Meltdown XXVIII & Fallout 028 || Promo Thread.

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The Golden One

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Dreams Can Fly Pt. 2



Christian Howard has spent the past couple of weeks studying wrestling matches. Just pouring his work days into wrestling matches. Singles matches. Tag team matches. Triple threat matches. All sorts of them.

The only running theme is a specific wrestler participating in all of them. In every match, XYZ is involved. He wins as many as he loses. He has bright moments, and he has head-scratching moments.

He’s your epitome of an up-and-down wrestler. It’s no wonder he has been close but never won a singles championship in his lengthy wrestling career. Then again, he may not mind, considering his intergalactic “battles” and “quests” as a superhero. There’s also the traumatic events with “Big Al” and his entire childhood. There’s a lot to XYZ’s story, so it’s probably not surprising if not winning any singles championship yet hasn’t registered as a major mental setback.

But Christian Howard has registered it. He registers it after watching X’s most-recent match: the Carnal Contendership match.

He registers it because he, as the Director of Superhero Apparel for ShirtScapes, has set up a meeting with XYZ and the rest of the Menage. Angelo Bastecki, the CEO fo ShirtScapes, will join them.

To recap from two weeks ago – when we first met Christian and Angelo – ShirtScapes is the only international-operating business headquartered in the small, 8,000-resident town of Abingdon, Virginia. ShirtScapes has a few profitable sectors of its business, but superhero apparel is not one of them.

They don’t sell their capes, masks, or T-shirts well in this department. They don’t have any deals with Batman or Superman or Robinhood or any of the name-brand superheroes of the world. After a brainstorming session, Christian and Angelo landed on looking at FWA wrestlers.

Not the top names like Michelle von Horrowitz or Chris Peacock or Danny Toner or Shawn Summers or, hell, even Cyrus Truth. No, they were looking at XYZ, who actually portrays a superhero.

Angelo Bastecki wasn’t confident in this approach. Christian Howard felt it was throwing a dart at a dartboard from 1,000 feet away, which is to say he doesn’t feel confident, either. However, Christian feels they have to try something, and this is that something. Angelo just frowns and groans at it all.

“What’s our strategy?” Angelo asks the day before their big meeting with XYZ and The Menage. “What’s the gameplan?”

“Play to his emotions. XYZ is an emotional person. He has been through a lot. We don’t want to disrupt who he is at the co…”

“I think we need him to bend to our needs,”
Angelo says in response. "This ain't some NBA player or NFL player. This isn't some hotshot. This isn't even a champion in the FWA. This is like ... a nobody. I'm almost embarrassed to be doing this with him. Even meeting with him. I watched his stuff. It's a joke."

This sentiment is the opposite of what Christian was expressing, but the Director of Superhero Apparel is not the CEO. Angelo is his boss, so he has to listen. Christian thinks there's something about XYZ that gravitates people toward him. Not everyone, but a good number of them. He thinks people genuinely like XYZ and root for him and want to see him succeed. He thinks there's a likability factor that could make people buy ShirtScapes apparel for the underdog nature of both X and the company. Again, the company is behind some big-name brands in the superhero apparel department, so it's an underdog situation.

For this reason, the more Christian watches XYZ matches, he thinks it's a perfect fit. But his boss believes the opposite.

“XYZ has never won a singles championship. He has never been a consistent winner. He has never been anything more than a wildcard. An X-factor. He needs to adjust who he is to meet what we need. He needs to be ... better. And he needs to convince us of where he's going.”

“And what do we need?”
Christian asks, as the pair sit in the conference room of the upstairs office building where ShirtScapes operates in “downtown” Abingdon.

“We need someone to wear our brand, say a slogan with our brand, and just flash everything there is about ShirtScapes all over TV and everywhere else.”

“I just don’t think that’s quite who XYZ is or what he will go for,”
Christian says. "And I don't see XYZ the same way you do."

“Trust me. XYZ will go for it. He needs us more than we need him.”


Angelo’s confidence is admirable, if not misplaced, in Christian’s view. However, he won’t dispute his CEO. This is apparently the plan for tomorrow’s meeting. If it works, it works.

Christian just doesn’t think it’s going to work. He has been watching XYZ matches going back to 2017. He saw the Warriors of Virtue -- XYZ and Lord Dog -- win the FWA Tag Team Championships. He watched XYZ go through the entire "Big Al cancer" stuff and end with Al's death. And he watched X nearly win the X Championship twice.

Through all of that, he has watched XYZ never waver in his personal goals, ambitions, of worldviews. He watched XYZ still talk about the force of the dragon's heart and the spirit of the dolphin's foot in the grand scope of the universe and yada-yada something about the night sky. He feels like he knows who XYZ is and what he stands for. A puppet for branding? That isn’t XYZ. Not at all.

“But we’ll see,” Christian thinks to himself.






When XYZ walked up the steps of the two-story commercial building to the upstairs loft space with two rooms – both rather cramped – he doesn't know what to expect. He isn't sure if there will be 2 people or 20 people waiting for him and his friends. Maybe there could be more? More sounds insane for a sponsorship and marketing pitch, but who knows? This is the first sponsorship opportunity of XYZ's career. This is the first business partnership venture with any brand – albeit a small one.

XYZ didn't know what to expect when the Magic School Bus landed in Abingdon, Virginia to reach the headquarters of ShirtScapes, a custom designer and printer of primarily T-shirts, hoodies, and drinkware. None of those three are why X is here today, standing in a general work room along with his five closest allies watching four people at computers type away while trying not to look too awkward in their attempted ignoring of The Menage.

And as XYZ stands in this room and waits to be ushered into the “conference room” in the back, he doesn’t know what to expect when he enters.

But … this isn’t XYZ’s story, is it?

This story is about ShirtScapes, specifically about the Director of Superhero Apparel.

Who is noticeably quiet throughout the first five minutes of the meeting.

“I wanted us to all meet here to discuss this partnership opportunity,” Angelo Bastecki says in the king’s chair of the conference room, with everyone sitting around the long oval-shaped table.

Next to Angelo on his right is Christian. To his left is XYZ, and next to XYZ are, in order, Frank, Wild Jerry, and Sierra. PacMan Bert didn’t want to get off the Magic School Bus for this. He’d rather play PacMan alone while watching Sierra’s toddler-age child. The Menage joined X on this because they wanted to show him support. It has been a rough few months for everyone. Wild Jerry, Frank, and PacMan Bert lost their friend, Sauce Man, while Sierra and her daughter lost Golden. Both left. They found X, who had just lost Big Al.

They're leaning on one another more than ever. The Menage needs each other.

“We think there’s something here, but we also think … I think … that who XYZ has been is only the tip of the iceberg. Can he be … more?”

“More … in what way?”
Frank says, speaking up to defend X.

“More … well … and please don’t take offense to this … more serious.”

That singular statement sets an uncomfortable tone to the meeting, and it never really recovers. As Angelo attempts to reposition his stance while also getting across the main point of having XYZ “represent” ShirtScapes as a “serious superhero”, the entire Menage shuts down and shuts him out. XYZ never speaks once. Frank, Wild Jerry, and Sierra all speak for him.

“To call him not serious enough is a slap in the face,” Sierra says, coming to X’s defense in a moment of solidarity after she joined up with the group when “The Golden One” left what he would call “this place.”

“Aye, this gringo is a fool, yo!” Wild Jerry shouts to X towards the end of the meeting.

“We have better things to do, and he just wants us to wear his shitty capes and shirts with his company on them. He doesn’t know a thing about who you are, X!”

“I DO know who he is!”
Angelo retorts, getting defensive and angry.

“Who is he then?” Frank says, the calmest of anyone who has spoken.

“He’s a man who had a traumatic life event more than 20 years ago when his mom left him on the side of the road, and he mentally has never gotten over that moment. He has abandonment issues, and he has a child-like wonder that has sept into a personality disorder and schizophrenia. And now he walks around with a piece of cloth tied to his neck and calls it a cape so he can say he is trying to save the world. I’ve watched the promos. I’ve read articles.”

“That ain’t who X is, yo. That’s just facts about his life and personality. That ain’t who he is at the CORE, gringo,”
says Wild Jerry, who gets up from his chair.

“I know who he is. And I’m trying to help him get PAST that and evolve past that into something more … well-rounded, for both himself and for us. For both of our benefits!”

Remember how Christian has been quiet? All this time, Christian has been eyeing up XYZ from across the table. Christian has given up on Angelo getting anything out of this with his strategy. He just wants to see X’s reaction, and he’s noting how stoic and observant XYZ has been the entire time.

“XYZ can be a powerful force. He can be a role model. He can be more than the laughingstock who says gibberish and ascites as comedic fuel in a sea filled with seriousness. ShirtScapes wants XYZ to wear ShirtScapes capes and masks and more, but we need someone to represent this brand and get people to BUY it. No one is buying XYZ apparel. No one believes in XYZ apparel right now. Because no one believes in XY…”

Before Angelo finishes, he stops himself. He feels he is going too far with this line of thinking and wants to reel it in. Even he knows this isn’t going anywhere.

“Then who is he? You tell me,” Angelo says, sitting back and folding his arms.

Frank jumps in.

“He’s a believer, and he wants a family. He’s a believer in people. In the universe. In nature. He believed in us. He took us in. He didn’t have to, but he wanted to. He wanted people around him. It was originally just one person. Now it’s a handful of them.”

Then Sierra.

“He believes in everything he does. No matter if I or you or a therapist or anyone else tells him it isn’t real, he still believes. Because HE might not be real. YOU might not be real. I might not be real.

But he continues to believe. He’s a believer. You can think anything you want with that word: believe. Belief. Believer. Let your mind run wild. He encompasses all of it, different for everyone. Different for each one of us. Not every day is good, but X keeps believing.”

“That’s who XYZ is, yo!” Wild Jerry says, finishing it up.

“Well, none of that means anything really.”

“Yeah, well, it’s time to go.”


Sierra’s statement concludes the meeting, and Angelo is done trying to salvage it. XYZ even gets up and begins to walk out, but Angelo says one last thing.

“You say, ‘The dream never dies,’ right?” Angelo asks, rhetorically. “Well, that doesn’t mean anything, either. You need a new catchphrase.”

“He sure as hell don’t!”
Wild Jerry barks.

“Dreams are just that, dreams,” Angelo says, softly, almost as if he's issuing a proverb. “To see them dashes is to live a true life. For we cannot bottle up the wind.”

He then leans back in his chair and looks out across the table with nothing but a lost expression. Wild Jerry scoffs. Sierra follows. Frank shakes his head.

XYZ stands there for a second and smiles. For the first time all meeting, he speaks.

“But still, we must continue to dream, my friend. We must continue to dream. Because the dream … never … dies.”

“You’ll never win a singles championship with that mentality. You’ll never be taken seriously.”

“Maybe not.”







A few days later, on the eve of the latest round of Fallout and Meltdown shows for the FWA, and on the eve of a Television Championship match for XYZ, Christian Howard is cleaning out his desk within what was his assigned cubicle in the ShirtScapes office.

Yes, on this date, May 7, 2023, Christian Howard has been let go from the company. Angelo felt XYZ was not a good fit for the brand, and he decided to let Christian go of his duties and position, largely due to the lacking momentum of the Superhero section, and the last straw was suggesting XYZ as a poster child for that department.

Christian Howard feels it wasn’t his fault, and he feels there was still something to be had with the meeting, if he could do it his way and build a line in his image. However, Angelo railroaded the whole thing, and here we are.

Remember, this is mostly Christian’s story, if only because he’s the person most affected by what has happened.

As he finally packs up the last part of his desk, Angelo Bastecki walks out of his office and surprisingly offers to walk Christian out.

“I don’t want hard feelings. It comes down to money.”

Christian doesn’t want to burn a bridge, so he just nods his head.

When they finally reach the bottom of the staircase, Angelo begrudgingly opens the door and lets out a wayward, “I’m sorry it had to happen this way. I just can’t …”

But his hollow sentiments are halted at the sight of the Magic School Bus parked outside of the office building. XYZ, Wild Jerry, Sierra, Frank, and this time even PacMan Bert, are all leaning against the outside of the bus like a punk rock band in the midst of a Rolling Stones magazine photoshoot.

XYZ, who has a green cloth around his neck serving as a cape, walks up and looks Christian in the eye.

“I will always welcome someone who believes … what I believe … in my family. And I think you believe. Do you?”

Christian, still holding his box of trinkets and word supplies, struggles to find the words.

“I want to believe.”

“And if I told you … you could dream far beyond this … from lightyear to galaxy stone … and from pebble on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean … to a fly’s wing on the outskirts of Saturn’s icy rings … would you let yourself dream that dream?”

“I … I don’t know. It sounds pretty far.”

“It is far. It is far. But do you see that School Bus behind me?”

“Yes.”

“Do you believe it can fly?”

“Yes.”

“Then do you believe dreams can fly?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t know why you’re wasting your time here then ... with someone who doesn't believe or dream as you do."

“Do you have pizza rolls?”

“Lots of them. Wild Jerry and PacMan Bert eat them every day.


Christian Howard is sold, and why wouldn’t he be? He just got fired from his job, he has no family or friends, and he’s completely lost in his life trajectory. But, as XYZ would say, maybe his life situation isn’t as bleak as he’d think. Maybe his life situation offers endless possibilities, and maybe it allows Christian to do something like this.

As Christian boards the Magic School Bus while holding his office trinkets and seemingly joins the Menage, the rest of the crew all shout and clap and cheer in unison! They follow along as XYZ smiles, seeing his camaraderie group grow yet again.

Angelo Bastecki, meanwhile, is now the one silently watching. He and X lock eyes, just as they did a few times during the tense and unproductive meeting just two days ago.

XYZ then pulls a bottle out of his pocket. It’s an empty glass bottle with no branding on it. He then underhand tosses it 4 feet through the air to Angelo, who catches it out of muscle memory.

“What’s this?”

“You said we cannot bottle up the wind.”


Angelo looks up from the bottle at XYZ, who simply smirks at him.

“That wind is from the planet Udarpas in the Sauna galaxy. It’s good wind. It’s strong.”

“Yeah? Okay. Whatever you say. That's not a real place."

"Maybe not. And maybe I'll never win a singles championship. But as long as people believe in me, and as long as I keep getting chances ...


People like you ... who try to change me ... and tell me I'm doing it wrong ... or I need to grow up and get over it all ... you're going to have to sweat it out.

Every day is another chance to dream.

And dreams can fly.

And you CAN bottle up the wind."

X pauses.

"Well ... some people can."

XYZ simply nods his head and jumps on the bus, closing the door behind him. Angelo watches from the sidewalk as the Magic School Bus rumbles down the street of Abingdon and out of sight. It never takes flight, affirming Angelo’s non-beliefs in XYZ’s whole “shtick.”

That is until he opens the bottle and feels a gust of wind blow out and smack him in the face.​
 

Tig

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4th Era, 220
Near Dragon Bridge, Haafingar.

A white-skinned man in tattered rags nervously looks over his shoulder at the small, make-shift camp behind him, and breathes a sigh of relief as he reconfirms to himself that it is indeed empty. He softly scratched his mustache, something that had been causing him a constant itch lately - he presumed it was mites of some kind, owing to the dirt he routinely felt coated in - and took stock of his surroundings; he had been told to look for a slightly off-color boulder but though there was boulder aplenty, they all looked pretty much the same to him. The man and the elf he had met outside of Dragon Bridge had been right with all their information so far. They were right about the hidden trail through the woodlands leading to the camp. They were right about the camp being unoccupied at this time. Why would they be wrong about the boulder? They had seemingly done their research, and the grubby-looking man hoped of course that they were right that the end of his search would yield the great reward they had promised.

He had been skeptical about setting off on the mere tip of two complete strangers, but he had not eaten anything other than poorly cooked rodents for a while, Skeever-meat had been his diet for the past week, and he badly needed to have some luck. He badly needed food. He needed money, and he had no traditional way of earning a Septim or two out here. The chance encounter with the elf and the man nearly seemed too good to be true, but he felt as if he had no other choice at this juncture. Besides, the promised loot was exactly what he needed. He could not eat them, but if the power they were rumored to hold was true, then he would be eating well for a very long time indeed. He looked around a bit further from the camp, examining boulders by eye and hand until one, in particular, caught his attention. It looked much the same as the others in the vicinity, but upon straining his eyes a little, the man could see that it was just a shade different from the rest. His heart began pounding a little as he approached it, and a firm hand over his own mouth was all he could do to prevent himself from yelping for joy when tucked away behind it, he saw a wooden lever.

He hurriedly pulls the lever and watches in awe as the off-color boulder shifts before his very eyes. His mouth hangs open as he stares into the small hole buried beneath where the boulder had stood, scarcely believing what was in front of him. He drops to his knees and looks at the finely-crafted gauntlets in front of him - each arm encased with a glowing ruby jewel - and finally closes his mouth. They were real. They were here. They were his. The Lemin Gauntlets. The men had told him that they would grant its wearer a mystical power that guided them to treasures and sources of great wealth. As the thoughts of what this particular power meant to somebody like him whizzed through his head, he could not help but think his problems were over, oh how he would thank the two strangers if he were ever so lucky to come across them again. Quickly remembering where he was - in a strangers camp - and what he was doing - about to take off with some very valuable loot - he swept the gauntlets into his arms and rose from his kneeling position, just in time to hear the twang of a vibrating bowstring behind him. He instantly collapses to the floor as an arrow whistles an inch over his head and a loud, brash voice shouts out.

“Goin’ somewhere, thief?”

The man’s stomach dropped and he quickly scanned around him for a stick, a sharp rock, anything that he could use as a makeshift weapon. He found himself empty-handed as a medium-sized, but well-defined man bounded across the space between them and dug a sharp, jagged dagger into the ground beside him. He froze as the man with a hardened look on his face eyed him suspiciously. The man - presumably the owner of the gauntlets - had a strange aura about him and for some reason, the thief felt an instant connection to him despite the perilous situation he found himself in.

“Don’t move a damn muscle. First things first - who the fuck are you?”

For some reason, the thief felt brazen. Something stirred in his body as the man spoke to him. Looking the man in the eyes, he defyingly barks back.

“Who the fuck are you?”

The man seems genuinely startled by this response and questioningly arches an eyebrow before slowly speaking.

“You aren’t exactly in a position to be askin’ questions, pal. Tell me… you’re not from here, are you? You aren’t from Skyrim.”

The thief shakes his head and clutches the gauntlets closer to his chest.

“I’m from the Imperial City in Cyrodiil. How could you tell?”

To the thief’s surprise, the man reaches down and takes his dagger back, sheathing it in his leather belt. He offers him a hand, but not wanting to let go of his newly-found treasure, the thief rises of his own accord.

“That’s where I’m from.”

The man breaks into a smile as the thief looks around, unsure where this is going, or what fate awaited him once the man remembered he had just caught him in the act of stealing. Being two outsiders from the same city would only go so far when it came down to it. Still, the longer he kept him talking, the greater chance the thief had of escaping.

“So that’s how you knew, what district are you from?”

“The Waterfront, but that ain’t what’s important right now-”

“Me too!”

The man paused and looked at the thief strangely once again. He narrowed his eyes and asked what was, in the thief's mind, a very random question.

“Tell me, what is your birth sign?”

“My birth sign?”

“What constellation was in the sky the night you were born? Was it The Serpent? Perhaps, The Rogue?”

The thief slowly shook his head.

“I was born on a starless night, I have no birth sign.”

The man’s eyes widened slightly and he began shaking his head, muttering to himself.

“I freakin’ knew it… I felt it straight away, he doesn’t talk like the rest of them. Heh. Here I was thinkin’ we were all accounted for by this stage.”

“Sorry, but what are you talking about?”

The man brought his muttering to a stop and placed a firm hand on the thief’s shoulder.

“Thousands of men, mer, and elves are born under each of the birth signs, but an extremely select few are born on a starless night. Those that are, are said to be blessed by The Five Gods.”

“The Five Gods?”

“Batlatanca, Jimkingi, Maneleth, Dubbhar, and Supinella.”

“I’ve never heard of any of those deities.”

“Few have, the story goes that those five were so much more powerful than any of the other Gods, that they transcended into a higher realm. Those born on a starless night are said to be blessed by them and possess hidden powers that set them apart from everyone else in this world. I felt the aura as soon as you spoke. You sound different, but not because you’re from Cyrodiil, it’s somethin’ else, somethin’ that can’t quite be fingered as any one thing… it’s just an aura.”

The thief glance at the man, increasingly sure he’s stumbled across some crazed lunatic who lives out here on his own. Though, he concedes to himself - he did feel some sort of connection as soon as the man spoke to him.

“Friend… you’re like me. You’re one of the F Warriors.”

“The what?”

“We’re called F Warriors, there’s around 30 of us in Skyrim, maybe a little more.”

“Us? You all… you all spend time with each other?”

“Only those that like each other, or are forced to. The F Warriors are feared by normal citizens, so we make efforts to keep ourselves hidden. There are F Warriors in every corner of Skyrim, from mages in The College of Winterhold to revered warriors in The Blades. The F Warriors have been forgotten about and everybody seems happy to keep it that way. Nobody knows what the purpose of an F Warrior is, there are few friends amongst the F Warriors themselves, we all just do our own thing… but you will tend to know when ya run into another. Come with me, come with me and I’ll teach ya everythin’ I know about the F Warriors.”

The thief scoffs and has a disbelieving look etched across his face. He had decided the man was either gone in the head or perhaps addled by a Skooma addiction. Either way, his initial fear had disappeared and he felt that his chances of getting out of there - gauntlets intact - were only increasing by the second.

“Listen, I’m going to pass on that one, I’m out of here… and I’m taking these with me.”

The man simply shrugs and stands aside.

“Take’em. I don’t need them. You’re free to go, I’m a lot of things but I ain’t a slit-throat nor am I a member of The Dark Brotherhood, you can-”

The thief jumps up to his feet and backs away.

“The Dark Brotherhood? The assassins from the tall tales told by parents to their children? You’ve got something wrong in that head of yours, man. F Warriors and The Dark Brotherhood, you’re crazy, man.”

The thief turns and begins running as fast as he can, the squelchy underneath of the ground penetrating the various holes and tears in his shoes and soaking his feet. Only when he had run for a minute straight did he chance a backward glance - he wasn’t being followed. He slowed to a walk and decided to return to the cabin where he had met the two strangers. They sent him into a raving lunatic's lair. He may have gotten the gauntlets but he considered himself lucky to have gotten out of there with his life. He sets off in the direction of the cabin, unaware that he was being closely followed.

After several minutes of hiking, the thief approaches the cabin and glances in the window. There was no sign of any movement or anything to indicate that the cabin was presently occupied. He figured they must have gone to the nearby town of Dragon Bridge. He eyes the lock on the door and wonders if he’d be able to pick it. It wasn’t his strong suit but it didn’t look like that difficult of a lock. He groans as he realizes his pouch of lock picks must have fallen from his tunic when he hit the ground earlier. Still, the whole endeavor hasn’t proved entirely worthless; perhaps this was the gods - the real ones - way of telling him to get out while he was ahead.

“Lookin’ for somethin’?”

“SHIT!”

The thief nearly jumps out of his skin before turning to face the man from the campsite, who is standing there grinning two rows of straight, white teeth with his lock pick pouch in one hand, and a dagger in the other. He tosses the pouch to the thief.

“Tell me somethin’, who lives here? Was it the person that told you where to find me?”

Regaining his composure following the startle, the thief answers the questions posed.

“Firstly, I wasn’t looking for you. I just wanted the gauntlets, they said you wouldn’t be there and… what’s wrong?”

For the first time in their encounters, the thief saw sorry on the man’s face.

They? Two males?”

The thief nods his head.

“A guy like us? An Imperial? And a High-Elf?”

The thief once again nods his head, compelled to give an answer in some fashion upon learning that the crazy man seemed to know exactly who had guided him to the gauntlets and the camp.

“Fuck!”

The man immediately runs to the side of the cabin and begins carving the wood with his knife while talking.

“That was The Bard and Siemprien. If they were the ones who sent you to steal from me, then lemme just tell ya; they weren’t trying to do you any favors. They were trying to weaken me, even if that meant you dying.”

“I knew the risks. I knew I was stealing something.”

“You think you understood the risks, the reality is a whole freakin’ different game.”

The man steps back from the carving - an upside-down triangle with a line running through the triangle, the triangle penetrating a circle.

“What’s your name, pal?”

“I’m not your pal, but the name is Coin Purse Chris.”

The man laughs aloud, a hearty, meaningful one.

“Where did you get such a name?”

“On The Waterfront. I was pretty good at taking things when people weren’t looking. What’s yours?”

“They call me Danny The Dodger.”

Chris nods his head.

“What is that?”

Coin Purse Chris points at the symbol.

“It’s called a shadowmark. It means ‘danger’, it’s to warn people like us. The guys in here can’t be taken down with a direct approach, it needs somethin’ a little bit more refined.”

“Like us? Are you going to start talking about that F Warrior stuff again?”

Danny The Dodger gives Chris a wry smile.

“Nah, pal, I told ya; the F Warriors have integrated into society so when I say us… I mean us thieves.”

For the first time since Chris met Danny, he looks him in the eye… and smiles.


SHADOW HIDE YOU.
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“PROTECTED.”


4th Era, 221
Solitude, Haafingar.

