her Guardian and she isn’t doing anything. She’s just observing.

Rokurokubi: “You were created to be a destroyer. A killer. But how has it been? How has it been to have the shoe on the other foot? People lying about you… Like you have lied many times before. People striking you down in your moment. Taking joy in your misery. How does that make you feel?”

The Rokurokubi asks her. Katsuki mutters.

Katsuki: “A-Angry.”

Rokurokubi: “You should be…”


The monster whispers.

Rokurokubi: “You were forced to team with someone who wanted to destroy you and he cost you your match. Then, he took your championship.”

Katsuki balls her hand into a fist.

Rokurokubi: “Your first singles championship. A belt you actually cared about and now its scene has become too poisonous for you to continue on in it.”

The monster leans in closer to Katsuki.

Rokurokubi: “You had to leave and everyone just… moved on. The voices cheering you were silenced. Your sickness was used as a joke! Is it really fair?”

Flinching back, Katsuki is stung by the words. She thinks of her former rival’s speech disparaging her. Being dismissed as a “new toy” by others. Tournaments without her. Title matches decided. Everything has continued without her. Katsuki pulls out her katana from its

Rokurokubi: “Think about everyone in that company. Rule breakers. Violent individuals. Groups ganging up like a pack of wolves. They indulge. They sin, and you expect to compete with 29 others?”

Reaching forward with its hand, the monster holds Katsuki’s chin.

Rokurokubi: “Why rise above when they pull you down anyways? Why not do it to them? Pull them down and step on them! Make them fear you, like she did to you!”

Katsuki shudders at the memory.

Rokurokubi: “Remember how much power she had over you? She wanted to show you how it was done and yet people still do that to you. It’s not like you’re pure anyways, you liar. Always hiding from your problems.”

The words from the Rokurokubi sting.

Rokurokubi: “That is where we come in. I give you strength. I’m your identity, your purpose. Imagine, Vampyra on the throne of FWA, people who have crossed you begging… BEGGING you to spare them. Championships that stay. Maybe… People will flock to your side and you won’t need to fight alone? Why play fair when nobody else does?”

Looking Katsuki in the eyes, the monster has a coy grin.

Rokurokubi: “-Indulge for me. Let me help you.”

Slithering back, the Rokurokubi waits to see Katsuki’s reaction. Looking at her Guardian again, no response. She is just watching, letting her make the choice. Looking in the distance a light gold shimmer gleams in her eyes. A collection of championship titles. FWA’s World Championship. The FWA Television Championship which she lost. Mixed with FWA’s titles, some from her home promotion. The Trios championships with their pink straps. There is another championship with a stunning white strap along with one similar looking with black. The company’s top two singles titles Everything can be her’s.

Slowly getting to her feet, Katsuki turns her back to the Rokurokubi… tilting her head to the side, exposing her neck.

Rokurokubi: “Good… That is why you chose this life… It’s only natural for you to do this…”

The words echo in her head. Choose. Did she? An identity put onto her. Not one crafted by her own hand. Is it just about championships? She thinks as some light slowly approaches her. She closes her eyes-

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As she is back in her Osaka apartment. Standing along the side of the wall, she sees herself walking into the living room with a teapot. On her coffee table, which sits on the ground with three pillows, three tea cups are placed on small plates. She’s prepared for guests as steam comes from the pot’s snout. It feels recent as her hair looks freshly dyed with silver tips. She’s got a red tank top on along with a pair of jeans, fairly casual. Putting her tea bot down on the table, she has a sigh of relief at ease. Then.

Knock

Knock.


Katsuki turns and excitedly goes to her apartment door. Opening it up is her mother and father. Her dad’s getting some more grey and same with her mom, but they smile at their daughter. Her mother has a white sweater on with some black jeans, a purse slung over her shoulder. Her father has a dress shirt and dress pants.

Mother: “Katsuki! So glad you are home!”

Her mom gives her a hug and she returns it.

Father: “Good to see you do not forget about us now that you are some hot shot wrestler.”

Her father jokes, bowing his head slightly.

Watching this scene back again, Katsuki gets a small grin on her face. She sees herself walk inside and go to the kitchen.

Past Katsuki: “Apologies for the mess. I was just cleaning and did not have as much time as I thought I would have had.”

Katsuki from the past moves into the living room where she’s set up some tea for them. All three of them sit on the pillows cross-legged.

Father: “So, how was your world-wide tour?”

Her father asks as Katsuki pours both her and parents a cup of tea.

Past Katsuki: “Long, stressful, but it was nice to see some of the places, and be a champion at least for a little bit. London was beautiful if wet. Greece had some breath-taking sights, just to name a couple of examples. I made a new friend or two, but I am glad I am home.”

Her mother nods.

Mother: “I did not have much of a chance to see the world when I was younger. I suppose your wrestling does you some good.”

Past Katsuki: “I told you before-”


Katsuki explains as she takes a sip of her tea.

Past Katsuki: “It is all I wanted to do. I do not think I would be comfortable doing anything else. Wrestling worldwide was something I never expected, but was special, though coming home and being in front of our hometown fans yesterday evening…”

She stops, thinking back to how the fans reacted to her when she made her entrance in Osaka with her friends.

Past Katsuki: “It was magical. I even heard them chant my name for the first time-”

Father: “And we were there chanting along-”


Her father mentions. Katsuki looks up, surprised. Her parents came to her match.

Past Katsuki: “You were!?”

Her mother nods.

Mother: “Yes. A part of us still feels worried about you getting hurt, but we saw first-hand how happy you were. On top of that, you were good. You seem to be a natural for this. We’re proud that you are happy.”

All she wanted. Approval. She is holding back tears of joy. She covers her mouth

Past Katsuki: “That means so much to me! I’ve been waiting for you to say something like that for years. Even when I apologized for lying to you, I could tell you were not… happy with me wrestling, but just chose not to interfere.”


Both her parents exchange glances. Her father chooses to answer.

Father: “We were. You mislead us for sometime, but you also were passionate about your choice and we did feel we should have been more open to you picking different career paths. So we let you continue. The agony you had for hiding this secret was enough punishment. We never truly thought wrestling would be a worthwhile career, but we had a change of heart.”

Past Katsuki: “How so?”


She asks her father. Her mother reaches into her purse and pulls out a book. It has some stickers on them including a Pokeball, one from an anime, and a wrestler’s mask, depicting a tiger. There is a flap on it, seemingly for a lock which has since been missing. Written on the front is “日記,” or in English, a diary/journal. Taking a long look at it and her parents, Katsuki takes it from her mother’s hands and inspects it.

Past Katsuki: “My old diary?”

She blinks before realizing.

Past Katsuki: “Wait- you read my diary?! That is private!”

And her parents have a chuckle. Her mother responds.

Mother: “I was cleaning that mess of a room you had back home. It was not without a lock. If you want to hide it from your mother, do not leave it without a lock and in a mess she is bound to clean.”


Katsuki looks down, sheepishly, visibly blushing. Seeing her past self’s reaction, Katsuki can’t help but have a small grin.

Mother: “I read about how much pressure we put on you and how it affected you.”

Her mother explains.

Mother: “We had, and still have, high expectations for you, but did not think of how we were going too far and were not always there to support you. The times you seemed happy in your journal-”

She looks at her daughter, with a small grin.

Mother: “Was talking about pro-wrestling, and your last entry I think touched me the most.”

Blinking, the past Katsuki opens her journal and looks through, flipping until a page close to the back. She looks at it long, refreshing herself on what she wrote.

Mother: “Share.”

Her mother smiles. After giving it a glance over, she reads it out loud.

Past Katsuki: “Dear Journal,

Tomorrow is a big day. I will begin my training to be a professional wrestler. I met with Yukari Kozakai today to introduce myself and I had to try not to get too excited as a fan. She seems like a tough trainer, but friendly. It will be an honour for her to train me. I still remember her retirement match against Saori Suzuki, that was such a great fight! She was in that stretch muffler for so long! She fought until the very end. She showed me where I was going to train and the routine and what was expected. Cleaning before and after training, I suppose that should not be too challenging, it is not like I have never done chores before.”


Her mom quips.

Mother: “Just not enough.”

Katsuki rolls her eyes, laughing before continuing.

Past Katsuki: “She also told me to not lose focus on my studies for school. Of course, it is not like I will already hear from my mom and dad if those slip!”

Father: “And we did.”


Now her father jokes.

Past Katsuki: “Do you want me to read this or not?”

Katsuki laughs before finally getting on track.

Past Katsuki: “I also told her I wished to be a masked wrestler. She was surprised, but agreed to let me train in a mask to be better prepared. I guess telling her I was a fan of Grand Tiger was enough. I hate having to hide it from my parents, but then again, I always loved masked wrestlers. I suppose even if I had family approval I would have worn a mask. Their mystique has always been cool to me. But what will be my identity? I do not want to be a tiger like Grand Tiger. Too big to fill his shoes and I do not want to be a wrestling knock off. I will need to think of something that fits me.

I am so excited! The training seems hard, but stepping into a ring today during my tour felt special. I started to imagine a crowd around me, the lights on me as music plays. After long days of studying and practising wrestling was always my escape. Their fighting spirit was amazing. Despite every hurdle thrown at them, they keep fighting until the very end. It is like a television show, but real. I could just forget what happened that day and sit down to watch my heroes. I would love to see a day where a young girl like me would go to a show wearing my mask and I can make her happy. Then I can inspire her to follow in my footsteps or just go through another day. Making one person’s day better by my performances, that would make everything worthwhile. I just hope one day I can be honest with my parents and they can be proud of me.

Can not wait for tomorrow,

Katsuki”


The past Katsuki exhales. The memories flooding back to her. The feeling of excitement she had when she first started wrestling. Her parents smile.

Mother: “And to answer that last question. We are.”

Getting up from her spot, Katsuki reaches in and gives both her parents a tight embrace. She can no longer hold back the tears. These, of joy. Relief. She lets go of the hug and smiles at her parents. The present Katsuki has a proud look on her face, a warm smile. Her father puts his hand on her shoulder

Father: “Just remember. Mask, no mask. Katsuki, Vampyra. You’re still our daughter. We want you to be successful. Just stay true to you. No matter how big you get.”

She nods back, still tearing up, promising to her father.

Past Katsuki: “I will.”

Seeing her reconciliation back again, Katsuki can’t help but shed a tear. She closes her eyes-

And sees herself back on top of the mountain. The Rokurokubi slides in closer, running its fingers along her neck.

Rokurokubi: “Good. This will hurt. But you will feel so much better in the end.”

A vile tone is in its voice. Licking its lips, it is ready to sink in.

Katsuki tightens her grip around the Katana. Fearing the worst, but something in her clicks at long last. The Rokurokubi goes in for the bite-

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A flash of a sword. The monster freezes in place before the head drops from its long neck, landing with a thud on the ground. Katsuki looks at the sword, some blood leftover on its blade. A part of her. A persona which has been both a blessing and a curse to her- cut down. Breathing heavily, she is in shock as she gets a long glance at the creature's deceased body, still in a state of shock. The katana slips from her hands. Walking over, her Guardian gives her a friendly grin, patting her on the back.

Guardian: “I knew that would happen. I had faith in you.”

Katsuki: “Which is why you let a monster threaten me!?”


Katsuki looks at her Guardian, a touch annoyed.

Guardian: “I told you, this was going to be a test which required great courage. That creature just added to the challenge. But I knew it would work out in the end.”

She gives Katsuki a confident smile. Though this was a frightening ordeal, she is glad it is over. Great relief is on her face as she exhales.

Katsuki: “-Thank you…”

Her Guardian grins.

Guardian: “I will always be here when you need it. I will always believe in you. Just sometimes you need to believe in yourself.”

Truer words have never been spoken to her. Katsuki has been through a lot in her life. High expectations from others and herself. She’s made several mistakes, things she’s regretted and has been beaten down until her confidence was nothing. Maybe some more of that will take her far?

Guardian: “Well, what are you waiting for? Go through the Dragon’s gate.”

Katsuki: “-Will I turn into a Dragon?”


Katsuki asks, partially joking.

Katsuki: “It would be cool, but I think it might be an inconvenience.”

There is a light laugh from her Guardian.

Guardian: “No. It will not have that effect on you.”

Putting her hand on Katsuki’s shoulder, she looks forward at the tall gate. It is wide enough to extend beyond the river. The dragons around it fly and appear to welcome Katsuki.

Guardian: “I will leave that to be a surprise. Go ahead.”

Stepping forward, Katsuki walks up to the gate, looking high above it as it towers over her. There is a hint of apprehension, but something feels right about it.

Guardian: “Good luck!”

Her Guardian waves. Looking back, Katsuki gives a friendly grin in return. It is now or never. Looking through the gate, Katsuki takes a step through as a bright light shines in her face-

250px-Bridgestone_Arena_%28Northeast_corner%29.JPG


Opening her eyes, Katsuki finds herself in the locker rooms of the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. The room is decked out with lots of yellow and blue trims, matching the colours of the Nashville Predators, though she is alone, as normal. She is sitting on the floor, cross-legged. Usual routine at this point, but something is completely different. New gear. Gone are the dark colours. She has a white base for her attire with trims of red and gold. The designs are flowing and free, intricate. In the middle of her bra is a logo similar to a yin and yang symbol with gold and black, but diamonds in the middle of each half of the circle. Her tights have the same logo on the right leg along with other designs. The left has some openings, showing skin of her thigh. Tying it together are new boots and kick pads, matching the general theme of the attire, though her knee pads still have her usual faction logos. She takes a long look at her new gear and smiles.


Katsuki: “This… feels right.”

She mutters to herself in Japanese before she stands up, alone in her locker room. She looks at the television screen on the wall. It is playing an advertisement for the Carnal Contendership match. It is running through the numbers of the match and shows some past winners such as last year’s winner, Danny Toner, going the distance and winning.

Katsuki: “This match will take not just skill, but courage. Safe to say I should not make mistakes like I did in that Meltdown battle royal.”

Stopping herself, perhaps due to some therapy she has received, she tries to spin it into a positive.

Katsuki: “But if I was not ready for this, I would not be here. Just remove doubt, Katsuki. You belong here. You always did…”

???: “Ready for tonight?”


A voice speaks from the door. A familiar one with a mostly British accent. Turning around. It’s Kimmy. She’s decked out in her usual FWA polo shirt for work as her hair is in a ponytail. A big grin is on her face and Katsuki returns it.

Katsuki: “I am. It is great to be back.”

Kimmy opens her arms, inviting an embrace.

Kimmy: “Come here.”

Katsuki walks over and gives her friend a hug.

Kimmy: “It’s been so weird not having you here! I’m SO glad you’re back!”

Letting go of her hug, Katsuki nods.

Katsuki: “It is great to be back-”

Before asking her a question.

Katsuki: “Say, you have the graphics ready?”

Kimmy nods.

Kimmy: “Yep. They’re pretty sick. I think people will be surprised, but they'll get used to it. Oh, and Jon Russnow told me you’re supposed to draw your number in half an hour. So be there. The signs will point you there.”

Katsuki: “Perfect. I will be there.”


She nods in response.

Kimmy: “Good. Jon will kill me if you don't show up! Good luck. I’m rooting for you.”

Kimmy nods before heading down the hallway, back to her duties in the production truck. Watching her friend leave, Katsuki has some ease on her face. Going over to her bag on one of the benches, she unzips it..

Katsuki: “Now, time for the final piece…”

After looking through her bag, she pulls out a white mask. Looking at the back of the mask, there is a skull logo with horns, something which her, Cali, and Ririko have been using for their trio, with it having a gold trim. Flipping it over, we see fangs, similar to her usual mask, though they are less jagged. Trimming the mask are red line patterns, mirroring on both sides around the same yin-ying symbol from her tights branded on the forehead. Replacing the horns are animal-like ears. A touch longer. Not feline, but not exactly canine, and for SURE not a weasel. The mask has been put together with care by someone who knows what they are doing.

She takes a long look at her new mask, showing a smile like a kid on Christmas morning.

Katsuki: “Finally… Something that reflects me. Something I created.”

Turning it around, she holds it with both her hands.

Katsuki: “Together, we’ll start anew.”

Lifting the mask up, she finally slips it on her head, fitting her perfectly, symbolizing a fresh start for her wrestling career.


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or (Everyone, Everywhere, All At Once)

or (being weaselperson)
or (How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wrestling)
or (The Adventures of Zachary Kazadi Across the 5th Dimension)
or (Me and You and Everyone We Know)
or (Divine Secrets of the Goldensiblings)
or (A Series of Thematically Related Events)

or (Everything You Always Wanted to Know About My Characters But Were Afraid to Ask)
or (The Wonderful Weasel Person Suit)
or (The Man Behind this Account is Quiet)

Dramatis Personae

Cthulhu's Nephews:

Blazed - one-half of B+D, runs a theater-reviewing YouTube channel
Depressed - one-half of B+D, runs a theater-reviewing YouTube channel
Frodo the Ring-Bearing Gnome - ring-bearer, died in an acid bath, not an actual gnome
Gator Guy - an anthropomorphic crocodile, resents name, Shakespearean fanatic, one-half of the Leviathans, died in an explosion
Harry the Sane Wizard - wizard from alternate reality, has a fake hand
J.J. JAY! - COSMIC HORROR, uncle
La Sobrina Del Horror Cosmico - the niece, and former GZ4 competitor
Maid of Death - caretaker of ь-I, winner of Cosmic Playground II
Megalodon Man - an anthropomorphic shark, food fanatic, one-half of the Leviathans, died in an explosion
ь-I - the avatar, part KAIJU, uncrowned queen
Quiet - symbiote, first official Nephew
Stop Sign #2 - a girl in a stop sign costume, died in an explosion
Thomas West - podcaster, former FWA World Champion, king of the deathmatch, man of 1000 disguises

FWA:
Charles LeRoi - le mec
Jon Russnow - general manager of the FWA, world-famous author
midnight MUSTANG - member of PONI BOI and conPRO, hit k-pop artist
sunrise STALLION - member of PONI BOI and conPRO, hit k-pop artist
weaselperson - looks like an anthropomorphic weasel


Hastur's Niblings:
Alexander Lies - an easily distractible guy
Christina Corncunt - owns an Italian restaurant
Elizabeth Silver - speaks very fast, should take a breath
Crash - pretty negative dude with a nice goatee
Moochelle von Horrosandwich - the dungeon mistress
Sean Spring - wholesome positive dude

Indies, Former CWA, Former FWA:

Afa Seanoa - former General Manager of CWA
Ashley La Bella - former CWA wrestler
Captain Fantasy - former FWA wrestler, superhero

Genevieve Seydoux - former nGw and BWW wrestler, businesswoman
Izaya Snowmantashi - renaissance man, fan of taxidermy, author of self-published novel 'The Golden Theory'
Jermaine Creed - one-half of Murder Inc., #1 contender to CWA World Tag Team titles
Jon Snowmantashi - KAIJU
Kendrick Lethal - one-half of Murder Inc., #1 contender to CWA World Tag Team titles
Liyah Monroe - former BWW wrestler, Twitch streamer
Surtur - former FWA wrestler, one-half of the Big Flippy Giants
Ymir - former FWA wrestler, one-half of the Big Flippy Giants
Zachary Kazadi - former FWA wrestler, wrestling purist & supremacist

Others:

Colossus - former BAOW star, wrestling/strongman/acting legend, ousted for domestic violence allegations
Devilauntie - trainer of Uncle, COSMIC HORROR, former Pseudo-Nephews member
John Duncan - sports management, former representative of Jon Snowmantashi

The Maker - of Meet Your Maker fame
Wanda - weaselperson's mysterious representative

Zom Gip - the Nephews' biggest fan, talented fan fiction writer

The Peripherals:
Barbie
Charles LeRoi's Twitch Chat
Genevieve Seydoux's Business Associates

ь-I's Family





p82Dfrm.png

Uncle stepped outside the house onto the back porch. Kazadi stood up hurriedly, rake menacingly held, though he eased up ever so slightly upon seeing COSMIC HORROR. The house's backyard was curated with fine attention to detail. A contour of interlocking stones, a pebble moat, and more interlocking stones surrounded a zen garden. A pool-sized sandy plain, perfectly raked, with the occasional island of moss and stone, or cactus, a trio of bonsai trees, a minuscule bridge, a bell, and a temple. Uncle whistled in admiration.

"I know, I know, it's rude to enter someone's house without permission, but I rang the doorbell and you never answered."

"Could've gone around the house."

"True, but this way it's a bit more of an entrance. If you'd answered the door, you would've seen my Octopi behind me, and so, a memorable first encounter and a promise that I am like no man you've met before. But you didn't answer the door so I had to compensate. This is me compensating."

"You don't think the mask and the pink tracksuit did enough to make you stand out."


Uncle thinks it over. "I guess you're right. Entering people's homes uninvited is just a bad habit of mine. Well, in any case, allow me to introduce myself, my name is-"

"J.J. JAY!. I've heard of you."

"You said the whole name. Most people just call me Uncle."

"I've no interest in calling you that."

"That's well enough. J.J. JAY! is a brilliantly underutilized name. I do so cherish any chance I get to hear someone else say it. Still, I'm satisfied to know my reputation precedes me here in late 2020 when I've yet to make my shenanigans a matter of international concern. I never knew you for keeping up with trending topics."

"I don't, and you never knew me for anything."

"On that matter, you're quite wrong. I am well aware of you. Unlike you, I do pay attention to trending topics, and despite your everlasting desire to reject any such attention, for a time, you were very much in the spotlight. Up until you fucked it all up, but even that didn't harm the memory of your name too much. After all, you're usually thereabouts the top 5 names in all those Top 10 Flops In FWA History lists, and I tend to scour those for potential recruits."

"Is that why you're here?"

"Un peu de ceci, un peu de cela."

"Did you brush up on your French to impress me?"

"Hmm. Un peu de ceci, un peu de cela."

"Uh-huh. Right. To be clear, you lost me at the pink tracksuit, and the mask. Separately. Either one would've done the job. Entering my house, however you did so, didn't help matters either. I prefer a more subdued vibe altogether than what you offer. I'm not interested."


Uncle chuckles while walking down the porch into the garden. He stops in front of the sandy zen garden Kazadi had been tending to before his unannounced arrival.

"You're not used to hearing no, I take it?"

Uncle clears his throat dramatically and spits into the sand. Kazadi frowns but makes no move.

"You're a rather angry guy, you know that."

"I do. Hence the garden."

"Oh. That makes sense. Well, then. We're in the perfect scenario to test out the calm-inducing capacity of this garden. Would you relax a little and stop holding that rake like you're ready to impale me with it, and I'll tell you my proposition?"

"I already told you what I think of it."

"Don't be rude. You haven't even heard it."


Kazadi sighs but doesn't rush the incoming expulsion of the man from his household. He leans the rake against a tree and sits down on the porch. "Hurry it up, then."

"Oh, of course, of course. Time is of the essence, gardening to get back to."
Uncle squats down in front of the sand, looking closely at it. "How about coming back to the FWA?"

"I quit. I'm done. I won't go back on my word."

"No one cares about your word, not even Devin Golden cares about your word. He's retired twice as it is, bound to do so a third time once his dalliance with Randy Rayman comes to an end, he's got no business telling you about maintaining your word. And it was just a rule for the match anyways. You think he would've quit quit if he'd quit?"

"Doesn't matter what he would've done. Doesn't matter what anyone else would've done. I quit. I quit on my passion. On the thing I loved the most in the world. On my reason for being. I couldn't bear a bit of pain, so I quit. I've already heard all the justifications for why I should renege on my vows, in spite of the fact that I never solicited such justifications in the first place. How many times will I have to repeat myself?"

"You're a rather dramatic one, aren't you? That's okay, I like that in people. Passion is so infectious!"

"Are you done?"

"You said it yourself: I'm not so easily turned away."

"You're saying I'm not trying hard enough to get rid of you?"

"I'll abstain from answering that question in light of the possibility you might take me up on the challenge. Now, putting aside your desires to put me in the rearview of your modest existence, have you not considered the sheer joy of vengeance? Take from Devin the thing he most prizes in the world now, the Golden Shower and those tag team titles."

"Returning for vengeance? There'd be nothing more pathetic. My love of this doesn't need to be stained with personal grudges. All I ever needed was the desire to win. The figure opposite of me will always remain irrelevant to those goals. Vengeance would do nothing for me. I... have no ill will against Devin Golden. I said I quit. I did. If there's anyone I should resent for the fact that I can no longer wrestle, it's only me."

"Then forget yourself. It doesn't have to be as Zachary Kazadi. Remember, you used to go by other names. In fact, I'd say, it's rather pertinent to mine own needs that you DO NOT go by Zachary Kazadi. As I said, it wasn't an ordinary recruitment I came here for. I want you to take on a new identity."

"I thought you knew who I was. I don't do the gimmicks. The swerves. The stories. I'm a- I was a wrestler. A wrestler! Not an entertainer. Not an octopus. A pirate. A corporate shill. I was a fucking wrestler."

"Of course, of course."
He rolls his eyes. How many times had he heard - and would hear - that disparaging line about fantastic personalities? He could stomach it though. No one met the standard of a 'wrestler' in Kazadi's books, so there was little point in Uncle being flustered by his exclusion from 'The Wrestler's' narrow definition of such. Not even purists like Truth & Parr would qualify. "I respect the purity of your passion."

"Do you?"

"Certainly! It's to be admired, no doubt. I appreciate the art of wrestling as much as you do. Okay, perhaps, not as much, but surely in my own way."
Kazadi snarls as if even the assertion that there's a likeness in their passions is insulting to him. "Allow me to finish, please. I thought you weren't the talkative sort. Sheesh. Look, I don't want Zachary Kazadi per se. But you are quite a formidable talent. I want your skills. What I mean is, this will necessitate a certain suspension of disbelief-"

"I told you, I've heard of you."

"Ah. No need to explain the peculiarities of my being. Good. Well, not very good. I do enjoy talking about the peculiarities of my being, but there'll be other opportunities. Still, here I was hoping I might show you a trick or two. Anyways, I have this friend, he's... you could call him a parasite, I guess, but I wouldn't. It sounds a bit rude and harsh. But he needs a host to survive. Nothing that would kill you, though I suppose there might be some trauma that'd naturally accrue over time, and should you change your mind well- look, I'm not going to list out all the terms and conditions-"

"You're doing a great job of selling me on it."

"Is that a yes?"
Uncle beams.

"No."

"Aww."
Uncle sags. He drags a finger across the sand. "Well, I didn't expect you to say yes, anyways."

"No?"

"No! I proposed an absurd offer you were unlikely to accept so I could push for a second offer that might be slightly more tempting."

"Should you be telling me the intricacies of your persuasion tactics?"


Uncle shrugs. "A friend of mine has been working on a way to clone people."

"No."

"Oh, come on! Who doesn't want a clone?"

"I don't trust you."

"Why wouldn't you trust me?"

"You're a devil."

"A COSMIC HORROR, actually."

"Doesn't make it any more convincing."

"Still, I'd appreciate you being considerate that there's a difference. How about I sweeten the deal, then?"

"I'm assuming this sweetener is something you already had in your back pocket."


Uncle reaches for his back pocket. "How'd you know? Well, doesn't matter. You've spoken to Izaya, I presume?"

"He's the one who told me about you."

"And he would've told me about you, but alas, I do my own research. I'm certain Izaya's told you his Golden Theory, then?"


Zachary frowns. "He has."

"Unsurprisingly. The thing about conspiracy theorists is they can't help telling people about it. It's never a good look for them really, but like a preacher and his gospel, it's hard to resist the holy calling to tell your 'truth'. Though, in Izaya's case. He is correct. So it would behoove all thirty of us to be cognizant of that."

"There's thirty of us?"

"Well, not yet. Most of them haven't appeared so far."
He counts on his fingers. "There's about ten of us right now, I think. But don't worry, I'll be sure to help jack those numbers up. One person does not a loving family make, after all. At the very least you need eight."

"What does Izaya have to do with this?"

"If you are to believe Izaya-"

"I haven't said I do. He didn't do a good job of selling me on it. Bit of a nut job, actually."

"And yet he has a way of making you hear him out, doesn't he?"

"So do you, it turns out."

"Makes you wonder?"

"I'm a gardener now. I don't need to be concerned with any of this shit. I've made my peace."

"You want to be forgotten?"

"I've never cared about being remembered."

"Funny thing that. You know what Zachary means?"

"I d-"

"God Remembers,"
Uncle quickly says before Zachary can confirm he does. "You won't be forgotten, whether you want to be or not. You still have a role to play."

Uncle stands up and pulls a key out of his back pocket.

"A metadimensional key. Into the... Maker's mind, so to speak. A way to control your fate. This is the sweetener." It looks like an ordinary enough key. Kazadi hesitates to reach out, but Uncle shoves it into his hand. "Hold it out, then twist, like you're unlocking a door." Kazadi inspects the key, and something compels him to turn around and hold the key out into nothing, twisting it. He hears a click. "Then, push." And he pushes against the space where the key had lodged. Another world opens up beyond this door made of 'space'. He takes a step inside, and another, then the door slams shut behind him.
Uncle stands alone in the backyard smiling to himself. He squats down again, in front of the sand.

z3pzEdw.png
In the sandy expanses of an undisclosed location somewhere in the greatest country on God's green (or desaturated yellow in this particular bit of America) earth, a lone weaselperson walks through the desert. Their groin begins vibrating and they reach into their trunks to pull out a cell phone. The caller ID identifies it as Wanda. They're unsure about answering, but they decide they'd feel worse ignoring the call.

"Hello, Wanda."

"You've disappointed me, Jonathan."

"I know. I'm sorry."

"By a harmless, little girl. Did you feel bad for her?"

"I don't know. Maybe?"
It had also been their second match, and although one might be prone to underestimating Trixie, she still had a few bells-to-bells under her name, more so than weaselperson's sole match before then. If one were to look purely at the facts and ignore the superficial chatter, Trixie had been the favorite.

"..."

"The connection isn't very good here."

"It'll hold. Why are you walking in that direction?"

"I don't know. I was ashamed."

"As you should be."

"Losing sucks."

"Yes, it does."

"It's embarrassing."

"I don't even want people to know we're associated."

"Oh."

"I saw that girl confess to you. Why did you turn away from her?"

"I didn't want to be disloyal."

"And if you wouldn't have felt any guilt over it, would that have changed how you would've acted."

"... This sounds like a trap."

"Answer the question."

"I don't want to."

"Where are you going?"

"I don't know."

"Are you giving up?"

"I don't know."

"Are you coming back to me?"

"Do you want me to?"

"No. Not as you are now."

"I understand."

"You still have another opportunity. A bigger opportunity. And an easier one."

"I do?"

"A chance to become the champion of that entire company. All you have to do is stay in the ring longer than anyone else."

"I think, I think I could do that."

"Do you really?"

"Yes."

"Even after what just happened?"

"I won't let it happen again. I'll learn from my mistakes. I'll be a new weaselperson. The best weaselperson. I can do it this time. I'm motivated."

"It is true that most people do not find immediate success, though losing to that girl was not merely a failure, but an abject failure."

"I should've done better."

"You NEED to do better."

"I will do be-"


A truck runs over weaselperson, turning them into roadkill.

Bones, muscles, flesh, and organs are flattened beneath the weight of it. And then the back wheels take care of any such meat that was still intact. The truck stops, tires skidding in the newly bloodied sand to a quick halt.

The driver exits the vehicle and stands over the mottled remains of weaselperson. They reach underneath the arms of the person and haul them into the back of the truck. They gaze down at some of the innards that fell out and pick it up, tossing it into the back with the corpse. They pull the tarp over, covering it, and head back into the driver's seat. The truck pulls away.

The cell phone remains on the ground. Slightly covered by bloody sand.

"Jo...Jonathan? Jonathan. Jonathan!"

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Izaya Snowmantashi whistles as he walks into his newly-minted workshop. On the walls are the taxidermied remains of several creatures, many of them exotic. He wears an apron and dries his wet hands on it.

On a metal table, a body bag sits. He stands over it, a master craftsman in front of his soon-to-be masterwork.

"Many of you aren't familiar with me," he says, to no one in particular, and to everyone. "I should sum up the relevant parts. Hmm. I'm a professional wrestler. I've been around the world. I've wrestled in Palestine, Yemen, the Hollow Earth, Atlantis, Ukraine - though haven't we all -, the ISS - we did not have the broadcasting capacity financing of Stop Sign #3 -, El Dorado, Fortnite. You'll surely wonder why you haven't heard much about me. I haven't spent too much time in the relevant companies that might hold your attention. I've always remained on the periphery, in the sort of companies you might find on a hastily compiled master list. On the periphery of the periphery. Not any time in FWA, and only a fraction of time, not enough to be significant, in the CWA. But you might've heard of my older brother: Jon Snowmantashi. And if you've been here long enough, you might even remember me from one of Michelle's visits to Japan, before she found a healthy outlet for all her misplaced anger in her found family of cosmic rabble-rousers."

He pulls open the body bag's zipper.

"I'm a man of many talents, and many interests, and many hobbies. A renaissance man, if you will."

And removes the corpse from it. An anthropomorphic weasel (or a wereweasel, or a weaselperson, or the weasel) that faced a sad, heinous ending.

"You've heard of my wrestling. And, as you can see," he gestures to the walls, "I also have a side business as a taxidermist. It's not a well-loved art but it does have a generous clientele. Unfortunately, my brother doesn't quite fancy this hobby of mine. But he's hardly ever approved of anything I've ever done. Don't get me wrong, I love my brother dearly, but I have better sense than to seek his approval. Or that of anyone else's. A side effect of the Golden Theory. All of us goldensiblings are rather rebellious in our own little ways. Although this one here proved to be the exception. The most subservient of us all, you could say."

He opens a tool kit with a variety of knives, and instruments of dissection.

"I only bring up my brother in this case because I'm undertaking this contract to help him out, but he certainly wouldn't be very appreciative of it if he knew. He'd try to stop me and probably reject the gift he'd receive as a result too. He'll never find out though, so there's no need to be worried about it."

He approaches the corpse of the weasel person and begins cutting into it.

"This will serve a different purpose than the usual sort of requests I get. I'm making a costume out of it. A bit morbid, I know, but a necessity. We've all reached that crossroads where we must decide to carry on as who we are or take on a new identity. The definitive transformative moment of our lives. He lies down one of these paths."

He keeps sawing through, cleanly and efficiently.

"Have I ever told you how this world works? And I use this, and world, loosely, here. The Golden Theory I mentioned earlier. You've surely heard of Devin Golden's theories, or part of it, at least. He's mostly right. Entirely right, even, you could say, as long as you understand that, perhaps, he's not looking at the whole picture. We are all just fragments of individuals in another, 'realer' world. But this one," he looks down at the corpse, "was an anomaly. Rejected by the Maker. But that's the role he was meant to play. A necessary sacrifice for greater goals. And this is the role I'm meant to play. Joseph of Arimathea to the martyr among us."

Izaya places his tool down.

"This is somewhat gristly and lengthy work. I am proud of my art, but I know many aren't fond of it, so I won't subject you to a longer demonstration. Here, one of my former students, Liyah Monroe - you might know her from the Black Widow Wrestling tour the FWA held a couple of years ago - streams on Twitch from time to time. Why don't we watch that instead?"

He grabs his phone and casts Twitch to the television set in the corner. An ad starts to play.

"I'm an independent wrestler, I can't afford a Twitch subscription." He shrugs.

V696QNN.png

Jon Russnow stands in front of a series of highlights from both King of Deathmatch and The Grand March. He's got his overly enthusiastic and highly punchable smile plastered to his face.

"Ladies and gentlemen, theys and thems, the road to Back in Business is officially beginning! Carnal Contendership is right around the corner, which means we are going to find out who is destined to main event Back in Business against the Golden Opportunity 2022 winner, the man who retired Devin Golden, the FWA World Champion: Disco's Last Warrior Chris Peacock. Everyone who has won a Carnal Contendership has gone down in history, hall of famers like Chris Kennedy, WOLF, Ryan Rondo, Shannon O'Neal, future Hall of Famers like Cyrus Truth, Nova Diamond, Michelle von Horrowitz and Danny Toner. It is the BIGGEST opportunity in the calendar year, a chance for ANYONE to step out from the shadows and etch their names in the history books. Or, to be forgotten, a footnote in those very same books. Who will step up? Who will slip up? Tune in Sunday, April 30th, live from the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee! See you there FWA Universe!"

0TNEW8E.png

In the corner of the monitor is Liyah Monroe, while a chess board takes up most of the screen real estate. She's mid-conversation with her spectators, killing the lengthy downtime it takes for her opponent to decide on his next move.

"I haven't really been in talks with any company these days. I'm still recovering from the Torn ACL, and with my wrestling style, there's no guarantee that I'll be able to compete at the same level or in the same way that I used to, so I probably need to try and figure out who Liyah Monroe is in 2023, or maybe 2024 because she's not the Liyah Monroe you're used to seeing clips of. I think I can still be one of the best, I've always loved a good challenge, and the chance to adapt my style to my new limitations is pretty invigorating." The opponent's piece moves. "Finally. Come on, Charles, you can't keep wasting time like that."

A notification pops up in the corner of the screen.

"Thank you, BT, for the 8-month subscription."

Liyah keeps her eyes on the chess board and moves a rook.

"Was I really going to be on GZ4? I was in talks to be in Ground Zero Season 4. I haven't really worn a mask but my mentor knew a few people that would've been interested in passing on their own mask, so there was a possibility I could've been there, but I got the injury pretty early on in the planning for that show and that kinda killed any talks. It might've been for the best, I don't know if I really would've wanted to wear a mask long term anyways so it might've been a bit disrespectful if I dropped the mask as soon as I won GZ4."

Liyah snorts.

"Would I have won it? Of course, I would've won it."

Her opponent makes another move.

She shakes her head, grinning at the ill-thought maneuver.

"Not a smart move, Charles. Maybe you should take your time after all. We gotta keep this going for the charity donations, but it won't last too long at this rate. Couldn't we have got that Trixie chick for this? I heard she was a chess genius."

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'Le Mec' Charles LeRoi, on the figurative other side of the screen, in another city, was also streaming on Twitch. Charles had no interest in participating in the Creator Clash Chessmatch Charity Drive but he'd been coerced into the act (as in he was asked and was too nervous to say no) so he had little choice. He would be happy for this match to end as soon as possible.

Le Mec sweat nervously, his eyes shifting between the chess game and the comments in his Twitch chat. He'd yet to hire a moderator, feeling a bit too anxious about addressing the hiring process, unfortunately, his popularity exceeded most expectations, and a recent new dynamic in his life had only swelled such popularity making the lack of moderation a problem bound to erupt.

"Has Miss LeRoi popped up yet?"

"dropped some cookies off"

"lucky bastard"

"What was she wearing?"

"no comment"

"timestamp? clip?"

"01:22:20 to 01:23:01"

"mommy :S"


"legend"

Charles LeRoi's face reddens with every passing comment, and he hardly even registers the development of the chess match. Used to be his mom would handle stuff like hiring a moderator, but she'd started her own OnlyFans subscription and now she was making even more money than he was. On the upside, not relying on her son for survival had made her much nicer. The downside was that his newest assortment of inherited fans never let him forget it.

Often his original fanbase would clash with his newest one, and a war of slurs, doxxing, and therapy speak would overwhelm the bulk of the chat. He'd been banned a few weeks ago for being unable to maintain his chat, and many original members of his fandom were beginning to turn on him for his lack of assertion.
He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. He remembers to go to his happy place. To forget all of the world's troubles. To be at ease.

A concert. In Busan. He smiles.

The stadium is packed - as should be expected - but even so, it's like he's the sole audience member for the performance. The ambiance without the anxious bit of being surrounded. The PONI BOI duo dance their routine set to Carnal Contendahs while thirty or so backup dancers posing as fan girls brawl about on the stage for the chance to date the pop stars. They're perfectly in sync, the raucous cheering from the crowd is nearly deafening yet even so the bars dropped by sunrise STALLION carry on being heard over the adulation. Even the typically meek Charles LeRoi screeches for the stars performing their hit duet.

LeRoi is in bliss.

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The curtains close while midnight MUSTANG and sunrise STALLION hurry off to change into the next set's outfits. They're surrounded by crew members who have their own arduous task of getting them undressed and quickly buttoned up into their next costume while the thirty-or-so dancers who'd been faux brawling across the stage leave to relax backstage.

As with every time they have to change outfits, MUSTANG's bout of nervousness and nausea hits him. It happens each time without fail, and although he's done these performances the world over to a collective millions of fans, he never stops being nervous in between each and every one of these performances.
He used to wish he'd be able to just do each performance back to back, no wait between, no outfit switching, and in the producer's defense, these waits were rather brief given the impatience of the audience on the other side of the curtains, but even this brief time was enough to cause MUSTANG to tap his foot nervously and sweat even more than he already had.

Fortunately, all that time spent touring and performing had allowed him to figure out how to work through these issues. He'd found a perfect technique for clearing his mind long enough to forget about every one of his overblown worries. An easy way to put himself at ease before defining moments.

What he does is - he imagines himself in his happy place.

He's his namesake in this happy place. A mustang. The horse, of course, not the vehicle. He stampedes across the grassy plains with the rest of his herd. He doesn't have to think about millions of fans and their expectations. About performing. About his diet. About maintaining his body. His hair. His public persona. His agent. His partner. His leaders. All he thinks about is his mane blowing in the wind as his powerful legs carry him and his fellow horses forward across the plains.

MUSTANG is in bliss.

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Alongside the mustang, the stallion does his best to keep up with both him and the herd. He's never been as much of a workhorse as his closest lifelong friend, but he's always worked his hardest not to hold midnight back.

Then his hoof tweaks. Takes the weight out from underneath him, and he falls. His front right leg breaks entirely - the bone sticking out brings with it a sharp sting of pain. He yelps in distress, but the rest of the herd has gone on, unconcerned with their lost member. A distant memory to be forgotten. MUSTANG has gone on. It's not surprising, he's now holding back his lifelong friend, he deserves to be abandoned.
He can't get up. Odds are, he'll never be able to run again. He's lost the only thing that makes him useful.

The ranch owner, a massive burly man who seems to be built of boulders stacked up on top of one another, approaches him. The man's face is reddened, incensed with fury, a vicious sneer on his face.

"FUCK! You useless piece of shit."

He's got a knife in hand.

"What a fucking waste of money? Imagine a horse who can't fucking run without tripping on himself. God fucking damn it."

The man crouches down and slips the knife into the stallion's jugular.
sunrise isn't much longer for this world.

He's sad, but also grateful for the time he was able to spend with MUSTANG.

And focusing on that, in those last seconds, STALLION is in bliss.

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Colossus had had to abandon his wrestling career finally, and turned to ranch owning. The allegations caught up to him, and this world was no longer willing to look past his history of domestic abuse. It was bullshit. Luck of the draw. Plenty of people who had done worse than him were revered the world over.
His uncle had given him the farm after he'd lost most of his money being sued into oblivion by his bitch of an ex-wife. Then his own lawyer - former lawyer - had taken him to court for assault. The man had promised him he'd be innocent when the case was up, that his ex-wife's reputation would be the one in tatters. But he'd failed.

