FWA: 'Lights Out' || Promo Thread

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SupineSnake

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A phone rings. Incessantly and interminably, a phone rings.

Sunlight crept through the window, announcing that a new day had come to pick up from where the previous one left off. It illuminated the handful of items of furniture placed carefully around the sleek and minimalistic hotel suite. A Ming era Ta sofa beneath the window. A Quanyi chair wrought from amber huanghuali. A tall, narrow lamp that bloomed like the Yingkesong tree, with hanging lanterns in place of branches and candles instead of leaves. And, in a large alcove at the northern end of the suite, a canopy bed from the Qianlong period, an assortment of limbs protruding from the folds of its drawn curtains.

The phone still rings.

Elsewhere. Another time.

She reclined upon a low bed, situated on a raised kang surrounding a large, empty stage. There were others, on beds like hers and arranged in a horseshoe around the boards, hugging the outer wall of the low room around its entire perimeter. There was a sense of expectation about them, closer to agitation than excitement, but it wasn’t for the forthcoming performance. She absently scanned the faces of her peers: mostly male, mostly middle-aged, mostly local. They had little interest in her in return.

In her own personal recesses, a phone continues to ring.

She was uncomfortable but not because of the company. Uncomfortable in her own skin. Uncomfortable in a strange land, and - for the first time in quite some time - uncomfortable alone. More directly, she was uncomfortable underground, as she always was when the thought of surrounding earth invaded her mind like dirt seeping through a rotten coffin. They were in a basement den somewhere beneath the city, twenty six millionish pairs of feet gently troubling the ground above them. She thought she could hear rumbling from afar.

Attendants had been busy preparing around the other patrons’ beds and now one of them arrived at hers. She was young and pretty, with expressive eyes that seemed in stark contrast to the dead gazes of the men she and her colleagues served. She watched the deft manoeuvres of the attendant’s hands as she prepared the long, bamboo pipe at her feet. She placed it delicately on a stand, cleaned the bowl, and positioned it upon the collar. From around her slender wrist the attendant unravelled the ghee-rag, a short length of white cloth, and used it to form a seal between the bowl and the shaft.

The traveller watched the precision and fluidity of the woman’s movements with awe. They were hypnotic, nearly. Both the rumbling and the ringing receded. There was only the girl, her dexterous digits, and the focussed, expressive eyes that guided her work. Eventually she bowed, deferential and unsmiling, and then knelt down beside her bed.

The gongs, struck by a pair of women in red, floral-print cheongsam at opposite ends of the stage, heralded the entrance of the performers. Ten of them in total, actors in black robes and traditional masks, the troupe quickly dividing into an explicit dichotomy. Half of them, those that had peeled away in the direction of her bed, removed their robes in a simultaneous spiralling flourish, the greyscale discarded and in an instant replaced by a vibrant, pink blur. The four men in this cluster wore zhongshan, the woman adorned in a bright pink cheongsam with fine, green detail depicting an intertwining forest of stems and leaves. When she eventually stopped spinning, she seemed to be staring directly at the traveller. An auburn fox mask hugged her face and protected her anonymity. This veil had no mouth, and four elaborate bird’s feathers protruded from between her ears like a strangely macabre crown.

This shared moment lingered, stretched, and then passed. The actor placed her hands into another’s, whose fox mask was less solemn and who wore no crown, and she was carried by the dance to the opposite end of a stage. The others - a bear, an ocelot, and a reaching, groping octopus - went with them, their movements angular and slapstick but in harmony despite their innate chaos.

Only now did she notice the cluster of musicians in the corner of the room, the singular break in the circle of strung out and sallow patrons. They each played their irregularly shaped instruments: an old man plucking a large pipa rested against the floor, a woman of similar age with a yueqin perched upon her lap, and a teenage girl running a long, horsehair bow across an erhu balanced carefully between her legs. Their notes were low and lurching, the overall effect discordant and unpredictable. Lacking in unity. She imagined that they were a family and their music a product of the quiet antipathy she assumed plagued every such unit. The young girl wore a mask, but not like the actors’. Not like the traveller’s, either. It covered only her mouth and her nose, protecting her lungs from the smog that already hung thick in the room. It colluded with the erratic music to create a heavy atmosphere that stuck in the throat.

The actors who’d retained their black robes conducted their own dance that swept in the traveller’s direction, a mimicry of a drunk and debauched evening descending further through blind encouragement. When an opportunity presented itself, one would disappear into the folds of another’s robes, removing a purse or a locket or some other such trinket from the pocket of their unsuspecting companion. Their composition was a trio of birds - a brooding raven, a parading peacock, and a truculent cassowary - and a pair of interchangeable dogs. The two groups danced separately and in contrast, but for infrequent flashes that threatened drama and perhaps violence, like ripples on the surface of a pond.

“你想让我点亮它吗?” the attendant asked, in little more than a hushed whisper. The traveller didn’t understand the words but comprehended the box of matches in her hand. She nodded her head and leant forward, glancing at the two parted groups upon the stage. A new performer, bold and charismatic but imbued with low cunning, flitted between them, remaining ever alone. His dance was sad and slow, as if he was diminishing and fading before her eyes. The attendant struck a match. “准备好了。”

Michelle took a long draw from the pipe. Laid back. Closed her eyes. It had been a long day. Bad wait. The weed wasn’t strong enough anywhere and certainly not here. The coke was the wrong kind of high. She had to wait and it was a bad wait. But that was over now.

She opened her eyes, the actors circling before her, leaving traces of themselves behind that only she could see.​

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She closed her locker room door behind her and, the sounds of the rampant Mexico City crowd now muffled and faded, sunk into a seated position in the closest corner. Somewhere in the back of her mind, somewhere in the future, somewhere on the other side of the world, a phone rings…

The world didn’t feel real yet but the pain certainly did. It had taken a little more than twenty minutes to reduce her body to a collection of debilitating aches and throbbing bruises. She didn’t know the precise match time. In the moments between her humbling and now, she had mostly been occupied with regaining consciousness and listlessly finding her way to the sanctity of her locker room. Later, she’d learn that the second Hailstorm knocked her out at twenty three minutes on the nose. The kaiju would spend the proceeding one hundred and twelve seconds playing with his food and, ultimately, refusing her the warrior’s death that - whilst stranded on his shoulders in a fireman’s carry and on the cusp of lucidity - she’d come to accept. Perhaps even desire.

Then, roughly six minutes later, she woke up in Gorilla position. The roaring pains within her conspired like some vile orchestra to dredge up the memories of her humiliation. She assumed she had lost until the doctor shining a torch into her eyes told her otherwise. When he explained the manner of her ‘victory’, a hollow countout that the kaiju chose willingly, she had immediately understood the intent behind the mountain’s actions. She didn’t ask but knew that he’d already left the arena. He was done with her. That much was clear. If she was ever to see him again it would have to be her that sought him out, and she couldn’t imagine circumstances in which she’d present herself to her humbler. Her conqueror. This chapter, long and tumultuous though it had been, was now finally over, and with it so many other doors had closed forever.

Her mind was being crushed beneath the squeeze of past and future, both bearing down upon her, threatening to break her final resolve, to overwhelm her entirely. She only stood a chance if she focussed entirely on the present. It wasn’t easy. She catalogued the items in her locker room, a trick that Uncle had taught her during a potentially fatal bout of anxiety aboard the Octopi the previous winter. There was much more to catalogue on the ship. Here, there was her locker, her rucksack, her street clothes arranged carefully upon a low, flat bench… and two notes, face-down, near the gap beneath the door. She picked them up, turned them over, glanced at each in turn.

The first, brief and to the point:

Four Seasons. 327. B.

The second:

Dreamer -- hell of a battle! A victory, but not the one you wanted, plainly. We think you’ve probably got some things to work through alone. At least for a little while. We’ll be off-planet whilst you focus on yourself. That’s important! Can’t just grab hands 24/7, you know? We’ll be preoccupied with a large-scale adventure. You’d have loved it, after the tepid manner in which you’re capable of love. But… I think this way is better, Michelle. JJJ!, x..

She crumpled both notes together into a tight ball with the intention of throwing it across the room, as if this trivial act would show them, but instead let it fall to the ground between her feet. It sat there, almost in confrontation, for an indeterminable amount of time. The realisation of how alone she was, of how alone she was again, was stark and heavy, and brought some respite from the bludgeoning past and a bleak, foreboding future. As she’d hoped, at least temporarily, there was only the present, and the crumpled ball of paper staring at her in accusation.

She managed to make it to the bathroom in time to vomit into the bowl. Blood in her sick, blood in her shit, blood crusting on her body and causing her clothes to stick to her. She removed her ring gear and left it in the shower. There was no need to keep hold of it. She always tried to travel light.

First, she slept for a while on the low bench, using her rucksack for a makeshift pillow. When she awoke there was no more crowd. The phone, though, still rings.

Russnow was waiting for her outside the locker room. She was surprised to see that he was still there, long after the show had ended. She presumed it was a time for celebration. Perhaps the rest of the show didn’t justify a party atmosphere. She hadn’t seen any of it. He was smiling, which she always found vaguely disconcerting.

Michelle slowly walked past him without word, her rucksack held at her side and dragging along the ground. She kept her snail’s pace towards the exit.

“I’ll see you in Cuba,” he said. She couldn’t determine whether it was a question or a statement. Either way, she shook her head. Didn’t turn back to face him.

“I’m done,” she said, simply. There was no room for argument.

“Where will you go?” he asked. She didn’t think it mattered to him. She wasn’t even sure if it mattered to her.

“I don’t know where the ship is going,” she answered. And then she left.

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As she danced upon the cusp of consciousness, both in the hotel suite and in the basement den, a phone continues to ring.

Matching her internalised waltz, silent and without movement, the two dichotomous troupes continued their own elaborate dance upon the stage. She slowly drew from her pipe, held in front of her by the young, beautiful, expressionless attendant that was assigned to her. The traveller imagined this blank look was designed to appear non-judgemental but it had the opposite effect. The manner in which she looked only at the pipe and never at its smoker made the process feel mechanical and sterile. She tried not to think about the attendant. She tried not to think about anything. Another slow draw from the pipe assisted with that.

Upon the stage, two performers from separate parties peeled away from their respective troupes. In black, a tall man in a raven mask who made large, sweeping motions with his robe, spread out either side of him like massive wings. In pink, initially static and observant, one of the foxes, whose crown of feathers reflected her spotlight into the blackbird’s eyes. It appeared that, in this moment of passive contemplation, there was a sense of dull, distant recognition between the two protagonists. The traveller felt that one was dressed in black and the other in pink by a mere quirk or coincidence, and that in some alternate universe they would wear the same costume and dance the same dance, in unison instead of in contrast. Amongst the plucked strings rose beating drums, conspiring with the tireless and distant ringing of a phone to create a thumping, irrepressible rhythm.

As the two engaged in their private and secretive dispute, the rest of the patrons - assembled as a hitherto semi-interested audience - crept forward collectively, their engagement increasing with each savage and beautiful blow, their curiosity piqued by this Danse Macabre. The same was not true of their respective troupes, who were each engaged with their own insignificant movements, momentarily forming a near-static backdrop, ignorant of the ensuing melee. All except the scowling cassowary, who sat on the edge of the stage and watched the pair occupying the spotlight through a sidewards glance. She paid particular attention to the raven, whose strong and decisive movements held a strange, unnameable power over her.

More smoke entered her lungs as the peacock entered the fray. She closed her eyes, already knowing the story and finding it altogether too much to live through again. From the music alone she knew that the peacock and the raven were circling, their attacks uncoordinated but relentless. The cornered fox would lash out defensively, torn between separate but simultaneous battles.

Moments later, the scene - both imagined and real - faded away, drowned out by the shifting colours that now occupied the traveller’s mind.​

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She stood by the fencing around the perimeter of the harbour, lost according to the very definition of the word and further disoriented through nearly two weeks of travelling, by bus and then by boat. She wasn’t particularly concerned with the destination. She only wished to go in the opposite direction to the rest of the travelling circus, which was bound on an eastward route towards what the office had tactlessly termed an undiscovered market. Her own path ran further west: so far west that she came to the Far East, though not one of the dozenish Japanese cities with which she was vaguely familiar. This city, this sprawling coastal metropolis at the south-eastern tip of the Asian mainland, was alien in a subtly threatening way. It heaved with an oppressive buzz and a thick smog hung like a dread in the air. She lit a cigarette to give her lungs a break from it and sat on a bench, her eyes fixed upon the sea.

“你看起来迷失了。”

The woman who spoke, rather suddenly wrenching the traveller from her malaise, did so from a looming position between the bench and the water. Her name was 紫色, pronounced Zǐsè, Michelle learned a few moments later. These were the first words that 紫色 ever said to her, and - although she didn’t understand them - they were as true as anything she said afterwards.

“你是新来上海的吗?”

Michelle only returned a stare. Perhaps she offered a blink. It was difficult to recall the moment precisely. 紫色 was the first person to look directly at her since she’d stepped off the boat, in this very harbour, and she did so with eyes that shone brightly. At first, Michelle thought that this light was born of familiarity, maybe over-familiarity, but she soon knew that this energy was not externalised. It came from within, not the product of those without, and radiated irrespective of company. 紫色 was smiling but Michelle found the facial expression strange and unearned. She sucked on the end of her cigarette and said nothing.

“也许你需要一个指导,” she continued, undeterred. Michelle might’ve blinked again. “上海是一个很大的地方。Or maybe you don’t speak Mandarin?”

Slowly, as she realised that the last utterance utilised words she understood, Michelle nodded her head.

“Was that not obvious?” she asked.

“I didn’t want to assume,” 紫色 said. She held out her hand. “My name is 紫色.”

Michelle took her hand briefly in her own. The other’s grip was as firm as the ground she craved. Michelle returned to silence and neglected her cigarette, which continued to burn to the filter between her fingers. She was fixated on the girl’s sunken features, amplified further by her high cheekbones and severe jawline, framing her expressive face with a stark and drastic border. 紫色 removed a cigarette from her purse and leant forward for Michelle to light it. Her green eyes flashed brightly as she withdrew, her smile growing more subtle and suggestive.

“You don’t have a name?” 紫色 asked. Michelle thought about the question for longer than would usually be deemed appropriate.

“I don’t think I do,” she said, finally. “Not any more.”

The girl’s smile briefly grew, her energy pulsating, before she sat down on the bench. She turned away from the traveller to stare at the sea as she smoked.

Ten days later, they stood in the harbour once again, the sky scorched red by a dramatic sunset, the horizon foreboding and violent, as if its painters knew what scene they were framing.

Michelle was fixated on 紫色’s eyes, as she ever was. 紫色 stared only at the sky. It looked like the end of the world. To Michelle, it felt like the end of the world. It wasn’t. Only the end of an episode, and a brief, relatively insignificant one at that. She reached for 紫色’s hand. The gesture was only returned for a moment before 紫色 let go. Her grip was loose now. Firm ground had never seemed so far away.

On a rainy evening, one of the ten between those two bookend meetings at the harbour, 紫色 and Michelle sat in the corner of a dive bar in some forgotten corner of the city. 紫色 laughed her warm and welcoming laugh. Whilst lost within this sudden outburst, Michelle didn’t notice the two men that had arrived at her shoulder. It was only when she smelled the rotten fish on their clothes and under their fingernails that she realised they were there. It was obvious that they were fishermen. Bold fishermen, but fishermen none-the-less.

“漂亮女孩不应该自己买饮料,” the first said, whilst nodding towards 紫色 with a somewhat threatening glint in his eye. Michelle shuffled uncomfortably. 紫色 was still smiling, as if in encouragement. Their new friends misread her excitement.

“你很幸运,我们感觉很慷慨,” the other continued, emboldened by the perceived success of his friend’s opening gambit.

“你的口袋够深吗?” 紫色 asked. She held the neck of her beer bottle between her fingers and rotated it idly as she spoke. “你钓到很多鱼吗?”

The taller one, who had migrated to 紫色’s shoulder, was showing off a toothless grin. The other was breathing down Michelle’s neck. She could almost feel his paunch molesting her back. The stench of fish filled her nostrils.

“我现在正在钓鱼,” the tall man said, eliciting a thin, seedy cackle from his companion. 紫色 rolled her eyes in response. “恶人不得安息。”

紫色 said nothing. Michelle glanced at their unwelcome guests, was distressed to find the fat one staring directly back at her, and immediately averted her eyes. She stared down into her drink instead, hoping to find safety and comfort there. All hopes were futile, here and everywhere else.

“What do they want?” she asked, nervously.

“They say they’re fishing,” 紫色 explained.

“They stink of the shit already,” Michelle replied, shuddering at the sensation of the fat one’s warm, moist breath creeping down the back of her shirt. “Get rid of them.”

“If you insist,” 紫色 said, with a shrug.

“你的朋友不会说普通话?” the tall man asked.

“她学东西很慢,” 紫色 offered, whilst reaching for her bottle. Her new, unwelcome friend mistook the gesture for an opportunity, reaching towards the bar and 紫色’s hand.

He had barely brushed against her fingers when she tore away from his grasp. She flipped her bottle over in her hand and drove the neck down into the tall man’s outstretched digits. The bottleneck exploded into a fountain of shards upon impact, the resultant teeth biting into both the bar and the fisherman’s fingers, unrelenting and indiscriminate in their sudden hunger. 紫色 removed her hand from the upturned bottle and, along with the other one, placed them both into her pockets.

The fisherman stared down at the makeshift pincer. For a handful of moments he was shocked into silence. Then, as blood pooled around his hand - an image that bred an unfortunate, unwanted deja vu, a sensation that Michelle promptly shook loose - he began to panic. When he moved his hand, the glass teeth gnawed more deeply into what was left of his fingers. The fat one finally stopped breathing down Michelle’s neck to help his friend, yanking the bottle loose with a sickening crunch that turned Michelle’s stomach. It was loud and strange enough to draw the attention of one of the bartenders, who was understandably disturbed by the puddle of blood and flesh that had suddenly appeared next to his ice bucket. He screamed some unintelligible words in the direction of the fishermen. The tall one scooped up the tip of his right index finger with his as-yet-unmaimed left hand and the pair exited with their tails between their legs.

Michelle and 紫色 left shortly afterwards. They smoked a cigarette at the harbour, watching the moon rise from the black surface of the sea.

“That was unexpected,” Michelle said, suddenly. Neither of them had spoken since they’d left the bar, and the traveller’s abrupt words cut through the night like a ship’s beam through the fog.

“Unexpected?” 紫色 replied. “What was unexpected?”

“The violence,” Michelle answered. “Not that I’m a stranger to it, but… that was unexpected.”

“Sometimes it’s necessary,” 紫色 explained, with another shrug, a flippant and non-committal affectation. Michelle thought about this whilst she finished her cigarette.

“When is it necessary?” Michelle asked, in earnest. 紫色 didn’t answer.

Somewhere, perhaps over the sea that the two stood upon the edge of, a phone rings…

Only some nights were ruined by marauding interlopers. Others were scuppered by Michelle’s premature departure to the basement dens she’d become familiar with during her short stay in the city. 紫色 was never best pleased about playing second fiddle to the pipe, but kept her misgivings to herself. It was, afterall, 紫色 who introduced Michelle to the owner of the den she now frequented. She wasn’t to know about Michelle’s addictive personality, ofcourse.

Some nights, the rare privileged few, they would evade both of these potential torpedoes. On one such occasion they found themselves sitting on a round, central table at a cocktail bar in the Xintiandi district. Proceedings had been standard for the first three beers, with the smalltalk given life thanks to 紫色’s refusal to talk small. When she returned from the bar for a fourth time, her tray contained the customary two bottles along with a pair of amber shots. Michelle smelled the whiskey as soon as the tray was set down on the table. She hadn’t done shots of whiskey in a bar since… well, some memories shouldn’t be dwelled upon.

One round of shots turned into several, and soon enough Michelle found herself engaged in an impromptu contest with vaguely defined rules. As they sank shot after shot, 紫色 regaled her companion - temporarily her opponent, in some ill-defined way - with the story of her one journey to Europe, undertaken as she entered her liberated and naive early twenties. She had flown to Paris and met a boy there, wasting four of her six weeks on a summer romance that eventually diminished into nothing. Deciding to make the most of her final fortnight, she boarded a train to London, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and eager to make up for lost time. The remaining fourteen days of her European adventure were spent in a British border facility owing to irregularities with her visa, her eventual release coming just in time for her to catch a train back to Paris and fly home.

“I think the lesson is an obvious one,” 紫色 announced, at the end of the tale. Michelle thought it was a sorry story but the other saw the humour in it.

“The British are awful?” Michelle surmised.

“More than one lesson is obvious,” 紫色 corrected herself. “You shouldn’t delay too long. Opportunities don’t wait around forever.”

“Maybe you didn’t wait long enough,” Michelle suggested. 紫色 sighed, shook her head, and ordered another round.

Through all this, despite the lack of lecherous trogs to rain on their parade, Michelle wore her anxieties plainly upon her sleeve. They were born of their public setting, as indicated by her constant, uneasy glances in each and every direction. It was as if she was taking a frequent inventory of the other bodies in the room, half-expecting most of them to be in conspiracy against her. Michelle’s discomfort was contagious, and soon enough - in a move that the traveller took as submission - the other orchestrated their departure. The streets of Shanghai were cold and hostile at two in the morning, and the pair made their way wordlessly to 紫色’s apartment, their silence a sign of their resignation. To each other and to the night.

[ “These Days” || Nico. ]

紫色’s apartment was nestled upon the twenty-fourth floor of a tower block in the Jing’an district, with a view commanding the entirety of the city and much of the East China Sea beyond. Michelle stood upon her balcony, naked but for the black and gold scaramuccia mask that she’d found on 紫色’s dresser. The early morning air was cold against her pale, coarse skin. She sucked on the end of her cigarette, a thin suggestion of morning light appearing as an orange band above the sea.

They’d arrived two hours ago. Some of that was spent talking about the apartment, skirting around the obvious and unexplained luxury that 紫色 apparently lived in. The view, the bookcase, the Monet that was hung proudly above the fireplace. Afterwards, they fumbled around with each other’s clothes, Michelle struggling to recapture any of her former dexterity, remaining clumsy and ill-focused even in this intimate moment. Her hesitation continued when she was led into the bedroom. She spent most of her time hidden beneath the sheets, contemplating a tattoo of a bird emerging from its egg on the other’s inner thigh. The hatchling was already old, but still retained a pride in the way it held itself, the pronounced, dark green casque atop its head a statement of its uniquity.

“Is everything okay down there?” 紫色 had asked, whilst Michelle was buried beneath the covers. All movement but for the traveller’s gentle breathing had stopped some time ago. She had made an excuse and come outside to smoke, collecting the mask from 紫色’s dresser and inspecting it upon her in the mirror whilst on the way. She returned only when the oncoming sun began to peek out from above the sea.

Michelle stood in the bedroom doorway, watching 紫色 stub out her own cigarette in an ashtray on the bedside table. She turned to face Michelle with a passive, non-judgemental, vacant expression.

“It’s cold outside,” 紫色 said, dully. Michelle didn’t give a reply. “You want to try again?”

Michelle nodded her head. She knelt down atop the bed next to the other, bright shards of light now pouring through the open window. 紫色 ran a pair of fingers delicately along the nose of her mask, studying her hard with her sunken eyes, the universe around them on hold as they became lost in one another.

The night before 紫色 left, Michelle met her outside of the 上海大剧院. She finished her cigarette as the other woman emerged from a taxi, looking radiant in a white cheongsam with pastel-coloured chrysanthemums embroidered around the neck and upon the sleeves. The traveller suddenly felt somewhat underdressed in her perennially casual attire, the only addition to her standard black ensemble the scaramuccia mask she’d taken from 紫色’s apartment three nights prior. The well-dressed woman’s smile shone brightly as she approached, lighting a cigarette of her own and joining Michelle in idly watching the passers-by.

“You aren’t going to tell me how great I look?” 紫色 asked, playfully.

“You look great,” Michelle offered. The words were clumsy and fell out of her mouth between drags from another cigarette.

“Other adjectives would’ve been acceptable,” 紫色 replied. Stunning, incredible, radiant...”

Radiant was what came to mind when you stepped out of the taxi,” Michelle said. 紫色 smiled at the commendable save.

“Thank you,” she said, taking Michelle by the hand and leading her to the back of the queue. “And you look vaguely terrifying.”

“Only vaguely?”

“Only vaguely.”

Michelle didn’t know what ballet they were watching until they took their seats. When Anna Karenina watched a railway worker throw himself before a speeding train, the traveller felt as though she was removed from her body, floating above the stalls and frozen in time. The ballet and the novel upon which it was based both dredged up bad memories, although at this stage it was difficult to remember any good ones. The performance was adapted for its current audience but the general thrust of it was still familiar enough to spike Michelle’s anxiety. The dread built as the play gathered steam, like the distant train that would, at its climax, offer Anna her exit from the stage.

The curtain was drawn for the intermission. When she suggested that they go to the bathroom and to smoke, it wasn’t Michelle’s intention to leave before the second act. Perhaps it was 紫色’s decision to remain in her seat that prompted the escape. Or, more likely, it was the long, searching look that the traveller was confronted with in the mirror when she removed her mask to splash water on her face. With the scaramuccia sitting atop her head, its long nose nose standing erect like a horn or a casque, she experienced a sudden and insurmountable sense of dread when she considered the play’s conclusion. Anna’s violent and abrupt resignation, her acceptance that nothing at all was better than the torments that plagued her, was as real as it had been in Moscow and in Tretyakova, and of course in Mexico City.

She paused as she reached the theatre’s exit. She closed her eyes and tried to remember 紫色’s face, as if this picture might drag her back inside. Amidst the buzz of the smokers beginning to return to their seats, and the distant, incessant ringing of a phone, she found it impossible to conjure the image. She left the theatre and, lighting a cigarette, started out in the direction of the basement den.

The next day, 紫色 arranged to meet Michelle at the harbour. It had been ten days since they’d last been here, exchanging their first awkward words. Now, they had returned to exchange their final ones. The traveller was fixated upon her guide, specifically her sunken, green eyes, reflective and sorrowful. 紫色, in turn, stared only at the sky. It was scorched by a violent sunset, the panoramic framing their goodbye a foreboding picture.

The end of the world, at least for Michelle. It always was.

She reached for 紫色’s hand and 紫色 withdrew it after only a brief moment. Michelle felt cold and, inevitably, alone.

“Where will you go?”

“Yunnan province,” 紫色 explained, although the explanation meant little to Michelle. She seemed as distant as the place she was going. “I have family there. I’m getting the train, but it felt fitting to meet you here. To say goodbye.”

“I could come with you?” Michelle offered, pathetically. 紫色 shook her head with her cigarette perched between her lips. Her hands were stuffed into her pockets.

“They don’t have basement dens in the village,” she said. The comment wasn’t meant to be stiff but it felt it nonetheless. “Besides, I think you have to work on yourself right now.”

“That’s what everybody always says,” Michelle replied. 紫色 finished her cigarette and flicked the end into the water.

“I don’t know what everybody always says,” she answered. “I know that I’m saying it now.”

She collected her bag and, after delicately lifting her mask from her eyes, kissed Michelle delicately on the cheek. Her expression was passive. She turned away, as if to leave.

“紫色,” the traveller said. The other waited. Turned around. “My name… my name is Michelle.”

For the first time since they’d arrived at the harbour that day, a sombre mood pervading the atmosphere, 紫色 afforded herself a smile.

“You don’t have a name,” she said.

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Her eyes opened. The high, shrill ringing of a phone snapped her back to reality. It was closer now. Less abstract.

The male fox, the crownless companion, lay dead upon the stage. He had entered the battle to defend the other, who now knelt between the raven and the peacock. The performance reached its final throes, the victors emerging from the smoke of battle. The rest of the pink troupe - the bear, the ocelot, and the octopus - had already withdrawn, leaving the remaining fox to face her fate alone. She seemed diminished, somehow. By defeat and by betrayal.

The traveller had drifted in and out of consciousness throughout most of the performance’s final act but knew how it went. It was the same every night. Battered into submission, the fox would now retreat into the night, the stage yielded to her conquerors. First, though, they demanded their price. The raven and the peacock each took a feather that matched their own from her crown, returning it to their plumage, as if it was previously taken or, in a different time, willingly given. As a reminder and a warning, they then plucked the long, golden jewel from the fox’s crown, a token of this victory, devastating and absolute.

Left alone upon the stage, a solitary feather remaining on her sorry crown, the fox withered. From her seat upon the scene’s edge, a pair of keen, yellow eyes peered out from beneath a mask. Long after the other two birds had retreated, the third still lingered, ever watchful.

Michelle was sundered upon the other side of the curtain, straddling the boundary of consciousness, between dream and memory. She stood at the railing at the edge of a harbour, the scene’s soundtrack the gentle washing of the waves and, occasionally, the ringing of a phone carried upon the back of the wind. She knew where she was.

Elsewhere.

Manzanillo. The day after Mexico City.

She stared at the ship that she knew was hers. She was early and had time to wait and watch. It wasn’t hard to find passage, with plenty of self-proclaimed captains looking for replacements for their crew. Even with her limiting proviso that she wouldn’t work with fishermen, she had the choice of a handful of vessels with disparate destinations. Shanghai sounded far enough away, though past experience told her that it never really was.

As she waited next to the railing at the harbour in Manzanillo, familiar footsteps approached from behind. She would know them anywhere.

“I was told you were all off-planet,” she said, without turning. “Some large-scale adventure or another.”

“Not all of us,” came the reply. Gerald stood at her shoulder, following her gaze across the Pacific and wafting a column of her errant smoke from his face. “Where are you going?”

“Shanghai,” she answered. There was no reason to keep secrets. Not from him.

“What’s in Shanghai?” he asked. She shrugged her shoulders. “You want me to come with you?”

“Uncle thinks I need to work out some things on my own,” she replied.

“And what do you think?” enquired Gerald, almost immediately. She thought about the question and flicked away her cigarette.

“I think some time away from everything couldn’t hurt,” she answered, struggling to return his gaze. He nodded his head in agreement. “But it’s good to know that you’re here. On the same planet as me, at least.”

“I’m not so sure,” Gerald quipped, with a wry smile. Michelle tried to return the gesture but the attempt fell flat. Grayson appreciated the effort. “Look, I’ve got something for you. I know how you feel about these things but… well, you’ve got to trust me. Sometimes. I need to be able to find you. You can throw it away the second you’re back.”

He produced a cell phone from his pocket and held it out between them. She stared at the glass screen, uncomfortable with the way in which this black mirror reflected her image. She could hear a phone ringing but it wasn’t this one. Or, it was, but not right now. It was difficult to explain with her addled mind. She took the phone from Gerald’s hand and placed it in her pocket.

“How did you know I would be here?” she asked.

“Russnow said you were getting a ship,” he explained. “I assumed it would be sailing in the opposite direction to the rest of the circus. All signs pointed here. I’m just glad I made it in time. When do you leave?”

“Now,” she answered. “In a few minutes. It was good to see you, Gerald.”

“I’ll see you again soon,” he promised.

Elsewhere.

A Ming era Ta sofa beneath the window. A Quanyi chair wrought from amber huanghuali. A tall, narrow lamp that bloomed like the Yingkesong tree. A canopy bed from the Qianlong period.

A phone rings. Sunlight creeps through a gap in the curtains. An assortment of limbs protrudes from the bed. Finally, one of these hitherto lifeless forms drags themselves up and steps barefoot onto the wooden floor. Arriving at a desk in the far corner of the suite - upon the top of which rested her black and gold scaramuccia alongside a traditional shamanic mask depicting a cunning, auburn fox - she began to search through one of its drawers. Eventually, she found the phone, and - somewhat surprised that it still had battery - lifted it to her ear.

“紫色?”

This opening gambit resulted in an awkward, confused silence. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t remember her face: she could recall the feeling.

“Michelle?” came the reply, delivered in a familiar voice. “You know Mandarin now?”

“Gerald,” she said. “It’s early.”

“It’s really not,” he answered. “It’s after midday there. I looked it up. It’s earlier here.”

“Where are you?” she asked, whilst sitting down on the sill and pushing open a window. She settled in by lighting a cigarette.

“I’m back in Raleigh,” he replied. “It’s just after midnight. Can’t sleep.”

“And you thought you’d call me?”

“And I thought I’d call you.”

“Well, it’s good to hear your voice,” she said, honestly.

“Seemed like you were expecting somebody else,” he replied. “Has anyone else called?”

“No,” she said. “Only you.”

There was a brief pause. Michelle made an inference that was soon validated.

“Should I be expecting a call?”

Gerald hesitated again. He quickly changed the subject.

“Will you stay in Shanghai for long?”

“No,” she answered, quickly. “But I don’t know if I’m ready to come back yet, either. If that’s what you’re getting at. I told Russnow that I was done. That was only a month ago. Things haven’t changed. I just…”

She trailed off. The body in her bed turned over. Reorganised the sheets. Continued to sleep. She smoked her cigarette, struggling to find the words.

“Go on,” Gerald prompted, gently. “It’s me, Michelle.”

“How can I show my face there again?” she asked, her eyes darting from the early afternoon scene beneath the window of her hotel room and to the black and gold mask on top of her desk. “After what happened? You saw it, Gerald. Everybody saw it. And, in reality, it’s only the natural culmination of what had been building for the previous year. First Black, then Peacock, and then Black and Peacock. But you remember that, of course. You were there with me, when they took it all away from us.”

“They still have it now,” Gerald replied. Amidst the self-pity and shame and unending sorrow, anger stirred for the first time since she’d regained consciousness in Mexico City. This simple utterance drew a simple image, one powerful enough to awaken this dormant emotion, albeit briefly. “They still have everything.”

Michelle didn’t reply. Didn’t know how to reply. She watched a postman entering the tower block across the road from her hotel.

“Who is going to call me?” she asked.

“There’s a woman,” he began, with trepidation. “She spoke to Russnow first. Then she spoke to me.”

“And you gave her this number?”

“I did,” he said, without an apology. “But I don’t think she’s going to call. She gave me the impression of being a very direct woman. I think she’s going to come to Shanghai. I think she’s going to come and find you.”

“It’s a long way to come for nothing,” Michelle replied, with a derisive snort. She picked up her mask from the desk and, her cigarette held between her lips, pulled it over her eyes. “I have been hiding behind a mask here, where nobody even knows me. There is no Dreamer anymore, Gerald. There’s barely even a Michelle.”

Another pause. A deep breath on the other end of the line.

“As sad as that is,” he began. “That might just be perfect.”

Michelle didn’t know what he meant. Didn’t ask.

“What’s her name?” she asked.

“Her name is Wanda,” he said.​

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Don’t confront me with my failures. I had not forgotten them.’​
 

Blizzard Boi

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The End of the Line?

---------------------

"Hello?"

"Yes, hi."

"Uh, who is this?"

"What do you mean who is this? It's me."


"Ah yes. I know."

"Are you ready?"

"I think so."

"Find me."

"Where?"

"Come to The Gate, you'll find me waiting. We will find you on the other side."

----------------------
 

Jimmy King

It’s Britney, bitch
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Untitled


“Gunfight Battle Royal? What the fuck kind of name is Gunfight for a battle royal?”


The scene begins in another basic setting. The exact location the last time we saw The Wildcard was when he appeared in a pre-recorded vignette on Meltdown. Randall is in the basement of his home in San Diego. He’s wearing a plain black sleeveless shirt and gym shorts; he just finished working out and is taking the time to address his match at Lights Out.

“What does that even mean? What kind of edge lord bullshit is that?”

Randall seems not in the mood for nonsense, which is bad for his opponents.

“Whatever, I guess the dumbass name isn’t important. What is important is the match itself. A battle royal where not just one but two people can emerge as the winner. Where they’ll compete for the Gunfight One Ring, whatever the fuck that is. Seriously, who the hell comes up with these names? Are you twelve years old?”

Randall lets out an exasperated sigh as he leans back in his chair.

“I’m getting too old for this shit, man. Look, I don’t need to go over what happens for the match winners because I’m sure most of you watching this are already aware of it, as convoluted as it sounds. I won’t insult your intelligence like the suits in the back do to me. I’m not here to shake hands and be your friend, but I won’t lower myself like they do and insult your intelligence.”

He leans forward now, still agitated.

“I’m sure you all watched Meltdown, and you saw what I had to say. It may have sounded like a corny expression, but I wasn’t kidding when I said a storm was coming. You’re looking at the eyes of someone who is pissed off.”

Randall points at himself as he leans in a little closer.

“That’s right, I hope you’re all ready. I hope everyone in this gunfight bullshit is ready because I’m coming in for a fight. I don’t care who it is that I have to go through. I won’t list everyone because that would insult your intelligence. This is a basic promo with a basic setting, but it isn’t so basic where I list off every person in the match and tell you how I feel about them. I don’t know how I would do that in the first place when I don’t even know who the hell half of them are!”


“I think the only two I know are Sawyer Xavier and Ashley O’Ryan. Sawyer winning the match for Team Meltdown seems like a lifetime ago, right? Man, he dropped the ball after that. I can’t say I have much hope for him. As for Ashley, the man’s legacy speaks for itself, but this is a whole new ballgame than what he’s used to. He showed he can still hang with today’s generation at Fallout, but sooner or later, he’ll show that was just a fluke and that his best days are likely behind him. Hell, as good as the match was, he couldn’t beat a washed-up actor in his first FWA match.”

Randall leans back again.

“At the end of the day, like I said before, it doesn’t matter what I have to go through. I will walk into this match and kick the living shit out of everyone that stands before me. Then I will walk into Winter Wasteland and kick the shit out of whoever is standing with me at the end of this gunfight battle royal. Then I’ll take back my X-Championship and maybe some tag team gold.”


“That’s it, that’s the promo.”

Randall puts a hand over the camera, and the scene abruptly ends.
 
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Cyrus Truth

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The Dark Roads Alliance Presents…

"The Bond of Friendship and the Shattering Truth! The End of The Delusion and The Beginning of the Reclamation!"

“It’s another beautiful day here in The City, ladies and gentlemen! And we’re about to see a true clash of the titans, a true test of our fair City’s best and brightest Heroes! Oh, I can’t contain myself…I’m fit to burst with excitement!”


The hype from an overly enthusiastic sports announcer type is the first thing that greets us.

The second? A panoramic view of an idyllic metropolis:

I64Izwhdv4Ms1UL2WbEJRuN1lZD2x0_No0JyRnD_-izO1mAJYUK-A3na1kKzzm74rEXP_FKtD4_n6n_v-dvjZ1s0I9hejZJc51MLnTG6DztmIpdVB8RfTyyn9jR8Foz1OlEVdpdrIOBwgsmJ_ZyNKro


The City is a sprawling, glistening jewel of engineering and civilization, a utopic future that’s been promised by dreamers and fiction writers. Perfectly paved and clear highways weaving in and out of the various districts, luscious greenery interspersed with tall, shimmering skyscrapers reaching high into the sky, as if to grasp the sun and take possession of the heavens themselves.

Our focus takes us to a massive stadium, where a capacity crowd is in attendance, smiling and cheering at the exhibition that’s about to unfold. But it’s not JUST an exhibition, as our erstwhile announcer is all too eager to tell us.

“That’s right, Hero fans! The title of Champion of The City is up for grabs in this contest between partners and friends! The duo that’s been taking the City by storm in the past few months, the partnership that pulverized the Dream Sorceress and the Daredevil, ridding our fair City of those maleficent, miscreant cultists…today, we see them finally challenge one another, one-on-one, to see who’s the man who deserves to be the Top Champion and wear the Crown!

“As always, I am your humble announcer, A.P. Ness, bringing you the award-winning, top-shelf commentary that everybody loves and adores! And let me just say, Hero fans, that this City has seen some amazing defenders and some dastardly Villains in its time, but I can say without any hesitation or hyperbole that this team, this brotherhood, these two Heroes? They are the absolute best that were and will be! And we are all privileged to not only witness their titantic tussle for the title of Top Champion of the City, but we are but lowly mortals in the presence of the closest thing to gods this fair City has to offer…

“...And it’s all thanks to our sponsor, Splooge! Splooge is the official drink of our reigning and defending City Champion, The Shining Dancer…and his partner, Ebon Messiah! Now in citrus and sweet n’ sour flavor, along with the original salty variant, there’s a flavor for any discerning guzzler. Splooge…Take It In!”


We cut to a sweeping shot of the crowd in the arena, and they are just as hyped as A.P. is about what they’re about to witness. The people in attendance are wearing merchandise showing their allegiance and loyalty to the two Heroes about to clash to be crowned the top dog on the Hero ladder. And all of them are happily guzzling down on bottles and oversized stadium cups of Splooge with smiles on their faces.

However…

Something’s not right.

The smiles on the fan’s faces are…not normal. They’re a bit unsettling, almost as if they were painted on. And their cheers? It’s subtle, but it almost seems…choreographed? There’s nothing overt that indicates that these fans aren’t acting normally…but there’s a general vibe, a feeling that can’t be explained or explained away that this crowd isn’t quite on the level.

Nevertheless, A.P. Ness’s over-the-top zeal for both men is obvious and earnest, if extremely obnoxious. As he continues to espouse the virtues and prowess of both men, our attention turns to the field in the center of the stadium, where a marching band and cheerleaders are putting on a show before the main event, all in service to the adoration and exaltation of the best friends who teamed up and brought The City out of the chaos of the past few years, where Heroes and Villains clashed for the crown of the Top Champion with not one being able to keep the crown.

That is, until the Shining Dancer. Defeating Oros the Rotten and claiming vengeance on behalf of his partner Ebon, Dancer would take the crown and the spot as The City’s Top Champion and its number one Hero.

And now, months after that conflict, Dancer has seen fit to grant Ebon a chance to take back that spot.

Pyrotechnics light up the skies above the stadium. Massive screens play a highlight reel showcasing Dancer and Ebon’s formal partnership, the victories the two men have racked up against the countless Villains that look to take them down and reclaim control of The City, and the bond of true fellowship that seems unbreakable. In the highlight reel, we see the very symbol of that brotherhood, as a massive statue had been constructed to commemorate these two showing them shaking hands, dwarfing all other buildings and monuments, shining like a beacon that rivals the brilliance of The City itself.

Finally, after a somewhat unreasonable amount of fanfare, pomp, and circumstance, the marching band stops playing and the cheerleaders stop their routines. On either side of the stadium field, two figures emerge to a thunderous ovation.

The first is a warrior in a black and green coat, wearing a matching mask. He emerges from smoke and fog, like a monster emerging from the dark. Rowdy chants from a very vocal and sizable portion of the crowd herald Ebon Messiah’s entrance as he doesn’t acknowledge them, doesn’t pay them any mind.

However, it is evident that Ebon isn’t 100% going into this fight. He masks it well, but it’s clear that the last few weeks have taken their toll on him. From exterminating The Rat after the Villain’s string of victories, including one against the Shining Dancer, to battling four other Villains and holding them off until Dancer arrived to join the fight, winning to maintain the title of Top Champion…the very title he fights to reclaim. However, beneath his coat and costume, we see him winch, the damage still quite raw.

As opposed to his friend, The Shining Dancer’s entrance into the stadium is all flash and gaudiness. More pyrotechnics as he flies into the arena, wearing a cape made of peacock feathers and wearing a very tight, sparkling golden full-body suit. Unlike Ebon, Dancer’s face is there for all to see, a handsome mustachioed visage with glimmering white teeth accenting a huge smile.

Once again, the crowd roars.

Once again, it feels…off.

A.P. Ness’s enthusiasm doesn’t seem as off-putting, as he is absolutely losing his mind as he continues to commentate, giving extra adulation to the Shining Dancer as the present and future for Heroes in The City, practically gushing about him as a true Adonis and god amongst mortals. As A.P. takes a break to chug down what looks to be his sixth bottle of Splooge, the two Heroes meet in the center of the stadium, staring one another down as Shining Dancer gives his masked compatriot a very familiar cocksure grin.