Solitude is not only the capital of The Hold of Haafingar but it is also a major trading city, arguably the most important in Skryim due to its large port. While impressive vessels docking at the port and rich merchants selling exotic wares lend a sense of credibility to the place, it was undeniably a breeding ground for those inclined to err on the wrong side of the law. For every trader selling the finest clothes imported from Cyrodiil, there was a lurcher waiting to filch his good and sell them at a knock-off price. For every proud and noble captain that disembarked his ship, there was an outlaw creeping onto the same one, trying to find a way out of the city he was wanted in. For every honest Septim made, there was triple the made by unscrupulous means by marauders, bandits, con artists, and highwaymen. Opportunities are limitless in Solitude, there is a fortune to be made, but how one chooses to go about this was left to the individual. There was a saying in Skyrim often used when talking about the wealth disparity in the region that “money follows money” but in Solitude, shadowy individuals follow money. This hub of criminal activity is where Danny The Dodger has been helping Coin Purse Chris hone his skills.

Chris had proven true to his word and was an adept pickpocket, capable of stroking the coin purse of almost any unfortunate soul that happened to pass him by. However, Danny had reiterated to him that this was base-level stuff and that he needed to think bigger if he was to eke out a good living as a thief. Lockpicking, stealth training, home burglary, and heist planning were the general order of the day, and this day was no different as far as Danny was concerned. However, though Chris was constantly hungry for more information and eager to improve, he seemed somewhat caught up on the F Warriors and their history. Danny routinely ignored questions about the topic, especially when they were training, but when Chris asked if a random passer-by was an F Warrior for the umpteenth time that morning, Danny had reached his boiling point.

“Fuckin’ hell, man! F Warrior this, F Warrior that! For somebody who doesn’t believe in the F Warriors and The Five Gods, ya don’t half fuckin’ talk about it! I told ya already; don’t pay any heed to that. Who is an F Warrior, or what the other ones are doing doesn’t matter. The only person that matters is yourself.”

Chris winks at Danny, giving a chirpy reply.

“And you of course? Where would I be without you?”

“Your sarcasm isn’t as undetectable as you think, Coin Purse. Remind me we need to work on your speechcraft and uh, your general charisma. If you are ever stupid enough to be caught with your hand in a lockbox, remember a-”

“A smile and a good story go a long way, yeah, I got it, Danny, seriously.”

“You have it? You freakin’ have it? You haven’t even scratched the surface yet! You have a hell of a long way to go before I bring you to-”

Danny cuts himself off mid-sentence but Chris eagerly presses.

“Bring me where?”

“Nothin’, don’t worry about it.”

Chris is outwardly annoyed, but he knows after spending some time with Danny that there’s no point pushing it as he’ll either clam up or just outright lie. If Danny didn’t want to tell Chris something, there wasn’t much he could do about that. Danny sighs and lights the end of his pipe, looking out at the port.

“There ain’t many ships here today, I don’t think we’re gonna get much action again. Been like this the last few days…”

Chris perks his ear at this, he had been craving a jug of mead from The Winking Skeever, the tavern he and Danny were currently holed up in. He turns his head towards Danny, hope in his eyes.

“So does that mean that robbing school is canceled today?”

“One, I told ya to stop callin’ it that, and two, ABSO-FUCKIN’-LUTELY NOT! I think it’s time we brushed up on some theory, whaddya say?”

Chris groans and allows his head to sink into his hands. Danny was near-obsessive about knowing all about the greatest robberies and the masterminds behind them throughout history. Chris didn’t quite share his passion, he rathered look toward what may come in the future, rather than what happened in the past. Still, he had some decent Septims working under Danny, and they had a nice stash of gear that should fetch a decent price holed away in their room at The Winking Skeever. For now, Chris reluctantly listened to what Danny had to say in most instances.

“Aight then, maybe it’s time I tell ya about The Gray Fox.”

“The Gray Fox?”

“Only the greatest thief in the history of the whole damn continent.”

“Who was he?”

“Well, that’s the beauty of it… nobody knows who it is. We don’t even know if it’s a male.”

“The Gray Fox? Sure sounds like a male. Where is he based? Where does he operate?”

“The Gray Fox was last known to be active in Cyrodiil some two hundred years ago, but many-”

Chris scrunches up his face enough that Danny has no choice but to take notice.

“What now?”

“Two hundred years ago? I mean, surely we can talk about someone a little more modern? I don’t think I’m going to learn much from a two-hundred-year-old corpse.”

“He ain’t dead.”

“I thought you didn’t know if it was a he or not?”

“FUCKIN’ HELL, CHRIS! JUST LET ME TELL THE FUCKING STORY!”

“Sheesh, alright, alright, don’t get your undergarments in a twist.”

Danny speaks through gritted teeth.

“Thank you.”

He takes a second to relight his pipe.

“See, The Gray Fox gets his name from the cowl he wears over his face. Now it ain’t exactly ground-breaking for a thief to conceal his face but this cowl, this cowl is special. It’s the Cowl of Nocturnal. You know Nocturnal, right? The Daedric Prince?”

Chris nods his head in affirmation.

“His cowl is crazily powerful, it was made for criminals like us. Ya think them gauntlets you have are useful? You’d wanna see this thing. It fortifies just about every skill you could potentially use during a robbery, but the real kicker is that anybody who wears the cowl, cannot be identified. It harnesses such strong illusion magic that if I put the cowl on right in front of you now… you wouldn’t know that it’s me underneath it, as soon as I slip it on I’m The Gray Fox. Danny The Dodger wouldn’t even enter your brain. I can take that baby off right in front of you and you will instantly forget I had it on me. That’s its true power: it makes somebody unidentifiable.”

“So, The Gray Fox isn’t any one person, whoever dons the mask is The Gray Fox?”

“Quick off the mark for a low-life from The Waterfront, ain’t ya? Now, don’t get me wrong, those of us that are deep into this way of living know it more than likely isn’t the same person runnin’ around all these years but to the everyday citizen, they think of him as an ageless master criminal, the name shrouded in infamy.”

“Wait, hold up… so whoever wears the cowl can commit a crime, and even if they are seen doing so, they can just take it off and any witness will forget about it?”

“They won’t forget about it, they’ll just think The Gray Fox did it and they will never know you are The Gray Fox.”

“Fucking hell, it’s a constant get-out-of-jail pass. That’s the perfect tool for what we do.”

“The Cowl of Nocturnal is somethin’ everybody wants, the power it brings its holder is unparalleled. If you were to somehow get your hands on that you’d be set for life. It’s worth more than anything else in this world to guys like you and me.”

They sit in silence for a few moments, Chris impatiently tapping his foot while thinking about how great it would be to have the Cowl of Nocturnal, Danny slumped in a seated position against a wall, puffing on his pipe. He watches the plumes of smoke curl upwards for a second or two before clearing his throat and speaking.

“Y’know, I think we’ve ransacked this place pretty good and proper, Chris. Maybe it’s time we moved on to something else. In fact, you know what? We’re leaving tomorrow.”

“What!? Just like that? You’ve made your mind up already?”

“Gotta stay ahead of the curve man, shit moves fast in this game. Stop for a second and you’ll be bypassed. Don’t worry, I’ll source somewhere new for us to ransack. We’re done for the day, you’re free to do what you want. Meet ya in The Winking Skeever for a drink tonight? We should celebrate the good fortune this city has brought us.”

Chris rises from the ground and dusts himself off, he looks down at his fineries and can’t help but agree. The city has been good to them. Though he still felt there was one more job that they could hit, that he could hit. He was eager to impress Danny and he had scouted a pretty big target out over their time in the city. If he was being honest, he couldn’t believe that Danny hadn’t scoped it yet. Maybe he didn’t need Danny as much as he thought.

“Sounds good, friend. I have a bit of business to attend to before we take our leave, I’ll see you back at The Skeever.”

Danny waves Chris away, watching him walk up the alley back towards the city center and slowly merge into the ragtag crowd. He found himself thinking about how they met, how The Bard and Siemprien had sent Chris to his camp. Granted, there was no love lost between those two and Danny and his partner - not Chris, but his actual running buddy who was away doing a solo job on Summerset Isle - but up until this point, it had been a Cold War, they hadn’t physically attacked one another as a tandem just yet. Danny sighed, they were growing bolder, and he needed to speak to his consigliere in the city and get word to his partner. Chris was too raw to count on as back up and Danny had a slight hunch that Chris had been left rather dazzled by The Bard’s coolness. No, he needed to seek the counsel of somebody he knew he could unequivocally trust.

He pours the contents of his pipe onto the ground, allowing the ash to billow around his feet in small clouds before standing up and stretching. He cracks his neck and makes his way through the city to his destination, ignoring the temptations along the way: the sultry cry of a heavy-chested Redguard prostitute who wasn’t shy about advertising her wares and the convincing hustling of a skooma-dealing, local Nord who ascertained that his product was the best in the whole of Haafingar. Danny finally stops at a house on the far end of the city and eyes the shadowmark on the door, one his partner had etched there not even a year ago. Danny smiles warmly at the memory and raps his knuckles against the thick oak door. It doesn’t take long for it to creak open.

“What’s happening, friend?”

A Breton - an outlier in these parts, it’s hard to pinpoint their qualities but abstract thinking and highly intelligent are the main ones - opens the door and looks extremely surprised to see Danny standing there.

“Danny The Dodger! What are you doing here, mate? It’s great to see you, but it really isn’t a good time.”

“It’s never a good time for you Dimonte, you sad sack of shit!”

Danny laughs as he brazenly pushes past the man - Dimonte - in the door frame. He only manages to take three steps inside when he freezes on the spot. Danny rubs his eyes as if they are surely playing tricks on him, but when he removes his hands from his eyes, he sees the same thing; Coin Purse Chris tied to a chair with a rag stuffed in his mouth. His eyes nearly pop out of his skull when he sees Danny and he begins talking but the rag serves its purpose and muffles all sound coming from Chris.

“You never listen, do you? Well, you’ve seen him now, you may as well help me beat the shit out of him and find out who was trying to rob me.”

Dimonte slams the door shut and looks menacingly at Chris, he takes a step forward and seems annoyed when Danny holds his arm out to stop him.

“He didn’t know, Dimonte. He doesn’t really know about anything yet.”

“Doesn’t know about… OH FUCKING HELL, MATE! He’s with you? Does that symbol you two idiots carved into my door actually do anything? You’ve got amateur thieves running around with you breaking into places like this? This wanker here was so deep into my chest that he didn’t even hear me come up before I cracked him on the head. What sort of comedy show is this, Dodger? Are you thieves or fucking jesters?”

Danny holds his hands up apologetically.

“Listen, pal, honestly the guy doesn’t know shit. I’m just training him up at the moment. It’s on me, sorry.”

Dimonte grunts and seemingly accepts Danny’s explanation. He walks over and pulls the rag from Coin Purse’s mouth, who responds with a barrage of colorful language.

“YEAH, YOU FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT! UNTIE MY FUCKING HANDS AND I’LL RIP YOUR FUCKING THROAT-”

“Chris, drop it.”

The verbal onslaught comes to an unwilling close as Chris turns his attention to Danny.

“What is going on!?”

“There’s a shadowmark on the door, like the one you saw me carve the day I met you, but different. This one means Dimonte here is protected. We don’t rob from him.”

“Protected by who? Who is we? How did you find me?”

“I’ll explain it all later but as for how I found ya? Luck, I guess. I was actually lookin’ to come to speak to you, Dimonte.”

“Oh?”

Danny claps Dimonte on the shoulder with a firm, friendly hand.

“The Bard and Siemprien are makin’ moves. I need to make one, a big one. I need my partner to come meet me, can you get word to him?”

“Of course, mate. You know I can reach anyone. You sure though? Is it really the right time to make a move? You seem… a little distracted.”

Dimonte makes no secret of what - or who - he thinks the distraction is, glaring at Chris.

“No choice, man. Gotta do it as soon as I can, they ain’t fuckin’ around.”

“You won’t be able to stick around here for long if you do. You’ll need to move. Quickly. You’re gonna need horses, and maybe even safe passage out of Haafingar after.”

Dimonte does some mental calculations and after a couple of seconds, whistles and then winces.

“You’re going to need a heavy pouch of Septims, friend.”

“I’ve some coin knocking around but most of our wealth at the moment is, uh, unrealized in its current form. I’m gonna need to shift a few things.”

“You want me to set up a meet?”

“Yeah, set it up. Be good to see the guy, in any case. He still up in the same parts?”

Dimonte nods his head as he unites Chris, who snaps his hands away as soon as he feels the rope loosening and asks a question in the same motion.

“Who are you talking about?”

Chris is ignored as Dimonte and Danny shake hands.

“Consider it done, Danny.”

“I owe you one, man, genuinely.”

“Just be safe out there, mate. Shadow hide you.”

Danny nods his head and pulls a still-questioning Chris by the arm and towards the front door before the animosity can be rekindled between his old and new friend.


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“FENCE.”


4th Era, 221
Ironback Hideout, Haafingar.

“Dimonte… he’s one of them F Warriors, isn’t he?”

The question hangs in the air, akin to the stalactites that litter the ceiling of the cramped underground tunnel Danny and Chris were traversing through. Danny shifts the burlap sack slung over his shoulder and casts a glance at Chris.

“You felt it then?”

Chris shifts his gaze downwards as they continue along the trail.

“I guess so, I got the same feeling I got when I first met you.”

Danny doesn’t comment, instead, he pushes forward along the winding path, illuminating the way with his torch. They travel in silence until they reach a ladder leading up to a trapdoor. Chris notices a small etching similar to the one on Dimonte’s house as Danny gives the ladder a firm shake, making sure it is stable. He smiles contentedly and places a hand on the wooden rung before turning to Chris. The smile vanishes from his face and he instantly reaches for his belt.

“CHRIS, WATCH OUT!”

“Huh!?”

Chris turns around just in time to see a muscular bandit roaring and swinging a spiked mace at his head, Chris jumps backward and manages to evade most of the blow, but stumbles to the ground in the process. The bandit towers over Chris, his eyes fixed on the magical gauntlets he possesses, and he lifts the mace up to deliver the final blow but a fleet-footed Danny nips underneath him and plunges his jagged dagger into the underside of his chin, not stopping until it’s up to the hilt. The man’s eyes bug out as blood pours down Danny’s hand and after an involuntary twitch, he collapses backward. Danny pulls the dagger from the bandit and wipes it on the leg of his trouser, before turning to Chris.

“You alright? You hurt?”

“Wh-what the… you just killed somebody, Danny!”

Danny shrugs.

“It was us or him. There was nothin’ I could do.”

Danny can see that Chris is visibly shaken by what just occurred. He gives the ladder a gentle tap and softly speaks.

“Go on up, Coin Purse. It’ll be safe up there. I’ve got to… look, we need this path to stay clear, we can’t attract creatures down here, just go up, I have this.”

Chris unsteadily mounted the ladder, his face as pale as the snow that cloaked the ground in Skyrim, and he climbed upwards and through the trapdoor. Danny hunches down beside the fallen bandit, speaking softly.

“You silly fool. I shoulda known you wouldn’t give up on the gauntlets. May The Five Gods bring you to a happy resting place, I’m sorry this happened, Makklain.”

Danny uses his fingers to softly close the eyelids of the fallen bandit before picking up his dropped torch and using it to set the body ablaze. Danny swiftly climbs up to the trapdoor and pulls himself out onto the snowy canvas above. Chris is staring at the ruins of a castle, awe on his face.

“You okay, Coin Purse?”

“What is this place?”

“Ironback Hideout. It was overrun with bandits but The Companions cleared it out. One of the only decent things they’ve ever done. It’s worked in our favor.”

“You’ve mentioned these Companions a few times now, who are they?”

Danny felt like Chris was deliberately talking so as to not dwell on what had just happened. Usually, he would ignore a lot of the many questions he asked him, but he felt if there was ever a time for an exception, it was now.

“Heh, The Companions… they’re a group of self-proclaimed peace-keepers, protectin’ Skyrim. If you ask me though, they take pretty much any contract that pays without too much care for who is affected. They are like-minded individuals that go on missions and think they know what’s best for everybody, but really they just further their own agenda, and pretty much do what they want. They boast some of the strongest fighters in the land but… there’s something weird about them. They don’t entirely seem human. I’m not sure, and I’m not fixin’ to find out. Honestly, I don’t think you’d like them, Chris. They left this place vacant though, which is all that really matters to us.”

Chris isn’t finished with his inquiries, immediately asking another question.

“I saw a mark on the trapdoor, what are we doing here?”

“We’re meeting a fence, but lemme give you a heads up; this fella is a bit strange. He’s a bit different.”

“Like us? Is he an F Warrior?”

“Uhhh…”

Before Danny can offer a response, a man with a bizarre, cone-shaped helmet, that completely covers his face, comes racing across the ruin and greets Danny warmly.

“Danny! It’s been so long! I’m so happy to see you! Who’s your new friend?”

Danny cracks a grin and embraces the man.

“Good to see you too, old friend. This is Coin Purse Chris, I guess ya could call him my protege. I’ve been teachin’ him the life, and he’s nearly ready. Chris, meet Koh’nae.”

Chris badly wants to ask what he’s nearly ready for but is instantly overwhelmed by an over-zealous handshake from Koh’nae.

“Pleasure to meet you, Coin Purse! Any friend of Danny is a friend of mine!”

“Uh, thanks. Good to meet you too… I think.”

Chris noticed that the man speaks with an accent different than any he had ever heard before and thought about enquiring but doesn’t get a chance as Danny presses on.

“I’m making a big play, Koh’nae. I need Septims to buy a coupla horses… I’m going to need to get out of Haafingar pretty rapidly after it’s done. We’ve got a hot item, we can’t just walk into a shop and shift it… I was wonderin’ if ya could help us out?”

“Sure thing, what do you have?”

“The Gauntlet of Lemin.”

“WHAT!?”

Chris seems shocked that Danny is offering up his prized possession. He looks down at the gauntlets on his hand and furiously shakes his head.

“No fucking way, Danny. You know what these things can lead us to! I’d be a fool of a thief to give them up.”

“Listen, Chris… why do you think I’ve let you keep them all this time? Yes, they’re a powerful object, but there’s bigger out there. We’ve outgrown them, we don’t need them anymore, we’re past that. I heard the pirate queen I stole them from is going crazy to get them back, Koh’nae here will flog them back to her for double. Trust me on this, Chris.”

Chris sighs and reluctantly removes the gauntlets, handing them to Koh’nae with a grimace.

“Brilliant! Just let me run to my stash real quick, I’ll be back with your Septims soon!”

Chris, secretly still fuming about being forced to give up the gauntlets, but not wanting to sit in an awkward silence, talks quietly.

“What’s his deal? He sounds different.”

“He’s not from here. He’s from a different continent. Akavir. That’s all I know.”

“That’s all you know or that’s all you're willing to tell me? I’m starting to get fucking sick of this bullshit, Danny!”

“Is that so?”

“Damn right, that’s so! You’re holding things from me all the time! These funny little markings, about yourself, the damn F Warriors! How do you know all these people, anyway? Some guy from a far-off land tucked away in a hideout and he greets you like a childhood friend! What’s going on?”

Much to the chagrin of Chris, Danny remains silent as Koh’nae returns with a bustling coin bag that he tosses to Danny.

“Pleasure doin’ business. Forgive my rush, but there’s a lot to do. I’ll see ya again soon, brother.”

Koh’nae nods. Danny turns to Chris.

“You’re right. I haven’t told you everything. Not yet, but soon, I promise. I’m going to piss you off one last time… you ain’t comin’ with me. You’re stayin’ here with Koh’nae.”

“But-”

The protest is stopped before it can even begin with a hand from Danny.

“Just hear me out. There’s a mission for you Chris. If you succeed… I’ll tell you absolutely everything that I know. I’ve somethin’ I need to take care of, and I can’t involve you, this doesn’t concern you. It’s time for you to stand on your own two feet and prove yourself. When we’ve both finished our missions, we should meet at The Moorside Inn in Morthal with our gains, we’ll go home from there.”

Chris had so many questions burning through his mind but asked the only one he thought Danny would want to hear.

“Fine. When?”

“Around four moons’ time.”

“Four moons!? That’s a long time, Danny.”

“These lands are vast, Chris, and I have to await the arrival of my partner and you? You have a long journey ahead of you… you’re going to be stealing from a mage in the College of Winterhold.”

“A mage? In Winterhold? That’s a long way away, Danny!”

“I know, I know… and I know you have plenty of questions, but I have to get going. Koh’nae will tell you everything you need to know. Until then, Coin Purse.”

“Until then, Dodger.”

Danny nods at both men and takes his leave, making his way out of the ruins but not before hearing Koh’nae saying something to Chris.

“Let me tell you about The Amulet of Exdivisia, Chris.”


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“DANGER.”


4th Era, 221
Near Dragon Bridge, Haafingar.

Danny The Dodger peeks over the natural rock formation he is hiding behind and steals a glance at the hut that Coin Purse Chris unwittingly led him to when they first met. He can just about make out the shadowmark he etched into the side of the hut the first time he was brought there. Smoke rings come from the chimney, indicating that The Bard and Siemprien were inside. Danny is dressed in all black, armed only with his trusty dagger, and is thankful for the fact that he’s not in this alone. He turns to the High-Elf tucked down beside him, and cocks his head at his partner.

“Looks good to me, Lastarian. If we pull this off, and Chris holds up his end of the bargain… we’ll be greeted as heroes when we get back to Riften.”

Lastarian puffs slowly on a pipe and allows his eyes to rest on Danny’s face. Lastarian was blunt, as was the High-Elf tendency, but he was always completely straight with his rogue partner.

“Are you sure about this Coin Purse guy? Sounds like amateur hour. If I’m being honest, from what you’ve told me about him, I don’t think he’s up to this.”

Lastarian had a history with The Amulet of Exdivisia, the object Chris had set out to steal from the mage in the College of Winterhold. More than that, Lastarian was to Danny what Chris was to Danny. A master thief. A mentor. Someone to look up to and attempt to emulate.

“He’s got the tools, L, trust me.”

“I do trust you, it’s him I’m not sure about. Are you positive he’s like us? I’m not referring to being an F Warrior, by the way. I mean like us.

“I know what ya mean - is he a true thief? I think so, but this mission will erase any doubts. If he can steal from The College, I don’t see how we can doubt it. I’m tellin’ ya, he’s got somethin’ special. He’s just like me when I got introduced to this world, he could even be better.”

Lastarian scoffs at the last statement but concedes for the time being.

“Listen, if he shows up in Morthal, I’m alright with him traveling with us, and seeing what the others think when we get home. If he has the amulet… it’ll be hard to reject him. Now, enough talk about your new friend, are we doing this or not?”

That’s good enough for Danny, and he’s content to move onto their stage of the operation.

“Alright, so, you’re runnin’ distraction and when they’re preoccupied, I’ll sneak in and grab the shield. We high-tail it back to The Moorside Inn. Simple.”

A worried look crosses Danny’s face as he verbalizes the play.

“Lastarian… you know I’d never doubt your plan but… is it overly simple? This is The Bard and Siemprien at the end of the day, and as much as we don’t like’em… nobody has touched them since they got the shield. Will a simple ruse like this actually work?”

Lastarian had a long, brutal history with fellow High-Elf, Siemprien. At one point, they were tight friends and allies, running daring raids together and being praised across the land for their prowess. It turned sour at one point, and Lastarian was under the belief that he had permanently put an end to Siemprien, but Siemprien was one of the most durable forces that had ever graced the mountainous Skyrim. He came back and came back with a vengeance. To make matters worse, he was allied with The Bard, a famed but dangerous songwriter from Danny’s home in The Imperial City. They had clashed many times back there, and recently, had revitalized their long, violent rivalry.

“This time, it’s your turn to trust me. They don’t know I’m involved with you, and they won’t be expecting this. They know you’re going to hit, you’ve made your intentions clear with that fat mouth of yours, but this is the last thing they’ll expect. Let’s do this.”

Lastarian pulls out a helmet that covers his whole head and dons it proudly over his face. Danny stifles a laugh. Helmets were for warriors, guards, Blades, or sometimes, Companions. For a thief, a helmet was wholly unnecessary if you were actually good at your job.

“You laugh but if Siemprien recognizes me, this whole plan blows up. He’s a wily, old, elf. There’s a chance he may still cop who it is. Can’t be too careful. It’s time, Danny. Let’s take it. Shadow hide you.”

“Shadow hide you.”

Lastarian mutters some words under his breath and Danny feels the heat emanating from his hands. Another few seconds pass and then Lastarian launches a conjured fireball right into a field near the hut, waiting for the blaze to spread significantly before racing towards the hut shouting for help at the top of his voice. Danny waits, perched behind the rocks, ready to go as soon as he can. Lastarian bangs on the door of the hut and when The Bard answers, a confused look at a man in a helmet at their door is all he manages before Lastarian begins shouting.

“Please, please! Come help! Dragon Bridge is on fire! The villagers sent me here to get help from you two! Please, save our village! People are hurt and it’s getting worse!”

“SIEMPRIEN! We have to go! Dragon Bridge is engulfed in flames! Come quickly!”

The Bard pushes past Lastarian and runs toward the field, brave and strong, a fire didn’t scare him. Siemprien swiftly emerges, and while he casts Lastarian a strange glance, he quickly follows his partner into the inferno. Danny seizes the moment, racing towards the hut. Lastarian hisses at him as he runs by.

“Be quick with that lock! As soon as they reach the end of the field they’ll know they’ve been duped.”