He drags Stallion back to the ranch with one hand by the ankle of a back leg. For a time, he was considered the world's strongest man, at least by several strongman competitions out there in the world. He was a household name in the industry. Once a go-to for television and film super mooks. And of course, millions of people had memories of Colossus dominating the wrestling world during their childhoods for the BAOW.
People still lined up to get his autograph, so he could at least book a gig at a convention here and then. Though a fair few of those went up in flames once word got out on Twitter. A lot of people didn't care about what you did back home, they recognized him for what he'd offered to the world for four decades. Unfortunately, that didn't stop most of the ad men from getting cold feet and canceling him.

He leaves the stallion out at the side of the ranch. They could probably salvage it. Horsemeat wasn't too bad once in a while. Still, he'd have rather kept the horse itself.

He shoves the door open and it falls immediately off its hinges. Not the first time he's done that. Can't control his strength.

"Baby, baby. What's wrong," Barbie says.

"Fucking horse broke its leg. Had to put it down."

"Aww, baby."
Barbara puts a hand on Collosus's face. "Maybe this whole ranch living isn't for us."

Colossus shoves her away and she falls to the ground. It's not intentional. He forgets his own strength sometimes. And she's so tiny and fragile.

"Not this shit again."

Barbie takes a deep breath, trying to regain her composure.

"It's just that-"

"Shut your mouth. You think I want to be here?"

"No, but-"

"God I fucking hate the sound of your voice. So goddamn shrill."


She stands up, frowning, abandoning her attempts at putting on a happy demeanor.

"Why are you looking at me like that?"

"I can't talk. I can't look. You know they've got pretty good sex dolls these days, maybe you'd be happier with that."


He backhands her. She falls to the ground once again and doesn't move.

"Barbie?"

He falls to his knees. Doesn't even bother checking on her. Comes to a quick conclusion.

"Barbie? No, no, no, no. Barbie?"

He buries his head in his hands. Sobs. He doesn't hear her start to crawl away, not until he hears the rusty cabinet squeak open. He raises his head from his hands.

"Barbie, you're okay?"

She turns around. Her face is already bruising. She holds the revolver out.

"Barbie. Babe, what are you doing?"

"I'm tired of this."

"It was just an accident. I didn't mean it."

"You're a coward. Own up to your actions."

"Babe put it down."

"No. I want to do this."


She offers him a bloody smile and pulls the trigger. It catches him dead in the throat. He puts his hand to it to staunch the bleeding. She pulls the trigger two more times. The first goes through his cheek. The second through his forehead.

Colossus wakes up from his nap on the porch to the desperate cries of a fallen horse. He stands up to look on in the distance. Damned stallion broke its leg. He heads into the kitchen to grab a knife.

"Baby, what's wrong?"

He ignores her. Roughly opens the door to head out into the field. They couldn't afford to lose a horse. For fuck's sake. Imagine a horse who can't run. A creature who can't do the one thing it's good at doesn't deserve to live.

He snarls, staring down at the wheezing corpse of the beast.

"FUCK! You useless piece of shit."

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"This is a landmark breakthrough in punitive measures. Some crimes are too big to atone for in one lifetime. Codename: Damnation," she says, stoic and dry.

Alongside her guests, they look at a monitor displaying the simulation Colossus, also known as Ivan Yakanov, is stuck in. He lies helplessly on their plus-sized hospital beds, unaware of his torturous fate.

"So the subject relives this moment of horror over and over again."

"But what's the use if they aren't conscious of it?"

"It's the subconscious that matters. It wears down the soul to nothing. Deep inside, he's aware that he's reliving his suffering endlessly, but he can't get out of the loop. He can't do otherwise. It's who he is. It's a prison of his own making. A hell tailored to him. The most innovative form of imprisonment today."


She gestures for her audience of government officials and executives to follow her.

"You might wonder how we came to discover this method. You will have surely heard of the unique illness afflicting a few dozen people around the world that has left them comatose. Over time, thanks to those amongst them who have woken up from it, for one reason or another, we've discovered that these uniquely comatose individuals have been in what you could say is a multi-user dream world. Essentially, they're all collectively dreaming fragments of themselves within this shared dream."

She stops by another room.

"It was rather difficult getting access to one of these patients, but we were ultimately able to get our hands on a subject." She's lying. The hospitals were rather eager to profit from the helpless vegetables taking up resources in their facilities. As easy as buying a gun at your local department store in the US. Or weed at one of the five dispensaries a five-minute drive from your home in Canada. Or a spare organ at your illegitimate doctor in Mexico. You get the idea.

On the other side of a one-way window, a man lays on a hospital bed with tubes sticking out of him and several monitors displaying various states of his health.

"Most of these individuals only have a fragment or two, particularly at any given time. Though it's quite spectacular, the power of the mind, to make one imagine themselves being something so removed from who they are, and yet so close, too, since they are still fragments of the comatose patient in the end. One could dream of themselves as another race, species, gender, or sexuality. They define their own limitations."

"Is there something special about this one?"

"There are traits that make him distinct from the rest, but many of them have traits that set them apart. All distinct, and the same at once. There are only a few exceptions who have several fragments of themselves, especially ongoing. This particular patient, Patient J, we call him, has over thirty fragments that we're aware of. And almost a dozen are active at any given time. An exception even among those he shares the dream world with. There was only one other individual as fragmented as he was. Furthermore, while we've seen instances of fragments belonging to more than one individual, we've not seen an instance like in his case where several of his fragments have gone on to belong to other individuals. The best case studies for our needs."
Seydoux would've made of any subject she'd gotten her hands on 'the best case studies for our needs', but they don't need to know that part. If the shoe doesn't fit, make it fit. That was her motto.

"Have you considered other possibilities for this technology? Eternal punishment is all well and good, but it's hardly the most profitable way to take advantage of this, is it? Besides, being tortured isn't going to get us cheap labor."

"Undoubtedly. But before we can begin selling paradise, we need the people to understand true suffering."

"You're quite a merciless woman, Miss Seydoux."

"I'm simply a businesswoman. There is no room for mercy in our line of work."


The guests nodded in unanimous agreement.

"Miss Seydoux, this is a thought exercise, if you will? Did this world these people are dreaming of come about because they went into comas, or did they go into comas to enter into this dream world?"

"I'll figure out the answer to that question as soon as I discover how to profit from it. Now, why don't we carry on?"


Seydoux leads her companions out of the room, past a ventilation shaft where a pair of curious eyes watch them depart.

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Uncle kicks open the ventilation grate and slips through. Harry effortlessly follows behind him. Quiet crawls out next. Thomas has a bit more of a struggle and Quiet and Harry work together to drag him out. Uncle is gleeful to discover the Maker on the other side of the room.

"Here we are, Nephews! Salvation."

Quiet and Harry fall to the ground as they finally manage to pull Thomas West out of the shaft.

"Should've just shrunk us down," Thomas complains.

"You're the only one who couldn't fit," Harry replies.

"Maybe the people who build these ventilation shafts should be more considerate of different body sizes. It's called ableism, Harry. Don't blame me, the victim, for their lack of foresight."

Harry rolls his eyes. "You finally decided which one of us is doing it?" he asks Uncle.

"Why does that matter?" Uncle responds, indignant.

"The world wants Thomas West headlining Back in Business once again."

"Perhaps you shouldn't have declared your sole loyalty to CDW, then?"

"What about me? I can toss everybody out of the ring with my new hand. You saw what I did to Baxter."

"Listen, Nephews. Follow my lead. The matter of who gets to participate in the CC this year is irrelevant, what matters is that one of us manages to participate. And I don't mean the Nephews Us, I mean the Golden Us."

"Usually when you say stuff like that, it means you're setting yourself up to be the one."

"If that's what the Maker desires."

"Hey, that guy looks a bit different than the guy I met,"
Harry points out, getting a closer look at the patient sitting in the hospital room.

"Well, Harry, that's obviously a matter of Metaphysical Dilution. The Maker you met was just a subconscious fragment of this Maker here. Who may well be a subconscious fragment of some Maker elsewhere."

"What?"

"Explain it like he's five, Thomas."


Thomas snorts, but he's used to the task. "Think of it this way. We only ever see a part of the person we're presented with. There are thoughts and beliefs you never vocalize, and some are buried so deep inside you, you don't know they're there. You only present to us the parts you're incapable of burying down, and the parts you're willing to show us. That's the same for this guy, except, he's also able to control how he looks. Well, control isn't entirely correct either. In the same way, an artist can have a perfect image in their mind but when they put that image to paper, it won't live up to that image they'd envisioned. They've exercised some control over the image, but not as much as they'd like. They're still limited by an infinite amount of other factors we'd never be able to wrap our heads around. Unless you're me."

"Yes, yes. I see. I see."

"Glad you understand it, Harry."

"So, uh, quick question how are we logically supposed to incept our own Maker? Actually, maybe a better question than that, why are we incepting him instead of incepting the jury committee like we did last time?"

"The jury committee? You mean the powers that be?"
Uncle asks,

"... .....?"

"Yes. You know, The Silv-"

"Don't you recall it did not work at all? 10th place finish, Harry. The absurdity. We didn't even get the right people. And we have no idea who it'll be this time. A different strategy is necessary. Besides, this may well be more important than mere victory. It's like I always tell you, Harry, you gotta look at the bigger picture. The universe is conspiring to ensure none of us, not Nephews, nor any of our goldensiblings, will be in the Carnal Contendership. Our very presence at that event is on the line. We need to incept the Maker into being willing to participate. Who the Maker participates with doesn't matter. We can leave such a task to be decided next year. I fear if we don't succeed this year, we may be irrevocably dooming us all forever to irrelevancy."

"Don't let him get you scared, Harry. Oblivion isn't so bad."

"Don't listen to Thomas. Oblivion is horrible. Existence is everything! Now, put on your glasses."


All four of the Nephews put on their glasses. A wide three-hundred-inch augmented reality screen appears in front of them, although it's only currently static.

"Daring to enter the dream of the plebians we entered two years ago wasn't much of a hassle. They are of simple minds, and there wasn't any reason to worry we'd be in any danger beyond having to be forced to listen to monologues on shit-talking. But the Maker can be rather erratic, there's no telling what we'll see in his dreams. We've got to time our entry right, and make sure we're not entering a dangerous bit. With these glasses, we'll be able to see what he's currently dreaming of. Thomas, press play please."

Thomas clicks a button on his watch and the augmented reality screen begins to play. It shows four individuals: a man dressed head to toe in a black costume underneath a pink tracksuit, a shorter young white man in a pink tracksuit as well, an equally short but significantly thicker man with a tentacled mask and a pink tracksuit, and finally a larger, taller figure, thick, with a buxom buttock, in a pink tracksuit. They all wear glasses and are staring at the one-way window into a hospital room. These four individuals slowly turn around to stare back at their unexpected audience.

The Nephews turn around from the screen at the same time, confused. There's nothing there but the ventilation shaft they crawled (or were dragged) out of. They then turn forward again to look back at the screen.

"Wait, we can't all look back at once. I'll turn around first, you guys keep looking at the screen."

Uncle turns around.

The shorter tentacled figure on the screen turns to look at the Nephews. Uncle turns back to face the screen. The shorter tentacled figure in the screen turns its back again on the Nephews.

"So, he's dreaming about us watching him dream about us?"

".... ....... .. .. ...."

"This is why you don't incept your Maker,"
Thomas says.

"What we're seeing is from his perspective?" Harry asks.

"Exactly."

Harry turns around, and so does the short white man on the screen.

"Hey Maker, why'd you drop the ball in my X Championship match? I could've gone down in history. There wouldn't have even been a record."

Thomas turns around, and so does the thick tall black man on the screen.

"And you got overly ambitious for my Back in Business match. Now, I have no issue with that, but if you're gonna be ambitious, at least execute. Cost me my damn world title."

Quiet turns around, and so does the fully clothed man in black on the screen.

".. --..-- / ..-. --- .-. / --- -. . --..-- / .- -- / --. .-.. .- -.. / -.-- --- ..- / -.. .. -.. / -. --- - / - .... .. -. -.- / --- ..-. / - .... . / -- --- .-. ... . / -.-. --- -.. . / --. .. -- -- .. -.-. -.- .-.-.-"

"What did you say, Quiet?"

"What language is that?"

"Never heard you speak that before."

"We don't have time for this. Thomas, fast forward to the next dream."


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"Now that we've finished dinner, we can at last show you what we asked you here for."

Jon Snowmantashi sighs. He's immensely satisfied with the dinner that's been offered to him, but he has little interest in whatever shenanigans these Nephews have planned. This gift, whatever they intend it to be, is unlikely to be good, and especially unlikely to be as fulfilling as the alternative of beating them all down here and now.

"Look, Kaiju, that business a couple of years ago, it wasn't anything personal."

"You blew up my mountain. My school."

"We made sure no one got hurt, at least,"
Harry pitches.

Snowmantashi places his hand gently on Harry's shoulder.

"Sometimes the effects of our actions in one moment do not present themselves for a long time to come."

Harry gulps and hurriedly backs away to be behind Quiet.

"...... .. ...., .. .. ..... .. ....., . .... ..... ..."

Quiet steps up to Snowmantashi. Snowmantashi steps forward, fist curling.

Uncle steps between though he has a hard time squeezing through the two stiff bodies, especially with Snowmantashi's bulk.

"Now, now. This is a peace negotiation! I admire a good brawl as much as the next, but Kaiju, we are all in this together."

"Didn't Izaya tell him what's what?"

"You spoke to my brother?"
Jon frowns, mood darkening.

"Shouldn't have said that," Thomas says, chuckling, all the while hardly paying attention as he taps away at his paddle ball.

"Is this about one of his stupid ramblings? His gold conspiracy?"

"NO! No, of course not."
Uncle shoots Harry a glare. Snowmantashi notices it and shakes his head. "Look, like I said, we are just trying to make good on our past disagreement. There are a lot of things we're factoring here. First off, our Dreamer does feel bad about how things turned out."

"And yet, she's not here."

"It's not because she doesn't want to be here. She does! But there's a reason, a metaphysical-"

"A what-"

"Doesn't matter! The point is, Dreamer will make her apologies when the time is right. But the Nephews were the ones who pulled the trigger, we need to do our own part in apologizing and making it up to you."

"How is it you plan on making it up to me, then?"

"Ah! Glad you asked. Follow me, if you'd please."


Snowmantashi turns away from Quiet who hadn't budged an inch and follows Uncle into a warehouse filled with cheap plastic tables, the sort you'd see at a park potluck, with maquettes on top of them.

They pass by the first table, where a cartoonishly, idyllic city can be found, a big rainbow-colored label titled Friendtopia marks a distinct and oddly creepy - of the overtly friendly sort - entrance to the town.

"This here warehouse is where we keep micro duplicate versions of pivotal locations on Earth. They've got plenty of uses. Parodies, mostly. Simulations. Improv. Apology gifts. LARPing. LSD trips. That sort of business. We've got a great manufacturer for these things. They've even got specializations. They can do snow globe versions, and tattoo worlds, for example. We keep it simple. This one here, well, we've been having our fair share of squabbles with the Buddy System-"

"The Buddy System?"

"Tag team that's been killing it for the last year. Baxter, really big guy, is North American Champion. Chokeslammed him once, not to brag. Jeremy Best, really nice guy, beat Uncle a couple of times, kidnapped Krash."

"Krash has been kidnapped?"

"What? Are you going to do something about it?"

"Hmm."

"Yeah, figures, no one else is either. Turns out that naming a PPV after someone is easier than saving them from captivity. We did our part: recruited their boy Scorpane into the family. But let's stay focused, the Buddy System doesn't matter, we're getting sidetracked. Harry's got ADD, can't ever stay on task."

"I understand. Izaya, too."


Snowmantashi observes the Friendtopia maquette and sees cartoonish figures out of a bad parody of Sesame Street walking about. It seems like a Disney theme park in many ways. A world of falsities, pretend, and fake smiles. He sneers at it.

They move forward onto the next maquette. It's a rundown city that mixes yuppies and criminal elements alike, straight out of 70s New York. Empty needles lay on the streets, broken beer bottles litter the sidewalks, and windows are shattered or barred close with wooden planks. Prostitutes solicit. Drug dealers tempt. Pigs tase. The centerpiece of the town is a massive warehouse.

"Ah, Tonerville. We built this a while black. Plotted on blowing it up to make a point, someone else did it first though. A shame."

"At least we found a backup use for all those explosions."

"... ......."

"Shh,"
Uncle says.

"This is the Warehouse?" Snowmantashi looks closely.

"Heard of it?"

"I've been expecting an invitation."

"Been snubbed? I wouldn't think any of it. Our dearest Chessmaster doesn't like to be upstaged in his own court. Unfortunately for him, I don't take kindly to rejection. If you really want in the Warehouse, you gotta force your way in Kaiju."

"That's not how I do things. Besides, these peers of yours in the FWA, they've disappointed me time and time again when I met them. My interest in exchanging fists has long since vanished. And I have no patience for dealing with Michelle's selfish indulgences either. If this Warehouse wants me, they will have to make the call, I'm not desperate."

"Of course not. Nature is never desperate. It only is. Come on, then. There's Fantasyland, Crowe's Carnival, that big new one is the TORN verse, still ironing out the kinks, we've got the dollhouse from Twitch streamer extraordinaire Nova Diamond's sojourn with Dreamer and GiGi... and here we are, the Nephews gift to you, Kaiju."


In front of them stands Mount Fuji, the mountain that had been the subject of Michelle's petty vengeance, and the school that had vanished at its base in a destructive conflagration.

"You wish to offer me a miniature representation of the school you destroyed?"

"No! No, no. Well, yes. But we will make it bigger."

"How?"

"Well, how much do you know about quantum physics."


Snowmantashi stares blankly.

"We've got like a gun that shoots like sonic waves that make things scale up"

Snowmantashi blinks deeply.

"I'll pass on this offer, I was content with the dinner, and if your friend still wants to fight, I'd be inclined to take him on."

Kaiju walks away, though he stops at the next table, his attention arrested once more.

"What do you mean you're not interested?" Uncle asks.

"I don't wish to reclaim the past, tentacle man."

"Damn. We were plotting a Mono no Aware sequel, too."


Snowmantashi bends over and observes a recreation of Manhattan. He looks inside one of the buildings where a few people sit around a table.

"Michelle?" Snowmantashi says, confused.

"Michelle? What's she doing in there?" Uncle tries to get a good look as well, sneaking in from underneath Kaiju. "Ah, wrong. That's Moochelle. Your confusion is understandable."

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Hastur's Niblings sit around the lengthy custom-made table. A maquette of a gothic-like school is atop it with several smaller figurines spread about. There are six individuals around the table.

At the head of the table: Moochelle von Horrosandwich (not to be confused with the similarly named and conceptualized Moochelle von Cowowitz that would have recently appeared on Ground Zero). She has a big divider in front of her, keeping dice and objects, and papers out of sight of the other five players.
Directly to her left is the night's host: Christina Corncunt. A Manhattan native, she runs an Italian restaurant on the verge of bankruptcy. It's a wonder it survived the COVID pandemic, a plague that did not spare their world as it did others (like the FWA's, for instance).

Next to Christina Corncunt is the blunt and harsh guest from Over Up: Crash. The Man with the Goatee that Fills All Others with Envy strokes his facial hair, concerned with the predicament that his player character is currently facing.

On the opposite side of the table are three more individuals.

The daughter of the infamous wrestling executive that goes by the public title of The Silver Zero: Elizabeth Silver.

"HowcouldyouhaveletyourselfgetcaughtbythattrapCrashitwassoobviousyoushouldnteatthat," she says, without ever allowing a singular nanosecond of silence between words.

Next to Elizabeth is Sean Spring. She smiles brightly despite the harsh predicament their players are in.
"I'm sure we'll figure a way out if we work together." Her positivity and warm presence ease the tension effortlessly. She's the reason the Niblings have been able to run countless campaigns without ever falling out with one another. The glue that binds this pseudo-family.

Lastly, is Alexander Lies. The most recent addition to their table. He's not exactly paying attention to his co-players. His short attention span has him distracted by the massive Japanese man looking in from the window, though no one else seems to care or even acknowledge the kaiju-sized human outside the building.

"Alright, Crash, roll a constitution check."

The five players' characters are standing in a field of flowers within a forest behind the institution. They all wear uniforms, cloaks, and pointed hats.

"Why bother? We both know there's no chance I'm passing it."

He rolls it despite his protestations.

"FAIL," Moochelle gleefully announces.

"Big surprise."

"Ymir has completely succumbed to the lotus flower's temptation and has no more willpower. What do you guys do?"


Pmd6KW0.png

Surtur, The Niece, The Avatar, and Harry the Sane Wizard all stand around Ymir who lies on the ground, completely at peace. The tall Frost Giant plucks another lotus flower from the field surrounding them and chews on it. If there was ever a picture of absolute happiness, it was this happy-go-lucky giant right there.
He imagines himself on his broom, a game between houses, his blue-themed one against the red-themed one, natural enemies. He swerves through pursuers, the heavy leather ball in his hand. He fakes to throw it left and the keeper falls for the bait, diving out of the way of the net. Ymir whips the ball into the hoop and the crowd erupts in cheers for the Frost Giant's latest goal, putting his house ahead of the opponent's by a good margin.

Ymir points to his forearm, explaining that he has ice in his veins and that's why he was so immensely successful. Technically, he's not wrong.

"I'm him," he shouts, and the crowd roars its approval back.


They return to the center of the field where the match can resume again. As soon as the bell whistles for the kickoff, Ymir goes for the ball but he's tackled by his historic rival, Surtur. He nearly falls off his broom, hanging by his fingers. He gazes down at the perilous plunge that might await him if he can't hold on, then looks up.

He sees Surtur, the Niece, the Avatar, and Harry standing around him.

"What the-"

"Wake up, you idiot. Are you that disappointed with your life you so easily fell for these poisonous plants? They're sullying your mind."


Ymir growls. Closes his eyes. And when he opens it again, he's once more hanging onto his broom. He grins, pulling himself back up.

"I'll show you who's the idiot."

The fans cheer him on.

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"It's pointless. Ymir was always the weakest one of us. It's not surprising he'd give in this easily," Surtur explains.

"We just have to drag him out of here," Harry suggests.

"I expect I'm the one who needs to be the one doing the dragging in this suggestion of yours."

"Or punch his face in,"
Avatar offers.

"Perhaps a levitation spell," the Niece says, the first logical solution.

"No," Surtur replies, "I think the Avatar has it right."

He grins to himself. Though the world knew Ymir and Surtur as partners, the two had never liked one another. The feelings they had for each other were nothing less than hatred. Long before they'd become mismatched partners, they'd been blood rivals. They were rather similar, and their differences were the sort of differences that only added to their association with one another. Like how he was a Fire Giant and Ymir was a Frost Giant. Or like he was Red, and he was Blue. Or he was thick, and he was thin. He was hot-headed, he was cool-headed. He was hot-blooded, he was cool-blooded. Those last two mean the same thing, but you get the idea.

Before they'd become known as partners, the two had attempted to foil the other's existence dozens and dozens of times.

But now, this was the best chance Surtur had to put this rivalry to bed once and for all. He pulls out his fire axe and approaches the man in his reverie. He smashes the axe down viciously, lodging into Ymir's chest and hacking through flesh, bones, and organs. His three other companions back away in horror as the blood splashes across the Fire Giant, instantly sizzling, and the field of Lotus. He hacks away at the corpse until the Frost Giant is hardly any blue at all, and he grins and laughs maniacally all the while.

"Surtur, you good?"

Surtur shakes his head, blinks, and sighs, disappointed that it was just his fantasies that had carried him away. But oh, how sweet the reality where he actually goes through with it.

"Yes. As I said, the Avatar has it right."

He's quite tired of playing pretend, of escapism being his only method of doing what he truly desires. He pulls out his axe, this time, he'll make his imagination a reality.

"She said punch not chop," Harry shouts.

He won't listen. He lifts the fire axe high but loses his balance when the Niece leaps onto his back. He tries to throw her off but with Harry pitifully holding onto his leg, the Niece is able to shove a flower into his mouth. He swallows without thinking, and suddenly, he doesn't feel so obsessed with the thought of murder anymore. He drops the fire axe, and his trio of companions cautiously back away. He lays gently on his back in the field of lotus, side by side, with his good friend Ymir. Bliss, bliss, bliss, bliss, bliss.

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"I'm not sure why you were so desperate to stop him," Avatar says. "Now we've lost our two biggest members. I guess I'll have to handle an even bigger share of the load."

"If they want to kill each other then they can do it on proper even terms,"
the Niece replied.

"Ymir is the idiot who decided to eat a flower without thinking. He put himself in that situation."

"Let's just move on. We're down two meatheads, no big deal. Just follow my lead and we'll get through this effortlessly."

"You're not the leader, I'm the leader."


The Niece begins to leave.

"I've got seniority," Harry retorts.

"Where are you going, I didn't say it was time to leave!" the Avatar shouts at the Niece, whose halfway down the stairs at the edge of the lotus field.

She doesn't answer back.

The Avatar hurries after her, and Harry decides he'll take his time and won't be rushed by the Niece.

The Avatar follows the Niece into a subterranean dungeon. They pause in front of a tall, massive rectangular object, shrouded by an equally massive blanket.

"What is it?" the Avatar asks.

"Let's find out." The Niece pulls the blanket off of the object.

The Avatar's eyes lock onto her reflection. Not just her reflection but... her two mothers. Her little twin sisters. Alive. Whole. Her home is intact. She can even smell her mother's beholder pot pie. She hadn't smelled that since she was a child.

She forgets the Niece is even there. She sheds a tear, her heart overwhelmed by the pleasantness of what she sees. They begin to lead her away, through the halls of her ancient family home.

"Where are we going?"

"To your coronation, how could you forget?"

"I'm going to be a queen?"

"That's your birthright, NOE-I!"


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"You let her look into the mirror?"

Harry and the Niece stood at the sides of the Avatar who was transfixed by her reflection, entirely ignorant of the companions at her side, even as they waved their hands in front of her eyes or stood firm in front of the mirror. Moving her was impossible. She wouldn't budge.

"I didn't know what was going to happen."

"Perhaps exercise just a bit of caution, don't you think?"

"I don't, but I can think about it if you want me to."

"Classic magic mirror shows you what you most want trick. She was a bit mentally fragile. Figures she'd fall easy prey to it. Not like me, I'm perfectly content with where I am."

"Maybe I should look into it, I've always wondered what I wanted, deep inside."

"I'm not getting you out if you do it."

"Harsh."

"Anyways, I've decided that I'm done with this whole thing?"

"Because we're down to two?"

"No, because it's wrong."

"I feel like we're the good guys this time."

"That's not what I mean."

"We saved Ymir from getting killed. I think that's pretty good guy-ish."

"By our standards, yes, but what I mean is - this... all of this is wrong. We're in a fake... world. Reality. Whatever you want to call it."

"When you say a fake world-"

"Consider it a dream. Or a simulation. Or playing pretend with your friends. Or eating a flower that makes you think everything is perfect. Or looking into a mirror that makes you live out the life you wish you were living. All fake. We aren't the real us. There's an end goal here, bigger than we realize, and we're just bits and pieces in it."

"So, you're saying nothing we do matters."

"Exactly."

"That doesn't change a thing."

"I mean, nothing matters even more ... less... more or less than it usually does. There are no consequences. You can do whatever you want."

"I don't believe you. If nothing matters... use one of those killing spells on the Avatar."

"No problem."
Harry pulls out his wand. A green neon light billows out of it and strikes the Avatar. She drops lifelessly. The Niece remains expressionless. "And heck, why don't I go back up and take care of Ymir and Surtur too, for being absolute idiots."

He hurries up the stairs into the lotus field. "You're dead," the green neon light strikes Surtur. "And you're dead!" The green neon light strikes Ymir. They lay unmoving, still smiling. "Who's next? Harry's gonna kill you!"

He rushes off back to the dormitories to commit crimes that need no elaboration.

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The Niece stares a bit longer at the Avatar's corpse.

"Shit, he really did it."

She's not sure if she should leave now, or what she should do, period. Maybe she should just look in the mirror and take whatever false happy reality it was willing to give her.

None of these revelations Harry had made had changed much for her, so she decided she'd keep doing what she came here to do even if she wasn't sure what that meant beyond keep going down the path. She moved forward past the mirror and through the door into the next room.

She's stunned by a massive wall full of masks. No exits out of the room though. A dead end.

"Flowers that make you think everything is wonderful, a mirror that gives you the world you most wished for, and let me guess, a mask that makes you think you're someone else." She sighs. "The smart thing to do here would be to just walk away, probably."

She observes the countless mask layered across the wall. Donny Toner. Alyster Black. Whyte Thunder. La Muerte Blanca. Cusos. Occisor. The British Kid. The Octopus. Vampyra. Death Walker. Leather Boys. Stop Sign & Traffic Cone. Captain Fantasy. Fantasy Girl. El Demente. Eclipse. The whole collection of Ground Zero masks, including her own. Smaug. Tyranus. Konchu. Epsilon. And it goes on, and on.

It's hard to pass up on the opportunity to spend your day in someone else's shoes, although there was no certainty what the effects of wearing one of these masks necessarily were and how long they would last.
She would have to take a safe bet. That automatically ruled out a significant portion of the masks. Deranged people tended to hide behind other identities, it made sense when you think about it.

Her eyes wandered ever further.

She recognized the chrome helmet of Captain Fantasy. Being a superhero couldn't be all that bad, and Captain Fantasy looked like he was chiseled out of stone. He kept his body in shape about as well as she did.
She grabbed the chrome helmet and put it on, eager to live out her captain fantasies.

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"I heard Caesar ain't interested in the Crown of Thorns. That's cool, he can say that, but we all know damn well lil' boy is scared of what's gonna happen if that X title of his is within my reach. Same shit with Black Jesus. I woulda crucified that boy if he put the belt up against me. He's lucky Danny Toner took him out before I did, because I wasn't gonna play around."

"Yeah, yeah, you talk a big game, Tommy. But you ain't never on the card."

"Because I got principles, Afa, former CWA General Manager, and Enforcer, I've got principles. I beat Chris Peacock's ass left and right when he came after my Crown of Thorns. Yet that boy ducked any time I wanted that Golden Opportunity he had his hands on, and he's ducking me with the FWA World title he got his hands on. Do you know why? Because when he faced me, he knew that there was an S-tier level of skill, which is where he's at. There's Kennedy there. There's Rondo. Devin."

"Come on, man. You're just trying to poke the bear."

"No. I'm giving him his props. S tier's better than most. Legends in there. I put him in the hall of fame category, man. I got a certain level of respect for him. But after that there's S+-tier, that's that MvH territory. That Danny Toner when he tries territory."

"He beat both of them, Tommy."

"And then, there's S++-tier, that's Uncle when he ain't fooling around, which is never, mind you. There's the POWER-!. You know, there's Lilith. Cap. Ladette. And then, Afa, and then, there's S+++-tier. That's me. Only me. You seen what I did to MvH."

"Saw what you did to Danny Toner, too."

"..."

"..."

"I turned him into a star."

"Yeah, sure."

"Anyways, the point is, I'm boycotting that company. I ain't stepping into any of these dumb tournaments, these massive battle royals, until Chris Peacock gives me the title match I'm owed. He gotta stop being a bitch, and man up. Of course, that's left me with a lot of free time. So I've gotten back into the podcasting game."

"So, you have."

"Back into the superhero game."

"Superhero game?"

"Captain Fantasy stuff. Saving people's lives and shit. Teaching moral lessons. Doing my part for the community, you know."

"Come on, man. You ain't Captain Fantasy. That's a white man. Quit playing with me."

"I am Captain Fantasy. Listen! Listen: I. Am. HERE!"

"Oh, so similar. So you've been saving people?"

"Oh yeah, absolutely. You know, right after I stole... I mean, took back, the Crown of Thorns, since I basically finished up my commentating shift early, I decided to do some superheroing."

"Uh-huh? Who'd you save?"

"Well, this guy accidentally ran someone over..."


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Captain Fantasy soars through the skies, parallel to the endless desert, two fists outwards, eyes looking through chrome dome eye slits over the sandy fields.

"Remember, Cap. No unnecessary detours. You hear someone screaming for help, you ignore it. You see a starving dog, you ignore it. You see your friend being choked out by a monster, you ignore it. Witch at the stake? Ignore it. You see a grandmother about to cross the road-"

"It's in the middle of nowhere,"
Harry points out.

"I don't care if it's in the middle of nowhere. You expect Quiet to commit mass murder if you don't give him precise instructions, and you expect Captain Fantasy to be a helpless-person-nearby magnet if you don't give him precise instructions. The universe bends itself to exploit these traits. We can't underestimate it. You understand, Cap?"

Captain Fantasy well understood the instructions and had no plans of being distracted. It did not occur to him that people don't generally make plans to be distracted. Still, he was sure he'd fly straight to his destination, determined in his duty.

"Hmm, what's that?"

He sees a vehicle stalled in an oddly muddy patch of desert and lands with a thud next to it, cracks unraveling beneath his feet. The man in the vehicle jumps out, slightly panicked.

"Who the hell are you?"

"I'm Captain Fantasy. You seem to be in a bit of a spot, but don't you worry for I. Am. Here!"

"But... why? We're in the middle of nowhere."

"I had an errand to run, but I saw you were in danger."


The man shakes his head. "This can't be real. What the fuck did I smoke today?"

"I assure you, it's very real. What's your name, young man?"

"Uh, Jay. Jermaine, I mean. Jermaine Creed.

"Everything is going to be alright, Jermaine. Here, I'll take care of this for you."


Captain Fantasy approaches the pickup truck and strains to pull it out of the hole it had driven itself into. When he gets the vehicle out completely, his superhearing alerts him to an odd sound under the drape in the back of the truck. An odd sound, but an oddity he'd recognized plenty of times in his community service.

"Shit, you actually got super strength? Is this for real? Like, really real?"

"I wouldn't celebrate too early, citizen."
Captain Fantasy has a stern look. He pulls the drape off and Jermaine's eyes widen.

"Wait-"

"Interesting. You may have some explaining to do, sir."

"It showed up out of nowhere. And there was a random massive rainfall. Then the road got cut off by a valley that wasn't even on the map. Just, hear me out."

"Citizen, it just so happens that this creature you've found was the subject of my errand. Tell me exactly what happened."


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"You got it, man. See, I was supposed to be one of the mystery entrants for this wrestling show. FWA. Prolly not the sort of thing a superhero cares about. It was in the middle of nowhere. And I mean that almost literally. Like where the fuck are we? Nevada? Arizona? I don't know. But anyways, I got lost on the way there. I was coming up on Longinus, that's my truck. Got the name from NGE, you know. Learned later on that's the name for the spear that killed Jesus Christ. Ma' didn't like me calling my truck that, but whatever. Anyways, I missed the whole first half of the tourney so they took me out of it. Got the call on my way there. So I'm obviously pissed off I missed a paycheck, and a chance to become a wrestling star after the whole CWA World Tag Team Championship match never happened. That's a long story. I go for a drink, someone offers me some weed. I'm not gonna say no to that, you know. Or maybe you don't know. Whatever. So I get back in my car, crossfaded as fuck. You're not like legally a superhero or anything, right? Not like a glorified cop? More a vigilante, I bet. I ain't that out of touch with the news that I wouldn't have heard about superheroes flying around. You gotta be doing all this shit illegally. Whatever. I get into my car and I start driving back home from the middle of nowhere. And you know, I got Spotify on, listening to the Thomas West podcast. He's a wrestler. Heard it's some good shit, you know. Decide to check out the latest episode since my old boss from the CWA is on it. And this Thomas guy's talking his shit, arrogant as fuck, and then he starts talking about the King of Deathmatch. Which, come to think of it, doesn't make sense since the shows aren't even over yet. Gotta be like, main event time right about now. But anyways, I don't think about that too much. And he starts talking about how he's also a... superhero. I forget the name. And... how he saved this guy stranded in the desert. Guess, you don't care about that part. Well, like I said, a giant fucking wave of water drops down on me out of nowhere, and between that and this weird-ass podcast, no shit I lose control. Flash as flash can be rain. Fucks me up. Like a fucking lake's worth just dropping down on me. And when I can see again, there's a big ass valley in the middle of the road. Like someone just grabbed a massive stick and drew it across the land. So I don't see this coming, Longinus jumps across the valley onto the other side, and before I even manage to get back control of it, I run over this animal in the middle of fucking nowhere. I could barely recognize it, don't even know what it is. Mostly because my truck fucked it up pretty badly. So I get out of Longinus, and I grab the thing, it's all fucking mangled and shit, barely holding itself together, and I put it in the back. It's dead as fuck, for sure, but I don't know. I kinda felt responsible. Wasn't sure what I'd do with it, really. No use bringing it to a vet. Maybe find somewhere to bury it. Didn't think that far ahead. I start driving away, trying to figure out a way to civilization because I felt like I was driving in the exact opposite direction of civilization last time. Never had a good sense of direction. But I'm fucking nervous as fuck you know. This has been a life-changing day. Usually, I'm not really on my own. I've got my best friend and we're always together. He mans the GPS and the aux, I man Longinus. But I don't know, I wanted to see if I could do something on my own for once so I was gonna enter this shit. That tournament. At this point though, this is like a sign from the universe that it was a big fucking mistake. I'm ready to call my best friend Kenny. His name's Kendrick, but I call him Kenny. Like the rapper. So I call him so I can tell him, you know, I fucked up. I wish I'd never even thought about going through it on my own. I wish I hadn't been greedy like that. So I hit him up. And he answers, and I try to tell him this epiphany I just had, but he says, he's just had his own life-changing moment. I'm like, wow, that's fucking crazy. We're always in sync like that. I really want to tell him about mine but you know since I've rekindled my appreciation for him, I feel like I should hear what he's got to say because I value him so much. So I tell him, go ahead, man. And he says..."

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"You know how I had nothing to do today since we weren't hanging out? Someone rang the doorbell and they had this pamphlet for an art gallery. Free ticket. We pay for these art galleries who get grants through our taxes, so we might as well take advantage, I feel like. Plus it's good community building, y'know, because you're supporting other people around you pursuing their dreams and their artistic drive. And ma' always said you gotta give back to the community. I ain't never been to no art gallery before but I got time to kill. I don't know what I'm gonna do today, so I decide, I'mma just be adventurous. So I get on Bumble, and I start mad right swiping till someone drops me a nice one-liner. This cute brunette chick drops this line, she's like "Hey darling, I must be in Infinite Tsukuyomi, cause you’re like a dream come true." Bro, what? She cute and she like anime. Goddamn. Girl's called Eowyn, says her parents were big Lord of the Rings fans but she hates it, I kinda agree it's lame to name your kid after a fictional character but I don't tell her cause that'd be like saying her name is garbage, and I ain't tryna risk that on a first date even if she thinks that. Anyways, she's down to go to the art gallery, so there we go. We hit up the art gallery, and we're walking around, shooting the shit you know, then, my eyes lock on this fucking beautiful, gorgeous painting. Man, I kinda wish I had an art degree so I could properly explain to you what it looked like, how it was done, you know. The intricacies of it. The right verbiage. The way Shake Meltzer talks about wrestling. The way B & D talk about theater. I ain't that much of an expert though. But anyways, this painting, I'm so absorbed in it, I don't even notice bae left me. I don't even care either. The whole day passes. I'm just staring at this painting. Like man, Mona Lisa ain't got shit on this. It's out of this world. On it, it's this like creature with tentacles on its face. Like that dude from Pirates of the Caribbean. But he's real unhappy. There's like a heavenly backdrop to it. So it's a big contrast. Like you can be in a perfect place and still be miserable as fuck. But see, that's not what got me. We were walking past it, and then, I glanced at it again, and it felt like it was a new portrait. Same dude, except was a dudette now. And you know, now it seemed like she was in hell. But she was happy. I don't know how they did it. But that angle I was seeing her by now, I was fixated on it. Couldn't look away. There's just something about seeing someone completely at ease with themselves that makes you feel different. Don't matter that she was in hell. She was fucking happy. Not gonna lie, I'm still staring at it right now, dawg. Fucking transcendent experience."

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Devilauntie used to rue seeing her own reflection. Used to rue much of everything. She'd been a villain, with pure unadulterated hatred for existence. She was a criminal wanted across most of everything. And she'd gone to hide on Earth for a while, masquerading as a wrestler, and collecting infamy berating everyone and everything while the feds and the bounty hunter gig workers were left dumbfounded as to where she'd gone. Earth, after all, was a minuscule planet in the grand scheme of everything, and so she was largely able to pass by unnoticed.

That lasted a good while. Eventually, she'd picked up a prodigy. Or she should say, her prodigy picked her up. One of her own kind. A HORROR. Hard to say how he'd found her, but he did. And he blackmailed her into teaching him everything she knew. And when he was done with her, he snitched. The bastard snitched.

Devilauntie had been on the run for a while, but oddly enough, it was being trapped as she had been, on the run, that she began to rediscover herself. She abandoned her old identity, somewhere, on the run. The identity that had never properly fit. The identity that had always felt ill-suited to her.

She abandoned Goduncle, and became Devilauntie.

Eventually, the bastard student of hers, whom she now bitterly acknowledged as an ally after he alleged that his scheming had been deliberately done to help her obtain the fulfillment she'd longed for, as a gift for her lessons, found a way to take her off her pursuers line of sight.

She'd been free for less than a year now in the aftermath of all the Pseudo-Nephews affair Thomas had dragged her into. She'd since taken up a new hobby as an artist, refining her skills of the Art of Duality from the Realm of Binaries, to make her inherently punk art that rejected the entire culture that had birthed such a style. This had been her first self-portrait, and it could be found distributed across the galaxy now.

Unfortunately, her worry-free days seemed to be coming to an end. The bastard had called for a meeting with one of his agents. Devilauntie had always expected he'd renege on his agreement, and find a way to blackmail her again. She'd long prepared for the call, even if she'd tried to keep it in the back of her mind.

She arrived at the Citadel's 8-Star cephalopodfood restaurant 'Chez KAITADESU' to meet with the Nephews' agent.

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"Devilauntie."

"Maid of Death."

"I'll be curt, I'm sure you have little desire to see me."

"You're not someone I'd send with good news."

"Really? Then you must realize why Uncle would send me of all people."

"Oh, right. His sense of humor."

"Exactly."

"Then I can rest easier."

"Of course. You think too little of him. I know he's an idiot, and a manipulator, and an instigator, but he tends to be reliable."

"I've known him for longer than you have."

"All the more reason why."

"No. I can't risk that. Better to be weary of him till I die."

"Even if it means you could be living the rest of your life without that burden weighing you down. It adds up through attrition."

"I can bear with it."

"Very well. I won't try to convince you. As I said-"


The explosion turned the restaurant into an active furnace, throwing both Devilauntie and Maid of Death off their feet, and sending limbs, pounds of flesh, tentacles, hoofs, and snouts of all sorts of alien species that had been dining here hurling this way and that.

The Maid pushed the debris off her and stood back up but already lost sight of Devilauntie. She momentarily wondered if Devilauntie had returned to her wicked ways, but decided that was rather unlikely. There were plenty of reasons why both she and Devilauntie might be targeted. And this wasn't exactly a restaurant with a moral clientele in the first place. They may not have been going after either of them, just the wrong place at the wrong time.

She stumbled into the kitchen, coughing through the smoke, ignoring the ringing in her ears, and avoiding the survivors who screamed and scrambled all about her.

