Coral Avalon’s head hurt.
It wasn’t the match at UltraViolence that did it, really. The source of his headache came from the escape from Soldier Field perpetrated by the eGG Bandits at the conclusion of the match. Maybe don’t carry a man on your shoulders so quickly when you encounter a low-clearance doorway, just saying.
His headache was magnified by the man standing guard outside of the brig that he found himself in.
Well, okay, so “standing” was a stretch, because that man was Robert Dean. He wasn’t standing because that involved being on his feet, and we weren’t going to do that to Bobby in the year of our lord 2023. No, Bobby was sitting next to the cell, close enough to be in reach.
Also, “guard” was also a stretch. Guards usually had to be attentive in case the prisoner ever got the bright idea that they could escape. Bobby was sleeping like a baby, if that baby had the respiratory system of Timo’s jet. His snoring could wake the dead, the living, the undead, the unalive, and Gru’t-sheqt’tzzzzzz the Forever Slumbering who power-napped deep within the ocean and when awakened would drown the world in its shit.
It made Coral’s headache that much worse.
“God, what is my life…” he muttered to himself as he stretched his arm out and carefully plucked the keys from Bobby’s grasp. Bobby snorted and yawned as he did, and Coral’s heart leapt up to his throat because he didn’t want to get stuffed on top of the indignity of being kidnapped by Bandits. But then Bobby fell back to sleep, flying upon the comfortable wings of BolambAir once more.
After sorting through the keys, he found the one for his cell. He quietly made his way out, careful not to make a sound that might disturb Bobby’s dreamy flight.
The hallway he walked into made him shiver.
While that could be because he was still in his ring gear and therefore shirtless, the truth of the matter was that the hallway was ominous. Save for the dim glow of red emergency lights, the hallway was a deep chasm and Coral couldn’t tell what was going on. He might’ve thought it was unusual that the emergency lights were on, but he glossed over it.
The hallway stretched and lurched until it reached a corner.
Something stirred in the shadows cast by the red lights, and it made Coral freeze in his tracks halfway down the hall. Was it Jiles checking on his prisoner? Maybe Doozer? Another Bandit that Coral couldn’t be bothered to remember, like Lunchbox Leopold?
Something about his surroundings made Coral panic a little in the pit of his stomach.
He’d never been anywhere that even dreamed of being the USS Octane before. He had so many questions about the ship and its very existence even if he knew he’d never get a straight answer for any of them. “Just check the website!” they’d tell him, “It has all the information you’ll need!” As though Coral knew exactly what website he had to go to for a rogue aircraft carrier powered by spite and breakfast foods.
The shadow undulated unnaturally, but eventually disappeared as it moved away. He rubbed his eyes, his headache feeling worse. Was it his imagination?
After a pause, he moved cautiously towards the corner. He placed his back against the wall, wincing at its chill, and peered around the corner towards the adjoining hall. Nothing. Not even ghosts haunted it. He stepped out around the corner and kept making his way through the hallway. It wasn’t until he reached a door at the end of the hallway that he noticed something truly amiss.
There was something wet on the ground immediately beyond the door. The emergency lights made it difficult to discern but he suspected that it was blood smeared on the ground. Oh, wait, check that. It’s more than just the ground. There’s a disconcerting amount of blood everywhere. Giblets of flesh dotted the stains, and there were other piles of gore that Coral tried to not look at.
Not that he could. Not when he saw it.
Crouched in the center of the room near the biggest pile of gore was something only vaguely humanoid, and only because it had the correct number of limbs. It was black and skeletal, but very large. Ivan large. Even hunched over, it was nearly as tall as Coral was. It seemed impossibly thing in some ways, but the enormous head, sharp claws, and flexible tail reminded Coral a little too much of the Xenomorph for his tastes.
Coral became keenly aware of all of the blood in his body, and slowly backed out of the room without a sound.
No sooner had he closed the door did he hear the pitter-patter of rapidly approaching feet. Coral backed away only in time to avoid the door completely exploding before him, and seeing the creature before him in all of its full glory.