Danny barrels into the hut and makes a bee-line for a locked chest. He produces a slender, steel, lock pick, fortified by a spell cast by Lastarian, and goes to work on the lock. The pick bends into an unnatural position and monetarily Danny thinks it will snap but then he hears that satisfying click and the trunk soon pops open. He takes a moment to gaze at their prize - The Shield of Duality. To be more accurate, it was two halves of one shield - worthless on its own or when used by one person, but when put together with another person, it creates an impenetrable barrier around them that even the most sharpened sword or powerful spell cannot break through. Both Danny and Lastarian had been in possession of this before, but never together. They had wanted this for a long time. Danny is snapped out of his admiration by a bellow from outside the hut.

“The fire is easing! We have to go!”

“I got it, I’m comin’!”

Danny sprints out of the hut, tossing one half to Lastarian and the duo begin running towards the woodlands behind the hut. Danny sees two silhouettes emerging from the smoke of the subsiding field fire. But it was too late. Danny and Lastarian are already beyond the tree line and they gleefully escape, unscathed, with some very valuable loot in tow…

Three moons later…

Morthal, Hjaalmarch.

Chris, Danny, and Lastarian - who is going by the name Donarian and constantly donning the helmet he wore in the heist - are traveling on horseback, leaving behind Morthal and en route to Riften. It had been a close call, Danny and Lastarian had packed up their bags and were ready to leave that very morning. They had presumed Chris to have failed in his mission, either imprisoned or dead, and Danny was finishing one last tankard of mead while Lastarian cleared out their room when Chris walked in, proud as punch, and slapped The Amulet of Exdivisia on the table in front of Danny. Danny had been overjoyed at his success, a sentiment he presumed Lastarian didn’t share, as he had emerged from the upstairs of the inn wearing a helmet and introduced himself to Chris as Donarian, Danny’s partner. Danny kept up the facade, knowing his partner did not want to reveal himself on the off chance that Chris was not accepted into their family, but was slightly annoyed as he felt that Chris had more than earned his stripes, and that Lastarian was being overly-cautious about their new ally.

As the trio exited the small town of Morthal and descended down the hill leading to the road they would take towards Riften, Danny had what could only be described as a premonition. Something urged him to look behind him and standing on the top of the hill they had just descended, was a small, blonde woman, shrouded in a cloak. Danny’s breath caught in his throat and he knew he should inform his friends that they were being watched, but he couldn’t bring himself to form the words. Instead, he said nothing and tuned into the conversation between Chris and Lastarian - or Donarian, he supposed.

“Run it by me again, Chris. What happened?”

“I’ve already told you twice this morning! The mage that had the amulet was a nut job. Even his colleagues called him ‘The Mad Wizard’ and to make things worse, he had summoned this… it wasn’t a goblin but I don’t know what else to call it, to constantly guard The Amulet.”

“So how did you pull it off?”

“There was this elf, a Dark Elf; Jermer Bestvon was his name. He was constantly trying to get enrolled in the College of Winterhold, but he kept getting refused. I got talking to him one night and he agreed to help me, on account of us being friends.”

“Hardly friends after one night's drinking.”

“Look, this guy was… he was strange for sure but he had absolutely amazing illusion skills. I haven’t seen illusion magic like it before. He was able to distract the guard The Mad Wizard had summoned and I just snuck in and pinched the amulet.”

“If this Jermer is such a powerful illusionist, then why was he so insistent on being accepted to The College?”

“I don’t know, I think he just wants people to like him. He did me a favor though, and guess what? He was born under a starless sky too! Another F Warrior, Danny! When everything settles down I’m going to find him and tell him to come ride with us.”

Lastarian slowed his horse’s gallop.

“Ride on, Coin Purse. I need to speak to Danny about a private matter, we will catch up.”

Chris looked a little miffed but galloped ahead on his horse. Danny was beyond annoyed at this stage.

“What fuckin’ gives, L? He got the damn amulet and you’re still treating him as hostile.”

“I’m not sure about him, Danny. He seems naive, he’s overly trusting. And a Dark Elf? He wants us to bring a Dark Elf into this little… well, I don’t know what this is but still! That says it all! You can’t trust a Dark Elf!”

“And you can’t trust a damn thief, Lastarian! Look, I’m sick of this already, let’s just bring the goods and Chris to the gui-ARRGGHH!!”

Danny cries out in agony as a crushing blow is dealt to the back of his head, and he finds himself tumbling from his horse and crashing to the ground below. As he falls from his stallion, he can see the grinning face of The Bard wielding a large club atop his horse. As splatters on the ground, his back and head burning in pain, he sees a golden-tipped arrow whizz over his head and lodges itself in the neck of Lastarian’s mount. He slowly fades to black with Lastarian’s panicked shouts and the pained crying of his steed growing dimmer…







Danny regains consciousness, his head and back aching in pain, and as he blinks his eyes rapidly, no thoughts flit through his brain. There is a dull echo ringing in his ears but after a few moments, clarity begins to fall over Danny. He jolts up and sees Lastarian, hunched over a small fire, roasting some kind of meat. His voice is weak.

“Lastarian…”

“It’s gone.”

Lastarian doesn’t even look in Danny’s direction, opting to just stare at the meat darkening on his skewer above the fire. Danny’s head begins to spin - a mixture of the clubbing blow delivered to him by The Bard, and the reality setting in that they had lost The Shield of Duality. His whole world had just been rocked, but as he looks around the makeshift campsite Lastarian had dragged him to, he spots Lastarian’s helmet on the ground, and more panic sets in.

“Where’s Chris?”

“Don’t know. Never came back. Probably set us up.”

“He wouldn’t fuckin’ do that! I’m sick of tellin’ ya, he’s a good one, Lastarian!”

“How do you know?”

“Because he knows me. Nice face, by the way, Lastarian.”

Silence falls over the camp as a badly injured Chris limps into the camp, bruises and cuts all over his face. Lastarian and Chris share a look Danny knows all too well, neither of these guys trusted the other. He forces himself into a seated position.

“Chris, what happened? Are you okay?”

“I rode ahead like Don- I mean Lastarian, told me to. I was jumped by some lunatic orc wearing strange, pink armor. There was a squid insignia on the breastplate.”

Danny and Lastarian glance at each other and both say “Unc-Jajaja.”

“I’m sorry, what? You know him?”

“He’s one of The Companions. Lunatic is puttin’ it lightly, but he’d have no reason to be out here and even less to jump you.”

“He took the amulet.”

“Of course he did!”

Lastarian suddenly stands up and begins stuffing his belongings in his bag.

“What are you doin’, L?”

“I’m going. I don’t trust this guy one bit. Haven’t from the start. I’m out.”

Chris, despite his injuries, squares up to Lastarian.

“Just what are you implying?”

“I didn’t imply anything, I said it out straight. Sit down, kid, before you’re hurt.”

“Relax, both of ya! L, we lost somethin’ too, remember? Don’t be so harsh on Chris. He’s a good-”

“Oh, get fucked, Danny. Open your eyes. You and the guild can stuff it. You and your little project here can rot in the planes of Oblivion for all I care. I’m out.”

Lastarian buckles his bag and promptly turns on his heel, exiting the camp. Chris looks at Danny, and Danny knows he expects him to say something, but he knows Lastarian like a brother, and no it’s worthless. When Chris pipes up, he expects him to berate him for not stopping him but he says something else entirely, something he should have been expecting a long time.

“It’s time for some answers, Danny. What’s the guild? Where are you taking me?”

Danny clicks his tongue in his mouth and finally relents.

“You may as well find out now. I’m taking you to my guild. I’m taking you to The Thieves Guild. I’m gonna see if they’ll let you officially join. The shadowmarks, the techniques I’ve been teaching you, the people we’ve met… they’re all a part of the guild. That’s why I sent you to steal The Amulet of Exdivisia, to see if you’re ready.”

“You mean to tell me there’s a whole fucking guild of thieves? Sounds like some Dark Brotherhood bullshit.”

“I swear to you, it’s not bullshit - nor is the Dark Brotherhood, despite your skepticism. We’re only a few days’ rides from our base, I’ll tell you everything on the way, but for now, my head is fuckin’ killin’ me and I need to sleep.”

Chris has an unreadable expression on his face, but he nods his head.

“Get some rest, pal. We can talk in the morning.”

He watches Danny lay back down on the ground. He waits a number of minutes until Danny’s light breathing turns to heavy snores. Then, when he’s sure Danny is in a deep slumber, Coin Purse Chris picks up his bag… and leaves.


1683519282862.png


“GUILD.”


4th Era, 221
Riften, The Rift.

Danny is beyond weary as he passes through the northern gate to Riften, having traveled for three days straight. When he woke up the morning after Lastarian took his leave, he was surprised to find Coin Purse Chris was also gone. He waited around for half a day before deciding that Chris had obviously left, perhaps the idea of the guild didn't sit right with him, for whatever reason. He had been in a dour mood since then, reflecting on the loss of both the amulet and the shield, and more importantly, the apparent loss of two friends. When he sees the small wooden bridges that were dotted around Riften, however, he cannot help but laugh. Riften had become his home, and he was glad to be back. For all the crime that is committed in the back alleys and the port of Solitude, it is equaled by the crime that takes place in the open in Riften. Riften had always been a refugee for criminals, and it was easily the most corrupt place in Skyrim, tucked away in the southernmost corner of the land, left to its own devices, with the law being administered by the easily - and happily - bribed guards. Danny sees one such guard as he makes his way through the town and as he waves to him, the guard shouts out a hearty greeting.

"Do my eyes deceive me? Welcome home, Dodger!"

"How are things? How's the knee holding up?"

"Oh, you know. It's hard to recover from an arrow to the knee but I'm making do, thanks in no small part to your guild, of course!"

"Speakin' of, I've been out of the loop a while... how're things going around here?"

The guard looks a little worried as he brings Danny up to speed with the going-ons of Riften in his absence.

"I won't lie, Dodger... the guild’s presence is still huge here in Riften but it's beginning to wane. There's... a problem. A champion fighter from Cyrodiil has come to cleanse the city... we only know him as The Exile from Cyrodiil, but he's already made his mark felt. Crime is down, which I shouldn't exactly be complaining about... but less crime... fewer pay-offs.”

Danny grunts. He knows of The Exile. Everyone that hailed from Cyrodiil had heard of The Exile. He was revered in the fighting arena and he was ruthless with a sword. His blade cut as deep as his tongue, he was not shy about calling out things he deemed unjust, nor was he shy about dealing with those things.

"Tell me; does this Exile have a jagged scar on his face and speak of 'The Truth'?"

"That's the one."

Danny purses his lips and nods his head solemnly.

"That could be a very big problem in the future."

His demeanor changes, however, when sees a battle-worn Coin Purse Chris striding up the street with the amulet swinging proudly around his neck. Danny runs to him and hugs him tightly.

"I thought you were gone!"

Chris pulls at the amulet around his neck.

"Just to sort some business! I wasn't returning to my new friends empty-handed!"

Danny beams with joy. He was right all along. Chris was special, he was right to guide him to this life, he was going to do a lot for the guild, and become infamous and rich in the process.

"Well, no point waitin' around!"

Danny takes Chris through the streets of Riften, stopping in the Hall of the Dead, a small grave site. Chris curiously eyes him and Danny grins as he pulls up the grate of a sewer.

"You've taken me all this way to bring me into the sewers?"

"Just wait and see pal, just wait and see."

They descend a ladder and make their way through a small tunnel, coming to a halt at a large wooden door. Danny knocks at the door and a sharp voice shouts out.

"Password?"

"Shadow hide you."

The door swings open and Danny is immediately pulled into a bear hug by a rather handsome-looking Imperial.

"Danny! You're alive! We heard you stole from The Bard and Siemprien and that they were hunting you down. I came to try and warn you, of course, but they got me first. Where's Lastarian? Who is this?"

"Quintus! Slow down! I can barely think with you blubberin' like a baby, just take a second. I'm alive and this is Coin Purse Chris, that's all you need to know for now. I'll explain everything when I've got a mead in my hand and my ass on a seat!"

"New member?"

Danny just smiles as Quintus limps forward, using a cane for support.

"They did my damn leg, Danny. The dratted thing has been useless since."

"We'll have the last laugh, Quintus, trust me."

Chris had been silent throughout this whole interaction but he audibly gasped when the tunnel opened up into what looked like a fully-functioning tavern... operating underground in the Riften sewer network. Delinquents, addicts, thieves, miscreants, and every shady-looking character you can imagine sat around drinking, laughing, and gambling. Danny turns and smiles at Chris.

"Welcome to The Ragged Flagon, Coin Purse."

Chris is still speechless as they take a seat. Three tankards of mead are plopped down on the table in front of them and Danny takes a long, hearty drink.

"Danny, you're back!"

Chris notices Danny roll his eyes behind his tankard and Quintus audibly tuts.

"That's right, Priceus, I'm back."

"And you haven't come alone! Look at this guy, this guy is a budding master thief in the making if ever I've seen one! I'm Priceus, and you are?"

"They call me Coin Purse Chris."

The man - who is notably older than the others present - Priceus laughs aloud.

"That's brilliant! You've brought us a real character, eh Danny?"

"Sure."

"Listen, Chris, I don't want to impose, but when you're done here, come find me. I've got some big jobs lined up that I think you'll be just perfect for."

Chris smiles, and he decides that he rather likes this old Imperial.

"Sure thing, I'll come to find you. Nice to meet you, Priceus."

As Priceus takes his leave, Danny and Quintus shake their heads at each other but say nothing. Danny downs his tankard of mead and slams it on the table before standing up and roaring at the top of his voice.

"LISTEN UP, SCUMBAGS! THIS HERE IS COIN PURSE CHRIS!"

Danny clasps Chris's shoulder and when the room falls silent, every eye on him, he stops shouting but still talks loudly enough for the whole room to hear.

"I've been with this guy for the last six months and he stole The Amulet of Exdivisia from The College of Winterhold... and then he stole it again from THEM DICKHEADS IN THE COMPANIONS!!!"

A rousing roar goes up around the tavern.

"He's more than earned his stripes, I want him to join us here in the guild. If anyone objects - speak now, or forever hold your no-good, lying tongues!"

A few seconds pass. It becomes abundantly clear that nobody is objecting to Chris joining the guild, especially not with Danny’s endorsement and the amulet.

"Then it's settled! Welcome to the guild, Coin Purse!"

Another large cheer goes up and the patrons bang their feet on the ground. Danny sits down and wraps an arm around Chris.

"You're properly one of us now, bud. Congratulations."

Chris smiles, he knows he's earned this and he knows that he has proved himself to Danny. Suddenly, a voice hisses from out of nowhere.

"A touching sight, oh, how my scaly hatchling of a heart beats upon witnessing such a wonderful moment, but you would do well to keep your eyes peeled around Danny The Dodger."

Chris and Danny look up to see an Argonian and Khajit - the two mer-races that populate Skyrim alongside the men and the elves. The lizard-like Argonian is the one that spoke, his scaly face nearly concealed by a black hood. The feline-like Khajit strokes his rather magnificent whiskers before speaking.

"This one concurs, the one they call dodgy, has as many enemies and friends. From his own hand."

Danny speaks through gritted teeth.

"Al-Blaq, Ka'Rish-Dar."

Al-Blaq, the Argonian, once again speaks.

"You should be thanking us, rather than greeting us with disdain. You see, we are on our way to go reclaim The Shield of Duality that you, ah... so, unfortunately, let slip through your fingers. We will succeed, where you and Lastarian so horribly failed."

"This one thinks that if the one they call coin purse is to be successful, he should follow this lead, and not the dodgy ones."

The mer duo laugh and make their way to the secret passage that Danny and Chris entered from, but not before Al-Blaq stops and looks Chris up and down. He nods his head approvingly.

"You wear the shadows well, fellow thief."

Chris remains stoic, unsure what to say, but the decision is taken away from him as Al-Blaq nimbly follows after his friend. Quintus and Danny share another one of ithose glances. Danny clears his throat.

"Uh, Chris, why don't you head over to Priceus and see what kind of 'big jobs' he was talkin' about?"

Chris knew he was being sent away so that Quintus and Danny could speak privately, but he didn't care. People were allowed to have secrets after all. He took his leave and Danny immediately launched into a tirade.

"There's no freakin' order around here, Quintus. We're losin' power and sway - don't even try and deny it, that guard with a dodgy knee told me about The Exile. What's going on? We haven't had a guild master in years, and this is the result. It's chaos around here."

"I agree, Danny, of course, I do... but the way things are now... we'd need something undeniable to have somebody accepted as the guild master. Somebody who is undeniably the master thief. Somebody like... like The Grey Fox."

Danny arches a curious eyebrow.

"I've heard rumors that the Cowl of Nocturnal is in Skyrim. I don’t know if it’s true but I was planning on asking you to help me search for it, and then I busted my leg... so I was planning on asking you and Lastarian to look for it... now, now I don't know what you should do. You can't go searching for something like that by yourself, it's too dangerous."

Danny looks over to where Chris is deep in conversation with Priceus.

"Don't worry about that, Quintus... I think I have somebody new watchin' my back."


1683519282877.png

“EMPTY.”


4th Era, 222
Morthal, Hjaalmarch.

Danny had hoped that after spending weeks in The Moorside Inn, anxiously waiting for the return of Chris while getting into daily arguments with his best friend Lastarian about whether Chris had what it takes or not, he wouldn’t ever be forced to see the inside of the tavern again. Throw in the fact that Morthal was the place where he had been jumped and robbed of The Shield of Duality, if he never saw the place again, it’d be too soon. Still, Quintus had his ear to the ground in regards to the Cowl of Nocturnal, and if they wanted to carry out their plan of obtaining the mask so that “The Grey Fox” could return as the head of the guild, then this was a necessity. Danny didn’t want to believe he was in this position, but it was very, very real. He knew the guild was in trouble, and he knew they needed a figurehead to steer them onto the right course - this was the only way to do that. Quintus and Danny had even discussed - in very hushed voices - that if need be, Danny would break the rules. He would attempt to steal the cowl cleanly; he was good enough to sneak in and sneak out without anyone ever knowing he was there but if things went south… they’d both agreed he would kill the mark and take the cowl anyway. It wasn’t the way they wanted it to go down but desperate times call for desperate measures, and like they say: there’s no honor among thieves. It had sat uneasily with Danny for a while, though he was quick to get over it and accept it as a necessary evil, the problem arose, however, when after months of searching, Quintus received strong word about the location of the cowl and where it was. More specifically the problem arose when Quintus found out who had it.

It was with great trepidation that Quitnus had told Danny of the intended mark for he had feared an unholy backlash, Danny, for his part though cooly accepted the job and set off to return to Morthal. A grave feeling plagued Danny every single step of the journey there, and by the time he had reached his destination, he was in a dour mood. He planned to stay no longer than was necessary. Morthal was a small town, one of the most remote and quiet places in Skyrim, and as such he had found himself left with no other choice but to return to The Moorside Inn; complete sobriety would not be an option for this particular job. Danny knew he would need some liquid courage, the kind that can only be found at the bottom of five tankards of mead. After polishing off five tankards, Danny knew he had to stop. Any more and he may be too inebriated to complete the job. He wished he could stay in his wooden seat at the bar forever, he wished he did not have to do what he was about to do. He made his way outside the bar and lit a pipe - tobacco sadly, the skooma-mixed concoction he liked to indulge in would certainly see him in no shape to complete the job.

He slowly makes his way out of Morthal and travels the small distance north to the campsite his target was based at. As Danny sneaks through the bushes, he looks around and sighs. This was exactly the type of place she would set up. Remote, quiet, away from annoying people. The camp was well maintained, but it appeared that nobody was present. He allows himself to breathe a huge sigh of relief. The Five Gods had blessed him on this night, nobody being here made the job incredibly more viable for Danny. He had, of course, hoped - and probably deep down knew - that even if the camp were occupied, he’d have the talent to swoop in and take the cowl without bloodshed, but he would be a liar (well, an even bigger one) if he said he was not extremely relieved. He darts into the campsite and quickly scours the place. The tent is empty and aside from a few Companion-branded items scattered about, there seemed to be nothing of any real value. Danny checks behind the tent and under the small stool - nothing. There wasn’t even a small lockbox let alone a crate. Danny scratches his head - this was highly unusual. Quintus could be wrong about things, but his information on hot goods was usually always right, Danny struggled to recall a time when it was ever bad. He severely doubted she was out wearing the cowl, that wouldn’t be her style, she’d have just wanted it or taken it because she could, not because she wanted to use its powers. He opens the flap of the tent and peers inside, noticing a bundled-up pile of clothes serving as a pillow. He inches into the tent on his hands and knees, wondering if she would be so bold to hide something so valuable in plain sight. He laughs to himself; of course, she would definitely do something like that. He moves further into the tent and just as he places a hand on the bundle of clothes, he hears a female voice.

“You’re too late. It’s not there, tiger-lily.”

Danny froze in position, a huge lump forming in his throat. Nervously, he tries to gulp down what he can before slowly rolling over to face a small, female Wood Elf with blonde hair. Her eyes pierced through him, and Danny felt his heart flutter before letting her name escape his lips, nearly breathlessly.

“Minvondera.”

“Danny.”

He snaps out of his trance, he knows the allure of Minvondera and his yearning for her could prove costly, fatal even. He reaches for his dagger, but once again she speaks.

“Don’t waste your energy. I already told you: it’s not here.”

“Where have you hidden it? I don’t want to do this, but I have no choice. Let’s make this easy.”

“I don’t have it, though if I did, your threats would fall on my deaf, pointed ears. I do not fear you, I never have.”

Danny’s eyes darted to her waist, but her cloak made it impossible to deduce if she was armed, though he suspected she was. Her words rang true; she did not fear him. Danny had oft considered if that was a factor in why he felt the way he did about her.

“You expect me to believe that you gave it to somebody?”

“That’s not what I said, is it?”

“I ain’t got freakin’ time for games!”

“Really? From this position, that looks like exactly what you have time for.”

Her clever guile would usually make him laugh, but this time it served the purpose of reminding him that he was lying down in a small tent with her lurching over him.

“I haven’t got the cowl, Danny. Now come out here so we can talk properly.”

She moves out of the entrance of the tent and Danny quickly follows, loosening the knife on his belt just in case. When outside, he sees that she is already pouring a skooma-mix into a pipe. She casts a small enchantment and a minuscule steak of fire jets out from her fingertip, lighting the pipe. She inhales deeply and wordlessly passes it to Danny. He takes a long drag of the pipe before handing it back. As he exhales, he speaks to her.

“I saw you a while ago. You were watching us leave Morthal.”

“Indeed. You were with Lastarian and a man I did not recognize.”

“His name is Coin- actually, it don’t matter. Speakin’ of Lastarian, you haven’t seen him, have you?”

“I haven’t seen him since we met way across the sea in Akavir. As you know, that is not an experience I am keen to repeat. I find it a strange question to ask, as the last I saw, he was traveling with you.”

“Funny thing is, that’s the last day I saw him myself. We were jumped. We had somethin’ that didn’t exactly belong to us and, well, it got taken back.”

Minvondera laughs, it is not cruel, she genuinely finds the situation humorous.

“You mean to tell me the master thieves got robbed?”

“Ambushed is the word I’d use.”

“Prey tell, what was taken from you, tiger-lily?”

“The Shield of Duality.”

“Well, isn’t that a coincidence? Myself and Jirald plan on coming into possession of that very item very soon.”

“You’re still fuckin’ around with that good-for-nothin’?”

There is a clear fury in Danny’s tone as he talks about Jirald.

“Come now Danny, you’re far too handsome to be jealous, it doesn’t suit you.”

She passes Danny the pipe and when he inhales, he feels some of the negativity ebb away. Minvondera brushes a blonde lock behind a pointed ear and gazes at Danny. Then, without prompting, she speaks.

“Thomir the Death-King has the cowl.”

Danny curses aloud as he hands back the pipe.

“You’re kiddin’ me, right? That big, huge fuckin’ beast of a Nord? Ain’t he a Companion too? How in the name of The Five Gods did he end up with the Cowl of Nocturnal?”

“That’s all I’m willing to discuss. You won’t get any more from me, so don’t even try.”


“Why are you even telling me this? Thomir is one of your men.”

She shifts her eyes to the end of the pipe, focusing on the burning contents as she talks.

“Because I feel I somewhat owe you one. Your friend, the one I didn’t recognize?”

“What about him?”

Chris was part of the guild now, training to become a master thief. Danny knew Chris was going to be vital to the resurrection of the guild, he wasn’t about to give up his identity - the fewer people that knew who he was, the better as far as Danny was concerned.

“That time you spotted me on the hill was not the only time I watched you during your time in Morthal.”

“Of course it wasn’t, you’ve always been one step ahead of me. I can never quite get in step with you.”

“Well, the morning you departed, I was in the tavern watching from a crevice in the corner, when your friend marched in. I may not of recognised him but I of course recognised the amulet he slammed down. That belonged to me at one time, and rightfully, it should still be mine. However, I had other plans.”

“The cowl.”

“Among other things, but yes, I’d recently found out the cowl had made its way into Skyrim, and I made that a priority. But I wasn’t the only previous owner who wanted the amulet back.”

Danny groans as the realization sinks in.

“You told Unc-Jajaja that he had it! He nearly fuckin’ killed him, Minvondera!”

“And what if he did? I’ve told you Danny; in The Companions, we don’t follow the same rules as you do in your little thief gang.”

“Then that makes you no better than the Dark Brotherhood! You’re glorified assassins.”

“Oh please, we don’t take contracts to kill people but if somebody gets into a fight with one of us, we will do whatever it takes to win. That’s The Companion way. Sometimes, tiger-lily, you’ve got to be able to sink lower than the person across from you if you want to come out on top. It’s not always pretty, but you know yourself that it rarely is pretty at the top. Besides, I made good on that now.”

“How do I know you won’t tip Thomir off that I’m coming?”