When she entered the kitchen, it did not seem a fit for 'Chez KAITADESU'. She recognized one of the queens - mother of Avatar - and one of her infant twin daughters - younger sister to the same. It was the Pink Fortress's kitchen, as the Maid remembered it then. The two had volunteered with the staff to make a special pie for the queen-to-be. They had hardly a moment to react when the Maid stepped in with her soldiers and they were riddled with lasered holes.

"Stop, don't shoot," the Maid says, to her imagined subordinates.

But it was far too late for that.

She turns away from the grisly sight and leaves the kitchen in a hurry to forget those awful memories. She returns to the dining room where the explosion happened. It's still a hazardous mess and she can hardly make out anything, especially through the endless ringing in her ears.

She sees the partial remains of a massive anthropomorphic shark.

"What happened?" It asks. "I can't feel my fin. Hmmmmm. Calamari? It smells delicious. I'm... hungry."

"Megalodon Man,"
she says, caught off-guard by the sight of her dismembered old friend.

"Halt, Maiden. Whither art we?"

She turns around to see the mouth of a crocodile laying in a bloody pool.

"Gator Guy. You're dead. You're not real. I'm just... imagining this. Concussion. And bad memories. It's all in my head."

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"In thy headeth? Doth not forswear to me: I'm dead? Nay! How can I beest dead? I still hadst so much to doth. I'd just did finish mine own first playeth"

"..."

"Peradventure, lief Maiden, thee couldst publish it, on mine own behalf? Just asketh SS10000, they can findeth. Oh, tis a wonderful playeth, Maiden. I'm certain coequal Uncle would love it, though he's nev'r been fond of theater. I desire one day the Coen Brothers might coequal maketh a movie of it. Like Macbeth. 'R Hail, Ceasar! they'd beest the perfect directors"

"You're not real. I doubt you wrote the play. There's no way you could be telling me about it if I didn't already know you'd written it."

"Is yond how t worketh? Haply thee might not but've seen indications yond I wast working on it. Peradventure thee wenteth through mine own diary. 'R did see me typing in the corner of thy eye? 'R thee recall a future reality whither mine own playeth becameth infamous, and thus, thee kneweth yond I doth eventually wend on to becometh a playwright, coequal if 't be true, post-humously. Can thee rule all of these things out? Coequal if 't be true thee didn't register such facts at the time, it's quite possible thee subconsciously hath understood I wast writing a playeth and yond thy brain collat'd this information to beest hath used at the most pivotal and relevant point, such as at which hour thee'd hallucinate me"

"It... could be true."

"And I assure thee, Maiden, it is. Besides, what's the harm?"

"SS10000 will realize there's something wrong with me."

"Oh, dearie, thou art a Nephew, everyone knoweth thither's something wrong with thee. Alloweth me bid thee about this playeth, it's quite brilliant if 't be true I sayeth so myself. It stars the original creation of our Maker, the first Nephew to kicketh the bucket, 'r at least, the mistress beneath the mask, Ashley La Bella"

"Who?"

"Stop Sign #2."

"That was her real name?"

"Aye, forsooth. Quite the striking gal too. Shame the lady tooketh on yond stand ho sign shtick, but the lady wast quite wonderfully nice, and Uncle putteth that lady up to it anyways. I did want to writeth an ode to that lady. I didn't count on the fact yond me and mega sir would kicketh the bucket ere mine own ode would wend out"

"Frodo died too."

"Who is't?"

"He joined after you left."

"Ah, so apace did replace."

"That's how Uncle avoids dealing with tragedies."

"Aye, aye, but alloweth's not receiveth distract'd from mine own playeth to speak of Uncle's perverse methods of dealing with grief. If 't be true thee wanteth a social conversation, thee shouldst very much wend maketh a cousin instead of relying on a hallucination. Speaking of hallucinations, our dearest Ashley La Bella is putting on a playeth within mine own play-"

"Uncle is going to love that."


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The day had been rather hectic for Ashley La Bella. During rehearsal, one of the set pieces had fallen off and taken one of her lead actors clean out. He'd have to be replaced and she'd have to be the one to handle it. This was Broadway though, there was bound to be someone who'd take an opportunity like this.

"It's a sign from the universe, sweetie. It says STOP! Forget about this play. You know Uncle has been calling, he wants us back."

Ashley La Bella does her best to ignore the woman clothed in a bizarre stop sign costume. This was the same outfit that had defined the most successful time of her life, and she resented it.

"What's so fun about being taken seriously? It's so boring and stuffy. Let's go back to being Nephews, go on adventures, and see worlds unlike anything this meager planet has to offer."

"No. I want to leave a legacy behind. I want to be respected. I want to be viewed as an artist. Someone who doesn't have to rely on cheap tricks-"


Stop Sign #2 gasps at the assertion.

"Why am I even entertaining this? Did he do this? Did he put you in my mind?"

"I'm afraid not. This is all you, sweetie. You should know you're not normal enough for this. There was always something off about you, that's why you belonged with the Nephews. You shouldn't turn your back on who you really are."

"Of course, there's something off about me. It's what makes me an artist, but it doesn't have to make me a joke."


She notices one of the production members catch her one-woman conversation and sneers.

"Don't act like you don't talk to yourself. Everyone talks to themselves. It's healthy," she says, her tone manic.

The crew member keeps her head down and hurries out of sight.

"They're going to think I'm crazy, that the stress of this play is getting to me."

"Well, you are hallucinating."


Ashley closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. Grounds herself. She opens them again and smiles.

"No, I'm not."

"Mrs. La Bella!"


Ashley recognizes the classically British accent immediately and turns around to see the quintessentially British representative she'd hired.

"Mr. Duncan."

"You're looking ravish-"

"Careful. You won't be the first man I've fired for hitting on me."


John's frustrated by the threat but decides against questioning the over-dramatic reaction.

"In any case, the two interviewers from B plus D are here."

"Seriously? I should fire you for making me go through this. I told you I didn't want to do it."

"I understand you're not enthusiastic about catering to the sad stoners of the world, but you need to trust me on this, they're bringing theater to a modern audience. You don't want to do things other people have already done, Mrs. La Bella, you want to be remembered, you need to innovate. You need to reach new ears."

"Fine, they're already here, I'd rather not risk ruining my reputation. Too late to turn back now."

"That's the spirit!"


The two namesakes of the hit theater reviewing YouTube channel B + D are trading bowls before cutting their ventures short when Ashley steps in.

"Who is this?" Ashley asks, looking at the third individual in the room. A nearly decrepit-looking young man who seems to have come straight out of a The Walking Dead set.

"Oh, right, forgot to mention it. He won a prize to interview you. He's a big fan. His name's Zom."

Ashley's spirits are briefly livened. "A fan?"

"The name is Gip, Zom Gip. You might've seen some of my fan edits on Twitter. I've been in love with you since your Nephews days."

"Nephews days,"
she barely manages to say, her spirits instantly dampened.

"Oh, big mistake," Stop Sign #2 says, suddenly appearing once more.

"Nephews days?" Blazed, the B in B + D, asks.

"Like Cthulhu's Nephews?" Depressed, the D in B + D, follows up.

"She was Stop Sign #2," Zom declares, proudly.

B + D take a good look at Stop Sign #2.

"Daaaaaaaamn."

"You was hiding all of that under all of that?"

"Wait, is this a Nephews play? I didn't know we were doing a Nephews play. Damn, Nephews in the theater business now. We kept trying to get Uncle to bite but he always passed up. Says he hates that shit. Almost got Croc to do it, then he kicked the bowl."

"See, this is what the people want, and you're depriving them of it."


Ashley snarls.

"You ain't gotta worry, Ashley. Nephews solidarity for sure. Easy Pink Flannel," B declares.

"That's what they wear in their video reviews when they think a play is really good. 8 out of 10 minimum, usually," John Duncan chimes in.

"Course, we're Nephews too! Like C-team Nephews, but it still counts."

"We would've gotten a pink flannel. Nephews color! We gotta just switch the whole script into a Stop Sign #2 Nephews script."


"Shut up!"
Ashley snaps at Stop Sign #2.

Stop Sign #2 shakes her head. "They're going to think we're craaaaaaaazy."

The outburst subjects Ashley to a foursome pair of staring eyes.

"By any chance, Miss La Bella, are you seeing something that we aren't, something in your head?" Zom asks.

"No, no. I'm sorry. It's just..." she sighs, "the stress of the play. So uh, how did you win this interview anyways."

"I wrote a story."

"About me?"

"Well, it's a fan fiction story, about Frodo."

"Oh."

"I mean, he reminded me of you in a way. I feel like he didn't get enough of a chance to shine bright with the Nephews. So I sort of wanted to imagine what happened to him after... you know... he died."


In an attempt to unburden herself of her budding rage, she says "Well, why don't you tell me about it?"

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Frodo the Ring-Bearing Gnome had hardly made a name for himself amongst the Nephews, hardly even passed the qualifications to become one, before he met his tragic death, a dip into a tank full of acid. It had been incredibly painful, he believed. Thomas West had been certain about the particulars of the acid. Had a few live test subjects. Dissolved a few McClones. He was worried there might be a chance Jason Randall - or whoever had the misfortune of falling into it, in this case, Frodo - would be transformed by the acid in some way or another, and come back more crazed and villainous than ever with a bit of a misguided thirst for vengeance on their minds. Thomas had a history with vengeful people. As a result, there was literally no way for Frodo to survive the acid bath. Every skin, muscle, tissue, and bone, down to the smallest microbe had been dissolved. The tanker had been exit-proof - magically, technologically, and metaphysically. Whoever fell into it and had the top sealed, was done. Gonezo. Too bad it hadn't been Randall instead.

Frodo wasn't exactly sure where he was, but Thomas had called these the Undying Lands.

"Now, to be clear, Frodo, you are not Frodo, well, not the Frodo that died in the acid."

It was true, Frodo hadn't remembered that part of his death. Though he'd had it replayed to him by the podcaster just to tie up loose ends and could imagine the pain he would have felt if it had been him. Still, there was the bit between when his brain had been uploaded and the time he popped up on the camera to help out Thomas West that was missing but Thomas assured him there was little of import in that time to be remembered.

"They were still my last moments, don't they all count."

"Really, they weren't technically your last moments either. Honestly, I simply wanted to show you how a version of you died, I didn't mean for you to start interrogating me. You're not at that level in the Nephews' hierarchy yet."

"Uncle said there wasn't a hierarchy."

"Uncle doesn't know shit. That's why I'm taking care of you. Seeing a version of yourself die, it's a humbling experience. Seen it a few billion times myself. Anyways, there's no need to be sour about being dead and all, these here are the Undying Lands, my dear Frodo, where the mightiest of Nephews go when they've fulfilled their duties in the prime planes. An idyllic, utopian world. Custom-made by yours truly."

"So Stop Sign #2 is here? And Mega Man? And GG #2?"

"Well, not exactly."

"You're saying they... failed? I'm the only one who fulfilled my duties? Am I... the greatest Nephew?"

"No, I'm not saying they failed. Look, Frodo, you're asking too many questions. Once again: not an interrogation. I was just trying to make you feel important. You're actually bottom five in terms of all-time Nephews."

"Oh... Sorry."

"Probably bottom three."

"Okay. I get it. What do I do here?"

"It's a beautiful garden you can spend the rest of your life in. Your very own Eden. Just make sure you don't eat from the apple tree?"

"What will happen if I eat from the apple tree?"

"Nothing. But I figured too much peace and tranquility might make you feel unfulfilled so the threat and the temptation of the apple tree would keep you somewhat entertained."

"Oh."

"But more importantly, if you see a snake around here, don't listen to its words."

"There's a talking snake?"

"Not as far as I'm aware, all the more reason you shouldn't listen to one if it pops up. Definitely an anomaly. Best to stomp it till it stops squirming."

"Okay."

"But, above all else, you have one duty you must maintain no matter what."
Thomas handed him over a cheap-looking ring. There was a gem held in it. At first glance, one might mistake it for blue sapphire, though upon closer inspection, one might notice the water that can be found inside this clear crystal container. And upon closer inspection, one could see so much more. Though this latter closer inspection would require an immensely powerful, technologically advanced magnification glass... or simply the right perspective and state of mind.

"Is this actually important or are you just trying to give me something else to keep me busy?"

"Frodo. If anything should happen to destroy this ring, the entirety of everything will come apart in the blink of an eye. You would have been responsible for omnicidal destruction unlike anything that has ever been done."

"I don't think I want this responsibility."

"Too bad, can't refuse the call. Anyways, I gotta bounce. You want me to like, take out one of your ribs and make you a girlfriend with it or something."

"That'd be somewhat incestuous, wouldn't it?"

"Hmm. Never thought of it that way. Still... no?"

"Can I think it over?"

"That'd require me to check up on you, which I won't be doing. This wasn't a negotiable offer. Reject my gift if you want to. What do I care? Like I said, gotta bounce. Have fun!"


Frodo hadn't had many options when it came to entertainment. He spent most of his days lying in the sun which only ever went down when he was tired, which he never was, but sometimes he felt like sleeping and taking a break from consciousness, and the Undying Lands somehow knew. He'd found a weed plot and with ample food, and water, none of which he really needed -though he carried on out of habit -, and so he found himself quite content with this new existence. No real responsibilities. Besides keeping the existence of everything safe. No work to be done. This wasn't too bad a life.

Occasionally, when he'd had one too many magic mushrooms, he'd take a glance at the ring, and the water-containing crystal, and would wonder what was so important about it that it held the fate of everything, or if this was merely another one of Thomas's elaborate and malicious ruse. He decided he wouldn't let himself be tempted into figuring out the truth of that question, and did not risk looking long enough for the mushrooms to make his mind wander.

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The Quantum Water Kingdom had been an attempt to make an amalgamation of Earth's most revered and mythological water-centric empires: Atlantis, Ys, Kitezh, Vineta, and Dwarka (and some copyrighted ones that should not be mentioned). There were fishfolk of all sorts down here, though that wasn't the true purpose of the Quantum Water Kingdom. It had been a side project its engineers had found themselves woefully distracted by. A lack of project management had made it so that the engineers had forgotten the actual purpose of this world, momentarily, before they eventually got back on track.

Megalodon Man's consciousness had been uploaded into it, and now he spent the bulk of his time hunting down all sorts of exotic fishes and often being a terror to the inhabitants of the underwater empire. Unlike all of them, he was immortal here. A god, more or less. He tried to avoid abusing his power too much, only eating as much as he could handle at any given moment. He did eat a lot more these days, to fill in the empty hole in his heart that his once platonic life partner had filled. And true, since he did not actually ever feel 'full' - and not just in the exaggerated manner of it taking literal tons of food to satisfy him in his past life - he had to try and create his own boundaries. He decided that eating a nuclear family's worth of fishfolk at each of his six meals throughout every twenty-four-hour cycle would be a fair compromise.

In any case, 'full' for the moment, Megalodon Man returned to the library. The Library. THE Library. THE Library was the actual end game of the Quantum Water Kingdom, a hyper-cuboctahedronic structure that he'd been made in charge of, and which he must guard with the life he no longer had. A 5th Dimensional Tesseract in which visitors to THE Library could affect every one of the Maker's fragments. Ultimate power. Thankfully, Megalodon Man lacked the ambition to make use of it.

There was little chance of there ever being a genuine threat to THE Library, no one really knew of its existence, and to try and access it would result in the most convoluted journey that had ever been walked by a hero before. It was unlikely for anyone to manage it, not without a shortcut, or forgetting why they'd undertaken this quest in the first place.

Megalodon Man had never liked books, especially when Gator Guy had become consumed by them in his educational pursuits and let it come between them, but now that the ole scaley friend of his was long gone, Megalodon Man had come to appreciate books in his own way. THE Library had plenty of children's tales to be found. He was particularly fond of one book series starring a food critic shark-man who would threaten his chefs with being eaten alive if they did not satisfy his palette. Mega Man especially appreciated the letterer's expert ability to convey the horror of the chefs in onomatopoeic form as they were devoured by the apex predator more often than not. The author, whoever it was, knew what its audience wanted, and consistently delivered the gorn. Gator Guy would probably hate it, but Mega Man loved that this author stuck to his fangs.

He was quite eager to read the twenty-eight volume of the long-running series as he entered THE Library.
Those ambitions were put aside when he did enter THE Library, for he was dumbfounded to discover another man there.

"You're not supposed to be here."

The man looked up and snarled at the sight of Megalodon Man. He closed the book he was holding shut. Megalodon Man squinted to see the bookbinding said 'The Book of Zachary'.

"Are we really related?" the man asks.

"You're not a sharkman. Are you a Nephew?"

"Fuck, no."

"Then I don't think we're related."

"I meant as - what did he call it? Goldensiblings. Ridiculous name."

"I'm not sure what that means. What are you doing with that book?"

"Some necessary edits."

"You're not supposed to change anything here. Only Uncle is."

"He's the one that gave me this."
Kazadi holds up the metadimensional key.

"Hmm. He should've warned me."

"He didn't warn you when you were about to get blown up."

"He needed me to be here."

"No, he didn't. He needed the drama. The attention. He does all of this just for attention. He could've found a way around your death if he wanted to. Found someone else to stay here. If anyone even needs to. But I get it, I do. None of you guys actually care about that. You're the perfect sort of broken for him. That's how you were made."

"I'm not going to trust a man I just met over Uncle. Plus, this place is fun. All-you-can-eat buffets every day."

"Sure. Simple man, simple pleasures, I guess. I'm not that much different when it comes down to it. That's what I've come to realize. The patterns start to stand out, eventually. Far too much to keep denying it. Anyways, that's why I'm here. You know how to read?"

"Books with pictures."

"Do those books have words in them?"

"A few."

"Then you can read this too. Here, skip to the end. Don't worry, it's not long."

"I don't know, I'm not really in the mood."

"Ever eaten a kraken?"

"Uncle said they don't exist."

"In this place, they could."

"Wouldn't I have seen it?"

"If you read that book, I promise you'll find a kraken for your next meal. And I'll get out of here, to where I need to be."

"I don't trust you."

"Fine. I guess you won't get to eat a kraken. And all you had to do was read just that little passage."

"Okay, okay, okay. You've convinced me, I'll read it. Give it to me."


The man hands him the book.

"Out loud, please."

While Megalodon Man began to read, the man grabbed another book from his table, The Shark Tale, and began to make some minor changes that would be sure to satisfy Megalodon Man's pursuit of new fine dining pleasures.

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Quiet sat hidden behind the door, unbeknownst to the Vagabond King who left the room after making one of his trademark long-winded locker room veteran speeches. If he'd tried it with Quiet, Quiet would've punched him in the throat.

As the locker room's proprietor closed the door to her unwanted visitor and turned about, she struck the masked figure's bag off the bench. The brown fur material sticking out had undoubtedly rang some bells in the Dreamer's mind, but Quiet brought a finger to his lips, and he was more or less sure that Dreamer, in her typically self-interested fashion, would push that to the back of her mind and leave it there to be forgotten. She didn't have the sort of inquisitiveness that would have required Quiet to be cautious, not that caution is something he'd ever been associated with.

He left the arena before the main event would begin, after all, the Nephews wouldn't be getting involved in this one, a way to ensure she saved face in momentum-killing defeat. Quiet believed that the Nephews' involvement at least would've given her someone to point fingers at, but perhaps she hadn't considered that possibility, or maybe she feared that it would inevitably lead to Russnow pulling the trigger on the split between Dreamer and the widely derided and simultaneously beloved faction of Nephews.

And where would that leave them?

Quiet got to his hotel room, a myriad of eyes tracing his every footstep, as they always did for the fully costumed man. He pulled open his laptop, already connected to the hotel wifi and opened up the wrestling forum he'd begun frequenting as of late. He logged onto his wrestlingsmarks account, always forgetting to stay logged in. Enter username: weaselperson. Enter password: eatshit42_.

He's got nearly the entire forum adblocked except for one section, the BTB section, where he's been running a unique FWA BTB focusing only on a singular wrestler who just joined the FWA, and crafted an ultimate tale of redemption he hoped would one day give him one of those infamous monthly awards, and perhaps even legend status, should they ever deem the bookers worthy of having one.

Today, he planned on posting the story's pivotal twist before the most career-defining annual Carnal Contendership match. This was his perfect outlet for the disastrous booking both he and his fellow Nephews were often subjected to by the out-of-touch brass.

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Zachary Kazadi stepped out of the portal and back into his garden. The sun was just starting to come up. The zen garden was completely intact, not a sand of grain out of place, which reassured him.

"You're finally back."

Izaya Snowmantashi stood on the back porch, leaning on the door frame, drying bloodied hands with a paper towel.

"Thanks for taking care of my garden."

"Not a problem, you can always rely on me."

"Not so much a fan of you using my home as a butcher's house."

"It's not for everyone."

"It's not for most people."

"That's what makes us who we are though, isn't it? No one is as much of a wrestling zealot as you are either, not even my brother."

"Let's not compare me to him."

"Not yet?"

"Not ever. Not unless there's some twist in the universe that puts us on opposite sides of a ring."

"If the Nephews can have a civil war-"

"Stop, I'm not interested in talking about them."

"Nearly thought this journey of yours would end with you joining them."

"Nah."

"Didn't change your perspective?"

"Maybe I'd been misguided in the past. Fascistic in my vision of what wrestling should be. Maybe I'd missed all the little pleasures that made me fall in love with it when I was young. Maybe I forgot all about dressing up like Mr. Terror and dumb-ass Steve Frosting for Halloween. I'm not saying it'll change my way of wrestling, but perhaps I need to allow some leeway for others instead of denigrating their styles."

"Ha, they'll turn you into a Nephew soon enough.

"Shit. They wish."

"You've waited long enough. Want to come see my gift to you?"

"Not really. But I guess I better get it over with."


Izaya smiled and went back inside the house. Kazadi briefly glanced over to his zen garden, pleased at seeing it once again, then followed the taxidermist inside. He was led into the gym room which had been completely redesigned save for the television screen he'd installed in the corner of it. It was filled with taxidermied animals, many he'd never seen before, and some he was certain didn't exist. On the table was a full fur-body costume. It did not smell as he expected. Smelled like lavender, in fact.

"I'm pretty good at my art if I do say so myself."

"This... is wrong. Ethically bankrupt, I'd say."

"Too late for second thoughts."

"No, it's not."

"No, I guess it isn't. Do you know what his real name was? Jonathan Snow. Not an unbelievable name, taken on its own. Though given the John Duncans, Jon Russnows, and Jon Snowmantashis we find ourselves linked to, one might question our Maker's creativity. Do you know what Jonathan means?"

"Let me guess: another biblical name? Something else to do with God?"

"Haha. We've got quite a few of those, don't we? Jonathan means God Gives. I think it's rather fitting. Jonathan Snow giving himself to you."

"Not voluntarily."


Izaya shrugs. "Do you know my name is biblical too?"

"No, but I guess I shouldn't be surprised."

"It means the one who watches over the crowd. Equally fitting."

"Yes, yes. We all have perfect names. None of that matters to me. I stomached all of this for one reason."

"To make good on those promises you made yourself so many years back."

"I was supposed to prove I was the best. I was young and naive enough and met with a sustained amount of success to think that was within my immediate reach. Six years have gone by, and I'm a footnote. I never took myself to be a liar."

"Proving yourself the best is a tough task, for anyone. Quite the abstract goal too."

"Who's to say who's the best?"

"Well, I hear there's this guy called Jeremy."

"Shut up."

"Haha."

"I needed to prove it to myself. I don't know what it would've taken to reach that goal, but if all I can do is laugh at myself in mockery then it's a pitiful state I find myself in. My younger selves would be disappointed to see what became of me."

"You believed that staying true to your word and rejecting your biggest love was the greatest expression of it thereof, but it wasn't. To prove your love for wrestling, you need to turn your back on your own values. To prove that your love is even greater than your pride and self-respect. Some people say if you really love something, you gotta be willing to let it go. But I think that's nonsense. If you really love it, then who else will be in a better position to get the most out of it."

"You're trying to make this out to be romantic, but it's not."

"Everyone loves a good comeback story, there's always romance in that."

"Is there any romance in wearing a dead man's skin?"

"Only when they shed it once more."

"No. Don't really plan to. When I do what I've set out to do, it'll be the name of weaselperson that's remembered."


Zachary pulled out the metadimensional key and placed it on the table.

"I'm assuming you have a crowd to watch over."

Izaya picks the key up.

"Thank you. Though I prefer to watch it from up close."

"Yeah, whatever. Make sure you get all this crap outside my home."


Izaya smiles and begins the diligent task.

"And thank you for being daring enough to tell me about all this bullshit."

"Don't worry. If it wasn't me, it would've been someone else. You were never going to be forgotten. God Remembers after all."


Zachary grabs the costumed remains of the late Jonathan Snow and enters the living room. He strips down to his trunks and awkwardly puts on the outfit. It's a snug and warm fit, the added zipper helps though trying to forget he's wearing someone else's skin is the key to not going instantly insane. Just pretend he's wearing one of those onesies.

He heads into the bathroom and looks at himself in the mirror. weaselperson born again. Don't need to be handsome to be a champion, he'd have to keep that in mind. Whatever name he had, whatever costume he wore, Zachary Kazadi or weaselperson, he was a wrestler. The Wrestler. That's all that mattered.

"First: Carnal Clusterfuck. Second: Man of 1000 Insecurities. Time for that belt to be passed around one last time."
 
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1 2 3 4

The day started like most others in the suburbs of Mexico City. Traffic lined the crowded roads heading into the city and horns blared as the employed populace embarked on their journeys to their workplaces. Added to the roads were cars filled with children headed back to school after their break in between semesters.

There were of course some commuters that had become accustomed to the roads not being as busy during the holidays, so the return of the children and their parents to the roads was an unwelcome one.

In one car was a seven year-old child named Diego Fernández. He was one of the many schoolchildren returning after his break. However he, like the majority of his classmates, was not prepared for the beginning of the new semester. As he clutched onto his plastic lunchbox, running his finger across some of the faded stickers - a luchador mask, and one of a large man he knew to be ‘Chubby Carlos’ - he felt himself drifting off to sleep.

Diego awoke upon arrival at his school and bid his mother farewell before she sped off; she also failed to appreciate the impact of performing the school run would have on her journey to the local hospital for her day shift.

Diego yawned as he acknowledged his friends waiting for him next to the climbing frame. Pablo, José and Santiago waved at him and ‘Santi’ even put an arm around him as he joined them. “Hey, Diego! You look tired today, amigo. You stayed up late to watch the show last night?”

“I did.”
Diego said, in between two more yawns. “You believe what happened? I didn’t think Chris Peacock was going to win!”

As Diego cracked a smile, his friends all put on a confused expression. Whilst Diego had stayed up late against his mother’s wishes to watch the FWA’s ‘The Grand March’, his friends had not. Pablo could not hold his laughter. “No, Diego… we don’t care about that! You know, the Art of Lucha show! Multimillionario was there… and wait, you don’t know? Juan lost the title!”

Diego gasped at this news. “You’re kidding, Pablo! No, I was watching FWA… they’ve got their Carnal Contendership coming up. Multimillionario was there last year!”

“Sí, but no one enjoyed that! They didn’t know who he was. Now, if someone we know who actually had a chance of winning was to enter, maybe I’d watch it!” Santi asserted, and both Pablo and José nodded their heads in agreement.

“Someone like Chubby Carlos - he’s been successful in America before… or even Juan Tothrefor!”

The boys all seemed in agreement, and an adult walking past happened to hear the tail end of Pablo’s sentence and he stopped in his tracks. “Sí?”

“Señor Rodriguez?”

The man peered over his papers down at the group and soon realised his error and cleared his throat as the four boys watched on. “Erm, nothing, children. Nothing at all. I will see you all for math class… third period, okay?”

Señor Rodriguez smiled at the group, who reciprocated, and then went on his way. As he walked, he made his best attempt at hiding the limp as a result of the tweak in his knee he suffered the previous night. His physical ailments were not the only things hurting him. Señor Rodriguez was suffering from emotional pain, too. His heart ached and he felt like a piece of himself was missing - he had lost the Art of Lucha Television Championship the previous night, too.

He had become a teacher for a life of fulfilment and to give back to the community that he had grown up in. To be a role model for the children that he taught in his math class. But as a wrestler? His reach could expand and it wouldn’t just be the children in his school that he could set a good example for - he could help children learn and grow from all over the world.

There had been many times before when Juan thought about revealing his alter-ego to some of his students. Let them know that he was something more than just their teacher. He was a superstar, although on this Monday morning, he could not feel further from it. When one thinks about the Art of Lucha Television Championship, Juan Tothrefor is who comes to mind. Now a four-time champion, more than anyone else.

What troubled Juan though is that he worried that was his level. How could he break out? Then he remembered part of the conversation between his students that he had overheard.

“FWA… they’ve got their Carnal Contendership coming up.”

Could that be it? Juan pondered this as he sat down at his desk in preparation for the first lesson of the day. The logistics of the situation was something which ran through his mind as he taught his first two classes of the day in autopilot. He knew that if he got in contact with Chubby Carlos, he could probably pull some strings. It is what happened with the CWA Battle Royal.

No, Juan did not want any hand out from Chubby Carlos or anyone else. It was about time he stood on his own two feet. When it was time for the third period, Juan watched as Diego, Pable, José and Santiago walked into his classroom, still excitedly talking about wrestling.

“Come on, kids. Take your seats… let’s start today’s lesson by counting down from diez. Are you ready?”

“DIEZ!

NUEVE!

OCHO!

SIETE!

SEIS!

CINCO!”


The students’ counting in the classroom shifts to the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee and the crowd chanting along as the next entrant in the 2023 Carnal Contendership…

“FOUR

THREE!

TWO!

ONE!”

*BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZT*

 

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He couldn’t believe what he was doing.

Sweat dripped down Gerald’s brow, his knuckles white from the tight death grip he had on the black leather steering wheel of his 1957 Ford sedan. He glanced to the passenger seat where a black briefcase set, nestled up against the back of the chair.

The rain beat down on the windshield as Gerald brought his attention back to the road. It was hard enough to navigate the winding rural roads in the darkness, let alone in the rain which seemed to get heavier and heavier with each drop that hit the windshield. The windshield wipers were beginning to struggle to keep up with the downpour.

The conflict weighed heavy on his mind as he tried to keep all four wheels on the narrow road. He had been such a faithful employee of Farnsworth Wealth Advisors for many years now and had the reputation of being a good employee. People, in general, liked Gerald. Gerald minded his own business and followed the rules.

But then Michelle entered his life.

To say that Gerald and Michelle are two different people would certainly be an understatement. But somehow, they made their partnership work. Michelle was much rougher around the edges but for some odd reason, their clients actually seemed to like her approach. Business had never been better for Gerald than when he was working alongside Michelle.

He had learned to overlook some of her unfavorable attributes in favor of that continued success. That is until he started to learn more about where the success was coming from.

As it would turn out, Michelle was involved in some underhanded deals that were skimming some money off the top of many of FWA’s wealthiest clients. At first, Gerald didn’t want to believe it. He crunched the numbers over and over again and it just wasn’t adding up.

Perhaps there was a reasonable explanation for it all. At least that is what Gerald was hoping for when he confronted her about it.

“Lighten up, tulip,” Michelle had smiled as she leaned back in the office chair, “I figured you’d find out eventually. I know how smart you are, Gerald. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation. We’ve developed quite the relationship over the last couple of years, have we not?”

“Of course we have, but…
” Gerald was cut off before he could continue.

“Do you trust me?”

Gerald should’ve known better. He should’ve taken the opportunity to get away. Tell her no and report her to the boss. This was his reputation on the line.

But, he did enjoy the success that Michelle brought him.

“Of course I do,” he responded solemnly.

“That’s just what I wanted to hear, Gerald. Because I’m not doing this just for me. This is about US. We work hard, don’t we, tulip?”

Gerald again simply nodded.

“Don’t we owe this to ourselves? Don’t we deserve a reward? These guys have so much money they don’t even realize when a few hundred dollars here and there are missing. It’s sad really.”

“I dunno, Michelle…”

“If it makes you feel better, just think of it as a tip. For all the hard work that we do.”


Michelle was always quite convincing in her arguments. Gerald certainly knew better. He knew that this was a bad idea. But the once loyal FWA employee was now loyal to Michelle. The skimming continued as Michelle found more and more ways to sneak money away from the accounts of the fat cats and bigwigs utilizing their services.

The plan was to get enough money for the two to eventually run away together. Leave all their worries behind them and take up residence in some tropical locale. It all sounded so nice in theory and Gerald found himself lured into the fantasy.

The plan had been put into place. Michelle had all the money withdrawn from the dummy account she had set up to siphon the funds and she put it all into a discrete black briefcase. It had been done. They were going to get away with it.

Ultimately, at his heart, Gerald is a good guy. And a good guy knows when something is wrong. He had overlooked Michelle’s tactics because of the success it had earned them both and perhaps that was wrong but he knew when a line was being crossed. And the line was certainly being crossed. Gerald wanted to think he could play along with Michelle’s plan. He wanted to think he could be more like her. That they would go off and live this dream life together.

But when that time finally came… Gerald couldn’t do it.

He got cold feet and panicked. He began to worry about what would happen if they got caught. All the possibilities of “what if” began to flood his mind. Gerald certainly had no interest in going to jail.

So before he and Michelle could leave town together, Gerald grabbed the briefcase and left without her. Perhaps he acted a little too hastily without acting, but his intentions were good.

He was going to turn the money over to the authorities.

But the ensuing storm was becoming too much for Gerald. His visibility was down to almost zero. In his attempt to drive into town, he had apparently missed a turn somewhere in the rain and darkness as his surroundings were also completely unfamiliar.

It was also getting late. Gerald thought to himself that perhaps he should just stop for the night. Michelle would definitely not be looking for him in the middle of nowhere during this storm. He’d be safe laying low for the night and then he’d go to the police in the morning.

Gerald turned off the road at the first sign of lodging.

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Located off the highway, the Best Motel wasn’t much to look at. The small motel of just around six rooms. Overlooking the small, sleepy little motel was a two-and-a-half-story Second Empire-style home that certainly looked like it could use some tender love and care. Much like the motel itself, in fact. Gerald didn’t think much of the aesthetics of either building. He just needed a place of refuge for the night.

He grabbed the briefcase, securing it snuggly under his armpit as he exited the sedan. With no umbrella, the rain quickly saturated Gerald’s business attire as he scurried from his parking lot to the front door of the motel’s office. He pushed the door open which sounded a bell.

The interior of the motel’s office was surprisingly well-kept. It was certainly a modest room with minimal furniture but everything was very well-cleaned and organized which was quite the contrast to the exterior of the building.

A large, brick house of a man stepped out from a closed door behind the counter, approaching the desk. Gerald glanced around the room and noticed the man had apparently been listening to a small radio while reading what appeared to be a pornographic magazine. “Definitely wasn’t expecting any guests tonight,” the man said, almost seemingly annoyed from being interrupted from whatever it was he was doing. He glanced out the door toward the house on the hill overlooking the motel. “Pretty nasty out there, huh? Guess you want a room.”

“Uhh, a room?”
Gerald stuttered, “I mean, yes, please.”

“Got it, just sign in here. My partner will be down in a minute I’m sure. He always gets real excited when a guest checks in.”


Gerald signed the motel’s register under the name GiGi. “Partner?”

“Yeah, my man Jeremy basically runs this place. I like to help out where I can. The name’s Bryan. That’s Jeremy’s house up there.”


Gerald walked away from the front desk, peering out the open door at the house. He could hear a commotion going on inside the house. Things then got quiet before the front door opened and out walked Bryan’s partner, Jeremy. He opened up an umbrella as he walked down a winding set of stone steps that lead a pathway from the house down to the motel. Gerald watched as Jeremy came closer and closer, an almost unsettling smile on his face as he approached.

“Well, hiya friend!” Jeremy greeted Gerald as he walked into the office, shaking off his umbrella he closed it. “A little wet out there, huh?” Gerald simply nodded. “What are you doing out on a night like this?”

“Oh, I just had some, uhhh, business… to take care of in town but I guess I got a little lost in this storm.”

“Ahh,”
Jeremy nodded, “we all get a little lost sometimes, don’t we? Well, welcome,” Jeremy leaned over and read off the register, “Gigi! Nice to have you here at my humble abode. Here at the Best Motel, you’re always welcome. No matter how lost you are! You’ve got a friend in us.

Jeremy’s smile nearly exploded off his face as Gerald turned to look at Bryan whose face was much less friendly and much more intimidating. Bryan hadn’t taken his eyes off Gerald. Gerald clinched his grip on the briefcase.

“Whatcha got there?” Bryan asked, noticing how tight Gerald was holding onto that black briefcase. “Must be pretty important with how much you’re protecting that thing.”

“Uhhhhh…
” Gerald once again stumbling in nervousness, “Just my clothes, ya know.”

Bryan continued to glare at Gerald. A briefcase for clothes when he was going into town for business? According to Gerald’s story, he wasn’t planning on stopping for the night. Then why pack clothes? Wasn’t quite adding up to him. “That’s a pretty fancy bag to be just an overnight bag.”

Gerald gulped, “I guess, I’m… just a fancy guy.”

For Gerald, the air in the room was thick as his guilt poured over him. The silence felt like forever as Bryan continued to stare at the briefcase. Finally, Jeremy broke the silence, “Well that’s wonderful! Here, you can have Room #3, it’s my friend’s favorite. You must be famished! How about a bite to eat?”

“Oh I dunno,”
Gerald started to resist.

“Pish posh!” Jeremy said with glee. “You’re a guest here and you need some food! I’ll go whip something up and you can feel free to put your stuff up and meet me back here in about fifteen minutes!”

Gerald wanted to turn down the offer, but Jeremy was just too insistent. Plus he was already halfway back up to the house before he could even counter the offer. Bryan shook his head and took a seat at the front desk, keeping his eyes locked on Gerald as ‘Gigi’ took the room key and headed on his way.

Gerald wasn’t quite sure what made Room #3 the “favorite” of his “friend” as there didn’t seem to be anything that special about it. It was your standard motel room with a twin-size bed and shag carpet. A small black and white television sat on the dresser across from the bed.

For the first time since arriving, he sat the black briefcase down on the bed. He wasn’t quite sure what to make of the proprietors of the hotel. Jeremy seemed nice, perhaps a little too nice. But he certainly didn’t like the looks of that Bryan. The way he kept looking at his briefcase. Bryan didn’t look like the type of guy anyone should trust and definitely looked like someone who wasn’t above stealing himself. What if this motel was nothing more than a trap these two have designed to rob unsuspecting victims seeking a bed for a night?

Not wanting to take any chances, Gerald slid the briefcase under the bed in an effort to hide it before walking back out of the room, locking the door behind him. As Gerald ducked the room key into his pocket, he could overhear an argument from the house overlooking the motel.

“We have a guest! It’s the polite thing to do!”

The voice was definitely that of one-half of the motel’s owners. But Gerald could not make out the voice of the person Jeremy seemed to be arguing with.

“We run a motel! There are always going to be people who come to visit. That doesn’t mean I’m trying to replace you as my best friend! Don’t be so silly!”

Gerald found himself staring toward the house with confusion. This was all so… weird.

“It’s pretty rude to eavesdrop, ya know,” Bryan had exited the office and joined Gerald in the covered walkway between the office and the six motel rooms.

“Sorry,” Gerald said with sincerity, “just couldn’t really help it.”

“Yeah, my pal Jeremy is pretty passionate when it comes to his friends. I used to think it was annoying but it kinda grows on ya. Plus, he’s so goddamn loyal. Like I know he always has my back. No matter what. How about you?”

“I mean, I just met you so…”

“No, dumbass. You got anyone like that? Someone who would always have your back?”

“Uhh, yeah, I guess you could say that,”
Gerald said softly, thinking about Michelle. But there wasn’t much time for reflection as Jeremy exited the house and made the trek back down to the motel, with a covered platter.

“Come on fellas, let’s eat!” Jeremy encouraged as he carried the platter into the office. Bryan followed his friend while Gerald reluctantly brought up the rear entering the office. A room to the right of the office had a small table where Jeremy placed the platter. He took off the lid to reveal an assortment of hors d'oeuvres including deviled eggs, celery stuffed with pimiento cheese, and a cheeseball with crackers. “It’s not much but please, help yourself.” Gerald hesitated at first but Jeremy continued to encourage him, pulling the one solitary chair at the table back and motioning to it. “Please, have a seat. Eat up!”

Gerald gave in and took a seat at the table. Jeremy stood in the doorway and leaned up against the frame while Bryan stalked over his shoulder in the background. Both not taking their eyes off Gerald. He wondered if maybe they didn’t get many guests out here in the boondocks. Gerald picked up one of the crackers and carefully dipped it into the top of the cheeseball, nervously taking a bite with all eyes on him. The sound of him chewing into the cracker broke the long silence.

“How is it?” Jeremy wondered, “I do hope you enjoy it. My friend Krash loves hors d'oeuvres so it’s basically all we have at home.”

Gerald took another bite of the cracker as he nodded his head. “Sure, it’s good. Thank you.” Gerald swallowed the bite. “Krash? That’s your friend? The one I heard you talking to?”

“Oh dear,”
Jeremy said with some embarrassment, “I didn’t mean for you to hear all that.”

“No, it’s nothing. I shouldn’t have been eavesdropping.”

“Still, I have to apologize. He isn’t normally like that. He’s not well.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s like you said. Sometimes people get lost. And my friend Krash, much like you before you stumbled into our humble little spot off the main road... a while back… he was very lost. Luckily Bryan found him for me but when we did, well his mind was still pretty lost.”

“Jeremy here has been spending all his free time with him,”
Bryan added. “It’s pretty impressive all the hours he’s put into tryin’ to get that fella back to health.”

“Oh wow,”
Gerald said quietly, almost to himself but audibly enough for Jeremy and Bryan to hear.

“Ah shucks,” Jeremy continued with a once again growing smile, “it’s nothin’ he wouldn’t do for me if the roles were reversed. I just hate seein’ him like this, y’know. I actually thought we were making some progress but now it’s gotten even worse. He’s become quite violent and really jealous. But I’m not losin’ hope, no sir.”

“Well, I guess he’s pretty lucky then. To have a friend like you.”

“We both are,”
Bryan nodded.

“Well, y’know Gigi, there’s nothing more important in the world to me than friendship. Life just ain’t worth livin’ if you ain’t got friends to spend it with. Someone to enjoy the ups and downs with. Someone that will always be there for ya. Someone you know that… no matter what… you can always count on ‘em. They’ll never turn their back on ya.”

Gerald nervously took a bite of the celery, uncomfortable adjusting himself in the seat as he began to feel some regret creeping in. The astute Bryan once again read Gerald’s body language. “Everything okay there? You don’t look so good.”

“No, no,” Gerald shook his head, “I’m alright. He just made me think a lot about my friend.”

“Oh yeah?”
Jeremy’s face lit up, “you got someone like that? I’m so glad to hear that.”

“Yeah… but I worry I may not be living up to that friendship right now.”

“Oh no,”
Jeremy said, his smile fading. “Did you do something wrong?” Bryan always paid close attention to see Gerald’s reaction.

“Uh, I mean, I don’t know if I would say I did something wrong. I just think, maybe, I could be a better friend. I mean, what would happen if that person you thought was your best friend… the person you thought you could trust above anyone else in the world… that would have your back… no matter what… what if… what if… they didn’t?