“Well, we finally got there, Ebon. Took us a while, and I had to deal with a certain bastard who just didn’t know when to quit…but we’re here. As promised. As we always wanted.”

Ebon nods as he cracks his neck. Again, he winces, the pain from his previous battles against a swarm of Villains still there.

“Yeah. The way it should be, right? Hope you don’t get all pissy when I beat your ass and take the title of Champion away from you.”

“Are you kidding? We’re friends. No matter what happens here today, no matter what anybody says about us, we’re bros, Ebon. Nothing’s going to change that. Not even when I win and keep this reign as Top Champion rolling.”


The two men share a chuckle as they get themselves into position for the start of this clash of Heroes, this contest between a dynamic duo whose bond seems unbreakable. The crowd again cheers…cheers almost too loudly, imbibing so much Splooge that it’s almost unsettlingly unnatural.

A countdown on the screens surrounding the stadium ticks down to the start of this exhibition. Anticipation runs high as it continues to descend.

5…

4…

3…

2…





Wait, why has it stopped?

The countdown has frozen at 2. The crowd, oddly enough, doesn’t seem to react to this. In fact, they don’t react to…anything. They just continue to cheer, continue to guzzle down bottle after bottle of Splooge.

Ebon sees this and says nothing. However, Dancer, irritated at this, immediately reaches for a cell phone and dials a number.

In the announcer’s booth, A.P. Ness gets a call, gulping a little nervously. Knowing who it’s from, and not wanting to be a disappointment to him, the announcer picks it up and answers it.

“Hey, Dancer…”

“Shh! Quiet. What the fuck is happening, A.P.? Why is the countdown stopped? Who the fuck is ruining my moment, here?”

“I..I…I don’t know, boss! It wasn’t anything I did, I can promise you! I have my people looking into it and…wait, hold on.”

Another call comes in on the landline. A.P. picks it up as we hear muttering from the other side. The announcer’s expression droops in dread as he listens to the entirety of the message before hanging up and picking up his cell phone again.

“Um…Boss. You’re not gonna like this.”

Dancer sneers as the crowd continues to chant and cheer for no damn reason. Ebon, despite the mask hiding it, is clearly cocking an eyebrow as if asking what the hold up is.

But before Dancer can follow up with the announcer, who doubles as his PR specialist? The number on the screens in the stadium disappear.

Finally, the crowd goes silent.

Deathly silent.

As the lights in the stadium are cut off, the screens come back to life. It’s a live feed, coming from the Statue of Eternal Friendship, the monument to Dancer and Ebon’s partnership and bond. We see a split feed, showcasing two individuals inside either statue’s head.

In the head of Ebon is a cackling black-and-purple robed man wearing an insectoid mask.

In the head of Dancer is a grim figure, dressed in brown traveler’s clothes with a heavy leather coat resting on his shoulders.

Dancer grimaces as he and Ebon immediately recognize these two.

“Sorry to interrupt this little exhibition of mutual masturbation, kehahaha!”

“Well, not that sorry. It’s honestly pathetic and it should probably die a swift death for the good of society, Shadow Swarm.”

“Too true, Vagabond! Either way, we interrupt these proceedings with a declaration of sorts. You thought that our little squabble was over, didn’t you? That you could move beyond us, that we were just going to hide and never show our faces again in this city?”

“Afraid not, boys. This doesn’t end until everything you’ve stolen is reclaimed. And since you’ve done a FANTASTIC job of dodging the righteous executions that I would’ve delivered to you, Dancer…”


Shining Dancer scowls at that as Vagabond continues.

“...Shadow and I decided that the way to really hurt you is to take away this monument of yours and Ebon’s…friendship? Is that what you’re calling it? Either way, this monument’s a bit of an eyesore, and letting you just keep it is something I can’t really abide by. So, we’re going to tear it away from you.”

“Indeed! The countdown has already begun, ‘Heroes!’ Come and stop us…if you can. Or should I say…if you have the guts to do so. KEHAHAHA!”


Dancer’s scowl turns to a smarmy smirk as he looks up at the monitors surrounding the stadium. He points at the screens and says:

“Listen, you hack wizard and washed-up has-been! You’re not in my league, and never have been. Ebon and I will…”

Before Dancer can finish, the screens cut to black. The Top Champion’s eyes widen at that, then narrow in frustration.

This was no accident.

This was a statement.

The duo of Villains have basically told Shining Dancer, the Top Champion, the greatest that was or ever will be, that they don’t give a flying shit what he has to say anymore.

The crowd is still silent, EERILY silent as they continue to chug and chug more and more bottles of Splooge. Ebon walks up as he puts a hand on Dancer’s shoulder.

“This is fine. Whether it’s here, out on the streets, or at the monument? We’re gonna fucking end those losers. I’m looking forward to shoving my fist down Vagabond’s throat and…”

“No.”

“No, what?”


Dancer turns to face his partner as he gives him a smile. It’s a charming, disarming smile, but it doesn’t lessen the impact of his words at all.

“We can’t take chances. You’ve fought Vagabond plenty of times and have always struggled. I’ll take care of him. You deal with that psycho mage.”

Ebon looks as if he was hit in his injured ribs and guts. His tone is laced with bitterness as he growls out:

“The fuck you just say to me?”

“Listen, Ebon…”

“No, no. Say it again. What the fuck did you just say to me? You’re saying I can’t beat Vagabond?”

“That’s not what I said.”

“Sure as shit sounded like you did.”


Dancer puts his hands up. He is putting on the veneer of diplomacy, but it’s clear to see that he’s less than thrilled to be having this conversation right here and now. Not while those bastard Villains are threatening to destroy the symbol of his and Ebon’s deep friendship.

“Listen, I’m not saying you can’t kick the shit out of Vagabond. We know you can. I’ve already proven that Vagabond’s a beta cuck that should’ve left town a long time ago. But this is our monument, Ebon. They’re wanting to tear us apart, as if those hacks could pull it off. We need to put an end to them, and I know you can murder Shadow just like you did before. Let me take care of Vagabond, all right? You know he can’t touch me.

“And hey, when you finish up with Shadow, I’ll save some of Vagabond for you. Give him a taste of this dangerous alliance and send him packing once and for all. That cool? Are WE cool?”


Ebon is still a bit stiff. The man in the mask can’t hide his irritation at the initial request made of him from his partner. But…his stance softened. His shoulders loosen up.

He can’t bring himself to stay angry at Dancer.

“Fine, whatever. Let’s just get this over with so we can get back to me kicking your ass and becoming the Champion again.”

Dancer chuckles and nods. The sincerity behind it…hard to say. On the surface, Dancer seems genuine.

But much like with the silent crowd, constantly drinking their Splooge? Something isn’t quite right.

Nevertheless, Dancer claps Ebon on the shoulder as the two shake hands, putting what could’ve been a bitter argument to bed.

“Good man! All right, let’s get to the monument. HEY, A.P.! I know you can hear me. Is the Frontal Assault Plane ready?”

Over the loudspeakers, the now skittish announcer replies:

“Yes, sir, Champ! The F.A.P. is primed and loaded! You should be able to reach the monument in no time at all. Go give ‘em hell, Champ! And you too, Ebon!”

The duo quickly leave the stadium. As if a switch was flipped, the crowd goes absolutely bananas, chanting and cheering in that oddly bizarre and off-putting way as they continue to chug and chug more Splooge. Ebon and Dancer dash out, as a somewhat phallic-shaped jet with a massive Splooge logo plastered on either side of the hull awaits them with the entrance ramp lowered, allowing them to hop on and quickly take off.

Leaving the stadium behind, the jet zooms through The City, as crowds of citizens wave them on to face the challenge presented by the Deadly Alliance of Shadow and Vagabond. All of them carrying bottles of Splooge in their hands, all of them having this weird, vacant look in their eyes, as if in some kind of trance. Like a simulation that’s gone horribly wrong.

Nevertheless, there’s no time to ponder that, and our Heroes don’t bother as the F.A.P. makes incredible time, crossing the massive metropolis in just a few minutes. The monument stands on its own man-made island a mile or so out on the ocean that The City, as it depicts Shining Dancer and Ebon Messiah shaking hands as an eternal, overwhelming symbol of their bond.

The island is small, so the F.A.P. makes a quick circle around it. Even at its high speeds, Dancer and Ebon see that there’s activity in the overlooks built into the heads of the statues. It’s evident that Shadow and Vagabond, Villains known for primarily working solo, have decided to split up to tackle whatever nefarious deed they have planned here.

Upon landing the F.A.P., the two Heroes share one last look as they split up. Each half of the statue, each figure has a security door that leads to a set of stairs winding up to the lookout ports built into the heads. Within seconds, Ebon and Dancer have opened those doors, and have begun their ascent to face the devious and dastardly actions of this duo of delinquents and rid The City of their influence forever…

*****

As Shining Dancer rushes up flight after flight of stairs, that nagging feeling of indignant irritation continues to gnaw away at him.

He’s having to face Vagabond again? That relic of a bygone era, that narcissistic Villain who had tried time and again to take him down, only for Dancer to fend him off at every opportunity? Doesn’t he know that his time is over? His dominion over The City is ancient history?

All Dancer wanted was to have a good fight against his best friend. The fight that the two of them had been itching for ever since he became Top Champion of The City. And yet this fossil, this washed up LOSER has to continue to pester him? Taunt him? Waste HIS time?

Why hasn’t he just given up already?

As he reached the top of the staircase, he decided that dwelling on it didn’t matter. He had beaten Vagabond every time their paths crossed, and today would be no different. This attempt to try and use his friendship with Ebon to get to him would just end up blowing up in Vagabond’s face, so why give him any more space in his thoughts than he already has?

With a cocksure grin, Shining Dancer opens the door leading to the observation deck, literally entering his own head to rid himself of this annoying pest once and for all.

As Dancer walks in, he sees that it has been completely trashed. There don’t appear to be any civilians, which is to be expected…after all, Vagabond was one of those sorts that always liked to preach about having standards and morals. What a fucking joke.

However, there are bodies strewn about. Private security hired by Dancer through his publicist have been utterly demolished. That seems to sting a bit, as they were supposed to be a well-oiled machine. But, apparently some gears ended up grinding as their unconscious forms have been tossed around like sacks of rotten potatoes, completely wrecking the Wall of Prodigious Accomplishments as well as the gift shop that sold all sorts of tchotchke nicknacks to visitors coming to bask in Dancer’s glory. As they damn well should, after all. Shining Dancer was the best, after all…

…Right?

Doubt takes a backseat as it always has as Dancer walks through the carnage out to where a lookout station had been built out of his magnificent mustache. There, stood his adversary. Arms crossed behind him, looking out all over The City.

What a smug bastard. Preening like he owns The City when he hasn’t even come close in the last four years. Vagabond doesn’t even bother turning around to face him, let alone speak as Dancer sashays through the demolished visitor’s center to get within a few feet of the Villain who called him out, who's been a thorn in his side that, no matter how many times he pulls at it, refuses to be removed.

“Hey, shithead!”

Shining Dancer isn’t known for being particularly suave in his choice of words, and he does like to demean people. But that’s why The City loves him, right? He is their #1 Hero, and not just because he’s the Champion.

Either way, Vagabond doesn’t take the bait. He doesn’t even flinch. After all, why would he? He’s heard this all before.

When the Villain doesn’t say anything, Dancer takes another step forward, that same cocky smirk and devilish look in his eyes. He seems to be enjoying this, almost expecting to relish putting this pretender back in his place and finally remove him like an ugly mole.

“I have to say, I thought you’d have learned by now not to fuck with me. But clearly you’re just as stupid as I’ve always thought you were. You really just couldn’t let me and my best friend have our moment, could you? Not that I’m surprised. It’s only natural to be jealous of a superior breed of Hero.

“But seriously? You think this little plot, whatever the fuck it is, is going to do anything except waste my time? I’ve had to listen to you bitch and moan about my friendship with Ebon, and it’s getting old. Get it through your head, you whiny little bitch…Ebon is my BEST FRIEND. There’s not a damn thing you can say or do that’s going to ruin that. I get that you’ve never had a friend aside from that loser bug cosplayer, so the concept might be lost on you, but still…give it a rest. We’re united, and while Ebon squashes your little buddy like he’s a goddamn windshield, I’m going to do what I always do to you and beat your ass.”


Dancer says all of this, chest inflated and puffed out. He’s absolutely reveling in tearing into Vagabond, flaunting his superiority over him. This is what it’s all about, after all.

However…Vagabond still doesn’t flinch. Doesn’t say anything. He just stands there, motionless like the statue both men are currently occupying.

“What’s the matter, huh? You don’t have anything clever to say? No grand speeches? Oh, I know. You finally get it, don’t you? I guess even an old, mangy, dementia-onsetted dog like you can learn something new and finally get it through their head that…”

“What’s it like?”


After utter silence, after allowing Dancer to spew that taunting vitriol…those three words hit like a hammer and stop the Top Champion mid-sentence. Finally, Vagabond turns to face the man who’s come to end his plot and…

…he’s smiling?

There’s no anger in his expression. His face expresses no rancor, not even a hint of annoyance. Vagabond’s face, his entire body language expresses calm, understanding…command of his emotions and the situation.

Vagabond faces the Champion of The City, arms crossed in front of him and with no hint of fear or deference to his station. Dancer doesn’t understand. Sure, arrogance makes sense, but no anger? He expected him to be enraged after his latest and decisive victory. Not this…expression similar to a guidance counselor having a conversation with a wayward youth.

It’s insulting.

“Well, I asked you a question, Dancer. What IS it like?”

“What, being the Champion? Becoming the best Hero that ever was? Beating your sorry ass time and time again and you being unable to do anything about it except try some little ploy to ruin my friendship with Ebon? Or maybe it’s…”

“For Truth’s sake, Dancer, you do enjoy the sound of your own voice, don’t you? And people say I’m long-winded and self-important.”

Dancer, having had enough of this old relic’s taunting and intejections, rushes Vagabond, looking to sucker punch him and shut him up for good.

However, this is a song and dance that’s been played out before plenty of times. As Dancer comes in with a punch, Vagabond side-steps and grabs the Champion by the arm, twisting it and pushing him back towards the balcony. But, there’s no follow up, there’s no counterpunch. As Dancer regains his footing, Vagabond just stands there, arms folded behind him, fearless and open.

“You really still don’t see it, do you? Hells, for as talented as you are, and I’ll admit…you are talented. Probably as talented if not more so than a lot of other supers I’ve had to face over the years. But even in spite of all that, you still don’t see, do you?”

“See what? The fact that I’m better than you? That every time we fought, I made you my bitch? What else is there to…”


Again, not letting Dancer continue his increasingly more and more caustic rebuke, Vagabond produces a small remote control and hits a button. On one of the few remaining plasma screens in the visitor’s center that survived Vagabond’s thrashing, a video caught on CCTV from what appears to be the main news channel station for The City, where a private conversation between Dancer and A.P. Ness was recorded and likely scrubbed.

“Hey, A.P. That was a close call, but you sure as hell saved my ass. Without you, Vagabond would’ve beaten me and became the Champion…”

The video replays on repeat.

“Hey, A.P. That was a close call, but you sure as hell saved my ass. Without you, Vagabond would’ve beaten me and became the Champion…”

“Hey, A.P. That was a close call, but you sure as hell saved my ass. Without you, Vagabond would’ve beaten me and became the Champion…”


“Hey, A.P….”

Vagabond lets that repeat for another minute, and Dancer tries his best to not let it get under his skin. Tries to, at least.

Eventually, Vagabond mutes it, but lets it still play on loop. He turns back to Dancer and says:

“I asked you a question, Dancer. But apparently you’re too stupid to understand. No, that’s not right, either…you’re not stupid. You’re deluded. You have lost your goddamn mind.”

“Bullshit.”

“Your reaction to everything I say. A bit tired, if you ask me.”

“I call it like I see it.”

“And that’s the point, isn’t it? You want to see it that way. You want to see the world the way you want it to be. You want to be the dominant Champion, the unstoppable warrior, the best that ever was. You want your friendship with Ebon to be genuine, to be real. And you want the world to worship the ground you walk on.”

“They DO!”

“THEY DO NOT! You absolute pathetic wretch. You still think you’re the Hero of this story! You think that your actions, your choices, the decisions you’ve made to get to this point are justified. That victory is all you need, no matter who you sucker into helping you get it. Whether it’s that weasel of an announcer or your ‘best friend,’ the only thing that matters to you is winning and it doesn’t matter how you get it.


“But I’m through letting you pretend the world is the way you want it to be. You’re not the Hero of this story, Dancer. You never have been. And no matter how much bravado you bury the Truth under, no matter how much you want to pretend that it’s not the case. Through all your foul-mouthed words and frat-boy antics, the one constant of your entire tenure in The City is that you want people to love you. To adore you. To chant your name and praise you as some sort of golden god. Everything you’ve done on your road to becoming the Champion was in service to that aspiration.

“But your actions don’t match your aspirations. They never have. You have consistently and persistently used every shortcut, manipulated both your allies and enemies to give you the openings you need to make your impacts, and have proven time and again that, when the going gets tough, you refuse to toughen up.

Vagabond starts to walk towards Dancer, as the Champion readies himself. Once his nemesis is in striking distance, he lashes out with a kick to the side of Vanguard. The kick has some force behind it, as it rattles Vanguard’s ribs…but Vanguard powers through the shock and grabs Dancer’s leg, driving an elbow onto his knee.

A bit poetic, given how Dancer was able to survive their last encounter.

Again and again, Vagabond brings the elbow down on the knee before finally releasing it and spinning the Champion around. He grabs Dancer in a hammerlock and presses him down, chest first onto the railing.

“Look.”

“Get off me!”

“LOOK! Look…and see what The City has become thanks to you…”


Dancer resists, but Vagabond’s got the hold in tight. He struggles, but the illusion fades away…

3JqepWA29_fT2dTU2goTLuR9fEDnOBdvyKSCDGLVKgah-6e8Wy0f2lRctAgWw2w6R1rVO7d1HcwbVuErCY5K2yV3zD2jO5Wvpk4mFBCveF2NBL0jki2JRUHKw6RYBk8wfxuMlUhwCAzPtrxpUKSS9yo


Gone are the shining building and clean streets. The City, the utopia, has become a nightmare of steel and smoke and blood.

We cut back to the stadium. There are civilians still in attendance, but they’re not there as fans.

They’ve been strapped to their seats, their eyelids forced open to watch the Shining Dancer perform his sophomoric, depraved actions that he has justified due to The City’s residents turning on him for those same actions. And each and every man, woman, and child in the stadium is being force-fed kegs of Splooge, with no relief in sight.

The buildings, once pristine and free of any refuse, are now plastered with large animated billboards of Dancer and Ebon, prowling the streets in the F.A.P. while coating the streets in more Splooge and engaging in general hooliganism for no purpose other than to amuse themselves. These billboards have been defaced with graffiti, and Dancer looks on in wide-eyed realization at the growing dissent that has turned into City-wide riots.

Nobody wants Dancer here anymore.

Maybe…they never wanted him here to begin with.

Dancer shouts in frustration as he finally pushes Vagabond off him. But the illusion is gone. The way he wanted things to be is no longer what he sees. All that’s left is the Truth, the wasteland and angry City that has united Heroes and Villains alike in one singular thought:

Ebon and Dancer have embarrassed and failed The City, and they need to be dealt with.

Breathing heavily, eyes wild, the Champion tries to calm himself. More to himself than to his adversary, he mutters under his breath:

“...It doesn’t matter. I’m still the Champion. I don’t…I don’t care what they think.”

“Of course you care. It’s the only thing you’ve EVER cared about. But you lost the plot. Pretend all you want, but everything you’ve done since arriving at The City has been in pursuit of gaining the admiration of the citizens, Heroes, and Villains. Thing is…we see right through it. I see right through YOU.


“You want love, but you show no loyalty. When The City was suffering a civil war, you didn’t bother to pick a side, because you couldn’t stand anybody disliking you.

“You want to be admired, but every victory you’ve had against me or anybody worth mentioning, especially lately? You’ve gotten them because you were duplicitous, not because you were stronger. Hell, your PARTNER did more work in defending your title as Champion than you did in that last fracas. Must’ve cost you a small fortune to convince the mayor to keep you occupied long enough for you to show up fashionably late and pick up the scraps.”

“That’s NOT what…”

“Oh, save it. You pulled the same shit in a similar brawl last year! Once is an aberration. Twice is a pattern. You’re a Champion in title only. But your heart is fragile. Your antics are like a toddler acting out for attention because his family refuses to spoil him and treat him like some kind of special angel. And for every victory you’ve earned against me, you have failed time and again to recognize that I’m not so easily broken. My will, my resolve is not so easily shattered because your announcer minion robbed me of a guaranteed triumph.”


Vagabond approaches. Dancer, now fully riled up, starts to throw wild swings. Some connect. But not all. And Vagabond gives as good as he gets, and eventually overwhelms Dancer, forcing him back onto the balcony and against the railing.

Desperate, and without even thinking about how much it proves the point made by his enemy, Dancer pulls his phone out and speed dials A.P. Ness.

“Hey, A.P.! Where are you? You need to get here, now.”

There’s no response.

“A.P., where are you? You have a job to do. Where the hell are…”

“He’s not going to save you this time. Neither will your little bitch, Ebon.”


Angrily, Dancer tosses his phone down, shattering it on the marble balcony. He glares at Vagabond and is about to say something, but Vagabond quickly shuts him up with a stiff right hand.

“Quiet. I know what you’re about to say. ‘Don’t talk shit about my best friend,’ right? Don’t bother. I don’t buy this friendship for a second. Friends don’t need to constantly go out, week after week, and deflect criticism. Friends don’t need to remind the world day in and day out that they’re friends and nothing will come between them. That’s not the actions of men who are confident. It’s the desperate ploy of a couple of punks trying to convince themselves that they’re not bastards.

“Either way, I don’t care if your bond is true or not. It’s not going to stop me and Shadow from ripping away this monument to it. The fact that you couldn’t see the symbolism of me being here, in the head of your statue, is proof that you never truly understood just what I am and how badly I've gotten under your skin. I believe the appropriate phrase is 'rent-free.'"


Another punch to the jaw sends Dancer reeling. And in his mind, Dancer isn’t thinking about a counterattack. He isn’t thinking about how he’s going to beat Vagabond.

He’s wondering where the hell Ebon is to bail him out.

Again, Vagabond puts Dancer in a hammerlock, and forces Dancer’s head down onto the bannister, facing the head of the Ebon statue across from the shaking hands. There’s some movement, but it’s difficult to tell what’s happening.

Into his ear, Vanguard whispers.

“You should’ve killed me when you had the chance. But you didn’t have the spine to do it, just like you’ve never had the spine to stand on your own, fight on your own, and even lose on your own. Nothing you can do short of ending my life is going to be enough to stop me from haunting you, Dancer. And nobody can save you from losing everything…”

*****

Over in the other statue, Ebon has made it to the top of the staircase. He’s panting just barely, further evidence at the damage he’s yet to recover from. He does a good job of hiding it, but the brutalization he endured during that last fight was extensive. Ebon certainly is more banged up than Dancer ended up being.

Fuck that. Doesn’t matter. Shadow Swarm needs to die so that he can get his shot. The shot at being the Champion that his best friend has finally been able to give him. Nothing else matters.

Ebon kicks in the door and finds the visitor’s center built into his head in much the same condition that Dancer found. No civilians, but strewn bodies of security guards and hired goons accent demolished furniture, and tourist trap merchandise has been scattered and ruined. There’s no observation balcony in his statue, and only a single fluorescent light bulb gives any light.

Ebon doesn’t give a shit. As much as he loves Dancer as a friend and brother, he doesn’t share the same dream of being loved and admired. He knows The City is a shithole and that he and Dancer haven’t done anything to make that any better. But it’s fun, and Ebon Messiah hasn’t given a shit about anybody or anything since coming to The City.

Why start now?

“Hey, Shadow! You fucking loser! Come out here so I can kick your ass and stop wasting my time.”

As Ebon walks into the center of the visitor’s center, he doesn’t see Shadow. But he does hear him.

“Kehahaha…”

The laughter echoes, making it impossible to determine where it’s coming from.

This further pisses off Ebon, who grabs a toy bat and just flings it in a random direction.

“You missed. Tell me, I’m curious. I thought you would’ve wanted to go after Vagabond yourself, considering the caustic words you had for him. Why come after me? Was this Dancer’s idea? Gods only know that his ideas are the only ones either of you have.”

“Shut up! Fuck your little games, bitch. Get out here and let’s finish this.”

“Kehahaha…yes, it is about time we finish this, isn’t it? A mercy killing you’ve clearly been begging for silently.”

“The hell are you talking about?”


The laughter persists, as the unbroken plasma screens cut to life.

The videos that play are of Ebon Messiah, breaking through the ranks of Heroes and Villains and running roughshod as he pursued the throne of Top Champion. His actions aren’t exactly what you would expect of a hero, nor does Ebon really try and pander to the civilians. Still, he’s nothing if not honest, and the residents of The City rally behind him.

Ebon looks at this, and while it’s hard to say for certainty with the mask hiding his face, it’s clear from his body language that there’s a bit of nostalgic remembrance. Like remembering good times, being on top of the world.

“Enjoying the trip down memory lane, Ebon?”

Shadow Swarm’s voice breaks Ebon out of his own mind and back to reality. Ebon clenches his fists and plants his feet, trying to figure out where his enemy is hiding in the dark. But he doesn’t move as Shadow continues his very appropriate Villain monologue.

“Good times, weren’t they? I know you’ve never cared much about being loved or respected, but it had to feel GOOD, didn’t it? It’s only natural. I don’t doubt for a minute that the support you had garnered in The City was just the edge you needed to make your mark and take your shot at the Top Champion.

“...Oh, excuse me. Did I say ‘shot?’ I meant ‘shots.’ Because you had a great number of them over the couple of years, didn’t you? How did those turn out, I wonder?”


The videos on the monitors change, showing those challenges that Ebon Messiah made against the reigning Champion at the time, Silver Tongue.

Defeat.

When Silver Tongue left The City abruptly, and there was a massive scramble to claim the title, Ebon would emerge from that. But immediately after, he would be challenged by Oros the Rotten.

Defeat again.

Since then…nothing. A few opportunities to get another shot at the Champion, whether it was Oros or even Dancer.

Defeats again and again.

Bitterness is a familiar feeling to Ebon, but it’s never pleasant. And all the while, a mad mage mocks him from the darkness.

“Oh, dear. Such an unfortunate series of events. The man The City thought would be the one to end the strife and stake his claim would end up fumbling again and again, relying on the charity of his master to even get a SNIFF at the throne.”

Ebon is now fully pissed as he shouts back:

“At least I WAS Champion, shitstain! And Dancer’s not my master, he’s my…”

“‘Friend,’ yes, as you and he are so QUICK to remind us. How wonderful for you. You made a friend that not only tolerates you like your former partner, but actually indulges your worst impulses. I would almost say it’s wholesome in a deranged sort of way if it wasn’t so painfully obvious that you value that bond more than he does.”

“You’re lying.”

“KEHAHAHA! I am a great many things, Ebon. A criminal mastermind. A wizard of unparalled prowess. The most popular man amongst the Heroes and Villains of The City. But a liar? Hardly.”


Ebon starts to pace, picking up random merchandise and broken furniture pieces and starts chucking them randomly. He even goes and tries to swing in the darkened corners of the visitor center with a broken two-by-four hoping to get a swing in.

All it gets is more derisive laughter and taunting.

“Oh, give it a rest! We’ve danced your dance before, Ebon. And I’m not so proud that I can’t admit you got the better of me. Is that why your master sent you here? And not after Vagabond? After all, your win-loss record against MY partner is quite the embarrassment given how much you and Dancer spend time deriding him.”

“Fuck off!”

“No, I don’t think I will. The day I take orders from that rapscallion’s loyal guard dog will be the day I cast aside my mask. Oh, wait…’guard dog’ would imply that you still have some bite left in you, wouldn’t it? I believe the better term for what you are to Dancer is…and pardon the crassness…his BITCH.”

“I AM NOT DANCER’S BITCH!”

*PHLIK*


Ebon grunts as something stings him. He reached for the back of his neck and pulls out a dart, dripping with some kind of liquid.

*PHLIK*

*PHLIK*


Two more darts, one in his shoulder and one in his leg, pierce Ebon Messiah, oozing with that same liquid. As he removes them, his vision starts to blur. His consciousness starts to ebb and flow, and if not for his stubbornness and rage, he probably would pass out.

Walking out of the shadows, we see the insectoid mastermind. Casual, confident, and in complete control. Ebon, incensed, rushes him and tackles him to the ground, but before he rains down hammer blows, Shadow headbutts him.

Normally, one headbutt wouldn’t be enough to stagger Ebon. But with his senses already addled by whatever trickery Shadow used with the darts, it is enough for the Villain to pummel him with elbow strikes and roll out from under Ebon. Shadow quickly gets to his feet as Ebon struggles to get to his.

Circling Ebon Messiah like a shark smelling blood in the water, Shadow continues his overly-dramatic pontificating, and reveling in it like a true would-be overlord.

“What else would you call yourself? His ‘friend?’ Since when have you ever cared about being anybody’s friend? You certainly proved that when your dearest and oldest friend was held hostage by that overly smiley Villain and you couldn’t take two seconds out of your precious day to go and save him. Friendship for you has always come second to violence. Brutality is the only way you can feel anything other than the crippling realization that you’re not as skilled, talented, or DRIVEN enough to be the man who sits on the throne above all.

“I remember the man I fought against. The man who fended me off, beat me, and continued to march across a field of shattered dreams and broken bodies. I remember the man you WERE, Ebon. And I wonder where he went. Considering how hard you fought to be Champion, how heartbreaking it was when you came up short time and again, I would think that you would’ve demanded your ‘friend’ give you a shot long before now, your bond be damned. After all, if you’re such good friends, he shouldn’t have had a problem with it, right?

"But that's to be expected when you and Dancer have to waste everyone's time reminding the world that you two are the best of best friends. Vagabond and I are friends, but you don't see ups having to take up valuable air time or plaster billboards all over The City to remind people. That's because I know Vagabond, and he knows me. There may come a time where our interest diverge, and we may end up having to fight one another, maybe try and kill one another to pursue our own ambitions. And that's FINE! Because we're fucking adults, you mouthbreathing malcontent! We understand that certain things will challenge friendship, and maybe end it. But at least we're adult enough to accept that and let the chips fall where they may, rather than allow ourselved to be deluded by the fear of our bond being broken. We certainly can't say the same about you and Shining Dancer, can we?"


Ebon pants heavily as he staggers to his feet and takes another sloppy half-swing at Shadow, which he easily dodges.

“You're so full of shit. Is that mask a bit too tight that it's cutting off oxygen to your brain? Dancer was GOING to give a shot until you and Vagabond had to get involved.”

“Was he? Perhaps. But it seems a bit inconvenient for you, doesn’t it? You can grit your teeth all you want, hide the pain you’re in, but I know that you’re not 100% after that massive melee. You can’t be. But Dancer? He gets to show up conveniently at the tail end and take very minimal damage in a very dangerous environment. And only afterwards, do you get your shot.

“Tell me, Ebon. If he’s such a good friend, why wait until now?”


“He…he had to fight out your partner and…”

“Oh, please! Don’t give me that excuse! Pomp and circumstance and obligations be damned! The SECOND he became the Champion, Dancer could’ve used his pull with the government to give you a shot. It’s not as if he has shown he cares about decorum. And it’s not as if there isn’t any precedent for it, either. Vagabond did something not too dissimilar for your old partner back in the day, if that toxin swimming in your system hasn’t completely shut down your memory faculties. He didn’t wait to give him that shot for some massive event to appeal to vanity. And he suffered greatly for it by other Heroes and Villains. But he did because your old partner was also Vagabond’s friend. So…why hasn’t Dancer extended you the same courtesy? And why have you not demanded it?


“But we both know why, don’t we? Dancer is an egomaniac that makes me look downright humble by comparison. He’s wanted so long to be the man that The City revolves around that he’s done everything in his power to keep his feeble grasp on the crown. And he knows, as I do, that when you are at your best? He CAN’T BEAT YOU. But he also knows something else, something you can’t bring yourself to confess.

“You could’ve been one of the greatest Champions this City has ever known. But when you finally sat upon the throne, you let it slip through your fingers, and have failed to come close ever since. And that’s because you’re AFRAID.”

Another flash of anger is enough to staunch the poison for a brief second. With a roar, Ebon rushes and slugs Shadow hard with a vicious right hand, staggering the Villain. But…that’s all. It took everything Ebon had to get that hit in. Shadow’s trickery and willingness to fight a battle not on Ebon’s terms has done the damage, and Ebon collapses to his knees.

Shadow, seeing that Ebon Messiah is spent, walks up and cups the Hero’s chin, forcing the two masked men to look at one another eye-to-eye.

“Afraid. The man I fought last year wouldn’t have let decorum or tradition stop him from claiming what he wanted. The Ebon Messiah I remember would’ve put his boot to the throat of the man who had what he desired and forced him to surrender it. But you haven’t done that since Dancer won your prize from the man who took it from you. Why?

“I know why. Because you felt the weight of the crown, and it CRUSHED you. For as much as you complain about chafing in the shadows of men like Vagabond, the shadows are where you find comfort, security…SAFETY. Because so long as you’re in someone else’s shadow, you need not fear the spotlight shining down on your head, threatening to burn you. If Dancer was your friend, he should’ve given you this shot a long time ago, back when you were at your best. If you were half the man you were, you wouldn’t have ALLOWED him to make you wait. But he didn’t. And you did. Because you value this facade of friendship more than proving why the man The City rallied behind was worth buying into. You valued SAFETY over the choppy waters and stormy skies that come with being the MAN.

“And it’s that friendship that has doomed you to obscurity, Ebon. You’re a killer without a killer instinct, a mighty warrior too afraid to fight for what HE wants, and has given EVERYTHING to defend someone else’s glory. You have abandoned conquest for lapping up scraps off Dancer’s table that the Champion deigns to give you. If that doesn’t make you a bitch…what does?”


Ebon says nothing.

But he does spit in Shadow’s face.

A final, if impotent, act of defiance as the toxin works its way through his veins.

But it’s not the first poison that has done this.

No…because as much as he doesn’t want to admit it, Ebon can’t help but wonder if Shadow is right. That Dancer has used his irreverence and his friendship to keep his own throne safe, and only gave Ebon this shot after suffering greatly to defend it for him.

Maybe the friendship was real.

Maybe it wasn’t.

But even now, it doesn’t matter. No bond is shatterproof. And what hunger was there? Perhaps it was lost a long time ago, and Ebon refused to acknowledge it.

Shadow wipes the spittle from his mask as he picks up Ebon, who can offer no resistance. This challenge by Shadow and Vagabond was something Ebon and Dancer should’ve been able to overcome.

But all it’s going to do is be the first shot that ends their reign of terror.

“It is a shame, Ebon. I truly wish things could’ve been different. But…choices, consequences, et cetera. If it’s any consolation? Vagabond and I will miss you when you’re gone. You might have been a loutish brute, but unlike your partner? Your…’friend?’ At least you were always honest with yourself…well, mostly. Recent events notwithstanding.

“At any rate, this game you and he have been playing has grown tiresome, and the whole City is through having to stomach it. I don’t know whether you’ll recover enough to take back the title of Top Champion. And there’s no telling who will be the one to unseat Dancer. But it WILL happen. And this conflict? This bond, and this monument to that bond? It’s the first act in the downfall of your childish, petulant campaign.

“And that? That is something I most certainly will not miss. KEHAHAHA!!!”

*****

Dancer struggles. Tries to free himself. Even gets in a few cheap shots.

But Vagabond is relentless, and keeps him right where he wants him on the observation balcony.

Then, they hear it.

*BOOM!*

The wall in the Ebon statue’s cheek blows out, opening a hole.

And through that hole, the body of Ebon is tossed out, sent plummeting from the monument to his and Dancer’s vanity and compulsion to broadcast their fragile bond.

Dancer’s eyes go wide. He’s in shock.

But is it because his friend has been defeated?

…or because he has no one left to save him.

In his ear, Vagabond whispers to Dancer:

“I told you before, didn’t I? You don’t get to decide how this story is written. You don’t get to be the Hero, you don’t get a happy ending so long as I draw breath. A few feeble victories aren’t going to be enough to shatter my will. And in the end, I was right. You never did see the shot that took you down.”

With that, Dancer’s world starts to spin as Vagabond tosses him off the balcony.



Time seems to slow down as both Dancer and Ebon fall. It’s as if they were drowning in the world’s biggest vat of molasses.

And as explosions start to rock the monument, and the handshake binding the two statues is reduced to splinters and rubble, we see that the citizens of The City have risen up.

Smoke-belching factories mass producing Splooge are destroyed.

A trio of young women in masks ransack the television station, and assaulting loyalists to the Shining Dreamer regime.

A squat humanoid in a similar mask to Shadow Swarm’s holds a makeshift spear, where A.P. Ness’s severed head is skewers, tongue lolling out and eyes half-shut.

More and more Heroes and Villains unite to tear down the images and propaganda for Shining Dancer and Ebon Messiah. An act of rebellion against a duo that has done nothing but insult them, force-feed them toxic and puerile demonstrations of their false superiority.

Dancer, as the ground gets closer and closer, reaches out vainly to Ebon.

But whether the friendship is real or just an excuse for either man to avoid the truth of their respective status in The City and in the eyes of its people? In the end, it doesn’t matter.

Dancer and Ebon have chosen to take a darker road, damned be the rest of The City.

And on this dark road, Vagabond and Shadow have dealt them a grievous wound. One that could destroy them, utterly and completely.

As the Top Champion and Ebon Messiah continue to fall, we don’t see the landing. We don’t see if they survive or if they are left as corpses on the ground.

All we hear as the scene goes to black is a sickening crunch…​
 
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Shade

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WWE.COM EXCLUSIVE

THE WWE PERFORMANCE CENTER!

"You must be joking right! This is it?"

"So let's just clear the elephant in the room. She may not look like much but she puts out if you catch my drift!"

"Trevor! This surely can't be it? It looks terrible."

"It's a work in progress and you look terrible yourself Ray."

"I told you before my name is Raj"

"Ross?"

"No.. Raj"

"Work with me here Jack.. I'm giving you a gimmick Ross."

"My name is Raj."


"Aren't you curious about your gimmick Rex?"

"(Audible sigh) Go On!"

"You're the cameraman! And the cameraman's name is Ralph. Ralph's gimmick is to know his role and shut his fuckin mouth. So why don't you do me and the world a favor and live your fucking gimmick Jack! Now let's roll! I even bought some music for this shit"



(Voice Over)

"Ladies and Gentleman! For those of you new to the world of wrestling and for that rare ignorant few who dwell in caves. My name is Trevor Walker. In the prestigious world of professional wrestling there are few names which carry as much respect and prestige as mine. Which is why there are few programs which will put you on the path to success and superstardom like the Walker Wrestling Experience will. For as someone who has seen pretenders come and go and so called next big things exposed as exceedingly crap wrestlers or ECW talent. That is without me mentioning the growing number of average everyday wrestlers out there who are a bunch of TNAs. Which of course stands for totally nondescript assholes who constantly fail to make an impact. But if you stand by my side and join the Walker Wrestling Experience, I will make you all World Class Wrestlers or WCW level talent in weeks. You will graduate the WWE performance center a new person with the wrestling world at your feet. However superstardom doesn't come easy or for free. Which is why at the cost of $199.99 a week, you will be free to take your place under my learning tree and become a WWE superstar! So let's check out the performance center shall we?"

With that the cameras cut to a dingy neighborhood in an undisclosed location. To say this doesn't look like a safe or particularly nice place to live would be an understatement. The houses and buildings all are sporting boarded up windows and doors with various manners of offensive graffiti sprayed on top of them. Dimly lit due to broken street lights and cars ripped of their parts don't help change this first impression. Nor does the litter which is strewn all across the street and yet despite this a tracksuit wearing Trevor Walker has a proud smile on his face as he walks to what can only be described as a derelict industrial building. Walking to the door Walker forces it open with his shoulder before he walks inside while waving for the cameraman to follow.

"Welcome to the WWE Performance Center Jack!"

As Walker outstretches his arms to welcome the viewers the camera pans around this so called performance center. To one side of this room is a small set of weathered, used weights and tires. Standing by these are a couple of trainees one of whom is complaining about the dumbbell cutting his hand while the other picks up a hammer to begin hitting one of the tires. From here the cameras shift to the other side of the room which has just a couple of skipping ropes which again have clearly had their use over the years while a couple of students try to skip with them. Finally the cameras then shift to the middle of the room where the ring is stationed. Unlike the usually clean FWA rings, this ring has clearly seen better days. The canvas is weathered and the ropes are slack. With the turnbuckle pads ripped it appears that the students in and around the ring are doing their best to avoid injury.

"Now this is where the magic happens. Where dues are paid and sacrifices are made. As you can see we currently have a few promising recruits and students here but there is always room for more! The more students we get the more facilities and equipment I can get to provide the WWE performance center. The reason for which I joined the FWA was for this program and my students. I am here to show everyone what the WWE is all about and what we can do for you. My hopes are that I can inspire others to make the move to becoming a WWE superstar. I will do that by stepping into the ring for the FWA this week against a bunch of pussies and showing them what a true wrestler is. A true WWE superstar for that matter. So with that in mind.. Let's meet some WWE performance center trainees shall we!"

The cameraman follows Walker as he claps his hands and a few students rush over to him. All the students look a little anxious as they file up in line. After looking at the line Walker waves for the eldest one in the group to walk over to them. A stocky, surly individual who is in his late thirties and sporting a small potbelly. This man nods his head as Walker pats him on the shoulder.

"This is Vinny. His name is Vinny Burnett and he's the longest standing trainee with the WWE. He's been learning from me for over a year now and he's learned a bunch haven't you Vinny?"

Clearly camera shy Vinny gulps anxiously before he answers.

"That's right. Mr. Walker put me through my paces and after six months he deemed me worthy of learning to lock up. Now I help train the others."

Trevor nods proudly before he speaks up.

"Couldn't have said it better myself. Vinny is the prime example of someone who has persevered and now look at him. He runs the school when I'm not here and he pushes our values. Isn't that right?"

Vinny nods his head before he responds.

"That's right. Everyone here pays their dues as Mr. Walker says and I personally cut the ones who lose to the women. Because as Mr. Walker says only pussies lose to girls and the WWE isn't for pussies."

Again Walker nods proudly before he motions to two of his talents to come over.

"Here are two of my top students. Paul Peters and Sam Stevens. Come on up boys."

Walking over to Walker are two young men roughly around their mid twenties. The first of which is a blonde haired man around 6 foot tall with a short flat top and goatee. Wearing a grey t-shirt and black shorts this man is quickly identified as Paul Peters while the other is a shaved headed black man who is slightly smaller and slender in build. Wearing a black vest and blue shorts with matching trainers. Again this man is quickly identified as Sam Stevens. Both these men appear to be surprisingly conditioned athletes for Walker.

"Boys tell them about your experience with the WWE so far. Who are you and all that also."

"OK I'll go first. My name is Paul Peters. I was a gifted amateur wrestling standout who got put on the fast track because of my ability to pin my opponents on the mat. When I met Trevor, I was set to graduate university and move on to the Olympics. But now here I am paying my dues for little money. I've gone from living at home with my family to sleeping in my car night after night for this dream. I've only just recently returned due to injury but again it's all part of paying my dues."

"That's right. Peters got a staph infection from training but rather than take time to heal. I had him training in here with everyone else to build their immunity and toughness. Sure a lot of people got sick and Peters got a bad infection. But if wrestling were easy it'd be karate. Now Stevens tell your story."