“You don’t.”

Danny accepts the final toke of the pope. He watches Minvondera gracefully rise to her feet and make her way over to a small crate of food. Danny takes the hint and he places the pipe down and dusts himself off. He is about to leave, but he cannot bring himself to yet, not without asking the question.

“Minvondera…?”

“Yes?”

She turns around and looks into Danny’s eyes.

“Will we ever be together? Are our situations ever going to allow it to be just the two of us?”

Minvondera simply flashes a sad smile and breaks eye contact with him, turning back around to her crate of food.

“It’s time to go, tiger-lily.”

Danny feels his chest tighten and allows his head to hang solemnly for half a second before he turns and makes his way out of her camp. A few feet past the exit of her camp is a thick wooden pole erected into the ground. Sighing, he begins carving with his knife; a square box enclosed in a circle, it would let any guild members who happened across it know that there was nothing worth stealing here. He steps back and looks at it - the shadowmark for “empty”. Feeling just that, Danny trudges through the soft carpet of snow on the ground, trying to think of a way to take the cowl from Thomir the Death-King.


1683519282892.png



“CACHE.”


4th Era, 222
Riverwood, Whiterun Hold.

Danny knew that he needed to prepare before attempting a heist on Thomir and The Companions. It wasn’t something he would be able to pull off without a helping hand and some special equipment. Unfortunately, when he had set out for Morthal from Riften, he had traveled extremely light. He did not envision his trip would be extended and he was in dire need of supplies. He had made contact with the guild when he left Minvondera and Morthal, and Quintus had arranged for him to travel to Riverwood, a small, unassuming, Nordic settlement nestled in a valley. Despite Whiterun Hold being the largest in Skyrim, Danny erred away from the region as a rule due to the jacked-up law enforcement and the presence of The Companions. Their own base was in The Hold’s capital of Whiterun and though he did not fear them, there were a variety of other places a man like Danny The Dodger could ply his trade in a more comfortable fashion.

As he sits on the stone steps of The Sleeping Giant tavern, Danny cannot envision any scenario in which he would find himself in this small village had he not been told to go here by the courier Quintus sent. For once, he had not ventured inside the local tavern to drain a tankard of mead, nor had he sought out his beloved skooma-mix - though, judging by the hardened faces of the few Nords he had spied going to work at the nearby timber mill, this would be a fruitless endeavor to undertake even if he wanted to - he had simply planted himself on the steps of the tavern because he was exhausted. Not just from the journey here, but from life itself. He was worn down from his war with The Bard and Siemprien, bore scars from skirmishes with Companion members, and was fatigued from trying to do the absolute most he could to uphold the name of his guild. That was simply the physical side; mentally he was equally tired. He had nearly warped his mind trying to find a way to be with Minvondera, though every time he got close, something prevented them from being together. He had grown weary of the snipes from Al-Blaq and Kha’Rish-Dar, and without Lastarian by his side with a calm word, Danny feared that was set to explode, particularly with Al-Blaq. Then there was Chris.

He had spent months training him in the ways of the thief, imparting as much knowledge of the game as possible onto the upstart and letting him ride along with him for some massive jobs. The type that guarantees an increase in standing and reputation. ‘Ride along’ was probably underselling Chris, he had more than pulled his weight on these jobs, but Danny knew deep down they wouldn’t have happened if Danny himself hadn’t been there to put things in place. He hadn’t always been entirely honest with Chris - though he didn’t pretend otherwise. It seemed like the perfect master-student situation; the right amount of push, and the right amount of respect. Recently, though, things had changed between Coin Purse and Danny. Since being brought into the guild, Chris had rapidly grown in stature; due in no small part to his undeniable abilities. Danny recalled a job coming in that involved going over to Summerset Isle to hit a mark, and some people in the Ragged Flagon actually wanted Chris to go instead! Danny got the job in the end - and succeeded with the job - but it was a reminder that Chris had a growing reputation. A couple of months later, Danny made an error that would permanently shift a lot of the guild’s perception.

He had been contracted to do a job but after a late night of drinking mead with Quintus, researching their documents about the Cowl of Nocturnal, he had failed to show up for the job. Chris stepped up and completed the job with minimal fuss and Danny was berated at large by the guild, while the praises of Coin Purse were sung. Danny thought it an unfair reflection on their individual prowess as thieves - Danny wasn’t even there to attempt the job, surely he’d have delivered as he always had done - but though he was entitled to take that stance, there was nothing he could do to stop the whispers growing into full-blown chatter about how Chris had overtaken Danny. Danny, in his mind at least, had put that notion to rest when it was he - not Chris - that managed to steal the Cloak of Clarity. Strangely named, a misnomer, the power of the cloak was that it actually rendered the wearer invisible - an object that every thief in the land had been trying to get their hands on. Still, the talk of Chris being superior persisted, and this led to a small voice in Danny’s head echoing that sentiment.

Thinking he would drive himself mad if he thought any longer on the topic, a weary Danny decided it was time to go find the help Quintus had promised he would discover in this small village. He scoured the length of the village until he came across a humble, nondescript cottage with nothing noteworthy about it aside from the shadowmark indicating there was a cache inside. Danny smiles as he always did upon seeing one of these engravings and pushes on the door, surprised to see it immediately open but stepping inside nonetheless.

“Danny! You found us!”

“What the fuck?”

Danny cannot conceal his shock at what greets him in the room; Priceus, Dimonte, and Coin Purse Chris. Priceus smiles widely, and Dimonte and Chris offer nothing more than curt nods. Danny looks at the trio gathered around a candlelit table - the table has a map of Whiterun placed in the middle, and this is what the men seemed to be hunched over before Danny arrived.

“Just what the hell is goin’ on here? Quintus sent you?”

Danny points at Priceus.

“Get outta here! Did you do somethin’ to Quintus again, Chris?”

Chris flashes Danny a look. He was of course referring to “the incident” between Chris and Quintus, neither of them liked talking about it, for different reasons.

“We’re actually here to help your ungrateful ass! Quintus told us what’s going down.”

“I’m sure, and I’m sure he sent Priceus, too! I ain’t fuckin’ stupid, somethin’ is going on here. Dimonte, pleasure as always brother, but I don’t know why they dragged you into this.”

“Hear them out, mate. They’re genuine. I walked in here expecting Chris to tie me to a chair, but the plan could actually work, it’s legit.”

This caused Danny to slow his roll, he trusted Dimonte’s word like few others.

“But… why Priceus?”

“This is my place!”

“You own a damn cache house? Where the fuck would you get the equipment for that?”

“You know I used to be a guard before I joined the guild, I still have connections in the armory… and the confiscated lock-up.”

Dimonte has a face of dawning realization as he “ahhhhs”.

“So that’s why you’re in the guild.”

“What? No! I know a lot about robbing!”

“You couldn’t filch a sweet roll from a toddler, mate.”

“Is somebody gonna tell me what the fuck we’re doing here or what?”

“A classic distraction scam.”

Danny remains tight-lipped as Chris takes the lead on relaying the plan they had put together. The last time Danny ran a distraction scam was with Lastarian when they took The Shield of Duality. He’d talked about the dupe with Chris many times and was surprised to hear this was the route they were going.

“We need to neutralize The Companions, West stays in Jorravsker, their guild hall in Whiterun, and he’ll be surrounded by Companions. We need to get you in a position where you’re only dealing with Thomir, at worst. I’ll be running distraction, luring as many of The Companions out as possible.”

“How?”

“We have an unknowing asset that’s going to provide an assist.”

Danny has questions but he allows Chris to continue laying out the plan.

“Priceus has some decent equipment stashed here: some good light armor, a couple of scrolls that will allow even your non-magic ass to cast spells, and a plethora of lock-picks. You still have the Cloak of Clarity, right?”

Danny nods and Dimonte smiles - he had once been in possession of the same cloak.

“That’ll allow you to sneak by the fracas, but once you’re inside, if West is there, it won’t be worth a toss. That Crown of Thorns he wears allows him to detect life forces - invisible or not.”

Danny didn’t say a word but was impressed with the amount of meticulous planning and research Chris had done.

“Once you’re inside it’s on you. We will have done all we can. Now, any questions?”

“Who is this unknowing asset?”

Chris and Priceus share a look of uncertainty before Chris speaks.

“Siemprien.”

“Fuck outta here!”

“Mate, WHAT? You never mentioned that. You just said you’d be in a fight!

“Hold up! Chris, let me explain.”

Danny whips his head around and stares daggers at Price, who fiddles with his tunic as he talks.

“Danny, ever since you’ve gone in pursuit of the cowl, things have changed slightly and to be frank, the guild is on the brink of ruin. Before then, even. We’re on board with you obtaining the cowl to help get us back on track but… you aren’t the only one who has been operating independently. I’m sure you heard that Siemprien and The Bard have gone their separate ways, and will agree that those two not being together can only be in favor of the guild. Chris… well Chris helped drive the wedge between them, he uh, he had maintained a relationship with The Bard this whole time, without you knowing, and well, he was able to get between them and manipulate the situation. He even nearly took The Bard out, completely, didn’t you Chris?”

As Chris confirms with a sharp nod, Danny cannot hide his shock. Really, Danny is quite impressed by the deception, and Chris keeping in communication with his two enemies - behind his back nonetheless - this entire time. Maybe Chris hadn’t become better than Danny, maybe he always was.

“But now, now Siemprien blames me for the breakdown in his relationship with The Bard. He’s also in Whiterun, and I’m going to go up there with you and give him what he wants - a fight. I’ll make sure it happens so close to Jorravsker that The Companions will have no choice but to come out and get involved.”

Danny runs the plan through his head; the various possibilities, the variable factors, the risk. It wasn’t foolproof - of course, no planned theft was - but it could work and the alternative was Danny trying to do it by himself. He looks at Nova.

“Are you coming as well?”

Nova stands up and tosses a bag in front of Danny.

“I’ve already done my part. I’ve already had an associate mark the room of Thomir, that should save you time once you’re in. I wish I could come, but I’ve to deal with Pajon, an old Breton foe from back home. Besides, check the bag, I’ll be with you in a way. For now, I have to go, mate. Good luck… and shadow hide you.”

Dimonte takes his leave as Danny stares down at the bag. Coin Purse Chris punctures the silence.

“So, do you think this will work, are you in?”

Danny peers inside the bag and sees Dimonte’s prized, enchanted, 24K Boots. He throws his head back and laughs - he had all the tools he was going to need to take down Thomir the Death-King.

“It’s going to have to, ain’t it? If it doesn’t, we’ll likely die. But if it does? We’re back in business.”

1683519282906.png

“LOOT.”


4th Era, 222
Whiterun, Whiterun Hold.

Danny lurks in the shadows near Jorravsker, the famous headquarters of The Companions - situated in Whiterun itself. Danny only visited Whiterun sparingly; unless there was an extremely worthwhile stroke to be had, or an easy con to be run, he was more than content with steering clear of The Companion's territory. They outnumbered most factions in Skyrim, and the kicker was that they seemed to be nearly solely comprised of F Warriors. It was rare that the F Warriors were spoken about, save for those select few that were F Warriors, and even at that, it was generally to other F Warriors. For the majority, they kept their birthright secret from the rest of the world - though they were undoubtedly superior to the standard being in Skyrim, a revelation of F Warrior status usually resulted in shunning and exclusion from the rest of society. People always feared what they did not understand. The Companions somewhat shirked that unwritten rule, they were proud of who they were and if asked, they would bodaciously speak about who they were. In a way, Danny admired The Companions and their outward stance on things, and in another life, he could have seen himself running with them rather than The Thieves Guild. However, there was little to be gained from fantasizing about what may have been and Danny had long since accepted the path he had chosen. He knew who he was and regardless of whether he liked it, he felt bound to stick to his chosen path. He was a lying, unreliable, snake in the grass and that was just fine as far as he was concerned. At least he accepted the harsh truth about himself. He knew he was going to disappoint others, likely countless times over in fact, but he didn’t care. It was a savage and unforgiving world - and as cold as it may sound; Danny thrived in such an environment.

He twirled a bottle of skooma between his index finger and thumb as he awaited Coin Purse Chris’s grand distraction to unfold. A small, nagging voice, tugging from the back of his mind implored him to take just a little hit. A little something to dull the pain he was about to cause. Danny had agreed to the plan Chris and Priceus had laid out for one reason: it would benefit him. At the end of the day, that was the only thing that really mattered. Danny wanted to take whatever he could… and he didn’t give a solitary shit about what happened to anyone else. That included Chris, Priceus, and any other guild member or friend he could think of. Though initially startled by the fact that Chris had been making moves and communicating with The Bard behind his back, he quickly came to terms with it when he realized that Chris was just doing what anybody would do in that position - he was hedging his bets so that there was a bigger chance of the eventual outcome being favorable for him. Danny couldn’t in any good faith berate Chris for such a play, he was making a similar one himself, and after all, hadn’t he been the one to mentor Chris and teach him the ways of the thief? Deep down, Danny had accepted what was going down from the moment he had struck a deal being the guild’s back with the Executa Ecksellsa mercenaries. He knew the only possible outcome was going to be hurt and destruction. He knew he would burn multiple bridges, but that did not faze him. Danny had more Septims than he could count, he had a multitude of people willing to risk it all for him, and he was universally praised as being good - no, great - at what he did. But that wasn’t enough. Danny had tasted all this life had to offer and had decided a long time ago - before Lastarian and himself stole The Shield of Duality even - that the only thing that truly mattered to him… was going down in the history books as a bonafide legend. He wanted to be remembered forever. Still, going against everyone that he had ever called “friend” hurt… and skooma dulled that pain. There was a reason it was considered highly illegal contraband after all. Danny used a concentrated, less powerful version of the drug mixed with tobacco to smoke in a pipe, as did many others, but hadn’t directly consumed skooma in its pure form since his teenage years. It was a hectic drug that led to chaos. He pockets the vial of skooma, deciding it probably wasn’t the time to relight an old, chaotic habit.

He spots Lastarian walk up the street near Jorrasker, wielding the infamous, magical staff known as Wabbajack. The staff was made by the most insane Daedric Prince of all, Sheogorath, and possessed the power to randomly transform any it was used against, yet though Siemprien carried the staff like a treasured possession, Danny had never actually seen Siemprien use it. It seemed to Danny that it was merely for show. A shift of the eyes allows Danny to observe a stealthily approaching Chris creep up on Siemprien from behind. Chris throws a nasty punch to the back of Siemprien’s head, and Danny gets ready to move as all hell begins to break loose. Siemprien roars in agony as Chris follows up by slashing his arm with an iron short-sword. That’s enough to get the residents of Whiterun involved as eager onlookers and draw the attention of The Companions. Several members led by Jirald, Unc-Jajaja, and Minvondera file out of the headquarters and make a bee-line towards the impending scrap. Danny knows he won’t get a better opportunity, and he nips behind the baying crowd and into Jorravsker.

He drapes the Cloak of Clarity around himself, the strong illusion magic coursing through it allowing Danny to essentially become invisible. He rushes through the hallways of Jorravsker until he spies the shadowmark etched into the wall, just above the ground, beside a large oak door. He draws his dagger and busts through, elated to find the room empty. He busts three lock picks - a personal worst for him - attempting to crack the large chest at the foot of the single bed adorning the room. With the trunk popped, he quickly rifles through it until finally in his hands is the Cowl of Nocturnal. He turns to leave, a fleeting thought passing through his mind about it being too easy. Suddenly, Thomir crashes into the room but Danny is quick to exit through the window as his adversary comes hurtling towards him. As soon as his feet touch earth, he sprints around to the front of the building at a nearly impossible speed - such is the power of Dimonte’s 24K boots - and gets to the front just in time to see Chris seemingly get the upper hand in the ensuing fracas. Though he is clad in the Cloak of Clarity, he can’t help but notice Minvondera’s eyes burn a hole directly at where he is standing - this is enough for him to warrant turning on his heels and sprinting away from Whiterun at a breakneck pace.

Danny rather quickly finds himself at Moldering Ruins situated just west of Whiterun. This was the designated meeting point that Danny and Chris were to meet at; it was chosen for its proximity to Whiterun and due to the fact that it was once inhabited by a tribe of vampires. Citizens of the Whiterun Hold had deemed the place to be cursed and as such, it made for an ideal meeting point for two runaway criminals. Danny looks down at the 24K boots and smiles - they had certainly made his job an awful lot easier. He even allows himself to chuckle as he takes out his vial of skooma and knocks it back, immediately feeling its effects swirl through his body. Danny takes a seat on a small wooden pew to wait for Coin Purse and says a silent thanks to The Five Gods for blessing him during his heist of Jorravsker. He felt he had been unnaturally lucky with the job - Thomir arriving onto the scene a little too late to majorly impact his swoop had certainly been a slice of good fortune. Besides, Chris undoubtedly had taken on the riskier part of the plan by getting into a direct confrontation with Siemprien. The more Danny muses, the more it dawns on him that Chris had been working a lot harder and putting himself in stickier situations than Danny. Not just on this job, but for the guild in general. He put in much more than Danny, but Danny seemed to reap the rewards more regularly. He gazes down at the Cowl of Nocturnal and smiles; isn't the point of being a master thief that you don't have to toil for your riches? You profit off somebody else and Danny had no issue in doing so.

His thoughts become somewhat clouded - no doubt the skooma kicking in - as he begins considering his plans for the guild now that he had obtained the Cowl of Nocturnal. He knew he had in his hands the power to lead the guild to glory, likely an unrivaled era for the ragtag mob of looters, and it would serve to line all of their pockets. He looks at the empty vial of skooma and chucks it against the trunk of a nearby tree. the purple glass shattering into thousands of tiny pieces. He could do all those things... but why should he? Danny The Dodger, after years of skulking around in the dead of the night, praying a decent opportunity would fall into his lap, could now do whatever he damn wanted. He knew this would be the case, and that is why he had met with the Executa Ecksellsa mercenaries when he began his hunt for the cowl. It was, at the time, a theoretical conversation based on what they could do for each other if Danny could secure the cowl. Now that he had it, he reckoned he may just take them up on their deal of protection in exchange for helping them find The Shield of Duality. Protection was going to be an absolute must if he was to burn everything and everyone around him in this fashion. Danny stands up from the pew and casts a look at Whiterun to his east. Fuck Coin Purse Chris. Fuck the guild. Fuck everyone.

Danny could do whatever the fuck he wanted.


1683519282920.png



“SAFE.”


4th Era, 222
Falkreath, Falkreath Hold.

He should have known he couldn’t outrun everyone.

Danny sweats profusely from his hunched-down position behind the forge in the middle of Falkreath. Maybe it was the heat emanating from burning coals in the forge or perhaps it was out of terror. In any case, for the first time since he had decided to take the cowl and run away from the guild to hook up with Executa Ecksella he felt like he was about to be cornered. Truth be told, he had felt it from the moment he fled from the arranged meeting point a number of moons ago; he knew he had a huge target on his back due to his actions and while he had stolen some extremely valuable items in that period, he was starting to wonder if he had made a mistake by turning his back on everybody in pursue of individual riches and glory. The feeling was never more imminent than right at this very moment. While always a thief, historically, Danny had not made a habit of harming others to get to his loot; sure he had killed before but always out of absolute necessity. Life-threatening situations. Since he had stolen the cowl, however, he had committed some heinous crimes against very innocent people. Upon hearing of Danny’s actions against the guild, Lastarian tracked him down and confronted him. Danny brutalized his oldest friend's face without thinking twice. He thinks of Vye-Lit, the young, female Argonian known to associate with Al-Blaq, and what he had done to her. He committed a brutal execution flanked by the mercenaries from Executa Ecksella, a terrible deed that was done for the sole purpose of warning Al-Blaq to stay away. He did not stay away. He came after him. As did Siemprien when he realized he had been a pawn in Danny’s game. He had managed to deal with both and somehow escape but it wasn’t only jilted guild members or old enemies that had come after him. The guards in every hold already knew his name but the crimes he committed recently had them all looking for him at every turn. Despite having come into possession of the Cowl of Nocturnal, and with it, gaining the ability to become The Gray Fox, Danny had decided not to wear the mask when committing crimes. His ego had outgrown itself and Danny wanted every single person he stole from to know exactly who was the culprit. Danny chose to brazenly steal, backed up by Executa Ecksella, and did not care who knew of his identity. Danny The Dodger would always get away. He didn’t need a magical cowl to take whatever he wanted, he could do it himself; he was just that damn good. The Thieves Guild weren’t the only ones to come from Riften to hunt him down, The Exile had publicly declared he would apprehend Danny and deliver his own brand of justice to the infamous thief. That was who Danny was avoiding at this moment and the reason why he was concealing himself behind the forge. Danny sees The Exile himself - his jagged scar a dead giveaway - marching proudly through Falkreath, asking after his whereabouts. Danny knew he was just about out of road in Skyrim, his notoriety had soared to such a height that theft in Skyrim was no longer a logically viable option. He could always slip on the cowl and undertake The Gray Fox persona to continue his crime spree, but he was Danny The Dodger, not The Gray Fox.

Danny fumbles in his bag and produces a vial of skooma, greedily gulping it down. He was using skooma nearly daily at this rate, he felt it was of benefit to him when in reality, it was skewing his mind even further. He casts his mind to Executa Ecksellsa; he had held up his end of the bargain by delivering The Shield of Duality to them and they had provided protection in return, but he was planning on ditching them in the very near future. He felt like he did more for them than they did for him and increasing paranoia as the net seemingly closed in around him resulted in him making the decision to cut ties with them. He would not tell them of his intentions, he simply had them escort him to the border town of Falkreath, and as soon as he could pinch a suitable mare from an unguarded stable he planned to cross the border back to his home of Cyrodiil. The party would continue there, he thought. Sans Executa Ecksellsa. He did not need them, as had not needed the guild, or Coin Purse, or even the cowl he had so desperately clamored for. He did not follow rules or a moral code of any kind, he simply took and did whatever he wanted. He would continue to do so. Nobody would stop him. As the familiar warmth of the skooma high sets in, Danny can see The Exile conversing with a Falkreath guard. They knew he was active in Falkreath Hold, they just hadn’t been able to get the jump on him. Danny’s bouncing eyes widen when he sees the forge master approach the duo and point towards where Danny was hidden. Danny is seething with anger - he wasn’t about to be caught by a grizzled old forge master. That is not how his tale would end. He refused it to be so. He does what he does best; he runs.

Keeping to the back streets of Falkreath, he silently bemoans the fact that his 24K Boots were back at the derelict fort himself and Executa Ecksellsa had holed up in outside of Falkreath. Returning there was not a viable option, the patrol guards had surely already been alerted to his presence in the hold. Still, he refused to don the cowl as a means of escape. He needed a hiding place, and he needed one fast. He sneaks along the back of the houses that line Falkreath, trying to suss out an empty property that he could jimmy open and hide in until the heat died down, but it seemed that every house had activity of some sort going on inside. He was fast running out of options and could hear the cries and shouts of the guards running up and down the streets in search of him when something catches his eye. He inches closer to a small hut at the end of a row of moderate-sized houses and when he is a few feet away from it he sees it; a shadowmark etched into the bottom corner of the wooden panels that lined the house's exterior. It was one of the simpler designs but one of the most welcome to any would-be thief; a circle enclosed by a triangle - the indicator that a property was ‘safe’. Danny quickly pulls open the door and darts inside, immediately being engulfed by the dark interior of the hut. In the darkness, he reaches into his bag and produces a small candle, igniting it with the quick stroke of a match. He breathes a sigh of relief but it is only to be momentary for as soon as he illuminates the room a very familiar voice calls out from the dark.

“Caught at last, eh friend?”

Danny yelps aloud, taken by complete surprise, and then nearly keels over from shock when he sees Quintus sitting at a small round table.

“Quintus! What the fuck is goin’ on here?”

“You think you’re so clever, Danny. Did you forget who thought you about this life? Even before Lastarian?”

Danny curses himself. The shadowmark had been nothing more than a ruse. Quintus had exposed Danny to shadowmarks nearly a decade ago and Quintus knew they were something Danny relied on - especially in a tight spot. It was only as the initial shock wore off that Danny noticed Quintus was sitting with a crossbow in his hands, a crossbow that was aimed directly at Danny.

“Sit.”

“Quintus, listen, I-”

“Sit.”

Without much of a choice in the matter, Danny sits down at the round table.

“Now, talk.”

“About what?”

“About what? ABOUT WHAT? Are you out of your mind, Danny? Or are you just back on the skooma?”

Danny chooses to stay quiet about that particular habit.

“What the hell do you think I want you to talk about? How about you talk about running away from the guild? Or maybe you can start by trying to justify what you did to Al-Blaq’s student? Oh, I know, why don’t you tell me why the hell you turned your back on me and made off with the Cowl of Nocturnal after I had spent so damn long trying to locate it for you. For us. For the guild.”

“This old thing?”

Danny reaches into his pocket and throws the Cowl of Nocturnal onto the table between him and Quintus.

“Take it. I don’t want it. I didn’t even fuckin’ use it.”

“You didn’t… what? Then why did you run if not to take the cowl to use for yourself?”

“I don’t need no stinkin’ cowl to get what I want, Quintus.”

“Which is what exactly?”

Danny sighs and shakes his head.

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me.”

Danny looks at Quintus, he still had the crossbow trained on him.

“The Gray Fox has always been heralded as the best thief in history but… the thing is Quintus, there’s been more than one Gray Fox. We all know it. Sure, we can’t fuckin’ say how many because of the nature of the cowl but the way I see it, if you pull on that cowl you’re automatically the best. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done before it. You just are instantly declared the best because you are now The Gray Fox. You take it off again and you’re just… you’re just you. No matter how good you actually are, if you aren’t wearing the cowl, you won’t be called the best. That’s fuckin’ bullshit and you know it, Quintus. Why did we want the cowl so badly in the first place?”