Its head was a particular abomination, like if you believed most stories about Coral Avalon’s forehead but with chitinous stalks of yellow-white on its head in a vague caricature of fabulous, immaculate hair. In place of its eyes were a pair of large lenses, unblinking and uncaring, and full of malice.
Coral made a high-pitched squeal that was very unbecoming of a tough professional wrestler, scrambled to his feet, and ran for his life.
He was cut off when the creature bounded towards him, hit the wall on his right, and landed on all fours ahead of him. He ran right into the monstrosity, its breath like ice against his face. And when it opened its mouth, another smaller egg-shaped head emerged from it.
It had the shades, too.
Don’t touch them. Don’t think about them. Don’t even dream about them.
He screamed as this smaller head lunged at him with merciless jaws, making the sound of a sheep’s bleating, and…
Coral leapt up, his arms flailing in the air in that kind of disorganized panic that one often experienced when unable to defend themselves against a creature we’re now calling “the Xenobandit”.
“The fuck is your problem?”
It took Coral an uncomfortable amount of time before he realized that his surroundings were no longer the red-lit hallways of the USS Octane’s accursed depths, but its deck on a bright sunny day. The smell of the salty sea wafted through the air. In the distance, Coral could see a tropical island or two.
How long had he been on the goddamn Octane?
Coral looked over at the man who asked him the question, Cancer Jiles. King Crumb himself. Jiles wore a hat that was a combination of a visor and a transparent top hat that somehow left his immaculate hair untouched. Coral could see his own reflection in Jiles’ T-shades, and could see that he was still in his ring gear. Little wonder why he felt so chilly. After all, unlike Jiles, Coral didn’t have a tracksuit.
Bobby was in a full Hawaiian shirt worn over his tracksuit with several full buckets of KFC in front of him. His hand was deep inside one of them as he watched Coral and Jiles with casual disinterest.
“Uh, nothing,” Coral said, “What were we talking about?”
“Your little soiree with the baby-eater.”
Coral racked his mind’s internal Jiles-to-English dictionary. As he did, he watched as Lunchbox Lornezo tried to herd sheep into a pen that was inexplicably on the deck of the Octane. Compared to the other things he’d witnessed in his life, this didn’t really register to him as strange.
“Baby-eater, baby-eater…” he repeated, trying to find a name to connect it to, “Oh! You mean Pleasant?”
“Bet you feel a real kindred spirit with that crumb, too,” Jiles said.
Coral shook his head, “No. In fact, hell no.”
“I mean, that guy is off his rocker. Bereft of all rockers. Rockerless.” Coral said, “In most cases, that’d make him uniquely dangerous. But this is PRIME, so he’s hardly unique in discovering that the rocker dispensary is closed. I only have to make sure I’m not in a bathroom when I fight him.”
Jiles exchanged looks with Bobby. Or at least, that’s what Coral assumed the very slight turn of his head towards the man eating whole-ass chicken breasts like they were popcorn was supposed to be.
Coral continued, “I mean, that’s a guy who can wrestle, sure. Better than his body of work shows, I can tell. I’ll have to be more unpredictable than him. Zig when he expects a zag, zag when he expects a zig, and drive a Zamboni into his living room when he expects both.”
“Where would you get a Zamboni?” Bobby asked, looking up for the first time from his meal.
“It’s a metaphorical Zamboni.”
“So, it’s not real?”
“No. I don’t even think they play hockey in Louisville,” Coral said. Wait, wasn’t that where the KFC Yum! Arena was located? That had to be a bizarre coincidence.
“Anyway, that guy’s kinda cringe. He’s like a time capsule into the early 2000s that’s better left buried along with nu metal and Sars the Clown, and he thinks he’s ‘Wrestling’s Worst Nightmare’ when I just had the most messed up dre—”
He was interrupted from his train of thought when a man approached their table and addressed him in a polite baritone, “Excuse me.”
Coral looked up at the man wearing the KFC hat and uniform. He looked strangely familiar. Maybe it was the blonde hair, or maybe it was the fact that he had a grumpy face crudely drawn on top of his normal face with permanent marker. Coral thought this odd, but even odder was that he was pointing that crude drawing of a face at him.
“You are late for your shift, Avalon.”