"My name is Sam Stevens, I grew up as a fighter from a fighting family. My mother was a judoka and my father was a boxer. Together they taught me everything they know and I wound up taking MMA up as my career. It was here that I first met Trevor Walker who swore that it was in wrestling that I'd truly be forced to fight. When I came here I was the top dog in the gym until I grappled with Mr. Walker. We grappled for a bit and clearly I had a lot to learn when Trevor raked my eyes and then broke my ankle. But I healed up and came back to learn."

"That's right ladies and gentleman. These two have suffered and they have gone through true hardship. Yet here they are now as top WWE performance center standouts. In time they will graduate and become full fledged WWE superstars. Just like anyone else who is willing to make sacrifices and pay their dues can do so. All it costs is $199.99 per week and the future is yours. So consider my match a preview of what the WWE can offer you!"
 
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Tig

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JAY KENNY VOLUME 1
^^^^^^
CLICK!


plz dont look at this super shite plain txt version below, thnx.

gud 2 b back btw YAHHHH BOI
ZpJ3FGswFOXNawd9VAdUff6QdJPTJkltFru_P6lmolBh_j_8o4mowSqXPTHZfc4h6dqqnIls1zo8NgfJzVq6KCdWM3aEPbpeGFy4Whb81cPeFKgga3sJAncdqgItpycNwTcNsqtzXnSBCaqs4U3YJKg



Two rows of suited men sit on the courtroom’s bench. Some are young, some are old. Some look bored, some look engaged. One is a bald black man, another has anime-like hair atop an extremely youthful face, and one still sports a severely burned face. There are differences aplenty between the men that number twelve, but they are all about to be joined together and forced to operate as one. An unseen judge speaks solemnly.

JUDGE “Gentlemen, as you sit before me today I must remind you of the utmost seriousness of the situation you find yourself presented with. A man stands accused of the murder of another. A heinous crime that occurred during the Furhampton Western Area’s annual festival. Due to the grievous nature of the crime, if found guilty, the court will sentence the defendant to death. No other outcome will be considered. This is a heavy burden for you fine men and I am sure you will reach the correct decision but in the event of a dead-locked or hung jury, the court has a special deliberator, whose identity is a secret, that will help us reach a verdict. I trust, however, that this won’t be necessary. Remember men, the decision needs to be unanimous when the punishment is the death penalty. Please, I implore you to take this seriously. It is the single most important civic duty you will ever perform in the Furhampton Western Area and the fate of a man lies in your hands. You have all heard the testimonies regarding this case, it is up to you to determine what is fact. You and you alone, are the judges of the fact. The bailiff will now escort you to the deliberation room. Godspeed, gentlemen.”

VMcfbg2J9gZukRDqOQ-zXRek2Y2B5mnLUZN8QKBIqTPkCUm6BIMKPBqzcNpCQvAHESqNVY9HyXF3I-z2Udv32UUyFoJN6am5YszKkU6DCPsVJjBqrtALDHaWEtfWBMEnz3Bl7KVjjJ_iydfjxw235DI

The young, early-twenties male with the Goku-inspired, Super Sayian-like hair slowly walks behind the other eleven men that comprise the jury, the last of the lot to file into the bare-bones, rectangular-shaped room. Maybe it was because he was bringing up the rear, but walking into the cramped room he could not help but feel that eleven sets of eyes trained themselves on him. He instantly feels tense and knows there is a silent judgement going on, an unspoken appraisal by eleven strangers and he nervously shifts his weight from one foot to the other. There is a moment of awkwardness as the men in the room look at each other, none of them opting to take a seat at the rectangular table. The table and the twelve wooden chairs surrounding it made up pretty much the entirety of the furnishings in the room. In fact, if you weren’t to count the ashtrays and jugs of water on the table, the only other item in the entire room was an old, ticking clock hung alone on the wall.

-w6q-IX591LfINb92BzYjcJpyOOwJsLfTFKJtmfIKKAL6zitHb3uVW_1xu9KKJj4KSjyPoj4Tz4vc_y1xlCbRmlVAfmeDuGYv88KlI3oko_mDKzb4JulXDf8CeRJrJ3WkppUH-aJXngJBjEMRSFWYrE


The young man could feel the defensive mechanisms in his body beginning to kick in, his right hand curling into a fist as the other men stood there gawking at him. A small cough from behind served as a reminder that they weren’t all alone just yet, there was still a Guard accompanying them, on hand if so required by the jurors. He cleared his throat rather loudly before addressing the men in the room.

GUARD “Alright fellas, listen up! I’ll be on the other side of this door, if ya’ll need anything ya holler, okay? Take your time boys, there’s a lavatory just out that door there if anyone’s needing, aside from that, ya’ll just need to let me know when you’ve reached a verdict.”

Some of the men turn their heads towards the door the Guard pointed at with one rather conflicted-looking man in his late twenties making his way towards it with jittery movements. He opens the door and quickly shuts it behind him just as the Guard closes the door of the jury deliberation room. The two oldest men in the room continue to eye the young juror who entered last suspiciously and again he can feel his temper begin to flare as they stand eye-balling him. He bites his lip and gestures at the table in front of them.

JUROR 7 “What? Nobody gonna sit down then, nah?”

His English accent wasn’t that of the gentleman-type portrayed in American movies, it was rough and blunted by an underlying aggression ill-fitting a man of his age. The older of the two snarls at him but he could swear he saw a slight smirk on the face of the one with the long hair. Suddenly, the sound of a key turning in a lock can be heard and a few of them whip their heads towards the door that the Guard had exited from. A muscular dark-skinned man with a shaved head cocks an eyebrow at the smaller but athletically-shaped man in a sharp, pinstripe suit and has a quick exchange.

JUROR 8 “Didn’t know they locked the door.”

JUROR 3 “Course they do, big man. What did you think? They’d just let us stroll out of here whenever we please?”

The man laughs loudly, a horrible, cocky laugh that echoes off the walls of the room. The other man tsks dismissively and lays a hand on one of the chairs, pulling it out from the table, before jutting his head at the young English juror.

JUROR 8 “You all heard the kid - sit.”

There is a noisy scramble as the men all make a move to secure a seat at the table. The older man with the long hair passes by the young English juror and without smiling speaks to him.

JUROR 12 “Midlands lad, eh?”

Before the young man can respond, and he’d have quite liked to seeing as he hadn’t happened across many fellow countrymen since he arrived in the city, the foreman of the jury begins shouting over the ruckus of the men all trying to take a seat in the small room. He can barely believe his ears when he hears another cockney - albeit softer - accent.

JUROR 1 “Oi! Oi! Lads, a bit of decorum, eh? This ain’t too hard - there’s twelve of us and twelve chairs. Why don’t we just sit in order of our jury numbers?”

Some of them begin to shimmy around towards their seats but the oldest man in the room, the one who had been giving him daggers, shouts out.

JUROR 10 “Who the fuck died and made you king? I’ll sit wherever I damn well please.”

A man already seated in the eleventh chair flicks his eyes towards the brash man. The young juror quickly gives him the once over and surmises that despite the size difference, this guy certainly wouldn’t back down, he looked like he’d been through his fair share of hardship. He gave the vibe that he could pop off at any moment without warning and secretly, the young juror got a little excited at the prospect of that so he was a little disappointed when he simply pulled out the chair to his right and calmly spoke.

JUROR 11 “Come on, man. Take it easy. What are you? Number ten? That’s beside me, let’s just get on with this, yeah?”

The other men had started to flit into their seats and the older man glanced at the one free seat, seat four. It was beside a dark-skinned man, but not the one who’d spoken about the locked door, this guy was slightly younger and sporting an orange tie around the collar of his navy shirt. He looks at him for a few seconds, a little bit longer than was comfortable, and takes his seat beside the calm but volatile-seeming Juror 11. He grumbles under his breath as the foreman scans the room.

JUROR 1 “Are we missing someone?”

The man to his immediate left speaks up, his Irish accent penetrating the room.

JUROR 2 “There’s a lad in the jacks.”

Right on cue, the jittery man emerges from the toilet, a little red in the face and scurries towards his seat.

JUROR 5 “Sorry guys! Didn’t mean to hold you up!”

JUROR 1 “We’re only getting started, mate, you’re alright.”

A tall man with severe burning on his face speaks in a deep voice.

JUROR 9 “And how do we start?”

JUROR 1 “Ehh… I dunno, I mean… I’m not in charge or anything so I’m happy to hear if anybody has any ideas about how to proceed.”

The men all begin rapidly talking to the people beside them, all trying their best to be heard over the rabble. The young Englishman, Juror 7, looks around at the strangers in the room thinking it funny how they were all trying to come across as someone important, someone worth listening to, someone worth taking note of. Frankly, he didn’t want to be there, he didn’t ask to be there, he thought nobody would actually want to sit here, surrounded by eleven men they didn’t know in a tight, cramped room. Still, while he was here he should at least try to contribute. He is sitting at the opposite end of the table to the foreman and turns to the man on his left, the muscular Juror 8 but finds him deep in conversation with the burnt-faced Juror 9. He listens for a second before turning to his right, an empty chair greeting him. A young man, maybe the youngest bar him, had wandered away from the table and he now looks out the window onto the city with his hands in his trouser pockets. Juror 7 looks at Juror 5, the man with the orange tie and is about to speak when the man looking out the window turns around and speaks loudly - but not obnoxiously - a declaration.

JUROR 6 “Well, why don’t we vote? See where we’re at.”

JUROR 10 “Finally a bit of sense in this damn place. Let’s get this shitshow over with, I’ve places to be.”

JUROR 1 “Sounds fine by me. Why don’t you take a seat mate and we’ll do a quick vote around the table?”

Juror 6 takes his seat and he briefly locks eyes with Juror 7 before turning away.

JUROR 1 “So… eh… I mean I guess we just go in order?”

Nobody protests and the foreman simply shrugs his shoulders.

JUROR 1 “I think the cowboy is guilty.”

The Irishman regretfully nods his head, seemingly not wanting to condone the man but being forced to be truthful.

JUROR 2 “Guilty.”

JUROR 3 “Yeah, he’s guilty.”

JUROR 4 “Ummm… eh… guilty?”

JUROR 5 “... Guilty.”

JUROR 6 “Not guilty.”

JUROR 7 “Gu-”

The young Englishman had been so sure that everybody was going to vote guilty that he had started speaking as soon as the man to his right had stopped. He didn’t even initially process the “not guilty” vote until the word had started tumbling out of his mouth. He was surprised by his neighbour's vote. Of course, it was his right to vote “not guilty” but as far as Juror 7 was concerned this was open and shut. The cowboy definitely did it. He shrugs, he wasn’t going to change his mind now just because somebody else voted the opposite way.

JUROR 7 “Guilty.”

JUROR 8 “Mothafucka’s guilty.”

JUROR 9 “Guilty.”

JUROR 10 “Guilty!”

Juror 11 pauses for some time his head buried in the palm of his right hand. He slowly lifts his head.

JUROR 11 “Guilty.”

JUROR 12 “And I think he’s guilty and all too.”

The men all turn to look at the foreman.

JUROR 1 “Well… we know where we stand. 11-1 vote guilty.”

JUROR 10 “The fuck are you all looking at him for? It’s him you should be looking at! You wanna explain yourself, kid? This is open and fucking shut!”

He is of course pointing at Juror 6, aggressively jabbing his finger in his direction as the colour rises in his face.

JUROR 6 “I don’t see it like that.”

JUROR 10 “What do you mean!? The cowboy killed him in the middle of the damn street and then took his chain like the two-bit, low-life thief that he is! You heard his fucking background; he robs for a living and has a problem with alcohol like all the other poverty-stricken sad cases!”

JUROR 5 “You sayin’ something about being poor, dog? I sure as hell don’t come from riches.”

JUROR 2 “And ye should pray for a man gripped by the drink, not slate the poor fecker.”

JUROR 7 “Innit. Man likes Jameson straight, but few things sadda than an alco who can’t help himself.

JUROR 10 “Don’t give me all that crap! You know what I mean, you three voted guilty just like everyone else!”

JUROR 2 “Not for the reasons you said, bud.”

JUROR 5 “Damn straight…”

Juror 7 can’t help but notice the fire underlying every word out of Juror 5’s mouth, the dangerous undertones and the wild glint in his eye. He knew that glint all too well himself and reckoned Juror 5 might have something in common with him.

JUROR 10 “Well we all think he’s guilty so it doesn’t matter why!”

JUROR 6 “Of course it matters. That’s literally why we’re here. This man, the cowboy, he’s being sent to his death.”

Juror 7 catches Juror 8 flinching at the sound of the last word and eyes the bald man cautiously. It wasn’t a painful flinch, Juror 7 reckoned this wasn’t Juror 8’s first rodeo when it came to death.

JUROR 6 “I don’t know about considering his past and all that, I think every man can change and make something of himself. We are talking lethal injection here men. I can’t in all good conscience just send him to his death without… well, without even discussing it a little first!”

There was something about Juror 6, it could be his movie-star looks but he certainly had a way of commanding attention. When he spoke, every man looked at him with admiration but Juror 7 had a slightly different view on things.

JUROR 7 “Man has no issue talkin’, fam. I respec’ you for that cuz, for real… But the way I see it, you the one who said man’s not guilty, so you the one who should be talkin’, innit?”

JUROR 6 “That seems reasonable, yeah. I’m not saying the cowboy isn’t guilty… I’m just not sure if he is.”

JUROR 9 “You have… how do they say it here… reasonable doubt?”

JUROR 6 “You could say that. Maybe. I just think we could talk a little first, no?”

JUROR 3 “Well then talk if you’re going to talk! I’ve a sparring session tonight and I’m fixing to knock somebody’s head off after being cooped up there all day listening to the prosecution.”

Juror 8 nods his head and looks up at the clock.

-lNeKMWBNsbvZTMbONcaV2Xo7Qeljs8rJMHgDQUGnpcbdFCPBNzxBF0T5baX2fq4QJGhs2dNGtLC32_swqrs3Ko4RwZEQOZ-ftXkbRCInsZ0corzwvW1E6nvtG4gVb1Fojwbq1k80x3UnZmoW-_sg40


JUROR 8 “That white-ass mothafucka had a lot to say.”

JUROR 6 “See that’s the thing… he had a lot to say but I don’t think any of it was completely convincing.”

JUROR 12 “What are you talking about? Some geezer said he saw the bloke do it, that’s good enough for me!”

JUROR 2 “And they found yer man’s chain on the accused. Worth a fair few quid that.”

JUROR 5 “There was that other witness too, right? He heard the cowboy’s partner talking to him on the phone and asking him was the job done. The job? When cats are all shady and vague like that… somethin’s up, trust.”

JUROR 10 “FOR CHRIST SAKE! The rich fellas head was caved in on both sides! You all saw that piece of shit on trial, he was like a fucking animal with that beard and long hair. I know guys like him - he’s pure white trash!”

Juror 7 sees Juror 11 cock his head sideways to look at Juror 10 and his earlier thoughts of Juror 11 being an explosive sort of man resurface. Surprisingly, Juror 4, the skittish man that had gone to the bathroom speaks up, his voice barely a whisper.

JUROR 4 “I mean… um… it doesn’t matter.”

JUROR 1 “Speak your mind, mate.”

Juror 4 still looks a little unsure even with the prompt and casts his gaze towards Juror 6.

JUROR 4 “I just… uh… I think the guy who said he saw it happen… well… he was a bit… a bit weird or something, I dunno, I’m not making much sense, don’t mind me guys.”

JUROR 6 “I think you’re absolutely right. He was more than a bit weird, he was downright eccentric.”

JUROR 8 “I didn’t like him.”

JUROR 5 “Dude was tweakin’ a bit, now that you say it.”

JUROR 7 “Man weren’t tweakin’, fam. He ain’t a junkie.”

JUROR 1 “How could you possibly know that?”

JUROR 7 “Just… he ain’t a junkie, man. And he ain’t one them mandem that like a tot, you feel me bruv?”

Juror 7 turns and looks at Juror 6.

JUROR 7 “Bruv, ya can’t just decide the key witness is in the trap shootin’ pebs, man. It ain’t right, fam.”

JUROR 6 “I don’t think he’s a junkie, no.”

JUROR 10 “Oh, who gives a fuck if he’s an addict or an alcoholic? His eyes still work, don’t they?”

There is a murmur of agreement around the table.

JUROR 6 “Sure, but like I said, I don’t think he’s either of those things. I think he’s a mental patient.”

The murmur quickly turns into a shouting match between most of the men, the majority screaming that it’s an absurd claim to make.

JUROR 7 “The fuck you figure that, fam? You’ve got a bare imagination man, I swear down, you need to check wagwan your head, not his, innit?”

JUROR 12 “Far be it for me to agree with a Brummie boy, but the kids right, you can’t just say somethin’ like that!”

An enraged-looking Juror 10 slams his fist on the table and shouts at Juror 6.

JUROR 10 “A likely fucking story, kid!”

JUROR 6 “Think about it for a second. He had a vacant look, like his mind was wandering like he was distracted. His eyes were flitting around his head. And most importantly he was brought in by somebody.”

JUROR 3 “The bailiff brings everybody in, wiseguy!”

JUROR 6 “Of course, but there was another man with them.”

JUROR 1 “Was there?”

JUROR 5 “I think you got that one wrong, man.”

JUROR 8 “Nah, he’s right. There was another dude with him. 100%.”

The excited rabble begins again.

JUROR 2 “Here, here, will yis all calm down for a second. He’s righ’… there definitely was another fella with them. But to say he was his doctor? Bit of a leap.”

JUROR 7 “Bit of a leap? That’s a runnin’ jump, bruv! Olympic ting, fam. It’s you that’s crazy, fam!”

The meek, unsure voice of Juror 4 pops up again.

JUROR 4 “He was mumbling to himself too… he kept looking beside him and calling somebody ‘Jerry’... but there was nobody there.”

JUROR 9 “He was talking to himself, you mean?”

Juror 7 can see the slightest trickle of doubt begin to creep into a few of the other men’s faces. He was pretty good at sizing people up, he made a bit of a life out of it outside the room. His right-sided neighbour wasn’t far behind him, he must have sensed some of the doubt too.

JUROR 6 “I want another vote.”

JUROR 10 “Already!? What’s your game, kid?”

Juror 7 didn’t think much of Juror 10 but he too was interested… What was his game? He was certainly playing one, he had more than a sense of civic duty in this one if you were to ask Juror 7.

JUROR 6 “Yes, already! And may I suggest we do it by private vote?”

JUROR 6 “I’m okay with that if everyone else is?”

Everyone nods their agreement and Juror 1, the foreman, approaches the door and has a quick conversation with the Guard before returning wielding a pair of scissors, some pens, and a sheet of paper. He dumps them on the table and Juror 12 instantly grabs the scissors and begins cutting up the paper. The slips are handed out and pens passed around, everyone writing their verdict and returning the folded pieces of paper to the foreman. He quickly tallies them up and sighs before looking at the rest of the jurors.

JUROR 1 “Ten votes of guilty. Two of not guilty.”

Juror 3 glances at the clock.

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JUROR 3 “Guess I’m missing my sparring session… lucky for whoever my partner was.”

The men sit in silence and Juror 7 plays the situation out in his head. Here they were, twelve strangers, twelve guys that knew nothing about each other - hell, twelve guys that potentially knew nothing at all - yet here they were pitting themselves against each other and trying to be heard, trying to be seen. He looks at Juror 6, he was definitely being heard, he was seen. He wasn’t much older than Juror 7 but people didn’t stare at Juror 6 in the same way. Maybe they could smell he was new to the city. Maybe they thought him a non-factor, somebody they didn’t have to worry about. Well, he’d been in far more intimidating situations in his life than this and he didn’t give a fuck what any of these strangers thought of him. They didn’t know him and though he hadn’t the charisma or looks of Juror 6… he knew for a fact he’d stand his ground. He thought the cowboy was guilty. He’d make sure they heard him before the day was out. They’d see him alright. The silence is penetrated by a bark from one end of the table

JUROR 10 “You weasly little fuck! You changed your vote, didn’t you? You little fucking coward! Don’t listen to this snot-nosed bastard you snivelling little rat!”

JUROR 4 “I-I-I-I didn’t, I swear!”

JUROR 1 “Don’t lie to me, boy! I’ll rip that tongue out of your fucking mouth, you-”

JUROR 11 “It was me. I changed my vote.”

Everyone, including Juror 6 himself, is taken aback. Juror 10 laughs aloud.

JUROR 10 “Our very own wild card, eh? Do share with the group, why the fuck did you change your mind?”

JUROR 11 “I don’t have to explain a damn thing to the likes of you but for the benefit of everyone else…”

He juts his head in Juror 4’s direction, he looks like he wants the ground to open up and swallow him whole.

JUROR 11 “He was right. The witness was talking to himself. Or, at least, talking to somebody that wasn’t actually there…”

Juror 7 notices a slight grimace of pain on Juror 11’s face as he talks. Immediately he decides that this is first-hand experience talking.

JUROR 11 “I’m not going to delve into my personal life for anybody's benefit but somebody… close to me… they did the same thing. Talked to somebody that wasn’t there, well, they weren’t real, whatever, I just know about this.”

Like a predator who had just finished circling his prey, Juror 6 jumps in.

JUROR 6 “And would you trust - unequivocally - everything this person has to say?”

JUROR 11 “Nah, she… nah. I wouldn’t. I’d want to but I couldn’t.”

JUROR 6 “So you’re saying you don’t believe the key witness testimony?”

JUROR 11 “I don’t know if I believe it or not… but I have reason to doubt it.”

JUROR 6 “Reason to doubt. That’s all you need, gentlemen. Remember - this is a man’s life at risk. If we vote guilty, he’s finished.”

JUROR 7 “Tell me somethin’, fam. Why ain’t you out there defendin’ this guy? You’re in here actin’ like some big tyma, bruv.”

Juror 6 laughs a little.

JUROR 6 “I’m from a rough part of New York, that wasn’t really an option for little old me.”

JUROR 7 “You ain’t on no road ting, man.”

Juror 7 looks away and then snaps his head back.

JUROR 7 “I don’t think you a likkle man eitha, bruv. You doin’ somethin’ here, fam, swear down, I know you’re upta summit.”

JUROR 6 “Just giving a different perspective on things is all.”

JUROR 2 “Righ’, so let’s just say that the fella is a whack-job and we can’t trust him. How d’ya suppose the cowboy ended up with the chain? He said he just found it in the streets after the festival but I dunno if I’m havin’ that.”

JUROR 10 “My ass! He stole it, it’s the whole reason he murdered him in the first place! I’m telling ya! The guy's low-life scum, he’d rob his own mother!”

Juror 7 inwardly curses as the bickering begins and several even stand up. The old arsehole might be on the same side as him but he was rather insufferable. He’d lifted a few things before but he hadn’t murdered… not for that. He looks at the man in the orange tie and something tells him that perhaps he had murdered for that. They lock eyes and quietly, Juror 5 speaks to Juror 7, low enough that nobody else can hear.

JUROR 5 “You gotta staring problem, limey?”

JUROR 7 “Tssk, call me that again, fam, call me that again. Man’ll stab you up, swear down, you’ll be dipped as soon as you walk down the steps of this fuckin’ courthouse, man.”

JUROR 5 “Aight then, keep your panties on… limey.”

Before Juror 7 can throw a punch, Juror 5 whistles loudly by placing his two fingers in his mouth. He winks at Juror 7 as the room falls silent and then asks the foreman a question

JUROR 5 “This chain, can we see it?”

JUROR 1 “Sure thing mate, I’ll get the Guard.”

As Juror 1 goes to relay the information to the Guard, Juror 12 shouts down.

JUROR 12 “This is a load of piss. What the bloody hell do you need to see that thing for?”

Juror 1 returns and hands a sparkling golden chain with a golden pendant to Juror 5. He lifts it and it twirls in his hand, revealing the engraved ‘X’ on the back of the pendant. He whistles a lower pitch this time.

JUROR 5 “Yup. He did it. This thing can be flipped for some serious bread. You want motive, look no further. This thing’s worth a pretty penny, it’s worth killing for.”

JUROR 9 “This is valuable?”

JUROR 5 “Man, you’d make a damn fortune if you knew where to flip this.”

JUROR 11 “You mean to tell us you know?”

Juror 5 simply smiles and shakes his head.

JUROR 5 “It ain’t me on trial here, boys, lest we forget.”

JUROR 6 “Then why didn’t he take the other one?”

JUROR 10 “What are you blabbering about now?”

An exasperated and irate Juror 10 pulls out a pack of cigarettes and lights one sparking a chain reaction around the table. Jurors 2, 8 and 12 all light up as well. Juror 7 checks his pockets and is grateful when Juror 8 tosses him his box of cigarettes. The room growing smokey, all eyes are still on Juror 6 who rises from his seat. Juror 7 thinks of it as grandstanding.

JUROR 6 “Why didn’t he take the other pendant? The rich guy had two. The one with the X and the one with the T. Surely if you were after going to the trouble of killing a man to rob him you’d take both his valuable possessions and not just one?”

JUROR 2 “Ah, there could be a few reasons, bud. Maybe this one meant somethin’ to the cowboy fella? Maybe he had to leg it quickly. Maybe he didn’t have it on him?”

Juror 12 takes a long drag of his cigarette.

JUROR 12 “I’ve seen pictures of the rich bloke. He always had both of them around his neck.”

JUROR 10 “It was in the middle of the biggest bloody festival of the year! The city was packed! He hadn’t time!”

JUROR 6 “Yet he’d time to cave in both sides of the man's skull and take one of the pendants? A likely fucking story, kid.”

Juror 10 pops up out of his seat, veins throbbing in the side of his head and neck as he bundles his chair over.

JUROR 10 “Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to you little cu-”

Juror 12 jumps from his own seat and roughly pulls Juror 10 back by the collar of his suit.

JUROR 12 “Sit the bloody ‘eck down! I’ve seen muggings like this all round London. You’d be lucky if they left a bloody stocking on. There’s no way he killed him and just took one chain, no bloody way. If he was doin’ him for one, he was doin’ him for both. Do I think he found the chain in the street? I didn’t come up the bloody Thame in a bubble, of course, he didn’t bloody well find it. But if he bought it off someone, he’d know it’s hot, just look at the thing for god sake! He ain’t very well gonna stand up there in a court of law and admit to buying stolen goods. He didn’t rob ‘im, he’d have taken both. Without robbin’ him… I don’t see any motive to kill the rich bugger at all. I’m changing my vote to not guilty.”

JUROR 7 “Fam, what? Are you mad fam? Are you seriously fuckin’ mad? He still killed him even if he didn’t do it to rob-”

JUROR 4 “I-I-I think I want to change too.”

Loud shouting continues as Juror 7 just sits back and allows the men to once again jockey for position as the loudest in the room. 8-4 was the vote and the shit-eating grin on the face of Juror 6 only strengthened his resolve. Juror 7 wasn’t going to bow down to him just because he was well put together and spoke charismatically. It took a lot more than that to be on top of any meaningful situation and Juror 7 wasn’t gonna tuck in his tail and run because the votes were swinging.

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The men eventually tire themselves out arguing and the mood was a somber one. More had sparked up cigarettes, men that Juror 7 guessed didn’t even smoke, men that were just trying to fit in with their surroundings. The silence went on for an uncomfortable amount of time before Juror 6 broke it. He picks up the chain and holds it aloft.

JUROR 6 “Okay fellas, say we forget the key witness. Say we forget the chain.”

Juror 6 slips the chain into his pocket to illustrate the point.

JUROR 6 “What about the other witness?”

JUROR 10 “The guy who went to meet with the cowboy’s partner? That freak who runs a carnival on his ranch? Now, I don’t care if you talk until you’re blue in the face boy! You won’t convince me that this witness has any damn reason to lie.”

JUROR 2 “Yeah, I’m with ya on that. Nothin’ in it for the fella, would do him no good to lie about that.”

JUROR 11 “Didn’t they say they were meeting to settle a dispute? The witness owed the carny something?”

JUROR 7 “They’d a beef ting, I’ll even admit that, but I still trust the guy on what he said, I don’t see how that affects things.”

JUROR 12 “Now I’m one to talk but he did look like a bit of a bastard.”

It could be their proximity to him or it could just be his keen eye, but Juror 7 notices an unmistakable glance between Juror 5 and Juror 8.

JUROR 5 “So we’ve gotten to the point where we’re judging people on what they look like?”

JUROR 8 “I don’t see how that could have any bearing on the case.”

Juror 12 shrugs, unapologetic.

JUROR 12 “Just saying he looks the devious sort. Could do with a tidy up, I’d sort his crown out no bloody problem.”

The weird comment floats there as the men seem deep in thought. Juror 6 stands up and makes his way over to the toilet, shutting the door behind him. Juror 7 watches him the whole way, he couldn’t quite place his finger on it but he severely disliked him. He disliked his handsome, actor-like looks. He disliked his silver tongue and very proper way of speaking. He disliked that people could look at the two of them side by side but only really be looking at one of them. He’s broken out of his trance by the low whisper of Juror 5.

JUROR 5 “What you do, limey?”

JUROR 7 “The fuck are you talkin’ about, bruv?”

JUROR 5 “For cheddar?”

JUROR 7 “You mind your fuckin’ business, fam, swear.”

JUROR 5 “Just wonderin’ what a cat like you does for some dough.”

JUROR 7 “I’m a kickboxer.”

JUROR 5 “Yeah… but what do you really do for real Benjamins?”

Juror 7 glances around the room and notices nobody is paying attention to him, probably because Juror 6 has gone to the bathroom so they’ve no reason to look in their direction. He sizes up Juror 5 one more time and comes to the conclusion that Juror 5 may be in the same business.

JUROR 7 “Man’s thinkin’ you’re one stupid fuck. You wanna talk about makin’ P’s off the book? We’re in a fuckin’ courthouse, innit?”

Juror 5 simply leans back in his chair and smiles, not saying another word. Juror 7 is inwardly fuming at himself for giving away information about his… activities… when the toilet door swings open and Juror 6 marches out, a wide-eyed look of discovery on his face.

JUROR 6 “Hold on, this whole murder allegedly went down at the festival, right? Was anybody at it?”

A few men nod their heads and that’s enough to encourage Juror 6 to continue.

JUROR 6 “Biggest one ever, right? Two-night affair? The crowds must have been crazy.”

JUROR 1 “I was there with my brother. It was mental. Couldn’t hear myself think.”

Juror 9 nods in agreement.

JUROR 9 “The noise was very loud. I’ve never heard anything like this here before.”

JUROR 6 “This guy that met with the carnival master… he said they met to talk about the debt the night of the festival, the night of the murder. What was it he said? They argued a little and then he got a phone call. He said he knew it was the cowboy because the carny said his name, right? Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong on any of this.”

Nobody interjects, even if Juror 7 badly wanted to. Juror 6 was right so far.

JUROR 6 “He then said he walked several feet away from him and he heard them talking about ‘the job’ on his phone, right?”

JUROR 3 “So what? I’m getting a little fed up with this, I’ve missed my sparring session. You don’t become the best fighter in the world by missing training.”

JUROR 2 “Hold on a bleedin’ second! There’s a man’s life on the feckin’ line here. We can give him one poxy night!”

JUROR 3 “Hold your horses, Irish! I’m on your side!”

JUROR 2 “There’s no fucking sides here, boy. We’re trying to figure out whether to send this poor fecker to his death or not. Shut yer trap and let this man speak.”

Juror 7 was more than impressed. The Irishman wasn’t the oldest or the biggest man in the room but he somehow carried a seniority over them all. Everyone shut up and listened when he spoke, and not in the same vein that they got charmed by Juror 6. They just knew this man had gravitas by the way he carried himself. Even Juror 7 sat thinking to himself that if he turned out like Juror 2, he’d have made something decent of himself.

JUROR 6 “Thank you. The point I’m trying to make is do we really think the witness could’ve actually heard him from several feet away over all the noise of the festival?”

JUROR 10 “Of course he could fucking hear him, he said he did!”

JUROR 1 “I don’t think he could’ve heard him! It was really loud, I mean it was nothing I’d ever experienced before.”

JUROR 6 “Let’s test it.”

JUROR 7 “Man’s a fucking teacher or summit now? Testing shit, what do you mean test it, fam?”

Juror 6 points to the foreman.

JUROR 6 “Everyone stand up except you. Trust me on this, guys.”

Everyone looks around and then slowly they stand up. Everyone except the foreman… and Juror 7.

JUROR 6 “Everyone talk. About anything, just speak to the person across from you at a normal volume.”

JUROR 7 “I ain’t standin’ up just cuz you said to.”

JUROR 6 “That’s fine. Foreman, could you pretend to be talking into a phone, please?”

JUROR 10 “What is this bullshit?”

JUROR 6 “Please, gentlemen! Just go with me on this. Speak to each other, your partners, what you’re doing tonight, sports, anything!”

The men all begin talking to the person across the table from them, the humming volume rising significantly. Juror 6 nods at the foreman and does the phone-to-ear gesture which prompts the foreman to do the same and begin talking. Juror 6 turns to Juror 7.

JUROR 6 “Well?”

JUROR 7 “You’re gettin’ on my nerves, fam. Well, WHAT!?”

JUROR 6 “Can you hear him?”

Juror 7 falls silent as he looks down the table at the foreman. He can see his lips moving but no matter how hard he strains he can’t make out a word he is saying over the conversations of the other men. Sighing, he looks at Juror 6 and shakes his head.

JUROR 6 “ALRIGHT, GENTS! ALRIGHT!”

The noise dies down and the men retake their seats.

JUROR 6 “He couldn’t hear the foreman speaking on a phone over the noise of ten relatively subdued people. Now imagine the noise of tens of thousands of people bursting with excitement at the festival. Do you still think the witness could hear the carnival master on the phone?”

JUROR 10 “Of course he fucking could have! Maybe he spoke loudly or maybe they were closer together! Maybe that little boy’s hearing is shot-“

JUROR 7 “OI! Who you callin’ a likkle man? Are you fuckin’ mad bruv? I’ll show you a fuckin’ likkle man-”

Juror 7 leaps over the table smashing ashtrays and water jugs to the floor, fully intent on going for the bigger Juror 10. The muscular Juror 8 manages to get between them and Juror 9 restrains Juror 10 with the help of Jurors 11 and 12.

JUROR 10 “You’ll never hear again when I’m done slapping your ears around, boy! I’m fucking telling you, I could’ve heard him!”

Juror 9 suddenly lets go of Juror 10 and looks at him, his burned face contorting into what resembles a frown. His odd accent sounds defiant as he speaks.

JUROR 9 “No. I was there. It was too loud. You could not have heard. It is not possible. And neither could the witness. I must change my vote. I now think the cowboy is not guilty.”

JUROR 1 “I’m with you, mate! I could barely hear my own brother at it. No way he heard that phone call. Not guilty.”

There are no outbursts or squabbling this time. All twelve men slink back to their seats and sit in silence staring at each other. They are tied 6-6 in voting and the clock ticking as every second passes only adds to the cutthroat atmosphere of the room.

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After what feels like an eternity sitting in silence, the muscular, bald man breaks the silence.

JUROR 8 “I still don’t trust the mothafucka. Maybe the key witness is a whack-job and his word can’t be taken at face-value. Maybe the cowboy wouldn’t have stolen just one amulet and did find it in the street, there was a lot of crazy shit going on that night. Maybe the guy who spoke to his partner couldn’t hear the phone call. Maybe, maybe, maybe. The only thing we know for sure is that a man died and the cowboy admitted he was at the festival. Damn, he straight-up said he got into a fight with him and kicked him in the head. We owe the guy who died some resolution and I think-

JUROR 5 “The fuck you care about some rich, white dude, man? You think he’d be doing the same for you?”

JUROR 8 “I’m nearly sure that he wouldn’t but that’s not the point. I ain’t concerned with what he’d do, I’m only concerned with myself. Listen, two guys with heat fight at the festival and one ends up dead, who you blaming? I mean fuck all this circumstantial evidence - if you’re asked straight up who did it, who you saying?”

JUROR 7 “Man thinks he’s bare guilty, fam, but… tsssk… lotta man get done by people you don’t expect.”

Juror 6 tilts his head and nods in agreement, causing a wave of fury to rush through Juror 7. He doesn’t want to be the same as Juror 6 but he isn’t hard-headed enough to not logically talk things out. Sucking air through his teeth, he goes quiet, happy to allow Juror 6 to take over the show.

JUROR 6 “Right, right, exactly. With all due respect to the deceased, he seemed like a man that would have plenty of enemies and-”

JUROR 10 “That’s nothing but damn hearsay! How can you say something like that and expect us to swallow it whole? You’re cooking up something mighty fine over there kid but I ain’t buying your shit!”

JUROR 12 “Oi, mate! Calm down, eh? It’s all bloody hearsay. We don’t bloody know if he killed him or not and that’s the whole problem.”

Juror 10 launches out of his seat and flails his arms exasperatedly.

JUROR 10 “This isn’t a damn hit and run or a case of a body being dug up years later. This unlucky bastard got his skull caved in on BOTH sides and was left in the street to die. Someone needs to go down for this and I’m telling you all hear and now: it’s the damn cowboy!”

JUROR 4 “But…”

JUROR 10 “BUT WHAT YOU LITTLE SHIT!?”

The Irishman directly facing the loud-mouthed Juror 10 immediately jumps to his feet and Juror 10 immediately backs down while Juror 4 shrinks into his chair.

JUROR 2 “You shut yer fuckin’ mouth, you got it? I’m not gonna tell ya again; you speak t’him like that one more time and I’ll knock every fuckin’ tooth out of your fat gob, alrigh’?”

The tension is palpable but Juror 7 isn’t surprised to see the rest of the men back down when Juror 2 speaks. He speaks softly to Juror 4.

JUROR 2 “Say what ye were gonna.”

JUROR 4 “I was just wondering… how could he have caved in both sides of his skulls with a kick? That wouldn’t be possible, right?”

The room falls silent and Juror 7 can feel Juror 5 burn a hole in him as the rest of the men in the room ponder over the query. Juror 7 tries to ignore the staring from Juror 5 but eventually he feels forced to turn his head and look at him.

JUROR 7 “What man!?”

JUROR 5 “Didn’t you say you were a kickboxer, yo?”

Juror 7 begins to shake his head but Juror 5 animatedly points at him.

JUROR 5 “This cat’s a kick-boxer! Come on, man! Get up and show us some moves!”

JUROR 7 “You dickin’ around for, fam?”

JUROR 5 “I ain’t dicking around, man. Show us a few kicks.”

JUROR 7 “I’ll kick man’s teeth down his throat if he don’t start showin’ some respec’, innit? You on a crazy one, fam.”

Juror 6 interjects with picture-perfect timing as always.

JUROR 6 “Fine, then don’t show us some kicks but answer me this: could you cave in someone’s skull with a kick?”

JUROR 7 “Keep chatting’ shit and find out.”

He laughs an annoying laugh and holds his hands in the air.

JUROR 6 “I’m not doubting your credentials, I’m just asking a simple question. Caving in someone’s skull with a kick… on both sides?”

Juror 7 thinks of the thousands upon thousands of kicks he’d thrown in his life. Sometimes he knocked people out with his roundhouse. He’d broken plenty of noses and cracked plenty of ribs with a thrust kick. Once, he even burst somebody's eye socket with a hook kick. But caving in a skull? The human skull was a lot tougher than people like to give credit for. He sucks air through his teeth and rattles his fingers rhythmically against the wooden table.

JUROR 7 “No… no. The only way someone could get done like that with a foot was if they were already on the ground and somebody stamped on their head. Even then, way I see it, it’s the floor doing most of the cavin’, fam. You couldn’t do that to someone with a kick, no man could, no matter if the kick they threw was the most madders thing eva.”

Juror 6 smiles a sickening grin.

JUROR 7 “The key witness said he kicked him and that was the end of it - he swooped down and pulled something off his neck and disappeared into the crowd. The cowboy himself said that he kicked him in the face. A professional kickboxer just told us that those injuries could NOT be obtained from a kick. Gentlemen, is there really no reasonable doubt about this? Surely, you fine men aren’t certain that this cowboy got out of bed that morning with the intention to murder. He may have hit him, sure. He may have had a violent altercation, sure. But can we really say with certainty that we think he went to the festival with a plan to kill?”

The cocky Juror 3 shares a blink and you’ll miss it look with Juror 5.

JUROR 3 “I’m a fighter myself, those injuries aren’t at the hands of one man. I’m convinced. Not guilty.”

Juror 5 nods.

JUROR 5 “They ain’t no street fighting injuries. Not guilty.”

JUROR 6 “Hey, you at the end… what do you say?”

The battle-hardened Irishman looks down at the smooth-talking juror.

JUROR 6 “You seem like a very reasonable man, why haven’t you changed your vote?”

JUROR 2 “Well, I ain’t in any rush lad. T’be honest… this is the most important thing I’ve been aparta in a very long time. I’m not rushin’ to send this man to his grave by any stretch but… I’m still not convinced.”

JUROR 6 “How not?”

Juror 7 finally caves to the temper that had been mounting over the last couple of hours. He steals a glance at the clock before erupting at the man beside him.

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JUROR 7 “What’s your fuckin’ game, man? I fuckin’ mean it. You’ve been sitting here preaching to the rest of the mandem about how this guy’s not guilty from the moment we were sat down! There’s more to this than just a feelin’ he’s not guilty though, innit? You’re doing more than his lawyer did, bruv. Shit’s not right, you is fuckin’ hell-bent on this guy walkin’. Cut it any way you please, fam, but I’ve seen too many man on a creepin’ one to be caught cold here. You’re makin’ a move man, I don’t fucking know what, but you makin’ a move, swear.”

JUROR 6 “Listen, I didn’t mean to offend-”

JUROR 10 “Cut the bullshit! The kid’s right! We all know what these folks are like. Poor, trash, alcoholics, the bottom-ring of society. He may be a cowboy on a ranch but if he’d have grown up in the city I know where he’d have been. On the corner with all the other dirty, shady, cut-throat thieves. He’d be just like them. I don’t even blame them, they can’t help they’re born that way, and they can’t choose their ancestry. None of them are decent and they’d take the eyes from your skull if you weren’t careful. That’s exactly what this cowboy would’ve been like if he hadn’t been born on a damn ranch! You know it, I know it, we all know it! He’s scum. He’s guilty as the day is long! He’s…”

The loud-mouthed Juror 10 finally shuts up when he sees every man in the room glaring at him. Juror 8 takes a deep breath.

JUROR 8 “You know what? It took for this racist asshole right here-”

JUROR 10 “Racist? Come on now fellas-”

JUROR 8 “Don’t ever interrupt me again you hateful, little mothafucka. Last warning. I’m talking. It took for this piece of shit right here to go on his little rant for me to snap the fuck out of this. You wanna know the truth, men? I got jumped at the festival too. I was robbed. I was taking it out on the cowboy, trying to get him for what happened to me. But they ain’t got nothing to do with each other and I can’t let my anger rule my mind. I dunno exactly what happened, but I can’t send the cowboy to get a lethal injection based on everything we know. It ain’t right. Not guilty.”

Juror 7 marvels at Juror 8 for a few seconds. The changing faces of the man beside him were amazing to him. How he could flip to the one to the other, no matter how strong the reasoning, was something that he’d never be able to comprehend. He was who he was and that was that. Even if that meant he currently felt himself being tossed in with a hasty Irishman and a racist piece of shit. His heart sinks as the Irishman clears his throat and stands up.

JUROR 2 “I think I’m starting to agree lads. I don’t know if the cowboy is as innocent as youse all think… but I’m not too sure how guilty he is either. I’ve a devil on each shoulder and no angels to speak of but… neither of them are sayin’ much right now. I’ve to give this fella a chance, maybe we hang the jury and let this special deliberator the aul judge mentioned come in and settle this.”