Quintus looks to be deep in thought, he’s actually listening to what Danny is saying.

“For the guild.”

“Exactly. Why the fuck are we so concerned about the betterment of the guild anyway, nothing is ever going to change, we’ve seen it time and time again. We’re just soldiers when it comes down to it. You and I, we stole The Shield of Duality before, right? But if we hadn’t, they would have just sent another freakin’ duo out there to get it. You saw what happened when I returned without it and Lastarian, I hadn’t even got my fuckin’ ass in a seat and Al-Blaq and Kha’rish-Dar we’re headin’ out to go get it. That’s just the fuckin’ shield, Quintus! What would have happened if I came back with this cowl? I’d have been made to throw it on so that I could make the guild rich, but it doesn’t make me immortal does it? It doesn’t make me live forever. Sooner or later - and I’m betting sooner - I’d have been asked to share the cowl for the good of the guild, passing it around, watchin’ guys that couldn’t out-rob me in a million years being regarded as the best in the game. Or even more likely; Coin Purse would’ve stabbed me in the fuckin’ back and taken the cowl for himself. The worst part is, once I had it, I didn’t want it. It’s not like it was in the past when nobody knew who was in possession of the cowl, everybody knew I was going to get it. They might not have been able to tell it was me under the cowl because of it’s magic but they would have known I had it in my possession. They would not be able to remember I was The Gray Fox if I took the mask off, but the spell it’s enchanted with doesn’t make them lose their memory of before; they’d remember I was searchin’ for it and if they remembered that then they’d know I wouldn’t fail. They’d know I don’t fail. I’m the best at this when you stack everything up, they’d know I succeeded and even though they wouldn’t be able to tell I was The Gray Fox, they’d know I have it. The funny thing is though, Quintus, I haven’t even needed the damn cowl. You’ve heard what I’ve done since I ran from Whiterun. You know I’m the fuckin’ best and I don’t need a damn cowl for that. You can fuckin’ have it.”

Quintus sits in silence for nearly a minute, digesting everything Danny has thrown at him. He doesn’t speak but he lowers the crossbow and looks at the cowl. Sensing he’s winning him around, Danny tries to press the issue.

“Look, Christian, truth is - I’m done here in Skyrim. I’m ready to go. That’s why I’m in Falkreath. Help me cross the border to Cyrodiil and you’ll never hear from me again. Take the mask, bring it to the guild, give it to damn Coin Purse or somethin’ and we all fuckin’ win.”

Quintus considers this. He looks again at the cowl on the table and his eyes flit between that and his crossbow before he diverts his eyes to his leg. His injured leg. Not the one The Bard injured though. After a few more seconds he looks up at Danny and flatly speaks.

“Fuck Coin Purse. I’ll get you out of Falkreath.”[/b]

“That’s my fuckin’ man! You’ve always been a true fuckin’-”

Suddenly, the door swings wide open, crashing against the inside wall with an almighty thud that causes Danny and Quintus to jump to their feet.

“HE’S HERE! WE’VE GOT HIM! DANNY THE DODGER IS HERE!”

The shrill sound of a whistle blowing brings dozens of guards sprinting towards the hut. Danny looks at Quintus who quickly sweeps the cowl off the table and onto the floor, underneath the table. Danny is harshly grabbed by either arm and held in place as more guards arrive on the scene, including the Falkreath captain who immediately addresses Quintus.

“Sir! Are you alright? Has this lowlife got you hostage?”

Danny gives Quintus the most subtle of nods, letting him know that it’s alright. Danny’s caught. He knows it, and he’ll go down alone. Quintus closes his eyes and for a split second, Danny thinks he’s going to lunge for the crossbow and try and fight their way out but then, with a sorry look on his face, Quintus begins talking in a fake panic.

“Thank the gods! I didn’t know what was going to happen, I was so scared! I was just sitting here thinking about what to have for dinner when this man climbed in my window and pulled a knife on me! I-I-I didn’t know what to do! I thought he was going to rob me.”

“You’re alright now, sir! This man is Danny The Dodger, being robbed of your values wasn’t the only thing at risk. You’re lucky to be alive.”

“Oh my! I feel faint.”

“It’s okay now, sir, trust me, this criminal isn’t going anywhere. He can’t do any more harm! He’s being locked up for good. We will need you to come to the barracks with us, just to answer a few questions, you may be able to help us find the mercenary gang he was running with.”

Danny remains completely silent as Quintus nods his head and allows himself to be led out by the captain. The two guards roughly pull Danny from the hut to the outside where over a dozen guards are waiting to escort him to the barracks and then onto the jail. Danny makes no scene and offers no resistance. He allows himself to be marched towards his fate happy to remain tight-lipped but after a few seconds, he remembers the Cowl of Nocturnal is lying on the floor of the hut underneath the table. He laughs aloud, causing one of the guards to hit him in the back of the head. He stays quiet after that but he can’t help but see the irony in the situation. Literally anyone could walk in and pick it up, but he supposed Quintus would return to retrieve it after the questioning. As he rounds the corner at the end of the street, he steals a glance back at the hut that will go down in legend as the place where Danny The Dodger was finally caught.

He nearly gets sick on the spot when he sees Al-Blaq creep into the now vacant house.


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“ESCAPE.”


4th Era, 223
Falkreath Jail, Falkreath Hold.

Danny lies in the complete silence of his jail cell, thinking of nothing in particular. He had not thought of anything for quite some time. He figured it to have been at least six moons since he was incarcerated in Falkreath Jail. He had been promised that he would never be released from the prison and as such, he had never bothered to keep track of the time spent inside. Danny The Dodger was going to be in here for life. The Falkreath jail was small and rather unimpressive and he felt a twang of pain whenever he too deeply considered that this pathetic structure was what was keeping him from his freedom. That happened often as he dwelled on things. He was the only prisoner in the jail and had been for the entirety of his stretch thus far. With nothing to look towards, and nobody to talk to, Danny was left with having to reminisce on the past. All the people he conned, all the friends he double-crossed, all the victims he stole from - or worse - and all the truly terrible things he had done. All in the name of being recognized as the best.

He didn’t regret a single thing.

Even the best eventually got caught or died, he had known that from the moment he slipped into the life. The ride couldn’t last forever but Danny had enjoyed one heck of a ride. The Gauntlet of Lemin, The Shield of Duality, even the damn Cowl of Nocturnal. He smiled as he remembers his greatest thefts and his biggest heists. He had done everything he needed to do to go down as a legend and now that it was at an end, he could rest easy. He fell asleep with ease most nights and was able to stomach the monotony of the day-to-day of incarcerated life. He didn’t care about anything and that was just fine in his books. He was simply waiting to die. He had been since the moment he was caught in the hut in Falkreath. His gig was up and that didn’t bother him. He’d done all he could’ve possibly hoped to have done as a thief. He was satisfied. He lies down on the bale of hay that served as his bed inside his tiny, brick cell and closed his eyes. Sleep usually wasn’t a long time coming. He begins to fade when he hears footsteps coming towards him from down the corridor. This was most unusual; he had been fed twice already day and it was nighttime. The guards did not have to routinely check on Danny as he was locked in a windowless cell every second of the day and the only way in and out of the jail was through the front door right where the guards were situated. Danny quietly rises from his bed and peeks out his bars, curiosity getting the better of him. He cannot quite believe his eyes as he sees two guards march a cuffed Dark Elf and a massive Orc to the cell directly opposite them and shove them inside. As one of the guards turns the key in the lock, the other turns to Danny and smiles insincerely.

“Some company for you at last, eh Dodger?”

The two guards laugh as they walk away, leaving the two prisoners in an extremely cramped situation. They are barely out of earshot when the Dark Elf leans against the bars of his cell and calls across to Danny.

“Hey! Pssssst! Friend, over here!”

“I can fuckin’ see you, you’re the only other two fuckers lucky enough to be in here.”

“I think I recognize you, friend.”

“I ain’t that surprised to hear that, a lot of people-”

Danny cuts himself off as he looks at the Dark Elf. He had assumed he recognized him as ‘Wanted’ posters had been plastered over every hold in Skyrim when he terrorized the nation after stealing the cowl but… he seemed to recognize the Dark Elf as well. He cast his mind back to a time just after he had taken the cowl. He had been in Dawnstar and had drank far too much mead - and skooma - in the Windpeak Inn and he vaguely remembered getting into a fight that night.

“Wait a second, where you in Dawnstar about six moons ago? Windpeak Inn?”

“Yes, yes! I knew it was you, I just knew it! Small world, eh?”

“I’ll tell ya, that was a heck of a fight… one you came out on top of if I remember correctly - which I might not because I was absolutely full to the brim with mead!”

“Hahaha, you’re a funny one! Who’d have thought we’d end up here? What did they get you for, friend?”

For the first time, the Orc speaks.

“Shut up, Jermer, let’s just get some rest.”

“Excuse my friend! He can get a little cranky at times, especially when he’s tired.”

Danny’s ears had instantly pricked up when the Orc spoke, and he struggles to recall a memory. He gazes across the cell, verifying it is indeed a Dark Elf.

“Jermer? Not Jermer Bestvon?”

“The one and only! Did I tell you my name in Dawnstar, friend?”

“Nah, we just have a… a mutual acquaintance who mentioned you before, unusual name, you know?”

“We both have the same friend!? Who?”

“Coin Purse Chris, he said he met you when you were up in Winterhold tryin’ to get accepted into the college and that you helped him with a job.”

“I remember Chris! What a man! Great guy, isn’t he? Does he still have The Amulet of Exdivisia?”

“Not anymore.”

“That’s a pity, I hope he’s okay, I know what people get like when they lose something they worked hard for. Baxlug here nearly started crying when the guards put his Northern Axe of Parranium in their lockbox and he-”

“Jermer shut up. That’s Danny The Dodger, you fool. Don’t tell him about anything valuable or it’ll be gone by sunrise.”

“I ain’t goin’ to be doin’ much stealin’ from here, pal. Kinda in a spot, you know?”

Enthralled by the first conversation he had been a part of in moons that did not involve a guard, Danny kept talking.

“So, Jermer, did ya ever get into the College of Winterhold?”

“Oh I sure did, Danny! Baxlug even got in too! But we got kicked out not too long ago. I didn’t know we weren’t allowed practice necromancy, I thought we could do whatever magic we liked in the college for magic but I was wrong, silly me!”

Danny arched an eyebrow.

“Necromancy, huh? Should I even ask what you guys got locked up here for?”

“Uhm… let’s just say it’s related.”

“Jermer, let’s sleep. Everyone in Skyrim knows who Danny is, I don’t like him and I don’t trust him.”

The Orc’s bluntness was stereotypical of his race but shone through nonetheless.

“It’s alright, Jermer, I’m going to put the head down myself. Speak in the mornin’, ain’t like either of us are goin’ anywhere.”

“Good night, friend!”

Danny lay down on the straw and was soon fast asleep but after a couple of hours passed he found himself awake. For the second time that night, he heard footsteps approaching. They were a lot more fleet-footed than the guards and he slowly and quietly moved to the front of his cell to peer out. He watches on in awe as a person in a very familiar grey cowl tiptoes to his cell and shushes him with a gloved finger. If it wasn’t happening right in front of him, Danny would assume he was dreaming. He pinches himself to make sure he is awake and shakes his head in disbelief once or twice. The Gray Fox was picking the lock to his cell. There is a click and then the cell door squeaks a bit as it slowly swings open. Danny stands frozen in shock as the greatest thief of all time indicates for him to be quiet. Danny nods his head as The Gray Fox motions for him to follow him, Danny begins to do so but then comes to a halt and whispers.

“Have ya another lock pick?”

The Gray Fox nods his head and hands him a sturdy-looking pick. Danny creeps over to Jermer and Baxlug’s cell and calls out softly.

“Jermer! Pssst, Jermer, come here!”

Jermer groggily moves to the bars of the cell, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, but wakes right up with a huge grin plastered across his face when Danny slides him the lock pick.

“Thanks, friend.”

Danny nods his head as Jermer goes to wake the sleeping Orc. The Gray Fox pulls on Danny’s arm and leads him further down the corridor of cells, away from where the guards station themselves. He stops right near the end wall and scans a couple of tiles on the ground, Danny spots the shadowmark at the same time he does and mutters its meaning softly under his breath.

“Escape…”

The Gray Fox delicately lifts the tile from the floor revealing a ladder leading down into a tunnel. They climb down, The Gray Fox replacing the tile above them as they descend. They quickly break into a jog in the tunnel, The Gray Fox leading the way. After half a minute, they emerge outside the back of the jail and Danny does a little whoop for joy, punching the air. He had escaped and with the help of The Gray Fox at that! Danny grabs The Gray Fox by the hand.

“Thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you! I didn’t think gettin’ out was ever a possibility but DAMN does freedom taste good! How can I ever repay you?”

For the first time, The Gray Fox speaks.

“It’s time to return to the guild, Danny The Dodger. You owe the guild and as such, you have a debt to repay. You have betrayed your brothers and sisters and you must start at the bottom and work your way back up but we need you. The guild needs your talents. Come, we must be quick.”

The Gray Fox turns and begins walking away from the jail, obviously expecting Danny to fall in step behind him but Danny stays rooted to the spot, unsure of what to do. He is too weak after six moons imprisonment to get very far on his own and he has absolutely no Septims or items. Does he owe the guild? Should he admit he was wrong and made a mistake and go back to toeing the line and working for the guild? Just as Danny decides he is going to follow The Gray Fox, he hears him yell in pain as a golden-tipped arrow deeply sinks into his thigh, causing him to fall to one knee. Danny’s mouth opens in shock but before he can react a second golden-tipped arrow whizzes through the air and pierces The Gray Fox’s throat, instantly felling him. Danny dives behind a well as a crazed, maniacal High Elf comes running across the ground, waving his Wabbajack staff in the air. He dramatically falls to his knees beside The Gray Fox and rips the cowl off his head before holding it aloft in the air, tilting his head back and letting loose a strange, disturbing sound.

“A-HAAAAAAAH!”

Danny tries to conceal himself even more behind the well as he squints to get a better look at the man waving the Cowl of Nocturnal wildly in the air and not for the first time that night, he is shocked to his core. Siemprien. Danny watches in shock as Siemprien begins to take his leave but is immediately stopped by somebody emerging from the shadows and swiping the jagged end of a dagger across his throat. Siemprien falls to his knees, blood gushing from his throat, and takes a long, wheezing breath, before collapsing forward onto the wet grass. The cut-throat quickly runs to the fallen Gray Fox and Danny sneaks a little closer to get a better look. Coin Purse Chris kneels in the grass beside the body, a look of fury and hurt on his face.

“No… no! Oh god, no…”

Chris holds the corpse of Al-Blaq in his hands, shaking his head in sadness. Danny inches ever closer, his eyes locked on the grey cowl on the ground beside the dead Siemprien. Danny looks to his left and sees a stong-looking, black steed tied to a post right beside where Chris was cradling Al-Blaq. As Chris closes the eyes of the Argonian, Danny knows he has to make a decision between the horse and the cowl. His eyes are drawn to the cowl and he slowly moves towards it but Coin Purse Chris quickly whips his head around and in no time has unsheathed his sword and has it pointed directly at Danny. Danny sighs and then laughs.

“Guess it’s been a minute, eh Chris? Looks like I’ve lost a step.”

Chris looks at his dead friend and then at Danny, rage in his eyes, completely confused at what’s going on

You? What are you doing here? What is Al-Blaq doing here? The Gray Fox told me to meet him here! Did you kill Al-Blaq? Was he trying to bust you out, why would he do that?”

Danny smiles and gives an infuriating answer. Partly because he likes tormenting Chris but mostly because he didn’t know what the fuck Al-Blaq was doing there. The Gray Fox had helped him escape and then… then he didn’t know, he couldn’t remember even though it had just happened. Still, after six moons in the slammer, he felt like sticking it to Chris a little.

“He knew I was the best Chris, and he knew the guild needed me.”

Chris deftly swoops down and picks up the Cowl of Nocturnal and shouts at Danny.

“The guild doesn’t need you! Nobody needs you! You’re an untrustworthy scumbag!”

“Of course I am. We’re fuckin’ thieves, Chris.”

Chris points the sword once again at Danny, and Danny takes a slow step sideways, towards the horse, hands in the air.

“You betrayed us! You betrayed the entire guild. You betrayed me! After all the time we spent together, after all the time I spent looking up to you… you just went and threw it all away and for what? This!?”

Chris waves the cowl in his hand and Danny shakes his head.

“You wouldn’t get it.”

“Why wouldn’t I get it? You’re not smarter than me, Danny. You’re not stronger than me. You’re not better than me. So why wouldn’t I comprehend whatever fucked up motives are driving you?”

Danny kneels down and begins untying the horse.

“Because, Chris, if you got it, that sword in your hand would already be six inches deep in my chest.”

“You think I couldn’t kill you, Danny? You think I haven’t got it in me? Why don’t you ask him? Siemprien. The elf that got the better of you for years. If it’s you and me, there’s only going to be one winner, and if you want this cowl, you’re going to have to kill me for it.”

Danny accepts the beratement and realizes he cannot defeat Chris one on one. He has always operated in the shadows and is weak from his stint in jail. Chris would murder him effortlessly. Maybe that would be the case even if he wasn’t weak from his time in jail. Danny laughs at the whole situation and Chris mistakes it for cockiness or Danny doubting Chris.

“You think you can just take this from me? When you first told me about this two years ago, I made a vow that one day, I would have the cowl and become the best thief in the world. With this, I’m going to restore the guild to its former glory. Eclipse it, even. That’s why I stuck around with you and listened to what you had to say. I knew you could help me become great. Who I am today. You taught me everything you know and it’s taken two years but it’s time to face it, Danny - I’m better than you now. I’ve overtaken you, just like you overtook Lastarian. If you want to put that to the test then be my fucking guest.”

Chris readies himself for a fight but no aggression comes from Danny, instead, he stares at Chris for a few moments.

“Keep it. Keep the cowl. It doesn’t mean anything to me, but let me teach ya just one more thing, for old-time’s sake, Coin Purse. You think that cowl in your hand is the key to the kingdom, the path to the throne, the way to become the master thief and the guild master, but if you pull that thing on… if you choose to wear the cowl you will forever be defined by that. As being The Gray Fox. One of many. Me? Well, the name Danny The Dodger will be etched into the history books and I’ll forever be revered as a legend… whether I have anything or not. Everyone knows I had the cowl, but that’s not what defined me, it’s simply part of my legacy. Go ahead, pull the cowl on, Chris, become just another Gray Fox that people will eventually forget about, and it’ll happen a lot sooner than ya think.”

Just then there’s a commotion from the front of the Falkreath Jail and Jermer and Baxlug come crashing out the front door, Baxlug swinging a glowing axe that’s obliterating anything it touches. Chris looks towards the source of the noise but is quick to train his eyes back on Danny, who had used the short time Chris was looking at the jailbreak to mount the black horse. Danny smiles at him from atop the horseback.

“You know it is true that I taught you how to do everything… but there’s more than one way to do things and get the same result.”

Unbelievably, Al-Blaq begins coughing and spluttering up blood on the ground. He’s alive. But barely. Chris immediately drops to his knees, casting the sword aside and applying pressure to the neck wound. He viciously shouts at Danny.

“If I didn’t have to help Al-Blaq, I’d end this right here and now, you scumbag! I’d kill you right here in this very spot and I wouldn’t think twice about it. I swear to The Five Gods, I will hunt you down, and I will make sure it is me who delivers the death blow.”

“Pride comes before the fall, Coin Purse. The funny thing is, I’m the opposite… it’s not going to be me that ends you Chris, and that’s okay. Ya know why? Because when the dust settles, Coin Purse Chris will be slain and Danny The Dodger will still be the name on everybody's lips.”

Danny turns the horse away from Chris and looks down at him one last time, grinning.

“Shadow hide you.”

Danny digs his heels into the mare and it takes off into the night…























4th Era, 223
Unknown Location.

Someone dressed in all black is kneeling in front of a coffin in a very poorly lit dungeon. A raspy, old, feminine voice speaks out from the coffin.

“Give me your ear, evil Listener. A recently escaped convict has performed The Black Sacrament and the target is one of the biggest in the Dark Brotherhood’s history. This convict has prayed to me and wished death upon a mysterious individual… this person wants The Gray Fox dead and has asked us to be the ones to spill his blood. The Gray Fox is believed to be unidentifiable but the Night Mother sees all… kill Coin Purse Chris to fulfill this contract, honor your dark family, and forever be in the black graces of Sithis. As The Listener of The Dark Brotherhood, such is your duty. Coin Purse Chris must die.

“And so he shall, Mother.”

The person rises to a standing position and slowly pulls back their hood, a jagged scar on the side of his face the only thing visible in the darkness of the Night Mother’s crypt…


 
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Comeback Kid

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PROMO TEXT INCLUDED IN SPOILER

The light peered through the canopy tops of the jungle, shinning down onto Shawn's battered body as if his soul were about to leave and ascend to the promised land. His chest slowly inflated before descending again as he attempted to breathe. Each breath felt like his chest was being cut from the inside by shards of glass and barbwire. His eyes stung as blood swam from the wound on his forehead into them. The copper taste of the blood filled his mouth as he gasped for air and slowly moved his head - surveying his surroundings.

Shards of broken glass, barbed wire, and various tools of destruction littered the area around him, resembling that of a war zone. A war zone was the perfect description of the battlefield because there was no doubt that Shawn and Caesar had fought a war for the ten pounds of gold that represented the X-Championship. He slowly turned to his right and stared at the X-Championship as it rested on his shoulder. Shawn attempted to lift himself to a seated position, but the weight of the television championship around his waist made this an impossible task for the beaten champion.

To his left, he could see his foe, Caesar, being helped to his feet and carried off into the distance by the hoard of men that pledged their allegiance to him. They glared at Shawn and whispered about him as they retrieved their leader, but they were careful not to say anything too loud. Seeing what Shawn had done to Caesar, they knew that even in his prone state like this, he was still as deadly as a dog backed into a corner.

He gritted his teeth and dug his fingers into the dirt as he pulled himself up to one knee. He winced with pain and let out a silent cry of agony as he bent to pick up the Television Championship belt that had fallen from his waist. The lightning-like pain that went through his sides let Shawn know that he had broken more than a few ribs in the battle with Caesar. He reminds himself to be careful not to show pain, as he knows that Caesar's men are still watching him as they collect their fallen leader.

Though Shawn was hurt physically; emotionally, he was more damaged than anyone would ever know. At the end of each battle, he felt empty as he went to the back and had no one waiting there to congratulate him. Shawn's family and friends abandoned him due to their jealousy and unloyalty to him, leaving him alone with only his memories and his titles.

After many moments, he finally rose to his feet and gingerly slumped through the carnage of his battle with Caesar clutching both of his championships tightly against his chest. While he longed for the companionship of a loved one in moments like this, he knew that his titles would always be there to comfort him in his solitude.

A trail of blood followed Shawn as he made his way through the jungle toward the shoreline. The twirling blades of a helicopter caused a vortex of sand as it awaited Shawn's arrival. It seemed like the dancing sand parted for Shawn as he made his way through and slumped into the back of the helicopter, using his remaining strength to slam the door shut.

"Mr. Watkins sends his congratulations to you, sir." the pilot says as the helicopter slowly ascends. Shawn musters a smile and waves to say 'thank you.' "We'll arrive on the mainland in less than two hours, sir. Rest up. You've earned it," he says with a smile. Shawn ignored the kind words of the pilot as he stared down at the Granary - the backdrop for his crowning achievement thus far. He looked over at the X and Television Championship belts resting in the seat beside him and couldn't stop smiling.

Gently, he pressed his finger against the gold of his newly won championship before moving over to the Television championship, carefully tracing the word 'Champion.' Those championships reminded him of the sacrifices and the price he paid to be where he is today. It hurt him to know that Noah, Trevor, his brothers, and his mother had abandoned him when he was at his lowest. However, joy filled his body, knowing he had accomplished all this despite their betrayals. Shawn longed for the companionship of a loved one, but he knew that his championship would always be there to comfort him in his solitude.

"You're all. I need. To get by," Shawn sang as his finger traced the gold etching of this championship with a wicked smile across his face. "Lie together, cry together. I swear to God, I hope we fucking die together," he sang before grabbing both championship belts and clutching them tightly against his chest. The pain he felt as he laid on his back couldn't wipe the smile from his face as he slowly drifted into a slumber.

Shawn Summers in
The Decider
(A Stand-Alone Story)
The city seemed to have everything except for slumber. Regardless of the time of day, it seemed there was always something happening, always someone watching, scheming, and committing to plans that would change the course of their history for either better or worse. That's what drew so many to Sin Esperanza - an overpopulated city built on the ruins of New York.

After the third world war and the American Empire's collapse, few places were habitable on the continent. The hubs salvaged from the nuclear fallout were overpopulated, and crime became the leading profession for many. Through the numerous people littering the streets, we focus on a dark-haired man walking unbothered through the crowds, slowly pushing past them. He has a calm determination as he ignores the vocal barbs thrown at him and propositions from the various 'workers." He wears a black denim jacket with a patch on the shoulder embroidered with a question mark. Under the opened jacket, he wears a white shirt tucked lazily into blue jeans and black and white chuck taylor shoes. He approaches a kiosk on the street and grabs a newspaper.