The man handed Coral a familiar striped hat. “Mr. Hanson said that the first time you’re late, you get sent to the Usual Room.”
They were on him like teeth on a sandwich. Two faceless brickhouses passing for men appeared from the air itself and grabbed Coral by the shoulders, each dressed in the hats and uniforms of KFC employees. Coral looked pleadingly at Jiles and Bobby, who seemed to be having a conversation about Jiles’ hair now. They ignored Coral as he was ripped from his seat and dragged away amid cries of help.
“Do not worry, Coral Arthur Avalon,” the man with grumpy eyebrows said, “Your re-education will be swift. And painful.”
That was the second-to-last thing he heard before he was yanked into the darkness of the ship’s interior.
The last was the bleating of Lunchbox Legolas’s sheep.
Coral awoke, jolting up from where he laid. As he tried to figure out what the hell just happened, he felt a sheep nuzzle up against his shoulder. He paid it little mind, even if something about this entire scenario felt weird. He even gave it a little pat on the head. Good job, little guy.
He’d found himself in some sort of well-lit room, somewhere deep within the Octane. And it was freezing here just like every other part of the Octane he’d been in.
COOL, if you will.
He tried not to think such intrusive thoughts.
It was only when he turned to his right to better acknowledge the sheep that he caught sight of… it.
Coral had heard plenty of anecdotal stories about the USS Octane by now. Locker room scuttlebutt, mostly. He’d believed very few of them, because who privately kept possession of a fucking aircraft carrier? Really?
What he saw defied everything he knew: There’s a hole in the world.
We’re not saying that there’s a big gaping chasm in the middle of the floor where ocean water would rush through and drown our protagonist. That would be deeply problematic. No, there was an emptiness in the air where there should be nothing. Maddening to stare at.
And then a hand emerged from within the void, grabbing hold of the air itself as though it were trying to pull itself through a hole. The hand belonged to an enormous arm, which was soon joined by another, equally enormous arm grasping more air. The two hands pulled, and soon Coral could see a massive, hideous face staring back at him. It looked like a baby’s head on an adult man’s body, wearing sunglasses. Closely cropped hair. Parts of its skin below its neck were colored black and white and red in a vague joke of a “suit”.
Coral regarded this thing with dawning, gibbering horror, “Wh-what the…”
The creature’s arm lunged forward, and it was all Coral could do to throw himself backwards behind the relative safety of the bed. He heard the panicked bleating of a sheep as it was snatched up, and Coral watched from behind the bed in horror as it was yanked into the void. A shower of gore escaped the hole in the world, staining Coral, the bed, and the ground between them in sheep’s blood.
Coral stared in shock at what he just witnessed.
And then the hand came for him, so huge that Coral’s entire body its fingers wrapped all the way around his entire body, and he was jolted towards an entity that represented the pride of wrestling’s boss baby.
Let’s take a breather.
Okay. Coral was becoming aware of his surroundings. He was dimly aware that Bobby Dean was staring at him with a wide-eyed look of panic. He was also dimly aware that Bobby Dean was wearing a very impressively-sized lab coat, for whatever reason. He was very, very aware that holy Jesus titty fuck it’s cold in here.
He watched as Cancer Jiles entered the room, yelling at Bobby about something or another in that Jilesian way he was known for. He went towards a nearby console, and pressed buttons on it with all of the care and precision of your drunk aunt on her sixth margarita.
“Huh. Now that I think about it, my eyes are heavy…” he thought.
He felt his eyes growing heavy. The cold got colder.
Maybe he’d take another nap…
“Can you keep it down?” asked the man in the Batman mask, definitely an article of clothing you needed to wear to be taken seriously. “We’re trying to work.”
Coral blinked, and stared at the four men standing in front of him in identical pinstriped vests, fancy pants, and wide-brimmed hats. He dimly recognized them as folks who, if briefly, worked for PRIME. One of them wore a Batman mask, as previously mentioned. There was a broadly built man. There was a man with maybe the flattest ass Coral had ever seen in his life. There was a man who looked like he’d eaten a few people. Allegedly.
“Work?” Coral asked.