JUROR 7 “FUCK THAT! Seriously man, fuck that. Us twelve have all had to stand in here and lay ourselves bare in front of strangers that don’t know jack about us, bruv. The mandem in this room has had to face bare tension, be scrutinized, and defend themselves against eleven others. That means somethin’. Man ain’t lettin’ no faceless coward come into this thing and decide how it plays out. Fuck that. We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to everyone in this case to get this murder ting sorted, innit?”

The nods in the room are feverous, each man realizing what they were doing in the room was important and that they did matter. They were a dozen nameless men who may or may not have been of reputable standing outside the deliberation room. Whether they were or not didn’t matter. In here they had a chance. They’d a chance to mean something. The Irishman smiles softly at Juror 7.

JUROR 2 “Of course… of course yer right, kid. Bless ya and your wisdom. You speak some sense for a lad of your age. I like your fight, kid. But… if we do have to make the decision, if we do have to be judge, jury, and executioner… then that’s not my weight to carry today, lad. Not guilty.”

With the vote standing at 10-2, Juror 7 braces himself for what he is sure will be an impassioned plea from Juror 6. He is shocked as Juror 6 waltzes straight past him and towards Juror 10, who has been sitting silently since his last outburst, hands clasped, staring at the ground. Juror 6 places a hand on his shoulder and speaks gently.

JUROR 6 “What do you say, pal?”

Without looking up, Juror 10 mumbles, the first time he’d been quiet since entering the room.

JUROR 10 “Not guilty.”

Every head at the table turns towards Juror 7 and he inwardly groans. Juror 6 had set it up like this, set it up so everyone would be staring at him, judging him, just as they had when he entered the room initially. Juror 7 was nearly certain the cowboy had something to do with things. He tosses it around his head: he agrees some of the witnesses are sketchy and it is unusual that he wouldn’t have lifted both the chains but… the injuries don’t add up. He knows a kick couldn’t have done that… it was a stomp to an already grounded man or something similar; impact on both sides of the man’s skull at once. Juror 7’s thoughts drifted to the cowboy’s partner, the carnival owner and he chuckles to himself. He should have sussed it sooner.

JUROR 6 “Something funny, friend? Something you’d like to share with the rest of us? I don’t mean to push but you’re the only one that thinks the cowboy killed him.”

Juror 7 smirks a little.

JUROR 7 “Man’s the only one with a brain then, fam. The cowboy did do it… just not how they’re sayin’.”

Juror 7 runs a hand through his hair, debating with his own moral system. After a few moments, he puffs his chest out, sighs, and nods his head.

JUROR 7 “Tsssk, aight then. Not guilty.”

Juror 6 beams at him before spinning around and speaking to Juror 1.

JUROR 6 “Well, Mr. Foreman, I believe we’ve reached a unanimous verdict.”

JUROR 1 “Shit, have we, mate? Not guilty? Hah! Crazy that, eh? I’ll let the Guard know we’ve reached a verdict.”

Juror 1 knocks on the door and whispers to the Guard.

GUARD “Alright then, fellas! If ya’ll follow me back to the courtroom we can get ya back home right quick, I’m sure ya’ll are starving!”

All the men bar two slowly and wordlessly file out of the room past the Guard. Juror 7 sits on his seat staring at his Nike runners and Juror 6 lingers near the door. They look at each other and Juror 6 steps towards him, hand outstretched.

JUROR 6 “By the way, man, the name’s Brooklyn. Was a pleasure to meet you.”

Juror 7 takes his hand and shakes it.

JUROR 7 “Man’s name is-”

That’s about all that can be heard as the Guard roars back in over Juror 7’s voice.

GUARD “WILL YA’LL COME ON! THE JUDGE IS WAITING!”

H70nsHmWZkisugF45a9ivu7P53TlELaGI9jekcIXe4DKdIHFbUalutF3L0uG5WhQ0fF-n_R0RJX-V_BgKAcM9gfZyQnaff4tWCOiXRF8w4UfMgXkel_wgU2eP9R6pYPGxKK9qW3r8kQnm398vu3Wdyk


The shot is the same as the opening one, the twelve jurors can be seen seated in two rows, all their faces unreadable as an unseen judge speaks.

JUDGE “In the case of Tommy Bedlam versus Shawn Summers, the prior named Tommy Bedlam was charged with one count of premeditated murder. A jury of your peers deliberated and reached a verdict… Tommy Bedlam you have been found not guilty of the charge of murder-”

The judge pauses momentarily as there is some groaning, cheering, and yee-hawing from the gathered crowd. Still, the twelve men remain expressionless.

JUDGE “Thank you, Jury, for your service today. Court is adjourned.”

©Thomas Princeton Productions, 2023





















In a bustling bar, a man in a cowboy hat sits swigging from a brown bottle. He is joined by a very good-looking man.

COWBOY HAT “Howdy! Ya sure came through.”

The good-looking man slips his hand inside his pocket and produces a golden chain, with a circular pendant at the end of it. He passes it to the man in the cowboy hat.

GOOD-LOOKING MAN “It wasn’t as easy as I thought… my acting skills certainly paid off. I think one guy didn’t buy it though. I think he knows you haven’t been acting alone too. Kid from England.”

COWBOY HAT “That all ya got for me?”

GOOD-LOOKING MAN “Of course not, I got his name right at the end.”

COWBOY HAT “Well, whaddya waitin’ for?”

The good-looking man quickly scans the room, not noticing the suspicious-looking man near the end of the bar with his hood drawn up drinking a Jameson straight.

GOOD-LOOKING MAN “His name is Jay. Jay Kenny. He’s gonna be a problem.”

 
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Tommy Bedlam

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The Siege
On X Island















“Captain, they’re back.”

“What do you mean? Who is back?”

“It’s Captain Zachariah, and I don’t think he’s alone. The Merry Menage is with him; I’m sure of it. They must be launching another siege.”

“Of course they are. I didn’t think it would be so soon, but I knew he would return. He vowed that he would.”

“What would you have me do, Captain Bedlam?”

“Prepare the vessel. How far away was Captain Zachariah?”

“Seven, maybe eight fathoms away, sir. I suppose he will be here by dark.”

“No, he won’t. I’ll take the fight to him.”

“Aye aye, Captain.”

“Oh, and Rocco, be sure to sharpen my sword. I have a feeling I’m going to need it.”

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“I am a man of fortune
and must seek my fortune.”
-Captain Henry Avery









Captain Thomas Bedlam had staked his claim to X Island several months earlier. After a bloody and violent battle With Captain Yellow Beard, Shawn Summers, Thomas had seized control of the island in the middle of the Fantasy Sea. Thomas had walked away from the battle with scars on his body and wounds on his soul. But it was worth it. Victory was always worth the price that was paid in order to obtain it.

Thomas Bedlam, and pirates by their very nature, were men of fortune. They pursued a fortune, in this case, X Island. They not only pursued fortune, but once it was obtained, they defended it to the death while continuing to pursue other fortunes. Gold, land, whatever the fortune was, there would always be people coming to take what belonged to Bedlam, and he would always be looking for more for himself and his family.

The battle for control of X Island had been the most violent of Thomas’ life. However, as he watched his blood stain the white sand of the island’s lovely beaches, he felt himself connecting with it in a way he had never imagined.

Thomas had always imagined himself a vagabond. He never believed he would be the time to see an island, fight for it, and lay claim to it, but X Island was different. You see, there were no rules on X Island, a concept that initially left Captain Thomas unsure of pursuing it. While he often liked to bend the rules, going so far as to break those that he considered less important than others, he still appreciated the presence of some sort of code. After all, how could he know just how far he could push the limits if no such limits existed?

No one knew for a certainty what had happened to Yellow Beard following the bloody battle for X Island. Some stories claimed that Thomas had killed him and buried him in the white sand, vowing to raise his family on the bones of his most violent nemesis. Others said he had been thrown off the side of a boat into the shark-infested waters of the Fantasy Sea. Still, others swore that Yellow Beard was not dead. Instead, they claimed that he had been seen lurking in the shadows of some of the less inhabited islands that littered the Fantasy Sea.

While the anarchist nature that was an earmark of X Island had initially left Captain Bedlam unsure of taking it over, the island had become one of the most important things in his life. He loved his newborn son, Walker, and he was madly in love with the child’s mother, Randi, but the island, the island meant something to Thomas on a deeper level.

When Thomas walked out onto the balcony of the home that he had inherited on the island, he took in the beauty and knew that as long as he had the island, the family that he had started had a reason to be proud of him. Without the island, he was just another pirate. Another man who was willing to fight, willing to bleed, and even willing to die in the pursuit of gold. But the island gave him something that he couldn’t find in battles on the open sea. It gave him a purpose. As long as Captain Thomas Bedlam had X Island under his rule, he never had to wonder if Randi was truly proud to have given birth to his child. He also never had to worry about Walker growing up in a perpetual state of near-poverty as he had done. He adored his family, but X Island had become who he was.

X Island becoming everything to Captain Bedlam was both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it gave him something that was truly his own. It provided his family with a lifestyle that they wouldn’t know without the island and its riches. But it also came with a pressure he had never dealt with. Becoming the ruler of X Island had painted a target on Thomas, and it was a target that was visible to every pirate who sailed across the Fantasy Sea.

It wasn’t the fighting itself that left him feeling the pressure. Captain Bedlam had spilled plenty of blood over the years, both his own and that of his enemies. The pressure came from the knowledge that there would come a day when someone else would rule X Island. No man, no matter how strong he was, ever held onto an island forever. Captain Sully, Captain Black, and even Yellow Beard had all come before Captain Bedlam, and one by one, they all eventually fell. While stories of their greatness lived on, each of them was forced to face the pain of their own failure, and Thomas knew he would one day face the same reality.

He walked over to the railing and looked out over the sea. In the distance, he saw a ship in the distance and a familiar one at that. Rocco, Thomas’ first mate was right. Captain Zachariah was most certainly coming back, but Captain Thomas Bedlam was resolute.

There would be a day on which he would face the same reality as the rulers of X Island who came before him. But he would fight to the death to delay it for as long as possible.

“The gods of the sea as my witness, it won’t be today. Zachariah, if another fight is what you want, another fight is what you will get.”







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“People are what are scary…
People.”
-Blackbeard





Captain Xander Yordan Zachariah was the first pirate on the Fantasy Sea who sought to wrest control of X Island away from Captain Bedlam. It wasn’t his first attempt at seizing control of the island. In fact, he had tried twice before. Within days of Thomas’ siege of the island, a note arrived, washing up on the shore in a bottle. Randi found it during her morning walk. When Thomas got out of bed, she had it laid out on the dining table waiting for him.

nhdsxFpr_PJO15AlSGVyzPY2c2C-Fr7PM9NaXLqsy73QAJ6fB1G12nPlEtG72uHbsuF59OpnAYdVTpf3fI0Vgp5Co8KSaUM_suOVhkBEa-UAnKjH4nhbIqb7Bqn9K57vO8lqrDfqAICRLTceqpluOrs


Thomas,
Twice, I have tried to take
X island, but it alludes me
Like the gentle breeze slips
From the grasp of the
Grasshopper. Soon, this
Grasshopper will catch his
Wind. see you in a fortnight.
XYZ
Captian Bedlam put on a strong face when he read the note, as he couldn’t let the lovely Randi know that he was remotely rattled by it. Inside, his stomach churned, and his heart sped up a bit. Captain Xander Yordan Zachariah was a bit of a legend on the Fantasy Sea. If there were a Hall of Fame for pirates, he’d likely be inducted. Fortunately, no such thing existed. No, pirates made a name for themselves by killing and pillaging, and Thomas Bedlam knew that Xander Yordan Zachariah was capable of both.

His biggest fear was losing control of X Island before he had even had time to fully settle into it. Receiving the note that Captain Zachariah was on his way before he had even had time to fully explore the island and everything that it meant. Before he had time to begin to unearth the gold that the island held, Captain Zachariah had vowed that he was coming, and come he did.

Captain Bedlam had heard stories of Captain Zachariah and his Merry Menage, but much to his surprise, Captain Zachariah came to try to seize control of X Island on his own. Thomas respected Xander’s willingness to fight the battle alone and even appreciated it.

The war between the two pirates had been every bit as bloody as Captain Bedlam expected it to be. Knowing the magnitude of the fight that lay before him prompted him to tell Randi, who was nearing her due date, and First Mate Sullivan to stay in his home on X Island. It was simply too dangerous of a fight for either of them, a pregnant woman or an older man, to be a part of.

When Xander Yordan Zachariah arrived on the shores of X Island two weeks after Thomas Bedlam had made it his new home, he did so honorably. He did not try a sneak attack, nor did he plot his siege under the cover of night. He approached X Island alone and with the rising of the sun, much to the surprise of Captain Bedlam.

“I must be honest, Captain Zachariah. I expected you to bring friends.”

“Thomas…Captain of…Bedlams. I believe that thou art…a man…of great honor. With that belief…at the forefront…of my mind…I believed that thou….doest…deserve…an honorable…fight.”

Captain Bedlam had heard that Xander was a man of many words, even when a few words would suffice, but even he was amazed at how this invader could turn a simple phrase into something out of a Shakespearean play.

“I’m glad you feel that way, Xander.”

With that, Captain Thomas Bedlam unsheathed his sword as his opponent did the same. After a few moments circling one another, the two battle-tested pirates converged in a fight that would go down in the annals of X Island history.

The swords quickly fell to the ground as each man launched an offensive attack against the other. With no weapons, the men used their fists, pummeling one another at every opportunity. When fists would no longer suffice, they both started grabbing whatever items they could find on the beach.

Thomas grabbed a couple of glass bottles that were lying there, including the one that he received Xander’s note in, smashing them over the skull of his foe, but the challenger for X Island simply would not be vanquished.

Conversely, Xander found a makeshift table that Thomas, Randi, and Rocco often had breakfast at as they looked out over the sea. After incapacitating Thomas and laying him on the table, Xander did the unthinkable when he climbed the limbs of a nearby tree like he was some sort of primate, launched himself into the air with a backflip, and drove Thomas, and himself, through the table, leaving them both lying in a heap of splintered wood, blood, and sand.

Broken and battered, the two men made their way to their feet once more, both exasperated from the battle. Eventually, Captain Thomas Bedlam dragged Captain Zachariah up onto the side of his own boat and drove him onto the sand head first. As both men lay there, catching their breath and feeling the magnitude of their injuries, it was Xander Yordan Zachariah who spoke first.

“Captain Thomas of Bedlams…thou art…a valiant fighter…a champion, even. To the victor…go the spoils…and to you…goes this…round.”

Thomas was a bit confused, but that was normal for people who were listening to Xander speak. Getting to his feet first, Thomas stood over his fallen foe. In the back of his mind, he expected a quick leg sweep or something else. But no, there was nothing. Instead, Captain Zachariah, the vaunted, feared, enigmatic pirate lay there on the ground, a freakish glare in his eyes as he stared at the sky.

“Do you…see that…cloud, Thomas? That one…that looks like…a dolphin…hopping through the waves.”

Thomas saw no such cloud.

“Dolphins…are a unique…mammal of the sea. Once they depart…from a home…they return…no matter how far…they venture.”

He started to get up from the ground, and Captain Bedlam instinctively balled up a first, holding it close to his side. But Xander made no aggressive move.

“Much like…the majestic dolphin…I believe X Island…to be my home. I’ve…never lived on her sandy shores…I’ve never…eaten of her beautiful fruit…but in my heart…she is mine. Return I shall…Captain Beldam of Thomasses. Return…I shall.”

With that, Captain Xander Yordan Zachariah shuffled across the sand, nursing the injuries that he had suffered. He climbed onto his boat, “The Dream,” and sailed into the sun. Thomas knew he would be back, but he didn’t realize just how soon that return would be.
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“It is a blessing for a man to have
a hand in determining his own fate.”
-Blackbeard






The days that followed the battle with Captain Zachariah, or XYZ as Thomas had started calling him, were peaceful at first. Randi had given birth to Thomas’ first son, Walker, shortly after the battle. Just as the couple was figuring out how to transform into a real family, Captain Baxter, the “Bastard of Fantasy Sea” came calling.

He wasn’t interested in taking over X Island. He was quite happy with his reign of terror on Northern Ashore Island. No, Captain Baxter was a man who just loved to fight. He truly lived up to his moniker every chance that he got.

He brought the fight to Thomas, and the two men threw everything they had at one another. Somehow, by the grace of the gods of the sea, Thomas vanquished “The Bastard” and sent him back to North Ashore Island.

While Randi was getting tired of Thomas dragging his battered body back into the house, she believed that so much of the fighting was unnecessary, she knew what she had signed up for when she chose to betroth herself to a pirate. There would always be fights, there would always be blood, but the allure of gold, and her love for Captain Bedlam caused her to deal with his chosen line of work. Of course, he was always quick to tell her that he didn’t choose this life. No, it chose him.

The fight with XYZ, the fight with “The Bastard of Fantasy Sea,” the battle with Shawn “Yellow Beard” Summers, they were all necessary components of the lure of Thomas Bedlam. The next fight would be too. Thomas had wondered who the next fight would be against. Every pirate does.

He had considered one of the former rulers of X Island coming back. He had also heard rumblings about others who could potentially be looking to knock him from his throne. Pirates whose names struck fear into the hearts of their foes were lurking everywhere on the Fantasy Sea. Captains like Randall and Fenix, new pirates like Captain Steiner, and returning pirates such as Captain O’Ryan were all out there, and all of them would love to rule X Island.

By the time First Mate Sullivan had come in to let Thomas know that XYZ’s ship was on the horizon, Captain Bedlam had admittedly put the first battle between the two out of his mind. It was rare for a pirate to come back so soon after being defeated, but Xander Yordan Zachariah was not a normal pirate. There was nothing normal about him.

As Thomas scrambled around the house gathering his supplies, Randi stood at the edge of their bedroom door, Walker in her arms.

“Is it always going to be this way?”

He hated it when she asked questions like that one, primarily because he knew there was no right answer. If he told her that things wouldn’t always be this way it would either be a lie or a verbal acknowledgment that he would one day lose X Island, passing on the precious ground to someone else. If he said yes, she would probably just panic and talk about how she was worried about him. He appreciated the worry, but those damn questions were loaded.

“What do you mean?”

He avoided eye contact as he laced up his boots, hoping to just dismiss the question completely.

“You know exactly what I mean. Listen, I’m proud of you. You know that. But is this what defending X Island is all about? I’ve seen you fight before, and I knew what I was getting into, but this all just seems different. It’s so much more violent. I know this is all important, but what about our son?”

He took a step toward her, took her face in his hands, and kissed her forehead.

“My dear, it is more violent. But do you know what comes with more violence?”

“More fame? Isn’t that what most of you pirates are really after?”

“Fuck the fame, darling. No, more violence brings more gold. Not only the gold here on X Island, but the rest of the gold floating around in the Fantasy Sea. I’ve already defeated Baxter once. Who’s to say that I can’t eventually go take North Ashore Island? And then? We may just take over the biggest island of them all.”

“Peacock Island?”

“Yes, my dear. Peacock Island. But none of that matters if I lose X Island to Xander. But I fear that he won’t be so willing to come alone this time. The Merry Menage will likely be with him. That’s why I’m taking the fight to him.”

“And if you don’t come back? What then?”

“I’ll be back, Randi. I always make it back to you.”

He kissed her once more and leaned down and kissed his sleeping son on the head. He heard her stifle a cry as he walked down the hallway. He turned back, dreading the sight of the fear in her eyes.

“I’m doing this for you, Randi. For you, and for Walker. I want to give you a better life, and I want him to have more than I had when I was a boy.”

Whether she believed it her not, it was the truth. Yes, Captain Bedlam enjoyed the gold himself, but he wouldn’t put himself through these things if it were just him. Sure, he originally became a pirate because his father was a pirate, but that son of a bitch was no one worth trying to impress.

The only things that truly motivated him to continue engaging in fights like this one were standing at the end of that hallway.

He made his way out of the house and down the rickety, wooden steps attached to the front porch. He would fix those if he got to spend another week on X Island. He felt the hot, soft, white sand shift beneath the weight of his boots, a weight that didn’t mirror the one that rested on his shoulders. He looked up at the sun which was hanging high over the water. He knew there were only a few hours left until its rays sat on the horizon. He wanted to be sure to get to “The Dream” before lights out.

“I have everything ready for you.”

“Thanks, Rocco. You know what to do if I’m not back by dawn, right?”

“Yes. And Randi knows too. We’ve gone over the evacuation plan plenty of times. But I don’t think we’ll need it.”

“Let’s hope to hell that we don’t.”

First Mate Sullivan handed Captain Bedlam his trusty blade and slowly followed him toward his ship. Thomas was so focused on the task before him that he almost didn’t notice his staunchest ally walking behind him.

“What are you doing, Rocco?”

“I’m going with you. If Xander has the Merry Menage with him, you shouldn’t approach a battle like this on your own.”

“Rocco, I appreciate your support. But you’re not going with me. I need you here with Randi in case something goes awry.”

This was at least partially true. He did want someone there with Randi, and he trusted Rocco explicitly. But he also knew that a battle as bloody as the one that awaited him was no place for a man of Rocco’s advanced age. Every captain has a first mate whom he can trust, but Thomas knew he would never forgive himself should something happen to Rocco. No, it was better for everyone if Rocco stayed home with Randi.

“You need someone to balance things out. Your goddamned pride is going to get you killed.”

“I won’t be alone, Rocco. Don’t worry. I’ll see you, Randi, and Walker, by the morning light.”

“I hope you’re right, Thomas. I hope you’re right.”

There was nothing left to say as Thomas stepped onto his boat, which he had christened “The Stallion” and solemnly raised the sail. A gentle breeze blew across the shoreline, providing just enough wind to inflate the sail, slowly pushing the boat into the Fantasy Sea.


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“You got the makings of greatness in
you, but you got to take the helm and
chart your own course.”
-Long John Silver




As the hours slowly rolled by, Captain Bedlam found himself constantly bouncing between working the sails, steering the ship, and keeping a watchful eye on the horizon. “The Dream” was somewhere out there as Captain Xander Yordan Zachariah plotted his second siege on X Island.

The heat of the sun started to fade as dusk settled over the Fantasy Sea. The sound of the waves lapping against the sides of the ship was the only noise in the vast expanse. Thomas slipped into a bit of a trance as he looked around. As he sailed further away from the coast, he couldn’t help but look back at X Island, which looked like nothing more than an anthill in the distance. It was amazing that something that seemed so small held such a very big piece of his soul.

The peace and tranquility of the moment were shattered when Thomas heard a cannon blast. The shot drowned out the peaceful sounds of ocean waves as Thomas lept to his feet. There, toward the west, was what appeared to be a ship. It had to be “The Dream.”

As Thomas whipped his head around, looking for the sight of a cannonball that was surely plummeting toward his ship, he was greeted by the sound of screaming from the sky.

“Watch out, Gringo! We’re coming for you, idiota!”

Thomas ran to the port side of the ship and looked up to the sky. Captain Zachariah hadn’t launched a cannonball toward “The Stallion.” He had launched a human being!

As the man, whom Thomas would soon find out only went by the name “Wild Jerry” hurled himself through the sky toward his ship, and continued to hurl insults in Spanish at him
Captain Bedlam readied his sword.

Unfortunately, Captain Bedlam lost the man in the blinding rays of the setting sun, and Wild Jerry landed several feet away from him with a mighty thud. Thomas lept from the platform on the port side of the ship and charged toward the man.

“Whoa, gringo! Do not shoot the messenger, homes. I did not come to fight, as you can see by my lack of a sword. No, I only came to carry the message from Captain Xander Yordan Zachariah.”

Thomas wasn’t buying it, not for a moment. He pressed the tip of his sharpened blade against the side of Wild Jerry’s next, bringing a drop of blood that slowly ran down the shimmering metal.

“If Xander wanted to send me another message, he knows where I live. Why not just send another note in a bottle like he did the last time?”

“Man, you really are crazy, gringo. He tried to send a note, but the current was going the wrong way. His letter either washed up on some shore, or he declared war against Italy. I’m really not sure, homes.”

The absurdity of the moment almost made Captain Bedlam chuckle, but there was truly nothing to laugh about. Xander Yordan Zachariah was still out there on the Fantasy Sea, and he was still plotting his second siege on X Island.

For a moment, Captain Bedlam considered executing Wild Jerry. He thought about what Captain Zachariah would think if he lopped the man’s head off, stuffed it into his cannon, and fired it back at the ship from whence it came.

He quickly thought better of it. Wild Jerry, even though he was technically aligned with the enemy, hadn’t done anything wrong. Hell, what kind of pirate allows himself to be shot out of a cannon and onto a rival pirate’s ship without so much of a sword? The man wasn’t smart enough to be a threat, and he wasn’t armed enough to try to commandeer control of “The Stallion.”

Instead, Thomas grabbed a rope from the deck of his sheep and tied Wild Jerry to the post that supported his flag. While Thomas had always heard that there was no true honor among pirates, he couldn’t convince himself to murder a man, at least not for good reason…

Armed with the knowledge that “The Dream” was sailing from the west, Captain Bedlam adjusted his sails, and set his course for that direction. Now sailing directly into the setting sun, Thomas could see “The Dream” more clearly. The cannon emitted a small stream of smoke, still smoldering from the ejection of Wild Jerry.

“There’s one more thing you should know, gringo.”

“What the fuck’s a gringo? That what I need to know?”

“Oh, that just means an American. I thought everybody knew that. But no, you didn’t let me finish the message from Captain Zachariah.”

“I don’t think I have time to listen to a full message from him. How about you give me the condensed version?”

“Well, it loses something when you take out all the extra stuff, but I’ll do my best, homes. He said that this is it for him.”

“What do you mean, ‘this is it for him?’”

“This siege attempt. If he doesn’t take X Island this time, he says he’s done trying. He says it’s his fourth try, and if he doesn’t take the island this time, he’s finished, homes.”

The words hung heavy in the air over “The Stallion.” The gravity of the moment was not lost on Captain Bedlam. Not at all. He had done what many people believed to be impossible when he not only wrestled control of X Island away from Yellowbeard Shawn Summers. He had vanquished perhaps his most notable foe to date when he overcame an onslaught from “The Bastard of the Sea,” Captain Bryan Baxter. And now he had the opportunity to defeat Captain Xander Yordan Zachariah for the second time.

The words of Wild Jerry were on repeat in his head, overcoming the two strong shots of rum that he had enjoyed not long after setting sail. Suddenly, this fight was about more than simply defending X Island. It was an opportunity for Captain Thomas Bedlam to etch his name in pirate lore. If Thomas was successful, Captain Zachariah would never attempt another siege on X Island.

With a new resolve in his heart, Captain Bedlam stood at the bow of the ship, the wind blowing into his face. “The Dream” was growing incrementally larger as he drew closer to his familiar foe. If this was to truly be Captain Xander Yordan Zachariah’s last attempt at seizing X Island, Thomas knew that his adversary would bring a fight even more brutal than their previous encounter. He relished the opportunity as he braced for what could very well be the fight of a lifetime.

Would things always be like this? Randi’s question echoed in his mind. Would there always be bloody battles and broken bones? Captain Thomas Bedlam hoped so. This was his course, and he was charting it his way. Something had changed in him. He relished the violence. It’s been said that once an animal gets a taste of blood, its bloodlust never truly goes away. Whether it was a craving for blood, a revelation that violence was in his soul, or the desire to carve his name into the history books alongside the greats who came before him, Thomas Bedlam hoped that it would always be like this.

8KBG6QPj1aoVGxR0KkKtSrWgnRNWa6qE71jbck0zyb9AbIldTy6iyJ5WT5KK05XggL7bM503ue3dortwfnfhCKjp1YsJ7WbnblutTApnXDy6jQomWACs8cIvr8sJOaejQpuJBwaAdGYBFq15O0IYB9o




“Your words surround you like fog
and make you hard to see.”
-Blackbeard





As Captain Bedlam navigated his vessel westward, “The Dream” came into view more clearly. As Thomas raised his spyglass to his eye, he could see XYZ talking to another man aboard his ship, likely Christian Howard, one of his trusted deckhands. His parrot, which he only referred to as Sierra, was perched atop his shoulder. Captain Zachariah knew that the time for war was quickly approaching.

“The Captain of Bedlam’s…Thomas is nearing. Howard of Christians…are we battle-ready?”

“Aye aye, Captain Zachariah.”

“Blood shall be shed…as the days of the empire…of Rome. My fourth…and final attempt…this is. We shan’t…come up short, Christian. Failure…an option…it isn’t.”

“SQUAK! Failure is not an option.”

“Exactly, Sierra. We must all be…on the same page.”

“Xander! We meet again!”

Captain Bedlam had finally drawn close enough to “The Dream” for his voice to be heard on board.

“Bedlam of Thomasses…nice to see you once more.”

“I got your message. Hell, I have your messenger.”

“Where is Jerry of the Wild? You haven’t…thrown him overboard? I feared for him following his…aerial attack. You are a man…of violence, Thomas. But my message…needed to be delivered.”

Captain Zachariah’s rambling distracted Thomas from the fact that Christian Howard had slipped from the hull of “The Dream” and stealthily swam closer to “The Stallion.” As Thomas continued his bizarre conversation with Xander, Christian slowly climbed up the side of Captain Bedlam’s ship and made his way toward Crazy Jerry.

“Xander, I see that you still like to talk a lot without actually saying anything. How about we cut through the shit and do what we’re both here to do?”

“Captain Bedlam of Thomasses…you are a man…of great honor. If a fight…is what you seek…a fight…you shall find.”

Thomas was unaware of the fact that First Mate Christian Howard was cutting through the rope that held Wild Jerry in place. As he continued to engage in a fruitless conversation with his nemesis, the duo snuck up behind him before they both lowered themselves to the ground, taking Thomas down from behind with a shoulder to the bend of each leg.

Thomas crumpled to the ground as Xander looked on from “The Dream.” Wild Jerry and Christian Howard began to swing wildly, pummeling him. Fortunately for Captain Bedlam, they were no match for his strength. He grabbed each of his assailants by the back of the neck, smashing their heads together.

The two men stumbled and staggered backward, affording Thomas the opportunity that he needed to get back to his feet. As Wild Jerry charged at him with a blood-curdling scream, Thomas simply sidestepped him, tossing him over the side of the vessel and into the sea. As Sierra let out a loud squawk.

This left Captain Bedlam on the ship alone with Christian Howard. With the odds evened up, Thomas reached for his sword. If Captain Zachariah wanted the numbers on his side, Thomas was going to be forced to take drastic steps to even the odds. Unfortunately, it appeared that his sword had fallen from its sheath when he was tackled to the ground.

“Looking for this, Captain?”

Christian Howard had Thomas’ sword in his hand. Thomas smirked, refusing to show an inkling of fear. Instead, he quickly charged across the deck of “The Stallion,” planting a crushing boot in the side of Christian’s face. He fell to the ground, sending Thomas’ sword sliding across the ship. He delivered another hard stomp to the side of Christian’s head, knocking him out. He walked over, picked up his trusty sword, and returned his weapon to its sheath.

“Yes. I was looking for this, smartass.”

Thomas grabbed a second rope and tied Christian Howard’s feet together. He tossed the invader over the side of “The Stallion” headfirst, tying the other end of the rope to the flagpole. Howard’s head dangled inches above the water, as Thomas turned his attention back to the man who he was set to battle.

“Got any more henchmen over there, Xander? Or, are we finally ready to fight like men?”

“Oh, Bedlam of Thomasses. Have you not heard…the saying…of the sea? Pirates go about…searching for treasure. They never realize the true treasure…is the memories…they make along the way. What good are memories…without friends?”

“Can we just cut the shit, Xander? You fired Wild Jerry at me, and I damn near killed him. Your first mate’s head is six inches from the water, and the tide will be going up soon. Let’s do this…you and me.”

“Bedlam of Thomasses, Captain of ‘The Stallion…’ Your words sting like a buzzing bumblebee floating from one flower…to the next. I would expect a pirate…a man of the sea…to recognize that I still have…one more friend. What sort of pirate…approaches a battle…without a trusty parrot?!”

“SQUAAAAAK”

Without warning, Sierra launched herself from Xander’s shoulder and straight up into the air. As she flapped her wings, propelling herself higher and higher, Xander continued to ramble on about parrots, their mating habits, friends, and more foolishness. His inane babbling distracted Thomas from the fact that Sierra had reached the apex of her ascent and was hurling herself straight toward him.

Xander continued to wax poetic about absolutely nothing as Sierra got closer to Thomas’ head. Her wings outstretched, she hurled herself at her unsuspecting target, her devotion to her captain never more evident than it was in that moment.

“SQUAAAAAK”

Thomas looked up once again, but it was too late for him to draw his sword. Sierra was only inches from his face and ready to draw blood. Suddenly, a dark figure appeared from the port side of the ship. It was a crow!

Just in the nick of time, the crow hurled himself into Sierra’s side, knocking her from the air and away from Captain Bedlam. As she tumbled into the Fantasy Sea, the crow circled back and perched on Thomas’ shoulder.

“Parrots annoy me, Xander. But most things that talk all the time without saying anything meaningful have that effect one me.”

The not so subtle jab hit its mark squarely, as Captain Zachariah’s odd smirk turned to a frown. Thomas simply turned and nodded at the crow on his shoulder as the bird took off and flew into the dusk.

“Now, can we handle this like men, Xander? One last battle.”

“Yes, Bedlam of Thomasses. We shall handle this…like men. If you are the victor…I shall never approach X Island again. But one thing…you should know…Bedlam of Thomasses. I shant…be defeated…twice.”
8KBG6QPj1aoVGxR0KkKtSrWgnRNWa6qE71jbck0zyb9AbIldTy6iyJ5WT5KK05XggL7bM503ue3dortwfnfhCKjp1YsJ7WbnblutTApnXDy6jQomWACs8cIvr8sJOaejQpuJBwaAdGYBFq15O0IYB9o





“A merry life and a short one
shall be my motto.”
-Bartholomew Roberts





As Captain Zachariah stood at the helm of “The Dream,” Captain Bedlam stood on the deck of “The Stallion.” Each man had his hand placed on his sword, waiting to see who would make the first move. One wrong step, and the battle could be over before it started. Act too aggressively, and you could be plucked from the air by your enemy. Wait too long, and you could be attacked.

As the stars began to appear, lighting up the night sky, it was Thomas who made the first move. Grabbing the rope that held his flag in place top his ship, he swung himself out over the water and landed on “The Dream.”

As both men raised their swords under the quickly-darkening sky, the only sound on the air was the sound of metal clanging together. Swords clashed as both pirate sought to do whatever it took to put an end to the other. This battle wasn’t about hatred. In fact, both captains shared a mutual respect. But the battle for control of X Island meant more than any amount of respect than either of them possessed.

Thomas swung his sword toward Xander’s head, but Captain Zachariah blocked it with his own blade. He then lunged his sword toward Thomas’ stomach, trying to impale him, but Thomas swung his sword downward, blocking the attack. This sort of back-and-forth went on for what seemed like forever.

Both men were skilled with their swords, and neither of them dared give an inch. The clanging of the blades rang out into the night sky as dusk turned to dark, a full moon illuminating the night sky. The light that it cast illuminated the beads of perspiration that flowed down the face of the combatants. Each of them unflinching, unwilling to show even a hint of anything that could be perceived as weakness.

Suddenly, a mighty wave rose up, one that Thomas did not see out of the corner of his eye. As the ship suddenly tossed to the left, he lost his balance, giving Xander the opportunity that he had been waiting for. He swung his blade erratically, and though Thomas was able to deflect its blow, it caused him to lose control of his own sword. He looked on helplessly as it slid across the deck.

Xander got a wicked, diabolical grin on his face. He knew that control of X Island was within his reach. As he took one slow, methodical step after another, inching ever closer to Thomas, the current ruler of the coveted piece of backpedaled across the deck of “The Dream,” bouncing his attention between Xander and the deathly sharp blade that he held in his hand.

“Bedlam of Thomasses…it has been said…that a man’s last words…are the most introspective…that he ever utters. It appears…that there will be…no one to hear…your last words…but I. What shall…I tell your family…were your last words, Captain?”

Captain Bedlam had no intention of sharing his last words with Xander Yordan Zachariah. He knew if he did, it would take forever to have them retold. But he knew that things were looking bleak. To make matters worse, Thomas’ backpedaling led him to a crate that he didn’t see, and he hit the deck of “The Dream” with a mighty thud.

Under the moonlit sky of the Fantasy Sea, Thomas could see the look in Xander’s eye. He appeared to almost be feeling remorse, but he knew what he had to do. Xander was unusually and mercifully silent as he raised the sword over his head. That’s when Thomas saw his opportunity.

With nothing to lose, he thrust his boot into Xander’s kneecap. It knocked him back just enough for Thomas to deliver a second kick to the abdomen that knocked Xander onto his back. The odds evened once again as Xander’s sword flipped handle over blade across the sky. For a moment, it felt like the world slipped into slow motion as both men watched helplessly as the silhouette of the sword soared past the moon before the blade landed in one of the planks on the deck of the ship.

Thomas got back to his feet as he and Xander began to circle one another. The sword fight was over. The battle for control of X Island was going to be settled with fists. Well, with fists and whatever else the two haggard pirates could get their hands on.

They charged into one another, both swinging wildly and landing their fair share of blows. Thomas delivered a series of right hands across Xander’s face, but for each one he landed, he received left hands to his own. Thomas finally managed to gain the upper hand by delivering a headbutt to Xander’s face that caused blood to mix with sweat on his adversary’s face.

Xander grabbed a plank of wood that was resting against a crate and swung it wildly, cracking Thomas across the top of his head. The sound was sickening, and Thomas wasn’t sure if it was the sound of the plank splintering or his skull splitting. He didn’t have time to figure it out. He knew that only one man was walking away from this battle, and he was determined that it would be him.

Instinctively, Thomas touched his head and quickly realized that he too was bleeding. But something inside him was different. The sight of his own blood on his hand, and even the blood that was now running into his eyes, didn’t bother him. Instead, he relished it. He wiped his blood-stained hand down his face, creating a crimson mask that resembled war paint. He charged across the deck, tackling Xander to the ground. The rolled over one another, trading the dominant position, each man trying to land as many punches as he could.

Xander finally managed to free himself from Thomas’ grasp, and just as the captain of “The Stallion” charged in to resume the beating that he was inflicting, Captain Zachariah managed to duck down, and with a well-measured kick to the shin, caused Thomas to fall face first into a large crate. The sound of his face bouncing off the box echoed across the sea. He was dazed, he was wounded, and he felt the world growing darker. Night had fully set in, and while the world was dark, the darkness setting on Thomas was different.

He felt himself losing the battle, he could palpably feel his life slipping away, and while that scared him, the thing that hurt him the most was the fact that he could feel control of X Island slowly slipping through his fingers like sand through the hourglass.

He should’ve been more worried about never seeing Randi or Walker again. He should’ve been worried about the fact that like he had done, his son was in danger of growing up without a father. But the loss of X Island was at the forefront of his mind. It wasn’t just the loss of X Island. It was the knowledge that losing X Island also meant that he’d be lucky if he ever commandeered control of any of the other islands in the Fantasy Sea again.

The bleeding was growing worse as Thomas rolled over into a pool of his own blood. He could hear Xander slowly walking back and forth across the deck. He was talking to someone, probably himself, about the fleeting nature of life. He was quoting Socrates when Thomas realized that he had landed only inches away from the sword he had lost control of at the beginning of the battle. He stretched his arm out, desperately trying to reach the handle. Xander continued his rambling as he looked around at the stars, identifying constellations and providing an unwanted history of the origins of their names.

Finally, Thomas managed to get his fingers to the edge of the handle and pulled his weapon to himself. His head throbbed as he pulled himself up to a knee. Xander had shifted his attention to the moon, its gravitational pull on the sea, and how important it was to dream. This monologue provided Thomas with the opportunity that he was waiting for. He allowed Xander’s speech to drown out the slight sounds of his own footsteps across the deck.

“It twas Eleanor Roosevelt…who once said, ‘The future belongs to the beauty of those who believe in their dreams.’ I am a dreamer, Thomas. Long have I dreamt…of calling X Island home…When people said that I…would never reach my goal…I explained that my dream…never…di-”

Thomas felt the point of his blade tear through the skin and into Xander’s muscles. With a second thrust, Thomas felt the tip of his sword pop through the other side as XYZ fell silent.

Without saying another word, Xander crumpled to his knees. His hand instinctively ley thrown over the wound, he knew that there was no stopping the amount of blood that poured from his entrails. When he did open his mouth to speak, blood poured as the internal bleeding was more severe than he had anticipated.

Thomas stood over him, unmoving, unrattled, and silent as he watched the man who had pushed him further than anyone since Yellowbeard labored through what would prove to be his last breaths.

It could’ve been ironic that a man who had just been rambling on about the importance of a man’s last words had spent his talking about dreams, but the fact was that XYZ’s last words, whether they were spoken on his ship or in front of an audience, would have been nonsensical.

Thomas leaned down and placed two fingers on the side of Xander’s neck. He was gone. Xander had vowed that his fourth attempt to take control of X Island, his second since Thomas took over, would be his last. This probably wasn’t what he had in mind, but such was the risk when you chose a pirate’s life.

The Merry Menage had all been disposed of, and now Captain Xander Yordan Zachariah was gone. Thomas pulled the fuse from “The Dream’s” canon, and stretched it across the deck. He lowered the exotic flag from it’s pole, and wrapped it around the far end of the fuse. He ignited the fuse as he grabbed the rope that hugn from “The Dream’s” flagpole, and swung himself back onto his own ship.

He didn’t look back, even when he heard the crackling of wood that had caught fire. Thomas adjusted the sails, pointed the ship toward X Island, and was completely oblivious to the fire that was consuming “The Dream.”

“The dream may never die, Xander; but dreamers do.”


8KBG6QPj1aoVGxR0KkKtSrWgnRNWa6qE71jbck0zyb9AbIldTy6iyJ5WT5KK05XggL7bM503ue3dortwfnfhCKjp1YsJ7WbnblutTApnXDy6jQomWACs8cIvr8sJOaejQpuJBwaAdGYBFq15O0IYB9o



“The problem is not the problem.
The problem is your attitude
about the problem.”
-Captain Jack Sparrow



Captian Thomas Bedlam eased “The Stallion” into the space beside the dock on the shores of X Island as the sun began to rise over the east side of his most sacred piece of land. The temperature was already starting to rise as he approached the front porch of the house. Randi was sitting there, an exhausted look on her face. It was clear that she hadn’t slept all night.

“I saw the smoke out on the sea. I was afraid it was you.”

“I told you I would be back.”

“You always say that, but we both know there will come a day when you won’t. You’ll go out there, trying to defend this damned piece of dirt, and you won’t come back. Don’t you see the problem here?

“As a matter of fact, I don’t. There is no problem here. I didn’t die last night, and I’m here today. Where’s Rocco?”

“He’s been out on the beach looking for any signs of your ship. He’s been out half the night looking for you.”

Thomas knew he should feel guilt about the worry he was causing the woman he loved, but he had never felt more exhilarated than he felt at this moment. He had once again proven that he was worthy of the title that he bore. He was a fitting ruler for X Island.

He wanted to share the details of the battle with Randi, but he recognized that it wasn’t the right time. She could see the blood that had dried on his face and in his hair. She was fully aware of the bloodstains that soaked his white shirt. This wasn’t the time to point out that all the blood wasn’t his. Enough of it was to lend credence to her concern.

They sat there in silence. She didn’t want to fight, and she knew it was pointless. He didn’t want to fight, either, and he knew that he’d never convince her that everything was fine. He was slowly becoming the kind of man he had to be to keep control of X Island, and he had no intention of slowing down. Their silence was finally broken when Rocco came running up the beach from the west.

“Captain Bedlam! Captain Bedlam! There’s a disturbance to the west!”

“Is someone approaching? Did you see who it was?”

“No one is coming this way, at least not now. But there’s a massive fight going on out in the Fantasy Sea. I saw at least 12 vessels, but there may be more. I lost count of the blasts, but it sounds like an incredible gunfight has broken out. I suspect the last vessel standing will head this way next.”