"How much?" he questions in a low voice that barely gets recognition from the kiosk owner, attempting to keep an eye on everyone around him so that none of his items get stolen.

"What? Oh, that. Yeah, that'll run you about 60 credits."
"60 credits?!?! Since when has a paper cost more than 30?"
"Since they announced the two running for president. You can read all about it in that paper you got there. Once you purchase it," he says with a smirk.

Finding another paper for cheaper would take too long, and he was already late. He pulled back his jacket sleeve and scanned his wrist as a group of kids rushed the kiosk, grabbing as many magazines as possible as the owner cursed them.

"What're you doing? Those kids just stole my merchandise! They're thieves! Take care of them. That's what you Deciders do, right?"

He smiles at the kiosk owner and raises the paper to him in thanks before returning on his journey to his destination. The front of the newspaper greets him with the faces of Christopher Lovingbird and Cyrus Cierto under the headline - the fight for the Presidency down to two. The impending faceoff between the two caused uncertainty about the direction of the rebuilding American Empire and caused the economy to take a blow. A smaller headline that could be glanced over mentioned ritualistic-style murders throughout the city.

He tossed the paper in a bin and shook his head as he reached his destination. He hadn't voted for either of them in the primaries. He was a staunch supporter of Madame Horowitz and had hoped for her to insert herself in the race as a third-party candidate. She was a believer in the Deciders, unlike Cierto and Lovingbird.

He knocked on a rusted sliding door three times in a rhythmic style before sliding it open enough for him to enter. The sound of chains swinging, his approaching footsteps, and a low groan echoed throughout the large warehouse-style building. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, removing one and placing it between his lips - it was his last. He lit the cigarette and inhaled profoundly, allowing the smoke to dance to his lungs before exhaling. He stared at the figure before him and shook his head at the sight.

"You know, I thought she would've come and accepted her fate by now, Bret," he says between puffs of his cigarette as Bret groans in pain. We finally see the gruesome state that Bret was left in as the man begins to circle his hanging body. For someone looking in, they would assume that Bret was hanging from the ceiling with a red t-shirt on, but upon closer inspection, they would realize that his torso had the skin removed in the shape of a t-shirt.

"Perhaps we should fashion a pair of shorts to go with the 'shirt' we sent her. Do you think that would get the message to her, Bret?" he questioned as he pressed a finger against the muscle tissue of Bret's side, sending a stinging pain throughout his entire body.

"Please," Bret said weakly as the man continued to pace around him smoking his cigarette. "Just let me take her judgment. Let me take her pain. She's just a child."

The man stops pacing and chuckles before removing the cigarette from his mouth and approaching Bret. He presses the cigarette against Bret's exposed torso causing him to scream in agony. The screams would have bothered an unseasoned Decider, but he had been doing this for so long that he'd gotten used to them. It was almost a pleasing sound to him at this point. Screams like this meant that he was close to being finished.

He removed the cigarette from Bret's side as the screech of the sliding door intertwined with his screams drawing both of their attention. The man smiled as he noticed the young blonde-haired woman standing with her hand covering her mouth in horror at the sight.

"I wondered when you would join us, love," the man said as he signaled for her to close the door behind her. "Come now, close the door. I'd hate for anyone to see what's going on in here. However," he said with a pause as he slowly approached the young woman. "Maybe we should open the door and invite an audience. Then they can see what happens when they accept things they don't deserve and didn't earn right Bellatrix?"

"P-please stop hurting, Bret," she says in a timid baby doll-like voice, much to the displeasure of the man approaching. "Stop with all of that. You're a grown woman, and it's embarrassing to see you act like some child. You weren't acting like a child when you stole from those who earned those credits. You weren't acting like a child when you and Bret here decided that you deserved an opportunity for doing absolutely nothing while everyone else clawed and scraped to get ahead." he says as he stands before a hysterical Bellatrix.

"I just wanted to be like you. I wanted to be like all of you. You all look down on us and think you're better than us because you have those special titles. I just wanted us to have something, too," Trixie said between tears as the man crossed his arms and sighed deeply. "You think it's easy living the way we do? Fighting amongst each other only to find ourselves in front of one of you - you Deciders. One of you with the fancy title who gets to determine our fates. I just wanted an opportunity for us. I EARNED IT! WE EARNED IT," she shouted as she attempted to stab the man with a once-concealed knife.

The man avoids the blade, only his jacket being pierced by it. He breaks Bellatrix's hold on the knife and connects with a heavy fist to the side of her face sending her falling to the ground. He quickly mounts her and snatches her throat. He squeezes, his thumb sliding upward as Bellatrix gasps and flails attempting to grab the dropped knife. She manages to grasp it and stabs him in the shoulder. He accepts the wound and pain but doesn't release his grip.

"Please, Shawn. She's done. Don't take her from me, please," he shrieks as Shawn stares at him with eyes that are cold and without emotion. He feels Bellatrix's body becoming limp and releases the choke, rolling her onto her stomach and placing a pair of handcuffs around her wrists.

"It's been decided, Bellatrix," he says between deep breaths. He checks the stab wound and sees the blood on his fingers. "You and Bret will be banished to the colonies. There will be no chance of return. Be grateful for the leniency that I'm showing," he says with a grimace as the adrenaline wears off and the pain of the stab wound fills his body.

Shawn sits with Bret and Trixie as a transport unit arrives at the warehouse. A tandem of individuals dressed in all-white bodysuits with domed helmets slides the doors open and approaches.

"Dammit, Summers. The medical credits are coming out of your salary for this one," one of the individuals says as they place a medipac over the torso of Bret.

"Just make sure they're sent to separate colonies. Their codependency is what led them to this. No need to encourage it any further. Fucking weirdos."

"That's rich. Calling them weirdos after you skinned him for a petty crime like this."

"Petty crime. Major crime. It's still a crime, and it's up to us to decide their fate. They should be happy it's the colonies that they're going to and not the morgue," he says as he exits the warehouse and reenters the occlusion of people buttoned against the streets of Sin Esperanza.

The inside of Shawn's apartment was nothing to write home about. The space had no identity - just a simple chair with a well-thumbed, noted, and creased novel resting atop the arm. He presses a switch on the wall, and a projector screen turns on to a 24-hour news channel specific to Sin Esperanza. He removes his jacket and grimaces at the knife tear in the fabric, poking his finger through it before placing it on a hook before retreating to a backroom where he turns on the shower.

He washes off the day's dust and blood before exiting to the medicine cabinet and sink combo. Shawn stares at his reflection in the mirror and eyes his shoulder wound. He squeezes the contents of a tube onto it, and the skin rebounds, closing the wound as if it never occurred. Shawn exits to the open common room area of the apartment and sits in the armchair to watch the news.

The anchors discussed the finding of another body found by the Deciders. The body was dismembered and placed amongst ritualistic carvings like the other nine before it. Shawn sighed deeply as he knew he would catch flack for this. He had agreed to take on the case but had neglected it as he turned his attention to the easier causes. He had made a decision regarding the vigilante 'cowboy' and the false leader that had increased his rank within the Deciders, but at that time, the bodies started piling up.

"What's interesting about all of these deaths, Lauren, is that each has been individuals awaiting a decision."

"Are you suggesting this is some copycat from the Vigilante Cowboy Tobias, Kent?"

"No, he acted out of love and passion. This individual acts out of a sense of justice, similar to the Deciders. The difference is that the Deciders earned that title. They were given that title and responsibility because they have proven themselves to be amongst the best of us. The number of vigilantes and pretenders attempting to gain that status has increased, and it's doing more harm than good.

The feed freezes, and an emergency message flashes across it. "VOICE MESSAGE. IMMEDIATE RESPONSE REQUIRED." The Decider's logo flashes across the screen as the voice message plays.

"He's willing to talk to you... Get down here."

Shawn's hand tenses up. It had been years since the two had spoken, and many things had changed since the war. He quickly changed into his casual clothes, wearing all the same clothes except a changed white undershirt, before making his way out the door.

He stares through a mirror at a man chained to a metal chair with a wicked grin tattooed across his face. The man has long, wild hair that covers his eyes and wears a white jumpsuit with no shoes or socks. He stretches his toes before rhythmically tapping them on the ground as he awaits his guest.

"He's been very adamant about speaking with you. Says that the silent treatment has gone on long enough," says a woman with a close-shaved haircut. She wears a jacket similar to Shawn's and a black bodysuit tucked into a pair of charcoal-colored combat boots that seem almost too big for her.

"Can he -"
"Nope," she interrupts, predicting what he would say.
"He cannot see or hear us. It looks like just a painting on the wall to him. He spoke with Dr. Nandez and said that the two of you had fought in the war - on opposing sides but still fought in the war together. Even bragged that he had your number," she says with a sly grin as Shawn gives her a side-eyed look before entering the room with the man.

The man looks up as Shawn enters the room and flashes a calming smile. If his hands weren't restrained behind the chair, he would have clasped them together longingly and probably welcomed Shawn in for a hug. Shawn's disposition was the complete opposite. He was cold toward the man and wanted nothing to do with him. A reunion of this sort was not what he had wanted, but he knew that he could get closer to deciding judgment for the vigilante by talking to him.

"Shawnathan, it's been too long! I've dreamed of us reuniting and, well, you know better than anyone that my dreams never die. How've you been? I love what you've done with your hair. The blonde was never your color," he says as Shawn leans back in his chair, arms crossed, waiting for him to finish.

"Xander -" he begins but is quickly interrupted by the man violently shaking his head back and forth.

"I'm not Xander. Never call me Xander. I'm Option XYZ. XYZ for short. Call me by my name, or we can end this right now, Shawnathan." There was an air of defiance and seriousness to his tone. Shawn knew that he needed to play ball for him to give him what he wanted.

"We decided to keep you here because we thought you could be useful, XYZ. Do you intend to be useful to us, or is this just another one of your ways to waste time?"

" A little bit of both, Shawnathan. You'll have to forgive me for laughing, but I believe you said that you all 'decided' to keep me here," he says with a chuckle before continuing, much to Shawn's annoyance. "We both know that it wasn't you all who decided anything. It was all Devin's will. All of this is allowed to happen BECAUSE of him. He dreamt it, and so it is. As long as he allows it, the dream...never...dies."

After the War, XYZ (X) began to suffer from mental health issues due to radiation exposure. He spoke of someone named Devin, his version of what the former Christians viewed as God. In his mind, we are all a figment of Devin's imagination, and he is just an optional variant of Devin being allowed to live in this world that he's created. He is not as intelligent, strong, or successful as Devin, but he is still part of him. The part of him that failed to live up to anything and a part he would like to forget but can't because it's what keeps him away from reality. Or so he says.

" Is it Devin that's allowed this vigilante to decide the fate of individuals throughout the city?"

"He's no much different than you lot."

"He's a murderer."

"My point stands. He's no different than you, Shawn. He's just deciding the fate of those who've broken the social norms that have been put into place. The only difference is that he wasn't appointed -" he pauses and smiles at Shawn, who is visibly annoyed by this comparison.

"Where are my manners? He hasn't EARNED the right to decide the fate of those who've broken the rules of society. Tell me, Shawn. What did YOU do to earn the right to make such decisions?"

"I put in the work. I proved myself through my actions in the war and my dedication to preserving what's left of society. I earned my title as a Decider through honor, discipline, and bravery. I earned my title as a Decider. I didn't have it handed to me or try to put myself on the same level as them like he was doing. I earned my title and don't have to prove it to someone like you."

Shawn quickly stands and pushes the seat away as he approaches the door.

"It must eat you up that you decided to let him go the last time you encountered him," X says with a smile as Shawn stops in place.

"He was your final test, and you decided he wouldn't be a threat to society if you just let him go. They praised you for it and awarded you with the title of Decider. What a fool you were to do something like that. Letting that man back into the streets, creating that monster that is out here tearing bodies limb from limb, sacrificing them to the old and new Gods in the hope that they will make him one of you. Devin would never let him join your ranks. Not yet, at least. It's not in his dream to allow that to happen, just as it's not in his dream to allow me to escape from these chains and take the world and everything in it. No, no, no. That's not Devin's will."

Shawn returns to the table and stares down at X, who smiles and wiggles his toes rhythmically. He had always known how to get under Shawn's skin. It was one of the reasons that Shawn was afraid to come to this meeting. Sure, he could give him some insight into finding this man and deciding his fate, but he could also send Shawn on a wild goose chase and claim that it was "Devin's will" or some other bullshit.

"How do I find him?"
"He'll find you," X says silently. "He's been looking for you and attempting to gain your approval since your last meeting. He's trying to get you to make a different decision about him. Make the decision that he is...worthy.He would love for you to bestow the title upon him so he can finally prove that all his changes and sacrifices were worth it. He will find you, Shawn, and he will make a decision."
"And what's that decision, X?"
"The decision to either take your title...your position as a Decider or to wait his turn and accept whatever decision you have for him." He smiles at Shawn and motions with his head toward the door. Shawn takes the hint and leaves the room.

Shawn passes by the smiling faces of women barely wearing any clothing pawing at him from behind the windows of the brothels that line the street. He nods at the doorman of one of the clubs and makes his way through a beaded curtain where his body is drenched in red lighting. He passes by multiple doors, taking the chance to sneak a glance in each, where holograms of women gesturing seductively for him to enter. He ignores them. You had to be a desperately horny individual to pay to fuck a hologram placed over the body of some run-through hooker. Shawn wasn't that desperate, and he wasn't that horny. He was here for a reason, and sex wasn't it.

He walks down a staircase into a basement with various closed-off rooms. Behind each door, he can hear the sounds of ecstasy and screams of terror. He ignores them as he approaches the door at the end of the corridor with a painted question mark on it. His hand hesitates as he reaches for the nob, but he eventually opens it and finds himself staring at the dismembered body of a young woman - Trixie. He had been told she was taken from the transport vehicle en route to the colony. His heart sank into his stomach. This was not the fate that he had decided for her.

As he analyzed the parts, he heard the door slowly open. Shawn looked up and found himself staring at the demonic-like skull mask covering the face of a decently built man. Shawn slowly rose and backed away from Trixie's limbs as the masked man kneeled to admire his work.

"You made the wrong decision again, Mr. Summers," the man said as he rearranged the limbs to his liking. "Banishment to the colonies wasn't enough for her crimes. No, she needed to know that the consequences of unearned success can be deadly. You let her off easy, Decider," he said as he climbed. Shawn was face to face with the demon he created for the first time.

"I've been cleaning up your messes around the city, Shawn. I've been proving that I am the one that deserves the title of Decider. You've taken that title for granted."

"How do you figure?" Shawn questions as he and the masked man begin to circle one another. His heart beats intensely as he attempts to predict when the man will lunge and attack him. His position as a Decider hadn't been in this much danger in a long time. The feeling of losing his title as a Decider caused him panic, but the feeling of possibly losing his life was something that he had never experienced.

"People like myself and Trixie would've given anything to have the title of Decider, but you're out here neglecting your duties chasing other positions and titles of power. I thought I would've gotten your attention after the first 'sacrifice,' but no. It took me sacrificing more and more victims until you turned your attention toward me. The threat that had been following you around this entire time, waiting to take your spot," he said as he pretended to lunge at Shawn, causing him to jump backward forcefully. The masked man can be heard laughing as Shawn trembles with fear, stumbling over his feet as the two continue to circle.

"You don't deserve to be a Decider, nor did she. She tried to take someone's opportunity to get ahead in this city an-"

"And look what happened to her," the masked man says, interrupting Shawn.

"She would never be able to claim the title of Decider, but you and I both know I could. I almost did the last time we met. Remember? You like to talk about how you earned the title of Decider, but you forget to mention that to become a Decider, you must take out another Decider. That's why I'm here, Shawn. I had my chance before, and you stole it from me, but I won't let it happen this time," he says as he puts his fist up, ready to fight Shawn.

Shawn moves in to attack first. He throws a straight left first to the masked man's face and steps his left foot forward at the same time. He dodges the attack, pounces on the upper part of Shawn's arm with his right hand, and catches his wrist with his left hand. He tries to turn Shawn's front wrist up, but Shawn manages to escape. This surprises him causing him to break and steps back.

Shawn moves forward and throws a kick with his right foot. The masked man returns to dodge the attack and swivels to try and strike with a counterattack. He moves too slowly, and Shawn slams his right foot down on the floor and uses it to swivel, unleashing a kick with his left, which connects with the mask's jaw, cracking it and sending the man flying back into the door.

Shawn charges over to the disoriented man, hitting him with alternating jabs and punches to his upper body and face, further damaging the mask. Remnants of the mask begin to fall to the floor, and the man forcefully pushes Shawn across the room as half of his face is exposed.

"You want to be a Decider but can't even show your face?" Shawn says mockingly at the man as he attempts to cover the exposed parts of his face. He moves toward Shawn and comes in with a right punch that Shawn casually doges and returns to his oblique with a jab of his own. The man attempts to swivel, punching the air as he tries to hit Shawn is met with a quartet of punches in his gut. Shawn pulls his fist back, seemingly about to land the killer punch, but he retreats and shrugs at the masked man.

"You're not on my level! No matter how much you pretend to be on my level, its moments like this that will always remind you that you're just a boy trying to play with a man," Shawn shouts as the man wildly throws punches at him, eventually connecting with one that causes Shawn to stumble backward.

Shawn puts up his guard as the man slams punches into him. He attempts to respond with defensive blocks and counterattacks, but the man moves so wildly that it's almost impossible. Shawn manages to front-push kick him toward the door causing him to fall to the ground. Shawn charges at him with a knee, fully cracking the mask, causing it to fall to the ground and revealing the man's damaged and bloodied face.

"There you are," Shawn exclaims as the man seethes angrily as he gets to his feet. "You can put on all the masks you want and make decisions as if you are a Decider, but you will NEVER take the title away from me! I killed two Deciders to get my stripes! You can't even handle my leftovers," Shawn says with a laugh as the man stumbles to his feet, the fire leaving him. Shawn charges him with a flurry of punches. Left, right, left, right. Shawn connects with an overhead right hand to the temple of the man. He's out cold before he hits the floor.

Shawn stares at the man lying on the floor amongst the dismembered parts of Trixie. If this had been any other decider before him, the masked woman or the veteran, it may very well have been him lying where they were. Shawn opens the door to the room and slowly closes it behind him as he exits. He walks down the corridor toward the stairs as Deciders march past him. He didn't care what they did to the man in the room. His fate had already been decided by Shawn before.
 
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Jazz Wolf

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-= 72 HOURS AGO =-

There were fewer cities in the country more riddled with crime, than the city of FWA.

Sure, the scenery changed, and some of the key players responsible for the corruption and decay in the city may have left their position, but for every killer that got dealt with, for every psychopath that met a grisly end, or for every crook that just vanished, it created an opening, a power vacuum, that the police were unable to close before the next hoodlum took the shot to make a name for themselves and seize the streets or a certain district. The officers had been fighting a losing battle for a long time, understaffed and with low morale, that working around the force was easy for the felons and gangsters that still ruled FWA with an iron, crimson fist. Just like how years ago, the combined efforts of Detective Montrose and Detective Parr did little to curb the growing tumor of illegal activities within the city, now today’s officers continued to struggle against the tide.

The more things change, the more things stay the same.

Sound familiar?

Don’t get too excited. This isn’t quite a sequel to the Detectives Trilogy. More of a spinoff.

We don’t open in the understaffed and under budgeted FWA Metropolitan Police Station. We don’t join a rookie hot shot, fresh out of training and eager to make a difference, nor do we join an aged, world-weary gumshoe counting the days until their retirement. Not this time. Instead, our scene opens within a cluttered, disorganized office with a sepia tint to it. Filing cabinets filled to the brim, spilling their contents as they leaned on each other. Discarded documents, overfilling a rubbish bin. A ceiling fan that didn’t spin, so much as it twitched occasionally. And a board nailed to the wall, covered with photographs, post-it notes, and at least a dozen pieces of red string.

The only light in the room belonged to a lit cigarette, held between the lips of the sole occupant. An occupant who, unlike the protagonists, was never able to graduate from the police academy, though she did own the (pirated) movies on DVD if that helped. Dressed in a pair of faded jeans that had seen better days, a dark green button-up with several coffee stains on it, a black tie that wasn’t really tied at all, and an off-brown jacket that was one size slightly too big for her slim frame, she sighed. A battered brown fedora sunk over her bright green hair, flattening the mohawk she had put too much time into upkeep only to hide it underneath an outdated hat. The ‘PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR’ lettering had long since started to fade and peel away from the door to her office, a door that had only been opened by herself four times a day, six days a week, for the past few years. Success was not a feeling that was familiar to her, yet she stuck around, not unlike a cockroach, confident in the slightly misguided relief that her big break would come along, eventually. To call it quits now would be admitting failure, and she was a strong believer in sunk-cost fallacy.

She breathed out a plume of smoke, unable to blow it into a poignant shape or symbol, as she glared at the board before her. This wasn’t her case. She had never accepted it, but as time rolled on and the lawmen’s investigation attempts whittled away into a cold case, she found herself unable to stop herself from trying to put the pieces together herself. She had a personal interest in solving this case, and the growing bitterness and frustration at the relative inaction of those who she was supposed to rely on meant she probably put more work into this one case than any other in her career. Which, admittedly, wasn’t saying much, but when the officers of the law were perfectly content to let one of their own fall victim to an unsolved case, then what else was she supposed to do?

Much less, when everyone knew exactly who had committed this particular crime, and nobody was particularly pressed to take action. She let out a sigh - sure, she never had any real faith in the police but even a token effort would’ve been appreciated. And now, she stood on the precipice of a decision - taking the next step would be risking her career, her livelihood, her reputation, and even her health. She could take that next step into a world where she couldn’t turn back, where if one thing went wrong she would be up shit creek without a paddle. Or she could not. She could stay in her small, isolated space in the corner of the world, ignored by many and respected by few. She could continue being a background player in the stage play of the world.

Really. What kind of decision was that, after all?

As she stubbed the cigarette on her desk, her fingers trailed to her phone, punching in a number she had to stab someone to get. Pressing the phone against her pierced ear, she listened to it ring once, twice, three times, before finally answering.

“Name’s Violet. Violet Dreyer. I think it’s time you and I talked.”

-= TODAY =-

Inside a stale, locked room, a man sat.

With eyes that never quite focused on someone when they spoke, with a mess of closely-cropped hair, the man sat. Despite the uncomfortable setting, he wasn’t worried. He had faith it would all work out in the end. He wore a pair of tracksuit pants that probably hadn’t been washed in a while, and a faded blue shirt that almost certainly hadn’t been washed in a while. This wasn’t the first time he had been escorted to the precinct, but hopefully it would be the last. Why couldn’t they just see that he was doing something noble?

Jeremy Best sat, idly twiddling his thumbs. It wasn’t a particularly fun room - concrete floor and walls, broken only by a thick wooden door and a glass mirror that took up the length of one of the walls. The metal frame of the chair was uncomfortable underneath his behind, and the table that he rested his wrists on was cold and rough to the touch.

It didn’t help that his wrists were handcuffed to said table.

But that’s okay. It was all a brief misunderstanding. The officer even apologized when bringing him in, stating that it was simply protocol. Investigations require these sorts of things. And Jeremy understood - everyone has their own hoops to leap through. His lawyer, trusty Bill Scorpane, was on their way, although Jeremy didn’t see much point - he was more than capable of ensuring the officers had a fine, enjoyable companion for a conversation without Billy stepping in to clarify a question or a statement.

But again, that’s okay. Billiam had his own hoops to jump through, his hoops were just more square-shaped compared to the police’s circles, he claimed. Which seemed like a strange statement considering hoops were primarily circular in nature. Maybe he meant oval-like rather than square.

As the clock slowly ticked by, Jeremy cheerfully bobbed his head from side to side, whistling a nameless tune, for minutes on end, safe in the knowledge that sooner or later, he would be back where he belonged.

With his best friend.

-= 60 HOURS AGO =-

“Let’s get one thing straight here - I got my own shit to deal with, alright?” The detective began, as Violet Dreyer closed the door behind her. “I got my own cases to close, my own scores to settle, my own business to take care of. I am extending you the courtesy of this meeting purely as a favor to our… Shared acquaintance. And that’s it. Get to it.” He spat, flippantly gesturing with a hand.

Violet Dreyer fixed the detective with a curious stare as he sat himself down behind his desk, which seemed much cleaner than hers, she noted with jealousy. Clad in a black business suit, along with a crisp white button up and a black tie, he looked more like an FBI agent than a FWA Detective. The jet-black sunglasses didn’t change matters. A crop of brown-ish hair decorated him, along with a line of stubble across his jaw, cast the image of a carefully maintained rogue who played by his own rules.

Detective Mike Parr perfectly matched the description her missing ally had once given to her.

Idly tracing a finger across one of the various photos in Mike Parr’s office, Violet Dreyer cleared her throat. “We both know why I’m here. Don’t we? Because of him.”

Mike Parr did not ask who ‘him’ was. He didn’t need to. And yet, his harsh visage still softened, ever so slightly. The slight crinkle at the corner of his eyes faded, subtle enough that you wouldn’t even tell if you weren’t explicitly looking for it. He let out a sigh. “I don’t make a habit out of letting freelancers play pretend cop, and I’m not looking to traverse down memory lane. Those days are behind me. Get to the point.”

Violet frowned, tapping a finger against Parr’s desk with emphasis. “He’s missing, Parr. Your own partner, gone. And you’re sitting here doing, what, counting the holes in the ceiling?”