Jeremy gasped and appeared to nearly fall over. Luckily he was already next to the door frame and it allowed him to hold himself up. Bryan quickly rushed over to make sure Jeremy was okay. “My heavens…”

“Look what you almost did!” Bryan exclaimed sternly towards Gerald.

A concerned Gerald got up from his chair, “I’m s-s-sorry. Is it something I said?”

Jeremy straightened up in the doorway, brushing off his khaki slacks. “You almost gave me a heart attack is what you did. But to answer your question, if that were to happen… It'd probably kill me, y’know. Die of a broken heart.”

Gerald was afraid of that. By now, Michelle had no doubt realized he had left with the money. That he had betrayed her. Was her heart breaking? What had he done?

“I’ve… got to go.”

“Wait, no…”
Jeremy protested.

“I’m sorry, you’ve been a gracious host,” Gerald said as he rushed toward the door, “but I shouldn’t be here. I should’ve never come here.”

Gerald rushed out of the door back out into the rain, slipping on his way out and landing in a mud puddle outside the motel. Jeremy and Bryan both rushed out, Jeremy offering a hand out to Gerald to help him back up to his feet.

“If this is about your friend,” Jeremy said as he helped the now muddy Gerald back up, “then you should definitely go. But feel free to clean up before. It’s no charge since you didn’t actually stay with us tonight but you can definitely still use the shower to wash up and I can probably get you some spare clothes. You look about the same size as my friend.”

Gerald looked down at his mud-covered hands and clothes, realizing that he should probably take Jeremy up on that offer. “Okay, good idea.”

So he returned to Room #3, shutting the door behind him before he bent down and looked under the bed to make sure the briefcase was still there. He pulled it out and placed it on the bed. “I’m so sorry, Michelle,” he said, talking to the briefcase as if she was standing there with him. “I shouldn’t have run off. I should have talked to you about my concerns. About my anxieties. After all, you’ve done for me… I was just scared. You’ve always been there for me… but now I’m gonna be there for you too!”

But first, he needed to clean up. Gerald left the briefcase on the bed as he walked into the bathroom. He turned on the water to the shower and then discarded his soiled clothes, tossing them into a pile in the corner. Once the water had warmed up, Gerald stepped into the tub, pulling the shower curtain clothed behind him.

The hot water felt good as it cascaded across Gerald’s back. For a moment, he was able to relax. He felt at ease about Michelle. He was going to go back to her and he just hoped she would be willing to forgive him. But at the very least, he could live with himself knowing that he hadn’t completely stabbed his friend in the back.

Gerald was snapped out of his shower thoughts by the sound of the room door shutting. “Just leave the clothes on the bed, thanks!” Gerald called out, assuming that Jeremy was bringing the clothes he had promised to lend. Lost in his own world, he continued to enjoy the shower, soaping up his hair as he suddenly heard footsteps getting closer and closer.

“J-J-Jeremy?” Gerald stuttered, the concern clear in his voice.

He could feel another presence joining him in the bathroom. But before he could react, the shower curtain was forcefully thrown aside. Gerald screamed out in horror as the last sight he saw was a sharp blade plunging right into his chest. The previously pure white tiles of the shower wall suddenly found themselves splattered red.

Gerald’s body slumped over into the tub as his attacker repeatedly impaled the knife into his chest and torso before finally slicing his throat for good measure.

The water of the shower continued to rain down on Gerald’s now lifeless body, sending a river of red streaming through the tub and down the drain while the footsteps of the attacker walked out of the room, shutting the door behind him.

Moments later, the door opened again. Jeremy walked in, holding a neatly folded pair of slacks and a silk shirt. “I’ll just put the clothes…” Jeremy stopped in his tracks noticing drips of blood creating a path from the bathroom to the hotel room door. His jaw drops as the clothes fall out of his hand. “Oh no… oh no.. oh no…”

Jeremy began to pace back and forth nervously. He walked into the bathroom, finding the mutilated body of Gerald lifeless in the small bathtub. Jeremy remained surprisingly calm, he turned around and exited the room. He turned to the right, walked over to Room #2, and knocked on the door.

The door swung open, answered by Bryan. “What’s up?”

“It’s happened again.”


Bryan shook his head. “Ugh, okay. I’ll handle it.”

Jeremy nodded as Bryan shut the door to his own room and walked next door to Room #3. He walked in and shut the door behind him. Jeremy looked up at his house at the top of the hill. “Oh dear, I’m so sorry it had to happen this way, Gigi. But perhaps it’s for the best.”

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Michelle wasn’t too surprised. She always had her doubts in the back of her mind if Gerald really had what it took to go through with it. Unlike Gerald, Michelle was a survivor. She always had a backup plan for her backup plan. So when she walked back to her office to find both the briefcase full of money and her partner missing in action, she didn’t panic. She sat down at her desk and lit a cigarette. She calmly smoked it as she made a phone call.

A phone call right to the police. If Gerald was going to screw her over, she would beat him to the punch. She reported him as the one who had been stealing from their clients and now was running off with the money.

She was once again sitting in her office when her phone rang. FWA, this is Michelle.”

“It’s Scorpane.”


Michelle wasn’t waiting around for the police to find Gerald, however. She always had her resources and connections. Detective Scorpane was one of those. If anyone was going to find that little snake, it was him. A snake to find a snake.

“Tell me you found something.”

“Yeah, I think so. We’ve had some tips coming in… most of them useless but someone says they saw the car matching Gerald at some shithole motel off Route 43.”

“Did the tip get to anyone else?”

“No, not yet. And I’m holding it as long as I can.”

“Perfect. Keep up the good work, tulip. You will be rewarded for your loyalty.”


They hung up the phone as Michelle darted from her desk, grabbing her coat. She reached over to a pile of papers on her desk, unfolding a map. She traced Route 43, heading into town. “That little bastard really was going to turn me in, wasn’t he?”

Michelle figured the storm was too much for Gerald last night. He never could handle the pressure. He never would weather the storm. But she had him now. She was going to make him pay and she was going to get her money back.

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By the time Michelle arrived at the Best Motel, she was disappointed to see that his white Ford sedan was no longer in the parking lot. She worried that she was too late. That Gerald had already left and was probably at the police station now, explaining the entire thing. Granted it’ll be a he said, she said situation, but she knew that if it came down to someone like Gerald against someone like her, no one was going to believe her.

She had to hope there was still a chance to find him before it was too late. She walked into the office of the hotel. Bryan walked out from the back room, scrubbing his hands with soap and a rag. “Be right with ya, ma’am.” Bryan walked back away, continuing to focus on scrubbing what Michelle made out to be a red stain on his hand.

While she wanted, she walked over to the window of the motel, looking up to admire the two-and-a-half-story home up the hill from the motel. He could see what looked to be a skinny man looking back at her from the second-story window. A shutter went down Michelle’s spine as she looked away.

Bryan finally walked back in and leaned over the front desk. “Sorry about that, what can I do ya for, miss? Looking for a place to stay tonight?”

“Ew, definitely not,”
Michelle said truthfully. Not only was she not looking for a place to stay, but if she was, this would definitely not be the place she would purposefully choose. To be sure the only people who stayed here at this shack were kidnapping victims. Which then made her start to question the whereabouts of Gerald.

Bryan seemed annoyed by Michelle’s tone. “Alright, then what do you want?” Bryan had dropped any pretense of actual customer service with his more blunt question.

“I’m looking for someone. A friend.”

“A friend you say,”
Bryan said, tucking his hands into his pocket, becoming self-aware of the stains on his hand. “Tell me about him and maybe I can help.”

Who said it was a him?”

“Well no one,”
Bryan breathed deeply, “I just assumed.”

“You assumed? What? I’d be looking for a man?”

“No, I mean yes. I mean, no? I don’t know, just tell me about your friend okay?”

“Well, yes, I am looking for a man. I believe he stayed here last night. Name is Gerald.”

“Hmmmm,”
Bryan feigned thought, “Gerald. Gerald. Gerald. Nope, doesn’t ring a bell.”

Michelle leaned into the desk, showing no intimidation of the bigger man. “Now you listen to me you big loaf, I can tell this place doesn’t exactly get many visitors. And I know he was here last night. It’s very important that I find him, you understand?”

Bryan stared coldly at Michelle, “I told you. I don’t know what you’re talking about, lady.”

Michelle stared back at Bryan. She knew bullshit. She was good at bullshit. Bryan was definitely full of bullshit.

“Excuse me,” a calm, pleasing voice interrupted the tenseness of the room. “Maybe I can be of some help.”

Michelle turned to find Jeremy standing in the office now. She recognized his frame as the same person who was watching her from the house above. “Who the Hell are you? The creep from up there in that murder house?”

Jeremy shifted nervously on his feet, lightly chuckling. “That is my house, yes. I am Jeremy and this here is also my motel. Welcome! We are glad to have you here. Here at Best Motel, you always have a friend in us.”

“She’s actually here looking for a friend,”
Bryan said, his eyes growing wide with Michelle’s back turned to him. He motioned towards the back room of the office.

Jeremy bit his lip. “Is that so? Well, we get lots of friends here at Best Motel. Maybe I can..”

“Cut the shit, Jeremy,”
Michelle said, not interested in hearing more from him. “Look, I know my friend was here last night. And I’ve glanced at your register over there… Gigi… that’s my friend. I’m the only one that calls him that though. So something tells me he was a little concerned about being here and was leaving a clue… just in case. So, no more shit, where’s Gerald.”

OH, Gigi!”
Jeremy exclaimed. “Yes, of course! What a wonderful fella. You must be his friend he kept talking about.”

Michelle tilted her head, her curiosity getting the best of her. “He was talking about me?”

“Oh yes, he was very concerned about how bad of a friend he had been.”

“Yeah, well, he wasn’t wrong.”


Jeremy walked over, placing his hand on Michelle’s shoulder. His hand felt unusually cold, sending another chill down Michelle’s spine as she moved away from him. “He was very upset, you see. I told him all about how important friendship is. We all make mistakes, don’t we? I know I certainly have made mistakes. Have you made any mistakes, miss?”

Michelle wasn’t going to give Jeremy the benefit of hearing her answer. Of course she had. Perhaps she had been too hasty to push Gerald into something he was so uncomfortable with. Maybe she shouldn’t have forced her plan onto him. But she only wanted what was best for the both of them. She wasn’t lying when she told him that she was doing it for them. “Look, I just want to find my friend. Do you know where he went?”

“I think he was going back to you,” Bryan noted from behind the desk.

Michelle didn’t buy it. Maybe he wanted to but if he left this morning he would’ve been back before she even left or she would’ve crossed paths with him on the way to the motel. Something wasn’t adding up and the vibe of these two was definitely causing red flags for the very astute Michelle. “Well, I’ve come this far. Maybe I can get a room after all?”

“Wonderful idea!”
Jeremy smiled. “I’ll go get some food. You look like you could use a bite. Bryan will show you to your room.”

As Jeremy left, Michelle faked a smile and waved as Bryan walked around the corner, grabbing a key off the wall. They walked past Room #2 and Michelle started to go for the doorknob. “Nope, not this one. This one’s mine.”

They continued walking to the next room. Room #3. Michelle looked for Bryan to unlock that one, but Bryan hesitated. “No… no… not this one either.”

“Why not? Is this yours too?”

“No, it’s just… being renovated.”

“This entire place needs to be renovated,”
Michelle shook her head but she noticed a drop of blood outside the door of Room #3. Bryan noticed her looking down at it and placed his foot over it.

“Look,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck, “just take the key. You’re in #4.”

Michelle snatched the key from Bryan’s grubby hands. “Thanks,” she said, insincerely as she walked to her room, opened the door, and started to walk in. But she doesn’t shut the door. Instead, she stuck her head back out of the door and watched as Bryan walked back down the path and re-entered the office. She slowly shut the door to her room and snuck back over to Room #3. She reached into her clutch, retrieving a credit card. She shimmied it in between the door and the lock, working it into the crevice while turning the doorknob until she found success in getting the door to unlock.

The stench in the room immediately overwhelmed her. The room had been stripped of all its drapery and linens. The carpet had also been completely removed. But despite all the work Bryan had put into trying to cover up the tracks, he had forgotten to remove Gerald’s muddy clothes from the corner of the room. She shook her head, starting to tear up realizing what this meant for her partner in crime.

“Snooping is rude,” she heard as Bryan surprised her from behind before shoving her from behind, sending Michelle colliding with the wall. Picture frames fell down around as she also fell to the ground.

“What did you psychos do Gerald?!”

“I didn’t do anything, but I’m just making sure I have my friend’s back. Something you don’t seem to know anything about.”
Bryan kicked Michelle right in the ribs.

She clutched her side in pain as Bryan brought another boot down across her shoulder. “You… don’t know anything about me…”

Bryan smirked. “That’s what you think. I can read between the lines. Everyone thinks I’m just some big, dumb… what was it you called me, loaf?” Another stomp to her side. “But I notice things. Something tells me you didn’t necessarily come here looking for your friend. He was really concerned about how he may have upset you. About how he may not have had your back. So I’m thinkin’... hmm, maybe… maybe he took something from you. So, I think you were more interested in what he had with him. Maybe that fancy little briefcase he was carrying around?”

Michelle rolled over onto the bare wooden floor, spitting blood out of her mouth. “So what… you fuckin’ killed him so you could take the money?”

“Money? You think this was about money?”
Bryan paused from putting his boots onto Michelle to lean his head back and laugh. “Lady, I told you, I didn’t do nothin’ to your little friend. I’m afraid he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“So… it was… that little creep… friend of yours?” Michelle clutched her ribs, sitting up and resting her back against the wall.

“Heh,”
Bryan circled the room, keeping his eyes on the battered Michelle on the floor. “Something tells me that money wasn’t exactly yours either, now was it? That’s why you came looking for it and not the police, right? Hey, no judgment from me. I get it. I too am not afraid to bend the rules to get what I want.”

“I see it's working out really well for you,”
Michelle wiped some blood off the corner of her mouth.

“You just don’t know when to stop, do ya? And to answer your question, my friend may be a little different… I like to think he’s a bit misunderstood. Maybe he’s a little bit crazy. Maybe I’m a little bit crazy? Your friend was a little crazy to grab the briefcase and run. You were a little crazy to cheat and steal your way to the top. But fate has brought us all together. And when opportunity knocks, I don’t mind opening the door. So yeah, I’m taking the briefcase. It belongs to me and Jeremy now. I mean he don’t really care too much about the money, but I do. But again, that’s not why your friend isn’t here right now.”

“Then WHERE IS HE DAMMIT?”

“Like I said. Wrong place. Wrong time. Jeremy has this little hero complex with his friend up there in that house going on… and sometimes… well… sometimes his friend gets a little jealous.”


Michelle didn’t understand what was going on, she just knew she had to get out of there and find Gerald. As Bryan paced, he turned his back to her briefly, allowing her to wrap her hands around one of the wood picture frames that had fallen off the wall during their tussle.

“It’s unfortunate,” Bryan continued, oblivious to Michelle positioning herself behind him, “what is going to have to happen now… because you’ve seen…” Bryan turned and got an up-close view of Michelle as she shattered the wooden frame across his head. Bryan fell over to the ground, one of the nails slicing the side of his forehead along with the splinters as Michelle ran past him and out the door.

Frantically, she fell through the office door and began looking around for any sign of her partner. She ran to the back room but only found an empty table with one solitary chair at it. She then spotted the door behind the front desk. She leaped over the desk and tried to open it, but it was locked. She had lost her clutch when Bryan had attacked her in the hotel room, so she didn’t have her trusty credit card to pick lock this time. So she resorted to kicking at the door.

Before she could knock the door down, a recovered Bryan had entered the room as well. He rushed her down, tackling her from behind and both of them collided with the locked door, busting it down with them. Michelle rolled away from the door, reaching for something to help her up. She took an outreached hand… a cold… dead… hand.

Michelle let out a blood-curdling scream as she looked up at the hand and realized it was Gerald’s body propped up against the storage room wall. His body was mutilated with stab wounds and covered in blood. She held her hands to her mouth as Bryan brushed himself off as he stood up. “Now see, you weren’t supposed to see all this. Looks like I got another mess to clean up.”

“You’re… monsters…”

“Maybe,”
Bryan grabbed Michelle by the shirt, pulling her up off the ground, “but it was both of your actions that brought you here. It was only a matter of time before you paid for your own crimes.”

“Is that how you’re gonna sleep at night? That you’re some kinda vigilante?”

“Nah, I’m gonna be sleepin’ pretty next to all that money. That’s how I’m gonna sleep at night.”
Bryan wrapped his big, sweaty palms around Michelle’s neck, slowly applying pressure. Michelle could feel her windpipes beginning to collapse in from his massive hands.

She was struggling. Breathing becoming more difficult.

But she was a fighter. She wasn’t going down that easily. She gave Bryan a swift kick right between the legs which was enough to cause him to release the choke. Bryan dropped to his knees as Michelle ran past him, only to get tripped up as he grabbed her leg. She fell into the desk chair, grabbed the landline phone, and smacked it across Bryan’s face as he came after her again.

This knocked Bryan down onto his back while she now began to stomp on his face repeatedly. Blood now splattering from his nose and mouth as she seemed to render him unconscious from the repeated blows to the head.

Michelle breathed a sigh of relief, straightening up her pants and shirt as she walked back to the door of the office. She looked up at the house on the hill.

She once again could see the silhouette of Jeremy in the window. And once again... he was watching. When Jeremy noticed Michelle looking up at him, the silhouette quickly darted away from the window. “You’re gonna pay, you sonofabitch,” Michelle rolled up her sleeves as she headed up the stairs leading up to the house.

She was surprised to find that the door of the home was unlocked so she let herself in, grabbing a small yard decoration statue of a dog off the porch as she entered, lifting it above her head with every intention of using it as a weapon if she had to.

The interior of the house looked as though no one had lived in it in years. The furniture was all draped with plastic and dust was collecting on all the plastic as well as the floor and other surfaces of the house. Cobwebs dangled from each corner of the living room. A stark contrast to how well-kept the motel was.

She could hear a commotion upstairs.

“Yes, I know she’s coming.”

“Of course she’s upset! She knows what you did?”

“ME? Why are you blaming me?! I was just trying to be nice! I was just trying to make a new friend!”


“I told you, I’m not trying to replace you! You didn’t have to do this again! Ugh, now’s not the time for this.”

Michelle slowly crept up the stairs as Jeremy’s voice continued to echo, though she could still only hear one side of the argument.

“What should we do now?”

“No! I told you! That’s not the answer! You can’t just keep doing that to people! It’s not right!”

“No! No! No! No! Stop it!”

Michelle was now outside the door and she wasn’t wasting any more time. She opened the door and stepped in, lifting up the dog statue and was ready to strike Jeremy’s friend…

But she stopped in her tracks when she found Jeremy with both hands on his head, pacing back and forth while a mustached man was strapped down to a hospital bed in front of him. His waist, legs, and arms were all belted to the bed and his mouth was taped up. His eyes grew wide when he saw Michelle as he began to wrestle against his restraint. He tried his best to yell out to her, and she was pretty sure he was yelling for “HELP” though the restraints muffled the sounds making it mostly incomprehensible.

Noticing Michelle entering the room, appearing ready to attack, Jeremy brought his hands off his head and held them out submissively. “Wait! Please! My friend… he needs help.”

“What’s wrong with him? Why is he strapped down?”

“Because… he’s sick. In the head that is. And he’s the one that killed your friend. I’m so sorry.”

“You’re all sick. Each one of you.”


Jeremy’s friend, Krash, shook his head frantically trying to protest Jeremy’s accusations.

“No! No! I’m just trying to help! He needs my help. My friend is still in there somewhere but I’m just trying to help him.”

Tears rolled down Michelle’s face as she took more steps into the room, looking back and forth from Jeremy to Krash. Both pleaded though only one could defend themselves. Michelle figured Jeremy’s friend deserved the chance to talk. “Well, how about we see what he has to say for himself then? Only seems fair. If he killed my friend, I want to hear from him myself.”

“No.. that’s a real bad idea… please…”


Michelle walked over to Krash, staring down at the man Jeremy claimed had killed her friend. He seemed frail and weak. She wondered how long he had been held captive by these freaks. The two locked eyes and Michelle could feel a sense of sincerity in them. Like he really was in danger. That he was finally seeing someone who could save him.

She brought her hands down to the tape on his mouth.

Just as she felt a ripping sensation around the front of her throat. The blade of a knife had come around and ruptured her anterior jugular vein all the way across to the common carotid artery on the other side. Blood spilled out onto Krash’s white bed sheets as he cried out.

Michelle dropped to her knees.

Jeremy standing behind her, holding the knife in his hands.

“I told you that was a bad idea.”

Michelle fell over to the floor by the bed, blood spilling out into a pool by her body. Another pair of footsteps came up the stairs a battered Bryan joined Jeremy in the second-story room, finding Jeremy standing over Michelle.

“Bryan…”

“Yeah, I know, it happened again.”


Jeremy nodded.

“Well, at least now we have this,” Bryan said, dropping the briefcase to the ground and began preparing to clean things up once again for Jeremy.

Jeremy glanced at the briefcase and shrugged his shoulders. He took a seat in a rocking chair next to Krash. Krash’s body shook against his restraint as more tears rolled down his cheek.

“It’s okay, buddy. They’re gone now. I got rid of them. Now I can just focus on you again. Everything is going to be okay.”
 

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1630553505389


"Have you ever had the same dream? Like the same one, over and over again?"

Jackson Fenix asks this question as he leans back in his chair. The person he's asking this question to is his therapist, Hazel Knight, and conveniently enough, Hazel is also his girlfriend. He's never referred to her as such when speaking about her, and it's unknown whether they're official, but for this instance, we'll refer to her as such. They're in Hazel's office as she's sitting across from him while he's lying down. Hazel is jotting down some notes on a notepad before she looks up.

"Those are what you would call recurring dreams. Experiencing recurring dreams usually point to some underlying issue regardless of what you see in the dream. Are these recurring dreams frequent? Have you experienced them in a consecutive amount of days?"

"If you mean have I had them one night after another, then yeah, they're pretty consistent."

”Have you experienced any sort of trauma recently?”

”What do you mean?”

"When someone experiences a recurring dream, that usually means it's a way for them to work through some unmet needs or to process trauma. It says a lot about your psychological health as well."

”My psychological health? If I have these dreams, does that mean it's affecting my psychological health?"

"Yes, it usually means a negative effect. It's a result of some trauma you've experienced, so again, I must ask you, have you had any trauma recently?"


Jackson pauses to think about it and has experienced many things lately. The most recent was his loss to Mike Parr at The Grand March. That one stung quite a bit for him because it was his chance to prove himself on a grand stage without Nate Savage. He's unsure if it's traumatic enough to experience a recurring dream.

There are also the back-to-back losses that he and Nate experienced against The Connection. The Undisputed Alliance was given not one but two opportunities to reclaim the tag team titles, and they could have done better. Much like the loss to Parr, Jackson isn't sure if that's traumatic enough for him to have these dreams.

Then there's the Jeremy Best thing and Jeremy showing his true colors as a bad guy. Jeremy was someone he considered a friend at one point, and although he won't openly admit it, what he did to Jeremy last year when he stabbed him in the back, he resents his actions as he looks back on it. He feels partially responsible for sending Jeremy on his downward spiral that eventually sent Jeremy off the deep end and turned him to the dark side. If he hadn't stabbed him in the back, they could've been The Undisputed Amigos, along with Nate and Bryan, and maybe Jeremy wouldn't have gone mental. After seeing what Jeremy had done, Jackson was inspired to become a good guy.

The more he thinks about it, maybe all of that and more is traumatic enough for him to have these dreams.

”Jackson? Are you okay?”

”What? Oh yeah, I'm fine. I was just wondering if I've had any traumatic experiences lately."

”Have you?”

"Yeah, I mean, I guess you could call them traumatic, like my loss to Mike Parr at The Grand March. That was my one chance to prove to people that I could hang on my own, but I failed. I failed and let people down, but even more so, I let myself down."

"I guess those two losses to The Connection didn't help either. Nate and I tried hard to get back those titles, but we failed. Not once, but twice. I'm a two-time failure."

"Don't even get me started on the Jeremy Best stuff."


This piques Hazel's interest as she leans forward in her chair.

”What is the Jeremy Best stuff?”

”I’d rather not talk about it.”


Hazel is about to question why he brought it up in the first place, but she thinks better of it and moves on. Before she can speak up, Jackson cuts her off.

"I've felt like a failure for a long time now that I think about it. Since we've been in FWA, Nate and I have been seen as a joke. No matter what we try to fix, it doesn't work. It's not even Nate's fault, though; it's my fault. I feel like I'm holding him back. If it weren't for me, he'd probably be a world champion like Chris Peacock."

"He's not, though; on top of everything else, he's injured now. He doesn't get to wrestle Chris Peacock or whoever the world champ is at Back in Business. He doesn't get to compete in the Carnal Contendership. I do, though, but do I deserve it? I don't think so. Sure, the fans that have come around to me may think I do, but not me. I should feel differently, though. I wish I could feel like I deserve it."

"You don't believe that, do you?"

"I don't know, it's just that I think about what I have done to deserve it. I can't win a match to save my life. I try to be nice, but that's not even working. Some people don't buy it either. They don't think I'm capable of being a nice guy. They think I'm a jerk, and no matter what I try to do to change their mind, it doesn't work."

"You can't think like that, Jackson. You're doing the best that you can, and you do deserve this opportunity, regardless of what you think."

"I'm doing my best, but maybe it's not good enough."

"What about your dream? Do you think you can describe it for me?"

”Yeah, I guess so.”

===================================


It starts with me waking up in a room I've never been in, like I don't recognize anything about it. The weird thing about this room is that it's plain-looking. Nothing is happening, like a primary white paint job without pictures on the wall. There are no windows, and the bed looks basic with plain white sheets and a white pillowcase.

I sit in bed and notice I'm wearing a maroon-colored polo shirt, khaki slacks, and plain white tennis shoes. It's different from what I usually wear: a Britney Spears t-shirt, a black leather jacket, jeans, and sneakers. I don't have time to react to what is happening when a voice speaks out.


”Oh good, you’re awake.”

I look over and see Nate sitting across from me in the corner of the room. He looks the same as usual, but for some reason, he feels different.

”Nate? What's going on? Where are we?"

As I ask him this, he looks at me and smiles, which may not be weird to some, but for Nate, it is strange because he doesn't smile often. It was then I knew something was off about this place.

"I'm not Nate, and I'm not here, so there is no we."

”Wait, what? What do you mean you're not Nate? Who are you?"

"I don't know, this is your dream."

”Hold up, are you my conscience?”

"Maybe, I don't know. As I said before, this is your dream."

”For a conscience you’re not super helpful.”

"Again, this is your dream. I’m just a part of it”

"This is so confusing; why must my mind try to screw with me like this?"

”Maybe to help you find your way.”

”Find my way? What do you mean? Find my way where?"

"You have all of these questions, but I'm afraid I have no answers."

"Again, you're not helping. If you're not going to give me answers, then maybe I'll find someone else to help me."


I look around but don't see a way out. There's no door; as I noticed before, there are no windows either.

”How do I get out of here?”

”You have to believe.”

”Believe in what?”

”Believe in yourself.”

"Wait, is this a test? Am I having a dream right now where I'm being tested?"

”Possibly.”

"Okay, well, lately, I haven't believed in myself. I don't know why because usually I'm a pretty confident guy, but for some reason, I haven't felt like myself."

"Would that have to do with your losses as of late in FWA?"

"Perhaps, I don't know. I usually don't let losses get to me that much. I shrug them off and try not to let them get me down. I guess all the trash-talking and bragging I do helps me forget about it."

"These losses, though? These are different. I don't know how to explain it."

"The consecutive losses Nate and yourself suffered at the hands of The Connections had to have stung, right?"

"Yeah, they did hurt. They especially hurt because I feel like I let Nate down. I feel like I'm dragging him down, and he'd probably be better off without me."

"He doesn't feel that way. He feels the opposite. Nate was understandably upset but knew you both tried your best. He also knows that you both must have done something right to gain a rematch."

"I didn't know he felt that way; how do you know that? I thought you weren't Nate?"

"I'm not him, but I know how he feels. It's difficult to explain but trust me on that. He doesn't feel held back by you; you shouldn't think that way. You have to stop looking at things in a negative light."

"Yeah, well, that's easy for you to say. You're not the one losing to Mike Parr at The Grand March. Better yet, you're not the one who loses constantly. We're a joke. We're a laughingstock of the locker room. The more I think about it, I'm a joke. I'm dragging him down with me."

"If you keep thinking that way, then, of course, you'll feel that way. You have to stop yourself from thinking so negatively."

"Yeah, well, what's a positive thing I can focus on? The Carnal Contendership? Fat chance of me winning that."

"Again, if you think like that, it doesn't help. You have to believe in yourself. Do you honestly believe you can win the Carnal Contendership?"

”I don’t know, maybe.”

”Come on, you have to believe.”


I think about what he says, and what he is saying does make sense. It doesn't help to be so negative all the time. Yeah, I've been in a funk lately. I've been inconsistent. I can't help that, but what I can do is bounce back.

"Okay, I believe I'll win the Carnal Contendership."

”Hmm, that isn't convincing enough.”

”What? Come on! I don't know what else to say."

"You have to convince yourself that you'll win. Everyone else around you believes in you. Your Mom, your Meemaw, Hazel, Nate, and the fans. You're the final ingredient to all of that."


I think about my Mom and Meemaw watching me and how proud they are of me. Win or lose, they're still proud and love me. Nate, I know he doesn't say it, but I know he cares. I know you care too, Hazel, and the fans care. Well, at least some of them do. If they all believe, then why shouldn't I believe?

”I’m going to win the Carnal Contendership.”

”What’s that? I can’t hear you.”


I get off the bed, walk toward Nate in the room, and get face-to-face with him.

"I'm going to win the Carnal Contendership! I will do it for everyone who has ever or still believes in me. Most importantly, I'm going to do it for myself. I have to do this. I need this more than anything else. I need to show everyone that I'm not a joke. I'm not a one-note gimmick that only talks about how much heat he's packing below."

"I need to do this to finally back up all that bragging I do. I think I'm so great; I think I'm the bee's knees, the cat's pajamas, or the best around. Well, it's time to prove it. It's time I show everyone who Jackson Fenix is. Sure, it'll be tough, but I know I can do it."


After I say that, a door suddenly appears next to Nate. He looks at me and smiles again.

”Knock Em dead.”

I hesitate at first, but then I go to open the door, and that's when I wake up.

===================================

"That's it, that's my weird dream. What do you think it means?"

"It means you should stop doubting yourself and believe."

"Huh, that's what you took away from that?"

"Can you tell me what your usual dreams are?"

"Oh yeah, it usually has Britney dancing as she does in those Instagram reels. You know the ones, right? People think she's still crazy, but I think she's just living her best life, and those people should mind their beeswax. Anyway, she’s dancing and I walk in-”


Hazel cuts him off, not wanting to hear the rest because, knowing Jackson, she knows where it's going.

"I think that's enough for today's session."

”Okay, cool. Hey, do you want to grab a bite to eat?"

”Like a date?”


Jackson, completely oblivious, nods his head.

”Yeah, sure, a date.”

”Okay, nice. Yeah, let’s do it.”


Hazel says with a smile, and the two of them leave the office together.

Just believe.
 

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MICHELLE von HORROWITZ & GERALD GRAYSON
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EAT YOUR MAKER.

***

Part One.
“Prologue.”
or: ‘Brooding Friendship.’
or: ‘A Buddy System Promo.’
or: ‘How To Eat Friends and Eviscerate People.’


Friendship, Indiana.
April 20th, 2023.
Universe 486DΣΔ-A2ΦΩ, Multi-Verse Substrand 6Ξ.

We open in a small, dank room. There is a single bed propped up against the wall, which is painted a drab shade of brown and sporadically stained with mould. These discolourations are only another shade of brown, and are visible despite the large number of pictures stuck onto every available surface. These images, everything from postcards through headshots to posters, each depict a ghoulish looking figure, cloaked and hooded and masked. All in black. The only other items of furniture in the room are an old, rickety wardrobe, an empty wooden chair, and a tall cheval mirror that is currently covered with a black bedsheet.

Standing with his back turned to the camera, next to the drawn blackout curtains in-between the bed and the wardrobe, is a short, frail, weedy gentleman wearing a dark, tailed (but not tailored) suit and a tall stovepipe hat. After a deep breath, as if steadying himself for the day to come, he pulls open the drapes, the afternoon sunlight streaming into the small room. This withering dandelion of a man - worn, hunched, almost malformed - recoils from the light, staggering backwards with his hands over his eyes. For a moment, he has the look of a Nosferatu ready to melt, though he eventually steadies himself. He is human, and only unprepared for the sudden adjustment to daylight.

When the small man turns around, we see a furry, black moustache bristling on his upper lip. It throws a shadow over his weatherworn frown. He walks with a pronounced limp towards the empty chair, taking a seat and looking at the camera with a meek, painted smile.

???: “It’s nice to let some light in, whenever I get the chance. Which isn’t all that often. I’m ready when you are.”

The response comes from behind the camera.

Director: “Why don’t you walk us through what you do between now and nightfall, Krash?”

Krash: “Well, there’s no rest for the wicked.”

We cut away from the room and to a shot of the documentarian’s subject waking up, his Nokia 3310 playing a monophonic version of Bobby Pickett’s Monster Mash as an alrm. The moustached man rolls over and puts a stop to it, wiping the sleep out of his eyes and sitting up on the edge of the bed.

Krash (v.o.): “I work through the night, for obvious reasons, so I sleep through the morning for as few hours as my infernal biology will allow. There’s a lot of work to be done in the afternoon. I start with cleaning up after the night before.”

The malformed maverick is shown struggling up a narrow, stone, spiral staircase, his hands full with various items of cleaning apparatus.

Krash (v.o.): “Other than the cleaning, everything else that happens here happens at night. There’s a feast here at the Manor almost every moon. Such extravagance invariably causes a reasonable amount of mess.”

He arrives in a banqueting hall, a long and low table wrought of stone the dominating feature. At one end of the table are two regular-sized plates in front of two regular-sized chairs, mostly empty but for the remnants of a thick, red sauce that oozes on the china. At the other end, before a huge throne, is an equally gigantic trough swimming in ruby red blood, the end of a femur protruding from the barbaric broth. In the middle of the table is a ribcage, the flesh torn clean from it and candles arranged thoughtfully within its hollows. The floor and walls around this peculiar, culinary altar are splattered in the same dark red as the table itself.

Krash, looking over the scene with a sad recognition in his eyes, lets out a deep sigh before reaching for his mop.

Krash (v.o.): “But it’s not just cleaning up after the feast. There’s a lot of thought that goes into the preparation, too. It’s becoming more and more difficult to find food that my Masters will enjoy nowadays. Deteriorating morals, I guess. Fact of the matter is that there are just a lot fewer virgins in Indiana in 2023 than there were when I first took this job. And the old woman who taught me how to whip up a good meal for the Masters - my predecessor, if you will - had her pick of whole churches of them back in the seventies, when they first arrived from Europe and she was their familiar.”

As the voiceover continues, we watch as Krash spends his afternoon snooping around locations that might serve up a good meal. He is spotted talking to an anxious young man at the library, lingering around the gates of a church at afternoon mass, and buying a ticket to a local independent wrestling event. Everywhere he goes, he is friendly and amiable and does his best to ingratiate himself with anyone curious and gullible and (most importantly) lonely enough to be convinced to take a trip to the Manor.

Krash (v.o.): “And then there’s the pigs.”

In the back garden of the Manor, Krash is shown entering the gates of a large pig-pen.

Krash (v.o.): “There’s Old Major, Napoleon, Snowball, and Squealer. Squealer’s a pest.”

Four huge sows scurry around him, more reminiscent of excited dogs than what they actually are. The moustached servant scratches them behind their ears affectionately.

Krash (v.o.): “To be honest, the pigs are one of my favourite things about the job. Except for my Masters, of course. I guess I just enjoy service. Devoting oneself to another, y’know? Taking care of people. That’s what I’m about.”

With the pigs sedated, the proud servant sits next to the creatures and four ‘trima’ machines. The blood being withdrawn from the animals is pumped into huge, cylindrical vats. With the miracle of a jump cut, the pigs are revived and scampering around happily in their pen, Krash filling their troughs to the brim. The vats of blood are stacked nearby, ready for transportation to the Manor.

Krash (v.o.): “It’s a symbiotic relationship. They can’t exactly go to the store and buy their own grain. And I don’t have a supply of virginal human blood on tap. And it saves them a trip to the slaughterhouse, too.”

A montage of Krash fulfilling his described, manifold chores.

Krash (v.o.): “I open the mail, which is mostly junk except for a few key correspondences from the old communities back in Europe. I do the regular housekeeping, the stuff that doesn’t rely on the removal of ribcages and the like, such as vacuuming and polishing and dusting. Make sure the prisoners are poorly fed. An hour or two of study just before sundown. And then it’s nightfall, and time for wake-up.”

We are back in Krash’s bedroom. After describing some (but not all) of his daily duties, there seems to be a sense of weariness and fatigue about the moustached and malformed miscreant.

Director: “Sounds like you’re a busy man.”

Krash cracks a smile.

Krash: “That’s just the warm-up. The real work begins when my Masters are awake.”

A shot of the sun disappearing over the horizon. Darkness settles. The shadows grow until there’s nothing but.

Inside the Manor, the servant walks into a dark room decorated by dust and cobwebs. He is holding a candle and has an excited look about him as he stands between two coffins. One is about the size you’d expect for a regular human, the other maybe twice as wide and thick and deep. Both are made of black Hungarian ironwood with leaden lining. Krash sets his candle down on a low table next to the larger coffin, and - after ceremoniously staring out at the ascending moon in the purplish-black sky - he begins to heave open the lid. It sits perpendicular to the base as the servant steps backwards and bows deep.

Krash: “Behold!”

Slowly, a huge, hulking, pale, and pallid figure rises from the shadowy depths of the casket. When he is standing erect, a dominating and mysterious presence, he lifts both of his arms into the air so that his cape billows and spreads, knocking Krash’s candle to the floor. The large man speaks with a thick, Nordic accent.

???: “Quick! Out! Put it out!”

The servant is indeed quick to stomp on the flames and smother them with a nearby vat of water. The large, mysterious figure looks down at the damp ground mistrustfully.

???: “Not holy water?”

Krash: “Evian.”

We cut back a few hours in time, the afternoon light shining in through the servant’s window. Krash still sits in the hot-seat, shuffling uncomfortably as his talking head continues. Another question comes from off-screen.

Director: “Can you tell me a little about your Masters?”

Krash: The Friendship Coven numbers three, not including me. I’m just a familiar, of course. First of all, there is Brjánn Baxbjarnarson… also known as Brjánn the Bastard, Lord Brjánn of Hellissandur, Icehammer, Virgin’s Bane.”

Cut to an altogether different room, where the large, pallid figure we saw rising from his casket sits on a colossal, black throne.

???: “My name is Brjánn Baxbjarnarson… also known as Brjánn the Bastard, Lord Brjánn of Hellissandur, Icehammer, Virgin’s Bane.”

The large man smiles, showing his pointed cuspids, accentuated and highlighted by his pale skin and his high, black collar. Behind him, on the wall, is a painting of him in his youth, standing in front of a burning castle and posing with a pair of stolen wives.

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “And as for how I came to be here? Well, for the good of my people, of course. The furtherment of the vampire species. And fame and fortune are a nice side hustle, too.”

As further audio from Krash’s talking head plays, we see a montage of various primary sources - newspaper articles, extracts from novels or plays, paintings (and later photographs), sculptures, etc - created by those affected by the bloodthirsty travails of the great Brjánn Baxbjarnarson.

Krash (v.o.): “Lord Brjánn was, for at least three centuries, one of the most revered and feared vampires in Northern Europe, for a time second in stature only to the great Nosferatu himself. That’s according to all reputable sources that I could dredge up. I’d like to consult the Council’s archives in Rotterdam at some point. But in the blink of an eye - after three hundred years of domination, with Virgin’s Bane using a terrified and awe-struck Iceland as a base for his operations - the Lord of Hellissandur traded Northern Europe for North America.”

Lord Brjánn sits in his throne, both casual and imposing, his pointed canines bared. It is difficult to tell if this is posturing or a threat.

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “Why did I leave? A new challenge, of course. That and to do something with Jeremy again. Iceland is my home and my kingdom, but it is an isolated place. When he asked me to come, I came. Although, I’m not really sure if he ever really did ask.”

An animated map shows a ship marked with B.B. leaving a port on the west of Iceland, travelling southwards and around the United Kingdom to London to meet another line. This one is marked J.B. and has snaked across Europe from the Middle East, and now the two lines cut swiftly across the Atlantic Ocean to port in New York.

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson (v.o.): “It was the 1970s. An exciting time for everyone. Especially for us. A new frontier and the idea that we would populate it. We were the New York Coven for a while, and we dreamed of many others sprouting up, from sea to shining sea. A few hiccups, though. The New York Blackout wasn’t great. A power outage should have been perfect, but an angry mob chased us out of the city.”

On the map, a campervan drives across the U.S. to Friendship, Indiana. When the animation ends, we’re in a different room with a different guest. This one is narrow and wiry, his pale skin outmatched only by his luminous white teeth. His smile is sharp in more ways than one.

???: “My name? Jeremy Best is what my friends call me. All of my friends now. Here. In Friendship, Indiana. Less mod cons means less craziness in a blackout. People don’t know what they’re missing.”

He smiles to himself, perhaps imagining the cheap pop upon saying his chosen home city’s name. Behind Jeremy’s chair is a portrait of four men: Lord Brjảnn, Jeremy, and a third we’re yet to meet, and then - stood a little to one side like the black sheet begrudgingly allowed into the family portrait - is Krash.

Jeremy Best: “I used to go by many names, though. I’d say I was at my peak at, oh, I don’t know…”

Best hesitates, already slowing the pace of the documentary down to a halt with his monotonous drone.

Jeremy Best: “I’d probably say it was about… 1AD, maybe. Or perhaps 1BC. Certainly around that time. That was when I was living and feeding in the Middle East, until that whole crucifixion thing. Not a huge fan of crosses. Anyway, what did they used to call me?”

Another pause. The camera crew is forced to wait as their subject engages in silent thought, tapping his chin as he dredges up the memory.

Jeremy Best: “Jeremiah Afdil was one, if I recall correctly. Or IIRC, as the kids are saying. Did I get that right? There was הטוב ביותר, also, though I’m not quite sure how I’d transliterate that for you. But those days - the wild days, the carefree, bloodthirsty days - are long behind me, really. I’d love to stay and tell you more. I’ve got quite a lot to tell, and it’s a long and thoroughly enjoyable story too. But I’m afraid I have to go to work. Maybe some other time.”

We watch as Best, dressed in a long, grey trenchcoat, white shirt, and black funeral-ish tie, arrives at the Fantasy Diner for his nightshift.

Krash (v.o.): “Mr. Best doesn’t really need as much taking care of as Lord Brjánn. He mostly keeps himself to himself. His eating habits are a lot less indulgent, too. There was a time, from what I gather, where his legend was as great and as terrible as Icehammer’s, but he’s long since settled into life as an energy vampire.”

Jeremy is behind the counter at the empty diner, sapping the energy of a co-worker.

Jeremy Best: “And that’s the great thing and friendship really, isn’t it? Don’t you think?”