“What makes you so sure of that?”

“Well, they’re not very far from the shore. Two, maybe three fathoms away.”

Thomas leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath. A hint of a smile spread across his blood-stained face.

“Good. Let them batter one another. Whenever one of them decides to venture this way, I’ll be ready. After all, I’m the Captain of X Island.”




































 
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Lights_Out_Best_of_us_Both.jpg


2023.jpg


“Can you hurry the fuck up, man?”

“What is the rush? I don’t even know where we’re going, I can barely see. Hey, get off of me!”

“I don’t want to miss it!”

Before Alyster could even ask what Chris was so keen to see, they had emerged through a set of double doors and into a large open room. Immediately, Alyster was taken aback by the sight of many men and women, most of them completely nude. To Alyster’s horror, Chris was very quick to join them and he deposited his clothes in a clear plastic container near the door. A completely naked woman emerged from behind them and carried the box away.

Another appeared and looked at Alyster expectantly, but his body language made it extremely clear that he was not going to be partaking in whatever it was that was happening here. He went to speak, but Chris put a hand across his chest and shushed him, motioning with his head towards the middle of the room, where a man was giving an address.

“...because here you are always on the right side of the bed.”

The crowd surrounding Xperienx Xtacee began to applaud loudly and Xtacee indulged in some quick sweet nothings with Monica and Antonio before he began to mingle with the crowd. Chris rubbed his hands together as he watched various groups of people head towards different corners of the room to enjoy themselves and each other.

“Good. We got here before it all started. Let’s jump in-”

“Why are we here?”

Chris bristled as Alyster kept a firm grip on his arm but before he could answer, the host of the event approached the two of them. Xtacee looked both FTN members up and down and smirked at what he saw.

“So, you found our little slice of heaven, then? I was surprised to hear from you, Christopher, but I can see that you’re going to fit right in with this crowd. If I had to guess which one of you would be more into this kind of fun, I would have guessed it was you, Alyster Black.”

“The fuck do you mean by that?”

“I think you’ll find that the masked man act goes down very well in these kinds of circles.”

The FWA World Champion laughed heartily, enjoying the awkwardness and uncomfortableness that his best friend was feeling at that moment in time. “Well, sometimes you’ve just got to throw yourself in, right?”

“What did you say?”

Chris ignored Alyster as a woman on the other side of the room had caught his eye. Her hair was blonde and she, like Chris, had no qualms over bearing it all. He was not the only one to notice that the woman was giving him the eye, as Xtacee put an arm around his shoulders and delicately waved at the woman with his fingers. “I’d keep an eye on her, Chris Peacock. She is nothing but trouble, but I sense that you’re a man who enjoys living dangerously.”

Without another word, Xtacee left with Monica and Antonio (who both made eyes at Chris as they did so), leaving both FTN members alone. Chris grinned at the woman who returned his smile, but his attention was swiped by a very confused and concerned Alyster Black.

“Chris, you need to be straight with me. What are we doing here? I think you know this is not my kind of thing at all.”

“Alyster, stop worrying. I wanted to do something together and I thought about things I enjoy… and what we’ll be doing tonight is something that I enjoy a lot. You know, with Lights Out coming up and some of the training I’ve got planned, I’m worried we won’t get to spend a whole lot of time together… so I thought we could do this… together.”

Alyster noticed that Chris’s eyes kept being drawn to the woman who promised nothing but trouble in Xtacee’s words, but he stood in the way of Chris’s view to garner his undivided attention. “What do you mean?”

“Come on, bro. We have things locked down for Cyrus and Konchu but you know… it’s a world title match, man. I need to make sure I’m ready for it, as should you! It’s not like we can spar or train together. What if I clue you into something I plan on using in the match by accident. You know all of this, you’ve been in my spot before.”

Chris ensured to speak in such a way that it was clear he was taking a light-hearted approach to the match where he will be facing his best friend for his FWA World Championship. However, he knew Alyster well enough to know that Aly was troubled somewhat by this approach. It pained him to think that as he heavily suspected it to be true.

An awkwardly-long silence followed and as Alyster looked down at the floor in dismay and internal strife, Chris caught the woman’s eye once more over Black’s shoulder. Alyster puffed his cheeks and then let out a heavy sight. “Look, I know you want to go over there so just go, dude. I’ll hang around until you’re ready to go.”

There was an obvious visual cue that Chris was very excited to go over to the woman and Alyster had to swerve to avoid being prodded as Chris brushed past him. As Chris approached, the blonde woman did her best attempt at Basic Instinct by changing the way that her legs were crossed as she sat on a stool next to the bar. Chris found himself mumbling under his breath in awe and anticipation.

He strutted towards her and accepted a drink from a waiter as he did so, sipping on the champagne without really caring what it was that he was ingesting. It tingled his tongue and she did the same with her drink. She gulped down the last of her flute and then gave Chris a sultry smile as he reached her and stood in front of her confidently.

“So, I take it you like what you see? I’m Chr-”

“Believe me, I know exactly who you are. I didn’t think I’d ever see you in a place like this, though.”

“Anywhere where there is someone like you, is where I am going to be, baby.” Chris was proud of his line and the intrigued raise of the eyebrows from the seated woman indicated that she didn’t mind it, either. “You got a name?”

“Who I am is not important. Do you want to take this somewhere more private?”

There was no verbal response required from Chris as another area of his body was making it abundantly clear that is precisely what he wanted to do. The woman rose from her seat and took Chris by the hand. Before she went anywhere though, she turned back and motioned back towards the direction that Chris had emerged from. “Does your friend want to join us?”

Chris gazed at Alyster for a moment, who was standing solitary where he had left him and was slamming down as many drinks as he could in order to cope with the situation he had been dragged into.

“Nah, I can handle this on my own.”

2042.jpg


It was a slow Friday morning at Dazzling Dave’s restaurant in Brooklyn. The patrons that were enjoying their brunch were the same ones that were present every week. With the exception of one.

Amidst the sea of pensioners making the most of the restaurant’s generous senior citizen’s discount was a young woman considerably younger than everyone else, including the waiting staff. In fact, she was just eighteen years old. She was aware that some of the older gentlemen in the restaurant were captivated by her and she heard a few wives slap their husbands on the wrists after they had been staring for just a bit too long.

The girl had bright blue eyes and long blonde hair which she had tied up in a bun, otherwise it would be most of the way down her back. She finished her carbonara and placed the cutlery on the plate and took in the atmosphere for a moment. It was her first time in New York, but she was not there for the sights. A run down Italian family restaurant was not exactly a tourist hotspot.

“Was everything okay with that?” The waiter asked as he arrived at the table, picking up the plate. The girl looked up and noted that he was called Max from his badge. Max was in his mid-thirties and seemed extremely comfortable in the restaurant environment. Which would make sense, because his family had owned it for three generations and he had been working there for the last seventeen years. “Can I get you anything else?”

“Yeah,” the girl said. She craned her neck past Max and looked at the bar next to the kitchen entrance. She reached out with one arm and pointed at one of the pictures above the bar. There were rosary beads around the frame. “Do you know where I can find him?

The subject of the photograph was a man who was around the age that Max was at this moment in time, and also bore a slight resemblance to him. He had long black hair and a stubble which wrapped around his jawline and down onto his neck. His features were striking and his eyes twinkled brightly, even in the black and white picture.

“Oh,” Max said glumly. “That’s my dad. He, uh, passed away quite a while ago. Did you know him?”

Max was unsure how this girl would know his father given her young age and the length of time it had been since he passed. He estimated that she would have been a toddler at the oldest when his dad was still alive. Despite this, she seemed very shocked and gasped into her hands upon learning this news. Some of the old timers were doing everything they could to find out what was happening, especially as the girl began to weep.

After setting the plate back down onto the table, Max placed a reassuring hand on the girl’s shoulder. “I miss him too. How did you know him?”

“I didn’t.” The girl used the table napkin to dab her eyes dry. She looked up at Max hopefully and nodded her head slowly. “So, Chris Peacock was your father, too?”

“What? That’s not Chris Peacock!”

“It is,” the girl said assertively and she pulled out a picture from her bag. It was Chris Peacock in a promotional shot for the FWA roughly twenty years earlier. “Look, this looks exactly like him.”

Max took the photograph from her hand. “Yes, that is Chris Peacock. That’s my dad on the wall. He was Uncle Chris’s brother- wait. Did you say that Chris Peacock is your father?”

“He is.”

“Y-You’re my cousin?”

“I think so.”

As quick as a flash, Max pulled a futuristic (but not to them in 2042) phone out of the apron around his waist and began typing in. Within seconds, the girl’s phone made an alert sound. She unlocked the screen with her breath and then smiled upon seeing an address. “You’ll find him there.”

“Thank you.” The girl smiled and rose to her feet, collecting her belongings. She pressed a button on her phone and a holographic stack of dollar bills hovered in the air above the device.

Max pinched his fingers and the money disappeared. “Family doesn’t pay here. What is your name?”

“Christal.”

The newly-introduced cousins shared a familiar smile despite having just met. Christal left the restaurant and Max grinned from ear to ear, pleased with this development. He fondly stared at Drew’s picture above the bar for a moment, until he was called to tend to another table.

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“I’m coming… I’m coming!” Chris Peacock called as he hobbled down the stairs of his four-bedroom detached house in Scarsdale. He was getting to the door as quickly as he could after the doorbell rang. Now in his fifties and still less than a year on from the knee injury which ended his wrestling and dancing careers, Chris lacked almost all of the mobility and fluid movements which were hallmarks of both his time in the ring and on the dancefloor.

The bell was pressed again, twice. “CAN YOU FUCKING WAIT? I’m coming as quickly as I can, for fuck’s sake!”

Thankfully, the eagerness of the person on the other side of the door subsided somewhat after that. Chris reached the door after using the hallway wall to support himself. He pulled the door open and saw a young woman - the same that had been inside his family’s restaurant not much earlier - holding a photograph up and comparing it to the man in front of her.
“Are you Chris Peacock?” Christal asked. She held the picture up so it was in line with the angry man’s face. She recognised the moustache (albeit now greying) and the shape of the face, but the older man’s eyes were much narrower and his brow furrowed. It was as if he had endured many bad experiences since the photograph was taken. He was fatter, too.

“Who wants to know?”

“I’m Christal,” she said, nervously. “I am… your… daughter!

“Bullshit.”

Not wanting to entertain this, Chris went to slam the door shut but Christal stepped forward and put her foot in the way. The door slammed into it. She winced and was in great pain, but held the picture forward through the crack in the door. “This… is you! My mom gave me this and told me to come and find you!”

“Anyone can print a picture from the internet. Don’t you know who I am?”

“No, I don’t! I only found out about you right before she died… you’re the only family I have left. Well, apart from my cousin who I already met.”

“Max? That little prick sent you over here?”

Chris could see that the force of him pushing the door into Christal’s foot was hurting her so begrudgingly he relented, but the door swung forward and struck him in the face. This knocked him to the floor due to his poor balance. He groaned and Christal gasped, dropping down to her knees to check that he was okay. “Oh my God! Are you okay?”

“Just help me up!” The pain in Chris’s knee and forehead caused him to groan as Christal sat him up against the wall in the hallway and he checked his head for blood due to muscle memory more than anything else. “Who is your mother?”

“Samantha Naylor.”

“Naylor? I hardly even know her…”

“Well, you did.” Standing over him, Christal produced another photograph. Chris snatched it off of her.

He sighed as he instantly recognised the woman. He had never learned her name.

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In a private room separate from the rest of the party, Chris took another glass of champagne and downed it in a single gulp. He then settled on the red leather sofa which ran along the back wall and watched as his companion slowly entered the room behind him. She had acquired a see through satin nightgown which matched the decor of the room.

The woman also took another glass of champagne but set it down on the small table next to the sofa as she took her seat next to Chris. Peacock could not wait and immediately leaned in to kiss her, but she met his lips with a single finger to deny his progress. “Ah ah ah. Slow yourself down. There’s no need to rush something like this. Are you wanting to get back to your little friend?”

“No,” said Chris. “He’s able to handle himself.”

“You don’t seem too convinced.”

Chris paused. It had become commonplace for Chris Peacock to stretch the truth to justify his actions - as the recent shenanigans with Allen Price and Cyrus Truth are testament to - but it was rare that he found himself lying to himself. In anguish, he dropped his head low and rested it in his hands. “I’ve done a bad thing.”

The woman reached over and placed a hand on the top of his back but he jumped. He looked at her, afraid, but after a couple of seconds her smile reassured him. Inside he hated how vulnerable he had become so quickly when confronted with such a simple reality.

“I told you that I know you. I know who you are and I know the things you have done. Some were good and for the noblest of intentions but others weren’t. No one is an angel; you’d have wings if you were.”

It was safe to assume that Chris Peacock did not consider himself an angel whatsoever. He’d done many bad things and regretted almost none of them.

“I’ve done the one thing that I didn’t want to do. I’ve made it awkward between us. If you know who I am, you definitely know who my friend is. The last thing I want is to lose him-”

Chris stopped talking as he could already feel his eyes welling up. A mighty battle between a tear and his eye began as he desperately attempted not to let it escape so the woman would see. “It’s just really hard. I can’t even have a friend now without every prick with an opinion assuming that I’m using him and I’m going to turn on him. I can see it in their eyes, all of them in these arenas all over the world.”

“They’re just waiting for me to do it. They want me to do it. Just to see the best thing that has happened to me in a long time disappear. I’m not going to take that low road. Not against him. Taking that option away… I’m worried about what I am going to have to do to beat him.”

“When I say that Alyster Black is one of the best wrestlers in the world, it isn’t just to make him look better because I’m his partner. I don’t even say it to stroke his ego. It is the truth. Everyone saw what happened in that chamber; he got the shit kicked out of him for over half an hour and still almost beat me. Throwing us both through the ring was the only thing I thought would actually put him down and I almost killed myself doing it.”


“This is common and I’ve heard it all before. You’re a powerful man. Your role comes with a lot of pressure-”

The woman attempted to massage Chris’s shoulders to relieve said pressure, but he stood up and batted her arms away and tipped over the table. The champagne glass fell to the floor and smashed. She seemed quite shocked by the sudden outburst and Chris got in front of her face, not even trying to hide the tears.

“Pressure? You have no… FUCKING… IDEA! Do you even understand the position that I am in right now? It’s lose/lose for me. Either Alyster beats me and I’m not the champion anymore, or I beat him again and risk everything we’ve done up to this point. Because whilst I won’t cheat to beat him, I’ll have to do some shit that I’m not sure he can forgive me for… I don’t know how far I’ll have to go.”

There was some silence in the room for a moment as Chris sat down on the sofa once again and closed his eyes. Tears of frustration streamed down his face. The prospect of losing Alyster was equally as devastating as losing the FWA World Championship. He had come to a point where he could not be without either. It angered him that he had put himself in the position where he would have to risk one or the other. This was before he had even considered that it was possible that he could feasibly lose both.

The woman looked at the broken glass and picked up a shard. She looked through it and then with her other hand reached behind the sofa and pressed a play button on a remote and some music began to play. The soft singing and chilled beat caused Chris to calm down. He listened to the lyrics of the song; a man questions the status of his relationship and the motives of his partner.

He did not know whether he was the singer or the partner. Was Alyster having these same thoughts? Did Alyster share his fears? He had no way of knowing.

Then he grimaced when he felt a sharp pain on his cheek. Before he could open his eyes the woman had already straddled him. In her hand she held the broken piece of glass and it was stained with a small amount of blood from Chris’s cheek. Together they watched as a droplet trickled down the glass onto the woman’s hand and then from her bent wrist onto the sofa, where it blended in.

“You’re a passionate man, Chris Peacock. No one is going to deny you that. I want you to show me how far you’re willing to go.”

She kissed him.

Both of their chests tightened and they felt their breathing becoming more sharp. As the woman caressed Chris’s cheek, her hand became covered in blood and soon this was smeared over Chris’s face and in his hair.

“How far can you go?”

Chris tore the nightgown from her body and pulled her in closely to him one more time. She deviously grinned when he grabbed her by her hair and held her head back. “Tell me. Show me. How far?”

They locked eyes for a moment and Chris could feel the animalistic urge inside of him brewing. He inhaled deeply and brought the woman’s ear close to his mouth. He whispered;

“All the fucking way.”

As if that is exactly what she wanted to hear, the woman kissed Chris one more time and began to slowly move up and down on his lap…



Several minutes later, the woman stood up and then sat down next to Chris on the sofa. The FWA World Champion leaned back on the seat once again and looked up at the ceiling and the soft lights which were dancing around above them. Their breathing synchronised and the woman reached over and playfully wrapped her finger in his hair.

“You weren’t kidding about going all the way, huh?”

“I’m usually a bit better at not going that far, though.”

“No, it was good. I think it is what you needed. I’m not just talking about the stuff... but I can tell there was a lot inside of you that needed to come out.”

“I’m not sure that in you is where I needed to release all of that though. Should probably go and see a shrink or something. You made me realise a lot of things that I think I was too scared to admit to myself.”

The woman scoffed. “You shouldn’t be afraid of the truth, especially when you don’t want to believe it. Now, I’m going to clean myself up… and see whether your friend is as talkative as you are.”

The woman planted one more kiss on Chris’s blood stained cheek and then left the room. He watched her leave and then slowly stood up and shook himself off and used the torn nightgown to clean himself up as best as he could.

When he exited the room, the first thing he looked for in the sea of debauchery and lust was Alyster. Sure enough, his partner was right where he left him. However now, an individual in a fur suit was trying to get closer to Alyster. This brought Chris some minor amusement, but despite his encounter with the woman, he felt guilty of something even dirtier. He was prepared to do whatever he needed to do to beat his best friend at Lights Out.

2042.jpg


Recent losses in each of their lives had caused Chris and Christal to grow closer in the days following their initial meeting. At first, Chris was cautious about allowing her to stay with him but he felt it would be cruel to send a young girl whose mother had just died back out onto the streets. However they bonded over holes that had not long entered their lives. Christal was left without guidance from the woman who had been present her entire life and with his physical condition meaning that he can no longer follow his passions, Chris was left without purpose.

On paper, it was a match made in heaven. Ostensibly, Christal has her new role model and Chris has a reason to get up in the morning; to be a father. This is not how it transpired in those first few days, though. This was because Chris was unsure whether he was actually the father of this young woman. His main reason for doubting her parentage was the striking fact that she was nothing like him.

Christal was kind and she was caring. Even though she had just met Chris, she was quick to be there for him in whatever way Chris needed, provided he permitted her to do so. She helped him up the stairs, cooked meals for him and bought groceries. It had been a long time since someone had been there for him in such a way, albeit they mostly did so in an emotional capacity.

“How is it you spell your name again?” Chris asked one evening when they were eating the penne arrabbiata that Christal had prepared for them both. He stabbed several pieces of pasta whilst he waited for his apparent daughter to finish her mouthful, something which he seldom did when wanting to talk whilst eating.

“C-H-R-I-S-T-A-L.”

He shook his fork as he spoke and narrowed his eyes. “So your Ma named you after me, and chucked an A and an L on the end? Did she, you know, tell you anything about me?”

“Not really. She only gave me your picture and told me to come to New York a few days before she died. Plus she was really weak because of the cancer, she couldn’t talk much.”

“You never said she had cancer?”

Christal only nodded in response and then went back to eating. She did not want to talk about her mother any more, especially as Chris had already been interrogating her every chance he got as he was not convinced that she was telling the truth, or was simply latching onto the words of a dying woman as part of the grieving process.

“Listen, if you’re a Peacock, there’s some things that you need to know. You need to know how we tick, because this bloodline that runs through you, it doesn’t run well. There’s going to be some shit that you have that you don’t want and you definitely don’t need.”

“Now, I’m sure that Max might have seemed nice at first, but that’s just because that is what he wants everyone to think about him. He’s running the restaurant that my father started up like fifty years ago. He has to pretend to be nice. My brother ran it before him and he did the same thing until he showed everyone what a prick he was and then he died.”

“You see, the difference between me and all of the other Peacocks is that I can hold my hand in the air and proudly say that I am a piece of shit. I remember that your mother told me that I’m no angel and well, she was a smart woman. I’ve done some bad shit in my time and every Peacock man can say the same thing. But to be a winner and a champion like I was so many times, you have to understand that sometimes, those things that might not come naturally to your regular civilian on the street? Those are the things you need to do to stay on top.”

“Then, there’s the addiction. It could probably be the thickest trait which runs through our blood and is almost certainly passed down from generation to generation. For my father, it was work. Especially after my mother died. The fucking guy spent all of his time in the kitchen and ignoring his sons. That’s what drove my brother to the drink and that shit ultimately killed him. Max? That kid has been addicted to the internet and conspiracy theories ever since he was your age. ”


“What about you?”

“That’s none of your fucking business, kid. You probably expect me to say something like winning? Or competition?” Chris scoffed. “Sure, that kind of stuff kept me going and I thrived on it, but that isn’t what I woke up for every morning.”

“Why do I feel like I am being interrogated?”

She was right. Chris’s aggression was unfounded. He looked at her with her blue eyes and blonde hair and he still suspected that someone else was this girl’s father. The obvious candidate was Alyster Black. After all, Alyster was there that night and he did spend some time with the woman after Chris did. If he did the same to her then it is possible that they were both the father somehow.

Christal silently ate her dinner and Chris watched her for a few seconds. Even if she was Alyster’s, what was so wrong with that? Why wouldn’t Chris want to have more of him around?

“I want to protect you. You don’t want to be like me.”

“There may not be as much wrong with that as you think. By the way, you’re the only person my mom slept with that night. It is you.”

Chris smirked and then continued stabbing his food with his fork. They ate the remainder of the meal in silence.

2023.jpg


It felt strange to Chris being on the road for the FWA and not sharing accommodation with Alyster. They had taken to travelling together and either staying at each other’s homes (or even Alyster’s parents) and when not at one of their places and a hotel was required, they opted for twin rooms. They had become inseparable.

But in Kinshasa it was different. Even though they were set to defend the FWA World Tag Team Championships together against the Dark Roads Alliance at Lights Out, Chris had made it clear that they needed some time away from each other in order to prepare for the main event. Whilst Chris was not concerned about Cyrus Truth or Konchu Hao, he was worried about his match with Alyster Black for the FWA World Championship.

Alyster Black was undoubtedly going to be the most difficult of his four defences, for a multitude of reasons. There was of course the obvious one; Alyster Black was one of the best wrestlers in the world as well as a fucking a tough bastard and he was going to be hard to beat. His other concern was about how this match would impact their relationship going forward. There was the potential to lose two championships and his best friend at Lights Out. It was either going to be one of the best or one of the worst nights of Chris’s life.

Chris walked barefoot in his hotel room and sat down in the armchair which he had moved in front of the television which was mounted on the wall. He pulled the side table closer to him and reached into his lounge trousers pocket and pulled out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter. He didn’t usually smoke, but the pressure and difficult situation he found himself in made him look for a vice. He’d always heard that people smoked cigarettes to rid themselves of stress. Whether it was true or it was just a placebo effect, a long drag and inhalation of smoke seemed to calm him down.

The cigarette was accompanied by a glass of rum. This was Alyster’s preferred drink of choice and served as a painful reminder of what was to come the following night, but it also stopped Chris from missing Alyster as much as he did. He smiled gently to himself as he imagined that Alyster was there with him and the two of them were cracking jokes at the expense of their fellow roster members as they would so often do.

Chris was fully aware that he probably should not have been indulging himself like this the night prior to such an important occasion. But he needed to create a safe and comfortable space for himself as sleep was undoubtedly out of the question.

There was something that Chris needed to do. As he did before most of his big singles matches, he fired up the WC Network on the hotel smart TV and scrolled back to the end of 2020. It did not feel like three years since he had joined the FWA after his stint on Ground Zero. So much had happened and so much had changed. After some searching, he found the feature that he was after.

As was his custom, Chris selected the ‘Crossfire Christmas Reunion/New Year’s Adrenaline Rush’ double header. He slowly sipped away at the rum as the first show on Christmas Day 2020 and watched proudly as he saw his first championship victory in the FWA for what was probably the thousandth time. Danny Toner versus Marcus McClain vs Chris Peacock. It was the night where people first began to realise that the silly disco man was not here to fuck around and that he meant business. Three years, two Steel Roulette victories, two X Championships, one tag titles reign and the FWA World Championship - he did mean fucking business.

The viewing of the night before Lights Out of these shows was different, though. Instead of switching it off after he had won the Gauntlet Championship, Chris continued watching. There was a match on the New Year’s Adrenaline Rush show that he needed to see too;

Krash vs Alyster Black.

Chris watched as Alyster battled his then-partner for the North American Championship (coincidentally the championship both him and Alyster also had their eyes on to complete their Grand Slams). Alyster lost.

The WC Network’s autoplay feature continued rolling through the shows which followed New Year’s Adrenaline Rush. He watched himself team with the Toner Brothers to defend his Gauntlet Championship on the 20 January 2021 edition of Fight Night. There was another match on that show which piqued his interest;

Krash vs Cyrus Truth vs Eli Black vs Alyster Black.

Krash defended the North American Championship again, this time in a four way match against Alyster and two other jabronis as Chris saw them. Alyster lost.

A theme was emerging and instead of absent-mindedly allowing the shows to run their course, Chris actively skipped forward once more. This time, to Desert Storm 2021. Chris became the number one contender to the X Championship, but once again it was Alyster’s match that he was most concerned with.

Krash vs Alyster Black - I Quit Match.

Alyster lost.

Immediately after an exhausted and semi-conscious Alyster Black from 2021 uttered the words “I Quit”, the television set was turned off. The room was plunged into darkness. Chris’s hands trembled as he began to think about what to make of the matches he had just watched. Three times in a row Alyster lost matches involving Krash. Did it impact the ongoing relationship between the Gang Stars? No. They still went on to become the tag team champions later that year and remained close until Krash’s apparent demise. There does not even appear to be much bad blood between them since his reemergence, either.

So why was Chris so worried about what the outcome to his match with Alyster meant for the future of FTN? Surely, greater weight on the fate of their team would rest on the opening match for their tag titles? Chris had just seen what happens to Alyster when he loses a match to someone he holds dear. He moves on.

No, what Chris was worried about was what would happen if he was in that situation. Does the most stubborn, petty and selfish person in the FWA take a loss like that on the chin? Even if it is the person he loves most in the world dealing it to him? Alyster lost to Krash twice. He’s already lost to Chris once at the Anniversary Show. If Alyster can move on and not let it get in the way of his friendships, Chris should be able to as well. The problem was that he didn’t trust himself to be the bigger man.

Chris Peacock was utterly devoted to Alyster Black. Alyster Black was Chris Peacock’s addiction. Every Peacock had one. For Chris, it wasn’t drugs, sex or alcohol or being the best. It was the special bond he shared with a man who he had wholeheartedly opened himself up to and loved unconditionally. Someone who he had no agenda or angle against, no matter how hard some tried to paint that picture.

It broke Chris’s heart when he realised that he would have to push both himself and Alyster further than either had ever been if he wanted to keep his title. He needed to do it so he could avoid any scenario where he would drive a stake into the heart of his partnership with Alyster. The more he thought about the match, though, the more he realised that he had been looking at it the wrong way.

If he had learned anything from watching these matches it was perhaps that when Alyster Black was presented with the same dilemma - that of standing across the ring from his best friend - that Alyster very likely had similar doubts. Alyster could not get the job done against Krash and Chris had already defeated him once more because he was prepared to take the dive from that pod and Alyster wasn’t. Alyster did not go far enough.

So perhaps, the winner at Lights Out would be the person willing to go further than the other. The same way that only one of them was willing to go all the way with Christal’s mother.

The evidence shows that person is not Alyster Black.

It is Chris Peacock.

“All the fucking way.”

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“Cigarettes and alcohol, they’re gonna get the best of us both.
But no matter what you do, I’ll still love you.”


 
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Goodbye!
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A note to the past, a thought for the future
A letter by Sawyer Xaiver


Hey, FWA. This is your favorite punching bag., Sawyer Xavier. Remember when I was promised a pay raise back at last year’s Anniversary Show? When I thought I could put myself a future together and get out of my cruddy van? Remember when my Anniversary Show payday came in and it turned out that I was getting the same money that that PONI BOY guy got for Fallout?

I haven’t forgotten. I hope you haven’t. When Oliver Kemp came to me, he wanted a fresh start. Didn’t realize that a fresh start came at the same shitty conditions I’ve suffered in for years. The van gave me freedom, but I had nothing that freedom earned. I had no friends, I was living paycheck to paycheck. I was bleeding money traveling around the world for you, living off of cheap ass convenience food just to have the opportunity to showcase my love for this company.

It didn’t matter if I had won or last, I still went out there to put on a show everyone could enjoy, knowing that i’d go to the back in silence. Nobody cared for me, nobody wanted to associate with me. Not even you guys, so why do I try?

Where else do I have to go? You guys are the biggest company in the world. If it’s not y’all, it’s the indies where I’d end up failing anyways. If this is the karma for me burning all my bridges before I even left high school, fine by me. At the end of the day, without me, you guys don’t change. Nobody rolls their eyes at the door when I leave, my name is never breathed again. That’s how life goes, huh?

There are men that I think about that tried to break past these walls to get their moment, that failed for one reason or another. From then, they are never mentioned again. They are forgotten about, they are never spoken about again. If the FWA didn’t want them, then what’s the point of having them. We are just the rejects anyways. I’ll forever be known as the reject that kept coming back to the business he loved, only to be struck down by hate. That’s what you want, right?

You want to see a man who no longer cares for the business? I’ll show you that man. That man will be there at Lights Out. That man will compete in whatever stupid match you give him, between all the other rejects who aren’t your Peacock’s or your Ramon’s or your Black’s. I don’t need anyone’s validation to know I deserve more, I deserve to live like a human. Reject me all you want, let’s see where that leaves you.

Signed,
That Worthless Son Of A Bitch

—--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

CASE STUDY:

The Relenting Boredom Of Failure
Sawyer sat in an isolated locker room backstage, about 20 minutes after Fallout started. His throat is burning, like lava seeping out of a volcano. His eyes are stained red as he tosses a steel chair at a locker, denting it in.

XAVIER: Tell me WHY Kemp!

KEMP: Why what?

XAVIER: Every single DAMN SHOW I try my best, but I FUCKING FAIL right at the end! When I finally get my way to the back, I get nothing. No pats on the back for effort, no advice. It’s been like this since twenty fucking twenty-one. Nobody has had my back but myself. Why do I do this anyways if there’s nobody on my side but myself? Can you tell me why I’m torturing myself mentally?

Kemp paused, not having an answer at all. A bit of him wanted to give Sawyer some words, words that would be met with anger and backlash. The other bit of him wanted to stay quiet, letting Sawyer get that frustration out. Sawyer, who had been pacing around the area, would fall to a seat on a dilapidated bench. His body shook in anger. He felt like he could kill, like he could hurt someone the way he feels inside

XAVIER: I’m sick of it. I’m TIRED of just being a nobody. I’m making about as much as these jobbers they haul around to be fed to the bigger guys. Is that how much they think of me? A jobber, a useless, expendable chess piece? To cut it even worse, they got a new toy in Blake Taylor. Another dog to CHEW ME ALIVE. What am I supposed to do now? I can’t get paid anymore, I struggle to live properly anyways. Nobody buys merch of me, nobody calls me their favorite. I don’t have other ventures to make money. I don’t have the TIME to even try it. Besides you, I got nothing. No family, no friends, nobody but you and me. And even then, after a few more losses, you’ll ditch me too, won’t you?

KEMP: No, no. Sawyer, we all have our rough patches. You see, I-

Sawyer cut him off by throwing another chair at a locker.

XAVIER: Rough patches. Oh ho ho, tell me about rough patches! Are you worried about whether or not you can eat the days leading up until the next show, week after week?

KEMP: Listen to me Sawyer. I’ve been in your position, not exactly the scenario, but I’ve gone through times where I’ve been underappreciated. I’ve seen co-workers I started with rise up the ranks faster than I do. Every time I’ve seen it happen, it’s because I’ve been told I’m too good at what I do. They don’t want to lose me because I just do everything they do better at where I’m at. You aren’t the only man with struggles here, Sawyer. So, we can work together and help each other up, or you can continue this shitshow tantrum and bring us both down. Up to you, I’m your talent manager anyways.

Sawyer was about to lash again. His body shook, the chair he sat in cluttered with movement, as he gripped his fists tightly. He wasn’t himself, he wasn’t in control, he felt like the world had ripped his soul from his body. He was … different. But, before he could yell, he felt a deep stroke of air enter his nose. He exhaled it out, trying to force his body to stop shaking. After a few minutes, the shaking came to a near stop. He had stopped trying to yank his hair out, his previously purple coated hair having fallen to a very light purple mixed into brown.

XAVIER: I’m … it’s … I want to be seen. I don’t want to have to live a life that I’m unhappy with. Who am I, Oliver? Who exactly is Sawyer Xavier in this wild world? I’m expendable, I’m not notable, I’ll starve, then die. Do you think I’m happy when I walk out of the ring, knowing nothing will change. This is all my life has left. Breaking my body week after week just to live on a paycheck. And I fucking loathe it.

KEMP: I understand, can you at least listen to what Russnow has to say? I was told it’d involve you.

Xavier was about to reply, but choked on his words, shaking him head before relenting. Kemp smiled at his control, before turning on the TV of the dented locker, ready to reveal the big moment.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hey FWA, this is Sawyer Xavier. I’m not sure if you read the last message. Hell, I wanted to rip it up every new sentence. I heard about your Gunfight. As appreciative of the opportunity, I still feel like you just put me in this battle royal because you had nobody else to throw in. I mean, nearly every pay-per-view, I’m put in a cool-down battle royal. I mean, more money for me, but I want to be valued more.

I may not be the most vocal, or the most experienced wrestler on the roster. Hell, I come out to nothing every week. But you wanna know what I do every week? I go out there and I entertain. I risk my body every week to try and entertain the crowd. I’m pulling shit out that my body is tearing itself apart for, just because I love this business. But every week, I stop. Fallout was the breaking point.

Twelve minutes of me getting the shit beat out of. Before I could EVEN get myself ready, I was attacked and the bell was rung. You guys saw that and let it happen. You let me get embarrassed on international TV by a referee who doesn’t know how to call shit. Nobody thought to give me a chance to redeem myself or a restart. Nope, I was choked out live on air. I rolled out of the ring, and nobody gave me a standing ovation. I was not applauded for being able to hold myself up.

I paid my fee to the people who owned the stadium. Had to replace a few lockers, that fee left me without food for two days before I got my paycheck. Because, as soon as I left that arena, I was on a plane to the congo. I don’t have the luxury of going home to a loving partner who appreciates me for me. I don’t have pets who are finally happy that their owner is back. I don’t have fans who have been waiting patiently for my next stream. I have nothing, and my only partner is wrestling.

So, I’ll be at Light’s Out. I’ll compete in that Gunfight Battle Royal. Could be my last chance for glory, before the wind takes me away. I might end up back in jail, I could sit in an alleyway in Atlanta, injecting unknown needles into my veins desperately trying to numb the pain. I don’t know what the future is, because all I know is this business. All I need is this business, because that’s the only home I’ll ever have.

See you at Light’s Out, where the name may come true for the one who gave the most to you.

Signed,
Sawyer Xavier
 

Jazz Wolf

Friendship Wolf
Joined
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Age
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The Pillow Fort
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shannonmoore
They called her The Weasel.

She wasn’t always The Weasel, and The Weasel wasn’t always her.

But that was what she had become, nonetheless. For better or for worse.

She did not ride into town on a pale horse, for it was unknown whether she owned a steed for transport. She did not arrive via locomotion, the off-green steam engine and whistle neither harkening, nor warning, the town of her arrival.

She simply appeared one day. A lone figure on the horizon, backlit by the sunrise. A small black dot, steadily growing larger as the day passed, as the glazed orange sun bore down on the desert. Her stride did not break, did not slow down, did not falter, as she approached the town, her pace casual but determined, purposeful yet aloof.

It’s unknown exactly who spotted The Weasel first. In many ways, multiple people did. But it wasn’t until they drew closer that someone was able to identify the innately familiar attire of The Weasel, and the town of Dingo’s Shallow collectively hitched a breath.

Dingo’s Shallow was not a particularly remarkable town. Tucked away in a corner of the midwest, with little access to natural resources to make a living, it served more as a stopover port between bigger, more meaningful areas. There were no landmarks to gawk at, no novelties to explore. Visitors were rare, and tended to be the kind who preferred to lie low, hiding out for a week, a month, however long it took for their actions to be forgotten, or until they could no longer bear being in a dead-end town. Generally, there were three kinds of people who visited Dingo’s Shallow - The dead, the soon-to-be dead, and the ones responsible for the previous two.

In saying that, the town made a passable enough location for the various outlaws and scoundrels of the land to put their head down and wait for the heat to blow over. Law enforcement was borderline nonexistent - Sure, there was a Sheriff, but they wisely went along with the suggestion of Dingo’s Shallow being an outlaw town, knowing that the only real commerce came from the dirty hands of the morally unsound. To wit, the only jail cell was kept as more of an extra room, the keys having been thrown away long ago. If you had a disagreement with another member of the town, be it outlaw or civilian, you solved it the old fashioned way - A duel, with an agreed-upon weapon of choice, often to the death. It was a wordless agreement, something everyone knew and went along with, because that was the life they had chosen.

And as The Weasel drew closer, the rhythmic march of her boots sending small dust clouds in their wake, most of the townsfolk quietly felt that they had chosen poorly.

Most.

Not all.

By the time The Weasel made it into Dingo’s Shallow, stepping over the invisible, nonexistent line that separated miles of a deserted wasteland from the town, news of her arrival had spread. The Weasel cast a foreboding figure, as she stepped through the sand, black boots carelessly kicking rocks aside. The black hide of their namesake stretched over her head, only the pale, slim jawline exposed to the open air. A dusty, off-brown longcoat billowed behind her, above a black button-up undershirt, sturdy brown trousers, a bandolier of bullets and two belts, each holding different kinds of weaponry. She marched onto the wooden floorboards of the saloon, and stepped inside.

The saloon was quiet. It had been quiet since word had spread of The Weasel’s arrival. A dozen townfolk nursed half-drunk glasses. A poker game lay frozen, cards held against chests, neither player wishing to make a move while The Weasel was here. The bartender focused his attention on polishing a glass that did not need polishing, avoiding eye contact, as The Weasel stepped up to the bar, standing and waiting for his acknowledgement.

With a tense, painful swallow, the bartender raised his head, and met the cold, dead eyes of The Weasel.

The Weasel reached a hand inside of her longcoat. The bartender felt his breath catch inside his throat.

Before she pulled out a paper, and slid it onto the bar.

The bartender’s eyes flickered across the paper, relieved to drop eye contact with The Weasel. A shaking hand gripped the paper, bringing it closer.

WANTED

THE OUTLAW BLACK

DEAD


The bartender exhaled, and pushed the paper back.

“He’s not here.” He said, in a shaking voice, as he raised his gaze. “He-”

The Weasel’s cold, lifeless eyes bored into him.

The bartender felt a bead sweat run down the back of his neck. “He’s not here, anymore.” He clarified with a tremble. “His gang hid out here a few weeks ago, but he’s not here. He moved on.”

The Weasel stared for what felt like eternity, quietly calculating this, before taking the wanted poster, rolling it up, and placing it back in her longcoat. She turned to leave without another gesture, her footsteps echoing on the gangly wooden floorboards, idly casting her gaze across the silent patrons.

Before she slowly drew to a halt, her gaze catching the figure of a sole figure, near the rear of the saloon.

The only figure moving. The only figure making noise. The only figure who had either not noticed her presence, or plainly ignored it. It was difficult to decide which would have been more of an insult.

But truthfully, it wasn’t the figure casually, freely living their own life that drew The Weasel to a halt.

It was their distinctive emerald green hair.

The Weasel stared, wondering the significance of the bright green mohawk. Such an obnoxious fashion choice twinked something within her memory, as she pivoted, and strode purposefully towards the green-haired lout.

She wore black trousers, well worn, patched at the knees. A green button-up, beneath a sleeveless brown jacket, black boots. A sole holster belt hung at her waist, a dusty silver six-shooter held within. The lout was a known associate of The Outlaw Black - and that was being generous. Barely even a sidekick, the loudmouthed oaf was certainly on the lower end of the totem pole when it came to The Outlaw Black and his gang. She was beneath The Weasel in a multitude of ways - The Weasel didn’t even know her name, nor was she particularly inclined to learn it. She had remembered that she existed once she laid eyes on her, and The Weasel was sure once she left the saloon, she would equally rapidly forget she existed. After all, does Man remember all the ants he stepped on? Does He remember the fleeting crack of the chitin beneath his boot, as he marches onward to his destination? Of course not. The Weasel was being generous by acknowledging her existence when it served a purpose, and once it no longer served that purpose, she would move on without a second thought.

The patrons quietly parted as The Weasel stepped through the saloon, the green-haired henchwoman none the wiser, as she sipped from a glass of something that could trepidatiously be called alcohol, lining up another dart as she chatted with a patron who had long since stopped listening. “-uckin’ bozo’s all like ‘The second I get free I’mma snap your fingers off and shove ‘em down your gullet’ and, like, dude that’s not a lot of incentive for me to let you go, you’re not building a strong fuckin’ case for yourself. That’s the thing with these overgrown fuckheads, no-one cuts them down to size enough so they think if they shout loudly anyone’ll do fuckin’ whatever. Fuckin’ wild.” She threw a dart, which missed the board and jammed itself into the wooden wall beside it. “Fuck. Alright best two out of three.”

Her hands grasped for another set of darts, unsuccessfully, as The Weasel pushed the small basket of darts away. Feeling the lack of darts, the henchwoman uttered another curse, before turning, and becoming face-to-face with The Weasel.

A tense silence ensured.

The Weasel stared impassively.

The henchwoman blinked, visible confusion on her features. Her mouth slacked open, some sort of vulgarity-laden remark doubtlessly heading her way, before The Weasel thrust the wanted poster pointedly against her chest.

“What? Fuck is this?” The henchwoman remarked, grabbing the wanted poster and inspecting it, before rolling her eyes. “Go fuck yourself, he ain’t here.” She said, pushing the poster back.

The Weasel pushed it firmly back, staring pointedly into the henchwoman’s eyes. The message was clear - If he is not here, then bring him here.

This time, the henchwoman brushed the poster aside, jamming a finger against The Weasel’s chest. “Fuck off. I ain’t your lackey. You want Black, fuckin’ do something about it.”

The Weasel’s head rose barely, glancing somewhere up and to the left of the henchwoman, before they nodded once, a gesture so small it looked more like a twitch.

Then they struck.

-=-=-=-

The streets of Dingo’s Shallow looked calm, serene, to a point. The town settled back into a quiet ease, relaxing, as the day went by without an incident.

Until the doors of the saloon were kicked open, and a woman was roughly thrown into the sand, tumbling. She lay shaking in the sand, blood dripping down onto the sand from a wound on her head, bruises already forming, as she rolled onto her back with a gasp.

From the saloon, The Weasel sauntered out, with neither hurry nor urgency in her posture. No-one else exited the saloon - the patrons all averted their eyes and pretended not to notice, fearful that eye contact would result in them becoming caught in the very, very one-sided beatdown.

The Weasel placed a boot against the throat of the henchwoman, applying slight pressure, as the henchwoman’s eye bulged. The Weasel slowly knelt down, gripping the wanted poster in her hands, before shoving it into the henchwoman’s mouth.

She made eye contact, holding up three fingers. Three days. Bring him here.

Finally, the henchwoman looked away, sourly.

Satisfied that the message had been received, The Weasel stood, easing her boot off of the henchwoman’s throat. She dusted some sand off of her longcoat, before swiftly walking away. Not once did she look back. Not once did she utter a word.