“Ex-partner.” Parr corrected disdainfully, rolling his eyes. “He was my partner for about four months, if that, a few years ago. So he eventually ran his mouth to the wrong person - So what? I think even he knew he couldn’t talk his way out of every problem, not for lack of trying. Dear god, the lack of trying.” Parr sighed, massaging his temples. “Besides. It’s not my assigned case. I have my own cas-”

“But we all know who did it.” Violet interrupted with a hiss. “We all know Jeremy Best and his fuckin’ crony kidnapped him. Even I know that, and I’m fuckin’ nobody.”

“Fuck’s sake, Dreyer, you don’t think I know that?” Parr snapped. “Everyone fucking knows it, but getting evidence to stick to that man is like trying to nail buttered toast to a wall. Fucking impossible, at some point you’re just wasting breakfast. Freak’s lawyered up the ass and knows it.”

Violet groaned, throwing her arms up in frustration. “If everyone here knows, why hasn’t anything been done? It’s been months. He could be dead at this point.”

Parr pinched the bridge of his nose. “Because the law dictates we-”

“Fuck the law. From what he told me, you and him were pretty lax on the rules back in the day, what changed?”

Parr fixed her with a glare, scowling. “Like I said. I got my own shit to deal with. I can’t afford to stick my neck out for every Tom, Dick, & Harry in this joint that got fucked up, fucked over, or some combination of fucked. Not my circus, not my monkey, not my problem.”

A tepid silence fell over the two of them. Parr turned his attention back to his computer screen, silently deciding this conversation was over and gesturing to Violet to leave. Violet made a sound that sounded like a rat being stepped on, and instead stepped forward, leaning on Parr’s desk. She glanced at Parr’s computer screen, at the visage of a scowling man with patchy gray hair. She should’ve expected as much - if anyone was going to make a play for the NA District, it would’ve been the guy who ruled it several times over.

“He liked you, y’know.” She spat with a heated whisper. “I couldn’t figure out how, but I think he did. Fuck knows why. He liked you enough to put up with your bullshit, and you can’t even give him the common courtsey of a reach around while he's getting fucked over.”

“Jesus, Violet.” Parr shook his head. “Don’t try to tug on heartstrings that don’t exist, alright? It was business shit back then. Nothing more. Just us relying on the only two people who we could count on back then - each other. Fucking Blackbird…”

Violet fumed. “He thought you were capable of more. And I don’t care if that thought was one-sided - surely you agree that, even if he was an annoying prat with a lame moustache, he didn’t deserve to be kidnapped by a fucking lunatic like Jeremy. Right?”

Parr held her gaze for seconds, before turning his head. “No. He didn’t.” He replied softly. “He deserved something, but not that.”

There it was. The silent breakthrough. Violet cleared her throat, sitting on the desk and tapping a finger. “Look. Put me in a room with Jeremy. I’ll get him to talk.”

“How?”

Violet waggled a finger. “Nope. Don’t ask. Plausible deniability.”

Parr sighed. “You know, you’d only have, what, an hour or less before his lawyer showed up, and anything he says wouldn’t be admissible in the court of law.”

“Think I give a shit about a court of law right now? Do you?” Violet queried, raising an eyebrow.

After a long silence, Parr sighed. “... No. Alright, fine. Give me a few days to set something up, and I’ll call you the day before.”

-= TODAY =-

“His lawyer already got wind of this and is on his way.” Detective Parr explained, as he marched Violet down the hallways of the precinct. “Fucker named Scorpane. He shouldn’t be too far away, forty minutes if he hits all the green lights, so whatever it is you’re hoping to do, get it done quick.”

Violet shrugged, adjusting her carry bag over her shoulder. “Only forty minutes? Fuck. Guess I'll have to make do. You coming in, making sure I play by the rules?”

“No. Some halfwit got himself iced down by the docks and I’ve got to go give the scene an assessment.” Parr didn’t sound particularly interested in either the iced halfwit or Violet’s meeting, just quietly resigned to the situation, as he shook his head. “Look, just don’t hurt a hair on Jeremy’s head, alright? The law is flexible in certain situations, but if he comes out of that room with a bruise, we’ll be sued so quickly we won’t even have time to wipe our ass.”

“Alright, fuckin’ chill.” Violet raised her hands in mock surrender, rolling her eyes. “I won’t lay a hand on that dipshit, fine. Anyone in the observatory deck?”

“Can’t afford the manpower right now. You’ll be alone without supervision - don’t fuck it up.” Parr nodded, stopping before a room marked with the number 5, jerking his head toward it. “He’s waiting for you. Give us a location, and whatever happens next, we’ll deal with it." His eyes fell upon the bag in Violet's grasp, and he hesitated, briefly. "What’s with the bag?”

Violet shrugged. “Just some tunes for the ride.” With that, she entered the room, letting the door swing closed behind her before Detective Parr could utter another word.

-= 38 HOURS AGO =-

The Nightclub of the King of Disco had only grown more bussin’ - or ‘Bussying’ if one were so inclined - as the months had passed. The crowning of Chris Peacock as the undisputed king of the streets had only increased business and revenue. After a long, tumultuous journey where the leader of the underworld portion of FWA underwent several changes, Peacock’s glitter-gloved hands were cemented in their attempt to bring stability and reliability to the criminal slices that made up the greater body of FWA. In some ways, it was a welcome relief - the constant, constant changing of the guard meant the streets lay in unpredictable fear, gangs and crews constantly waging war to take control of the seedy underworld, had constantly hung over the innocents who paid the price for the sequel after sequel after sequel of the street wars. For all that Chris Peacock was, and all that he was not, the stability was welcomed.

Stepping through the doors of the Disco Parlor, Violet Dreyer cast a gaze around at the near-full den. Last time she was here, she had stormed out in a huff after a certain revelation, and she doubted she would be welcomed if the proprietor of the nightclub saw her. He might play nice, sure, but he’d find some excuse to push her out the door before too long. People like him always did - A boogeyman in their own mind.

Luckily, she wasn’t here for the Disco King.

She was here for his… Well. ‘Second In Command’ didn’t quite fit. The man she was seeking was a trusted confidant for Peacock. Once, he might’ve been one for Violet herself, but… Things changed.

Unfortunate as it was, things changed.

Alyster Black was a relatively easy man to find. Unlike the regular patrons of the Disco Parlor, he had very little interest in dancing or grooving. Nor did he wear the usual gaudy bright suits and attires one would associate with an outdated genre of music. He wore black, and only black. He rarely, if ever, showed his face, preferring to stay as a recluse behind a mask. And much like many of the townsfolk, he had a bit of a drinking problem.

With that in mind, finding him was easy. Head to the bar and find the guy in black. Lo and behold, there was the former X Despot himself. Previously, he might’ve held the same title as his disco companion did now. Previously, he might’ve ruled the X District with an iron fist, providing more stability to an ultraviolent district than anyone else had in the past few years.

Now, however, he was a shell of a man. Both titles were gone, ripped from him for one reason or another. Sure, he still held a claim to some other titles in a sister city out west, but that was a story not documented here.

Violet might’ve felt an emotion similar to sympathy. Then the memory of Alyster’s relative inaction reared its ugly head, and that emotion was buried six feet under.

Instead, she slid onto an empty stool beside him. “Sup Alyster. Long time no see.” Careful to keep the venom out of her voice, Violet greeted her former friend with a gentle pat on the back. Spying on his phone, she caught a glimpse of five faces, most of them strangers to her. One might've been a weasel of some kind.

Turning his head, Alyster caught her with his gaze, sliding his palm over the phone. The mask did a terrific job of hiding his emotions, as masks are wont to do, but the slight hint of an inhale, the fraction of a tilt of a head, and the microsecond of inactivity before he leaned in told her two things: One, he was slightly drunk. Two, he was surprised to see her. Three, he didn’t want her to pick up on the previous two tidbits of information.

Or maybe she was making it up, pointing out pictures that didn’t exist. She wasn’t a good PI, after all.

“Violet.” Alyster noted with a neutral tone. “I didn’t… Expect you to be here.”

“What, a gal can’t treat herself in FWA’s finest nightclub?” She said, resisting the urge to rip out her tongue and stomp it into the floor at the obvious lie.

Alyster stared, then turned his attention back to his drink. “Why are you talking to me? I thought you were pretty angry with me.” He said, having the decency to speak with a flavor of guilt in his voice.

“Oh, I am. I very much am. If it makes you feel better, fuck you.” Violet replied, swiping Alyster’s drink and stirring it with a finger.

Alyster sat in silence, avoiding eye contact, until Violet slid the drink back. “Now’s your chance to start to make good, though.” She said, casually.

He perked his head up. Even through his tipsy haze, the weight of those words still echoed within. He turned his head to her, quiet, but listening with rapt attention.

“I need you to do me a favor.” Violet remarked, gazing across the dance floor. A man in a gaudy blue suit, far on the other side of the room, locked eyes with her. The owner of the establishment, the current King of the Underworld. A shadow of a frown passed his face, as he noted her presence and who she was speaking with.

“You’re wearing his jacket.” Alyster mumbled beside her, brushing the off-brown slightly-too-large jacket over Violet’s frame with an unreadable tone.

Violet blinked. “What?”

Alyster didn’t answer. Maybe it was the drink talking, but he interpreted something in the jacket. Something that Violet didn’t quite catch. A meaning gone unsaid. Instead, he downed the rest of his drink, tragically failing to ask where Violet’s finger had been pre-stirring, before exhaling.

“This favor.” He nodded in grim determination. “What do you need?”

-= TODAY =-

The clock was ticking. Wasting no time, Violet Dreyer sat herself down in the interrogation room opposite Jeremy Best, fixing him with a glare. Jeremy at least had the common decency to squirm beneath her gaze, already having had one ‘encounter’ with her previously - and suspected that one was too many.

“Jeremy Best.” Violet began, resting her knuckles on the table, in full view. Jeremy spied the bruises and cuts across her right hand, gulping. “Where’s Detective Montrose?” She began, wasting little time.

An uneasy smile spread onto Jeremy’s features. “H-Hi, Violet. It’s… good to see you.” What a terrible liar. Even Violet's few friends would agree it was never good to see her.

“Answer the fuckin’ question, Jeremy." Violet barked. "We know you and Bryan Baxter were seen taking Detective Jake ‘Krash’ Montrose on the road south of the graveyard. I don’t know how you found him, but you did, and now you’re, what, keeping him locked up in your basement?”

Jeremy shrugged, unable to hide a nervous, anxiety-ridden smile.

Violet glowered. “I know you’ve got him somewhere. I’m not playing with kiddie gloves, alright? You have one last chance - Tell me where he is, or-”

“Or what, Violet? You’ll s-smack me around a bit?” He shivered, but still, that smile remained. “You won’t. Bill told me you couldn’t lay a finger on me in these walls.”

Violet huffed, twitching a fist.

"You have to play nice, Violet."

She glowered, and wondered how easy it would be to reach across the table and strangle the stack of dimes Jeremy called a neck until it splintered within her grip.

Jeremy leaned in. “He told me about you.” He giggled. “Krash did. Best friends tell each other everything, and he told me you had the vocabulary of someone with eternally stubbed toes.”

Violet bit her tongue. That at least sounded like something her ally would say. “Where is he?”

Jeremy waved a hand flippantly, growing bolder at the relative inaction. “He’s fine, Violet. He’s in a safe place, surrounded by friends.”

Violet gritted her teeth. “Where?”

Jeremy laughed. Not a giggle, not a chuckle, a full-on laugh. “It’s a lil’ secret, Violet! A secret between besties! We pinkie-promised not to tell, and you can’t break a pinkie-promise.”

It was the confident, vacantly smug grin in Jeremy's ratfaced features that irked her. He was so oblivious, and yet, so smug at the same time. Like he genuinely didn't know what he had done that was so wrong. It was infuriating.

“Right. Fuck this.” Unclasping her bag, Violet unveiled a silver laptop, opening it up on the desk and punching in a password. As the screen booted up, a sardonic smirk made its way across Violet’s features. Time to show this string bean who was in charge. “Jeremy, I have something I’d like to show you.” Her fingers tapped on the keyboard, turning the screen around. Jeremy glanced at the screen, at the video on the screen, and the smile faded from his face as he did a double-take.

He didn't seem to quite grasp what he was seeing.

The poorly lit scene and the grainy filter certainly made identifying what was going in difficult.

But Jeremy wouldn't have any trouble recognizing the bulky, big man in any situation.

“Is… Is that Bryan?”

-= 32 HOURS AGO =-

In the dead of the night, a man wiped their hands, blowing smoke into the cool, cool air.

His appearance often enabled others to underestimate him. The prematurely graying hair gave him an extra ten years in appearance, hiding youth and vigor. His bulky frame was often confused for fat, hiding the calloused muscles within. Even the company he worked alongside led others to, mistakenly, believe he was a handler, an advisor, his better days long behind him.

The trail of missing bodies in his wake often said otherwise.

Big Bryan Baxter was alright with getting underestimated. It made the feeling of bones splinting within his grip all the better.

His rule as the leader of the NA District meant he had to get his hands dirty sometimes. Which he didn’t mind. He was used to getting his hands dirty, after all. Better than the last ruler of the NA District, some airhead in over her head. Even before he stole the NA District from the aforementioned airhead, he had a long history of taking care of certain… Actions that Jeremy had done. Not necessarily cleaning up after him, but ensuring that his decisions wouldn't come back to haunt either of them, one way or another.

This night wasn’t much different.

He approached his car, eager to get home and relax after a long day of solving problems, before pausing at the sunken tyre. “Ah, piss.” He groaned. He had a spare in the boot of his car, but the tedious act of replacing the flat tyre meant his trip home would be delayed. He tossed his bag in the backseat, before flipping open the boot and grabbing the spare tyre and a tire iron.

With a sigh, he knelt down next to the flat tyre. He raised the tire iron.

He didn’t hear the soft footsteps, rapidly approaching, although he probably should've. The rain masked the sound enough.

He didn’t see the shadow of a figure in the reflection of the window above, although he probably should've. He just wasn't looking at the right time.

All he felt was a pinch, a sharp impact in the side of his neck. An injection. A hiss in his ear, words he was unable to make out. He raised an arm, flailing, but already it was too late.

He was out like a light before he even made it to his feet.

Two people stood before the dozing, unconscious body of Bryan Baxter, an empty needle jutting out the side of his neck.

"Big fucker, ain't he?" Alyster Black spoke aloud, shaking his head. Rubbing his shoulders, he turned to his companion. "Now what?"

Violet Dreyer remained uncharacteristically silent.

-= TODAY =-

On the laptop screen was a sight Jeremy had not been expecting.

Bryan Baxter, his trusted friend and confidant, handcuffed and tied to a chair, not too unfamiliar to Jeremy’s situation. Unlike Jeremy, he was much less calm about the situation, thrashing about silently shouting. His head twisted and turned, following the path of someone pacing offscreen.

“Let’s see what Bryan has to say about his situation, hmm?” Violet queried, unmuting the video.

“-second I get free I’m going to rip your head off and shove it up y-”

“That’s enough of that.” Violet noted, muting the video once again.

“Wait. What’s happening?” Jeremy asked, confused. The smug aura had vanished, the cocksure tone in his voice replaced with a childlike lack of understanding. It was almost sad. Almost. “Bryan said he was going to be out of town for the next few days or so, what’s going on?”

“Caught wind of this little livestream here.” Violet noted, not bothering to hide a gleeful grin. “Looks like you and your buddy got more than a few enemies around this place. Who would've guessed.”

On the screen, a figure stepped into frame. Jeremy’s face fell in quiet recognition, causing Violet to bark with laughter. Clad in all-black, the masked man known as Alyster Black casually sauntered up to the restrained Bryan Baxter, as the big man frothed at the mouth with jeers and insults. Suddenly, Black struck with a right hand to Baxter’s jaw, stunning the big man. Black instantly started waving his right hand around, perhaps not prepared for how hard Baxter’s jaw really was. He followed with a left hook into the kidneys, still smarting with his right hand.

“Look at him go.” Violet cooed, as if this was a kitten playing with a ball of yarn and not a sadist psychopath unloading furious fists at a man unable to defend himself. As Jeremy stared at the livestream, mouth agape, Violet pulled out a burner phone from one of her jacket pockets, punching a number into it. “Now here’s the thing, Jeremy, ya lil’ pissant - I’m pretty sure I recognize where this little incident is taking place. I’m also pretty sure I have the phone number of Fuckmask McGee. I’m pretty sure I could just tell him to stop it, and he will. Well, he might. No guarantees, the fuck do I know. But honestly, I’m just not feeling particularly motivated to call this off, y’know?”

“Bryan’s a tough guy.” Jeremy said, though the wobble in his voice certainly sounded unconvinced. “He’ll find his way out of this, he’ll be fine.”

“You got a lotta fuckin’ faith in a guy who’ll be pissing blood for the next few days." Violet raised the phone, her thumb hovering over the dial button. “Tell me where Krash is and I can stop this right now. Isn’t Baxter supposed to be your friend, too?”

Torn between the well-being of his oldest friend and the secret of his best friend, Jeremy opened his mouth, then closed it, then opened it again. He looked like a fish. “... This is wrong, this isn’t right. You’re cops, you’re not supposed to do this sort of thing.”

“The fuck makes you think I’m a cop? Relax. I was told not to harm a hair on your head. Nobody said shit about Baxter.” She flicked the dial number, pressing it against her ear. With her other hand, she turned the laptop back to herself. “Sup. Jeremy’s not co-operating, go figure. Guess he doesn’t value his friend’s safety as much as he should. Fuckin' hypocrite. There’s a bag on the floor - unload it onto the table.”

“What- What are you doing to him?” Jeremy stuttered. He tried to yank his hands off of the table, but the handcuffs were firm, unheeding.

“One second.” Violet paused her call, glancing at Jeremy. “Jeremy, choose a finger.”

“What?”

“Choose a fuckin’ finger, Jeremy.”

“P-Pointer.”

“Great.” Violet returned to her call, blowing a bubble with some gum as she did. “In the bag there should be an icepick. Grab it and jam it underneath the pointer fingernail on Baxter’s right hand until you hit bone.”

With a flourish, she turned the laptop back to face an appalled Jeremy, unmuting the livestream as she did so.

-= TODAY =-

Down at the dockyards, Detective Mike Parr grimaced. There was a smell in the air that was, somehow, worse than that of the fish and the ocean nearby. A smell he was familiar with, one he had worked with time and time again, yet never grew used to.

The last time he was down here, he ended up shot and stabbed in the back. It was only due to the actions of his ex-partner that he didn’t bleed to death - and even then it took a long time of biding their time until he could come back to public view. Stepping away from his cruiser, Parr jerked his head in greeting at the security guard waving him over, standing by the entrance to Connelly’s Dry Goods Warehouse, long since abandoned. The guard looked vaguely familiar, lanky with long hair and a line of stubble, but Parr didn’t place him. The site had been cordoned off, but thankfully this area barely got any traffic, so any bystanders were minimized.

"Found him earlier today." The security guard explained, as he and Parr entered the warehouse. "Normally we just get vandals or graffiti artists, but this… This is a bit above my pay grade."

Parr grunted in response, dismissing the babbling guard. Stepping to the crime scene, Mike Parr knelt down, squinting at the body. “... Huh.”

“‘Huh’ what?” The security guard echoed, staring at Parr. Parr glanced at him, noting the nametag of ‘FENIX’ etched onto his shirt. “Something wrong?”

“Not wrong, to say.” Parr noted, pulling out his phone. “This just complicates one matter… and simplifies another.”

-= TODAY =-

It started as an icepick beneath the fingernails.

Then a pair of pliers to the teeth - yank one out, push another deeper.

Then a hammer to the ankles.

Then fish hooks through the nose.

Every few minutes, a new wound was forcibly given to the King of the NA District. And Jeremy could do naught but sit and watch. Jeremy had squeezed his eyes shut long ago, reduced to horrified whimpering as his shackled wrists tried to jerk their way out of the cuffs. And yet, every so often he would open an eye and obtain a mere glimpse at the latest of Baxter’s suffering, grimacing at the roar of agony and wincing at the latest implement, immediately closing his eyes again.

“Why are you doing this?!?” He sobbed.

“Because, you childlike fuckwit, YOU stole a man who owed ME a favor. Get it? You overstepped your bounds, you fucked up and found it, so until you make good, Baxter here has a bad time. Capice?” Violet hissed.

Jeremy was too distraught to notice the tremor in Violet’s voice, too anguished to note how Violet’s eyes kept darting to the clock on the wall. Parr had said forty minutes, minimum, until Scorpane arrived. Forty minutes until someone would knock on that door and Jeremy would be saved from this.

It had already been forty-two minutes. She was cutting it fine and still didn’t have an answer - If Scorpane walked in and saw what was happening she would be able to kiss more than her career goodbye. She’d be locked up so quickly while Jeremy remained a free man.

As the clock ticked to forty-three minutes, she made a judgment call. “Light that cigarette, then put it out in his eyes. Both of them.” She barked into the phone as she rose to her feet. Digging through her bag, she revealed a pair of headphones and some duct tape, storming over to a shivering Jeremy.

“What are you do-” Jeremy whimpered, as Violet shoved the headphones into his ears.

"Letting you get a good listen of what your buddy's going through." She spat, before duct taping the headphones to his skin. She plugged the cord of the headphones into the laptop, and Baxter’s roars of agony fell silent, muted to all but one person now: Jeremy Best.

“Clock’s ticking, Jeremy! Give me a fucking address!” She demanded, turning up the volume on the laptop as high as it could go. Gripping Jeremy from behind, she peeled his eyes open with her fingers, forcing him to watch the sordid torture taking place. She could only slightly hear the vicious groans of torment and suffering, to her it was but a mere whisper. To Jeremy it was borderline deafening, as he tried to twist his way out of Violet’s grasp, Baxter’s throes dorning through his skull.

Her eyes darted to the clock. Forty-five minutes. A bead of sweat made its way down the back of her neck. “Where is Krash?!?” He probably couldn’t hear her over the sound of Baxter’s cries, but felt the question, all the same.

“I can’t- I can’t’-” Jeremy stuttered, tears flowing freely from his eyes. “Please!”

“Where is he?!?”

“Make it stop!”

“Where. The fuck. Is Krash?!?”

“21 Amity Avenue!” Jeremy shrieked. “21 Amity Avenue!”

At that exact moment, the door swung open. In stepped a wrinkled man, carrying his briefcase, faded brown hair on the verge of graying. “Sorry Jeremy - Traffic was a bit-what the fuck?!?” Bill Scorpane gaped at the sight, frozen in disbelief.

It was the mere second of him freezing that allowed Violet to tear herself away from Jeremy Best and shove Scorpane aside, sprinting down the halls. She wished she had time to grab the laptop and all the evidence, but all it would’ve taken was Scorpane shouting his lungs out and one of the many officers in the precinct would’ve tackled her. Thankfully, Scorpane was stunned silent, unsure what he was witnessing. By the time he had gotten his bearings and ripped the headphones off of Jeremy - taking out a clump of hair and skin in the process - Violet was out the door.

“Jeremy, what the hell is going on?” He asked, tossing the headphones on the table. “Who was that? Where’s Detective Parr?”

Jeremy only sobbed, jabbing a finger at the laptop screen. “Make it stop! Make it stop!” He wailed, burying his head into his palms.

“What?” Scorpane turned his attention to the laptop, to the video of Bryan Baxter’s suffering. “Bryan?!?”

“It’s a livestream! Bryan’s out there somewhere and some sick man is hurting him! We have to save him before it’s too late!”

Scorpane hesitated. “Jeremy…” He began, raising a shaking, pale finger to the mousepad. He was not as easily panicked as Jeremy was, and thus, he noticed something Jeremy was unable to. A brief push of the cursor confirmed his suspicion. “Jeremy, that’s a recording. A video.”

“W-What?”

“Jeremy, it’s not live.”

-= TODAY =-

“That’s Bryan Baxter.” Detective Mike Parr noted, a quizzical expression on his features. “I’d recognize that ugly mug anywhere.”

“Really? Even a mug looking like… That?” Jackson Fenix raised an eyebrow, gesturing to the twisted, gouged features of the man. “I mean, the guy was never pretty, but I don’t think even his mom would kiss him on the cheek now. Not after whatever’s been done to him.”

Parr quietly agreed. “You called it in?”

“Yeah. I was doing my morning rounds, smelt something from this direction." Fenix said, adjusting his crotch with one hand as he scratched his chin with the other. "Checked inside the warehouse and it’s a damn bloodbath. I ain’t going to lose sleep over Baxter carking it, but… Damn. Maybe I might.”

Parr nodded, tugging on a forensic glove as he inspected the body, or what was left of it. Security Guard Jackson Fenix watched with nausea growing, idly fidgeting. “So… What’s the verdict, Detective?”

“I think he’s dead, Fenix.”

“Yeah no shit. Any thoughts on how long he’s been dead?”

“I’m not a forensic pathologist…” Parr began, rising to his feet. “But if I had to make an estimate, this fucker has been dead for at least sixteen hours.”

Fenix nodded, despite not knowing whether Parr’s claim had any truth to it. “Who do you think did it?”

Parr fixed Fenix with a glance, then wordlessly turned and left the warehouse.

As he retreated back to his squad car to call in for the big guns, one thought passed through his mind. It wasn’t a suspicion or inkling of whodunnit, because truthfully, he didn’t care. So some oversized meatbag got too big for his britches - it happened. No use crying over spoiled milk. No. What the thought was, though, was that his path to taking back the NA District suddenly grew much, much easier.

And so, unable to hide the smile from his features, Parr grabbed his cruiser radio, and called it in.