He pauses for an answer that isn’t forthcoming, his young and tired co-worker yawning as he continues.

Jeremy Best: “It’s something so implacable, and yet so universal. I read this great quote once. How did it go…”

The energy vampire engages in thoughtful silence. His colleague almost drops off, awakes with a startle, blinks rapidly, shakes her head, squints, etc.

Jeremy Best: “Oh, that was it… Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It’s not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.

He smiles. The woman is too tired to notice his teeth.

Jeremy Best: “Great quote, huh? You know who said that, Elena? Hey, Elena, do you know who said that?”

Co-worker Elena: “I don’t know who said that, Jeremy.”

Jeremy Best: “That was Muhammed Ali. Who’d have thought it? Pretty wise for a pugilist. I got some other great friendship quotes, too. There’s one from Tennessee Williams, Audrey Hepburn, Charles Darwin, St. Francis de Salles, Herodotus, Maya Angelou, a few from the Bible. Lots of great quotes. I’ve got them all memorised, if you want to hear any of them. You’ve just got to ask.”

Finally, Elena relents, slumping over the counter, completely sapped of her energy. Jeremy’s grin is wild and frantic, his eyes wide as he satiates his hunger.

Back at the Manor, in the afternoon sun, Krash continues his interview. We revolve around the other subjects as they speak in turn.

Krash: “The other person in Jeremy’s photos? That’s Mr. Astor. William. I’m not really sure how he came to be part of the Coven. I don’t think he was with Lord Brjánn and Mr. Best back in Europe.”

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “William? No, I didn’t know him until I came here. He’s originally from England, apparently. But I don’t know much more than that. He came with the house.”

Krash: “Mr. Astor calls himself a financial vampire. I’m not sure if that’s an official subspecies. I can’t find anything in the records. At the very least, they’re daywalkers. Mr. Astor leaves for his day-job at the inland revenue every morning at a little before eight.”

We see a shady figure scuttling out of the house, his briefcase under his arm, drinking an Irish coffee laced with pig’s blood to get him going.

Jeremy Best: “He’s human. I’m almost sure of it. No vampire is that shady.”

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “No matter what he is, he’s not worth dinner. Would taste foul.”

With the sun now hanging low in the sky outside of his bedroom window, Krash sits in his chair, the preliminary, introductory interview (finally) reaching its conclusion.

Krash: “It is a busy life. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m the familiar for the biggest and most feared vampire coven in North America! The only vampire coven in North America, in fact! That’s something to be proud of, when you think about it.”

He smiles nervously.

Director: “Is that why you do it? For pride?”

The familiar shuffles uncomfortably under the weight of the question. It’s obvious there’s something more. He promptly decides not to bother hiding it.

Krash: “That, and an unspoken promise. The greatest gift that my Masters could ever offer me.”

With that, he stands from his chair to draw the curtains, shaking his fist at the sun theatrically as he does so.

Over breakfast, Krash announces that the Friendship Coven has received a letter with a European stamp, which he holds out to Lord Brjánn deferentially. The Lord continues to eat his blood sausage.

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “Well, go ahead. Letters generally don’t read themselves.”

The familiar opens the letter and, his hands ever-so-slightly but noticeably shaking, scans the sheet within. The other three residents at the Manor - the Lord of Hellissandur, Jeremy Best, and the Scorpion - sit around their long stone table (only recently cleaned but in need of another) and tuck into their dusk breakfast (for Brjánn and Jeremy), late lunch (for Krash - not that he ate anything), and time-appropriate supper (for William).

Krash: “It’s from Rotterdam. From the Council.”

All three of the vampires react to this proclamation in their own way. Lord Brjánn simply cocks an eyebrow. Best stops chewing, stares up at the familiar, and gulps down his food ominously. The Scorpion stands up from his chair, rather suddenly and as if ready to defend himself.​

-----​

[for the following sequence, cthulhu’s nephews kindly allowed the filmmakers to access nephew-familiar-body-cam footage and record an e.v.c. council meeting, as well as assisted in collecting cctv footage from surrounding municipalities.

this was done under the proviso that the footage was kept with alphonse in the swiss vaults until such a time that all other filming for this documentary is completed.]


***​

Paris, France.
April 13th, 2023 [ONE WEEK EARLIER].

CCTV footage from the Pont d'Iéna. Chaos is erupting on the bridge. It is difficult from these pictures to pinpoint the exact cause of the commotion, but a huge amount of people - tourists, students, locals alike - are throwing themselves out of the way of, well… of nothing, really. One young man, wearing a pink tracksuit and with a frantic look of concern upon his face, strides with purpose through the clearing mass of people. He is crying out but the footage is silent.

Footage from the young man’s body camera. Most of the scene is the same, but from this new angle we can see the Eiffel Tower rearing up in front of him, and beyond that le lune… as well as three brawling figures - invisible on the CCTV pictures shown previously - that scramble in a ball of limbs across the wide road. A family of tourists scatter as the three fighters bundle into and through the railing.

???: “Oh shit…”

The filming follower hastens to look over the newly formed gap in the bridge’s railing, just as the figures plunge into the Seine below. The young man leans over, looking down into the water as the three plunge deeper and disappear beneath the Pont d'Iéna. The young man takes a deep breath, seemingly considering diving in after them, but apparently he thinks better of it.

Back to the CCTV footage as the young follower - along with a hundred or so bystanders now embroiled in the ongoing drama - stares down into the river. Until, all of a sudden, they turn in unison, water thrown up in geiser-like columns from the Seine, the disruption not apparent on the silent and static picture.

From the young man’s perspective, though, we see the three figures emerge from the river and land on the Pont d'Iéna again. One of them, a youngish looking pale woman with short and untidy blonde hair falling in tangles to her shoulders, strikes one of the others with a knee in the sky. The stocky man lands with a thud on the concrete in front of the follower, and across the road the pallid woman comes down atop her second assailant, driving him deep into the tarmac with a vile and vicious footstomp. The pale woman stands, her black cloak unfurling and gently wafting in the Parisian wind, and dusts herself off. The other approaches.

???: “They’ll be awake again soon unless we cut off their heads. Did you bring my sword, Gerald?”

The servant looks down, his body camera following his gaze, as he unsheaths a long katana, the cold steel glimmering in the pale moonlight.

Gerald: “Where did they come from? Not European, if they were that unfriendly to the Council.”

The other has already walked off, the sword in her hand, approaching the larger of their two foes.

Gerald: “Michelle?”

The familiar scurries after her.

Gerald: “Lady Dreamer? Did you hear me?”

The Dreamer: “I’d say they were American, tulip. Pretty undisputed. Judging by the cologne, the clothes, the general thuggish demeanour. The smarmy one’s flirting. All those crotch chops. All of it points to the new world.”

Gerald: “Someone’s making new vampires in the States?”

Michelle hacks off the head of the felled savage, Gerald lingering nearby but a little too perturbed by the preceding chaos to help with the clean-up.

The Dreamer: “Seems that way. And, seeing as there’s only one brood scratching out a living out there, I have a pretty good guess as to who that is.”

She turns towards her familiar, holding up the severed head of the American vamp.

The Dreamer: “Open your bag.”

***​

Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
April 13th, 2023 [LATER THAT DAY].

Within the chambers of the European Vampire Council, the Lady Dreamer and her familiar, Gerald, arrive just in time for an emergency summit. The meeting is well-attended, with almost all of the pale and ghoulish beings present dressed in a mixture of black and pink, the coupling of tracksuit and cape apparently in vogue amongst this unit. The returning envoys to Paris take their place in the chamber, the meeting’s randomly assigned chair - Thomas West, in this instance, who was dressed in a plush indigo cape with a high, black collar atop his hot pink tracksuit - opened up proceedings.

The Host: “Thank you for coming here today, from your own disparate corners of the continent, to discuss two great and pressing issues that come to us from the new world. To get down to business, as they say, the first issue is the annual ‘Canine Contendership’ Mass Hunt, which the organisers have again insisted on hosting over in the States. Some place called Nashville, allegedly. Sounds frightful.”

The Maid: “I went once. To Nashville, I mean. I’ve been to the Mass Hunt a lot more than once.”

The Silence: “.... … ………. ….?”

The Maid: “The same as the rest of the country. New and shiny and graceless. Every time I go, I’m glad to come home.”

The HORROR: “Couldn’t have said it better myself, Nephew!”

The meeting’s chair shuffles in the centre of the horseshoe, clearing his throat in an attempt to bring the Council back to some sort of order.

The Host: “Then I’m sure, Maid, that you won’t wish to put your name forward to be our representative at the hunt?”

The HORROR:Representative? Singular? Nonsense! We’ll all go!”

There’s an affirmative murmur amongst the rest of the Council. The chair, however, shakes his head, his pointed cuspids visible as he grimaces.

The Host: “Not this time, I’m afraid. The organisers are insisting upon each brood sending at most one representative to this year’s hunt. They’re capping the field at thirty.”

General outcry and uproar.

The Host: “I know, I know… I think it’s ridiculous, too. It’s meant to be the biggest virgin hunt of the year, and they’re capping it at thirty? But that’s the ruling. No reason we can’t go as moral support, though. My initial thought was that the Lady should go.”

Dreamer is sitting at the edge of the horseshoe, her familiar looming above her in his attentive, almost lapdoggish fashion. It is unclear at first whether she is even listening, until slowly she shakes her head.

The Dreamer: “I’ve got my own business to attend to. Though it’s in the same place. Gerald, if you would empty your bag.”

The familiar walks into the centre of the horseshoe, the chair standing aside to give him the floor, as he pours the contents of his rucksack onto the white-stone floor. Two heads roll around at his feet.

The Dreamer: “This alliance came to our shores to wreak havoc and challenge our claim. As you can see, we have since put them in their place, but this affront throws up some interesting questions. They shared our blood, though it was younger and warmer. And they came from the new world, where the only known coven is our slack-jawed brethren in Friendship.”

The HORROR: “You think old Baxbjarnarson’s been siring?”

The Silence: “.....’. ……. …”

The Dreamer: “Not sure. But I’d like to find out. I’ll take Gerald with me, of course. But I could use more hands. No offence, Harry. The Maid and the Avatar would be my first choice.”

The HORROR’s familiar clenches his artificial hand and narrows his eyes.

The HORROR: “Wounded that you wouldn’t take me, Nephew. But perhaps you’re right. My inherent glowing warmth is perhaps not right for this specific context.”

The Maid and the Avatar nod in Dreamer’s direction, the party set and the mission laid out before them.

The Host: “That leaves only the small matter of the hunt.”

From the other edge of the horseshoe, the sound of two knives being scraped against one another - sharpening each other in the process - punctures the ensuing silence. All eyes (and eye-like organs) are drawn onto her: the sullen and sombre huntress, staring down at the floor with a dull and passive countenance. Her black and white scales shimmer under the chamber’s dim candlelight.

The Huntress: “I’ll go.”

She thrusts her daggers - silver-bladed, a rare tool for one of their kind to call their ally - back into the sheaths at her sides. The act seems somewhat decisive.

The Host: “I guess that’s decided, then.”

Before their departure from the meeting, the Lady von Horrowitz turns to her familiar, a determined expression on her face.

The Dreamer: “Send a letter to the Friendship ‘Coven’ and tell them to expect us. Inform them that our visit is to inspect the progress they’ve made in the conquering and colonisation of the new world. Sign my name but in your blood. Pack bags for the Huntress, the Maid, the Avatar, and myself, and then meet us at the harbour. Understood?”

The familiar nods, feeling the moment’s urgency stirring compliance within him.

The Dreamer: “Okay, bat!”

The Avatar:Bat!”

The Maid:Bat!

The Huntress: Bat!

With this sudden, synchronised, simultaneous outburst, the four women transfigure into four black bats, and take off into the night in the direction of the Atlantic. Gerald takes a deep, calming breath, before disappearing to begin his work.​

-----​

We return to the dining room. Our traditional, emotional, and financial vampires still staring at their familiar with mouths agape at his sudden, unexpected declaration.

William Astor: “The fuck do the Council want?”

Jeremy Best: “Doesn’t seem like any time at all since we last saw them. And, for once, those are friends I’d rather leave un-reunited.”

The Lord’s tone was hopeful.

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “Maybe they’re coming for an orgy?”

We are back in Brjánn’s private quarters, where the Lord of Hellissandur sits in front of his self-portrait, delivering his talking head interview.

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “I am excellent at orgies. I was renowned for it back in Iceland, but unfortunately I don’t get much opportunity to sharpen those talents here in Friendship. Maybe back in New York City. But that was part of the reason we were chased out. But I’ve made a name for myself in clusterfucks.”

As he speaks, illustrations in pencil (taken from A History of the Orgies of the Nordic People, written by Baxbjarnarson himself) depicting decadent and debaucherous acts flash up on the screen. When Icehammer has finished blowing his own trumpet (and showing his doodles of other people blowing it for him), we are back at the breakfast letter-reading.

Krash: “It says they’re coming to the States. To Friendship. They want a progress report. On the forty-sixth anniversary of your arrival in the new world, tulips, the European Vampire Council seeks an audience for an update as to your progress pertaining to the conquering and colonisation thereof. It’s signed by Dreamer herself. Not that she needed the signature, what with all the tulips.”

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “Good job we already ate that Reagan kid before we got this letter. Would’ve hated it.”

Jeremy Best:You ate him. We just drank a little of his blood.”

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “Philosophical difference.”

William Astor: “When are they coming? How long do we have to prepare?”

Krash: “Tomorrow.”

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson:Tomorrow?”

Krash: “April 21st. Apparently, the postal system isn’t the most efficient way to send word from Europe in 2023.”

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “Well, that settles it. A strong meal and then to bed. I’ll be rested for their arrival, at least. Maybe I’ll have those two Korean boys we captured for dinner.”

Jeremy Best: “I’ll feed at work.”

William Astor: “I’ll feed myself.”

All of a sudden, the familiar was left in the dining room with the hungry Lord.

Krash: “I’ll go and fetch the Koreans.”

***

Part Two.
”What We Do In The Shadows.”
or: ‘Gerald Grayson: familiar with match focus.’
or: ‘The Meat of the Matter.’
or: ‘The Travails of Lord Brjánn Baxbjarnarson of Hellissurdor, Jeremiah Afdil, הטוב ביותר, and William Astor the Scorpion as they skirt the circumference of conquering and colonisation.’
or: ‘This Title Was Too Long (So Now It’s Shorter)’.

The next day, a UPS truck arrives outside the Manor, and then a short time later a motorbike. The late afternoon sun is high in the sky. The biker, wearing hot pink leathers, steps off his vehicle and removes his helmet, receiving the arriving moustached, malformed familiar on the Manor driveway.

Krash (v.o.): “The Council’s familiar was exactly as I expected him to be. Daring and diligent, in equal measures. I guess there’s a lot I could learn from him. Gerald is essentially the leading familiar in the whole of the western world, which has to count for something.”

We see Krash and Gerald shaking hands, each of them shielding their eyes from the unfamiliar sun, and then - in montage - they go about removing a trio of coffins from the back of the van and hauling them into the Manor.

Krash (v.o.): “They arrived at a little after one, which meant that my Masters were resting. William was at work. But, fortunately, the same was true of Gerald’s masters, too. The Council would wake from their slumber when the moon was in the sky, an arrangement I was grateful for. Hosting the familiar was an intimidating enough experience in itself.”

The three coffins are brought down into a windowless basement room hitherto (ostensibly) used for storage. Gerald and Krash carefully position the third and final casket next to the other two and, on the other side of it, a disused stairmaster that William bought but never really got into.

Krash: “It’s been a bit of a whirlwind: finding out you were coming, and then the battle to make sure that everything was ready. It hasn’t really had a chance to settle in. It’s always been a dream of ours to host you here at the Manor.”

Gerald: “A dream?”

The Council’s familiar was smiling. It appeared he approved of the moustached man’s choice of words.

Krash: “A dream, and - of course - a nightmare. The Friendship Coven and the European Vampire Council are each respected upon their own continents, ruthless and revered. Some would say they are the two most feared groups in the world: the most powerful broods in North America and Europe respectively.”

The other continues to smile. The tone of his response is polite, but this gentle manner does little to conceal the thinly veiled barbs present in his words.

Gerald: “Europe is where the Council is based, but the fear and respect that it commands is not confined by lines on a map. North America is different in many ways now to when you first came here, but in the most important way it is the same. Your purpose here was conquering and colonisation. Remaining the largest brood in North America without every adding to your numbers isn’t all that hype.”

Krash shuffles uncomfortably, his posture growing ever more hunched and weighted.

Krash: “Well, there’s William.”

The other familiar pauses. His smile turns into a sneer.

Gerald: “Yes, the daywalker. I’m sure that the Council looks forward to meeting him when they wake.”

Krash: “Let me show you to your room.”

Gerald, still holding his helmet beneath his arm, shakes his head furiously.

Gerald: “No, I’ll sleep here. Protection is part of a familiar’s duty.”

The moustached man smiles weakly. Double thumbs up. Finger guns. When he leaves the room, the other climbs up onto the middle coffin, curls up into a ball, and then falls into an uneasy sleep.

***

Jeremy Best:Of course we should wake them! I don’t think they’d be too happy if we didn’t.”

The three Friendship vampires are garrisoned in the Lord’s chambers. Brjánn is lounging in a relaxed and nonchalant manner in his black throne, in front of his portrait of himself. The familiar is standing at his shoulder, his arms folded, fretting, a nervous edge upon him. William sits by an open window, the moon rising in its frame, a cigar perched in his lips.

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “Leave it to their familiar. I’m sure he knows their plans. Stop worrying.”

Jeremy Best: “I just want to make sure that we make a good first impression. This is a big opportunity for us.”

With a sigh, the Lord rises to his feet, cutting a hulking figure as he gives orders to his brood.

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “Okay, fine. Krash, go and fetch seven glasses of blood. The freshest batch. The pigs’ will have to do. I’m sure they won’t even be able to tell the difference. Then we’ll find the familiar and see if the Council is ready to be welcomed. Sound good?”

The familiar nods his head dutifully and limps across the room, but as he opens the chamber door he is greeted by three pale women and their already-familiar familiar.

Krash: “Um, I think they are ready to be welcomed, sire.”

A short time later, the Council sit alongside the Friendship Coven around the stone table in the Manor’s dining room. The moustached servant arrives with goblets for each of their guests. Jeremy seems nervous and, for once, is unable to formulate small-talk with these potential new friends. Instead, he simply glances at each of them anxiously as they sniff and then sip at their ruby red drinks.

The Maid: “Pig’s blood, of course.”

The Avatar: “A shame.”

The Dreamer: “Yes, but a lot of broods on our side of the Atlantic are having to find creative ways to stay hydrated now, too. The world has changed.”

She shrugs, and takes a long pull from her glass.

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “We have dinner planned, too, of course. A special something I’ve been saving for quite some time. But we wanted to oblige your request for a progress report at the earliest possible opportunity, if it should please your leader.”

The Dreamer: “The Council has no leader.”

The Avatar: “We are an anarchist collective with no appointed first.”

The Maid: “The Council opposes hierarchical systems.”

The Coven recoil at their bristling guests. Jeremy’s sweat glands are active for the first time in a couple of centuries. He manages a pair of short, stuttered sentences.

Jeremy Best: “We can eat first. If you’d prefer.”

The Dreamer: “The blood will do for now. Please, go ahead. We are interested to know how the conquering and colonisation has been going. It’s been nearly fifty years, after all.”

Jeremy Best: “Well, how far do you want us to go back? Do you want to hear about our friends Nathan and Jack?”

The Lord’s response is perhaps a little too quick.

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “I don’t think they want to hear about our friends Nathan and Jack, Jeremiah.”

The Dreamer: “Well, tell us something we would want to hear about, Icehammer.”

After a moment of thought…

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “I don’t think I have to remind you of the H1...”

As the H1 is mentioned, we cut away from the gathering and to Krash, sitting in his room and giving another talking head. This time, the hovering moon has replaced the sinking sun in the sky.

Krash: “The object of the Hunt was simple.”

We cut to a series of puppets, dancing amongst a huge expanse of forestland around a small town. These marionettes, two of them instantly recognisable when they appear on screen, act out the familiar’s description of the H1. We are informed in the corner of the screen that this is only a reconstruction and not the real deal.

Krash (v.o.): “Capture as many targets as you could in the forty-eight hour timeframe. There were other hunters too, though, and if - by a cruel twist of fate - one managed to snare another, they added their captive’s collected souls to their own total. Brjánn performed in a predictably admirable and brutal fashion, though he was felled in the final hours of the competition by Dreamer herself, who would go on to win the Hunt with his scalps on her belt.”

Back at dinner, Michelle sips at her pig’s blood with a wry smile on her face.

The Dreamer: “I’d have thought you might’ve needed the reminder. That didn’t turn out so well for you, in the end.”

The Maid: “A little honour earned, maybe.”

The Avatar: “Honour in defeat, though.”

The Dreamer: “Worst kind of honour.”

It’s clear that the Lord regrets bringing the whole affair up, and attempts to re-seize control of the dialogue.

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “Say what you will, the H1 propelled me into that business with Little Lizzie. And that is what really won me the respect of the North American people.”

As Brjánn the Bastard tells the tale, the events are re-depicted in claymation, text in the corner again reminding us that this is a reconstruction. The sequence begins with a gargantuan kaiju-Brjánn towering above the tallest skyscrapers in a modern, nameless American city. From over his shoulder, we see a young woman marching towards him with her fists clenched at her side and a face like thunder.

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson (v.o.): “I might have had the size advantage, but Little Lizzie had a black hole heart. That thing weighed as much as a thousand suns. She’d earned herself a bit of a reputation fighting monsters in the past. The continent’s champion, they called her.”

Little Lizzie’s eyes glow red, fire roars from her mouth, and she leaps up towards her foe. Her attack is thwarted, though, and the girl finds herself caught in the pincers of a scorpion.

We return to the dining room.

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “I couldn’t have done it without William, of course. But that’s what friends are for.”

Jeremy Best: “You do listen.”

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “No choice, a lot of the time. Anyway, I punted Little Lizzie into another universe and left the continent without a champion. I became its champion.”

The guests don’t seem overly impressed.

The Dreamer: “A champion indeed. Beating the people’s hero on the people’s turf is always admirable, Lord Brjánn, but this story essentially amounts to you frightening and overcoming a little girl named Elizabeth. You weren’t sent here to become the continent’s champion, Icehammer. You were sent here to conquer it.”

Another stony silence. Jeremy now sits in a puddle of his own sweat. He reaches around in desperation for something to say.

Jeremy Best: “Well, there’s the prisoners.”

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “What about them?”

Jeremy Best: “The caves below this place are full of prisoners. Most of them caught on one night, too.”

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “The carnival was quite special. The moon was so large…”

We cut to a huge animated moon hovering in a purple sky. One more reconstruction, according to the text in the lower right corner of the screen.

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson (v.o.): “They had a boxing ring at the carnival and a cash giveaway for anyone that could beat this dancing strong-man over three rounds. We watched a whole host of them try. There were the Koreans, the carpenters from north of the border, the ones that went crazy after capture, spouting about alternate realities and other such garbage, the Wiccans... quite an oddball collection, really.”

As Brjánn continues to narrate, we see animated representations of this peculiar collective entering the boxing ring and attempting to overcome the travelling strongman. The professional also has a moustache, and makes short work of his enterprising opponents with his gloved and fast hands.

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson (v.o.): “The rest, they say, is history.”

In the dining room, Jeremy cocks an eyebrow in the Lord’s direction.

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “You’re not going to tell the whole story? About how we ended up with all the contestants and the strongman in the caves beneath the Manor?”

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “I don’t like long stories.”

Jeremy blinks. It’s clear that he disagrees. All good stories can be longer.

The Dreamer: “A minor success, but limited in scope. I have to be honest, gentlemen. This isn’t very much at all. The only thing you’ve managed to achieve of note, as far as I can see, is William, here. Who is pretty impressive for a daywalker, but hardly a sufficient return for fifty years of toil.”

It is the Coven’s turn to bristle. A flash of anger passes over Brjánn the Bastard’s pale face. His pointed canines flare.

Brjann: “Posturing. That’s all this is. What have you ever done, to feel so confident in passing judgement on us?”[/b][/color]

Dreamer smiles. She enjoys the outburst immensely. Some fire to warm her cold blood, finally.

The Dreamer: “You mean besides capturing you at the H1?”

Icehammer quietly seethes. Gerald and Krash both shuffle uncomfortably, uneasy around the tension. Jeremy continues to sweat. William lights a cigar.

The Dreamer: “Well, there were the Tag Wars, of course. I’m sure you’ve heard of them. Eight weeks of bloody battles, with myself and my familiar standing alone at the end of it. And then there’s the bloodbath that I believe they call the Mile High Massacre. Word gets around, doesn’t it? And that’s only the last half a year, gentlemen. We’ve been doing this sort of thing for a long time.”

She sips at her drink, comfortable in her hosts’ discomfort.

The Dreamer: “Now how about some dinner?”

***

The camera is left in the corner of the dining room. It is still turned on (perhaps accidentally) but is discarded for the moment, as we hear two muffled voices speaking to one another. One is clearer than the other.

Director: “Where’s the camera?”

Cameraman: “I left it inside.”

Director: “Okay. Hopefully they don’t try to eat it.”

Cameraman: “You got a spare?”

Director: “You started smoking, Jon?”

Cameraman: “It’s pretty tense in there.”

The sound of a lighter sparking a few times is heard, and then - as the two filmmakers slowly inhale from their smokes - the camera is somewhat unexpectedly picked up. The Maid looks down into the lens, smiles at the viewer, and then points the camera out of a nearby window. The cameraman and the director - along with a silent sound guy - stand at the end of the driveway, staring at the enlarged, pale moon. The latter still has his microphone switched on and we can hear their conversation as a result. The cameraman shakes his head.

Cameraman: “You certain we don’t have enough stuff filmed already? Between this and the Europe trip, I think we got it.”

Director: “We need to see them feeding. We came all this way. We’ve got to get the money shot.”

Cameraman: “I don’t know, Joe. The young ones keeps looking at me. Licking her lips.”

The director lets out a nervous chuckle.

Director: “You’re imagining things.”

Cameraman: “The Indianans were bad enough, but I sort of got the impression from them that their bark was worse than their bite…”

Director: “Like you were never really in danger, so long as you kept your wits about you. Yes, I felt that too.”

Cameraman: “But the council has me spooked. I have to keep looking up from the viewfinder to check nothing’s taken a bite out of me.”

The director looks his cameraman up and down. He’s shaking but it isn’t that cold.

Director: “Get a hold of yourself. I thought you said you were going to hug them?”

Cameraman: “I don’t remember saying that at all.”

Director: “What do you think, Jam?”.

The sound technician says nothing. He continues to look at the moon. After one last, long, thoughtful drag, the director throws his cigarette into a nearby drain.

Director: “Come on. Let’s finish up.”

As the two filmmakers walk back up the drive, the Maid places the camera back into the corner of the room.

***

We return to an image of Krash, sitting in his room to give one last talking head. It is still dark outside, and the intermittent bumps and bangs that we hear emanating from downstairs suggest that the tense dinner party is still transpiring.

Krash: “We shouldn’t be gone too long. They’ll probably need me downstairs.”

The director speaks from off-camera.

Director: “How do you think it’s going?”

Krash: “Could be better.”

The familiar smiles awkwardly.

Krash: “Look, this isn’t exactly new territory. My masters aren’t the best at first impressions. There’s a whole list of people who get the wrong idea about Lord Brjánn when they first meet him. Sometimes, whole villages can get up in arms about him before they really get to know what he’s like. Who he really is. They hear the nickname Virgin’s Bane and they run a mile. Even my own family…”

A pause. Krash’s voice trails off.

Director: “Does your family know you’re here?”

He nods his head.

Krash: “They know I’m here. They aren’t too happy about it. Every day I get letters pleading with me to come to Australia. They think I’ve been brainwashed or kidnapped or something. They don’t really understand that I want to be here. Or maybe it’s why I want to be here that they don’t understand. Is what it is. They don’t know what’s at stake.”

More bumping and banging from downstairs.

Krash: “They’re getting restless. I think it’s dinner-time.”

We cut to downstairs, where Jeremy and William remain with the Council and their familiar. Lord Brjánn and Krash have disappeared into the caves to fetch the food. Dreamer looks around at the drab and minimalistic interior of the Manor. She seems uninspired.

The Dreamer: “Do you have a library here?”

Jeremy Best: “The Lord isn’t really much of a reader.”

The Dreamer: “Unsurprising.”

Jeremy Best: “I have my own personal collection. You’re welcome to take a look. Have you ever heard of Barbara Cartland? I have lots of her books.”

At that moment, Icehammer and his familiar return, leading a naked, tired, and confused man on a chain into the dining room. He has the look of one who was once muscular and athletic, but has spent a period of time on the shelf and let himself go. His untidy hair is wild and untamed, his moustache ragged and fibrous. But still, despite the disrepair that his apparent captivity has allowed his body to slide into, there is a vague, distant glow about him that even the camera picks up.

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “Please, tuck in.”

[thirty minutes later.]

The dining room has quickly been transformed into a vomitorium. This is not a voluntary arrangement. Both the Council and the Coven sit around the low, stone table, having turned from a ghoulish white into a ghoulish pale green, massaging their stomachs and intermittently adding to the puddles of sick that have accumulated around them.

The Dreamer: “This meat is bad.”

The Maid: “Infected.”

The Avatar: “Was this guy even a virgin?”

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson: “He talked like one. Danced like one. Certainly fought like one.”

Dreamer’s eyes narrow.

The Dreamer: “Looks can be deceiving.”

Gerald: “My grandfather used to say that you should never judge a book by its cover. And that’s how he lost his job as chairperson of the Raleigh Annual Book Cover Awards.”

The Dreamer: “Sometimes, though, a cover can tell you enough. Like in the case of our conquerers and colonisers, here. I think we have certainly seen enough, even if we haven’t eaten enough.”

Here, Michelle gives a side-eyed glance to the cameraman, the sound technician, and the director. When she turns back towards the Friendship Coven, the filmmakers take a nervous step away.

The Dreamer: “It’s clear that your mission has failed. Your successes are trivial, and your failures are evident in the meek and submissive way that you hide in this Manor. You’ve brought shame to the underworld, and the name that you carried with you from the old world to this new one.”

As she speaks, Dreamer seems to grow in size until her shadow swallows even the Lord whole. He sits next to Jeremy and, fear beginning to smother the pair of them for the first time in centuries, they slowly recede from their accuser and into a nervous hug that brings with it only false comfort. The Lady smiles. And, when the Friendship vampires attempt to relinquish their embrace and recede further, they find that they cannot. They are held in place, their arms folded around one another, by an invisible force that - judging by their perplexed expressions - neither can immediately explain.

Jeremy Best: “Are you doing this?”

Brjánn Baxbjarnarson:Of course they’re doing this.”

The Dreamer: “Just a little something that Uncle’s familiar whipped up. He’s a dab hand with potions. We put it in your drinks. You should be more comfortable.”

Out of nowhere, the Lord’s familiar sprung into action, diving at Dreamer in a silent and swift motion. She met him with a forearm so hard that, as he flew through the air, his soul left his body and floated into an alternate dimension. Visions swirled around him of Dreamer pinning him, only a much stronger, more athletic, more virile version of him, in a wrestling ring in a rundown warehouse.

In Friendship, he hit the ground hard and was knocked out.

The filmmakers have backed up into the corner of the room, and only now - with the familiar unconscious and two of the three vampires unable to move a muscle, struggling impotently against each other’s arms, tied around them like thick rope - do the Council’s eyes settle on the two men behind it.

The Dreamer: “Are you still hungry, William?”

We realise that the Scorpion still has full control of his limbs and his faculties.

William Astor: “I could eat.”

She smiles, approvingly.

The Dreamer: “The food is much better over in Europe. Gerald, start gathering our things. We’ll leave after dinner.”

The dutiful and diligent familiar nods before removing himself from the room. The three women encroach on the cameraman, who drops his tool in fright as the Council pounce like hungry predators. The camera watches listlessly, motionless, as they feed for a second time. The Friendship Coven struggle helplessly as three more human bodies are reduced to stripped piles of bones.

Eventually, the Maid picks up the camera.

The three women, the Scorpion, and Gerald the familiar assemble outside the burning Manor. The Council nods to the masked man sitting in the driver’s seat of their van, which is still parked outside of the building. As the Lady and the Avatar climb back into their coffins, loaded into the back of the vehicle, Gerald mounts his motorbike and kicks up the stand. He gets a head start, turning his bike around and heading for the Atlantic. The Maid climbs into the back of the van, sitting on her coffin and filming out of the back window as the flames lick higher and higher into the penetrating night. She feels safe in the shadows.​
 
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Exile Chronicles (Volume 5)
Chapter 19: Bearing the Burden of the Light

The world we see as we open our eyes is not a kind one, or generous one.

1682213394751.png


Despite it being the dawn, the world around us seems almost devoid of color, of anything vibrant or alive. Dark, ominous clouds and gnarled, leafless trees. Fields of ash and soot as far as the eye can see. What buildings standing tall amidst this seemingly ceaseless barren wastes are carved of stone, but crumbling and rotting from decay, neglect, and time. The cawing of crows pecking at what little meat hangs off the bones of the long-forgotten and forsaken dead breaks the silence of the morning.

Our focus shifts to…well, one could call it a village, but a hovel would be more apt. The buildings here are just as ruined and rotten as the large stone monuments beyond, but we do see the shuffling of ragged humans, cautiously exiting their homes to take on whatever hardships the day has for them.

A bell rings clearly towards the southern edge of the village, but the villagers pay it no mind. Several even roll their eyes as they cough, spit, and derisively scowl before moving on to whatever work or escape they can find before night falls again.

The ringing draws our attention to what looks like a chapel. Though it looks as miserable as all the other buildings around it, the stone that makes up this structure is somewhat more sound and sturdy, indicating that someone has done their best to maintain the chapel in spite of the world literally decaying around it. We zoom inside, where we see a figure wearing a roughspun gray tunic tugging at a rope, ringing a bell at the top of the chapel’s belfry. This man is older, arthritic, and even as he dutifully rings the bell? It’s obvious that it’s taking everything he has to do so.

Eventually, this old priest stops ringing the bell, though whether it’s due to nobody heeding the call to worship and prayer or due to him being unable to ring it any longer is difficult to tell. Regardless, as the priest wheezes and coughs a sickening rasp, he looks out towards the entrance leading into the chapel…and waits. And waits and waits.

Nobody enters, and the expression on the priest’s face is one of utter sadness and defeat.

But then…

*SLAM*

The rain and mold-soaked door opens with force, startling the priest. Collecting himself, the elderly chaplain looks up to see who’s entering.

He sees a figure clad in rusted, patched over iron armor. The figure is gaunt, so wiry that it’s hard to see how he’s able to move in such heavy garb. A helm obscures the figure’s face, save for the eyes. Eyes that pierce, but carry a great and terrible burden. Eyes that have seen rises and falls in equal measure…the eyes of a weary warrior who might well be past his prime.

Yet…he is the only one in this hovel to answer the call.

The armored man starts to shuffle towards the priest, who moves to meet him at the altar. We see that this warrior has a heavy, pockmarked battleaxe and simple, chipped wooden shield strapped to his back. As the warrior walks ever closer, the priest croaks out:


“Pilgrim. Wh…what are you doing here?”

“Has it begun again?”


The voice of The Pilgrim is ragged, exhausted from hard living and what may well be countless battles. Victories or defeats? Perhaps both in equal measure. Regardless, the Pilgrim asks again:

“I asked you a question. Has it begun again?”

The priest swallows. The look on his face betrays his thoughts.

He doesn’t want to answer.

He’d rather be talking to anyone else.

Not out of any malice…but because he was hoping someone else would’ve answered his call.


“...Yes. The Race to Heaven has begun. The gods…they’ve decreed that the time is here. The call for warriors across the world to undertake…”

“I’m aware of what the Race is, reverend. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to take this journey.”


“Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Do you have to take this journey?”


As The Pilgrim reaches the altar, the priest standing on the slightly raised dais casts his gaze down upon this wretch. His voice is shaky, his hands tremble…time is short for this man of faith. Yet, he speaks firmly, with a tone of authority…and perhaps, a tone of concern.

“You’ve competed in this Race for years. You’ve made it to the end, yes. Ascended to Heaven for a time…but that was so long ago, and you’ve fought so many battles. I’m grateful to you for keeping the faith, shielding the Light and carrying it for all these years, but…isn’t it time to step aside? To let someone else carry the Light and take this journey? How many times must you die before you’re allowed to rest, Pilgrim?”

The Pilgrim stands there, looking at this elderly priest. This man of faith who speaks with a tone that one, at first hearing, would mistake for one of pure concern. But there’s definitely a hint, a whisper in the priest’s words that suggests that he may not have faith in this warrior anymore.

Scoffing, The Pilgrim steps onto the dais to join the priest at the altar. And very pointedly, he says:


“Well…where are they?”

The priest looks a bit stunned by that question, and The Pilgrim asks again.

“Where…are…they? You’re saying I should step down and let someone else carry the Light in the Race to Heaven, aren’t you? Where’s this warrior that can carry the Light? The paladin that can stand against the darkness and be the standard bearer for what’s right and just in a world consumed by malice and chaos? Well? Where is this warrior that can carry that weight?

“If you can tell me who they are, show me that they’re ready to walk the hard road shunned by the wicked…then so be it. But we both know they’re not going to show up. The believers have been beaten down and had their faith shaken. Warriors will embark on the Race, but not a single one will care about carrying the Light or even have the strength to do so.

“So unless you’ve been hiding them in your cellar until the gods have declared the Race, then how about you stop wasting our time? Not like either of us have much of it left.”


The priest has a flash of indignance on his face, but only briefly.

Because The Pilgrim is right, damn him.

The faith, the belief in the importance of the Light that has been carried by warriors for many years, through countless battles and Races, has faltered. While many kings, emperors, queens, and despots have arisen in the years, the state of the world is indicative of their willingness to embrace other paths, darker and more insidious paths. Even the most noble and righteous of warriors carry the seeds of malice in their hearts, and ignorantly dismiss them and allow them to fester.

Would that there could be another to carry the Light, to be the beacon that reminds the weary and downtrodden that there are those who exist who adhere to what was and what should be.

But there’s only The Pilgrim. A beaten, battle-scarred wanderer…the only one who bothered to show up and answer the call.

Resigned, the priest sighs and moves his hand across the altar, his rheumatic fingers eventually finding a switch underneath the lip of the tabernacle. The top splits slightly as the priest, reluctantly, reaches into the gap and pulls out a pendant. The icon is a sun rising over a horizon, stringed with a silver cord. If you look closely, you could almost swear that it glows with ethereal light.


“Kneel.”

The Pilgrim doesn’t bend the knee, much to the priest’s annoyance. However, he does bow his head low enough to allow the priest to put the pendant around the warrior’s neck.

“Very well, Pilgrim. Go. Make the Race to Heaven. Fight and die, like so many times before. Carry the Light, even if no one will acknowledge what it is you carry.”

The Pilgrim says nothing. He simply stands up straight, despite the fact that it’s obvious that his body aches while moving. Nevertheless, he says nothing as he turns and leaves the chapel.

His armor clangs as he walks through the village, past the curious eyes of people who have long forgotten better days, better rulers, and what the Light is and what it means to carry it. A child asks his mother about this strange Pilgrim, but she shushes him and sweeps him inside their home.

Nobody wishes him luck. Many look at him as if this was just some old joke that’s long lost any humor. But none stop him.

The Pilgrim walks off into the unknown wastes, to meet the challenge of the Race to Heaven…and to struggle once more for another chance to sit upon the throne of gods…


*******

1682213394788.png


The Pilgrim’s journey is not a short one. The wastelands that have long been left barren, battle-scarred, and desolate stretch out well beyond what the eye can see, leaving rolling fields of ash and rock and scattered remnants of conflicts and chaos. Here, monsters and demons in the guise of mortal men and women prowl for what scraps remain from the reigns of past kings and tyrants.

Nightmarish ghouls, horrific terrors, and other monstrosities beyond the terror-fueled dreams of even the most mighty of warriors are a constant source of danger. When we shift back to The Pilgrim, we see that he has found himself in a rotted, lifeless forest battling a trio of zombified, possibly lycanthropic humanoids furiously thrashing at him with claws and fangs.

The Pilgrim, shield and axe in hand, drives the weapon into the head of the first, causing it to crumble to the ground lifeless. The second tries to rush him, but he brings his shield up to block the wolf-like zombie’s bite.

However, this gives the third the opening to rake The Pilgrim across the back with its razor claws, which find an opening in his armor and draws blood.

The Pilgrim lets out a groan of pain, but quickly bashes the zombie he blocked with his shield and quickly drives the axe into the gut of the one that attacked him from behind. With that one dead, The Pilgrim quickly spins as the battleaxe, rusted and pockmarked as it is, still cleanly slices through the creature’s neck, liberating its head from its shoulders.

With the monsters dead, The Pilgrim exhales. Breathing heavily, he quickly collapses to a knee, clearly wincing beneath that armor. The claw strike from the zombie dug deeper than he had anticipated, and a steady trickle of crimson blood seeps through the gaps in his armor.

The Pilgrim drives his fist into the ground, showing obvious frustration at this turn of events. His body language speaks volumes. The frustration isn’t due to the wound…no, it’s due to being slow, to being less than observant of his surroundings. The Pilgrim is mad at himself for not being better.

Grasping the Pendent of The Light around his neck, as if it were the only thing keeping him afloat in a dark and dangerous storm at sea, The Pilgrim raises his head, scanning the dying forest for someplace where he can hole up and tend to his injuries.

Through his visored helm, he sees what looks like a small cabin that, while decrepit, seems mostly intact. Unsure if anyone or anything might be inhabiting this particular building, The Pilgrim decides that the risk is worth it. He knows that the Race to Heaven is destined to be a long and arduous event, and he can’t afford to tackle it at less than whatever his best is these days.

Slowly, but surely, The Pilgrim rises to his feet and walks, somewhat staggered, to the cabin. Approaching the door, he goes to open..

…and finds it locked.

Breathing somewhat heavily, still winded from his injury and the fight against the zombies, The Pilgrim knocks at the door, gently at first…and when there’s no reply, he knocks more forcibly. From inside the cabin, he hears a voice:


“Go away! Leave me alone! I’m warning you!”

The Pilgrim sighs and replies back:

“I’m injured. One of the undead outside got a claw strike against me, and I need to rest. I’m not here to rob you, or cause you any trouble. I just need a place to rest for the night before resuming The Race.”

“The Race to Heaven? You’re one of those reckless fools? Doesn’t matter. You need to leave! I don’t want any trouble…”

“You don’t have to be afraid. I’m not…”


The Pilgrim stops speaking, as his head starts to swim and his vision starts to blur. He’s been losing more blood than he had realized. He tries to speak again…but no words come out.

The Pilgrim slumps, as his vision fades and his world goes dark…


*******

The heat from a small hearth.

The smell of blood and stagnant water.

The Pilgrim awakens, inside the cabin he had been trying to enter. We see his armor has been removed, and our gaze scrolls over to his back, where the gashes from the zombie’s claw have been stitched and cleaned. Our focus then shifts to the fireplace, where we see a woman with short-cut, dirty blonde hair in her own makeshift brigandine tending to what smells like a simple stew.