She began to walk back into the desert, safe in knowing that in three days, she would return.

And The Outlaw Black would be waiting for her.

“Hey Ratface!”

A gunshot rang out.

The Weasel paused.

Unharmed.

She glanced behind her, more out of curiosity, as she watched the henchwoman slowly sit up, grimacing, spitting out the wanted poster before glaring at her with bitter eyes. “I ain’t your fuckin’ delivery girl! You wanna send a message, get some fuckin’ postage stamps!” A smoking revolver sat next to her, the bullet gone wildly off-target, as she raised herself to her knees.

The Weasel turned, and softly walked back towards the henchwoman. She casually reached a hand into her longcoat, pulling out a black single-shot derringer, and aiming it at the henchwoman. The henchwoman had the precious few seconds to register the threat, and scrambled for her own revolver once more, too slow as The Weasel placed the barrel against her forehead, and-

“Woah now!” A new voice stepped onto the scene, as a portly, pale-haired man rushed towards the two, waving his hands. The local sawbones, Dr. Smith. “Settle down, settle down!”

The Weasel did not cease aiming at the henchwoman, but equally, did not pull the trigger, casting a dispassionate glance at the intruder.

“Y’all know the rules of the town.” Dr. Smith began, glancing between The Weasel and the henchwoman. “If you have a disagreement, you settle it with a duel. A shared weapon of choice at an agreed-upon time. Is this the kind of disagreement that must end in such a way?” He glanced between the two gunslingers, hoping for a negative answer.

The henchwoman sat up. “Yeah? Fuck yeah it is, I ain’t letting this fuckin’ rat fuck around without finding out!” She spat onto the ground, sourly.

Dr. Smith looked at The Weasel, who simply shrugged, and he sighed in dismay. “Date and time?”

The Weasel held up three fingers.

“No, fuck that, I ain’t waiting three days to put you in the ground. Tomorrow, sunset, and you’ll be here or I’ll track you down and make you fuckin’ cry.” The henchwoman demanded, rising to her feet.

The Weasel once again shrugged impassively.

“And the agreed-upon weapon of choice?”

The Weasel threw her single-action pistol onto the sand, where it rested in front of the henchwoman’s feet.

Dr. Smith sighed. “That settles it. Single-action pistols at sunset, tomorrow.”

The Weasel had already turned, and started walking away, their footsteps shuffling through the sand. Dr. Smith glanced at the henchwoman, and sighed.

“Oh, Violet. What have you done?”

-=-=-=-

As Dr. Smith quietly stitched up her head wound in his clinic, Violet Dreyer studied the pistol thrown at her by The Weasel, the one she was to use in the upcoming duel. It was sleek, heavy, with a surprisingly small chamber - the kind that only carried one bullet, the kind you would have to manually reload after every shot. The kind only one kind of person willingly kept with them.

She immediately understood why The Weasel had chosen this specific gun.

She only needed one shot.

Christ.

“I have a few contacts.” Dr. Smith mumbled, as he stitched up the wound on her forehead. “Some favors I can call in. I can get you on the next train out of here, get you somewhere safe.”

“Fuck off, Doc.”
Violet replied, reeling. “You really have such little faith in me?”

Dr. Smith sighed. “Violet, it’s… Look. Objectively speaking… The Weasel is a feared gunslinger, who has a history of leaving bodies behind them without a scratch on their own. They’re the kind of gunslinger people will sing songs, write stories about. And you…” He hesitated, at least having the grace to shift his eyes away from Violet’s piercing gaze.

“And I, what?”Violet demanded, prodding at him.

“... You’re not.” Dr. Smith replied, shame-faced. “I’m sorry, but it’s just the facts. The Weasel has killed countless men - how many have you killed?”

Violet huffed. “What, does The Bestie not count?”

Dr. Smith hesitated. “You softened him up, but didn’t put him in the ground. And even then, that’s one, against… Dozens. Hundreds, maybe.”

“So fuckin’ what?”

“Look, Violet, there’s no shame in admitting you fell in over your head.”
Dr. Smith continued, gently, fatherly. “There’s no shame in admitting you bit off more than you can chew, and wisely backing out before… Before something irreversible happens.”

“Are you fuckin’ kidding me?”
Violet spat, her eyes bulging. “I ain’t running, and I certainly ain’t going to be a delivery girl for a fuckin’ loser who is too much of a coward to show their face. Leaves only one option as far as I can tell.”

Dr. Smith looked particularly pained, knowing this was a verbal battle he wasn’t going to win. “Why not? Why can’t you just… Deliver the message and be done with it?”

“Because it’s never ‘just done’ after the delivery. The last time someone saw me as Black’s delivery girl-”

“She’s not after you, she’s after your associate, you’re just-”

“Just the sidekick, right? Just the lackey, the henchwoman, the comic relief, right? Huh? Is that what you were going to say?”


Dr. Smith hesitated, the final strand of a stitch held between a pair of scissors. “Violet, please… I’m just looking out for you.”

“I don’t need you lookin’ out for me, Doc."
Violet hissed, immediately moving out of Dr. Smith's surgical reach. "I need you to finish patching me up. I got someone I need to see - someone who’ll actually get it.”

With a sigh, Dr. Smith snapped off the last strand of stitches, watching in disappointment as Violet moved to her feet, already moving towards the door. “... I don’t think he’s accepting visitors right now.”

“That ain’t stopping me.”
Violet barked behind her, as she stormed out, not waiting another second to hear another word out of Dr. Smith.

Dr. Smith quietly sighed, within the silence of his clinic. "I tried." He spoke, to no-one in particular. "She's stubborn as a mule. But lord help me, I tried."

He hoped whoever Violet would be visiting next would have more success talking her out of the situation.

Although he sadly doubted it.

-=-=-=-

The graveyard of Dingo’s Shallow was a little bit out of the way. A little bit of a walk from town, on purpose. Even the most hardened outlaw acknowledged that the dead needed some place to rest. Down a sandy hill, beneath a trio of skeletal trees, a small patch of land was given, just for that. A small clattering of graves, most of them without tombstones or markers, most of them left to reside, only one or two with any sign of regular visitors. And a small shack, rickety, wooden. Frail. Not designed for visitors.

Seemed fitting, for the sole occupant.

The gravekeeper was a withered soul. Sunken, tired eyes peered out into the air, lined with crows feet. He wore a ragged, patched pale tan shirt, and a pair of brown trousers, and not much else. A black moustache graced his lips, a head of silver black hair, uncombed, uncared for, swayed in the wind, as the gravekeeper took a swig of something from a metallic flask, wordlessly offering it to Violet. Wisely, she declined, as she sat down on the bench next to him.

“Hello, Violet.” Krash Montrose greeted, his voice flat and lifeless. He had yet to truly recover from the Jeremy Best incident, the trauma still weighing on him heavily. Progress was slow. These sort of things take time.

Violet knew that.

“Sup, Moustache Fuck.” She greeted, leaning back on the bench casually. Krash Montrose was an affiliate, an associate but not quite, of the gang Alyster currently ran with. An ally of Alyster himself, yes, but a touch distant from the gang at hand. He might've been a big time player at some point, but now, he seemed at ease whittling the days away, turning his back on a world he could no longer connect to.

Of course, that being said, the world didn't quite allow him to move on that easily.

His gaze followed the leaves of the trees in the wind. “Mm. A little birdie told me you got yourself into some… Trouble.” He quietly noted without a glance.

Violet rolled her eyes. “Are you going to tell me to run away from the mess I’ve gotten myself into?”

Krash shrugged listlessly. “No. You never really listened to me that much, I don’t think you’d start now.” He paused, blinking twice. "Would you like me to help you out, figure out a way to pull one over The Weasel?"

Violet shook her head. "No. I'm tired of relying on other people to save my ass. You, of all people, get that, right?"

"Ah. I see."
Krash noted.

The two fell into a silence once again, until Violet prodded Krash's abdomen. “... Well?” She poked.

Krash turned, gazing at her with heavy, hollow eyes. “Well what?”

“Don’t you want to know why?”

"Why you picked a fight with The Weasel?"

"Yeah. Aren't you curious?"

"I assumed it was your natural reflex." Krash shrugged, before sighing. "Alright. I’ll bite. Why?”

“You weren’t…"
Violet paused, tilting her head back. "Here, when it happened, but this time last year, Alyster got into some trouble.”

“That sounds like Alyster, alright.”


-=-=-=-=-

Thrown into the dirt, letting out a strangled cry, Violet Dreyer muffled obscenities, the gag in her mouth preventing her from speaking clearly. Although the intentions where obvious, nevertheless. She shuffled to her knees, glaring up at her capture, her arms roughly tied behind her back as she glared at her captors. She was soaking wet, the result of being dragged through the river, just barely avoiding drowning, her green hair slung to the side.

Four gunslingers stood before her, all dressed similarly in militant green. One of them stood back, impassively watching, detached from the group. Another knelt before her, gripping a thick lead pipe in his hand. Two more gunslingers stood to her side.

“Violet… Dreyer, is it?” The kneeling man spoke, the slightest hint of a new york accent in his breath. “I think I’ve heard your name… Or read it above the urinal while I was taking a piss. Funny, I was expecting you to have more fight in you.”

Violet glared, grunting through the gag. The kneeling man glanced at one of the others, and nodded. One of the people by her side - a blonde woman with a hint of grey in her eyes - knelt, and yanked the gag out. Violet immediately spat in the face of the man with the lead pipe.

The other person at her side, a heavily tattooed crook, slugged her in the face in response.

The kneeling man let the spit slowly dribble down the side of his face, and tittered disapprovingly. “Now, if you knew exactly who the fuck you were dealing with, Violet, you might be a bit more polite. Or, at least, begging for us to go easy on you. No, you’re one of those infamously stubborn, hardheaded types, aren’t you? The kind who absolutely must boast, must get their name out there, and above all else just can’t shut the fuck up? Oh, I know exactly the kind of person you are, Violet. I see why Alyster lets you hang around in his merry band of fuckwits.”

Violet froze, her eyes going wide at the mention of her associate. The kneeling man grinned. “Oh yeah. See, I have a message for your… Buddy, Alyster. And I think you’re the perfect person to deliver it.”

“Fuckin’ tell him yourself!”
Violet barked, trying in vain to break her restraints.

The kneeling man shook his head. “No. See, I tried delivering it before, but Alyster has a habit of not reading his mail, per se. So, I figure, a bit more of a… Physical message, should hit the mark. Gag on.”

The woman to Violet’s left stuffed the gag back into her mouth, as Violet protested. The man to Violet’s right held her down, grinning, as the leader, the spokesperson, grabbed her left leg, trailing the lead pipe over her calf, before resting it on the side of her knee. He paused, glancing at Violet, who shook her head with wide eyes, shouting muffledly.

“If, for some reason, he asks who did this to you, you can tell him…” The cold lead pipe rested against the side of her knee, and the kneeling man smirked. “The Last Quickdraw In The Sky said… ‘Walk away.’”

And with that, Danny Toner raised the lead pipe, unhearing of Violet’s protests, and slammed it against the side of her knee as hard as he could.


-=-=-=-=-


Violet idly tracing the pale texture of a scar next to her knee with a finger. “Yup. Ran afoul of some territorial dickhead. One thing led to another, I got dragged into it, and had my patella shattered by this fuckin' guy to convince Alyster to back away.”

Krash winched in injury sympathy, unconsciously placing a hand on his own knee. “I imagine that didn’t work.”

Violet shook her head. “No. Alyster went in to kick his ass anyway. Fast forward a few months, the slobbering nitwit was gone, his gang in tatters, and Alyster was king of the castle, fuck everyone else.”

“Sounds like a happy ending.”
Krash noted, waiting for the shoe to drop.

Violet sighed. “You’d think. But something still stings, and I’m not just talking about the scar on my leg. I never got revenge. I never got to make Toner dig his own grave. I never saw that fuckwit get what’s coming to him. The asshole put me in the hospital, and by the time I got out he was just a whisper in the wind. Maybe Alyster got revenge on my behalf, maybe he didn’t. Doesn’t matter, doesn’t mean shit to me, because I had nothing to do with it. I wanted to make the guy hurt worse than I did, I wanted to watch him beg for a mercy that wasn’t coming. And I… Never got the chance. Don’t think I ever will. And you know me, I’m a petty fuck. Someone walking away after doing me wrong, regardless of whether they suffered at the hands of someone else… It doesn’t sit right with me. I want revenge, I want retribution, I want to push someone's face into the dirt and make them eat rocks until they learn not to fuck with me. Letting someone else pull the trigger just... Feels empty."

Krash slowly nodded, as Violet stood on her feet, pacing back and forth. “Look, I don’t do stand-ins." She continued, kicking rocks aside. "I don’t do proxy shit. I don’t ‘do messages.’ If I don’t like you, I’ll kick your ass. I might not do it face-to-face, fine, whatever, but I ain’t burning your neighbours house down on the off chance your roof gets slightly burnt. You get it? Because nobody else seems to fuckin’ get it. It’s like those shitty dime novels you read - saving the damsel in distress is all well and good, but fuck me, maybe the damsel is tired of hiding behind her knight in black armor. Y’know? Maybe the fuckin’ damsel wants be in control of her own revenge from time to time. It’s like everyone only sees me as a quick easy way to make Alyster angry. Motherfucker, have you MET Alyster? The guy’s already a short fuse away from shooting up the post office, his blood pressure is through the roof, the last thing he needs is more reasons to kick in a door, guns blazing.”

"If it helps, Dr. Smith has mentioned his absurdly high blood pressure occasionally."
Krash noted, idly tracing a line on the bench.

Violet stopped her pacing, huffing, as she glared at the sun, the graves, anything to point blame at for her lot in life. “Do you have any idea what it’s like, living your life like you’re a side character in someone else’s story? It’s fuckin’ miserable. I’m fuckin’ tired of being the target when someone I know makes an enemy and they want to make them suffer. Fuckin’ skip the middleman, save us all some trouble, and go for the guy instead of me. Fuck. I’m fuckin’ tired of being the victim. Isn’t that fair? All this ‘Violet, you don’t know what you’re getting in to’, all this ‘Violet, you’re signed your own death sentence.’ Fucker, I know that. I… I just…" Violet hesitated, before sighing. "I’d rather die on my feet, knowing I tried to get revenge for myself, then live on my knees in a bittersweet misery, knowing someone else had to get revenge on my behalf.”

There was a brief pause. The wind whistled across the graves.

Finally, Krash spoke up.

“Fair enough.”

Violet blinked. “You get it?”

“I do. I wish you had chosen a less lethal hill to die on, but... I understand it.”
He sighed, getting up and wiping his hands on his trousers. "How's your quickdraw speed?"

Violet shrugged. "I mean. I'm fuckin' alive, for one."

Krash closed his eyes, mumbled something beneath his breath, then reopened them. He placed his flask on the head of one of the tombstones, stepping back. "I'm going to give you a signal. Then, draw your gun, and shoot the flask.”

“What's the signal?”

"You'll know."


Violet tensed herself, palm hovering over the grip of her pistol, eyes narrowed as she stared at the flask. Seconds ticked by. The metallic flask reflected the visage of The Weasel's arrogant smirk, and it took a second to Violet to realize it was a reflection of her own.

"Ding." Krash quietly said.

Violet whipped out the pistol, aimed, and fired.

The flask stood, unharmed.

Part of a tombstone several meters to it's left cracked slightly.

Krash sighed. ‘Well, you were slow to draw, and you missed the flask entirely. I’d say that doesn’t bode well.” He said distantly.

"That's fine. We've still got a day until the duel, you can teach me a few tricks. Train me a bit more."

"Not in what little time there is, Violet. The time it takes to train someone into a natural response, especially for a situation like this... It's more time than we have."


Violet tried not to let the trepidation show, as she huffed, holstering the pistol. “I don’t care. I know when it’s a one-on-one duel, she outclasses me. I know, and I don’t care.”

“Her reputation precedes her - you know she only needs one shot to kill you.”
Krash advised carefully, rummaging around in his pockets, before unfurling a tape measure.

"True." Violet shrugged in agreement. “But I don’t think my one shot will matter much.”

Krash stretched the tape measure before Violet, glancing at her with eyes that were ready for a bad ending. “... What are you thinking, Violet?”

“Mind your own fuckin' business, Montrose. What’re you doing, by the way?”


Krash fixed her with a sardonic stare, before turning to glance at the graveyard behind him. "Just preparing for the worst."

Violet followed his gaze, and felt part of her insides churn, as she looked over at the assortment of graves. "Christ. Don't be too optimistic."

Krash let the tape fall back into itself, straightening. "You sure about this?"

Violet closed her eyes. Bit her lip. And shook her head. "No." She quietly replied. "But I never got the chance for revenge before. I'd rather die than pass up the chance now."

Krash nodded, and sat himself back down on the bench. "I'll be there." He said, quietly. "If you'd like?"

Violet nodded grimly. "I'd appreciate that."

Krash turned, facing the tombstones once again. The conversation was over. Violet stepped away, starting to leave the cemetery, when she paused. "Why do you sit here so often?" She asked.

Krash's eyes flickered towards her, and he smiled, a grey, humorless smile. “Oh. Just… Keeping watch. Sometimes… When it’s really quiet… I think I hear him knocking. So I have to sit here. I have to make sure he stays… Gone.”

Violet’s eyes flickered to the tombstone in front of Krash, the inscription of ‘JEREMY BEST’ etched on it, and quietly shuddered. She turned to leave, to rest before the fateful day.

“Violet. Face her slightly tilted to the side. It provides a slimmer target and protects your heart slightly more than facing her head-on.”

Violet paused. Hesitated.

Nodded once.

Then left.

-=-=-=-

“The rules of the duel are as follows.” Dr. Smith began, his voice echoing within the middle of the town. Minutes before sunset, The Weasel had returned, as agreed, and stood before Violet. Her expression was passive, unreadable, save for the slight incline of a smirk on her features. Violet stared, teeth gritting in determination, as she tapped a hand against the hilt of her pistol in her holster.

“The combatants are to stand ten paces apart, and must withhold drawing their weapon and firing until sunset.” Dr. Smith continued, glancing between The Weasel and Violet Dreyer. “Once the sun has set, combatants may draw and fire their weapon at no less than ten paces away. You may not employ any other weapon to attack your opponent with, aside from the agreed-upon chosen weapon. That means no throwing knives, no backup guns, no throwing sand in their eyes. If both combatants are prepared…” He paused, as if hoping one would make a last second objection, a refusal, an attempt to concede, before sighing as neither budged. “Then let’s get on with it.”

Dr. Smith stepped backwards, allowing Violet & The Weasel to occupy the main street of the town. “Fools…” He whispered beneath his breath, as he retreated to the porch of his clinic.

Beside him, Krash Montrose simply shook his head. "It's the way it is, Doc."

Seconds ticked by, turning into minutes, as sunset drew closer. Through it all, Violet & The Weasel never broke eye contact.

“Hey Ratface.” Violet spoke up, in a voice low enough that only The Weasel would hear. “This is your own fuckin’ fault, y’hear?”

The Weasel didn’t move.

“Nah, fuck you. You want someone’s attention, get it through them, not through a third party like me. I’m fuckin’ done being the one who gets their ass kicked because someone has a grudge to settle with someone else. I’m done being the sacrifice to show the stakes. Motherfucker, I’m fuckin’ done being the victim.”

The Weasel actually seemed to laugh softly at this declaration.

“What, you think that’s funny? Think I’m joking around? Fuck you, I’ll tell you something funny. You still thinking about the one that got away, right? Your white fuckin’ whale? The Snowman?”

The smirk on The Weasel’s face faded, ever so slightly.

“Here’s the real laughing point.” Violet continued, leaning in. “The fucker went easy on you.”

The smirk vanished, replaced with a scowl. Her fingers twitched, as Violet cackled mockingly, her voice echoing through the town.

“Haaa! I’m serious, he went so easy on you, the fucker was practically sleepwalking, and you couldn’t get the job done. You fuckin’ loser!” Violet continued, verbally prodding at her opponent as sunset drew closer. “You spent years of your life chasing down one man, and he never so much as gave a shit about you! You were as important to him as an ant on the sidewalk, and I’ll tell you now, he STILL doesn’t give two shits about you!” She laughed openly, wiping away a nonexistent tear with a sigh. “Gotta ask, how’s it feel? Because you’re about to do the same damn thing again with Black, and personally I’m not sure if you’ve got the mental fortitude to waste another year of your life chasing someone who doesn’t love you back.”

The Weasel tilted a head, teeth biting lips in anger, as Violet chuckled.

“That’s something you’ve never fuckin’ realized, is it?” She said, smirking. “I can’t fuckin’ believe it’s me, of all people, who has to tell you this. You should’ve realized from Snowman: We’re all fuckin’ ants to someone.”

The clock hit six. Sunset hit, and Violet heard the crack of The Weasel’s pistol before she could even wrap her hand around the hilt of her own.

Her world exploded in pain, and she staggered backwards. It was as if she had been stuck by a train - a streak of agony bore it’s way through her body, wiping the breath from her lungs instantly. Violet’s vision flashed white, her limbs shook with weight, as she felt an indescribable wetness grow from her abdomen.

Good news: The Weasel missed her heart.

Bad news: The Weasel wasn’t aiming for her heart at all.

Violet had never felt pain like this before. Sure, she had experienced hurt, she had experienced injury, but this was worse than anything she had ever felt before. This felt like her insides boiling and exploding, and in a way, it was. It was a flameless fire that consumed her, as watched the sand beneath her turn from a bright yellow to a drab brown.

“Fuck…” Violet tried to shout, but felt no words come out. She was wounded, likely mortally so. She wasn’t a doctor, but even she knew a gunshot to the liver was an agonizing death sentence. She hissed, her teeth clenched as a dizzying bout of nausea passed through her. It hurt. It hurt so bad.

Weak at the knees, Violet raised her head.

The Weasel was already turned around, starting to walk away, not bothering to give her the dignity of watching her die. Because she knew, such a bullet in such a location spelled a painful end. That’s why she specifically aimed there.

That was Violet’s reward for refusing to roll over and follow orders.

Violet felt her vision begin to blur, and she bit her tongue, trying to remain standing, remain focused, remain attentive as she raised her own pistol with a wobbling, shaking hand.

This would be so much easier if she hadn’t been shot.

She pulled the trigger.

The gun fired.

The Weasel didn’t even break her stride. Violet missed by a long shot.

She sighed with a grimace.

“Doc...” Violet rasped, in a voice that sounded far, far too pained to be hers. She forced her eyes shut, trying to blink her view of the world back into place. “I can’t f-f-fire from less than ten p–paces, right?” She questioned, sucking in breaths of air, between the flashes of pain.

Dr. Smith nodded once, visibly uncomfortable with the scene. “That is correct. As per the ru-”

“And I have t-t-to use THIS weapon to kill Ratface?”
Violet demanded, brandishing the pistol in her hand.

Dr. Smith frowned. “That’s… Correct.” He replied, clearly confused as to why Violet had yet to reload.

“R-right.” She shivered, fighting back nausea, as she clutched the pistol in one hand, forcing herself to avoid the urge to fall to her knees and rest her eyes.

“I-” Violet lifted one shaking, trembling leg, and placed it in front of the other..

“Am-” She ignored the pounding in her head, as she forced another foot in front of the other.

“Not-” She ignored sticky copper-smelling fluid, staining her clothes.

“Your-” Dr. Smith watched on, mouth agape, as Violet brushed past him.

“Fucking-” Violet’s vision stabalized enough for the brief glimpse of The Weasel slowing down, starting to turn her head.

“Delivery-” She bolted, ignoring the agony the motion of her joints screamed at her.

“Girl!” Violet snarled, catching the sight of The Weasel turning, her mouth dropping open in shock at the sight of a charging Violet, just a few feet from her. She automatically raised an arm, her other arm scrambling to grab her pistol out of her holster, but by that point Violet was on her, swinging with her pistol as hard as she could.

The first pistol whip Violet swung soared over The Weasel’s arm, catching her on the jaw, and with it came the sound of multiple cracks - teeth and bone as one. A dribble of mulch splattered out The Weasel’s mouth, shattered teeth and part of a tongue, ripped off unintentionally as her jaw compacted. The Weasel stumbled with a strangled grunt, her free arm clutching at her mouth, blood seeping from between her fingers, as her other arm drew the her own pistol, aimed it at Violet, and pulled the trigger.

For a brief second, Violet felt her heart stop in as many minutes.

But silence echoed through the town.

The Weasel had failed to reload her pistol, in her assumption that Violet would bleed out in agony while she walked away.

Violet’s second pistol whip stuck at The Weasel’s wrist, and she felt rather than heard a tendon snap, as The Weasel’s wrist twitched. The Weasel’s pistol fell to the sand, and she tried in vain to block the next strike.

“I’m not certain this is by the rules…” Dr. Smith remarked, uneasily looking away from the scene.

“The rules say you have to kill with that gun, and that gun alone. Didn’t say you have to pull the trigger to do it.” Montrose replied.

“Well… This isn’t quite the right way...” Dr. Smith said back with a tremble in his voice. “The dueling agreement is supposed to prevent things from becoming… Messy.”

“If you’d like to explain to Violet whether the right way matters much, be my guest.”
Montrose shrugged, a hint of pride in his voice. “Besides. That’s Violet. A straight one-on-one, not her forte. But when it comes to the underhand, unorthodox play… If she can take the first shot, she’s got a fighting chance.” Yet, his face was twisted with concern. The pistol-whipping method or not, that shot to the liver was still a killer. If Violet couldn’t seal the deal on The Weasel before long, then it wouldn’t matter much.

The Weasel was unsuccessful in her attempt to block, as Violet brought down the butt of the pistol on the bridge of her nose, sending shards of bone scattering internally and a river of blood pouring from it. The Weasel groaned, a mouth unable to make words, as she fell onto her backside, clutching her face. Immediately, Violet dropped to her knees over The Weasel, one knee pressing against The Weasel’s throat.

The Weasel raised their blood soaked hands, trying to fight off the oncoming strike, but she was off balance, struggling to contextualize the pain running through her now non-existent nose, the tilted and dislocated jaw, the fight of this woman, this lackey, this side character.

Violet Dreyer was supposed to be the comic relief, the kind to be killed off halfway through the story, so the hero could realize the stakes.

And yet, as Violet raised the pistol again, The Weasel could only wonder what kind of story this was supposed to be.

Violet thrust down the butt of the pistol with as much strength as she could muster, right between the cold, black eyes of The Weasel. The skinned mask of her namesake offered little armor against the strike, as she shuddered with the blow, hands torn between trying to block the blow, shove Violet off of her windpipe, or flail aimlessly. Violet wound back her arm once more, and struck again, in the same place. She felt something split beneath the mask, a muffled rupture, felt the pistol sink in a little bit deeper. She struck again, and the mask began to cave under her strikes, as The Weasel uttered a horrible, stomach-churning gurgle.

The pistol came back wet, the tang of plasma leaving a thin trail from the mask to it. The fluid gore of something vital began to leak from beneath the mask, splattering onto the sand with each forthcoming strike of the pistol. Violet’s arms felt heavy with exhaustion. Her eyes felt heavier with something worse. She hardly knew what she was hitting anymore. She didn’t want to imagine what the scene looked like behind the mask of The Weasel - all she knew was that at some point, the sound of her strikes changed from the strong thwack of bone, into the squishy thud of wet meat.

And yet, The Weasel continued to try to push her off, stave off the attack, never once uttering a word, as the mask continued to cave in and the pistol came back, increasingly wetter.

The strikes came weaker, and weaker. The attempts to block began to falter. There was the sound of pained screaming, but from who, no-one was sure.

The Weasel’s hands twitched, trembling.

Violet huffed, hunched over, her vision spotty, darting in and out of consciousness. She herself was a mess, drenched in viscera that was only half of her own. The agony in her torso flared, as she felt her arms finally go limp, the pistol clattering onto the wet sand.

She groaned, the adrenaline fading, replaced with the dull awareness of her injury. She slid onto the sand, her breathing haggard, lying next to The Weasel, her skin a deathly pale.

She rested her head on the sand, glaring at one of the eyes of The Weasel, which at some point had disconnected from her skull.

“... Fuck you…” Violet softly muttered, giving in to her wound.

One of The Weasel’s trembling hands twitched, and slowly flipped her the bird.

They exhaled a rattling groan, heard only by their combatant.

Exhaled a rattling gasp.

And grew still.

-=-=-=-

To this day, no-one can agree on which gunslinger fell on that fateful day, and which - if any - walked away, albeit with strong medical care.

Some say Violet Dreyer succumbed to her wound, dying in agony to the first and only shot fired by The Weasel, fitting in her role to ultimately be a message sent to a man who didn’t care.

Others claim that The Weasel died that day, her undignified end met by someone whose name she barely knew, much less cared for, during her quest to gain the attention of a bigger fish.

Perhaps both met their end that day - one physically, one metaphorically.

Perhaps The Weasel shed her mask, and went on to face The Outlaw Black with her own visage, leaving behind a body of his associate to be buried in a shallow grave.

Perhaps a part of Violet that she didn’t know she had was erased that day, as she moved on with renewed confidence, leaving a broken and shattered legend to be picked at by the vultures.

Or, perhaps, both expired in the sand, each cursing at the other with their last breath.

Ultimately, it is up to the listener to decide, the storyteller to tell, which ending they feel is more suitable.

Just keep in mind, dear reader.

We’re all ants, to someone.

But some ants can bite back.​
 
Last edited:

BattleTank

What A Maneuver!
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We set the scene inside of Chris Crowe’s living room lab. We hear a faint playing of “Come As You Are” by Nirvana in the background. A man behind a camera begins to walk towards the vast library stand of VHS tapes. He drags his finger down to the bottom row where he finds a VHS tape labeled:

*CHRIS CROWE DOCUMENTARY- FINAL CUT*

The man behind the camera takes the dust-covered VHS out of the stand and blows the dust off. He pops the VHS into the VCR before picking up the remote.

*PRESSES PLAY*

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|| 1 || EXHAUSTION || JULY 2022 ||

The VHS begins to play. After a static intro, we cut to a familiar scene, a scene in which was one of the last times “The Showman” Chris Crowe was seen in FWA before his year-long hiatus.

We are in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil- home of the 2022 version of Back in Business-FWA’s flagship Pay-Per-View. Off in the background, we can see the shadow of the Cristo Redentor reflecting off of the back mirror of Chris Crowe’s rented pickup truck- (yes, even in Brazil, and on all road trips for that matter, Crowe always makes sure to rent a pickup truck to make it feel more like home)

“The Showman” should be riding high right now. He just outlasted five other men in a brutal Ladder Match to retain his North American Championship, a title in which he is now taken to great heights, holding it for more than six-plus months. Instead, he sips his can of Budweiser, grasping at his knee. The title reign has done significant damage to “The Showman”, both physically and mentally. Bags have formed underneath Crowe’s eyes. He looks tired. He looks defeated. He looks the same way he looked when he gave it all away the first time around, some ten years ago. Crowe looks over at the camera.

“I’m done, bro.”

Crowe takes another sip of beer, shaking his head in disgust.

“What do you mean you’re done? Done with what?”


The man behind the camera asks.

“Done with all of this shit. I can’t do it anymore. Tonight was my last match.”

The video pauses at this exact moment, still frame on Crowe taking another sip of beer.

“So, you’re probably all wondering. Who is the man behind the camera? Well, I’m here to tell you. My name is Chris. No, not that Chris. Not the man this documentary is about. I’m Chris, the guy two trailers down from The Showman. I went to film school for about ten minutes, learned a thing or two about the night scene, and like everybody else, ended back in The Badlands. I did take with me enough skill to create, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the past two years. See, most of you watching this don’t really know- but I’ve been documenting Chris Crowe’s journey through the FWA since the minute he was signed back in July of 2021. We’ve kept this thing a secret. Until now…”

The video plays back up as we’re back to Crowe sitting in his pickup truck bed drinking beer.

“Stop filming, stop filming. Turn the camera off.”

Chris turns the camera off, but like most great documentaries, the camera is never really off. We just now cut to a different shot of Crowe, presumably from a micro camera on Chris’ shirt.

“So, you’re just gonna call it quits? What about Harry? Does he know?”

Crowe looks out into the parking lot where Crazy Harry is standing, dressed in all red from the neck down, North American title around his shoulder, trying his best to pick up some Brazilian prostitutes.

“No, and don’t say a fucking word to him about this. You hear me? This is between us. It will crush Harry and he doesn't need that shit. Once we get back stateside, I’m handing my title over to the FWA and going the fuck home.”

Crowe reaches into his pocket and pulls out his tin of Copenhagen mint tobacco dip. He throws a big wad into his mouth.

“Can I ask why you are quitting? Wouldn’t you say you’re on top of the world right now?”

“I’m not on top of shit. I can barely walk and I’m fucking tired. I made my mind up before I even got on the plane.”

“Just like that, you’re gonna throw it all away…again…”


Crowe gets mad at Chris behind the camera and stares directly into his soul.

“Don’t you fucking lecture me about anything. I’ve kept you afloat for a year now. Without me you’d be in the gutter. It’s where we are both gonna end up. I’m done…”

Crowe catches himself taking a long look up at the Cristo Redentor off in the distance. It’s a minor moment of clarity for “The Showman”, who is clearly not in a good place. He shakes his head in disgust as he tosses his empty beer can into the parking lot.

“My mind is made up. I’ve been running on fumes for months now. This title reign is a joke. I thought I needed it, but now that I have it, all this fucking belt is a damn prop! Another piece of luggage I gotta lug around every fucking where we go. I’ve been undefeated since I won the fucking belt in November. And after each win, my soul grows hollower. I don’t care about the North American title…”

“…I don’t care about the North American title…”


Those were the last words spoken on the documentary as it pauses in place.

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|| 2 || COMPUNCTION || SEPTEMBER 2022 ||

We set the scene deep inside The Badlands, at the biggest strip club/bar in town- “Wrong Side of the Bed”. Women dressed in next to nothing dance on stage to cheesy 2010 hits such as “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz and “No Hands” by Rosco Dash. This place is where every 30-something year old goes on weekends to live off of yesteryear. Cheap drinks, easy women, and a nostalgic vibe that makes them all feel like they’re College Freshmen all over again.

Off in the corner we see our favorite “Showman” sitting by himself. He is sprawled out on a chair, observing the clientele for the night. Crowe looks like he would rather be anywhere else, preferably inside a FWA ring, but instead, he is spending his Saturday night looking for love in all of the wrong places and holes. A loud, boisterous voice graces Crowe’s presence.

“Showman! What the fuck is up, brotha!”

Crowe begrudgingly shakes the man’s hand. The man is a flashy, flamboyant fella who has one man and one woman on each arm.

“What’s up Xavier. How’s the night treating ya?”


Crowe responds, not really looking for small talk.

“I run this place, Showman. Every night I get treats. And snacks. And whatever the fuck else I want, man! The real question is how is the night treating you…”

Before Crowe can get an answer, this man we now know is the owner of “Wrong Side of the Bed” named Xavier, cuts him off.

“Now before you give me your sob story, let me give you the discount. Any woman or man in here, half price tonight.”


Crowe laughs at the offer.

“Ain’t no bullshittin’ going on in here, Showman. Just pleasure. Kick back, take your shoes off. Let one or two of my sensual sensations do the trick.”

“Thanks, X. I’ll see what I like tonight.”


Xavier and his friends begin to walk away as Crowe shakes his head. He grew up with Xavier, and at one time considered him a friend. However, Xavier’s life took off when he landed in Las Vegas. The two grew distant after Crowe blew off a trip to Vegas with Xavier. Long story short, much like Chris the camera man, and Xavier, and everybody else that once made it big- they all end back up in The Badlands.

Crowe heads for the bathroom to splash some cold water on his face. He is still tired. The hiatus from FWA has not been kind to him. Missed payments, maxed out credit cards. “The Showman” is stuck paying for his pleasure, something he’d rather not do on a shoestring budget.

Crowe turns on the leaky faucet that spews out brown water. He thinks twice about splashing it on his face.

“Ah, fuck it. What’s the worst that can happen, right?”

Crowe splashes the tainted water onto his face as he hears a voice at the urinal.

“Showman, is that you?”

Crowe looks over and spots a familiar face.

“It IS you! Holy shit! What’s up, man?”


Crowe shakes his head and quickly begins wiping his face with a paper towel from the dispencer.

“Hey, Showman. What’s the matter? Don’t have time for me, mother fucker? Don’t think I forgot you never paid me for that last film session. You washed up piece of shit. That decision to leave the FWA really helped your life in a positive way, didn’t it? Hanging at the classiest joint in town, money flowing from your wallet, girls flocking to you…”

“Fuck off. What have you been following me around?”


Crowe fires back at the man.

“No, I won’t fuck off. And you’re really not a hard guy to find. Quite the routine-oriented man. After you strike out here because you’re broke, you’re gonna go out front and pick up one of those plus-size hooker on the corner because you can’t afford anything else.”

“I said fuck off. I’m in no mood tonight.”


Crowe quickly exits the bathroom and heads straight for the exit.

As Crowe finally reaches the cold mountain air outside, he exhales. A slow feeling of remorse begins to fill Crowe’s body. His internal thoughts are racing back and forth.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have left the FWA after all. What the fuck am I doing right now? He was right. I’m stuck in The Badlands, broke, with no aspirations. Maybe that North American Championship was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Crowe reaches into his pocket and pulls out his lucky gold coin. He rubs it around, placing his fingers on his mothers’ initials on the back of the sacred coin given to him after making through Hallow Soul Valley back in October of 2021.

“I’d rather be anywhere in the world than here. Anywhere at all. Back with the North American title around my waist. Cashing checks, winning matches. I miss it all. I fucking need it all!”

Crowe lets out another long sigh as he begins to walk down the street. He walks right past the plus-size hookers he thought about buying for the night, and instead decides to walk further down the main road in The Badlands.

“The Showman” is a million miles away from the North American Championship. He is a million miles away from the world, let alone the FWA. Crowe is in a bad place, a dangerous place.

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|| 3 || INSPIRATION || SEPTEMBER 2023 ||

We cut back inside The Badlands, and more specifically “The Showman” Chris Crowe’s trailer. It is a beautiful autumn day in September. Crowe and Harry have just read the FWA Lights Out card, and are gearing up for the big #1 Contender’s Match against Xperience Xtacee and Katsu for the North American Championship- the title that Crowe held for 200 plus days, never lost, and now is looking to get back.

The crisp autumn wind moves through Crowe’s front yard effortlessly as we pan in to Crowe and Crazy Harry sitting in their traditional spots-on green lawn chairs in the front yard.

“I can’t fucking believe I lost to Xperience Xtacee. How did that happen?”

Harry is more occupied by counting loose change.

“I can’t fucking believe we haven’t gotten a paycheck from FWA yet. We’ve been back for two damn months.”

Crowe looks over at Harry as he gulps down a Budweiser.

“They did pay us. But we owed a lot of money to a lot of people. I paid all of our bills. And now we're still broke. Welcome to America!"

The two are hard at work counting loose change from the cup holder in Crowe’s pickup truck. They stack the quarters, dimes and nickels in their own separate rows only to find they have a mere $5.

Off in the distance a moving truck pulls down Crowe’s dirt road. The trailer next door has been vacant for quite some time, but it appears that somebody is finally about to occupy it for the time being.

“I wonder who is moving in?”

A curious Harry asks.

“Hopefully a baddie. Or a drinking buddy for us. I don’t want no fucking square to move in…”

Harry shifts his focus back to counting his coins, shaking his head in disgust at the thought of having more than $5 in front of him.

“Well, I’m gonna go around town, Showman. See what I can muster up. I’ll head in front of Xavier’s club, maybe somebody dropped a wad of cash somewhere around there.”

Crowe chuckles at the notion from Harry…

“Ain’t nobody dropping wads of cash at the penny strip club, Harry. You might find another 15 cents lying around though…”

As Crowe is about to head inside to go nap, an older Asian woman walks up carrying a tray of cookies.

“Hello. Good afternoon. My name is Kathy, nice to meet you. I just moved in next door.”

The older woman puts out her hand and smiles at Crowe.

“Very nice to meet you, Kathy. I’m…”

Kathy cuts Crowe off.

“The Showman! I know who you are! I’ve watched you on television before. My grandson loves you!”

Crowe is taken aback as for the past three months he didn’t think anybody outside of Harry even recognized him anymore. Crowe, not one for the fanfare, smiles as he looks at the ground, wanting to get out of this conversation as quick as possible.

“Well, I’m off to go train. I’ll see you around, Kathy.”

Crowe gives another pleasant wave goodbye as he heads inside his trailer to drown his sorrows in a bottle of Jack Daniels…

TWO WEEKS LATER


The front of Crowe’s trailer graces our presence as we hear two people conversing on the side. We zoom in a little closer to see “The Showman” Chris Crowe sitting at his beat down picnic table with his new neighbor, Kathy.

“Showman, you know you have what it takes to get that North American title back, right?”

Crowe pulls out a flask from his jacket pocket but Kathy quickly pushes it away. She pours him another glass of tea.

“Kathy, I need to spruce this tea up a little bit. It tastes like cat piss…”

“Cat piss tea is good for you, Showman. Flushes out the toxins in your body, and I am very sure you have plenty of toxins to flush out.”


Crowe and Kathy have grown close over the past few weeks. Although Crowe is back in the FWA and winning matches, getting booked, and cashing checks, “The Showman” is grasping at straws at the moment to keep his life together from still falling apart, so any companionship fits him. While Harry goes off to scrounge up loose change around town, Crowe invites Kathy over for company. He sees her as a maternal figure, one rich in wisdom and intelligence. He needs these conversations with Kathy.

“Are you ready for your big match at Lights Out?”

“Ah, I don’t know, Kathy.”

“What do you mean you don’t know? This is your opportunity to climb back to the top!”


Crowe puts his head down and shakes it before gulping down some tea.

“I don’t know. I feel like I’ve fallen into a tailspin since I returned. I thought I was gonna enjoy being back out there in the ring, winning matches. I thought I was gonna get right, get healthy. It’s been the exact opposite. I’ve fallen so far behind…”

Kathy stops Crowe mid sentence…

“Nana korobi ya oki…”


Crowe looks puzzled…

“Fall down seven times, get up eight, Showman.”


Crowe ponders this very simplistic advice from Kathy, the Asian woman who he never knew he needed in his life.

“Fall down seven times, get up eight, huh? That’s some fuckin advice right there, Kathy…”

“Now go inside and start watching some film. I already ordered Lights Out. I want to sit here in The Badlands and watch you take down your opponents with ease!”


The teapot is empty, the crows are cawing, and the sun is beginning to set. Lights Out is around the corner, and Crowe is fighting for relevancy inside of a stacked FWA roster. He knows the talent is so rich right now that he could lose to every single member of the roster, and right now, he just feels like he is missing something.

“Nana korobi ya oki...I should get that tattooed on my arm…”

For now, Crowe has found the inspiration he needs for his big #1 Contender’s Match at Lights Out, and it all came from his old Asian neighbor named Kathy…

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|| 4 || ACTIVATION || OCTOBER 2023 ||

The drone camera begins flying around the sky. Up ahead we see the same abandoned carnival that Crowe has been to plenty of times in the past. A full blood-moon illuminates the sky as the drone camera circles over the abandoned carnival. It gets closer and closer until it crashes right into a Fun House.

We get a different camera angle of the Fun House. It is very dimly lit, with the only light in it flickering on and off. This Fun House is a big mirror room. Mirrors hang from the ceiling, encapsulate the walls, and set on the floor.

A silhouette of a man in a top hat begins to creep into the shot. The camera snaps above as we see “The Showman” Chris Crowe, decked out with his black AC/DC tank top, jean shorts and black Air Force Ones on- his preferred Pay-Per-View and big match attire. A black top hat dons his head. He has a sinister look on his face as he stares through the camera…

“Two years ago I was on top of the world…”

Lightning and thunder pound in the background as we can see the reflection of rain in one of the numerous mirrors.