-= 18 HOURS AGO =-

In the dark evening, Alyster Black threw themselves into the driver’s seat of their car, huffing. The adrenaline rush of what they had done coasted through their veins, and they couldn’t stop their hands shaking. With a rag, they wiped the blood from their fingers as best as they could. It was no use wiping the blood from their mask, their suit. By the next hour it would be burned soon enough.

They massaged their now bruised right hand, grimacing. They should’ve known not to strike with such emotion to start off, but… Oh, well. They glanced at the camera, tossed onto the passenger seat of the car. Hopefully they had enough footage, but honestly they probably had too much. They couldn’t help it - the bitterness got them carried away, as it often does.

With an exhale, they gripped the base of the mask, and yanked it off their face.

“Fuckin’ masks.” Violet spat. “No idea how the fuck you wear ‘em. It’s fuckin’ suffocating.”

Considering what she had done over the past few hours, it seemed petty to complain of mild suffocation, but she is a petty individual, after all. “Thanks for the spare mask, Aly.” She said, tossing it in the backseat. Of course, Alyster wasn't there. She had told him to fuck off for a spell. Whether he found himself an alibi or not, it didn't matter to her. She didn't tell him what she was planning to do, and he didn't ask. Thank goodness for that much. He was useful for two things - carrying Baxter's lardass into the trunk of her car, and the spare mask to use in Baxter's execution. Not like she could rely on much else from the guy. Whatever happened to Alyster now, it wasn't her problem.

As a certain detective said, not my circus, not my monkey, not my problem.

Flicking the radio on to some vulgar rock music, Violet peeled the car away from the warehouse. The only guards were supposed to patrol the warehouses down south, so unless someone got curious, no-one would find the body until it was too late to do anything. As she sped down the road, she laughed in the mirror, victorious.

“It’s like they say…” She spoke aloud in the quiet of her car. “You put one of ours in the hospital, we put one of yours in the morgue. Or adjusted for inflation - one in the basement of your shitty home, and one left to rot in a fish warehouse. Not like you deserve better, fuckin’ pricks.”

-= TODAY =-

21 Amity Avenue looked like such a normal home.

It wasn’t registered as Jeremy’s address, which explains why it didn’t pop up on the radar of the police. It was a completely nondescript home surrounded by equally nondescript homes. You wouldn't be able to point out this specific house at all. In hindsight, that made it perfect for hiding someone within.

The white picket fence was splintered underneath the wheels of Violet’s car, leaving a pair of skidmarks on the grass. Turning the engine off, she exited the car in a rush, and not bothering to look for a key, booted the front door in. Wood splintered from the frame as she stormed into the small home. The clock was ticking - she was certain someone would be on their way here. She had to act fast.

Ensuring that Bryan Baxter's heart didn't beat anymore was not an impulsive decision on her part. It was probably the least impulsive thing she had done in a long while, come to think of it. Because the issue with Jeremy is that while he's a nutcase who should probably be locked away in a padded cell and left to rot, Baxter was the one who ensured that Jeremy's sicko fantasies became real. Baxter was an enabler, a backer, a support coordinator to do the things Jeremy didn't have the guts to do.

Jeremy Best caused problems, undoubtedly.

But it was Bryan Baxter who made those problems vanish, or in this case, hand deliver the problem to Jeremy's lap.

Bryan Baxter was the catalyst. The man who separated a loony and his desires from a life in a holding cell. The man who ensured that Jeremy Best, rather than a sociopath who never grew up, was instead seen as a mere quirky lil fella, harmless in the grand scheme of things.

Bryan Baxter fought so Jeremy Best could sleep.

Bryan Baxter got his hands dirty so Jeremy Best could sleep on clean sheets.

For that, he had to be removed from the picture.

Baxter had to die, so Jeremy could be broken into a confession. There was never any saving him - Baxter was dead long before Jeremy woke up that morning.

And now, without the safety of Baxter behind him, Jeremy wouldn't be able to hide behind someone else. Violet wasn't an idiot - the last time she clashed with Best, Jeremy survived only because of Baxter. Bryan Baxter stopped her from snapping off Jeremy Best's fingers and making that bitch eat a healthy meal, therefore, he had to be disposed of. Preferably in as messy of a manner as possible, because vindication and pettiness is a lovely, lovely motivator.

Maybe now, Jeremy would know what it's like to have someone you cared about callously ripped away by another. There was no guilt or remorse within Violet. Infact, she felt proud of herself, perhaps for the first time in a long while.

She had chosen to do something rather than wait around for her time to come. She took control of her life, control of her destiny, control for the lives of those around her.

And she felt fucking amazing.

Revenge,contrary to popular belief, feels great. Hollywood needs to start leaning into that.

Sure, morally this was a new low for her - but fuck you if you thought a shitbag like Baxter or a nutjob like Best deserved peace and comfort when they had a relatively innocent man locked away somewhere.

Violet held no false assumptions - she wasn't a good person, but fuck, at least she did something. For a good reason, too. Doing something good was uncharacteristic, but doing something horrible for the sake of good felt fantastic. Maybe that's where the balance is.

In a perfect world, both of them would be slowly rotting in a shallow grave. Scorpane too, possibly. But Jeremy still had information, whereas, she suspected, Baxter didn't.

So Jeremy got to live.

For now.

A short life of nightmares and terrors, with no-one to comfort and rely on, knowing someone was going to come back, sooner or later. But that was more of a life than anyone who made Jeremy's heart hurt got, so he shouldn't complain.

Besides - Violet had a feeling that one way or another, she'd be back to finish the job on Jeremy. The only difference is how messy it would be, with or without Krash. She had burned more than a few bridges to be here. If this was a dud address, if Jeremy lied to her, if someone else - a real cop, Jeremy, or Scorpane - tracked her down, she'd be done for.

Violet stuck her neck out to track down an old friend when no-one else would. She could only hope she hadn't stuck it through the hole of a guillotine.

The home seemed empty, devoid of furniture. Yet, also devoid of dust - someone had been in here recently. Wishing she took a weapon with her, just in case, Violet carefully explored the abode. The kitchen and living room were connected to the hallway, and both were empty. The bathroom didn’t change much either. There was only one other room - a door at the end of the hall.

There was a light, shining from under the frame of the door.

Violet felt her heart leap into her throat. Slowly, carefully, she shuffled towards the door, and pressed her ear against the wood.

Silence.

Except…

Except for the slightest hitch of a breath.

A pale hand curled around the doorknob, and she laboriously turned the knob, inch by inch. The door leisurely swung open, light spilling onto the hallway floor.

“Krash?”
 
Last edited:

Death Walker

Better Known As King Of Armageddon | Trapped In Darkness
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More Tough Times For Another Day

A subtle hum is presented in darkness before the image of everything snaps into place. Within the blink of an eye, the opening shot is several feet above Death Walker’s neighborhood and compound. The bright shine from another sunny day in Los Angeles awakens those who aren't already up. And a voice speaks…

The Dark Guardian: “Well… last weekend was insane. I mean… competing against 29 other men and women, that was a hellacious battle. It took 4 other wrestlers to try to take you out of the match and when they couldn't, that intergalactic conniving little worm… XYZ had to steal your moment.”

The aerial view fades into a close up of the hooded guardian as he speaks to his protégé in length about what took place in the last match.

TDG: “Correct me if I'm wrong, you toss his dusty ass over the top rope LEGALLY! Then right after, he decides to knock you over while already eliminated?! What. In the HELL. WAS THAT?!?”

The anger of The Dark Guardian has risen as he breathes heavily and Death Walker is doing hanging sit-ups next to where he stands.

TDG: “Maybe I need to pay the self-proclaimed ‘Light Runner’ a visit and have your Father deal with this miscreant.”

Death Walker finishes his reps then makes his way off the monkey bars onto the dirt ground below. The dark hybrid turns to his advisor and wags his index finger to not go through with these plans.

TDG: “Very well, My Lord. I shall not go on my own tirade, I will do as you wish.”

Death puts his hands together in a calm praying manner and gives a slight bow at The Dark Guardian and he bows to Death in return. The Dark Guardian proceeds with the rest of his speech…

TDG: “Well at least you can get your hands on him soon.”

The Dark Traveler tilts his head and squints his eyes to indicate bewilderment as he stares at The Dark Guardian.

TDG: “Oh you don't know? Yeah, your next match has XYZ… AND… Trixie Bordeaux… AND… well, you see. Ok, I'll spit it out. It also has the Television champion, Shawn Summers.”

A dead silence fills the air as nothing and no one makes a single sound at the moment. Death Walker turns his head, looking up as if there's something in the rafters. Perhaps he’s having another one of his visions or recalling a past memory. But this doesn't seem to be the case since he quickly goes back to working out inside of his huge metal structure. As The Soul Collector does some shadowboxing, the consultant once again talks with his monster.

TDG: “So now we have 3 individuals that have been on your list for a little minute now. XYZ… he must love being your training dummy because he consistently finds himself in your way to the next obstacle. Always full of joy and happiness, carefree, flashy persona… and yet he dares to trifle with a demon from HELL. Then we got Trixie… the sweet and ‘innocent’ girl who wants to make friends. Two times! Two times, My Lord, we caught her in the middle of our business with her 'friends’. At first, I could tell that you wanted to bash in her pretty little pale face. Yet, you hesitated as you continued your attacks to others… it was if… wait a minute. Ahhhhh ok, I get it! It isn't time yet, is it?”

The disciplined monster just let out a deep growl as his response.

TDG: “Ok, My Lord, I understand. We shall wait and see but for now we cannot let our guard down. She is just like the rest of them, an opponent. You can give her a fair warning but be prepared to break everything in her if she decides to cross that line. Which brings us to the champion… I mean being an uncivilized bigot and a junkie, speaks for itself. But apparently, that's what it takes to become a champion so we’ll cross that bridge in due time. Meanwhile…”

The Dark Guardian claps his hands twice and from the shadows surrounding the two of them, people come out into the sunlight. People of all ages, genders and different races don black hooded cloaks in all black attire. They wear these scowls upon their faces, remaining as quiet as they just were in the background of this remodeled garage.

TDG: “These, My Lord… are your Terrors of Darkness. Your supporters… your followers, your believers… your disciples. Former gangbangers, criminals, thugs, street hustlers, lowlifes, misfortunate kids and adults from the neighborhood. They are ready to learn from your wisdom, they're yours to mold in your image. Now I know it isn't a lot of them but this group of 30 or 40 will multiply over a short period of time. And when it does, our empire will expand not just here but within FWA and the rest of the world. Because win or lose, the deniers have had to admit your abrasive dominance is uncanny like no other.”

The Death Walker takes a moment to step up to one of his young followers. He nods his head while eyeing the young man up and down then pops him in the chest with the bottom of his fist. The young man stumbles a bit back but stays on his feet. Death grunts approvingly at the toughness of this disciple as he stands there with his head held high. Then Death walks along the others while rubbing the chin of his demon mask.

TDG: “Do you have an idea, My Lord?”

Walker folds his arms, still pacing back and forth in front of his Terrors of Darkness. He looks over at his Terrors then back at his guardian and shakes his head. Which makes for a great time to cutaway to an outside, overhead view of the cul-de-sac. Suddenly, a navy blue SUV pulls up in a very subtle manner. It parks curbside before entering the circle and a slender figure slides out into a prone position. Which isn’t too subtle since this black woman is wearing all dark colors… and the sun is barely starting to go down. The woman in a black bulletproof vest, dark blue tank top, navy blue camouflage pants and black leather boots with navy blue bandanas around each wrist as well as her head. She crawls over in the direction of Death Walker’s compound as a few innocent people take a few peeks out their windows. She squirms her way in between a few of the homes where she spots this gigantic garage out in an open field that seems to be about 40 feet away. The woman hops up to kneeling with one knee as she pulls out her monocular and looks for any traps or security measures. Noticing that there seems to be nothing or nobody to stop her from ambushing the building, she puts away the monocular and rolls out a case of rifle parts. Once her assault rifle is assembled with a silencer, she continues to creep up on the “unguarded” garage. She locates a door, carefully opens it just a little and uses the barrel to work herself inside nice and easy. Aiming at The Dark Guardian as he gives a lecture to the other hooded individuals when the upper receiver of her rifle is grabbed. Death Walker yanks the weapon without haste which brings this intruder to her feet and he applies a tight throat grab with his other hand. He then takes joy in lifting her off the ground while holding her by the throat. The woman struggles to fight free and keep a handle of her weapon but the demon pulls it out of her reach. The Dark Guardian finally addresses the visitor…

TDG: “Well, who do we have here? In all this commando gear, hmm?”

Woman: “I’M YOUR WORST FUCKING NIGHTMARE, YOU UGLY BITCH! AND YOUR… YOUR…”

TDG: “Oh I’m sorry, did you have something caught in your throat or around your throat? Perhaps my protégé and dark lord is being too courteous with his manners. My Lord, will you please assist this fit and strong black woman with her manners?”

Without giving an audible response, Death Walker continues to squeeze the woman's throat as she does whatever she can to fight back. Kicks, fist pounding, attempted screams, all does nothing to such a stronger specimen as he toys with emotions and capabilities. After a couple of minutes, she stops fighting and takes advantage of her cleared airways as the man in a demon skull mask relaxes the grip to her throat. And again, The Dark Guardian makes small talk…

TDG: “Okay, let's try this again. Name? Hello?! NAME?”

W: “...I- Iris.”

TDG: “Hello Iris, what brings you out here to our private property?”

But before the woman can give an answer, Walker spots a neck tattoo and he points it out for his advisor. The Dark Traveler gets upset and growls loudly as he gets ready to make waste of this assassin.

TDG: “OHHHHHHHHH!! A triple C tattoo, a member of the California Criminal Council. Wow, weren't you all warned not to bother us or this section of Los Angeles? I believe Death Walker here, explained in a very clear message delivered back by your assigned messenger. Did you not, My Lord?”

The evil executioner gives one of his beastly retorts and his advisor knows exactly what it means.

TDG: “You hear that? That's a yes, meaning he did just what I said. And he's the one in charge of all of this, I'm just his trusty advisor and voice for the time being. I'M… the more sensible one out of the two of us but I assure you my patience can be very thin. My Lord, let's bring Ms. Iris into our sanctuary and we'll give our students a live demonstration of your power. It might even be the best time to use those soul collecting powers I had taught you. Ummm… Terrors of Darkness, chain her up!”

The Death Walker’s mentees get a hold of Iris and wrap chains around her arms together then attach the chains to a hook and chain secured to an electric chain hoist. Death presses the up button while someone wraps a chain around her legs. In the end, she kicks the air to get loose as she suspends from the hoist.

I: “YOU’RE NOT GONNA GET AWAY WITH THIS SHIT! TRIPLE C WILL HAVE YOUR HEADS FOR THIS IF I DON’T BEAT THEM TO IT FIRST!”

TDG: “Whoa… the mouth on you! You know loud mouths have never stopped Darius Wright and they aren't about to stop Death Walker.”

I: “Darius, you dipshit! You know you can't do this!”

TDG: “Maybe not… but The Death Walker most definitely can. I'm tired of her talking, shut her up.”

I: “FUCK YOU DARIUS AND YOUR GAY LOVER!!! YOU AIN’T SHIT, YOU AIN’T-”

Iris is silenced immediately with some duct tape over her mouth and class is about to begin. The Dark Guardian has the hooded group gather into a snug crowd as he continues to do all the talking. Iris continues to wiggle from the hook that she's on.

TDG: “Okay so, about our Lord’s next objectives. He has 3 pests to take care of in his next match. 2 of them are more important than the other, not because the other one is weak or dumb. She's actually pretty damn skilled once she gets over some issues with confidence and gains more intensity. But the two irritants need a more attentive approach, as will be demonstrated with Ms. Iris here. First, let's start with examples of Trixie Bordeaux…”

The advisor gives his Lord a distinct nod and the dark menace proceeds with delivering headshots using his hard fists. He even grabs her by the jaws and pounds harder into her face as the crowd watches in awe. Some gasp in astonishment while others are unphased by violence.

TDG: “Don't be afraid, Death Walker would never harm any of you unless provoked. So be glad that you're on the other side of things.”

After bashing in the woman’s face to a bloody pulp, he adds in some disrespectful heavy slaps then stops for more direction from his guardian.

TDG: “...Next, we have this slippery little shit called X… Y… Z. I believe that my creature is getting restless with this guy’s antics. But then maybe not because the guy just keeps testing the rage of this child of Satan.”

The nod is given again to Death Walker who now tightens up his fists to a pleading Iris. Her murmurs trigger the evil within the former Darius Wright and he throws stiff, rapid punches at the thighs of her chained legs. He hits them at every angle he can as she spins and sways somewhat. At a certain point, you can hear faint crackles from the bones taking the full impact of his onslaught. And the woman cries and hyperventilates from the heinous acts. Then The Death Walker takes the point of his elbow and jabs it painfully into the sore and possibly fractured thighs while hugging Iris’s legs. Iris blacks out from the heightened pain that she feels and Death turns back to his disciples and his mentor.

TDG: “...And last but not least, the Television Champion, Shawn Summers! Who Death Walker isn't more concerned with winning his title. Instead The Dark Traveler is more fixated on leaving him blooded and batter all over that ring… like a smeared blood stain. The goal is to win the gold but this time… this time, he's making it personal. The psychopath that lives dormant inside him… will feed off the blood and tears of these opponents. And to give you a better example of what we mean…”

Death Walker once more turns to the almost lifeless carcass of Iris and he reaches for the hoist remote. He lowers his victim but not to free her, but to line her torso up for what's to come next. Throwing a couple of gut shots, the demon is putting dents in her bulletproof vest like he's using two mighty sledgehammers to it. The military woman starts to awake from the new pain surging through her body. He gets bored of punching into the metal plates that she wears and detaches the vest from her torso. Takes a minute to examine where exactly wants to pulverize without killing her. Swiftly, Death Walker hits her with two rough kidney shots. He hums for a second as he ends the brutality with a stiff jab to her ribs, for sure breaking at least one. Iris frantically quivers as she keels over trying to both scream and breathe.

TDG: “And The Death Walker will be reaching out to the California Criminal Council directly this time and hopefully making his intentions way more clear. He will not need any of you for this as he feels that his presence is desired. However, you can look forward to other missions…



















…because we’ve got plenty more things to do.”
 

The Gipper

The Gipper
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Reagan: “Oh come on…”

Reagan glared angrily at the simple black and white keycard in his hand as he slid it through the scanner on the door again. The light flashed yellow twice and then red….and then nothing. No click is heard and Reagan can’t help himself but to suppress a groan. Oh, the joys of hotels. He flips the card over and blinks at the chicken scratch the receptionist jotted down. I mean if he squinted and tilted his head to the left they kind of looked like numbers. A hiss of annoyance occurs once more as he gathers his worn and torn red duffle bag off the hotel carpet and made his excellent journey back towards the stairs.

To say he was exhausted would be the understatement of the millennium. Reagan's day has been nothing but consistent plane delays and cancellations, there was a legit possibility he couldn’t make the show but he’s made it now. And now he wants nothing more than to check into his hotel room that was booked for him and collapse into sweet oblivion for a couple of hours. Unfortunately, the universe seems to have other plans because of course they do. Reagan takes another look at the out-of-order sign on the elevator doors as he passes. Just twelve flights down and twelve flights back up. Fun.

The receptionist was the same teenage boy from 10 minutes ago when Reagan first showed up. Messy blonde hair, headphones on with his nose was buried in a magazine. Reagan took a panting breath, definitely proving that he ain’t as young as he used to be, wiping the sweat from his brows, and shoving his frustration down. The smile he painted on was straining at the edges as he approached the front desk.

Reagan:
“Hey bud, uh-“

He starts the conversation still a bit out of breath only to realize the kid couldn’t hear him. Reagan sighs before rings the bell. The receptionist suddenly jolts to attention like it’s an army drill, pulling his headphones off.

Receptionist: “Ah what’s up bro? Didn’t I just see you?”

Reagan: “Yeah, you did. Just the key card ain’t working?”

Receptionist:Ah, shoot bro. You sure you used it on the right door?”

….

Reagan takes a really deep breath, mentally chanting `Do not strangle this kid’, he just wants to get some sleep, man.

Reagan: Yup, room 88. Kind of distinctive, you know. Two fat ladies.”

The receptionist is very clearly completely taken aback by that last sentence as he is clearly looking around in this very empty hall meanwhile Reagan just passes the card over in an attempt to move the conversation along.

Reagan:You never played Bing-oh it doesn’t matter, here ya go.”

The kid flips it over and grunts non-committedly before rummaging around in his desk, Reagan can see multiple NFL cards, loose change and even a half-eaten tuna fish sandwich which explains the smell that hit Reagan like two minutes ago. The blonde one then pulls out two new keycards.

Receptionist: “Probably just the magnetic strips, bro. That room is always having issues though, I don’t know what to tell ya. I told the manager but it looks like he ain’t doing squat. Anyway here ya go, dude! Should be good to go!”

A glowing endorsement there as the receptionist passes the cards over again, Reagan thanks the receptionist before he’s off on his way again. and heads back for the stairs. Only twelve flights up then sleep. Holy fuck how did Ramon and Golden do this repeatedly? Actually no, let’s not think about that, that connects to Aka and we don’t need that right now. Just focus on getting into the bed and going to sleep. By the time Reagan finally makes it to the top floor his shoulder and legs are definitely feeling the burn. He glances down at his watch, great, it’s just past midnight. He had six hours before he needed to get up to go to the stadium. The former FWA Tag Team Champion held his breath as he took the card out and slid it down room 666’s card reader. The light flashed green and here opened the dark door to only be met with the glow from the window and the shine from the warm lamp. Excellent.

???: “Fucking hell, took ya long enough.”

The one detail I forgot to mention was that inside the very basic-looking hotel room, on the wooden bed, sits the around 50s-looking man in a dark blue button-up shirt and brown jeans combo as he stares up at Reagan. Reagan’s breath gets stuck in his throat as so many thoughts and feelings, shock, and anxiety, overwhelm his mind until it forcibly suppresses all thought, the swirling vortex of emotions and thoughts blanketed by a thick fog of shock. And yet his first instinc, despite his movements being very much almost lifeless and unaware, is to hug his father-in-law Roy Gibson.

Reagan almost stumbles into it but Roy catches him in the hug, pulling him in tight, rubbing Reagan’s back in the process. It takes a couple of seconds but eventually, they let go of the embrace as the man, whom we haven’t seen since the Jeffry Mason attack, holds his son-in-law at the shoulder.


Reagan: “Ho-…how are you here?”

Roy: “What? Do you think anything’s gonna stop this Scot from seeing you? Bullshit. How are you, son?”

Reagan:prett-pretty alright now.”

Roy: “Good! Good.”

It is at this point Roy suddenly pulls Reagan into a brutal headbutt! Reagan recoils immediately, falling backwards onto the carpet just narrowly missing the door to the room.

Roy: That’s what you fucking get for abandoning my daughter you twat!”

Roy shouts at Reagan, and Cole can’t even say anything to object, since he has no excuses. It was true.

Roy: “I goddamn told you that Tyler kid was nothing but trouble!”

Roy is letting out all his anger as Reagan is still slowly recovering from the headbutt from the man who probably taught him how to masterfully headbutt in the first place but he does manage to get out one line.

Reagan: “I’m trying to protect them.”

Roy: “Bullshit.”

Reagan: “No not bullshit! You know what Jeffry did to you! To Xavier! To me, for crying out loud. We tried facing him head on and I was the only one that could take him down and even that wasn’t for long and it cost me another friend in the process! Yurei was the last straw! I’ve let too many people get hurt because of the enemies I’ve made! Too many, I refuse to have my wife and my kid added to that list.”

Roy: “THAT. That is exactly why I came to talk to you now. I’ve seen your recent matches, Reagan. It’s the only time any of us get to see you so I had to. Your match with Peacock? That tournament? The CC? I’ve seen that look in your eyes boy. I’ve seen it a thousand times. People mistake it for determination but really it’s the urge to get your comeuppance. You keep wanting someone to finally put you out to pasture, ain’t that right? You think that’s gonna save you from the hole you put yourself in?”

Reagan’s body stiffens, his pupils constricted and by the movement of his posture, the room just became increasingly hotter but he keeps his eyes on Roy trying desperately to not give anything away.

Roy: “It won’t, kid. Trust me when I say that. But hey, you got that big multi-man match tonight, right? Plenty of people who have vendettas with you specifically, maybe they’ll give you what you’re looking for. Who knows? I’m just an old man.

Reagan: “You’re more than that, Roy, you know that.”

Roy:Yeah and don’t you forget it. Well, I’ll let you get some shut-eye before the match. It’s been real good to see you again, son. You know I don’t say please often but please, kid. Please come home soon. She’s really missing ya.”

Reagan: “I miss her too. Give them all my love.”

Roy and Reagan collide one more time this time in another hug though. A small tear leaks out slowly from Reagan’s eyes, dripping slowly down his reddened cheek and falling before soaking his soft silver carpet. They let go, Reagan turning away to wipe the tears, avoiding eye contact so he doesn’t have to see his father figure leave but he still hears the shallow footsteps scrape slowly across the carpet until the tapping against the marble floor began, stopping with the ding of the elevator. Staring outside the window, Reagan focuses on the midnight sky which is almost perfectly mirroring Cole’s frame of mind. Dark, sinister, but somehow still relatively benevolent: heavy rainy clouds were bursting, scarring the poor blackbirds that chirped and desperately flew back and forth to find refuge elsewhere. One things for certain though. The melody coming from outside was better than the loud silence in the room now. Funny how It matches the turmoil inside Reagan’s head.
 
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