Seeing The Pilgrim stir, she scoffs as she continues to stir the contents of the cauldron over the fire.


“I don’t know why I bothered to save your life, but you’re welcome.”

The Pilgrim groans as he reaches for his armor. The dismissive attitude of the woman turns into a medley of annoyance and concern as he grabs his helm.

“Don’t move! You don’t want to reopen your wounds, do you? Rest a bit. Night’s fallen anyway, and even a fool competing in The Race would be writing his own epitaph traveling when the sun’s set. So…rest.”

The Pilgrim, eventually, lets go of his helm. We still do not see his face as he leans back against the wall of the cabin. The woman ladles out some stew into a wooden bowl and hands it to the Pilgrim, who takes it.

“Thank you.”

“Some gratitude, huh? Well, better than nothing, I suppose.”

“Your armor…”

“What about it?”


“Are you competing in The Race?”

The woman laughs at that. She ladles out some stew for herself as she hands a spoon to The Pilgrim before grabbing one for herself.

“The Race? No…at least, not anymore. I did at one time, you know. Even make it to the end of the contest. Challenged the reigning king on the Golden Throne. Ruled for a little while as well.”

“That so?”

“What, you don’t believe me?”


“I didn’t say that.”

The woman gives the Pilgrim a slight smirk.

“You don’t remember, do you?”

“Remember what?”

“Oh, nothing. At any rate, I know you. You’re that fool Pilgrim, the one who carries The Light. The one who came out of nowhere and won The Race to Heaven so long ago. The one who reigned, and reigned for a long time.”

Both The Pilgrim and the woman pause before each takes a spoonful of stew and eats from it. The Pilgrim takes another bite as the woman just gives him a bemused look.

“You’re not denying it.”

“Why would I deny something that is Truth?”

“Because people might not believe you? Or maybe they might, but not care anymore. Maybe they believe you, but think that you admitting or talking about it doesn’t matter. After all, it’s been a while since your reign, hasn’t it?”

“It has.”

“A long time…and since then, the world’s changed. It’s always been chaotic, sure…but new kings and rulers rise like flies from a pile of shit. Some good, some evil, most of them fumbling the crown and then scrambling to get it back. It’s not boring, at the very least.”

“But…”

“But what?”


“But is it for the better?”

The woman stops mid-bite as The Pilgrim sets down his now half-empty bowl. We still don’t see his face, but his shoulders and body language speak volumes of his pain…and not just the pain from his wounds.

“I’m not fully sure why I’m doing this, you know. But I think the reason I’m competing in the Race is because…well, because there’s something telling me that I have to.”

“A bit arrogant, wouldn’t you say?”

The Pilgrim chuckles at that.

“Most certainly. I don’t deny that. To be the one who rules all, you need to be just a bit arrogant. But I’ve always believed that arrogance has to be tempered by conviction and principle. Otherwise, your pride is unearned, and it leaves you blind in one eye. You see the prize, the glory, and the prestige…but not the responsibility that comes with it.”

He grasps The Pendent around his neck, drawing the woman’s attention to it. He holds it up to give her a better look at it.

“I saw that. The Pendent of The Light. You don’t see that all too often these days. Strange though…when I was taking your armor off, I tried to lift that thing and it was incredibly heavy. Abnormally heavy.”

“That’s kind of the point. The Light is…well, it’s the existence of decency. Of honor, respect, and being able to reject the temptation to wallow and revel in wickedness. The world’s become this festering hellscape partly because so many kings and queens either can’t carry The Light and live lives worthy of it, or they simply choose not to. Either because they reject it because they think it’s pointless in pursuit of victory and glory…or they can’t carry it because their principles struggle to survive in a world where victory, even fleeting victory, is made so much easier when you don’t have to live by your principles.”


“Ha, ha, ha…so, what? Are you supposed to be the arbiter of The Light? The sole decent man in a world gone cold and dark? What, does that make you better than all the other fools and braggarts?”

The Pilgrim, face still hidden, shakes his head as evidenced by his chin swaying back and forth. He lets the Pendent rest on his bare chest, his torso riddled with the scars and marks of countless battles. Victories, defeats…both in equal measure. The Pilgrim takes a deep breath before exhaling it, an exercise he’s done countless times to ground himself, to keep his emotions in check.

“I’m nothing special. I’ve never been. And if we’re being completely honest, I’m not exactly the best person to be carrying this. I’ve been vain, arrogant, and prideful. I’ve judged others harshly for the decisions they’ve made, and for the actions that I’ve believed they should’ve taken. The only reason I’m able to carry this burden is because, regardless of my faults? I’ve always…always held true to my principles. Ever since my reign, there’s been countless times where, had I abandoned my faith, I could’ve found victory. I could've reigned again…but…then what? Nothing changes. Or if it does, are they the kind of changes that’s going to make this world better?

“You alluded to it yourself, didn’t you? Sure, the world’s constantly changing. And in some sick, twisted way? It’s certainly interesting to watch as rulers rise and fall, struggling to maintain their grasp on the Golden Throne that they’ve lusted after. But regardless of whether that constant warring is just or if stability would be better, that’s not the point. So many of these petty kings and queens…what do any of them stand for? They seek the crown, but not a single one of them wants to rule. And even if they did, what would their rule look like? How would they lead?”


The Pilgrim takes the bowl of stew at his side, now long cold, and takes a few more bites. Swallowing the last bit to empty the bowl, he leans back against the wall of the woman’s humble hovel, careful not to put too much weight on the wounds on his back.

“I hear the rumors. Even when nobody cares to listen to me anymore, that doesn’t mean I don’t listen when they speak. I know full well of the other contenders who partake in the Race to challenge the current king, who himself is new to the throne. Whispers of the resurrection of The Vox King, whose cult continue to chant his name despite him forsaking them for his own ambition. The one who inherited his crown, the Masked Marauder…a violent brute who took the throne and proved unworthy of it when he lost it to the Gilded Rot. The blustering arrogance of the Knight of the False Sun, a bastard who clamors for respect when he grants none in turn and has proven time and again to be unworthy of it. And I would be remiss to neglect the Witch of the Wilted Flower, who leads an army of witless trolls to do her bidding and take what she herself has failed to keep on her own. A sorceress whose words are powerful, but who in turn speaks and acts as if the world we’ve fought and bled in means nothing, as if we were simply pawns playing roles that some greater power demanded us to portray. Insulting…”

“Right, I know them. And they’re awful, sure…but there are others.”

“Oh yes, there are. The Smiling Paragon might have been a worthwhile ruler at one time…but you know how that story ended, don’t you? Abandoned the friend he swore to save, allowed the influence of his Festering Titan to drag him off his moral pedestal to wallow in the filth and degradation of evil. Gone is the Paragon, and in his place a Smiling Demon who will beguile you with cloying words of camaraderie…only to get you close enough to slide in the knife. And then the Jeweled Reclaimer. He may be able to bear the burden…but is he willing? A man who fights, disappears for months or years, and returns when the time is advantageous? The resolve to be the one who carries The Light is not something to be taken for granted.

“Beyond them…who’s left? A bunch of pretenders and children, who seek the Golden Throne but know little about what it would mean to sit upon it, and know nothing of having their principles tested and strained.”


The woman, having listened intently, finished her own cold stew and motions to The Pilgrim. Knowingly, he passes her his own bowl and spoon as she sets them aside to be addressed later, producing from an alcove a skin of sour wine. She takes a big swig and passes it to The Pilgrim.

“So, why you?”

The Pilgrim takes a deep drink of the bitter liquid as he tosses it back to his host.

“Why you? I can’t say that I know what you’ve had to endure ever since your fall from grace. But why do you continue to fight? You’re a king whose crown’s been broken, a knight whose armor is rusted and weathered, a fighter who carries something nobody cares about anymore. What’s the point?”

“If not me, then who?”


The woman stops mid-sip.

It was such a simple question. But the way this weary traveler said it, the weight behind it…the sense of finality and resignation, but conviction and resolve that underlines The Pilgrim’s tone. The woman looks at this battered vestige of a legacy long past, but gone is any dismissiveness or derision.

Here and now, if only in this brief moment, she sees the king he once was. And when he speaks, he speaks with a king’s tone.


“I have to continue. I’m not so foolish as to think that it will be easy. Hells, it may well be impossible. So many compete in the Race to Heaven, year after year. So many chase after the ones who came before them, hoping to achieve what those accomplished. And it’s entirely possible that this run towards the Golden Throne will fail just like so many times before. I know that. And maybe it’s arrogance on my part…to persist when everyone around me and even the world itself would rather I be silent and disappear. But…that’s not the kind of man I am. Never have been. As much as people would call my words false, the Truth is anything but. I still BELIEVE. And I’m prepared to die for my faith in what brought me to the Throne. The words of fools be damned.

“But beyond that…”


The Pilgrim rests his hand over the Pendent of The Light. It’s cold in his hand and on his bare chest.

“Nothing would make me happier than to find someone who not only could carry this…but wants to. Someone who understands that victory means nothing if it’s at any cost. That sitting on the Golden Throne is not the same thing as ruling from it. That there is value in The Light, in being willing to take the harder Road instead of stepping on the necks of your rivals to build a shortcut to the prize. That there is strength in principles, and that principles aren’t just something that you can cast aside when it’s convenient and still think that you’re the hero in your story.

“But…none have. So many have cast aside their dignity and pride to suckle at the teat of false accomplishment, content to fill their stomachs with achievements that can’t sustain their souls. And the few that could potentially bear The Light for the next generations…well, they aren’t strong enough or resolved enough to commit to it.

“So, I have to carry it. Because while I can’t say I’m a true believer, or that I'm the right person to represent this? I still believe enough that I know it matters. I have to. Otherwise, someone else would smother it. And I’m not prepared to live in a world where this becomes irrelevant.”

“Can you, though?”

The focus shifts back to the woman as she asks that question. No longer sipping the sour wine from the leather skin, no longer speaking with any sort of combativeness or cynicism in her tone. She’s…inquisitive. More curious than dismissive.

“I mean…look at you. You might have been able to kill those zombies, but fighting the other competitors in the race is another thing. You’re not what you may have been all those years ago, and you know it…don’t you? And while it’s nice to have principles, you said it yourself. They’re more than willing to throw it away to sit upon the Throne. Can you overcome that?”

“I’m not sure.”


The Pilgrim lets out a deep sigh. One of resignation, certainly…but as he continues speaking, it’s clear that it’s not out of a sense of defeat.

“I can’t say whether or not I’m enough anymore. I could lie and say I was, but I can’t just delude myself and ignore the obvious. My faith, my principles won’t abide by it. Even if I wanted to believe that victory was assured, my body is a testament to that not being the case.”

He raises his hand to his face, and while we don’t see what he’s pointing to, it’s clear to us that he seems to be pointing to some mark or scar.

“This one was from a man…a boy that I had teamed up with chasing a dream. The dream didn’t come true, and he saw fit to betray me to build his notoriety off my corpse.”

The Pilgrim then motions to a couple scars over his heart.

“These came from someone that tested me, pushed me harder to be better. I grew to care for her deeply…but she would try and tear my heart out because the lust for gold and prestige consumed her.”

The woman notes this with a bemused eyebrow arch as The Pilgrim points to a rope burn around his neck.

“I got this from some insurrectionists, who stole something they shouldn’t have. They chose to target me when I confronted them about it. They converged on me, five against one. Tried to hang me for my principles. I survived only because others like me decided to take a stand…but they’re all scattered to the winds now, leaving me in solitude.”

He holds out his hands. Around his wrists are discoloration, rings that appear to be the lasting marks of a pair of manacles.

“These? I was fighting against someone who lied, stole, and cheated their way to their fortune. When I was about to land the final blow and them for good…they cheated again. Got me convicted of a crime I didn’t commit, and escaped punishment to continue their wicked deeds.”

Finally, The Pilgrim moves his hand to his belly, which hosts a litany of scars that have long healed, but not healed well.

“And these…to be honest, I couldn’t tell you where I got these from. But I know the ones who gave them to me didn't earn them. More treachery, more deceit. This body of mine carries a lot of scars from a lot of battles, but the ones that were earned in a straight fight have become outnumbered by those that were due to duplicity.”

“This is all fascinating, but what is the point?”


The Pilgrim lets out a brief, but surprising chuckle before saying:

“Well…the way I see it? If they were able to do this much to me, why haven’t any of them been able to kill me? If this is the worst they can do to me…then there’s still a chance I can survive. And if I can survive? Then there’s a chance I can survive to the end of The Race.”

“Maybe.”

“But?”

“But…the odds are against you.”

“I know. But death doesn’t frighten me. Submitting to darkness and the wills of the wicked? That’s the only thing that scares me.”


Darkness has fully fallen outside of this little cabin in the middle of this haunted woods. The fire in the hearth is now reduced to flickers and embers. There’s a smile on the woman’s face as she and The Pilgrim continue to talk for a while, but we do not hear their conversation.

Time passes. And morning comes. Despite the overcast, enough light peers through to dispel the night. We see the door of the cabin open as The Pilgrim, in full armor and helm, walks with a bit more strength and balance than he did when he first knocked on this door.

The woman stands in the doorway as The Pilgrim turns to face her.


“Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“And also…I finally remember you.”


The woman looks a bit surprised at that…but her shock gives way to a look of acceptance and acknowledgement.

“I was wondering if you had truly forgotten.”

“I never forget. Sometimes, it just takes me a minute to remember things. Even the important things. So…are you ever going to compete in another Race to Heaven?”

“Who can say? These are strange times.”

The woman crosses her arms, almost defensively before she asks:

“Not that I need it or expect it...but just because I have to know. Can you forgive me?”

The Pilgrim puts his right hand over his heart and nods.

“I already have. A long time ago.”

Without another word, The Pilgrim turns on his heel and walks off. The woman watches him until he vanishes among the dead and twisted forest before turning back and closing the door to her cabin behind her…

*******

The journey to The Race’s finish line is arduous.

As more and more travelers, warriors, and monsters converge on the final destination, The Pilgrim hears more about the actions and confrontations of his rivals.

The Witch of the Wilted Flower came into confrontation with the Knight of the False Sun. The Knight dismissed her and thought her weak, and he would end up paying the price as her army of trolls descended upon him, ripping him apart and devouring his flesh and bones. However, the young prince that she had ensorceled, who stood by her side as she committed heinous and horrific acts against the decent and honorable, broke free just long enough to drive his sword into her back. But it would cost him his own life as the witch condemned him to share her fate with another fell word, another dark spell. The two of them would die together.

The Vox King, emboldened by his own hubris and the clattering of his cult, would get far on the journey until he came across a cadre of warriors long forgotten. He fought, but his heart wasn’t strong enough to survive the onslaught. He would fall, his name left to be forgotten.

The Smiling Demon and his Titan would smash the Masked Marauder and the Jeweled Reclaimer, ending their aspirations to challenge the king who sat upon the Golden Throne and reclaim their own quickly-lost glories. However, the partnership between the Titan and the Demon would not last. After all, only one could win The Race…so it should come as no surprise that the Titan would find a knife in his own back from the man who was his closest friend. After all, the Demon learned it from him. But even such treachery would not save him from having his throat ripped out by a wolf with snowy fur…a fitting end for one who abandoned his virtue.

All of these warriors, the ones that stood the best chance of winning The Race to Heaven, fought each other as they have in the past…but none gave The Pilgrim much thought. They dismissed him, believing him a relic that has no place in the world their own hubris had built. The only warriors that cared enough to challenge him were the young and reckless, those with no prestige or accomplishment worth bleating about.

Some would face him head-on, boldly challenging the world-wearing bearer of The Light claiming that they would be the ones who would carry it into the future.

Some would ambush him from the shadows, thinking that the ends would justify their means and vindicate them in the eyes of history and the absent gods of the world.

All of them would find their confidence, their arrogance churn into vinegar in their throats…their names cast aside to the abyss, cut down with no one left to hear their voice or remember their names.

It’s a grim task that The Pilgrim takes no joy in, as he dislodges his axe from the head of a trio of upstarts that dared to challenge him. But it was a necessary one. None of them were prepared for what it meant to sit upon the Golden Throne. Their youthful rashness, their willingness to throw themselves at him thinking he was some soft target that they could use to build their reputation on was proof of that, and it would end up costing them their lives…but The Pilgrim knew full well that death, in this world, was never truly the end. He himself had died a hundred deaths, and yet he would rise again, time and again without delay.

Despite victory being a sweeter drink than defeat, The Pilgrim does take some satisfaction in the fact that no one who’s defeated him has been able to make it stick. In a dreary world like this, it was something to hold onto. As he slings the axe back across his back, he looks out to the horizon and sees the end of the road…


1682213394845.png


Nestled in a jagged and crumbling canyon, tucked away from the world at large, stood a large cathedral made of what was once polished marble. As The Pilgrim approaches, we see various statues and iconography that look like they’ve been carved into the very stone that this cathedral was built upon.

In a different time, in a different world, this cathedral would’ve been a beacon, a marvel of architecture…a place where the just and the righteous would congregate and find their faith in the better natures of humanity. But now…it looks haunted. Almost twisted by the very world that has swallowed light and decency. The icons, some of them bearing a passing resemblance to The Pilgrim’s Pendent, have been cracked and look to be crumbling. The smell of blood and decay is heavy in the air, as we see the bodies of countless warriors who came within mere inches of finishing The Race to Heaven…a testament to the rigors of this challenge.

Pausing just a moment to grasp The Pendent, The Pilgrim un-slings his axe and his shield. With his shield strapped and his battleaxe in hand, he walks towards the entrance.

Entering the cathedral, we see even more bodies and bloodstains. What glory this building might have known has long been abandoned and left to be consumed by malice and decay. Oddly, though…there is light, as small flickers of candlelight from wall sconces.

Clearly, someone…or something…is inviting travelers in.

The Pilgrim tenses up, but continues to walk. Past the aisles of pews, past the scattered pages and scrolls telling the stories of heroes and saints that have long fallen on deaf ears over the years. Cautiously, alert for any potential traps, The Pilgrim approaches the altar, and the tabernacle behind it.

Despite its current ruinous existence, the altar in this cathedral is still well and truly beyond that of the humble little church where this traveler first started on his journey. Even now, it’s a marvel, almost breathtaking. One can only imagine how glorious it must have been before the coming of the shadows. The Pilgrim, still on alert, does pause for just a second to take in the sight…

…but then, something emerges from the shadows.

From The Pilgrim’s shadow.

Long claws reach out, grasping at the floor to pull out a figure born of the very darkness itself. Its clothes are torn vestments and ragged hides. Its head, skeletal in nature, with long demonic horns jutting out. And its eyes…sunken and soulless, yet radiating with malice and a desire to kill…


1682213394869.png


The Pilgrim turns to face this creature, but he’s too slow. With one sweep of his claw, he hurls the warrior into a nearby pillar with such force that the marble cracks and pieces crumble. The Pilgrim scrambles to his feet, rolling to avoid any falling debris as he brings his shield up. Behind it, he says bitterly:

“Hello, there. Been a while, hasn’t it?”

The creature roars as it rushes The Pilgrim. This time, the warrior is able to block its attack with his shield…barely. It’s obvious that this creature is far stronger than The Pilgrim, as it continues to hammer away at him with frenzied strikes.

The Pilgrim, planting his feet, attempts to bat away one of the strikes to give himself an opening to strike, and for a moment it looks as if he’s successful. However, as he goes to swing, the creature makes an otherworldly leap away from his axe, putting some distance between it and its prey. Screeching, it charges with its head lowered, as if to gore its victim. Knowing full well he can’t block that, The Pilgrim dodge rolls out of the way…only to be greeted with a back swing from one of the creature’s long, gangly arms that sends him flying back-first into the altar.

The Pilgrim’s pain is evident as the armor only provides some protection, and we see another trickle of blood seep out from the seams as the creature turns its head. Its jerky movements and unsettling stances are straight out of a nightmare as it looks like it’s almost relishing the pain it’s inflicting. As The Pilgrim gets to his feet, he brings his shield up again, albeit a touch slower as he shouts out.


“What’s the matter? You think YOU can finally lay me to rest? Well, I’m right here. I’m not like other champions, wretch…I’m not actively seeking my end. And this sure as hell isn’t the first time we’ve had this dance. Come and take me, if you can!”

The creature, seemingly understanding this taunt in spite of its frenzied nature, screams again…this time? It’s loud enough to shatter the remnants of the cathedral’s stained glass windows. It rushes again, as The Pilgrim ducks and dodges the creature’s claws. The Pilgrim swings his axe, and finally lands a slash on the creature’s thigh. It roars in pain as it brings its hands together and slams down HARD. The Pilgrim’s too hurt to dodge, so he instinctively brings his shield up to block it. However, while he’s able to bring his shield up between him and the creature’s attack, the sheer force of the blow causes his legs to buckle and the stone beneath his feet to splinter and crack.

Without a moment’s hesitation, the creature continues to hammer…again and again and AGAIN. Knowing he can’t endure this, The Pilgrim attempts to roll to the left to escape this pin…but the creature’s too quick as he delivers a kick right into The Pilgrim’s gut. We see droplets of blood mist out of The Pilgrim’s helm as the wind was literally knocked out of him, leaving him wide open for another claw strike…

…right to the head.

The Pilgrim’s helm SHATTERS like glass, but before we can get a proper look at his face, the creature grabs him, enveloping his throat and the lower half of his head. The pressure threatens to pop it like a tomato as the creature picks him up to where both monster and warrior see one another, eye-to-eye.

Slightly muffled, The Pilgrim still speaks defiantly.


“You think I’ve forgotten what you are? Even after all these years, I know you.”

The creature roars in his face. And while it’s impossible to tell if it was intentional, the creature’s expression almost looks smug, as if it's relishing its apparent victory and The Pilgrim’s torment. Struggling, The Pilgrim continues:

“That’s the thing about The Race to Heaven everybody forgets about. The one thing that everyone ignores…because all they see is the prize and the others racing to claim it. The true challenge has never been the other warriors. It’s never been about survival. Nor has it ever been about who’s the strongest, or the most deserving.

“Because the most dangerous challenge isn’t defeating the enemies without…

“...it’s about defeating the ones within.”

The creature’s grip tightens, seemingly done with listening as it moves to finish off this warrior.

However, the Pendent of The Light clinks against The Pilgrim’s armor…and begins to glow.

It’s not all-encompassing light. It’s not divine intervention, or the wrath of any god. The light is gentle, subdued…the inner illumination reflective of the soul of a man who believes in something that he was never the right person to possess and bear the burden of.

But The Light is enough.

The Pilgrim is ENOUGH.

The creature screeches as The Light burns it, forcing it to drop The Pilgrim. Landing on his feet, he grabs his dropped battleaxe and slashes at the creature’s other leg. This time? The blade sinks DEEP, as the nightmare howls in agony.

The blows continue.


“It’s not enough…”

The Pilgrim moves with astonishing speed, moving too quickly to get a good look at his face. Raining down blow after blow, running purely on adrenaline and the desire to win and survive, he bellows out with every strike:

“It’s not enough to be strong! You have to be resolute…”

THWACK! The axe finds purchase in the creature’s gut, as billowing wisps of black smoke start to pour out. The Light continues to pulse as the creature tries to back away, but The Pilgrim’s will to fight drives him forward.

“It’s not enough to think you deserve it. You have to prove you’re worthy enough to claim it!”

THWACK! THWACK! The axe begins to chop into the right arm of the creature, hacking deeper and deeper until it cleaves through, severing it. As its arm falls separate from its body and dissolves into nothing, the creature roars its inhuman cry as, in a last gasp of defiance and rancor, it swings with its left attempting to skewer The Pilgrim and end this.

However, The Pilgrim’s shield takes the blow. The damage to the shield from the earlier blows is evident as it starts to crack, but still…The Pilgrim is resolute.


“It’s not enough to talk about your virtues. You have to live by them…even if it kills you. Even when others mock you for them.”

The shield shatters to the force of the creature’s strike, but the splintered shrapnel is enough of a distraction for The Pilgrim to swing his axe in an upward arc, carving a nasty gash into the face of the creature.

"Because if victory is the only thing that matters...then all you have is victory and nothing on which to judge it favorably by..."

On instinct, the creature brings its one hand up to grasp its injured skull. And that proves to be the end for it, as The Pilgrim hacks at its legs, causing its knees to buckle and it to fall on its stomach onto the cold stone floor.

As the creature thrashes, and its body starts to dissolve into smoke and shadow, The Pilgrim stands defiantly above it. We finally see The Pilgrim’s face…

…the face of an Exile.


“No matter how many times you keep wanting to rear your ugly head. No matter if the entire world thinks I’m some false champion, some pretender to a legacy that’s long since past…no matter if everyone thinks it’s time I give you anything other than my contempt? I’ll beat you back as many times as it takes…until the final death comes or until I return to the place where I belong. You have no power over me. And you never will. Begone.”

The creature doesn’t get a chance to retaliate.

Doesn’t even get a chance to scream.

The Exile, with one last blow, using the remnants of his strength, cleaves into the creature’s head. The axe shatters with the impact, but the damage is done. The creature convulses, but eventually stops moving. As it does, its body vanishes into smoke, and returns to The Exile’s shadow from which it came.

A cold chill runs down The Exile’s spine. This creature, born of his own doubts and fears, the sentiments of those who condemn him to the dark recesses of history that is doomed to be forgotten, is one that he’s had to grapple time and again.

But today? At least today, he chose to overcome it. Even if it cost him greatly.

With the creature destroyed, The Exile looks behind him at the tabernacle. He approaches it, wobbly and weary, and with no weapon or armor to protect him. But now? It seems unnecessary.

Opening the tabernacle, The Exile finds a goblet filled with wine. He takes it and drinks deeply from it. Unlike the wine he had at that cabin in the woods, this wine is sweet. And after finishing the last dregs, The Exile sees a light emanating from the very back of the cathedral.

Battered, bloody, and exhausted, The Exile approaches the light.

This light is very familiar to him.

He’s seen it once before, when he took part in his first Race.

The light is a portal of sorts, leading to a staircase that ascends beyond the clouds to the sky above. The Exile, without hesitating, wills his body forward to climb.

The climb is long, but not as arduous as the journey to get there. The Race to Heaven has pushed all who participated to their limits. Chaos reigned, and many fell.

The Exile knows full well that he could have just as easily been swept up and left with nothing, doomed to die and try and rise again from it like the others will eventually have to do.

But this time…there’s a certain sense of necessity. That this Race, more so than any other he’s partaken in, is one that will define him and his future.

Is he doomed to dwell in darkness as others surpass him?

Or could he, when all hope seems lost and victory seems a long shot, rise again to the throne?

Eventually, The Exile reaches the top of the stairs. He finds himself in a grand golden hall, adorned with ornaments and effigies of the past kings and queens. His face is among them, and The Exile approaches it to see it in all its dignified glory. A reminder of what was, and will be again if he has the will to make it so.

Over at the far end of the hall, is the Golden Throne. A figure walks from behind it, and the light is so bright that we don’t see its face.

All we see, floating gently down onto the Throne, is a single, solitary peacock feather.

Despite how much it cost him to get to this point, The Exile is not backing down. There is no retreat, no tomorrow. The Exile squares up, and simply says:


“Here we are. Again, fighting for the crown.

“That’s my chair you’ve claimed.

“I’m here…to take it back.”
 
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The Golden One

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When XYZ walked up the steps of the two-story commercial building to the upstairs loft space with two rooms – both rather cramped – he doesn't know what to expect. He isn't sure if there will be 2 people or 20 people waiting for him and his friends. Maybe there could be more? More sounds insane for a sponsorship and marketing pitch, but who knows? This is the first sponsorship opportunity of XYZ's career. This is the first business partnership venture with any brand – albeit a small one.

XYZ didn't know what to expect when the Magic School Bus landed in Abingdon, Virginia to reach the headquarters of ShirtScapes, a custom designer and printer of primarily T-shirts, hoodies, and drinkware. None of those three are why X is here today, standing in a general work room along with his five closest allies watching four people at computers type away while trying not to look too awkward in their attempted ignoring of The Menage.

And as XYZ stands in this room and waits to be ushered into the “conference room” in the back, he doesn’t know what to expect when he enters.

But … this isn’t entirely, or even mostly XYZ’s story.

DREAMS CAN FLY: Part I


The morning of April 17, 2023, in Abingdon, Virginia, was quite dull for Christian Howard, a long blonde-haired man in his high 30s with no family and no life interests except for his menial job. What is his job, you ask? Well, he’s the Director of Superhero Apparel for ShirtScapes, which happens to be the only international-operating business headquartered in Abingdon.

What do you expect for a town of approximately 8,000 people? You shouldn’t expect much, honestly.

ShirtScapes isn’t the largest-operating business in the town, but it’s the only one with an international reach. That’s because it creates, prints, and ships custom T-shirts and hoodies, shoes, drinkware, and superhero apparel. It’s their thing, in an online industry mostly monopolized by a few titans, none of which are ShirtScapes.

So, Christian Howard is a small fish in a small pond. He doesn’t even live in Abingdon. He commutes from Kingsport, Tennessee, three days a week, and works the rest of his hours at home.

Today, a Monday, is one of those three days in the office. It’s a gloomy, overcast, and a windy cold day. The weather makes the trip to the office and the entire practice of coming to the office much less appealing.

After he walks up the stairs and into the upstairs area of the two-story building, which ShirtScapes operates within from the two-room second floor, he’s barely inside the front door before he’s accosted by his boss.

“I need answers, Christian,” says Angelo Bastecki, the CEO of ShirtScapes.

“I need answers about our superhero apparel. You’ve been here for 10 months and we’ve done nothing. We have no character. We have no persona. No direction.”

This has been an ongoing theme of their conversations for five months. Prior to these five months, the conversation was Angelo explaining to Christian what needed to happen in a vague manner.

“We need to grow awareness of us. Not enough know about us.”

“We need to grow our email list before we even think about selling more to people.”

“We need to increase our social media followers for our superhero apparel social channels.”

“We need …”

“We need …”

"We need ..."


But little direction for actually how to do any of this.

Which left Christian throwing shit at the wall and hoping something would stick. Around 10 months in and nothing has stuck.

“I ain’t fuckin’ have any answers,” Christian says in a Virginia accent and with North Carolina slang. “Why don’cha spend some money’n maybe we can get people to follow us.”

“No money for you, Christian. I told you. It’s gotta be organic.”


Angelo is a tight-pursed CEO. He doesn’t believe in the mantra of “spend money to make money.” He built ShirtScapes up “organically” – as he explains – more than 10 years ago through the power of Google and search engine optimization. Christian isn’t as versed in these principles, but he understands that it’s an uphill battle to get any traction in a niche of a niche of a niche.

“10 minutes in the conference room. I want three ideas. We’ll discuss whether any of them are worthwhile and go from there.”

Angelo’s directive felt a bit like a “if this doesn’t work, then you won’t work” stance. The awkward element is for the next 10 minutes, they’d be sitting no more than 20 feet from one another because aside from the conference room, the rest of the office was a main working area with three rows of 5 cubicles each – 15 in total – and Angelo’s desk at the back.

Not all 15 are in use. There are three other directors aside from Christian: Paul McHale, Bradley McKough, and Erin Cavalli. They’re in charge of T-shirt and Hoodie Apparel, Shoes, and Drinkware, respectively. Those names don't matter today. They will matter later on.

Then, there are four sales and customer service staff. Aside from those two areas of responsibility, they also manage delivery of purchases to customers. Lastly, there’s a part-time office administrator.

None of them work as hard as Christian has worked the past 10 months – at least in Christian’s mind. Yet, he feels he’s the only one of the 9 person-staff, excluding Angelo from that number, on the chopping block.

“10 minutes” is now 5 minutes, and Christian hasn’t thought of one idea, much less three.

What does KikiCo and Everfan – the two titans of superhero apparel – have over ShirtScapes? What do they do that ShirtScapes doesn’t?

Maybe the better question is, ‘What do they not do?’

Three minutes of perusing the two brands social media accounts – a quick glance – gives Christian a tiny answer: They don’t have partnerships with other brands, or household celebrity names.

But that’s a REALLY big fish to catch for a company like ShirtScapes.

“Heading into the conference room now,” Angelo says as he walks by Christian’s cubicle, which is situated at the end of the middle row, on his way to the conference room door. “Get yourself together and come on.”

“I …”


Christian wants to reply that he has nothing, but the answer won’t fly. He knows it won’t.

So, he’s going to roll with the only idea he has. It checks the boxes: awareness, social media following and influence, and eventually, more sales.

Is it a rational idea? Probably not, but it’s what he’s got.





“This is the stupidest fuckin’ idea I’ve heard.”

Within 10 seconds after Christian gives his idea, Angelo gives the above response with a look of complete disgust.

“What about your second idea?”

“Ain't got one.”


A pause. Then Angelo sits back into the padded office chair and rolls his eyes before looking up to the ceiling.

“And your third?”

“You want me to leave?”


“No. I don’t. I want you to figure this out because it’s harder for me to find someone new than to put my chips all in on your lost-cause ideas. So what are you thinking in this hatchet plan of trying to partner with big names?”

“NBA players?”

Here’s the thing. Angelo knows a thing or two about celebrities and their worth. He also is a professional sports fan. Christian, on the other hand, is not. Christian grew up in southwestern Virginia, where there really isn’t anything remotely close to a professional sports team to follow. He’d have to drive at least two hours to see the NBA team in Charlotte, the NFL team in Nashville, or any of the pro sports teams in Washington, D.C. That just wasn’t in his family’s DNA, or his when he became an adult.

“You ain’t gonna get NBA players,” Angelo says. “You ain’t gonna get even the WORST NBA player for our price range. Or the worst NFL player. Or even the worst baseball player. OR … even the worst hockey player. You MIGHT be able to get a professional bowler. But why would a professional bowler wear a cape from ShirtScapes? Why, Christian? These are the questions you need to be asking. No, a celebrity would not work.”

Just then, an idea comes to Christian. Right as Angelo is about to get up from the chair and end the conversation – literally his hands are placed on the wooden table about to press down to help lift himself up – a thought comes to mind.

Christian does not watch professional sports. He does not really care for them. He does, however, watch professional wrestling. The Fantasy Wrestling Alliance, to be specific. He watches sporadically – when he has time – so he’s aware of the general happenings, the comings and goings. It’s a revolving door of names, aside from the very top, but he’s at least aware of the pecking order to hold a conversation with an avid fan.

“What about a wrestler? They’re kind of the right type of celebrity to possibly wear a superhero shirt or cape or whatever we can make.”

There’s a bit more enthusiasm in Christian’s voice when he says this – more enthusiasm than when he pitched the idea originally.

“Which wrestler?”

“Well … not one of the best.”

“I don’t know a thing about wrestling.”

“A lot of people watch it.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get that. It’s still a niche.”

“We’re a niche. We’re a niche of a niche.”

“So we need a niche of a niche on the other side of this to make it work.”

“You mean, we need the right type of wrestler,”
Christian says, piecing together the bridge that Angelo has started to build.

“I guess. Aren’t there some wild characters and personalities?”

“There are. But the wilder the personality and character, the worse they are.”

“Good. Means they are cheaper.”

“Well … there is a big event, a big show, coming up. It’s one big match. Nearly every wrestler competes in it. It's called Carnal Conte...”

“I don't care. Do you have a name in mind?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well … does anyone actually wear a cape now? Is there a superhero wrestling person already?”


The poignant question is just what Christian needed. XYZ comes to mind immediately, but the idea of that is a little questionable. XYZ is a bit too wild of a character, of a personality, and Christian hasn’t really given much attention or time to following him or watching his matches.

After a brief explanation of who XYZ is and what he looks like, wears, and does, Angelo is at least intrigued.

“Alright. Well, this big match coming up. Will XYZ win?”

“No.”

Can he win?”

“Nah.”

“Not even a chance? Even a small chance?”

“Not even a small chance.”

“So we’re looking at partnering with a wrestler who thinks he is a superhero and has a zero-percent chance of winning an important, career-defining match?”

“Sounds like it.”

“Well, it’s within our budget, I imagine.”

“But here’s one thing: this guy, XYZ, has something. He has irrational confidence. And irrational confidence can carry him a little longer than anyone else would think. He really believes he’s a superhero, and he really believes the world needs him. He believes he’s a vessel for people.”

“Well … don’t we all.”

“And … he has a catchphrase.”

“Oh? A catchphrase? Please entertain me with this.”

“He says, ‘The dream never dies.’”


Angelo sits back in the chair with a pondering look. Christian watches as the wheels presumably spin in his boss’ head.

“The dream never dies … and he wears a cape. He may even wear a ShirtScape cape.”

“The dream never dies … with a ShirtScape cape!”

“No. That’s terrible. Jesus, Christian. No wonder the superhero apparel is doing so terribly.”


A pause.

“A dream that never dies … is a dream that can fly.”

Christian nods his head. Angelo offers a slight smirk back. There's an idea, even if it's a longshot.

"Do we really want to do ths?"

"Let's give it some time. Today is Monday. This match is when? Soon, right?"

"We probably won't sign him before then. It's too quick of a turnaround."

"We don't have to. Let's take our time with this. This is a big shot. It might work. It might flame out. And we won't even know if he will want to do it. I think he has a posse. So there's noise for this type of thing."

"Let me look into it. We'll need a pitch."

"Prove your worth, Christian. Time to prove ... your ... worth."



To Be Continued …

 
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vCLYUUD
WALTZ INSIDE THE EAGLE'S NEST

A private jet continues its flight through the observably blue skies above the United States of America. At least, that would be the view accompanying the early mornings of the common citizenry while their favourite morning show host would continue to ramble on and on about the current affairs of the land of the free and home of the brave. What goes on above and what goes on below do not seem to be in such an agreement, however, as no person who would observe the jet with the naked eye would be aware of the illusion at play. Even if they did, what would that even mean? How would the discovery of a giant spaceship ‘magically’ (read: advanced space technology) disguised as a plain private jet hovering above the country even impact the economy? What would the leading Wall Street experts think? These are big questions that should be answered by big people. However, what goes on in the hidden spaceship above doesn’t seem that important, so it might be a better idea to focus on there.

“...and that’s why Octavian thinks there might be more reincarnated historical figures currently walking the earth. You and him might be the two most important people in Roman history, but the fact that even a second-in-command like me could be reborn again raises a lot of possibilities.. I’m sure you can find this conclusion quite logical yourself, Caesar.”

Thus, Agrippa’s report reached its conclusion. The right-hand man of Octavian has conducted quite an extensive research with his close friend and emperor and he has been requested by Caesar’s nephew himself to let the newly crowned FWA X Champion in on the issue. That’s what Cornelius had understood about the whole ordeal, at least.

“Indeed.” Caesar nodded. On his lap sat the shining belt which had gone through a thorough washing process, now cleaned from every stain of blood Alyster Black had decorated the title with.

“Indeed. That sounds very logical.” he repeated and then added. “And distressing.”

“Did you actually find anybody though?” Caesar finished his thoughts on this development with a question, as he raised a single eyebrow.

“We have our suspicions about some people, but nothing concrete yet.” answered Agrippa. Romans valued their concrete so it was important to be certain about things before deciding what to do about them. “You’ll be informed when we become certain about who is who.”

“I’ll give you a heads up then. No matter what Reagan Cole says, he’s not James Dean. It’d be just a waste of time if you actually tried to investigate him about it. He’s more unremarkable than the good ol’ Bibulus!”
said Caesar, his words were followed by a laugh.

Agrippa shot him a look which Cornelius interpreted as a mix of confusion and mirthlessness. So, he found it perfectly understandable when the acting captain of the ship decided to change the topic.

“Maybe this wasn’t the news you expected nor wanted to receive a few days before your first ever title defense but Octavian deemed it important enough to be brought into your consideration.” said Agrippa. “And I do happen to agree with him. If you ask me, I would even say that looking into these figures is more important than your wrestling.”

“I take it that you’re not a fan?”
Caesar asked in an amused tone, one hand gently caressing his X-Title as his gaze locked in on Agrippa’s.

“Well, Octavian is.” Agrippa tried to deflect, leading Caesar to think about either letting the topic go or pressing on about it.

“Good to know that my nephew enjoys my fights.” the X champ said proudly. “It’s a shame he’s too busy to accompany me to The Granary.”

“Yes, he has more important things to do,” affirmed Agrippa.

“Alright, Agrippa, I get it, you don’t like what I do. Just drop the passive-agressiveness, man, it does not suit a Roman. In particular, it does not suit you.”

Caesar’s rebuttal has caused silence to emerge inside the ship. All the retinue that guarded the two were well-trained and well-disciplined men who would not speak if not spoken to, therefore they added nothing to the conversation. Caesar cut his attention away from Agrippa and decided to just look around before his gaze settled on outside the window. Their ship was leaving the United States airspace. Was America safe now, the experts at CNN would question. We should’ve shot those alien invaders down, Fox News anchors would shout. Do they simply not find America’s economy attractive enough to invest, is that why they’re leaving? These thought-provoking questions and suggestions should be discussed by only true intellectuals, so we can only sit and wait until the silence inside the ship is broken.

“I wasn’t a hundred percent sure it was you, Julius.”

It was a rather strong statement who ended up breaking the silence.

“What do you mean?” asked Cornelius in return.

“You being Julius Caesar, I mean. I thought you were nothing but a charlatan. I argued with Octavian about it, telling him that he shouldn’t waste fifty million space credits for a fraud like you. He trusted his instincts and got you anyway. But I was never convinced. You earned your living with professional wrestling. The lowest and most pathetic level of gladiator play. Julius Caesar would watch those gladiators from his seat, surrounded by his servants and his friends. You became best friends with an oafish giant, whereas Julius’ company was only composed of top Roman minds.”

“Choose your words carefully, Agrippa.”

“Even during the incident we rescued you from the space pirates, you chose to let them go. Julius had crucified his own captors. So, I never believed that you were Julius. Because I know Julius and he wasn’t like you. I served under you in Hispania where we kicked Pompey’s ass. I know first-hand how brutal and ruthless you can be. So, no, I never bought into your act. You didn’t do yourself any favors in my eyes when you refused to go back to the proper Roman life in this ship either after Octavian graciously offered you a spot here.”


Caesar was still slighted by the earlier remark about Stu but he didn’t let his emotions get the best of him. Attacking a man who had this whole ship under his command would not be the wisest move, after all.

“You referred to your general in Hispania as ‘you’ and not Julius.” stated Caesar, not needing to elaborate any further. It was clear what he was asking Agrippa by stating that.

“Then I watched King of the Deathmatch. Octavian requested that I watch it with him, so I did. I watched you. I watched you go through the wringer. I watched you get sliced open, I watched you bleed. I watched you get attacked after every match. Despite all of that, you stood up again. With even more ferocity each time. They bit you and you bit back even harder. You defeated them all. The battlefield didn’t matter, only your resolve mattered. That’s how I realized that you are him. I realized that Octavian was right all along. It is you, Julius. And it’s mind-boggling to me that someone we all saw as a God back in the day now leads a life like that. If you wonder why I don’t like your wrestling, that’s why. You can do so much better than that.”

The silence returned but didn’t stay for as long as it did before. This time, it was Caesar who broke it.

“I went into the tournament without any deathmatch experience. They beat me down, with each punch, with each weapon strike, with each post-match attack … they gave me nothing but more experience in how they conduct their business. They helped me learn their craft. The ring is my battlefield now, Agrippa. I am me. I am proud as ever. I am Julius Caesar and I am also Cornelius Aurelius Caesar. Making a distinction between them would be disrespectful to my very character. You’d do well to remember that.”