“And then I lost it all…”

Another bolt of lightning hits the Fun House, enough to make it feel like day time.

“Yet, here I am, once again, back in the FWA. Back in a match that means more to me than anybody could ever understand. See, I know what’s rightfully mine is being held hostage by Bryan Baxer right now. The North American Championship. The title I never lost. The title that kept me relevant…the title that right now eludes me…”

A picture of The Coven covers one of the mirrors behind Crowe. Another loud jam of thunder turns everything pitch black until we are back and Crowe is holding a sledgehammer. He looks at the picture of The Coven- the team he and Tommy Bedlam beat on his first night back. He tosses the sledgehammer through the mirror, shattering it.

“I’ve paid my dues. I’ve done my penance. And now, there are only two obstacles in my way before I get my hands back on that North American Championship…”

The sole flickering light begins to blink on and off at a more rapid pace. A voice begins to whisper in the background…

“FLIP THE SWITCH!”

A picture of Xperience Xtacee pops up on another mirror…

“Xperience Xtacee, you might have pulled a fast one over me on Fallout, but trust me my friend, you have not experienced big match Showman quite yet…”

Crowe pounds away at the mirror, which refuses to break. He tosses his sledgehammer to the ground. Another image of Katsu pops up on the mirror next to Xperience Xtacee.

“FLIP THE SWITCH!”

Soon, every mirror in the fun house has its own story playing out. Stories of Crowe’s past life. All of his indiscretions- from getting arrested to vacating his North American Championship. From letting down Harry numerous times, threesomes with overweight hookers, drinking heavily. The story of Crowe’s documentary is finally finished and playing out right before his very eyes. Except this entire time, there was no other Chris filming him. There was no cameraman following him around asking him questions. It was his illusions. His mind playing tricks on him. It’s all right there. Right in front of Chris Crowe. His final product is officially complete, and he can no longer escape it.

“FLIP THE SWITCH!”

Whispers out again as Crowe lifts the sledgehammer up once more, and now none of the mirrors will break.

“FLIP THE SWITCH!”

The sole flickering light is now at a breakneck speed between flickering on and off. Crowe places the sledgehammer down and lets out an animalistic roar so loud you could hear it from a mile away.

The light begins to slowly stop flickering and soon all but two mirrors shatter into a million pieces.

Crowe is down on his knees after the loud scream. The light soon begins to flicker rapidly once more. Crowe’s conscious begins to play tricks on him as different voices whisper around him.

“WHAT IF YOU FAIL?”

“WHAT IF YOU LOSE?”

“WHAT IF YOU LET HARRY AND TOMMY DOWN AGAIN?”


“ALL YOU GOTTA DO IS FLIP THE SWITCH!”

Crowe, still on his knees, looks up at the two mirrors of Xperience Xtacee and Katsu…

“This is the biggest match of my life! Xtacee, Katsu, I don’t know much about either of you, but I’m gonna let you both in on a little secret. I don’t fucking lose big matches! It’s not in my blood! I was sent back to the FWA to climb the fucking mountains and cliffs that I fell off of the first time around. This time, I’m more savvy, I’m more alert, and I’m damn sure more ready than I’ve ever been in my life!”

“ALL YOU GOTTA DO IS FLIP THE SWITCH!”


Crowe stands up, staring at the two mirrors that begin to close in on him. Soon, they merge into one gigantic mirror, extremely thick in size. The massive mirror is closing in on Crowe, backing him into the corner.

Crowe no longer has access to the sledgehammer, but instead of panicking, a wave of calmness overtakes his body and soul. He isn’t scared of the massive mirror, with both Xtacee and Katsu’s faces on it. No, instead he embraces it. He laughs. He enjoys it. He loves the pressure. He loves the challenge. Two is better than one!

The mirror is about to squash Crowe into the corner of the fun house. He is anticipating the pressure of the thousand pound mirror of his shitstorm of a life to come crashing down on him, suffocating him. He lets out one last laugh before headbutting the mirror.

Crowe’s headbutt into the mirror is in harmony with one last massive thud of thunder, one last massive jolt of lighting. The mirror shatters into a million pieces. The headbutt takes Crowe down to one knee. He has lost his top hat. He has lost his t-shirt. He has stripped all of the poison and dark energy from his body.

The sole light once again begins flickering at a rapid pace. The camera pans into the droplets of blood forming on the shattered mirror. Crowe looks up, forehead busted open, grinning from ear to ear. He has his hand on the light switch.

“FLIP THE SWITCH!”

Suddenly, the opening guitar rift from “Come as you Are” by Nirvana begins to slowly play in the background. Crowe, smile still covering his bloody face, stares a hole through everybody in the world as he flips the switch. The fun house goes completely black as everything is at a standstill….

“LIGHTS OUT, MOTHERFUCKERS!”

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chapter 1. tragedy

It was a brisk and cold night in the midwest woodlands. The gang was gathered around a fire, patiently waiting for their prey to approach. They were a closely knitted group of bloodthirsty outlaws. A band of thieves and killers, but not senseless murderers. They prided themselves on their finesse, problem solving skills, and ability to act under pressure.

They laid in the grass and bark, well hidden by the trees on an outlook above the train tracks where their robbery would soon take place. They passed the time with hearty banter, exchanging crass jokes and snaking on small provisions that they had lined their pockets with.

In total there were six members of this gang, which at this point was the lowest their numbers had dwindled. At their height they were twelve strong. Little did they know that their time together was coming to an end.

Their gang was hierarchical in nature. Their leader had banded them together and was responsible for the majority of the job planning. He was a natural born leader, charismatic and charming in his own odd way. Like all of those that followed him, he was an outlaw, some would say the greatest outlaw that ever lived. Chris Peacock was his name.

His second in command had the gift of the gab. Able to talk himself out of most any dangerous situation. His buffoonish nature was merely an act to lul enemies (and allies) into a false sense of security. Though he wasn’t much of a fighter, he had keen senses and an ability to read people that was vital to the gang’s operations.

The remaining four members of the group were largely autonomous in that they followed the orders of those above them and acted with equal authority. A pair of cousins and long time friends of Chris named Ricardo and Sonny. A wild and devious woman who was the newest member of the gang named Violet. And the man they called Alyster Black.

Those four members were on equal footing, though one of them stood out amongst the group. That was Alyster, and the reason why he stood out amongst the group was that he as a gunslinger, brawler, and tactician was arguably as good as if not better than Chris Peacock. The greatest outlaw in the west had an equal, and he was fortunate enough that this equal was one of his followers.

Over the last few months Alyster’s skills had been recognised by the upper brass in the gang, and he quickly had become Chris’ right hand man. As Allan had advised the fearless leader; it was better to keep him close and indoctrinate him than to feel threatened and drive him away.

It helped that Alyster was likeable and loyal enough that he and Chris had fast become the best of friends.

Around the fire sat the four grunts of the gang. Alyster, Violet, Sonny and Rick. Whilst Sonny and Rick were busy stuffing their mouths with salted meats and exchanging boisterous (and mostly untrue) stories, Alyster was content to listen on while oiling his six shooter.

Violet Dreyer scoffed as Rick finished describing, in excessive detail, his “latest” exploit into town featuring three large breasted women and a donkey.

“That never happened.” She picked up a piece of dirt and threw it at Rick’s head, “Ain’t no woman alive got the stomach to take on a donkey like that.”

Rick threw his hands up, shielding himself from further clods of dirt. “She did, I swear it! Sonny was there too, he’ll tell ya.”

“It’s true, in fact I think you’re missing a few details. There was five women, two donkeys, and a golden retriever.”

“There ain’t a sheriff, nay, a community in these whole United States that would put up with such debauchery.”

“The civilised world hasn’t reached its claws into every nook and cranny of this fine country. There weren’t any law to be found in this town. People was free to express themselves.”

“And if a woman wants to earn some coin while indulging in her base beastly fantasies then who are we to deny her?”

“You’re both pigs, I’m surprised you weren’t part of the show.”

“Never said we wasn’t.”

That was the final straw for Violet who could no longer contain the urge to gag. She leaned over to her side and made a show out of trying to contain her bodily fluids. “You Diamond Dogs are a pair of sick fucks.”

“At least we spin a good yarn.” Rick laughed heartily before turning to Alyster, “What do you think of our story, big man?”

Alyster looked up from his gun and shrugged his shoulders, “Truth be told I tune out a lot of what you two have to say. Otherwise it’d be far more difficult to maintain my composure during a job.”

“Like it would hurt ya to lose your cool. With that mask on and you waving that six shooter around you’ll have the whole train pissing their pants. They might empty their pockets if you go a little crazy on ‘em too.”

“We’re professionals fellas, we ain’t a band of psychos. There ain’t no need to scream like one of those mentally deranged when a six shooter pointed at your face can do the job just fine.”

Alyster put away the cloth he was using to wipe his gun then began showing off for the gang, twirling the gun on his finger and throwing it high into the air, just to catch it and continue twirling it. He hopped up to his feet, still spinning the gun on his finger and quickly returned it neatly to its holster before taking a bow and leaving.

“Show off.” Violet called out after him, “Alright fellas, I’ve got a juicy one for ya. Lemme tell you about the time I took on the Hunter twins with nothing but a broken plank of wood, some kerosene and only one match.”

Alyster ventured to the edge of the overlook, finding Allen and Chris deep in conversation whilst looking out over the tracks. Alyster walked up behind the two of them and clasped each of them on the shoulder. Allen recoiled in fright and Chris immediately drew his pistol.

“How’re we lookin’ fellas.”

“Fuck Alyster, you shouldn’t sneak up on a fella like that. You’ve given Allen a heart attack and I almost put a bullet in your brain.”

“It’d have dodged it. You can barely hit the side of a barn with that thing anyway.”

“I can certainly hit the side of your mother when I want to.”

Both men shared a bright chuckle as Allen was busy steadying his nerves against the nearest tree.

“Jesus, are y’all ready for this job over there?” Allen barked at Alyster whilst doubled over, catching his breath.

“They’re gettin’ a little antsy, Violet’s tellin’ the Hunter Twins story again.”

“That story is gruesome. Those Diamond Dogs are in for some nightmares tonight.” Chris perked up, turning his nose up to the night air. It twitched perceptively and the faintest sense of a smile crept upon his lips. He quickly hopped down from the overlook, sliding down the hill to the train tracks and placed his bare hand on the track. He could feel a faint vibration, their target was close.

“It’s time, get everyone into position now.”

Alyster nodded his head and ran back into the trees. The gang was ready, quick to take their positions. The four of them waited amongst the trees as the sound of a great steam engine began to roar through the woodlands. Allen waited at the top of the overlook, urging Chris to come join him. Chris refused, standing atop the pile of explosives that the gang had planted on the tracks to ensure that the train came to a stop.

A bright light soon began to shine through the trees as the train turned a corner and sped down the straight toward the ambush site. The roaring of the engine began to quieten down, the screeching of the breaks were the new dominant sound that echoes through the trees.

A smile crept across Chris’ face as the train came to a stop just a few feet away from him. The conductor began screaming at him but was quickly silenced by the sound of gunshots as the gang boarded the train. Ricardo and Sonny took the engine while Chris and Allen made their way into the first cart while Alyster and Violet took the back.

Passengers screamed and were silenced by the back of fists as the gang worked their way along the train, quickly taking control.

Violet remained at the back of the train. She and Alyster had disarmed two guards who were way out of their depths. Alyster worked his way through the train, meeting Chris in the middle who was in the middle of giving a speech, standing atop one of the passengers benches so that all eyes were on him and shouting loudly.

“Folks, today is a tremendous and lucky day for you because today is the day that you enter the realm of legend. You find yourselves playing a role in yet another Chris Peacock caper. The Last Great Outlaw has selected your train and your possessions as the prize that he wants most. Now give yourselves a hand.” He really liked to make a show of these proceedings.

“Now if any of you have a problem with this then you will be intimately introduced to the fist of one of the many fine men and women who ride alongside this outlaw, and let me tell you that ain’t the polite type. They ain’t afraid to hit women, children or the elderly. Tell ‘em Allen.”

“We are armed and we are dangerous. We have killed before but we don’t want to have to. If one of you has to die for us to leave her safely then we will not hesitate to pump you full of lead.” Allen held a burlap sack open, he was soon joined by the Diamond Dogs who brandished sacks of their own. “Now, me and my fine compatriots here will be coming around to take collection. Please folks, please, give until it hurts or we will make sure it really hurts.”

While Allen and the boys were busy alleviating the passengers of their valuables Alyster and Chris exchanged a look. Alyster nodded his head and Chris hopped down from the bench. He began to make his way to the back of the train.

“Have you got any idea whose train you’re robbing mister?” One of the passengers chirped, giving Chris pause for a moment.

“It’s my train now friend.”

“I’m tellin’ ya, you’re not gonna get away with this. She’ll come for you.”

“She’d have to find me first. And even if she did, do you really think she can take me on? This isn’t the first one of her trains I’ve robbed, kid. Now do yourself a favour and shut the hell up.”

Chris then bashed the man in the face, punching him square in the nose. The man recoiled, reaching for his nose which was now bleeding. Chris then continued on his merry way, approaching Alyster who had his gun drawn and pointed right in his direction.

Chris recoiled as Alyster shot right in his direction. Time seemed to stand still as Chris inspected his body for a wound, he was sure that Alyster had aimed to take him out. His ears rang and his vision was blurred, as he slowly returned to reality he could hear the sound of women and men alike screaming and turned to see the dead body of the mouthy passenger that had almost slain him.

In his hand was a pistol, and in his head was a bullet. Alyster had saved Chris’ life.

Fury overtook the charismatic gang leader. He took the gun from the dead passenger as well as his own pistol and turned to the rest of the train. “What is wrong with you people?”

Chris fired, shooting a woman right in the head, “What part of this being a gift did you not understand?” He fired again, shooting a man who was shielding his child. “Why the hell should you care that we’re robbing this train, fuck this train.” Two more passengers were needlessly slain by Chris Peacock as his gang watched on in horror.

The passengers were too frightened to say or do anything, only watch on as their fellow passengers were murdered in cold blood by a crook who had lost his composure.

“Well? What do you all have to say for yourselves?” Chris towered over a child. He pulled his gun up to their forehead and cocked the hammer.

Alyster placed a hand on his shoulder and Chris wildly swung an arm around, bashing Alyster in the skull with the butt of his gun.

“Fuck.” Chris gritted his teeth before holstering his pistol. “Are you okay bud?”

Alyster was more than fine, he nodded his head and motioned for Chris to follow him. “Come on, Vi is working on the safe.”

Chris nodded his head and followed while Allen got to work calming down the cart and continued to part the passengers with their valuables.

“What the hell happened out there?” Violet spat as the two gunmen entered the back cart. She had taken cover behind a set of shelves. “It sounded like a real firefight broke out there.”

“I’m glad you came to help then.” Chris scoffed as he pushed past Violet and went straight for the safe. The two guards were tried up and left on the floor, bloodied and beaten by Alyster and Violet earlier. “Have you fellas given up the combination yet or am I going to have to make widows out of your wives?”

While Chris was busy fenangling the combination from the guards, Violet cozied up to Alyster. “The fuck happened out there?” She whispered before noting a bloody patch pooling up in Alyster’s mask, “What happened to you?”

“Maintain your composure, I’ll talk to you when the job’s done.” He reached out, squeezing her wrist to assure her that everything was fine.

“Ah, we’ve hit the jackpot now.” Chris remarked as the safe swung open. He collected a handful of state bonds and began to shuffle through them. “There’s got to be at least ten thousand dollars here, maybe more.”

Chris was delighted beyond belief, as was Violet. Alyster however felt dread creep through his soul.

The gang reconvened a few miles south of the sight of the train robbery and exchanged notes. Not a single member of the gang brought up Chris’ needless slayings, nor did Chris himself acknowledge the senseless act.

As they always did after a big score they all escaped in different directions and met at their usual rendezvous point across state lines. The take was equally shared amongst the gang, though Chris and Allen were sure to keep an extra share for themselves as they’d planned the heist.

It was then that Chris and Allen sent their four loyal soldiers south into the countryside to lay low and recoup.


chapter 2.

Alyster, Violet and the Diamond Dogs stayed in a cottage on the edge of civilization. Surrounded by nature and beautiful country, they were able to live on the land and forgo the stresses of city living.

The masked bandit was at peace at times like this. He had time to reflect on the jobs that the gang had worked, but mostly he had time to let his mind go blank and get in touch with his soul.

The incident on the train was alarming to the entire gang. They had prided themselves on their finesse and ability to maintain control in any situation. But Chris was their leader and a good one at that, none of them wanted to create tension in the gang. However, what troubled them most was that this was not the first instance of Chris inhabiting this sort of behaviour. Still, they all knew that they had a good thing going and wanted it to last for as long as possible.

They were the last of their kind. They all knew it. Civilisation was closing in around them. Their cabin in the countryside was only a day's ride away from the reaches of the law. As much as Chris Peacock was laundered as a hero amongst the people, he was as he labelled himself “The Last Outlaw”.

Books were published of Chris Peacock’s exploits. They were wildly embellished but the basic stories were mostly true. The people viewed him as the last bastion of the West. The true embodiment of freedom. When a man could go out into the world and stake his claim, where if he put in the work he could take care of himself and his kin. They saw Chris as the last barrier, putting a halt to the march of progress. Slowing down the machine that threatened to consume the West.

His biggest believes were those that followed him, which was to be expected. The phrase “honour amongst thieves” wasn’t without merit. They believed in something and were willing to fight for it.

It had been a month since the train robbery, tensions had finally lowered. The gang, minus Allen and Chris had ventured out into the woods to hunt. Bucks were plenty out in the country.

“The cabin could use some decor.” Sonny mumbled as he chewed on a lump of tobacco. Spitting onto the bark covered ground he raised the barrel of his rifle up and inspected the sights. “So we’re gonna bag the biggest buck we can find and mount its head on the wall.”

Violet rolled her eyes, “You are the kind of sick fuck who would take a trophy like that.”

“What have you got against taking trophies Vi? You’ve got no problem huntin’ with us.”

“I hunt to survive boys. I don’t go out looking for glory or to act like a barbarian and mount heads on poles.”

“I dunno ‘bout that Vi, that Hunter Twin story you tell paints a different picture.” Ricardo felt his stomach turning as he reminisced over the ghastly tale.

“We ain’t taking no trophies boys, we’re just getting dinner.” Alyster chirped up from the back of the pack. He hardly paid attention to the banter, his attention was more focused on the world around him. He followed the gang by the sounds of their footsteps and kept his eyes fixated above, taking in the sights of the beautiful orange leaves above, and the clear blue sky even higher.

“Again boys, there’s a difference between survival and pleasure. I ain’t surprised that you two can’t tell it apart. Y’all are just like Chris in that way.”

Both Sonny and Rick stopped dead in their tracks and looked back at Violet. She and Alyster stopped in their wake. The look on the Diamond Dogs face was that of bewilderment. Alyster meanwhile hadn’t quite heard what Violet had said and tried to move things along.

“Come on now, the riverbed ain’t too far. Let’s keep moving.”

The Diamond Dogs weren’t about to get into a fight with Violet Dreyer while Alyster Black was around, they exchanged a few looks then continued on their way. Violet slowed her pace, walking beside Alyster and urged him to fall behind too.

“Well, you could have cut that tension with a knife. Seems the lapdogs ain’t willing to talk over what happened during the train heist.”

Alyster cocked an eyebrow then realised what the commotion earlier was about. He sighed and looked over at his raven haired compatriot. “It’s a tense subject. Those boys are loyal to Chris, they don’t want to hear any talk of him losing his cool.”

“Then they’re loyal to a fault because outbursts like that ain’t why I joined up with this gang.”

“I know. Believe me, I don’t like it anymore than you do.”

“Aye, I know. It’s just frustrating watching a guy like you sit back and take orders from someone who’s losing their mind like that.”

“Hey! What are you two talking about?” Rick shouted from up ahead, he and Sonny had come to a stop and waited for Alyster and Violet to catch up to them.

“Whatever the hell we want. You got a problem with that?” Alyster spat back in a calm manner. Though his tone wasn’t harsh, his choice of words sent chills down Sonny and Rick’s spine.

“Right, right…look we know Chris has been…unpredictable as of late.” Sonny looked to Rick for reassurance, his fellow Diamond Dog nodded his head. “But that ain’t no reason to lose confidence in him. Loyalty’s gotta count for something and that train robbery was about the biggest score we’ve ever had. I mean, we’re practically done now. That was enough to set us up for life.”

“Do you really think Chris is gonna give up this lifestyle? He could steal enough money to live a thousand lifetimes and it wouldn’t be enough for him.”

“We know that, and we’ll still follow that man to the ends of the Earth. This is about more than ripping off rich bastards. It’s a lifestyle, it’s the reason why God put us here.”

“I ain’t gonna argue that point. What we do is fun. But slaying innocent people for no reason isn’t good enough.”

“The man’s under a lot of pressure. I’d like to see how well you’d do in his shoes. Do you know what goes through his mind? He has to take into account everything. He’s taking care of us, making sure plans go off without a hitch, and he’s made sure that it’s his name that spreads out there. He’s made a target of himself to take care of the rest of us.”

“Come on Sonny, you know that ain’t true. He loves the infamy. He loves that his name is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. He gets a massive erection at the thought that people launder him as some sort of hero, that kids out there playing with their toy guns pretend to be him. He doesn’t give a shit about the rest of us, not really. We’re just here because he’s only got two hands.”

“Hey, you’d better watch what you say. We don’t care that you got the big guy here watching your back. You talk like that and you could fall victim to any number of accidents.”

“I ain’t scared of you two pussycats.”

“It ain’t just us you should be scared of.”

The conversation comes to a brief pause and the three gang members look back at Alyster, waiting for his input.

“I dunno what y’all want me to say here. Chris has done good by us, you’re right there. Things are going well. That train robbery was a disaster though, and our heist before that…so many needless deaths.”

“That’s Peacock’s right hand man talkin’ there.”

“Hey now, I didn’t say nothin’ bout questioning his leadership.”

“You better watch yourself Dreyer.”

“Don’t you two talk to her like that. Now listen, it’s just us out here. We can talk, we can get things off our chests, and we can trust each other to keep quiet about what we hear. Does everyone agree with that?”

Alyster is met with a resounding yes from everyone present.

“Good. Now, tensions are running high again so I suggest we get back to the task at hand. Rick, Sonny, lead the way and don’t you go listening to our private conversations again.”

The Diamond Dogs grumble to themselves before venturing further into the woods. Alyster and Violet wait a little while before following, making sure they’re out of earshot.

“You’ve gotta be more careful with what you say. You’ve gotta know your audience. Everyone here is loyal to Chris, not just the Dogs, me too.”

“Yeah, all I’m saying is that things aren’t hunky dory. We’ve got problems, and those problems are intolerable. He’s lost his mind. Frankly, you’d make a better leader.”

Alyster stops in his tracks, exhaling sharply as his eyes close and he ponders Violet’s train of thought.

“You’ve considered it before haven’t you? Killing Chris and taking over the gang. You’d beat him in a gunfight, we both know you would. You’re as deadly as they come.”

“He’d kill me without a second thought. Besides, I could never raise my gun to Chris.”

Violet grumbled, she muttered something quietly, but not enough that Alyster couldn’t hear it. “The Wolf wouldn’t have stood for this.”

Those words stung deeply. The Wolf was a former friend, a member of a gang Alyster and Violet once rode with. The finest man Alyster ever knew. He would be disappointed if he could see Alyster now, and the masked man knew it.

They marched on in silence, following the Diamond Dogs to the riverbank where surely there was a buck or two drinking, ignorant to the danger that was approaching.

The foursome returns to the cabin early in the evening, just as the sun is setting. They were greeted by a familiar face. Allen Price sitting atop his chestnut brown Thoroughbred horse.

“Vacation time’s over children. Chris is callin’ y’all back.”


chapter 3. reckoning

Chris Peacock was a three days' ride away, hiding out in an old abandoned manor called “Belle’s Cave”. An old plantation estate that had been reappropriated by moonshine runners that the gang had cleared out some months prior.

Alyster had time to think during his travels. To think about the future and where Chris’ leadership would take the gang. His outlook remained positive in spite of Chris’ erratic behaviour.

Mostly however Alyster was looking forward to sharing Chris companionship again. He grew weary of the constant bickering and threatening nature of the rest of the group and wanted nothing more than to relax, plan their next escapade and have a good time.

Chris greeted his returning gang from atop the second floor balcony. With a cigar in hand and stovetop hat placed on his head Chris looked quite dapper and excited. Though if one looked carefully they could see evidence of sleepless nights and paranoia on his face. Dark bags accentuated Chris’ sunken eyes, his skin looked more pale than usual and his hair was straw-like and stringy.

He exchanged the usual pleasantries with each member of the gang. Receiving them as they hitched their horses around the side of the estate. He offered each of the Diamond Dogs a cigar of their own which they accepted haphazardly. Violet turned down the offer, instead choosing to chew on tobacco and take in the sights on the edge of the property.

Alyster soon joined her. They found a pair of fishing poles down the lake on the property and spent the rest of the day there. They spoke at length about issues that had been broached during their earlier hunting trips. It was during this time that Violet had made a startling confession to Alyster. One that would come into play later in the evening.

Hours later, Chris Peacock joined them, sitting with the duo and making idle conversation for a few minutes. He then requested that Alyster join him inside the manor so that they could speak in private. Alyster followed him inside, still exchanging pleasant chit chat until they reached the foyer.

“So why have you called us back boss?” The masked man inquired as he followed Chris up the ascending spiral staircase inside the foyer of the manor. “You can’t already have another job lined up. The heat’s not died down since the train robbery.”

“I’ve got my reasons Al. It ain’t always about pulling another job. Maybe I wanted the family to come together and bond. Have you ever considered something like that?”

At the top of the stairs was a long hallway, they rounded a corner and found themselves in what used to be the master bedroom. The estate was rundown, the walls covered in moss and peeling. Wooden splinters from gunfights in the past and dust covered the floors. A large chuck on the East wing had been damaged by cannon fire. But still, the manor was safe, out of reach of the law and tucked safely in its own corner of the country.

“Bonding is important for a family, otherwise you’ll find that members grow paranoid and turn on one another.” Chris pulled a chair out from the desk situated in the corner of the room, he spun it around to face Alyster then sat down and chomped on the edge of his cigar, smoke blew out the sides of his mouth as he breathed.

“Or turn on their leader. Is that what you’re worried about Chris?”

“I can’t get anything past you can I? That’s why I value you most above the rest of ‘em. You’re perceptive. And you’re loyal, you’re the best soldier I’ve ever seen.”

“I appreciate the sentiment boss.” Alyster found a relatively clean space on the wall to lean against. He folded his arms over his chest and stared up at the ceiling.

“I’m serious, after me you’re about the best gunslinger in the West, and I know I can trust you with my life. And speaking of which…”

Chris didn’t need to say anything else, Alyster knew exactly what he was insinuating.

“They’re a little freaked out, you lost your cool during the train robbery and it ain’t the first time it's happened. But they’re all loyal, they'll follow you until the end.”

“Sure, that’s true of the Dogs, but what of your girl Violet?”

Alysters hands closed into fists as any semblance of friendship faded out of Chris’ tone and expression. But he falls silent, unable to answer Chris directly. That silence is all Chris needs.

“I thought so. Allen’s gonna be keeping a close eye on her from here out. And I’m gonna be trusting you to keep her in line.”

“That’s unnecessary, she’s loyal to the gang. She’s loyal to you. You trust me right? You can put that same faith in Violet Dreyer.”

Chris leans back, not afraid that his chair will tip over. He takes his cigar and rolls it over the edge of the table, letting the ash fall gently down to the wooden floor below. His eyes close for a brief moment, sleep may have finally reached him.

“Do you hear that?” Alyster mumbles from across the room before running toward the balcony.

Chris could hear it, the sound of marching in the distance. He sprung to his feet and joined his right hand man, just in time to see a small militia approaching the estate. Brandishing torches and firearms. Lead by a blonde woman on horseback.

“Shit.” He pulled his pistol from his holster, “How’d they find us?”

“Who are they?”

“Law most likely.”

“They must have spotted us coming in during the day. I told ya the heat was still on us. They’ve got to have at least two dozen men, all armed to the teeth.”

“I can see that.”

“So what’s the plan here?”

“The plan? We survive, no matter what it takes.”

Alyster readied his hand by his holster. “Understood.”

The small militia stopped only metres away from the front door of the manor, all situated behind a lavish fountain that had once been filled with water and exotic fish, but now was dried up and in disrepair.

Chris shouted from the balcony to their leader, “Y’all are trespassing on private property. Turn around and leave before we open fire.”

The blonde woman dismounted her horse and stepped ahead of the pack, never once taking her eyes off Chris Peacock as she did so.

She spoke back with a surprising Dutch accent that was filled with confidence. She had no need to shout, her voice commanded the attention of everyone around her.

“This, like everything else you have in your possession, is not your property thief.”

Chris smirked, “Possession is nine-tenths of the law, but I can see you ain’t here to discuss the finer points of property ownership. Who are you and what do you want?”

“I’m insulted that you don’t recognise me. Chell von Horrowtiz, of the Horrowtiz Rail Company. I’m the woman whose trains you’ve been robbing. I don’t normally sully my hands with petty crooks but for you and your gang I’ve made an exception.”

Chris turned to Alyster and exchanged a look before turning back to Chell, “Now listen ma’am, I’m sure you didn’t come here for some sort of pretty revenge bu-”

He was interrupted by Chell, “Oh, but I did come for petty revenge.” She reached down to her gun belt, fingers lightly tapping the handle of her pistol, ready to draw at a moment's notice.

Chell von Horrowtiz had a reputation as a vicious gunslinger. Even amongst the civilised world where she’d made her fortune as a rail tycoon. She maintained control of her vast empire with ruthless abandon. Unafraid to fill cemeteries in order to achieve her goals and maintain order. Though she was above handling thieves personally, usually dispatching mercenaries to do the job for her.

“Right, I don’t suppose you’d be willing to settle this sensibly with a duel? There’s no sense letting our men duke it out in a violent firefight.”

“A duel is precisely what I came here for. But not with a simpleton like you. I want that masked gentleman beside you.”

Alyster nodded his head, immediately making way for the door to go downstairs and fight. Chris grabbed him by the shoulder and stopped him in his tracks.

“What do you mean you want the masked fellow? I’m the one that robbed your train lady.”

Chell rolled her eyes, “And for that you will hang. But I’m after the best gunslinger inside that manor. The man who killed my Gerald. That masked bastard.”

“Who the hell is Gerald?”

“The man your masked friend there viciously gunned down in cold blood aboard the last train you robbed. Now get down here masked man and meet your maker!”

Alyster was eager for a fight, he brushed Chris’ hand off his shoulder and marched for the door. Chris followed him inside, furious..

“What the hell is wrong with that woman? I’m the best gunslinger in the west and she wants to duel you?”

“It doesn’t matter Chris, I’ll put her down and then I’ll put down each and every dog she’s got following her. If she wants a fight then she’s got one.”

“She wants to fight me, she’s just confused.”

The boys descended the staircase and met the rest of the waiting gang who were armed and crouched by the windows, already in position for a firefight.

“What’s the plan boss?” Allen called over to Chris from across the hall.

Alyster answered before Chris was able to, “I’m gonna take her out, and if she’s a woman of her word then the rest of her lap dogs should turn tail and run. If they don’t you all open fire.”

“That ain’t the plan. Fuck.” Chris exhaled sharply then made for the front door, “Follow my lead.”

He kicked the doors open and shot wildly, aiming for Chell’s head but the woman was ready for him, barely managing to move to safety in time. Her militia opened fire and Chris took cover behind the door. Alyster stood on the other side, and the entire gang returned fire.

It was a bloodbath. Chell’s militia were outclassed, the gang were far more experienced. Alyster personally dropped a dozen men, shooting six perfectly and then six more after reloading. From the bushes surrounding the estate more men joined the fray. Chris ordered Violet, Ricardo and Allen upstairs to return fire whilst he, Alyster and Sonny pressed forward.

Alyster darted out from the building, ducking behind a pillar and offered suppressing fire so that Chris and Sonny could join him outside. The sound of glass shattering could be heard upstairs as Violet, Ricky and Allen began taking out mercenaries from higher ground.

During the fray Allen Price was hit, shot in the shoulder and rendered immobile from shock. The rest of the gang were able to fight with relatively minor injuries. Debris and glass cut up Alyster’s skin, he was not the only one injured this way.

Sonny was shot in the thigh, fortunately the bullet travelled clean through and his injury was relatively minor.

The rest of the gang was able to fight off the assault, taking out every hired merc until the remaining few survivors simply lost the will to fight and turned tail. Running like cowards.

Chell von Horrowitz was defiant until the end. Shouting at her men to return to the battle, calling out their cowardice.

She was gunned down in cold blood by Chris Peacock and Alyster Black. Both men shot her from across the yard, each hitting her in the chest and then approached her body and put her out of her misery with two bullets to the head.

“That was fucked.” Chris was breathless. He wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his sleeve then returned to the manor to regroup with those inside.

“That was reckless.” Alyster remarked quietly to himself before following.

The manor was a worse mess than earlier. Fresh bullet holes decorated the walls, and pools of blood decorated the floor. Sonny and Allen were both hit and Violet was nowhere to be found.

Alyster and Chris ventured upstairs to find the dead body of Rick, next to the whimpering body of Allen Price.

“She killed him.” Allen mumbled.

Chris fell to his knees, placing a hand on the cold cheek of his fallen comrade. “Who killed him Allen?”

“The girl, Violet.”

Chris’s head sunk, his hand closed into a fist and he began to shake from rage.

“She had a clear shot on you Chris, she was about to take you out and Rick caught her. So she shot him dead and ran for it.”

“No…” Alyster hunched over in disbelief, “She’d never.”
Chris rose to his feet, turning to his masked friend and for the second time in as many months bashed him over the head with the butt of his gun. He didn’t stop however, he continued striking Alyster repeatedly until the masked man was bloodied and left whimpering on the ground.

“You lied to me.” Chris spat with venom. “I trusted you, and I trusted her! You both lied to me!”


chapter 4. reconciliation

Violet escaped into the night. Ricardo was dead. Sonny and Allen had been shot. Alyster was down following a vicious assault from Chris Peacock. The gang was in no shape to pursue their betrayer.

The bodies outside were numerous and in the midday heat had begun to smell.

Off in a little corner by a broken window sill and nursing what was surely a broken nose was Alyster Black who was busy wrestling with conflicting emotions and bickering thoughts.

Chris had crossed a line, this was not up for debate. Alyster knew that he had to respond to the pistol whipping, and that his response would likely kill Chris. The only reason why he hadn’t acted yet was due to the actions of Violet Dreyer. Alyster had vouched for her when Chris’ faith in her was at its lowest. He knew what state she was in, knew what she was capable of.

She’d confided in Alyster. About how she’d lost faith in Chris as a leader. How she thought Alyster should take over the gang. And most importantly, on the eve before the gunfight, whilst fishing at the lake when they were alone, Violet confessed to Alyster her plan to assassinate Chris Peacock.

He should have acted there and then. The moment the words left her lips he should have killed her.

But he couldn’t. Much like he couldn’t bear to harm Chris, he too couldn’t bear to harm Violet. She was important to him, the last remnant of his friendship with the Wolf. A friendship he’d forsaken in his selfish pursuits.

He should have sent her away then. Forced her onto a horse and told her to never return. It would have been best for the gang, more importantly it would have been best for her.

Chris was right about Violet. He knew she was dangerous, but he underestimated just how dangerous she could be. Ricardo had died because of this, and Chris laid the fault squarely on Alyster’s shoulders.

There was a commotion across the foyer, Alyster could hear rumblings from the otherside of the manor. Chris, Allen and Sonny were deep into a heated discussion. Likely about what they’d do with Alyster, and what they should do about Violet Dreyer.

Alyster knew that as long as he lived, Chris would now pursue and would kill Violet.

How much more was the masked man expected to put up with? Chris’ tantrums had pushed the gang to its breaking point. The needless slaughter of civilians still weighed heavily on Alyster’s mind. He felt the weight of each death crushing his soul. Killing never bothered him, not when it was to survive. But those people on the train died needlessly.

Alyster banged his still aching head against the wall.

What did they stand for? What values did they still hold dear? By standing by and allowing Chris’ actions to go unpunished then Alyster was every bit responsible for those deaths as Chris was. He may as well have pulled the trigger himself.

He looked out toward the horizon, the light of the sun reflected off the lake. He could leave, jump on his horse and go after Violet. He could join her and they could live a life on the run together, looking out for one another.

Or…

Alyster looked to the foyer and placed a hand on his hip, reaching for his gun.

He could put an end to all of this right now. God knows Chris deserved to be put into the ground, friendship and loyalty be damned. Maybe Violet was right, maybe things would be better with him in charge. The gang didn’t have to die. Alyster could breathe new life into it. Make it better, make it stand for something and keep it going into a new age.

The sound of footsteps approaching put Alyster on edge, but he smartly removed his hand from the handle of the gun and waited patiently for whoever it was to join him.

From around the corner turned Allen Price, his arm held in a makeshift sling. He sighed deeply as he approached Alyster, taking a wooden chair and dragging it behind him as he walked. He set the chair down a metre away from the masked man and sat. They stared at each other for a short while, the air was tense. Finally it was Allen who broke the silence.

“I know what you’re thinking and I have to advise you against it. You’ve got no reason to fear Chris Peacock.” Allen leaned forward, “That man loves you like a brother. He thinks the world of you, Alyster Black. He depends on you, you’re his best soldier. So don’t you go betraying his confidence now. Not when that man has given so much to this gang. Not when he is at his lowest.”

Alyster was slow to reply, mulling Allen’s words. The talkative man continued on.

“What Violet did can’t go unpunished, you have to understand that. You all took an oath when you joined this gang and she broke it. You all knew the deal. You especially understand what that means. Lest we forget that Wolf you used to ride with.”

Allen was close to provoking Alyster, he could tell. Even with the mask obscuring his face, Allen Price could still see the fury bubbling beneath.

“I apologise if I touched a nerve there. I know it’s a sore subject, and one that you likely turned to the girl for support with. But I know you, you’re a hard man and you don’t appreciate bullshit, least of all the bullshit I spew. So I’m doing you the courtesy of being direct and honest. The least you can do is listen to me and consider what I’m saying.”

He was right, Alyster did appreciate his brutal honesty and acknowledged Allen with a nod.

“Good. Cause I’ve got more things to say and you may not like them but they need to be said. Firstly, whatever notion you may have of running away or taking revenge, you need to get over it right now. You need to appreciate where Chris Peacock is coming from, understand just what pressure he’s going through. A lesser man would have snapped if they were in his position. Juggling impending doom, considering the safety of the gang, and having to look over his shoulder every minute for betrayers. It takes its toll, and that means that sometimes a civilian might die. It means that sometimes those who make mistakes, especially mistakes that lead to the death of our loved ones, are dealt with harshly.”

Allen made sure to motion to Alyster’s face, leaving no doubt as to what he’s talking about.

“But in the end you need to remember that he would never really hurt you. He loves you like a brother and you love him like a brother. That’s what’s most important here. Pride needs to be set aside for the good of the gang. Do you understand Alyster?”

“Yeah, I understand.”

“Wonderful. But, just so we’re clear. What are you gonna do?”

Alyster bit his tongue, he wanted nothing more than to beat the ever loving piss out of Allen, but his hands were tied. Loyalty to the gang mattered too much to him. Everything Allen said was true.

“I’m gonna do nothing until I’m told otherwise.”

“That’s right. You’re a good soldier Alyster Black.”

Allen stood up and reached out, patting Alyster on the shoulder before leaving him alone again. Alyster continued to stare out the window, he wondered which direction Violet had escaped in and where she planned to hide. Mostly, he wondered how he would ever find her again.

Later in the evening Chris summoned what was left of the gang.

“Last night was almost the end of this gang. But we survived, by the skin of our teeth we survived.”

The men had gathered outside among the horses. They were packed and ready to ride off. They needed to and soon, else the law tracked them down. If the Von Horrowitz Rail Company could find them then who knows what else was to follow.

“We lost a good man in Ricardo. A loyal soldier, one that’s been with us since day one.”

Sonny was beside himself, red faced with fresh tears streaming down his cheeks. He’d lost the will to go on, that much was clear. Allen and Alyster remained silent. There was a sombre feeling in the air.

“He went out a free man. Not a slave to the machine that’s tearing this country apart. He died an outlaw, he died a gunslinger. He died on his feet, fighting for what he believed in. Ain’t no one or nothing can take that away from him.”

Sonny spoke up, his voice was lifeless and dispassionate. “That was beautiful Chris.”

Peacock was too self-absorbed to read Sonny’s tone and accepted his words at face value. “Thank you. Now, we have to move and we have to move quickly. This gang is gonna break up for a little while. Sonny, I’m sending you south to hide out and heal. You get better, you hear me?”

Chris placed a hand on Sonny’s shoulder. The still-living half of the Diamond Dogs, named for their prior exploits as diamond thieves, nodded his head. He would travel south with all of his ill gotten gains and he would quietly retire. He had no desire to ever rejoin the gang as Chris had planned and instead would grow fat, lazy and meet his end in a whorehouse south of Tijuana.

“Allen, I need you to head home. Keep your ear close to the ground and, well… You know the drill.”

This was the last time Allen would ever see Chris. Unlike Sonny, news of Chris’ death would reach him and in the following weeks Allen Price would hang himself. Without Chris Peacock for Allen Price to leech off Allen saw no hope in the world, especially one where he was a wanted man.

Both Allen and Sonny rode off into the night, leaving Chris and Alyster alone.

“What’s the plan Chris?” Alyster’s voice was hoarse, almost threatening.

“You and I are gonna ride out into the next county. We’re gonna rebuild this gang and we’re gonna start by pulling a bank together. Just you and me, the way it should be.”


chapter 5. legend

A week later Alyster and Chris had found themselves situated in a small town where the bank they had planned to hold up resided. The town itself was small, only a few dozen citizens called it hom. But the town acted as a hub for travellers that passed by, mostly for residents of the two nearest big cities.

The bank, as it were, acted as a mediary for the two cities. Travels moving to-and-fro utilised its services regularly. And the bank itself sent a bi-weekly, that’s once every two weeks, stagecoach East, and a weekly stagecoach West.

Chris’ brother owned a house on the far East side of the town, at the end of the main road. From the most western window one could watch the busy main street and most importantly, could see the bank in the far distance. With a pair of binoculars one could track the movements of each and every one of its patrons.

With his brother’s family out of town for the foreseeable future this homestead is where Alyster and he bunkered up. Chris spent most of the next month sitting on a wooden chair by the most western window. He kept the curtain peered open ever so slightly and watched the bank vigilantly. He meticulously kept tabs on the goings on inside the bank, comparing notes that he had taken with scribbles left behind by his brother. This job had fallen into Chris’ lap under his brother’s suggestion, and the Peacock sibling expected a large cut of the take for his efforts.

Alyster spent a large amount of time unmasked, ingratiating himself amongst the local populace. A daily pilgrimage to the general store allowed him a closer look at the security situation. He quickly determined that security was largely a joke except for one day every two weeks when two stage carts were scheduled to depart, one to the East, and one to the West.

The night before would be the most ideal time for them to enact their heist. The bank would be holding onto its largest possible take.

Two nights before their planned robbery Alyster and Chris sat down to dinner. Since the incident on the train and the firefight at Belle’s Cave Alyster and Chris had remained largely professional toward one another. Neither man wanted to upset the other, especially Alyster who viewed Chris as irrational, angry and ill-tempered as of late. Chris was in fact irrational, angry and ill-tempered, but his mood was far worse than Alyster could ever have imagined.