Having no response to this big declaration, Agrippa turned his attention back to the controls of the ship.

“Anyway,” he changed the topic once more. “Your match is still a few days away, why are we going to The Granary early? Oh, is it for scouting? I love those types of missions! I can even disguise this ship so we can go undetec-”

“Oh, we’re not actually going to The Granary.”
Caesar cut off his fellow Roman, whose only theory about the early trip was just shot down.

“I need to visit somewhere else first, if you wouldn’t mind,” he continued. “In fact, it’s a place I was planning to go to before my first death. Agrippa, set our route to the Mediterranean.”





“I’m so glad you could come to my family’s Eid gathering.” heard Caesar as his arm was affectionately squeezed. The equally affectionate Roman smiled in return, but he had to admit that he was getting gradually more overwhelmed by this small trip due to what was about to come. “Especially before such an important match in your career.”

“I assure you that I’m more afraid of your dad than I’m afraid of Shawn Summers.”
he replied, following that with a nervous chuckle. The big shared family mansion was in clear sight and in only a few steps, they would be in front of the gates and he would finally meet Zehra’s family.

“My dad won’t be backed by ruthless capitalists to be a part of the strongest far-right movements in today’s era, Cornelius, you can be sure of that.” Zehra replied, making it clear that she was annoyed by the mere comparison..

“Fair, I suppose. Still, meeting their girlfriend’s family would make any man nervous, no?”

“I guess so.”

“Hopefully this will help me decharge a bit before The Granary as well. But I’m not here for that in particular. I’m here for you, love.”

“Charmer. No wonder your family claims their roots back to the goddess Venus.”

“Speaking of goddesses, does your family know that you have Hecate inside you? I feel like that would be something important to mention, you know?”
Caesar asked before trying to mimic his girlfriend’s voice. “ ‘Hey dad, I’m possessed by an ancient Greek goddess, I just thought that you should know.’ ”

“I haven’t told them yet. I don’t know how they would react at all, especially when my father’s a deeply religious Muslim. He does respect all kinds of beliefs regardless … but having his daughter mention to him that she’s a Greek goddess? I thank my lucky stars that he didn’t strongly object when I told him about how you think you’re Julius Caesar.”

“You told him that? Well, I didn’t expect you would, I’m not going to lie.”

“Well, my cousin’s an FWA fan to the point where he travelled to Istanbul to attend that Fallout show. Figured that you would be recognized easily so we couldn’t just hide your identity like we’re in a badly written sitcom episode.”


Caesar did not object to that and sooner rather than later, they were in the front door where Cornelius nervously anticipated for the door to open. Fear does not prevent the outcome and when the door indeed opened, the man Caesar wanted to win the approval of stood in front of him.

Eid Mubarak … sir.” he took the initiative, giving his possible father-in-law a little bow. Was bowing like that even in Turkish culture? In case you couldn’t tell, he feared messing this up. He wasn’t sure about how well he said the phrase earlier, he might’ve come off as a bit awkward. It dawned on him that this was probably how Stu felt during the whole Saturnalia debacle, but he thought nothing about it while then. For Saturnalia was his culture and it was so normal for him that he couldn’t think anyone would have any issues trying to adapt to it. Brushing the negative thoughts to the side, Caesar proceeded to extend his hand for a more universal way of greeting. “And … merhaba … I’m Cornelius!”

Zehra’s father was a man who looked to be in mid fifties. Graying short hair, a graying beard, wearing a sleeveless V-neck brown pullover over his beige shirt. His expression was unreadable, leaving Caesar with no idea about the first impression he’d made on the man. He took a while before shaking Caesar’s hand back too. The Roman was mostly convinced that he shook the hand out of courtesy rather than out of acceptance.

“Come inside, kids. The rest of the family is already here.” the man said, inviting his daughter and her boyfriend in. Zehra was already on her way to the backyard, where she knew that the dinner would be. But Cornelius wasn’t so lucky as he was stared down by the father for a couple of seconds.

“And Eid Mubarak to you too, young man. I appreciate the courtesy even though you don’t celebrate this beautiful holiday yourself.” he said. His expressions still didn’t give away anything so best Caesar could hope for was taking him at face value and believe that he really appreciated Cornelius’ preparations on what phrases to use and when to use them beforehand. “You can call me Hikmet. We’ll talk later but you can go and join the family in the garden for now.”

“Thank you sir,”
nodded Caesar, partly relieved about being let into the family gathering but also being partly worried about the ‘we’ll talk later’ part. But more than anything, he was surprised by how well Hikmet spoke English. Rather than overthinking about it, however, Caesar just did as he was told and followed Zehra to the backyard.

She had a big family as many people were gathered around a big and long table decorated with all sorts of traditional-looking food. The sheer numbers were intimidating under the context of meeting a significant other’s family so Cornelius tried to internally play this off like he was meeting with a new group of recruits from one of Rome’s foreign allies. Different customs, different gestures, different language, different culture.

There was one little problem though: Romans weren’t really known for being polite to foreigners, even when they were allies. The thought of acting like that here made the Roman cringe and when he was lost on how to approach the family, it was Zehra who helped him out as she introduced him to everyone one-by-one. Caesar did his best to put up his charm, of course. He sprinkled some of the Turkish words and phrases he’s learned while his lady friend handled the rest. That seemed to be enough to appease everyone. It helped massively that the cousin who was an FWA fan was also present and was openly marking out in the sight of the new X Champion, though Caesar would prefer not to be asked about Stu for the giant man was still a sore subject for him.

Hikmet and his wife appeared not too soon after, providing the last bits of garniture for the table to be fully ready and complete.

The big dinner mostly went without any hitches, with Caesar being asked the occasional question with him asking some questions back as well with the help of Zehra and the cousin whose name Caesar learned to be Oğuzhan later down the line. It was a pleasantly warm atmosphere. He couldn’t know the intricacies of the inner relationships of these family members but from outside, this seemed like a proper family. One that would always have family’s back, one wouldn’t secretly plot against each other. Everything that he’s seen from them so far has been nothing but genuine. Knives would only be used as kitchen utensils here.

“Caesar, what you think about Shawn Summers? He’s a bad man! Do you beat him?” asked Oğuzhan in an attempt to bring the conversation back to his hobbies, albeit in an imperfect but still understandable English. Caesar imagined that the young boy had been waiting for a while to justifiably talk about a wrestler in a family gathering. His presence gave Oğuzhan the perfect launching ramp on that matter.

He shared a look with Zehra and she nodded. She would continue her side gig as his translator. Caesar took a deep breath and let his poison loose after that.

“I think Shawn Summers is a bad man but he didn’t have much of a chance to be a good man to begin with. His family history is easy to research. He was the son of a bad man who passed his bad values down to him. Maybe Fitzgerald himself got those bad values from his own father who was probably a bad man. This is the sad reality of generational trauma that plagues many families in America. Their country does not work to prevent that, in fact, it strives for the opposite. It pushes back and back and back. But what’s important here is the fact that Shawn didn’t have much of a fair shot on making his own path. Do I feel bad for him? No, his wealth has allowed him to live comfortably to this day and the worst thing he experiences due to being a bad man is occasionally losing wrestling matches and nothing more. He’s lived a comfortable life and he never felt the need to look elsewhere for his values. He never felt the need to know about other values, other cultures, other people. He’s an ignorant man and like many ignorant men, he fills the gaps in his knowledge with nothing but hatred and vitriol. He’s come this far by stepping over those less fortunate than him and thinks he can do the same with me because he has an even wealthier suit having his back and a private island that he can hunt me down in. I’ve been in plenty of defensive wars back in Rome and this won’t be any different. I’ve seen the things and the people Shawn cannot turn his wealthy little frat boy head and look at. I’ve been in more deathmatches than him. I know the naked reality of violence better than him. He calls himself ‘Der Basterd’ because he’s a bad man but I think he’s just a bastard because he’s still looking for the father he never had, more or less.”

“Cornelius, my cousin’s just ten years old, for fuck’s sake!”
proclaimed Zehra, bringing Caesar back down to Earth after his tangent about his opponent.

“What? he asked my opinion and I gave him just that!”

“Do you expect me to translate ‘bastard’ to a ten year old?”

“You can just soften my words!”

“Is that what you really think, Mr. Caesar?”
interrupted Hikmet, who had an unusually amused look on his face. Caesar literally gulped, a cold sweat running down his forehead. His potential father-in-law, who had already proven to be a good English speaker, fully understood his rant, hadn’t he? The patriarch of this family then proceeded to turn back to the family and say something in Turkish which caused them to ignore what just happened and went back to their food while Zehra tried her best to softly translate what Caesar had said about Der Basterd.

But soon, the dinner was done. Then came the teas. By Jupiter, the Turks loved themselves some tea. While most of the family talked about what sounded like sports or the upcoming elections, Hikmet went to Caesar and put a firm hand on his shoulder which caused the Roman to nearly yelp.

“Shall we have a talk, young man? Follow me inside, if you will.”

Cornelius didn’t need to be told twice. He followed Hikmet to his workshop, where he saw several shelves of books. He couldn’t know what they were about due to the language barrier but some covers he saw indicated that they were about history and politics and religion. Clearly, Hikmet was a learned man.

“When my daughter first told me about you, I took the initiative of doing some research on you myself. Modern technology is not my forte and the internet baffles me to this very day, but I wanted to know about you enough to endure all that dilly-dally.”

“Should I be honored, sir?”
asked Caesar but Hikmet simply ignored that question.

“I reached the conclusion that you are someone who knows Roman history well. It’s either because you simply love Roman history enough to pretend to be Julius Caesar or, the more crazy option, you are actually Gaius Julius Caesar.”

“I don’t suppose you believe me on that front.”

“It’s not important if I believe you or not. I’m going to reach another basic logical conclusion here. You love Rome, right?”

“You can bet your bottom Lira, sir.”
joked Caesar, trying to lighten the mood in this tension-filled atmosphere.

“Lira has no value to bet on. Our economy is in shambles,” explained Hikmet. Caesar remembered Zehra saying something along those lines as well.

“Anyway, you know who else loved Rome?” continued Zehra’s father. “United States of America. Enough to share its election system, separation of powers, term limits, age requirements, most of its constitution, materialism, distracting spectacles and most of all, its imperialism.”

Caesar visibly took some offence to that and was quick to come up with a rebuttal.

“Our civilization was a sight to behold, what’s wrong about being proud about what we’d built?”

“And how would that statement hold up when you think about America?”
asked Hikmet back. Caesar was unsure why he would need to think about that statement in that context.

“I feel that their failings as a country and as a civilization are quite clear,” explained Cornelius.

“I’d advise you to drop your rose-tinted glasses and realize that America is the modern-day Rome. You want proof, Caesar? In the dinner, you were going on about your ‘defensive’ wars. Romans claimed that all their wars were defensive to avoid being seen as warmongers. When they attacked other tribes, they found all the bullshit reasons to frame it as ‘defensive’ when the attack was very clearly offensive. Isn’t that what America exactly does today? Their planes come and fire, they raze cities, they slay civilians, but at the end of the day, they claim to be the ones who are just defending themselves. They claim to be the morality police of the world and every other country should strive to reach the impossible standards they set and in the end, when they can’t, they get gobbled up within them. Rome used to flat-out take lands but now America brings other countries in their sphere of influence. They claim to be the greatest civilization but when you go inside and look at them, it’s all corruption, violence, unrest. Why should I take you seriously when you go on and trash Shawn Summers’ values while championing the Roman cause, Mr. Caesar?”

“Because we wer-”
Cornelius tried but was interrupted immediately.

“Don’t try to give me any excuses, young man. It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one. Rome has been dead for years now and its hypocritical influence in our world isn’t felt as harshly as America’s. That’s a major reason why it’s worse to go on about America’s glory today than doing that with Rome. But they were no better. When America was founded, it was founded on the principles of freedom and liberty. But when founding fathers themselves couldn’t fully adhere to those principles, cracks began to form. And with each generation, the tales of those so-called perfect founding fathers only enhanced, growing more ‘perfect’, setting even more unrealistic standards to follow. Those cracks grew and grew until America was essentially a broken country. Seeing a country that was supposed to be founded on such great values in its current state is enough to break anyone’s heart. Nowadays, the founding fathers and the constitution they set is the one thing they claim to follow. But what they follow is an exaggerated lie. The United States of America follows her founding fathers just like Shawn Summers follows Fitzgerald Summers. They seek an approval that they can never get, because all of those fathers are dead and yet the children refuse to move on.”

All the adversity and animosity Hikmet seemed to carry with him made Caesar ask a very simple but important question. A question that could threaten the integrity of his very relationship with Hikmet’s daughter.

“If that’s how you feel about America, Rome and me, then why are you allowing your daughter to be with me?”

“I love my daughter, she makes me a proud father after all these years. But Zehra is a grown woman. If I tried to forbid her then she would only yearn for you even harder. She’s also a very smart girl and I have my trust in her decisions. Not to mention that my research on you has shown me that you can be a compassionate and loyal man. Now, the ball is in your court. It is simply up to you and you alone to prove that you can be a great man and keep my daughter as your significant other. If you drive her away, then I will know that you’re a lost cause. No better than Shawn Summers or any American with those bad values that you talked about.”


“I will treasure and cherish her, sir, you can be sure,” he said with enough conviction.

“Like I said, Cornelius, everything is on you now. I’ve mostly been a disappointed man in my life. The things I’ve seen in this world made me a displeased man. We turn to faith in negative times like these. So, do not add to that pile of disappointments or else, someone is going to meet God and it sure as hell won’t be me.”

“T-thank you sir, for keeping it honest with me.”

“No problem, young man. You can count on me to always be honest with you.”
Hikmet smiled. “After all, I cannot tell a lie.”





A small but sturdy boat continues to cruise through the international waters. At least, that was the intelligence the radars would pick up on when they scanned the area. Same deal would be applied to the sailors that would be close enough to have the boat in their eyesight. Once again, the boat and its surroundings differed in perception. Romans weren’t known as the best sailors in the world back in their heyday, but knowing that a foreign flying vehicle was being disguised as a boat and sailing their waters? Cato the Elder would put his fist down in the senate, ending every statement of his by expressing his desire to see this unknown vessel’s destruction. Cato the Younger would just sit and do nothing unless it was an issue about Caesar, in which he would be the most staunch of debaters in the whole senate. The tribunes would exercise their veto rights. The optimates would take bribes and argue that nothing should be changed. The populares would respond by taking even more bribes. The senate meeting would be suspended and then there would be mobs and violence in the sacred Roman streets. All semblance of civil behaviour would be thrown out of the window like it did many and many and many times before. There’s no such chaos inside this ‘boat’. Only conviction.

“I’m picking up a signal,” confirmed Agrippa as the irritating sound of static echoed through the room. “We must be close.”

“You must be sure that the signals are coming from The Granary,”
responded Caesar. The day had come.

“Affirmative.”

“Brilliant,”
said Caesar as he prepared to go outside of the room, get some clean air and get some early glances of the land if they were close enough to Rupert’s famed island. He was about to open the door when Agrippa held a hand, beckoning the champion of X. Cornelius changed his direction, making his way back near his nephew’s best friend.

“Not only can I pick up their signal … I think I found a way to interrupt them too.” said Agrippa, a rare hint of excitement in his voice.

Caesar’s face once again shifted into his usual curious look, with one eyebrow raised and his piercing eyes looking rather impatiently into Agrippa’s. He wanted clarification, that much was certain.

“It means we can just send them a message right now,” explained Agrippa. “So, if you have any last words to Summers or Watkins, you can tell them. We can distribute signals around all the devices who work for that purpose in the island so wherever in the island they might be, they will hear it. They won’t expect it at all.”

Rubbing his chin, Caesar thought about the possibilities. A smile decorated his lips.

“However, that will be all. We don’t have the equipment with us to actually sabotage or even cause damage to any of their systems. Nor can we map the whole island and reveal all their tricks using these signals.”

The smile scaled down a bit, but Caesar was pleased with this development either way.

“It’s alright, Agrippa. You’ve done well. Open the comms and I’ll take it from here.”

Cornelius stepped forward while Agrippa got up from his seat, leaving the communications device in a state of vacancy which Caesar could easily fill to send his message to The Granary. A dramatic cough to clear his throat pretty much confirmed that Caesar was about to make the best use of this opportunity.

“Shawnathan Jacob Summers. You don’t know how the road you’re walking ends but let me assure you, I do. I’ve walked it. I’ve seen the end of it.”

Caesar remembers the lines of prisoners waiting for their end at the ends of his blade. He remembers their hatred. He remembers their fear. He remembers their humiliation. He remembers resentment. He remembers rebellion. He remembers the knives in his back. He’s seen them all. He’s walked that road.

“You are a sad man who hasn’t seen the sun while sitting in the shadow of a tree that had been chopped off a while ago. You just keep crawling to its stump, you hug it really tight, refusing to part from it. But that tree will never regrow, no matter how much you want it back.”

His eyes are closed for a while, the shadows of what he’d done in his past life cover the globe and it’s something he can divert his eyes from.

“I’d stood under that sun. Two thousand years ago, and now. The sun is the same sun. But I’m not the same man.”

The first step of change is the intent and the intent is something Caesar knows he should never let go of.

“Just like two milennia ago, I’m once again about to step foot on an island that I know nothing about. But this time, I won’t have my armies with me.”

A partial truth. He wasn’t going to have nearly thirty-thousand man he had in his second expedition to Britain or even eight-thousand man he had in his first in the same island, but he planned to take a small retinue with him regardless. Afterall, the so-called ‘brand warfare’ and King of the Deathmatch had reminded the Roman that there was indeed strength in numbers. Admittedly, it was pretty embarrassing of a general of his stature to not consider this sooner.

“It shall be only me. Cornelius Aurelius Caesar. And I’m more than content doing the same things for different purposes. I can’t save the world by myself, I can’t save America or even Rome at this stage. What I can do, however, is to play my part and stop you and your disgusting rhetoric from advancing any further. Make no mistake, Shawnathan. I’m going to invade your home turf. By stopping you and Rupert, I will take one more step towards avenging Stu. By defending my belt under these conditions, I will prove to everyone that my X title will not lose any value just because it’s out of Alyster’s hands now.”

As one of his hands holds and stabilizes the device, the other holds onto the strap of his X title tightly. Cornelius is very much aware that being the champion after a man who defined the title will be a tall task, but he’s never the one to back down from such a challenge.

“Victories can only be obtained by fighting and those who fight boldly are often rewarded by the goddess Fortuna. Your legal agreements have granted you any kind of title shot, yet you ducked the world champion, you pissed away the chance to be a world champion and came to me instead for my X title. That’s how I know that you’re not a fighter, Shawn. You took the road that seemed the most easy to you. But I’ll have you know that this is a fighter’s belt. This X title is for those who thrive in battle like Alyster and me. I’ll give you the fight that you thought Chris Peacock or Bryan Baxter could give you and then some more.”

A loud voice from outside indicates that the land is in sight. The Granary is in sight. There’s only a few minutes before he embarks. However, Caesar seems to have more to say.

“I know who I am. I chose my own truth. For the will of the people, I had been a brutal dictator.”

The villages he razed, the civilians he killed, they’re all fresh in his memory. Cornelius shall never forget any of that.

“In the path that I embarked for my people, I had to walk a very thin line to make sure that the power didn’t get to my head. And quite often ... more often than not in fact ... I lost my balance.”

The obscene triumphs, the big throne-like chair in the middle of the senate, the broken promises. Cornelius shall never forget any of that.

“I spent days and nights thinking if I could’ve done things better. But I will not let my past be a crutch unlike you, Shawnathan Jacob Summers. The fact that I am still alive, standing today is a testament to the fact that I can do things better. Not in the past, but today. What I’m going to do on your island will be a simple demonstration of my way of making things better. I will kick your ass, Shawn. I’m still a populist at heart so I will do it for the will of the people. But also … for the will of Caesar.”

He lets go of the device and turns back. After getting a salute from Agrippa, he salutes back before leaving the room. His retinue greets him and flanks him. The island is growing even closer. He looks at the sea. It isn’t Rubicon. It isn’t even a river. But the occasion is clear and calls for it. Before he embarks, he utters the words:


“Alea iecta est.”
 

The Gipper

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Reagan felt the explosion shake his bones first. It was impossibly loud; his ears were filled with noise, noise, and then nothing but ringing. He felt a surface pressing his back, his limbs, and something heavy on his chest… It felt like concrete. He must be on the ground, though that didn’t explain the weight on top of him. His head spun and screamed like it’d been cracked open- maybe it had. It was hard to figure out, his vision wasn’t even what others call swimming, it seemed more like drowning. Everything was dark, speckled with faint flares of light. His mouth was filled with something coppery, and he choked when he opened it to gasp for air. Reagan’s mind continues to strive as a jumbled mess as he tries to take in his surroundings but it’s difficult with the smoke swirling around and the harsh ringing sound that refuses to go away. He looks down at the stream of blood flowing down from his arm. He can barely even make out someone calling his name through the buzzing in his ear.

“Reagan! Reagan!”

The bright light from the sun nearly blinds him as he feels the shattered glass from earlier underneath his back, most likely left from the Kleio vs Maskell match. Reagan coughs one more, desperately trying to clear the smoke from his lungs. David, a rookie medic, who hadn’t been employed at the company long, was there, steadying him until all his senses slowly come back into play and he finally manages to get himself to a sitting stance

Reagan: “Is he-?”

Reagan croaks out, he takes a look around for any clues but all he can see is a flurry of people running around with confusion and panic etched across their faces. Debris is still scattered. Then he sees the smoke slowly fade to reveal Jeffry Mason there, still breathing but he still doesn’t look in the best shape of his life. Yet the word “Bastard” still goes through Reagan’s head numbly, and his limbs felt heavier than ever. Was this how he was going to end? Saving Jeffry Fucking Mason, of all people?

Everything started to hurt. It was as if his heart got pierced by Xavier DeCollins’ left jab, with the same clumsiness but far, far deadlier and he wanted to scream –

But all that came out was a gasp.

Ah fuck..

Well, Reagan knew this was a possibility. He knew this was a likely situation. He just wasn’t expecting it to happen like this. He looks back to the three people he faced during this tournament, three people who all made sense to take him down one last time…

You wanna know what the sad truth was? Reagan didn’t want to die just yet. At least not this way. Despite his brave words in the run-up to this, a part of him still feels like his story in FWA had only just begun and it couldn’t be over yet. But Reagan guesses if the universe insists he is a casualty to this sport that he loves so dearly then…

Everything became silent around him. There were no voices, only him under a dark sky and the lonesome light of fireworks that flickered out, he exhaled with too much blood on his lips and felt a smooth breeze of wind, stronger than expected, hit his back, pushing him to the side as Reagan’s head gradually declined, and he fell into a deep sleep.


—————————

Reagan takes a few deep breaths before plastering a smile on his face as he enters the office. He is met with the row of awards on the wall opposite the door, each one shining more brightly than the last one. He moves away from the doorway, walking slowly until he recognizes the back of the captain’s head. Reagan approaches a bit nervously, wondering if he should say something, but Jeffry Mason notices him right away.

Jeffry: “Cole! Right on time.”

Reagan: “Mr Mason, good to see you.”

Jeffry: “I’m sure it is, I'm just going over some stuff and I thought I would bring you in. Say…How long have you been with us, Cole?”

Reagan: “18 Years, sir.”

Jeffry: “Ah, yes. Half of your entire life has been spent here, a long-lasting career huh?”

Reagan: “And I’m grateful for every one of those days, sir.”

Jeffry: “I’m sure you are. Now…that’s a lot of years is that. 18 years if I’m right. all of these years have gone by and…I’ll be honest with you, you still ain’t at the level that people expect you to be at this point if you get what I’m saying.”

Jeffry examines Reagan's multiple folders on his desk.

Jeffry: “People at lower posts have jumped over you, people at higher posts have fallen far beneath you and despite all of that, for a large part of your career, you have stayed. Exactly. The. Same. And I’ve been interested in finding out why that is, but first I wanna know why you think this is?”

Reagan taken a bit off guard by the questioning here, the slight fear of being fired does creep into the mind as he puts his hands in his pockets.

Reagan: “….Just a lot of missed opportunities, sir. As you said, been a part of this for a while. But you know certain chances, no matter how much you try or how hard you fight, they just kinda slip through the fingers Y’know? But I’m also still very happy with the position I have right now sir. I may not be at the top but I still feel like I’m making a difference by helping to train some of the newer cadets. Trust me, some of those cadets are gonna be the future and when they are, I’ll just be happy to know that there’s just a tiny bit of my influence in there.”

Jeffry: “….Hm. Interesting, really interesting actually, well since you’re talking about opportunities, I may have one for you that still scratches that…training itch you may have.”

Jeffry gets a file from one of his drawers and hands it to Reagan. Hesitantly, Cole accepts it and flickers through, his eyes widen, and his breath gets shallow.

Reagan: “What…What is this?”

Jeffry: “The official term is Task Force Y. Simple enough. A black ops unit made of criminals with little to no hope of release within their lifetime who are simply given…an opportunity. I’m sure you know where this conversation is going.”

Reagan: “I don’t.”

Reagan suddenly freezes when he finds a certain page, unsure how to really react as Jeffry continues

Jeff: “I need someone to be the on-field agent, my most recent field agent, Mr Slate Bass is on…vacation as it seems so in the meantime. How about you?”

Reagan: “What’s this about bombs?”

Straight to the point.

Jeffry: “Oh those? That’s just in emergencies. They’re criminals, Reagan. They just need to stay in check and what better to maintain that order than a simple bomb to the back of the neck that can be remotely detonated.”

Reagan “Sir-….Sir, are you suggesting that I can just freely kill my own teammates on these missions? That’s not wha-“

Jeffry: “Teammates? Oh Reagan….see, that lies the problem I see right there.”

Jeffry presses a button that activates the monitor behind him, it shines brightly before three almost royal vertically rectangular shapes appear each brandishing its own warrior.

The Boastful. The Traitor. The Lone Wolf.

All three of these soldiers had their own history with one Reagan Cole. His eyes drift first over to the far right where it shows the Lone Wolf. Cyrus Truth. The man who has been here longer than Reagan, a man that Reagan arguably still has a slither of respect for despite what he did. The Meltdown war was the only time they ever found themselves on the same side and Reagan doesn’t see that repeating for a while. The Meltdown War was a bloody one for sure but Cyrus was the leader and the people listened to him so it all seemed a little bit better than what it was. Then it got too much so Cyrus…just bolted. He said that he was a lone wolf and left everyone else to die. And soldiers did die that day, that’s for sure. Reagan was there when Aka Yurei went down. Yeah, he could have done more to help, he could have done so much more but at least Reagan was there! At least Reagan fought! That was one of the many times he was close to dying but somehow someway he kept surviving.

Then it gets to the Boastful. Left of the screen. Leader of The Nephews and God didn’t ya know it, Reagan and she have fought many times over what was right and what was wrong and how she was the one to slay the beast of Kennedy. Another one who didn’t really care who went down and whose entire world blew up as long as she got his compliments and accomplishments. Reagan’s already given Michelle enough of his attention.

And then we get to the Center. The Traitor. The guy who killed his own leader just because he thought he knew better. He didn’t, the man Peacock has a problem with died a couple of years back as Reagan told him but Peacock didn’t listen and now he holds the most valuable position in this entire sector. Still not worth it in Reagan’s eyes. Reagan would go down with the ship I guess. Reagan and Peacock have been on the same side a couple of times and it’s always been situational at best, they aren’t exactly chums.

Reagan looks down the centre and sees all three in a row
.

Jeffry: “Do me a favour, would you? Tell me what connects these people to you?”

It takes Reagan one entire second to respond.

Reagan: “With all due respect, sir. They’re all twats.”

Jeffry: “Ha! Well, I’m sure they don’t have the best impression of you either Reagan. But no. The actual answer is that they all command an aura of ruthlessness to the cause. They let nothing get in their way! It’s just like I always say “Ruthlessness is mercy upon ourselves.”, compassion is not mercy, it brings guilt. Guilt brings overthinking of plans, and overthinking of plans brings your doom. I’ve seen a lot of good men die due to the same compassion you hold dearly, Reagan. Yet that is what holds you back from reaching that top level so I’m holding out my olive branch to you. This is your chance to cut the line. Work on this ruthlessness that I truly believe you do have inside and I will give you….Not teammates as you called them, no. There’s gotta be a better name. Test Subjects? Sure. And you still get the same recognition you would get in any other situation if they just listen to you, their teacher. Students! That’s what we’ll call them. So what do you say?”

Reagan stares blankly at the outstretched hand of Jeffry Mason.

Jeffry: “Are you really gonna let another opportunity fly by?”

Oh for fucks sake.

---------------

Reagan: “Right, you guys know the deal. Complete this mission you get ten years off your sentence. Disobey my orders, get yourself captured, hell, mildly irritate me and I detonate the explosive device you currently have implanted in the base of your skull.”

Reagan rehearsed that around 5 times in the mirror in the plane’s bathroom, he was NOT ready for this. But he had to at least seem assertive I guess as the team got ready.

???: “Wait, is she actually coming with us? Are you sure she’s old enough? She looks sixteen.”

Of course Shawn Summers is the first one to speak.

???2: “I’m twenty two, actually,”

Trixie Bordeaux responds sheepishly as Summers scoffs and shakes his head.

Summers: “I apologize, I didn’t know this team had an exchange project with a kindergarten, my bad.”

A few others on the plane laugh, but Trixie lifts her chin.

Trixie: “I just graduated—”

Reagan: “Lay off, Summers, she’s our medic, Jesus.”

Shawn Summers wasn’t as desperate as Reagan knew other candidates were; most of his fraud and murder charges were covered up by the “Watkins'' organization he’d worked for. Reagan allowed himself the very thought of Summers telling his new squad mates that he was mostly serving time for several counts of public indecency. Not nearly as impressive in criminal circles. Reagan looks through his team, it wasn’t the best. Trixie, Summers, the Criminal duo of Jackson Fenix and Nate Savage and….TYLER. Yeah out of everyone on the team, Reagan tried to decline TYLER but it wasn’t happening. Former military guy like Reagan, just he got exposed to some shit he wasn’t supposed to and since then he became quite the psychopath and the worst person to have on a team where egos are already a thing. As soon as we hit the sand, they are hit with the hot and humid atmosphere that was becoming less and tolerable every minute. Nate Savage swung his backpack, full of government approved goodies, round to hang from one shoulder. Reagan sends TYLER and Fenix out to scout around the area before looking back at Trixie, her cheeks were flushed, and tiny beads of moisture were trickling down the sides of her face, and her arms.

Trixie: "So what’s the plan again?”

Trixie wipes the back of her hand across her forehead, to catch another trickle of sweat that had begun to drip down her face.

Reagan: “Walk up there, kill 3 witches, come back.”

Summers: “Wait is it seriously that easy? Are you kidding me? I don’t even need you, idiots!”

Reagan: “Summers, we have-“

Before Reagan could even reach his pad, Summers runs forward only a few steps before a very high pitched scream follows done by Summers which is then responded with.


Elimination 1: Shawn Summers

A explosion.

Jeffry (In Comms): “Took too long.”

Reagan: “WHAT THE FUCK?!”

Reagan looks back one more time and sees Trixie almost frozen in fear at what she’s just seen.

Reagan: “Why did you just do that?”

Jeffry (In Comms): “You have to be quick for this! No time for compassion! JUST LIKE AS QUICK AS THIS!”

A finger snap is heard casting a time skip to the viewer

Elimination 3: Trixie Bordeaux

Trixie’s body slumps against Reagan. It’s all went to shit. Reagan was calming Trixie down after fighting the hoarde of Skeletons sent by the one and only The Coven. But before they could go any further, they were stopped not with a explosive or another Coven trick.

But a simple bullet.


Jeffry (In Comms): “DAMMIT TYLER! You were supposed to wait until he did it

Yup.

The former British Kid stands there with a gun stolen from the corpse of Jackson Fenix.

Reagan hasn’t taken his eyes off Trixie, the cold dead eyes looking back at her. Just stayed like that. A child. He killed a fucking child and Reagan was powerless.


Reagan: “Wh.,.why?”

TYLER crouches next to his old friend.

TYLER: “Easy bud. Now you can take this anger that you feel right now. And you’re gonna win fucking Carnal Contendership with it, alright?”

Reagan: “Carnal…What?”

TYLER rises and points the gun one last time at Reagan.

TYLER: “Ground Zero finale is mine. Deathmatch tournament was his. Now live up to your end of the bargain.”

BANG.
 
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SupineSnake

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secret entrant #1: aly black (rawr)











Alyx
in
A Pseudo Life


“And now my bitter hands cradle broken glass
Of what was everything
All the pictures have all been washed in black
Tattooed everything”


\\//
//\\

“I’ve been having these weird thoughts lately.”

He plunged into the cold and dark abyss headfirst. Wearing the tattered remains of his gear, but his face was exposed; he felt naked. All that illuminated his surroundings was a faint beam of light from above, from where he had fallen. Below that was total darkness. He was desperate to look back from whence he came but his body was weak, he was weary, and he succumbed. Falling deeper and deeper.

“Like, is any of this for real?”

The struggle was intense, but he managed to tilt his head and look back. There she was, looking down on him from atop the crevasse in which he had fallen. Her visage was the most beautiful sight in the entire world, and he had just let her slip through his fingers. She no longer belonged to him, and he in turn no longer belonged to her. Two souls once thought inseparable were now parted forever. Destiny had once bound them together, but now destiny had betrayed him. He reached for her in vain.

“Or is it just a dream?”

As he continued to fall the darkness swallowed him. Every once of light was consumed by the darkness. Every reason to remain, every reason to exist had been stolen from him. He hadn’t the strength to reclaim it. He hadn’t the strength to fight the current. He hadn’t the will power to keep himself from falling.

“If this is all a dream then does anything matter?”

He plunged into the black abyss. Falling and falling. All hope of rising had been extinguished. He was consumed, mind, body, and soul…

\\//
//\\

Alyx awoke in a cold sweat, breathing heavily with his knuckles turned white with how hard he gripped the bedsheets. He’d had that dream again, that recurring nightmare that had plagued him for the last month.

This dream was more than not ordinary, dreaming itself was a new sensation for Alyx. Throughout all of his life he had yet to experience a dream. In fact he had no concept of what it was, no one did. This was a sensation completely unique to him and him alone.

Laying beside him was his beautiful girlfriend Elle, carelessly sleeping the night away, undisturbed by Alyx’s current state. The first few nights when Alyx has shot upright in bed and been woken by this new phenomenon Elle had joined him in an equal panic, a disturbed sleep would do that to most people.

After a month of this she had learned to ignore him and continue her slumber. She was unable to empathise with Alyx, she didn’t share in the phenomena that he experienced every night.

It was a confusing situation for all involved.

Alyx had consulted doctors and psychiatrists, many of whom flat out refused to believe his claims. Those that did simply diagnosed him with a vivid imagination and had claimed that he had never fallen asleep to begin with. Elle had confirmed that he was asleep, she had spent a few nights staying awake and watching him sleep. Still, there was no record of a dream occurring all through history, so all healers had no precedent in which to treat Alyx. Eventually even Elle had given up on rectifying this issue. As far as finding a solution to his problem was concerned he was on his own.

Elle was ever the optimist, she had concluded that since these night terrors had started abruptly then eventually they would pass just as abruptly. Alyx wasn’t convinced, he was terrified of the idea that these dreams would plague him for the rest of his life.

He was right. He just didn’t know it yet.

But this was becoming routine, tonight being no different he continued with said routine. After waking from his slumber he would get up, go to the bathroom, soak his face in cold water then prepare for his day.

He felt so frustrated though. Not just with this situation, but with his life. Every day was beginning to blend into the next, and the vibrant love he once had for his humble existence was quickly fading away.

A soak in the tub for a few hours usually calmed him down. Then he had a big healthy breakfast and got ready for work. He usually left the apartment early in the morning, well before Elle even woke up.

His work uniform was standard business attire. A brown suit, white shirt, and a suffocating tie wrapped around his neck that felt more like a noose than a clothing accessory. The outfit was even more suffocating when he boarded the subway daily, stuffed inside the car with a group of people who were equally as miserable.

He wished he could lash out. Attack everyone that mindlessly went along with this spirit breaking routine. But he too mindlessly followed the social norm and was an automaton much like them.

He was a good and productive member of society. Not some sort of psycho who would lash out on his fellow worker bee. Besides, what did he really have to complain about? In twelve hours he’d come home to Elle and all would be well.

The trip to the office building takes an hour, sometimes more, never less. The trip home is the same.

The work day consists of the same activities it does every day. Arrive, boot up the laptop, go get a coffee (the third of the day), sit down and meticulously work through expense reports for two hours, then the 10am daily meeting with his department.

Everyone is there, the same people every day. There’s the General Manager Luke, Alyx’s direct supervisor Daniel, and his three coworkers, Shelly, Rusty, and Alyx’s least favourite co-worker, Jerome.

Everyone working with Alyx is slimy. He has no love for any of them, but Jerome is on a whole nother level of sleaze. The best performing worker in the entire department. His attitude is fake, more so than everyone else. He’s so friendly but one look in your eyes tells you that this isn’t his true nature. He’s a psycho, able to lie to a person’s face without any hint of remorse.

Shelly is easily a better worker than Jerome, she just doesn’t have the manufactured people skills that Jerome displays. It costs her dearly. In spite of her insane work output she’s regularly late, rude, and insubordinate. Alyx suspects that the only reason she hasn’t been fired is because she’s having an affair with their supervisor Daniel.

Rusty, what can be said about Rusty? He’s reliable, he’s been around forever. He knows the ins and outs of this office better than anyone. If not for their environment Alyx often thought that they could be good friends.

They sat down in the morning meeting with Daniel and Luke, it was more of the same. Optimise revenue, maximise profits. Shelly, Rusty and Jerome would contribute with observations and suggestions, a lot of the same suggestions that they’d made previously. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Alyx often found it hard to pay attention. This often earned him the ire of Daniel. Luke was not concerned with the peons, he considered himself above them, but Daniel cared, he cared deeply. He needed to be above them, he needed them to understand that he was better than them. The fact that Alyx didn’t fear him drove him mad.

At least once a week following the weekly meeting Daniel would pull Alyx into his office and berate him. Today was one of those days.

“Look the fucking door!” Daniel’s tone suggested that he was in no mood to be trifled with. Alyx complied with his order, closing and locking the door to the office that oversaw the bullpen. “What’s your problem today Alyx? Was the meeting too boring for you?”

It was, but Alyx wasn’t about to admit it. He was smarter than that. “I’m sorry Daniel, I had another interrupted sleep. I’m just feeling tired.”

Daniel scoffed, this excuse was becoming old. “You’re a nutjob Alyx, and you need professional help.”

Alyx agreed, “I’ve looked into it boss. The experts say there’s nothing they can do for me.”

“Of course there’s nothing they can do for you. You’re certifiable. If not for the fact that you do an adequate job around here I’d have you thrown out on the streets with the rest of the psychotics.”

“I appreciate you keeping me around sir.” Alyx’s mind wandered for a brief moment, he imagined himself leaping onto Daniel’s desk and punt-kicking him right in the nose before taking his keyboard and bashing him over the head with it. He snapped out of his fantasy when Daniel began snapping his fingers in front of his face.

“Pay attention Alyx, for fuck sake.” Daniel dropped his hand and began typing away on his keyboard. “This has got to stop, you’re officially on report laddy, that means you’re receiving an official warning. Get a second and you’ll be suspended without pay, a third and I can actually finally throw you out on the streets. Understood.”

This was the fifth time Alyx had received his “first” warning and history suggested that it wouldn’t be his last. “Understood sir. Thank you.”

“Now get the fuck back to work.”

Alyx nodded his head and scurried away as he always did. A month ago these meetings wouldn’t affect him at all, he would have brushed it off without a moment’s hesitation. Now though, the way Daniel spoke to him, the sheer disrespect that this man displayed, it was enough to drive Alyx insane. Before he could return to his work station he had to scurry away to the stairwell. The only place that offered solace in this busy office building.

Alyx screamed, a blood curdling scream, the warcry of a warrior. A warrior pushed to the brink of breaking down, with no outlet for his rage. He punched the wall, the exact same white brick that he punched every work day. He punched until his knuckles bled and then he punched some more. This exercise had become routine, ever since the dreams had begun to plague him, ever since the satisfaction he felt with his life died.

The once white brick was stained red, Alyx’s knuckles throbbed in pain. He inhaled then exhaled, closing his eyes as he began to calm down. When he opened them again the blood stains on the wall were gone and the pain in his knuckles had subsided. When he examined his fists there was no evidence of his fit. Just like every other day previous.

This phenomena, much like the dreams, scared Alyx. So badly that he kept it to himself. The dreams were one thing, everyone thought he was crazy because of them, but this? How could he possibly explain this?

Still, it was cathartic to assault the stairwell with no repercussions. With a deep breath he returned to his station and continued on with his long and soul crushing work day.

Alyx was disgusted to find Jerome waiting for him at his desk, with two coffee’s in hand. One for himself, and one for Alyx.

“Hey buddy, you look like you could use a friend.”

“Not now Jerome, I’m in no mood for this.”

“Come on Alyx, when are you going to open that great big heart of yours and let me in?” Jerome was persistent, that was for sure. But the way he looked at Alyx made him feel like all Jerome wanted was to peel off his skin and wear it. “I got your favourite, maple frappe!”

Fucking Shelly, her and Alyx had once gotten coffee together. She must have remembered his order and told Jerome just to make him mad.

Alyx sighed as he dropped down into his office chair. It seemed there was no getting rid of Jerome. Plus the smell of maple had just hit his nostrils, he could hardly resist the coffee. “Thanks Jerome. How much do I owe you?”

“Not a dime Alyx, this is what friends do for each other.”

“We’re not friends.” He replied rather abruptly.

“Of course we are Alyx, and don’t you worry. I appreciate good ribbing between comrades as much as the next lad.” Jerome hiked himself up on the edge of Alyx’s desk, making himself comfortable as he sipped his own sugar filled beverage. “Oooh, far too hot, you’re going to have to blow on yours first chum.”

Alyx tried his best to ignore his “friend” by going back to working on his expense reports.

“It sounds like Daniel really let you have it today. Do you want to talk about it?”

“I’d really rather not if it’s all the same to you.”

“You’re really not a bad guy, I could have a word with Daniel and ask him to give you a break. It’ll mean a lot coming from me.”

“You do seem to be the golden child around here.”

“It’s just my magnetic personality, everyone wants to be friends with me. Even curmudgeons like you who are too afraid of their feelings to admit it. But that’s okay. As your friend, possibly bestie, I forgive you.”

“Isn’t that swell?” Alyx’s voice dripped with sarcasm. Jerome of course was unperturbed by his attitude.

“Of course. Well anyway Alyx, I need to get back to work. I’ll have a chat with Daniel for you. You keep your head up mate. We all love you around here.”

Alyx didn’t even lift his head up to bid Jerome farewell. He kept it down and continued to work until quitting time.

The subway ride home was somehow even more suffocating than the trip to work. Alyx felt hot, during the ride he loosened his tie. Even with it hanging loosely from his neck he still felt like it was squeezing his throat.