Since the death of Ricardo, Chris had barely slept. At night he would lay awake in bed staring at the ceiling. A face looked back to him, but not of his fallen comrade. It was the face of everyone who had ever done him wrong. Not individual faces, but an amalgamation. A face that resembled a hundred other faces.

What worried Chris was that the face bore a resemblance to Alyster.

Alyster his best soldier, right-hand man, and friend.

The man he trusted most in the whole world, so much so that he brought him out into this county to rob a bank and rebuild his precious gang. He wanted to do this together with Alyster, not Allen, not Sonny. Not even with past members of the gang, former friends and confidants.

Only Alyster.

In turn, Alyster also remained sleepless. Worried about the state that Chris Peacock was in. The two had frequent fights in spite of their professional nature. Always over petty topics, but Chris was in every instance the aggressor. Alyster could see in his eyes that Chris blamed him for the death of Rick. Worst of all, Alyster knew that Chris had become bitter, paranoid and jealous. His reaction to Chell challenging Alyster to a duel at Belle’s Cave confirmed it.

Chris could not believe and frankly did not understand why Cell would want to challenge Alyster. Especially since Chris was there. He fancied himself the greatest gunslinger in the west and relished the opportunity to gun down another killer with a ruthless reputation. But she was after Alyster, not Chris, and she considered the masked man a more worthy challenge.

Alyster could tell that this didn’t sit well with Chris, and could see in the little gleam in his eye that he planned to murder him.

Alyster laid awake at night, his hand firmly placed on the handle of his gun, waiting for Chris to try. But Chris never came in the night, in spite of how vile and dishonourable as Chris had become, he couldn’t bring himself to murder his best friend while he was asleep, not that he ever seriously planned to.

It was during dinner that Chris extended an olive branch. Attempting to make amends with a gift. He slid a small box across the wooden table to his last remaining partner.

“Here, this is for you.”

“What is it?”

“A gift. You can call what you will. An apology, a thank you, a desperate attempt to make sure you’re still on my side. It’s all of that, and more. Please open it.”

Alyster removed the lid from the box and reached inside, touching a cold metal that was as alluring as it was deadly.

“It’s beautiful.” He remarked as he pulled out a brand new Colt Single Action Army. The gun shined in the light though it was unique in colour, with a black pearl handle and black iron metal. The gun was almost dark enough that light appeared to disappear inside of it.

“A black hearted killer like yourself deserves a gun to match his style. You, my friend, are about the finest gunslinger I’ve ever had the pleasure of calling a partner. And tomorrow, I want you to wave that about and strike fear into the hearts of anyone that stands in our way.”

Chris slid his chair out from under the table and stood up. Casually walked toward the window sill and stared out into the street.

“You’ve stuck with me in spite of everything that’s happened. I’m not stupid, I know how you feel about everything that’s gone down. It doesn’t sit right with you. But you’re a good soldier, and you’re loyal, and I appreciate that you’ve stuck by me. I appreciate that you’re here with me. And I need you to understand that there’s no hard feelings between us. That we can move on from the past and together we can build something better.”

Chris paused for a moment, mulling over what else he wished to get off his chest. Never looking back at the man he had just armed.

“You and I, we’re gonna go down in infamy. The greatest outlaws that this country has ever seen. We’ll do things differently. Do jobs together that no one else thought possible. We’ll become rich beyond our wildest dreams and we’ll halt the march of progress. Any oilmen, railmen, or big city developers, we’ll cut them down. The west belongs to us. And when we’ve become kings of this land, then we’ll take care of every little problem. We’ll find that traitor Violet, we’ll execute her and then we…we…”

Chris was silenced by the sound of a gunshot. He reached for his back where a bullet had just penetrated through and pierced his lung and heart. He was a dead man standing, and he knew it. Blood pooled in his lung and he choked heavily. He never looked back at the face of the man who’d murdered him.

The man he trusted more than any other.

His best friend.

His killer.

Alyster exhaled sharply and allowed the gun to drop from his grasp. It hit the floor and chipped the wooden board. Its pristine condition was immediately ruined, the metal casing was scratched by splinters.

The masked man kicked out his chair and rushed to the fallen body of his comrade. He turned Chris onto his back and cradled his body in his arms. Shaking him violently, begging for him to waken.

But Chris was dead, and already turning cold. He had no breath with which to speak and no heart to speak from. But Alyster could still hear his voice, haunting him, telling him how much Chris had trusted him.

The bank job was never completed. The gang was never given a second chance at life. Those concepts died with Chris Peacock.

Stricken by grief Alyster Black collected the body of his fallen comrade and laid him down over his horse. He took the horse by the reins and led it to the sheriff’s office on the other side of town, adjacent to the bank.

Alyster approached the sheriff, told him who he was and the identity of the dead body on his horse. He was laundered as a hero. The gunslinger who brought down the infamous outlaw Chris Peacock in an epic duel that would go down in legend.


epilog.

The sheriff and his deputy were busy sharing a bottle of whiskey at the sight of Chris Peacock and Alyster Black’s epic duel. Chris Peacock had been killed only a few days prior and Alyster Black currently found himself residing inside a prison cell, waiting for trial.

“I’d have thought there’d be a little more blood in here.” The deputy remarked as he casually kicked at a pile of dust and spread it across the floor.

“That’s the thing about gunfights son, you only need to be hit once and it doesn’t have to be a big hit either. It’s not like any limbs were taken off.” The sheriff found himself by the most western wall and peered open the blinds. He had a clear view of the main street and of the bank at the end of it.

“Could you imagine the damage these boys would have done to this town if they’d ‘ad’ve pulled it off?”

“I imagine we’d both be sitting in graves instead of Peacock, that’s for sure.” The deputy picked up the overturned chair by the dinner table and set it down. He sat down and put his tired boots up on the table, leaned back and imagined the firefight. “It must ‘av been a real epic. Two gunslingers, real life genuine outlaws knowing that only one man would be leaving this abode alive.”

“And they say those two were the best of friends. It’s like one of them bible stories about those brothers who have to kill each other. I mean, you heard that Alyster Black in his cell, begging for forgiveness, apologising and praying. You can tell that this really tore him apart, y’know? You can imagine how tense the conversation must ‘av been before hand..”


“You read too many books son.”

“Have you ever read one of those Chris Peacock books, sheriff? They’re 100% true and they describe every caper, every gunfight, every damn shit he took in detail. That man lived a life worthy of tellin’ stories about.”

“That doesn’t necessarily mean he died as he lived.”

The sheriff joined his deputy, carefully examining the window sill at which Chris Peacock had met his end.

“What d’you mean by that?”

“What I mean is, sometimes a man gets shot on his feet while fighting the good fight. And sometimes a man is struck down in cold-blood, shot in the back before he even suspected that a bullet with his name on it had stepped into town.” The sheriff turns around, facing the deputy with his arms crossed. “Course, there is another theory.”

The deputy raised his chin, beckoning for the sheriff to continue.

“That the gun went off by mistake.”

The deputy broke out in laughter; “Oh sheriff, you’re a riot. Like Chris Peacock could ever get taken out like that?”

The sheriff smirked and approached the table, taking the half-empty whiskey bottle and poured another shot from himself and his depty.

“Ah maybe not. But it’s fun to theorise.” He raised his shot glass and the deputy did so aswell; “Here’s to us never having to deal with the likes of these boys again.”

“Here here!”

In the end Alyster Black had killed Chris Peacock in cold blood. He was considered a hero amongst the civilised world and a bastard amongst the freemen out West. Tales of his and Chris’ epic struggle entered the realm of legend and as all tales do, theirs was embellished for entertainment purposes. No one knows for sure what really happened inside the homestead of Chris’ brother. The only person who knew for sure was Chris Peacock’s killer, who spent his final days inside a forced labour prison camp where eventually he went crazy and was put down like a rabid dog.

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U.S. Route 50 is one of the most traversed roads in the Western United States. Yet, stretching over 3,000 miles, it is still known as the “Loneliest Road in America”. During the day, thousands of cars speed down the highway. But at night? It can get quite barren.

This particular night was especially quiet. It was one of those erie nights that one would hear about in a campfire story. Or, perhaps more accurately, a truck stop bar. For it was trucker Ralph Maddox who was known amongst the trucking community for stories that keep any trucker wide awake no matter how long they were driving.

Little did Ralph know, he was about to take part in a story of his own. A story itself that would be retold at boyscout campfires and truck stop bars. Like a game of telephone, the true original details of this story will never be truly known, but his telling will be closer to the truth than anyone else will ever get.

Ralph coughed himself awake as the pitter patter of the rain bounced off his truck windshield. The middle aged drifter could have probably passed for a homeless man had he not been behind the wheel of a Mack truck. He was in the thirteenth hour of a fourteen hour trip, and was fighting to stay awake on the lonely highway known as Route 50, before he pulled over for a short rest.

The trucker didn’t want to push it, but deadlines are deadlines. Ralph didn’t even know what he was transporting in his rig, and he didn’t really care. He just had to make sure it got to where it needed to go, and that he got paid what he needed to get paid. However, this particular night was making him regret all of his life choices. The small nap he took was only making him feel more exhausted, but he was determined to push through to the final hour.

His eyes stared down the lonely road, the windshield wipers going back and forth, and his headlights glaring off of every street sign he passed. That’s when, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of her…a hitchhiker.

Ralph briefly considered all of those stories he would tell at the truckstops. Half of them started exactly like this. As Ralph pulled up however, he immediately felt more at ease. It was not an angry fisherman with a hook, but instead a young girl. She looked like she barely may have been drinking age, if not younger. Besides, he figured that she would help keep him awake. So he made the call, and he picked her up.

The young girl was grateful too. She greeted the trucker with a big smile as she climbed into the cab of his truck. She tossed her dufflebag on the floor by her feet and buckled in. Ralph was thinking about how relieved she must be to have gotten out of the rain. He always had a hero complex.

“Where ya headed?” he asked her. He already had a bigger jolt of adrenaline than he had before the hitchhiker, so this was working out well. The girl rubbed her eyes, half trying to wake them up and half drying them from the rain, and responded softly to Ralph. “West…I’m trying to get to the airport. For work”.

Ralph was curious now. Plus, the more he kept talking the more he stayed awake. She was going west, and so was he. This was all too perfect. If he was more awake, Ralph may have considered whether or not it was “too perfect”. But given his current sleep deprivation, the thought had not even crossed his mind.

“Oh yeah, what is it that you do? I’m a trucker myself…obviously” he says as he chuckles at his own joke. The girl doesn’t chuckle, and instead just coldly states “I wrestle. I’m getting ready for a big match soon. Probably the biggest of my career. It’s my chance to become a champion…to finally prove to the fed that I am a top competitor”.

Ralph didn’t watch wrestling. He didn’t have time, being on the road as often as he was. He had enjoyed it when he was younger though. Watching the likes of Ryan Hall and Ashley O’Ryan were some of his favorite moments. He even partook in some fights of his own, but those stories are for another time.

“Oh shit really? For the FWA?” Ralph asked, and got back a quiet nod. He continued “Gabrielle Montgomery still there? She was smoking” he said with a chuckle.

Again another cold response from the girl “That Gabrielle has been gone for a long time”.

“Ah, that’s a shame” Ralph said, trying to keep up the conversation. It was harder than he thought it would be. This girl was different, to say the least. Ralph wasn’t quite sure how to describe it. The way she talked, the way she moved, it was too odd. It was almost as if she had no emotion at all. If he had to compare it to someone, it would probably be the beloved Wednesday Addams. She was a character from a TV show that Ralph used to watch as a kid. Just like Wednesday, this girl had the same dead cold look in her eyes.

Yet to Ralph, she was company. It was better than the empty seat that was occupying his truck ten minutes ago. Plus, Ralph had a way of socializing with just about anybody.

“I always had a lot of respect for you guys and what you do. I tried it before, it didn’t work out. But look at you, making it big. You said you’re fighting for a championship?” he asked her.

She turned her head and stared at him. Ralph kept his eyes on the road but he could feel her intense glare.

“Yes. It’s vacant right now, but I have a chance to win it. I have a chance to finally break out and be a star” she says, cracking a small smile.

Ralph kept on prying. It was the only thing she seemed willing to talk about. “Well, tell me about you’re fighting. Are they any good?”.

The small smile faded, and returned to the emotionless daze she had before.

“That depends on who you ask. Some see me as an underdog, some see her as one. But I think we’re a lot closer than people give us credit for” she says.
Ralph was trying to figure out if he’d be able to watch this fight. He enjoyed boxing nowadays, but it would be cool to see someone he picked up in his cab wrestle on TV.

She continued on.

“We are close in age for one. I don’t know how old she is exactly, but I know she’s young like me. Young and hungry. It’s one of the few things I respect about her. It takes a lot for a girl our age to get out there in that ring. Sometimes we’re put up against grown men. Sometimes we’re hitting each other with chairs, or locked in a steel cage. Others girls our age are going to college, hanging out at college parties, and fucking the captain of the football team. The two of us are fighting for a championship in a major wrestling federation”.

Ralph thought about how true that was. He also wondered if this young girl could kick his ass. He wasn’t going to try and find out.

“Yeah, you’re right. That is pretty impressive. What else you two got in common?” Ralph asked. Trying to keep the conversation going.

“Well, apparently, she’s got quite the mixed martial arts background too. I respect that. I had a lot of training in that regard as well. I understand what it’s like working with a mentor. Being a mentor. The thing about Mixed Martial Arts? The arts part of that is the best part, and one of the most underappreciated. It truly is an art. It takes a lot of discipline to learn, and it’s something not everyone on the roster knows. Some of these guys just want to stand there and punch each other in the face. Or do their fancy moves like they’re in Cirque du Soleil. Whether it’s Karate or Muay Thai, I think learning it goes a long way to making you stand out amongst the best”.

Ralph didn’t know any of that stuff. He didn’t even know half of the words she was saying. He always just used his big hairy knuckles. But she’s probably right, a small girl like that fighting men? You gotta do whatever you can to stand out.

He again wondered how he was going to go ahead and watch this fight. It sounded like it was going to be a good one. A showdown between two young stars with a mixed martial arts background?

There was silence for a moment. Not an awkward silence per say. But not a calming silence either. It was more the type of silence that you experience inside a funeral home. Ralph considered whether it was worth breaking or not, but he decided that keeping the conversation going was worth the risk. Especially because it was the only thing keeping him awake at this point.

“So, you told me how you two alike. But how are you different? Who’s got the upper hand?” he asks, trying to gauge her brain and keep her talking at the same time.

“The upper hand? It’s all about momentum. That is why winning the last match we fought in was so important. The winner of that match was going to go into this one with all the momentum. We both had weaker teammates, we both won our triple threat matches. But getting a win against her right before this match? It was vital…”

Ralph asked “Well, did you get it?”.

The girl once again looked Ralph. And this time he took his eyes off the road for a moment to look at her back.

“No. That’s why I’m dead.”

Ralph looked straight into this girl’s eyes for the first time, and all he saw was white.

It took him a minute to process what she said. Then, he looked back at the road, and suddenly a coyote was right in the middle of it. He swerved his truck at the last second, but ended up in the dirt on the side of the road. His 18 Wheeler kicked up dirt and gravel as it came to a screeching halt, nearly tipping over.

Ralph was nearly out of breath, but luckily he was able to manuever the truck well enough to avoid an accident. He looked over at the young girl to make sure she was okay, but what he saw was something that gives him chills even to this day.

Sitting over, in that passenger seat, was the same thing that was sitting there for the first 13 hours of Ralph’s trip…nothing.

Ralph finished that trip shortly after, but that night stayed with him.

It always stayed with him.

He said to himself that night, when it came to hitchhikers, never again.



Unfortunately for Ralph, he never was good at keeping promises. So a week later, when he saw another young girl on the side of US Route 50, he pulled over and picked her up yet again.

At this point, Ralph was pretty convinced that the entire thing was a result of sleep deprivation. The mind has a way of playing tricks on you, and Ralph was extremely tired that night. His brain probably made up some vivid story to keep him awake. He knew that there obviously wasn’t a ghost in his cab. Let alone a wrestling ghost.

It was probably just an extreme case of maladaptive daydreaming.

So with all of that in mind, yes, Ralph picked up another hitchhiker.

This girl seemed normal. She didn’t have that same emotionless Wednesday Addams personality. Ralph already felt better about the whole situation, and at a certain point was even more convinced that night from a week ago wasn’t real.

Until however…Ralph asked his question.

“Oh yeah, what is it that you do? I’m a trucker myself…obviously” he says as he chuckles at his own joke. But the girl’s answer was enough to give him a heart attack, even at his age.

“I wrestle. I’m getting ready for a big match soon. Probably the biggest of my career. It’s my chance to become a champion…to finally prove to the fed that I am a top competitor”.

Ralph nearly stopped the truck right there. This couldn’t be real. Was he daydreaming again? Was he sleeping? No. He was wide awake tonight. But this girl just gave the same exact answer. It was like Deja Vu, but if Deja Vu was a brick hitting him in the face.

Yet…this girl was different. She had darker hair, and she looked…more exotic. But more so, her personality was different. She had more confidence, she had more emotion, she had more energy. Everything about her was just more…lively.

Ralph, being the easy going guy that he was, decided to laugh this entire thing off. He told her the story. The creepy girl, what she said about her match, everything. This girl gave a hearty chuckle, and decided to give him some more insight.

“Lack of emotion? I’d say it’s more like refusing to pick a side. Like, decide who you want to be. Are you a bitch that takes thing seriously? Or are you going to try and play it cool during an interview and ignore when a couple of bullies try to antagonize you. Nobody likes a tweener. Fans don’t boo you, they don’t cheer you. They don’t give any reaction at all…they’re just…apathetic”.

Ralph nods his head, acting like he knows what she’s saying.

But he mostly wanted to address the bigger thing. The part that she said…about well…being dead.

“She brought up this tag team match…momentum…and well…”

But the girl cut him off.

“Yeah, that’s right. We had a tag team match, and I beat her. Just like I said I would. It doesn’t surprise me that she thinks we’re on the same level. Karate, Muay Thai…no. It’s not the same level. We had these two triple threat matches, right? I think it’s fair that everyone who watched the show could see they were two very different matches. One was, well competitive…and the other one was more…the B Card. Guess which one she won?

But it’s cool. She gets to prove herself, fight against me in a tag team match. Did she win? No, of course she didn’t. So you want to talk about momentum? All the momentum she had after winning the B Triple Threat match? It’s gone. It’s all mine.

My Coven? We have the Trios Championships, and soon we’re going to have the TV Championship. El Vengador was the only one who was truly standing in my way, and I took care of him. Jack The Clipper, that Walmart Brand Shawn Summers, and yes the little girl in your cab…none of the rest came close.

If you asked me, she should’ve been swapped out with El Vengador in my triple threat match. I could’ve beat her ass then, and then I could be fighting an actual real opponent for Lights Out. But it is what it is”.

The girl finishes her rant.

Ralph isn’t quite sure how to respond to it.

But he still needs to ask the question.

“Yeah, I get all that…but look. This girl…she said something to me before she disappeared from my cab…” Ralph says.

The girl in his truck now leans over interested.

“She uh…she said she was dead”.

This girl smiles.

“She is. Why do you think they’re calling this show Lights Out? Because for her, it’s lights out on her career. She got lucky with an easy booking to set up this TV title match. But now she faces me.

That career, that momentum, it’s about to come to a crashing halt. I think everyone knew that Madison Gray had a shelf life in the FWA. But that shelf life is about to be exposed. Do you really think that fragile little thing will be able to take a loss like this? I bet you she is planning on giving it her all. Going in there, and fighting against me like she’s fighting her last match. And when she loses, and she walks out of Lights Out without the TV Title, you’ll see the expiration date clearer than ever.

It reads October 8th, 2023”.

The girl seems to have made a point. Yet things still aren’t adding up to Ralph.

He starts to think back to the conversation he had with the first girl some more. And some of the things this girl was saying to him.

Against his better judgement, just like the last time, he decides to pry.

“Well, erm…what about your shelf life? You seem to be so confident this girl is dead on October 8th. That losing this match will end her career…ain’t you been wrestling for like…three years now?

She told me you didn’t win a title.

In fact, apparently you had to sit back and watch while your friends went and won some sort of championships without you.

Now you’re facing this new girl, who according to you is so below your level. What happens if you lose?

Wouldn’t that be the final nail in the coffin?”

After Ralph finishes, he begins to regret what he said. It was a bit too far, but he thought she needed to hear it.

That obviously wasn’t true, as the smile and cheerfulness of the girl soon began to fade away.

The lights in his cab started to flicker, and the anger in the hitchhiker began to grow.

For the first time in a week Ralph began to get very nervous. To make things worse, the first girl he picked up has joined the cab with them.

“I tried to warn you…she killed me. Now she’s going after you.”

Ralph, in a panic, swerved his truck.

Moments later, and a turned over big rig is laying on the side of US Route 50. The trucker crawls out the window, across the broken glass, and lays on the pavement of the old highway. He looks back into the wrecked cab, and sees no sign of either girl.

But to his shock, the girl he picked up just tonight was standing over him.

She put her boot on his back and pushed him into the ground.

“My name is Kleio De Santos. I am the Witch Queen. I am the leader of The Coven. I am the Boa Constrictor, and I am the future FWA Telivison Champion. Nobody is going to get in my way.

Not the Ravenwood Sisters, not Trixie, not El Vengador, not Ralph Maddox, and certainly not Madison Gray.

She is your dead hitchhiker.

But her ride is over. She got a lift through the triple threat match, and a chance to shine at Lights Out. But that is all she gets.

For three years the FWA has held me down.

This time…unlike you…unlike Madison…I am staying on my feet”.

Ralph closes his eyes one last time, and to his relief…he hears the pitter patter of the rain on his windshield. Was the whole thing all just an illusion?
One thing is for certain. Ralph is not picking up any hitchhikers.

Yet somewhere, a group of witches are smiling and laughing at a truckstop nearby. Some find it hard to understand the things they do to get their kicks.

But the point has been made.

Kleio De Santos will not stay down.








 
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The Golden One

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Learning to Fly (Quite Easily, Since There’s Less Gravity)


You’re probably getting tired of reading these space stories, but a “Magic School Bus” is going to be doing something hokey. Space is just the comfort zone for this vehicle and the occupants within it. So, yes, space. The vast blackness of space. There are a few twinkling silver dots out there, to be sure, and every now and then you might see a space rock fly by or even a far-away planet. But mostly, it is black.

Black with the faded yellow exterior of the Magic School Bus rumbling through in its elder age once more to XYZ and The Menage’s newest destination. This time, it’s simple. The destination is earth. The FWA’s Lights Out is just three days away, and XYZ has a return match with Tommy Bedlam for the X Championship. It's of high importance for everyone involved.

“Weeeellll … I was theeeeere on the daaaay
They sooold the cause for the queeeeen
And when the liiiiiights all went ooooout
We watched our liiiiiives on the screeeeen
I hate the ending myseeeelf

But it started with an alriiiiight sceee-y-eeeene.”

“Disenchanted” by My Chemical Romance blares through the Magic School Bus with only XYZ, in the driver’s seat, singing along. Everyone else is seated towards the back, listening to the song and watching their leader in silence. Time for our narrator to fill in the blanks.

A man with a southern, cowboy-style hat and a handlebar mustache with squinty eyes and a friendly smile stares through a telescope from the International Space Station. Isn’t he an earth-bound resident of the United States? How did he get here? Does he know there are much-heralded Tentacles on the ISS? Is he searching for one?

Or is he simply the trusty narrator greeting us to tell of the latest and current happenings of The Menage? It’s most certainly the latter.

“Howdy, y’all. Hmmm. You sensin’ the disgruntled vibe happenin’ here in the Magic School Bus? Maybe ‘disgruntled’ isn’t clear enough of a descriptor. One of those 10-cent words I picked up recently. A little big for my britches, honestly. Yeah, they’re properly annoyed, because this is the seventh My Chemical Romance song played today, and that’s … well … that’s the usual ‘round these parts for The Menage.

But X needs to be ‘in the zone’ driving the bus, and that damn emo band seems to put him there, even if he’s half paying attention currently to where he’s driving the bus because he’s so focused on singing the lyrics.

There’s quite a lot of MCR played on this bus lately during The Menage’s travels through the universe, and the rest of them have grown quite tired of Gerard Way’s … way … about his voice. His whiny singing mixed with the hopeless lyrics put everyone in a … down? … mood, aside from XYZ, who cannot get enough of the band. I don’t really get it, personally. Just a lot of sadness, right? Not enough singin’ drinkin’ whiskey with ladies in tight jeans. Anyways… let me let the other narrator fill in some bits here.”

XYZ never used to like My Chemical Romance, but he’s grown quite fond during the past seven or eight months. Suppose it makes sense for there to be at least one My Chemical Romance fanatic on the FWA roster – but no more than one, right?

“Anyways, as I was sayin’ ‘bout XYZ needin’ to be ‘in the zone’, yeah? Well, that’s ‘cause of what they’re passin’ right now. Look out the window for a gander yourself, eh?”

Outside the Magic School Bus is a plethora of asteroid rocks. They’re all in different shapes and sizes, floating in the gravity-less black void of the Milky Way galaxy. It looks like a full-on asteroid storm, but the asteroids are moving side to side seemingly – and at a slow speed, at least slower than the Magic School Bus’ rumble and sputter through space.

“It’s not an asteroid storm, but rather the actual asteroid belt! Let’s go to Google for an explanation.”

The mustached narrator quickly puts on his reading glasses and examines his nearby laptop, which is positioned at his workstation on the ISS. He clears his throat before beginning.

“The asteroid belt is a torus-shaped region in the Solar System, centered on the Sun and roughly spanning the space between the orbits of the planets Jupiter and Mars. It contains a great many solid, irregularly shaped bodies called asteroids or minor planets.”

After a pause to digest the words he just read from his computer screen, he removes his reading glasses.

“Shoulda’ paid better attention in science class, yeah? Or paid attention during that TV show the teachers sometimes had us watch during class. Anyways, let’s throw it into the Magic School Bus for good now. They’ll be out of the asteroid belt soon enough.”

The perspective shifts to inside the Magic School Bus once more. The song has stopped, and the bus goes into an awkward silence. Frank, PacMan Bert, Wild Jerry, Christian Howard, Sierra, and Lizzy all look forward to the back of X’s head.

Breaking the silence is Christian, who rises from his seat and walks to the front of the bus. As he looks back, Frank and Sierra both silently urge him to keep going. Wild Jerry has his feet casually propped up onto the seat in front of him, not a care in the world. Lizzy and PacMan Bert have their attention elsewhere, heads down into their handheld devices of choice.


“Hey man.”

“Christian of the Howards! Did you enjoy the My Chemical Romance?”

“Um. Yes?”
he says, unsure of the best way to answer in his self-interest of steering the conversation.

“Great! Let’s play ‘Teenagers’ next!”

“Wait! Before you do, I have a question.”

“Ah, a question. I am always open for questions with answers that can fuel the heart like vanilla frosting.”

“Well … it’s about you. There’s a question circling around about your sexuality.”

“My sexuality?”
XYZ responds, his head turning a tad bit out of surprise.

“Yes. Some believe you might be bisexual. Others think you might be undefined.”

XYZ looks forward, tilting the steering wheel this way and that in a smooth sequence. He gives it a second, his mouth agape at first to answer and then closing. Another second to ponder how to answer.

“I’m asexual ... I think”

“That was also a guess.”

“Ah. Great. ... Who is guessing?”
XYZ asks.

“People. Us. Others. Are you pandering by saying you’re asexual?”

“Pandering how?”
XYZ asks, again turning his head ever-so-softly back towards Christian, who is seated in the front row and hunched forward but still very much behind XYZ due to the nature of the bus’ long and thin design.

“Nevermind. It’s more for the others.”

“I don’t unde…”



Suddenly, there’s a loud thud and the Magic School Bus shakes and rattles. After about two or three seconds, XYZ’s eyes go big and there’s a second loud thud followed by the bus shaking, causing everyone standing to lose their balance and fall onto one of the seat rows.

Then a third thud, and a third shake.

“What’s going on?!” Christian says, worried about the continuation of his life in the next few moments.

“You distracted me and I got off course. We got hit by an asteroid and now we’re getting pelted!”

A fourth asteroid hits the outside of the bus. Then a fifth. Then a sixth, much larger asteroid bangs into the front of the bus, right on the hood and above the engine. The space rock ricochets off the hood and smacks into the very top of the windshield, causing a massive crack stemming from the top of the window down to the middle.

“Get us out of here!” Frank yells from the back.

“I’m trying!” XYZ yells back.

"We're doing our best up here!" Christian barks.

"Aye, you ain't doing mierda, gringo!" Wild Jerry chimes in.

After about six or seven more asteroid knocks, the Magic School Bus squeaks through the asteroid belt and into clear, star-filled black skies. However, the bus has seen better days, and it took a heavy load of damage. Even the engine is injured, making a whizzing sound that alarms X and everyone inside.

“Alright. We have to make an emergency landing. Sorry, Menage. We won’t make it to earth a day before the show.”

“Ayeee,”
Wild Jerry says from the very back row, “you gringos had to ask about whether he likes penis or p…”

“HEY!”
Sierra shouts. “Children, yeah?!”

“Aye, little amiga is like 12 years old now, yeah?”

“Ten,”
Lizzy, who is now paying attention due to the asteroid collisions, answers.

“She’s heard worse.”

“Yeah ... from you!”

“Enough! It doesn’t matter,”
X says, shutting the conversation down. “This is the situation. So we have to land and get the bus fixed.”

“Where are we going?”
Christian asks.

“To the nearest planet in our route.”

Suddenly, up ahead – maybe 0.5 astronomical units, which is 46 million miles, for those unaware of the UA-to-miles conversion formula – a small red dot begins to enlarge with each passing second. The Magic School Bus is headed directly for it. Is this the planet XYZ spoke of? If so, which of the eight is it?

Yes, it is the planet XYZ spoke of.
It’s Mars.




Google says, "Mars is sometimes called the Red Planet. It's red because of rusty iron in the ground. Like Earth, Mars has seasons, polar ice caps, volcanoes, canyons, and weather. It has a very thin atmosphere made of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and argon." Mars also has much less mass than earth, meaning there is much less gravity. So everyone in The Menage has tethers attached to their space suits to keep them close to the planet's surface as they bounce around on the off-red dust on the ground. Nearby, the Magic School Bus is in a space vehicle shop that's conveniently placed on the planet but not near anything else. There is no other inhabitance within sight. It's just little green aliens doing their thing to put the bus back into working condition.


"Should we play mafia?" Frank asks.

A groan from the group is enough of an answer for Frank.

"Again?!" Lizzy moans, speaking for everyone.

"X, you have a huge match coming up. How do you feel?" Sierra asks.

Everyone turns their attention to X. The group has not really talked about the rematch for the X Championship. Hell, they didn't even talk about the first match, the one X lost at the Anniversary Show. XYZ looks down to the ground and, when he lands amid his slow-motion jumps against the gravity-less planet, kicks some of the red dirt into the air.

"Well ... I ... I really don't know. I've thought about the match and ... I don't know what more I can do. I guess just give it another go, hope for the best."

"You think that'll work? Just doing the same thing? Same strategy? Tommy Bedlam is a tough matchup for you. He's a different cat."

There's a bit of a silence in the group, but as they all slowly jump into the air only to have their tethers pull them back down to the ground, Wild Jerry gets a thought, and if this was a cartoon, there'd be a lightbulb over his head.

“Superheroes can fly, yeah? Aye, well, if you wanna be a champion finally, then you gotta learn how to fly, muchacho!”

“I have the Magic School Bus.”

“That cranky, old bitch? She can barely pass through a mild meteor shower nowadays, yo!”

“Yeah, Wild Jerry is right. You really need to take her into the shop soon.”

"We already did!"

"I mean, a proper shop. Like, on Earth. Not some quick-fix pop-up stand for convenience on Mars.

“And where would he take a flying school bus for repair work, huh?”

“It’s not always flying. It can be driven on the road. They won’t notice.”

“This is all beside the point. The point is, if you wanna be a superhero, then yeah, you best learn how to fly, amigo.”

"How can I learn to actually fly?"
XYZ asks.

"Well ... we on Mars, ain't we?"

A pause.

"Take off the safety tether and let's see. what'cha got!"





Would you like a montage of XYZ jumping into the air -- still in his space suit, mind you -- and trying to fly around Mars' atmosphere? No? Well, you're getting one anyways.

XYZ jumps into the air and tries to fly like Superman. It doesn't work.

Next, he jumps off one of Mars' mountains of red dust. It again does not quite work. He eventually lands on the ground, and he usually isn't prepared for the slow fall so he softly lands on his face.

Lastly, XYZ tries a running-jump-style of flying with momentum, but the lesser gravity makes the running-jump rather slow, so it's really just a normal jump and again, he cannot properly fly.

All the while, everyone in the Menage is watching in a bit of a haze. The whole montage sequence only lasts 20 seconds, because the actual attempts to fly from XYZ only lasts about two minutes.

"What a terrible idea, Jerry."

“Aye! I ain’t mean he really learn how to fly. That gringo ain’t no real superhero anyway.”

“How do you explain going into space then?!”

“AH! None of this is real!”

“Then if it’s not real, he should be able to fly!”

“There are limitations, yo!”

“What limitations?!”

“I dunno! I didn’t make this place! Or him! Or any of us! Someone else made us all! Ask him! Bunch’a idiotas! Also, stop having dialogue with me. Looks like a damn Christmas tree.”

“So what do you suggest then?”

“What I was meanin' was … if X wanna be a champ … he gonna have to beat the current champ. That means he gotta exploit the weakness. He gotta learn how to fly, yo. Like … in wrestling terminology.”

“OOOOOOOOOOOOOH,"
everyone, aside from Lizzie and PacMan Bert, says in unison.

“Well, how do I do that?”

“Wild Jerry, you’re Mexican, and Mexico has a long history of lucha libre wrestling and luchadores!”

“You sayin’ I gotta train his ass up? No way!”

“He’s right. Wild Jerry ain’t even good at wrestling. He doesn’t know a thing. I had to teach hi...”

"Aye! Let's calm it. I got him, yo."


Would you like a montage of Wild Jerry watching YouTube clips on his phone while standing on Mars, where he somehow gets 5G phone service? Well, you're getting it. It's a rather boring montage. It's just Wild Jerry standing there, and the montage only lasts 10 seconds. Then it's a montage of Wild Jerry "showing" XYZ how to do lucha libre wrestling.

“You do some flippity shit and some jumpity shit and some hoppin’ around. That about it, yo.”

“So I just do a bunch of back flips and jumps?”

“Pretty much, yeah. Just hop around. You got this, yo!”


Sierra interjects before this goes off the rails any further.

"He ain't a rabbit, Jerry. We need more than that."

A sigh.

“What flying moves do you already do now?”

“I don’t know. I don’t really think about it much in the ring.”

“Let’s go to his FWA.com character profile page!”

“Hmmm. Let’s see. It says here that you can do a … ‘head-scissors takedown after spinning 360 degrees in the air with the legs around the opponent's neck.’ Have you ever done that before?”

“I don’t know. Again, it’s all a blur.”

“Let’s practice it. Wild Jerry, you be the opponent.”

“You sayin’ I gotta let this gringo do a head-scissors takedown on me?! No wa…”


XYZ proceeds to do a slowmotion head-scissors takedown while spinning 360 degrees in the air with his legs around Jerry's neck. It's slow motion because ... space ... and also because Wild Jerry has the reaction time of a turtle crossing a highway.

“Alright. What else we got?”

“There’s a ‘flying double knees to the chest from the top rope’. That’s easy. You’ve done that before.”

“That’s kiddy shit.”

“Shut it, Jerry. Next?”

“Springboard moonsault.”

“Ooooooooooooooo,"
the group says in unison.

“That’s a nice one.”

“Yeah, that’s super nice.”

“I’m really good at flying already!”
XYZ belts.

“Shiiiit, you ain’t shit, X. You can mix it up every now and then but you still on the ground too much to beat Tommy Bedlam and be champion.”

“He’s right, X. You’re still on the ground too m…”

“We get it! Jesus. Men and their insistence on repeating what other people have already said. What else does he do?”

“We got here a ‘springboard moonsault fake out where XYZ flips back, lands on his feet, and then hits a quick standing senton.’”

“That shit sounds too damn complicated, yo.”

“It’s a good move to do AFTER you do the springboard moonsault once. Understand?”


Sierra has surprised XYZ with her coaching ability, but at this point, X is just absorbing everything she is saying to him.

“I think so.”

“Alright. That’s four moves. Enough?”

“Enough? He ain’t no high-flier with four moves! He frontin’ if he think he a high-flier with that. He’s like a starter Pokemon. Little baby Squirtle shit. Four moves. Psh. I could walk through Mexico and find a little baby who could do more than that.”

“Yeah, but you won’t go to Mexico and train him. That’s why we’re here doing this,"
Frank barks.

“You think you have room to learn two more?”

"What about a diving double axe handle?"

"No, that's someone else's."

"Somersault leg drop?"

"Oh yeaaaaah! X?"

"Jerry, lay on the ground so I can practice."

"Dios mio."


You know you wanted a montage of XYZ doing a slow-motion (again, because of Mars) somersault leg drop onto Wild Jerry. The first one is rough. The second one is better. The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth ones are the same as the second. But the seventh try? That was money.

"Diving headbutt? Tommy will never see it coming."

"It's a great move when you're near the end of the match. X?"

"Jerry?"

"Give me your worst."


X's first three attempts are all wonky, but he eventually gets the timing down and starts placing his headbutt right into the chest of the target. After the last one, Wild Jerry rises up and asks a poignant question.

"Yo, X. How'd you just ... know and learn those moves so fast. We ain't even tell you how to do 'em."

"I think 'diving headbutt' is self-explanatory,"
Lizzy jests.

XYZ gives it some thought. Then he explains that it's likely because he held the Tentacle of Knowledge briefly when they were on the International Space Station a few weeks ago. Maybe he can learn things quickly because of that.

“Damn, amigo! That shit’s a cheat code, yo!”

“Yeah, X. You can learn every wrestling move in the world now!”

“No. I won’t. I will not. I didn’t know before, so it wasn’t technically cheating, but I know now, so I have no excuse.”

“Look, man. Wikipedia page of every wrestling move ever. All you gotta do is read it!”

“I won’t.”

“Fine. It’s a Wikipedia page on how to make jambalaya then.”

“Ooo, I do like jambalaya.”

“No, X! It’s a trick!”
Christian shouts, louder than necessary.

“AYE! C’mon, gringoooo!”

“I won’t cheat. It’s not fair, and it’s not something a superhero would do. If I’m going to learn how to fly, then I need to do it as a superhero would. I have to win honorably, if nothing else because Tommy Bedlam deserves whoever beats him to do so honorably.”

“This fool, man. He has the whole world in his hands and he’s gonna be all honorable ‘n shit. Aye carumba.”

“But I will monologue about my new knowledge of the wrestling art of flying high,"
XYZ proclaims.

"Oh great. A monologue. That always helps."





XYZ space-walks off from the rest of the group and looks out into the vastness of space. He spots what must be earth, a bright white dot that's not twinkling like the hundreds of others. Considering earth is the only planet visible to the human eye from the surface of Mars, that dot must be their destination, and the location of Lights Out.

XYZ thinks of Tommy Bedlam. He thinks of the X Championship. He thinks of their match. He thinks of the challenge he laid down, the challenge Tommy accepted, and how XYZ won't be able to challenge again for the X Championship if he loses this match. He also thinks of his other near-misses and close-calls trying to win the X Championship against Alyster Black. He thinks about how he did not adjust following the first loss, or the second loss. Now he is pivoting and trying to learn his opponent in a more intimate manner.

He thinks more about the 6-foot-4 Tommy Bedlam. He considers the 244 pounds of muscle compared to his own 180 pounds. He thinks about the uppercuts Tommy delivered at the Anniversary Show. The scoop powerslams. The spinebusters. The headbutts. The Lou Thez press. The Alabama slams. The spear. The big boots. And the "Last Call" clothesline. XYZ thinks of these power-style wrestling moves, an arsenal deserving of respect from a worthy opponent of honor. X thinks about the hardcore style that Tommy employed to defeat him.

And then X thinks about the "High Fly" heritage of the X Championship. Remember touching the Tentacle of Knowledge? Just giving a small thought to the X Championship revealed the lengthy history of the belt. Where it came from, and how it merged from two titles, the Hardcore Championship and the High Fly Championship. If Tommy is to be the Hardcore heritage, then XYZ will meet him with fly.

These are the internal proclamations X is making as he looks up at that stagnant dot in the sky. He feels a renewed hope now, one he did not have when they landed on Mars. X was resigned to "try again" with the same approach and hope for a different result. Thankfully, he has the Menage to help him evolve.

"Tommy ... you are many millions of miles from me right now ... but in just a couple of days ... we will be mere feet from one another. I do not need to fly myself to reach you. I have the Magic School Bus for that.

I do not need to fly myself to be worthy of being your challenger. I did that -- beat Jason Randall and the Walker of Death -- without flying.

But in order to beat you ... I must fly."

A breath taken. A necessary moment.

"I know I am no superhero. I wear this cape around my neck as a symbol of hope and courage, but I cannot fly through space on my own as I please. I can, however, fly in that ring. I have always had those seeds, and now I will let the flower bloom. If that is not enough, then let this be the end of my X Championship attempts. Let this be the curtain call for a two-year effort.

But it's fitting, isn't it? The heritage of this belt is now seeing its two branches against one another. You are the brute force of hardcore. I am the flying spirit of highness. Let's put it to the test. I am nothing if not with my honor."

Another beat.

"But when we meet in that ring, there is more than just some flip-cup bunny rabbit moves that I'll throw at you. I will throw everything at you, Tommy of the Bedlam Clan. I will give you every lightning strike in the woods of Tandar. I will bust out every thunderous roar of the sea lion's mating call. I will jolt the hurricane from the sky above and rip the current down like Thor's beating heart breaking into hundreds of pieces that serve as glass shards of blood-stained oak pine.

DO YOU KNOW WHERE THE CLOCK STRIKES TWO ABOARD THE SUN-SPILT PLANE?! DO YOU HAVE THE ROASTED CHICKEN SITTING IN YOUR GRAVEYARD?! DO YOU PLUNDER THE TREASURE CHEST AT THE DEEPEST DEPTHS OF THE HOURGLASS?! WILL YOU HAVE THE COURAGE TO REJECT THE ADVANCES OF THE DANGEROUS DANDYLION?!

THERE IS A STORM COMING, TOMMY! THERE IS A FIERY STORM OF FLY IN YOUR FUTURE! I BRING THE HEART AND SOUL OF THOUSANDS WHO WISH FOR BETTER DAYS, WHO LOOK TO SOMEONE TO GIVE THEM THAT FRAIL SENSE OF LONGING! I INJECT PRIDE AND HONOR IN THE HEARTS OF MEN WHO RISE AND SHINE ONLY TO FIND INJUSTICE!

I can only give you my best. My high-flying best. If that's not enough this time, then I surrender to a worthy champion.

But even if you win, Tommy ...

Even if you discard me, and my newfound ability to fly so high, higher than the brute force of your physique and upbringing ...

You can never kill my spirit.

Not totally.

Not all the way.

You can never end me, or my mission, forever.

Not that you'd even want to, but if you did, you could not.

So win or lose, Tommy, I will stand and shake your hand. You've been admirable, and I will either be the X Champion, or I will simply be ... a Champion of something else.

A champion of hope. A champion of courage. A champion of the air. A champion ... of space. Because a champion never gives up.

And because ..."


X then points up into the sky at what he surmises is Earth..

"THE DREAM ...

NEVER ...

DIES!"

As X rests his arm to his side, he smiles.

"Hey, X. Bus is ready."