In a panic he began to frantically work the tie, desperately attempting to remove it. His fellow passengers gave him a wide berth. Eventually he was successful in removing his tie. Not only that, everyone else on the subway avoided coming close to him, for the first time since he could remember, he could breathe on the subway.

Not only that, he could see out the window. Of course all he had to look at was the suffocating tube that the cart was travelling down. The darkness causes the window to reflect his visage back at him. Except it wasn’t his face staring back at him. It was the face of a demon. A black face with green accents.

Alyx blinked, the face was gone, replaced by his own reflection.

What was that? Another phenomenon like the terrors that woke him during the night and the self-cleaning white brick in the stairwell at work?

It wasn’t worth thinking about. The last thing Alyx needed was another source of overwhelming stress. Speaking of stress, in all the commotion Alyx had missed his stop.

He arrived home far later than normal, to a darkened and lonely apartment. Elle should have been there to greet him. Instead what greeted him was a note left on the dining table.

Dear Alyx,

Let’s not pretend that things have been going well lately. You know as well as I do that this relationship has become strained, it’s been poisoned.

You’re not you anymore. These terrors at night have changed you. You were once so warm and loving, now you’re spiteful, filled with hate. All you can talk about is how miserable you are. How much you hate your routine, how you’re stuck in a rut.

That used to not matter to you. You used to be able to shrug off any annoyance. As you put it, you had me to come home to, how could any problem stand up to that?

You’re losing your mind and it breaks my heart to have to watch the man I love slowly die and slip away from me.

It hurts having to sit by and do nothing while doctor after doctor chalks your issues up to an over imaginative mind that can’t accept reality as fact.

No one in the world is afflicted like you are, and I’m starting to believe that you’re not afflicted the way you believe you are.

You don’t hold me anymore. You don’t shower me with affection anymore. You don’t love me like you used to.

I can’t sit by and watch us wither and slowly die. I refuse to.

With a broken heart I have to bid you adieu. This is goodbye, please don’t come after me. I don’t love you anymore.

- Elle xoxo


She’d left him. He was blindsided to say the least.

Today has been a long day. Today has been a devastating day. All Alyx wanted to do was sleep. But he knew that even that reprieve would be denied.

\\//
//\\

He plunged into the cold abyss once again. Reaching for the edge of the world, trying desperately to hang on to anything.

He fell.

They looked down on him, all of them. They were glad to be rid of him.

Not one of them offered him a hand. No one wanted to save him.

He’d have to save himself. But he couldn’t, he wasn’t capable of saving himself. As much as they hated him, he hated himself so much more.

Fuck him.

The darkness swallowed him just as it had so many nights previously. Only this time the all consuming darkness subsided. His eyes opened and stung. He was encased in water. Floating, no longer falling. In front of him was medical equipment, a gurney, an operating table, and the walls were decorated with complicated looking equipment.
A man approached him, tapping the tip of his pen against the glass case that he was trapped inside. He opened his mouth but his voice was silent. The man was middle aged, on the heavier side, with black rimmed glasses. A surgical mask and bandana obscured the rest of his features.

Behind him was a second man, a hooded man. Leaning in the doorway with his arms crossed over his chest. His face was shrouded under the hood. He couldn’t make out any of his features. He appeared to be conversing with the other man, who had to be a doctor or a scientist, his lab coat gave that away.

He stared out at his surroundings for as long as he possibly could. The doctor began to act frantically, he dropped onto a chair and began to batter the keys at his computer. The hooded figure dropped his lackadaisical stance and his body language suggested concern.

His eyes grew heavy and closed.

\\//
//\\

Alyx awoke again in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. Out of breath and desperately sucking in air. Tonight’s phenomena was different. For the first time in a month. He reached across the bed, looking for Elle.

Oh yeah, she had left him. He was all alone.

Tears stained his pillow, how could he have forgotten?

He wanted desperately for her to be here with him, so that he could tell her how sorry he was, so that he could promise to change. But these terrors still plagued him, they were the source of all his misery.

He wanted to tell her that it was different tonight. She was the only one who could understand.

He never felt so alone.

The routine continued. He bathed, he dressed, he ate.

Today’s tie felt as tight a noose as it ever had before.

The subway was just as packed as ever, though some faces recognised him from the previous evening’s trip home. These people avoided Alyx and he was glad.

Work was the same. A never ending stream of wasted time and frustration. Today he found a cup of maple frappe waiting for him, compliments of Jerome no doubt. How he wished that this friendly fiend would leave him alone.

The daily meeting was as disengaging as the previous day’s. Daniel was just as angry and frustrated with Alyx as he was previously. Alyx was given his first official warning yet again.

In the stairwell Alyx screamed. Today’s scream was blood curdling. He ripped his lungs apart, not just out of misery over his routine, but for the loss of his beloved.

The white brick was stained red and miraculously fixed itself.

Alyx sat back down at his desk. His head throbbed. The sound of chatter rattled him like hammers striking the inside of his skull. Rusty and Shelly were deep in argument.

“Maybe if you were half as good as you think you are you could actually get away with half of what I do!” She shouted at him. It appears that they were engaged in their usual spat. Rusty felt like Shelly was disrespecting him and the workplace by coming and going as she pleased. She felt that her work ethic was unquestionable, least of all by a man who fancied himself as in charge.

“It’s just a shame that not all of us can sleep with the boss to get ahead.” His accusation was unfounded and a little sexist which served no purpose other than to get under Shelly’s skin. Just like Rusty wanted.

“I am not sleeping, nor will I ever sleep with Daniel!”

That was a bold faced lie, Alyx was sure of it. If they weren’t already sleeping together then they both desperately wanted to. He wished they would just bang already and get it over with.

Alyx tried his best to drown out the noise with work. He picked up a sheet of paper, another expense report. But the words and numbers printed made no sense. Instead of the usual report this was a jumbled nonsensical mess. The letters didn’t even resemble letters, they were smudged scratches on the paper.

He put the page down and rubbed his eyes, examining it a second time only to confirm its state of nonsensicality. Shelly and Rusty were still screaming at one another, Jerome had decided to intervene.

“Come on guys, we’re all friends here. Can’t we talk this out like civilised human beings?”

“FUCK OFF JEROME!”
“FUCK OFF JEROME!”

They shouted in unison, wanting Jerome to fuck off was about the only topic they agreed on.

Alyx wished they’d all shut up. He wished he could boot them all in the jaw and shut them up himself. He wanted to take the three of them outside and make them bite the curb so that he could stomp them one by one.

The disgusting and violent thoughts filled him with glee.

But another look at the paper tore away that sense of satisfaction. He reached into the stack of completed reports and began to read them all one by one. They matched the new report. But that was impossible, all of these reports had been reviewed by him previously. They all bore his stamp of completion.

He’d been working too long and too hard. The arguing was still going on. He decided to call it a day. An early day, it would be the first time he’d ever taken off early. This was definitely out of the ordinary, it broke the routine.

Alyx didn’t inform anyone that he was leaving. He quietly snuck off into the stairwell and made a swift exit.

When he arrived at the station he found that the subway was out of service and that service would not recommence until his usual quitting time.

This struck him as unusual, the one and only time he’d left work early as the subway system was down? Of course he’d never come to the station at this time before, maybe maintenance was regularly carried out during work hours.

Alyx decided to kill some time at the park.

It was odd being outside at this time. Usually by the time he arrived at work and when he left at the end of the day it was dark out. He usually never spent time outside during the day, let alone visit a park.

He found a nice bench overlooking the path that circled around the lush greenery. The throbbing in his head had subsided. All he needed was a break. The break wouldn’t last long as his phone vibrated urgently. He pulled his phone out from his pocket, it was Daniel asking where he was most likely, except all the words on screen were jumbled. Just like the paper.

Alyx’s head began to throb again. His attention however was snapped from his phone by a figure walking past. The hooded figure from his night vision. Alyx spotted him from across the park in the corner of his eye. He dropped his phone in the rush as he hurried after the figure.

“Hey!” He called out to the figure as he began to close the distance between them.

The hooded figure looked back over his shoulder. His visage was still shrouded from under the hood. The man broke into a sprint just as Alyx was about to gain on him.

He was fast.

Almost inhumanly fast.

Alyx chased him as well as he could. Keeping pace for a few moments. The figure led him out of the park and onto the streets. The figure ran through traffic almost expertly, weaving between moving cars which didn’t react to his presence at all.

Alys hesitated when he arrived at the curb, but he couldn’t allow this opportunity to learn more about the phenomena that plagued him slip away. He ran into the street, immediately into the path of a moving car. He was lucky that the driver reacted as quickly as they did, hitting the breaks and stopping just short of running over Alyx.

Alyx slammed his hands on the hood and then continued on, making it across the road with only three vehicles having to stop for him.

The hooded man was quite far ahead, but Alyx could still see them. They rounded a corner and Alyx followed suit. Round the bend he lost track of them, he stopped frantically turning on the spot, looking for anywhere that they could have disappeared. He spotted an alleyway nearby, that had to be where they were. He ran toward it, running part way down before discovering it was a dead end.

The alleyway was all brick, no fences, no doors. Just a laneway in the middle of a large building. It made no sense. Alyx slowly walked back to the entrance, he looked out at the street. There was nowhere else that the hooded man could have escaped to. He turned to look down the alley again, confirming that it was in fact a dead end and that the hooded man was not there.

A few hours later Alyx boarded the subway and went home to his empty and lonely apartment.

His head throbbed, he felt too ill to eat. He simply went to bed and closed his eyes, immediately falling into a deep slumber.

\\//
//\\

“Something weird is definitely going on with him. His behaviour was just plain weird, and he chased after me, it’s almost like he recognised me.” The hooded figure rubbed his chin as he leant against the doorframe and addressed the doctor. “Have you got any theories Dr. Smith?”

“He’s becoming stronger.” Smith grumbled from behind the computer monitor. “It isn’t right. He should be losing strength, not gaining. The purpose of the dream is to reintegrate him into subject 52. Not for him to absorb more of 52’s power.”

“So what do we do about it?”

“We need to bring him earlier than planned.”

The hooded man crossed the room, approaching the tank. He bent over slightly and examined its contents. “What’s that going to do to the big man here?”

“Don’t worry about your friend. His ability to rebuild himself is outstanding. Even if the dreamer doesn’t complete its task, he will still come out of this as powerful as he ever was. But we need to bring the dreamer here as soon as possible.”

“Right, suppose I’ll get right on that then.”

“Steady your hand, you’re a last resort. We want to interfere with the dream as little as possible. But that doesn’t mean we can’t change the parameters.”

A smile crept its way over the hooded man’s face. It was the only part of his visage that the dreamer could make out from inside the tank. Bubbles floated as he exhaled.

The hooded figure gritted his teeth and backed away, clutching at his hood and making sure to obscure his identity. “I think he can see us now.”

“It doesn’t matter. He can’t hear us. Besides, he’s unique, dreaming is new to him. He doesn’t understand what he’s seeing.”

\\//
//\\

Alyx immediately sat up and turned onto his knees. He began laying into his pillow and then his mattress with closed fists. Screaming, foaming at the mouth, spitting all over. He grabbed the pillow and swung it wildly, feathers began to fly out from the tears in it as he began to destroy his bedroom.

He knocked the lamp down from his bed stand, it shattered upon impact with the hardwood floor. The alarm clock was similarly destroyed. Alyx tosses the tattered remains of the pillow across the room and fell onto his back, staring up at the ceiling, tearing away at his hair as tears welled up in the corners of his eyes.

Alyx tried his best to adhere to his routine. Bathing first, taking longer than usual. He sat in the tub until the water was freezing cold. Similarly, he spent a long time staring at himself in the mirror. Dripping wet, leaving a puddle in the bathroom as he left to get dressed. He didn’t bother drying off properly. His work attire was unkempt, his tie hanging loosely from his neck. His shirt barely buttoned up, enough to cover his torso. His belt was fastened lazily, the end was left untucked. His socks didn’t even match.

He scoffed down a quick breakfast and was late for his train. Fortunately a second train was quick to arrive.

He arrived at work, later than normal but still earlier than most.

Alyx slumped down in his seat, on his desk was a fresh stack of expense reports waiting for his approval. The lettering was a jumbled mess on each and every one. Alyx picked up the stack and carried them off to the break room. He dropped them in the communal bin and found a box of matches. Shelly and Daniel were avid smokers, it was likely that one of them had left this behind. Alyx opened the box and found one last match inside. He struck the match and lit the box, making sure it was burning nicely before dropping it into the bin.

After a few moments the smoke reached the detector above and the emergency sprinkler system was activated.

In the movies when this happens every sprinkler in the building would activate. This is what Alyx expected to happen, unfortunately only the sprinkler above the fire was activated.

Alyx was soaked, and watched in dismay as the fire was put out. At least the expense reports had perished. Alyx could find solace in that.

He remained in the breakroom for the remainder of the morning. Until it was time for the morning meeting. Jerome was sent to collect Alyx.

“Hey buddy!” Jerome was perky and as always, far too friendly.

Alyx shot him a look to suggest that any further attempt at extending the olive branch of friendship would result in the immediate end of Jerome’s life. Jerome was not deterred.

“Come on Alyx, it’s time for the morning meeting!” Jerome took Alyx by the wrist and dragged him to the conference room where the daily meeting was always held.

Everyone was already there. Daniel, Shelly, Rusty, and Luke. They didn’t seem to pay any attention to Alyx’s dishevelled look. They ignored him as he often did them. But when the meeting finally came to an end Daniel confronted him.

“My office, now!” Daniel hissed through gritted teeth.

Shelly could be heard giggling from afar. Rusty was spotted shaking his head and Jerome offered Alyx a friendly look and two thumbs up. Alyx wanted to break those thumbs more than he wanted to smash Daniel’s stupid face in right now.

Alyx followed Daniel into his office, he wasn’t sure why he bothered. It was a force of habit. He even locked the door behind without Daniel having to prompt him.

“You’d better have a good explanation for yesterday Alyx.”

He didn’t, but he offered one nonetheless. “I’m sick of it Daniel. I’m sick of working here. I’m sick of doing the same thing every day. The rut is killing me. I want more, I want to be anywhere else but here!”

Daniel, like all corporate bootlickers in supervisory positions, was completely unsympathetic with the pain of his compatriots. “What do you mean you want to be anywhere else but here? There’s nowhere but here. How have you not wrapped your thick psychotic mind around that?”

“You might be right, and if you are then what’s the fucking point in going on?”

“I’ll tell you what Alyx, there’s no point in you going on my friend. Because today you’ve finally earned warning number two and three. You’re donzo bozo.”

“You’re firing me?”

“And it’s been a long time coming. Let’s be frank, I don’t like you, I’ve never liked you. You think you’re on my level but you’re not, you’re below me, just like the rest of these fucking peons.”

“I’m fired?”

“Absolutely mate. You’re gone and buried as far as the corporation is concerned. Now you just sit tight, the cops are on their way to escort you out.”

“You waited until after the daily fucking meeting to fire me?” Alyx saw red, it was overwhelming.

He lept up onto Daniel’s desk and reeled his leg back, just like he had fantasised dozens of times before. He let loose a kick that caught the awe-struck Daniel right on the nose. Breaking it immediately. Blood began to piss from both nostrils as Daniel fell back from his chair and onto the carpeted floor below.

Alyx wasn’t finished there, he hopped down from the desk and picked up Daniel’s keyboard. He began to smash it down over Daniel’s prone body, pulling his entire computer along with it as he bashed his former supervisor with the fury of a thousand exploding suns. Keys flew off in each and every direction.

When the keyboard finally broke in half, Alyx tossed it aside and took a moment to calm down. Turning his back to Daniel and doubling over his desk to catch his breath. He didn’t expect Daniel to rise and wrap the cord of the keyboard around his neck.

Alyx fought desperately as Daniel let out a blood-curdling scream. The door to Daniel’s office began to rattle with the sound of knocking and Jerome’s frantic voice squealing.

“Hey! Hey! You two better not be fighting in there! You’re both my best friend and I can’t stand it when friends fight! Open the door! Open the door!”

Daniel grabbed Alyx by the hair and pulled him down in a clutch, raising his knee and striking Alyx in the face.

Alyx began to have flashbacks, seeing the same knee fly from out of nowhere and strike him in the face. Knocking him unconscious. But he’s never had a fight before, let alone been struck with a flying knee.

He began to fade, his eyelids becoming heavy as Daniel attempted to knock him out cold. His head was on fire.

But the pain subsided, it began to fade away, his nose which had been disfigured and broken by Daniel’s knee had miraculously healed itself. He was unaffected.

Still, memories of Daniel kneeing him were flashing through his mind. Terrifying memories that brought feelings of shame and made him feel like a victim. Like a loser.

Rage bubbled over again, Alyx caught Daniel’s knee and then swept both legs. Daniel hit the ground hard, gritting his teeth in pain as he slowly turned over onto his front. Instinct kicked in and Alyx grabbed both of Daniel’s wrists, pulling back and raising his face from the floor. He placed his foot on the back of Daniel’s head and stomped down with tremendous force.

Daniel had been put down. Possibly for good.

Everyone in the bullpen was standing by, the commotion inside the office was too juicy to ignore. They were all in on what the plan was, all except for Jerome. Alyx was to finally be let go. This was to the relief of Shelly and Rusty, who in spite of their differences could both agree that Alyx was a cunt and needed to be gotten rid of. It would be a cherry on top if Daniel had to kick his ass before booting him from the building.

Suddenly, Daniel’s chair flew through the closed shades and window overlooking the bullpen. Glass flew out everywhere. Alyx followed, leaping through the broken window and immediately going after Rusty. Throwing an elbow that caught him right in the throat. He then picked up a monitor and smashed it over his head.

Shelly jumped on Alyx’s back from behind and wrapped her arms around his neck, choking him. Jerome could be heard shrieking some more but was ignored. Alyx rushed backward, smashing Shelly against a concrete pillar in the middle of the office.

Alyx then turned his attention toward Jerome.

There is not a word that could accurately describe the elation Alyx felt when he finally got his hands on Jerome. The violence that proceeded was unlike anything seen before. But it was cathartic.

The only problem was that it was cut off by the arrival of the police, just as Daniel had promised. But Alyx had managed to sneak out of the building through the stairwell before they could ascertain the situation.

For the first time in his life, Alyx felt like a free man.

With his newfound freedom Alyx decided to pay the park another visit. Maybe he’d get lucky and find the hooded figure again.

Luck was not on his side however. The hooded figure was nowhere to be found, and he was being pursued by the police. His phone blew up with calls, he promptly discarded it in a public bin.

He evaded foot patrols as best he could. Sticking to the bushes until he spotted a salvation army store. Alyx went inside and traded his business suit for a donated pair of slacks and a hoodie.

At least now he could remain inconspicuous.

Nightfall fell over the city, it was time for Alyx to take the subway home. But he didn’t, that apartment wasn’t home, not anymore. Elle was gone, his room destroyed, his life was in tatters. His life was a joke, only serving to make him suffer. What reason did he have to return to it?

Alyx wandered the streets instead. For the first time in a long time he felt good. Today he had done something which had made him happy. He fought, and he wanted to fight some more.

Street fighting was not something Alyx was accustomed to. He wasn’t quite sure how to pursue that endeavour. He figured the best way was to find a seedy bar. And boy did he find a seedy looking bar.

A club called Carnal Instinct. Filled to the brim with shady looking characters. The drinks were flowing, and fighting was encouraged. A makeshift ring was erected in the middle of the bar. A set of plastic crates surrounding a sand pit.

It was perfect.

Alyx sat back and watched fight after fight occur. A woman posing as a vampire beat up a witch. Another masked man with antenna protruding from his head employed dirty tactics to take down a pair of lumberjacks, throwing sand in their eyes whilst his height deficient friend attacked their most vital areas.

It was a bit of a joke but Alyx had enough fun watching.

Groans filled the bar as a man wearing a mankini began to roll around with a second vampire whilst techno music played. Apparently this was a bit of a tradition in the bar, one that elated most of the patrons, and infuriated the other half. All it served to do was set off one group against the other.

It was perfect.

Alyx had to join in, and he did. Hopping into the ring before the next fight could occur. He inhaled and slowly circled around, examining all onlookers and potential opponents.

He cleared his voice and addressed all patrons, “I want to fight each and every one of you cunts. Ya hear? I’m going to knock all of you out and I’m not even going to break a sweat doing it.”
These were fighting words. The bar was outraged. Alyx was overjoyed to find volunteers lining up to fight him. But he threw his hands up, “I didn’t say I’d fight you one at a time, I said I’ll take you all on.”

The sleepless nights must have been getting to him. He truly believed he could take on everyone at the same time.

The battle went by in the blur. Alyx laughed as he brought down fighter after fighter. Multiple combatants at a time. He was untouchable. Everytime he was brought down and beaten he would quickly heal as if nothing had happened. He rose to his feet each and every time and brought down all of his attackers.

A cowboy. A burly heavy set man. A circus performer. The antennaed masked man and his height deficient friend. Every vampire, every mankini sporting weirdo. Lumberjacks, badasses, witches and more. They all fell at the feet of a man who had been teetering on the edge for months and had finally fallen off the deep end.

Alyx smashed bottles over people’s heads, threw punches, elbows, knees, and eventually settled on an attack that involved him throwing his entire being into a stiff strike using his entire arm. Necks were broken. Discs were ruptured. Men and women alike were thrown from high structures.

When the dust settled Alyx was left the last man standing. Laughing, with a grin stretching from ear to ear, tears welling up in the corners of his eyes. But not tears of pain or frustration, tears of pure joy.

This is what he was meant to do. This is what has been missing from his life. This is why he was plagued at night by visions. He was empty inside, there was a gaping hole that needed to be filled, and Alyx found that he could plug that hole with pure unadulterated violence.

He slept well that night. In the bushes in the park, under the night sky. The stars never shone so bright, never looked as beautiful as they did that night.

\\//
//\\

“It seems your services will be required after all.” The doctor was slumped over a computer console, tapping away at keys whilst occasionally glancing at the subject inside the glass enclosure.

The hooded figure had just entered the room with his fists clenched at his sides. “What’s the situation Doc?”

“Alyx had grown far too powerful for his own good, and subject 52 is suffering for it. We need to bring him in ahead of schedule.”

“Understood.” The hooded figure approached the glass, placing his open palm on the cold glacial surface. Peering inside at the man inside. “Hang tight mate. I’m going to do whatever I can to save you.”

“It’s not him you should be worrying about. It’s your target. You must be careful out there, he’s grown beyond the scope of his potential.” The doctor takes a moment to clear his throat as he examines some data on the monitor in front of him. “It’s his dream out there, you may have to get creative to achieve your task.”

The hooded figure grunts as he takes his leave, lowering his hand from the glass before turning and beelining for the exit. He hesitates before leaving, looking back over his shoulder at the vat just one more time.

\\//
//\\

“You’re going to make it to Back in Business. You know that right? You’ve got this.”

“I’m not going to make it past Michelle.”

“Man, you doubt yourself too much. I mean look at you. Look at what you’ve accomplished. You sent Devin Golden packing once and for all. You survived the Cosmic playground. You’re a three time X Champion. You’re the only competitor from Ground Zero to ever become World Champion. Plus you’re the only dude around here who I consider cool enough to be my tag partner and frankly, you’re my best mate.”

“Huh, that’s all correct. You make some good points. Well if I’m going to make it to Back in Business I’m going to need an insane challenger to beat.”

“Absolutely, Chris. Guess I’ll be seeing you there. In the main event.”

Alyx’s eyes fluttered open as he muttered quietly to himself. It was still nighttime. The park was peaceful. It was mostly quiet, the only noise around served to enhance the ambiance. The buzzing of streetlamps, the sound of crickets chirping. It was perfect.

He’s had another one of those night visions, but this one didn’t inspire complete terror inside him. He didn’t wake up in a cold sweat. No, he felt invigorated. The emptiness, the frustration, it had all faded. He had a goal and he wanted to achieve it. But he didn’t quite understand what the goal was. Who was the moustachioed figure he was speaking to? Alyx had to find him, he wanted to fight him. He felt like he owed it to the man.

As Alyx laid down staring at the sky he felt a presence approach. The sound of footsteps crunching on grass captured his attention. Alyx sat up and looked back over his shoulder at the hooded man from his earlier visions.

“Hey there buddy. It’s time to go home.”

Alyx sprung to his feet, he raised his fists, ready to defend himself. “I’m not going back home, I’m not going back to my old life. I’ve found a new purpose.”

“That’s nice, but I’m afraid you don’t have a choice, you’re coming with me whether you like it or not.”

Alyx began to circle the hooded figure, taking in the sight of him, looking for an opening. The hooded figure remained aloof. His stance was relaxed, he wasn’t making an effort to keep up his defences.

“Who are you anyway? I’ve been seeing you at night.”

“I’m just an old familiar face, but who I am doesn’t really matter. What does matter is who you are. Or should I say, "what” you are.”

The figure lunged, striking Alyx with a knee strike right to the face. Alyx had no hope of defending himself, the hooded figure was otherworldly, swift, striking like a wolf going for the kill.

Alyx was immediately and quickly put down.

“I expected something more from you. Guess you weren’t as big a parasite as Smith believed.” The hooded figure sighed as he reached down, grabbing Alyx by the wrist so that he could drag him away, “Goodnight sweet prince.”

Alyx’s eyes shot open. He grabbed the hooded figure by the wrist and pulled himself up to his feet. With the figure in close quarters Alyx began to unleash a violence party upon him. Striking him with rapid fire punches, elbows and headbutts. The hooded figure ate them for breakfast. Grunting as he absorbed every blow.

Until his hood was knocked back, revealing his face.

The most distinguishing feature of the man was his moustache. It was his signature, the rest of him could almost be described as goofy, unassuming. It was all by design, underneath this visage was a vicious killer.

Alyx stuttered, he recognised the face even though he’d never seen it before. He could even put a name to the face. “Krash?”

Krash was unamused, he immediately pulled Alyx into a chokehold. Slamming him into the grass below and cranking his neck as hard and tight as he could.

“I’m sorry, but someone I love is suffering because of you. I can’t afford to take it easy on ya. Go to sleep Alyx, all your pain will subside soon.”

Krash’s voice was soothing and Alyx couldn’t help but to blindly trust it. He began to fade, because Krash asked him to.

But the spell didn’t last. Alyx snapped out of his stupor and began to fight back. Raining down punches into Krash’s ribs until his grip loosened. Alyx fought out of the chokehold and was immediately kicked back by Krash. Both men sprung to their feet and lunged toward one another. They began throwing lefts & rights, kicks, elbows and headbutts.

At first Krash was overwhelming Alyx, for every haymaker Alyx threw Krash was able to block it and land two shots of his own. But the longer the fight progressed the stronger Alyx seemed to become. All damage that was inflicted on Alyx seemed to heal almost instantly and Alyx’s speed increased exponentially. He was eventually able to keep pace with the moustachioed man.

Precision was replaced with barbarity. Krash stopped blocking attacks and focused on giving back just as hard as he was taking shots. But Alyx could take it and more, he could even dish it out just as hard as Krash.

The Moustache Maverick was beginning to lose.

Alyx overwhelmed his opponent, dropping Krash to his knees and raising his fist for one final blow. As Alyx let out a warcry a weapon suddenly materialised in his hand. A spike, belonging to the devil himself. Alyx plunged the spike into Krash’s heart. The Moustache Maverick spat out blood and slowly fell onto his back.

Alyx was devastated, the sight of Krash in this situation was upsetting to say the least. He dropped to his knees and examined his fallen foe. Reaching out to brush his lucious brown locks from his face.

Krash remained still and silent for a moment, before suddenly coughing up blood. He reached for the spike lodged in his chest and pulled it free. The wound slowly closed, healing almost instantly.

A smile broke out over Krash’s face. Alyx was dumbfounded.

“Come on Alyster, you know that move doesn’t work on me.” Something snapped inside Alyx, but he didn’t react with rage, he was completely stunned. That name Krash had just spoken, it wasn’t his, but it also was his name.

Krash sprung back up to his feet then into the air. He landed atop a light post then lept even higher into the air, just as the sun had begun to rise. Right at day break Krash fell from the heavens and delivered a Daybreaker that put Alyx down for good. No amount of supernatural healing would help him to recover. Not from an attack that Krash had put his very soul into.

\\//
//\\

“You’ve done well my friend. I trust the battle wasn’t too taxing on you.”

Krash dropped Alyx’s lifeless body down at the feet of Dr. Smith.

A small smirk crossed Krash’s lips as he felt his very being beginning to fade. “Ah it wasn’t a thing. I could have fought this guy a dozen times over.” Krash’s body began to dissipate, dissolve into nothingness. He looked over at the vat one last time then down at Alyx who was beginning to stir. “I know he’d have done the same for me.”

“Indeed. Thank you, your efforts have been most invaluable. I’ll make sure that he knows what you’ve sacrificed for him. He won’t forget you.”

“I hope not, this is a very memorable face. I work hard on this moustache afterall.” Krash smiled warmly at Alyx who watched as his Mustachioed foe disappeared before his very eyes.

“What…what happened to him?” Alyx spoke in a groggy tone. Dr. Smith turned his attention down toward him before walking over to one of the computer monitors.

“He sacrificed his very being to bring you here. The dream was no longer able to sustain his presence. In a sense he is dead. But the mind is a wonderful thing, it can conjure up another of his kind. All it needs is time to heal.”

Most of what Dr. Smith had said went over Alyx’s head. “Right…and who are you?”

“A friend, a confidant, but most importantly, a healer.”

“You’re the doctor I’ve been seeing in my visions.”

“Indeed, but those weren’t your visions. They were his.” Smith motions toward the vat at the end of the room. Alyx lifts his head, looking at the glass enclosure, inside of which is filled with water and housing “subject 52”, Alyster Black.

Floating in the water is Alyster’s mask and most of his body. There are parts missing, but it’s not gore that is displayed in the tank. Whatever is missing from Alyster is signified with blackness. Most notably there is a black void where his heart and most of his chest should be.

“What happened to him?”

“He has suffered a tremendous loss, one that would have been far too difficult to recover from if not for my intervention. That’s why I created this world, it’s why I gave you life. You see, you and he are one in the same.”

“He’s me?”


“Not quite, you are but a part of him. A part that needed to be exercised. It’s why I gave you life and allowed you to exist. You are the part of him that requires stimulation in order to heal. You are the shit. The rage, the selfish ambition, the bloodlust. You are his heart personified. But he needs his heart back, he has much to do, a lot to accomplish.”

“What will happen to me?”

“You will cease to be.”

The room began to shake. “That…that’s not fair. Why should I give up my life for this guy? Who the hell is he to take my life away from me? Who the hell are you to decide that? I’ve…I just found purpose. I just discovered what makes me happy. You can’t take that away from me. I won’t allow it!”

The rumbling intensified. The computer equipment around the lab began to spark and explode. Beakers shattered, monitors exploded, cabling attached to the vat released itself and spewed vapour into the air.

“Your life isn’t real. It was all a dream. You don’t have a life to give up, all you have to do is return home and make him complete. Wrap your head around that you fool.”

“Fuck that! I don’t want to give up a thing for this bastard, my life is my own. Not his!”

Dr. Smith shook his head in disappointment. The rumbling was growing out of control.

“This discussion is pointless, your compliance was never required anyway. For a brief moment you felt serenity, that’s more than a lot of people get.” Dr. Smith turned around, making his way to the door. He turned to look back over at the downed Alyx, “Goodbye Alyx. Thank you for your sacrifice.”

Alyx began to scream and fight. The room shook with fury as Alyx slowly began to rise to his feet. Dr. Smith was nowhere to be found. But that didn’t matter, a new target had presented itself. Alyx began to slowly step toward the vat. Each step was heavy, heavier than the last. He felt as if the Earth had swallowed his feet with each movement and it was a fight to make his next move. He eventually made it to the vat, weakly lifted his arms and slammed his fists against the glass impotently.

“It’s not fair.”

He repeated himself.

“It’s not fucking fair!”

His fists slammed against the glass over and over again. Until eventually he doubled over, his forehead touching the glass as his eyes closed. When they opened again Alyster was gone.

Alyx felt a presence, a blackness wrapped around him. Swallowing him whole.

“Fine…if that’s how it is…you’d better go all the way with it. You’d better beat Chris Peacock.”

Alyster Black stood in front of the vat. He spent a moment examining himself. Checking out his hands, stretching his muscles. Everything felt new, yet familiar. He reached for his face and felt the fabric of his signature mask. He felt whole again, and he was ready to wage war against the entire FWA.

“I promise.” He muttered quietly to himself. “They’re all fucked, every single one of them. And then I’m going after Chris.”

\\//
//\\
 

SupineSnake

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cc secret entrant #2: xperienx xtacee (nostradamus)









Xperiment

The relaxing and sultry sound of Marvin Gaye’s voice on his song “I Want You” plays throughout the luxurious casino and club known as “The Right Side of the Bed” in fabulous Las Vegas. The walls are covered in soft, pink, velvet-like padding, reminiscent of extremely expensive designer pillows.

A partially walled-off section near the entrance is lined with private booths that are large enough to hold at least six people, a few bottles of bubbly, and a couple of ashtrays. These private booths also come with red curtains to keep prying eyes away from whatever business the patrons are engaging in.

All around the establishment are gorgeous men and women, both employees and customers, from famous people down to average tourists, engaging in small talk and lively conversations. Various card and gambling tables cover the main floor and are absolutely crowded with people playing with their hard-earned money. Noticeably absent are slot machines… this establishment is too good for such an impersonal form of a game. On the other side of The RSB is an old school club dancefloor with alternating-colored lights underneath the feet of all the good-time having people.

Dead-center on the back wall, directly across from the entrance, is a beautiful, albeit very gaudy and flashy, stage. The railings around it are golden, the steps and platform are covered with fuzzy red carpeting, and two lights rest on either side of a beautiful wooden door that has “X.X.” carved into it. Standing behind the middle railing is a rose-gold microphone stand that holds a remarkably shiny silver microphone.

From the left side of the stage, we see a woman in a skin-tight, pink, glittery body suit with the name “Monica” on the back in white, making her way up the steps and in front of the microphone. She is of relatively average height, but her heels boost her up a few inches. Monica grips the microphone and begins speaking in a low, alluring, Australian accent.

“Ladies and gentlemen of The Right Side of the Bed, may I please have your attention center-stage.”

As she says this, The RSB comes down to almost complete silence, the only sound still being the music of Marvin Gaye, but at a much lower volume. The red lights in the building dim to set the mood.

“I’ve made the rounds and made a friend out of most everyone here, but in case it slipped your mind while you were all having fun, my name is Monica, and I’m here to make sure you all have a good time. Has everybody been having a good time tonight?”

The patrons and employees, absolutely captivated by her long and curly blonde hair, curvy figure, and large… presence, all cheer and raise their glasses in her direction.

“Mm mm mmm, am I glad to hear that, my lovelies. I’m feeling wonderful, you’re all looking wonderful, and the vibes here tonight are bouncing about as high as the corner booth, we hear you all having fun over there, hmhmhm.”

The crowd laughs at Monica’s teasing, which is one of the many reactions her form of teasing usually gets.

“Now we’ve reached that special time of the night, everyone. That time when you let your body relax, your mind wanders, your juices flow, and your mouth waters. That time of the night when you get to experience bliss, experience euphoria, and experience pure pleasure…”

The crowd “woos” and whistles as Monica moves her body around the microphone stand in a seductive manner. She leans in closer to the microphone and speaks in a moaning fashion.

“Ladies and gentlemen…hmmmpphhh, it's Him... Xperienx Xtacee.”

Monica motions towards the wooden door with “X.X.” carved into it as it opens and a cloud of smoke bellows out from it. Out comes a slender man in another skin-tight, pink, glittery body suit, but this time with the name “Antonio” written on the back in white. He is smiling and wiping his lips while seductively pointing at the opened door. The song in The Right Side of the Bed changes from Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” to Janet Jackson’s “That’s The Way Love Goes” and a blast of golden confetti comes flying out of the door.




The crowd in The RSB cheers, dances, and ogles as the owner of the place makes his way out through the smoke. Mr. Pillow-Talk, X, Him…. The Sensual Enigma known as Xperienx Xtacee. His hair long, dark, and curly, his skin a tasty shade of dark chocolate, his smile captivating, and his clothing a bright lilac. One shoulder covered by his top while the other side of his top is far below his chest, revealing his toned body. The sparkling of his top is only matched by the glistening of his shiny silver painted fingernails. The back of his top goes down to the floor where it meets his gorgeous platform boots in the same lilac color as the rest of his outfit.

The enthralling aura of Xperienx Xtacee changes the entire mood of The Right Side of the Bed. Everyone seems to be in the same mood of the man himself as he and Antonio make their way towards Monica. Xtacee and Monica share a quick romantic kiss, as do she and Antonio, and as do Xtacee and Antonio. The three of them are incredibly open and comfortable with one another, as evidenced by the series of displays of affection.

Xperienx flicks his wrist, and a rhinestone-encrusted cane comes popping out from under his right sleeve and the crowd pops at this eccentric display as he licks his lips and proceeds to point his cane at them. His theme music starts to get lower as he grips the microphone in his left hand and begins to speak.

“Monica, my dear, thank you so much for such a splendid introduction. You have always had such an affinity for the stage. I know you always perform your best for me.”

Monica giggles and playfully blows a kiss to X.

“And Antonio, I can’t forget about you, even though you haven’t said a word tonight, your mouth has definitely said a thousand.”

Antonio licks his lips and playfully rubs the side of his head as parts of the crowd laugh.

“Now everybody… allow me to reiterate what my darling Monica has already said. Thank you all for being here and making The Right Side of the Bed the most wonderful place in all of fabulous Las Vegas-no, the most fabulous place from sea to shining sea. Now I’m not the most patriotic, but there’s nothing more American than gambling, partying, love, music, and money, am I right?”

The crowd lets out a loud “Yeah!” followed by a sarcastic “USA! USA! USA!” chant.

“Oh heeheehee, you all are such a great crowd every single night. I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am without all of you!”

X and the crowd are all silent for a moment before a snorting sound comes from somewhere and X starts cracking up laughing, with the crowd following right behind him.

“See I can be funny too, we all know that every single one of us in this building would be great no matter what, it’s just who we all are, and I love all of us for that. It’s giving… perfection in the RSB tonight, am I right, my people?!”

The crowd cheers in agreement with X’s statement.

“In all seriousness, I do appreciate each and every single one of you. You’ve all supported and followed me through all my adventures. Now I’m embarking on another huge adventure in the world of entertainment, and I would love to have all my people join me for the ride. Antonio, honey, if you would please.”

Antonio reaches into X’s pocket and pulls out a folded-up paper. He unfolds it and presents it to the crowd. The paper is a poster for the upcoming show titled “Carnal Contendership 2023” by the wrestling promotion known as Fantasy Wrestling Alliance. Antonio, in a noticeably Californian accent, starts to address the crowd.

“My lovely Xperienx Xtacee is going to compete on one of the grandest stages possible! Some of you have seen Him compete in a wrestling ring before on a few of the independent circuits, but the FWA contacted The Right Side of the Bed and inquired about attaining the services of Him for one night. And what did you say dear?”

“I told them that I would never say no to a bet, a check, a fight, or a fu-… you all know the rest, hehehe.”

Antonio folds the paper back up and places it right back into X’s pocket.

“Your hand loves exploring, Antonio.”

X winks at Antonio, who blushes and waves his hand playfully.

“The Carnal Contendership is a wonderful concept. You win, and you’re in the main event of their grandest show, Back in Business, and it’s for the richest prize in FWA. Let me drop some knowledge here… a few of the things I’m known for in this world are business, riches, and anything to do with the word carnal… The next set of relations I have will be with 29 other people, which sounds like just another normal night for Xperienx Xtacee- “

The crowd laughs and cheers in response to Xtacee’s well-done joke.

“The difference in this case is that the climax only matters with for person this time. I’m going to have to personally finish off everyone in that match to be sure I go in on top and come out on top. Everybody knows I’m well-versed in many different positions, but what’s my favorite position? Monica?”

“Hmmm, well Isn’t it reverse- “


Antonio cuts her off with a laugh and interjects.

“Monicaaaaa, his favorite position is number one.”

“I love the both of you oh so much! But yes, number one. It’s the only time I enjoy coming first. I may not be the biggest, the strongest, or the fastest going into that match… But I know that I’m definitely the one that can say he lasts the longest in every way it counts.”

The crowd starts to chant the name of “Xtacee! Xtacee! Xtacee!” as he giggles and holds his hands over his heart to show his love for them.

“Ladies and gentlemen, come the finale of Carnal Contendership, I might not be signed to a one-shot deal. After I go all night long, I might have to go round, after round, after round, after round… you get my point, baby, my resolve is legendary. Apologies if my forthcoming absence in The RSB is deeply felt, but with something this big happening, I need to make sure I’m prepared. And both Monica and Antonio will be coming with me because they know how to prepare me better than any other person could. With my wonderful lovers by my side, even if I lose, I’m still a winner. We’re all still winners, baby.”

The crowd erupts into a loud cheer to celebrate the journey X is about to go on. They are mesmerized by this man and are excited for what he might be able to accomplish in the Carnal Contendership and in the FWA if he sticks around.

“Now for the rest of the night, drinks are on the house, but you still have to pay for everything else.”

Everybody laughs at his joke.

“I bid you all adieu, goodnight, and keep it freaky friends. Remember… Xperienx… Xtacee… always.”

With his final words to the crowd, Xtacee leaves back though the wooden door with Monica and Antonio as the crowd goes back to their activities. They walk down a very nice hallway, adorned with beautiful paintings of animals on the walls, until they reach an open elevator and step inside. It is entirely quiet in this elevator, no music to brighten the mood or flashy atmosphere to accompany them. Four blank walls, a door, a button panel, and thoughts, are all that surround them. X feels weight pushing down on his extravagant shoulders. Could this be doubt? Uncertainty? Pity? Is Mr. Pillow-Talk resting his head on the warm side of the pillow and unable to handle the heat coming his way? Is this the wrong decision? No, it can’t be, X is the greatest and he will always come out on top… Right?

“Right, I’ll always come out on top…”


“What was that dear?”

“Honey, something wrong?”

Monica and Antonio stare at Him, then each other, until they hear a loud ding. The elevator finishes its journey and stops once it reaches the top floor, that being Xperienx Xtacee’s penthouse atop The Right Side of the Bed.

The three of them walk out onto the balcony that is overlooking the fabulous scenery of the Las Vegas strip. Casinos, clubs, giant shops, numerous tourist attractions, and a plethora of restaurants line the streets of ungodly traffic.

Monica and Antonio stand on either side of Xtacee, each holding a hand of his.

“Baby, we’re so proud of you. This is such a big thing, look at what we’ve accomplished together. Look at all you’ve done, my love.”

“Monica’s right, this is all so amazing. And now your love of wrestling is starting to pay off too. Like, what can’t you do? X, you really are the best man I’ve ever been with.”

“I second what he said, X. Truly.”

“I said it before and I’ll say it again, I love the both of you with every fiber of my being. You’ve both been my rocks. Together, with our love, we will continue to accomplish bigger and better things. We are going to walk into FWA and leave our mark, no matter what. I hope the FWA is ready… to Xperienx Xtacee.”

With that, the three lovers stand over their world, looking down at the flashing lights and sea of faces. Their horizons are broadening, and opportunities are plentiful… But is Xtacee ready?

“Yes…”, he thinks to himself.
 
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