The Batman exchanged looks with the Mathman, the Cultist, and the Draw. Nods of understanding were shared between them. Then, in a perfect harmony, they sang.
“We’re the ones your mama warned you about~”
Well, that made sense, Coral supposed.
“Baa,” the sheep harmonized alongside the quartet.
Well, that made less sense. Coral stared at the sheep for a beat, then realized the situation, “I’m still dreaming, aren’t I?”
Flatass McMathman sang his response, “We’re shocked you had any doubt~”
“Right,” Coral said, then closed his eyes and counted to ten in his head. When he opened his eyes and still saw that the quartet (and the sheep) were standing there, he determined that it wasn’t going to be easy to make his dream go anywhere but the Octane, “So, uh… I guess my immediate future is that I’m fighting this Arthur Pleasant guy…”
The Man-eating Cultist expressed his opinion of said opponent, “Arthur Pleasant can go to fuck~”
“Right,” Coral accepted, reminded that he had a headache and this didn’t help, “And to prepare for a match with the kind of pro wrestling sadist that I dislike, I got shoved in a cryostasis chamber to heal my injuries. Because that’s how cryostasis chambers work, somehow.”
“This is not helping.”
It was the Draw’s turn, “Then you’re shit out of luck~”
“And now I’m having recurring nightmares of this place while my body sorts itself out, I guess,” Coral concluded. “So, either I’m going to be at my pre-Pontiff levels of strength, or my penis is going to fall off.”
Coral stared at the quartet for a long moment, trying to work out which part of his subconscious spawned them and why they were the way they were. He concluded that he was going crazy from the cryostasis, and decided that this was an acceptable level of insane. There’s no Xenobandit in this room, anyway.
“So, it’s going to be like this until they thaw me out, huh?” Coral asked.
“Bah bah, ba-bahbah~”
Oh, wait. There’s the Xenobandit. It’d put on its own suit and was walking up to the quartet with every intention of turning it into a quintet. Coral regarded it with an alarmed expression, as though this was the tipping point for his sanity.
Then it sang, “Welcome to the Bandits~”
Coral stared at it incredulously. He definitely felt welcomed, alright… in much the same way that a prison warden would greet their new guests.
As if cued to his conscious thoughts, the Draw of his subconscious sang, “Put your faith in the Lord~”
“Your ass belongs to the Bandits~”
Maybe Coral should sing, too.
When Coral finally came out of cryostasis days after he was put in, he was free to go.
That fact alone bewildered him, especially when he learned that Jiles never intended to keep him prisoner. Because he wasn’t a prisoner, he was a Bandit.
Coral wasn’t sure how to take that information. He wasn’t sure what was going to happen to him, his career, or his life. He imagined he had a lot of people to talk to when he returned home to Seattle.
Jiles even opened the door for him when he reached the exit, telling him, “Mom’s mad, you’re free to go.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
As Coral stepped out, Jiles held an arm in front of him, blocking his way out, “Just remember. Once a Bandit, always a Bandit. Anyway, you’re free to go. Ha.”
Then Jiles retracted his arm and Coral really was free to leave.
There’s only one problem.
The USS Octane was still out on the ocean, and the jet (y’know, that jet) wasn’t actually there. What, was Bobby taking it out on a joy ride or something? Jiles shut the door as soon as Coral was out on the deck. Coral whirled around when he realized that he was stranded on the deck of the Octane, and prevented from going back inside.
“Go? Go where!?”
Just a “Ha” in the air.
Welcome to the Bandits, indeed.
Fortunately, Coral didn’t have to wait long to get that ride he was looking for, because an airship landed on the deck of the USS Octane within an hour. An airship that Coral recognized, especially after the day it did a flip through the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. An airship that belonged to a genuine sky pirate.
Henry Keyes was that sky pirate, and Coral had decided that since the day he first met the man at the Fighting for Nora fundraiser last year that he would dare not question it, the airship, or the tiger.
Especially not Helen.
“Hey, Henry, how’d you find me?” Coral asked when he came aboard, sharing a fist-bump with the Kraken.
“Trade secret,” Keyes said.
“Fine, keep your secrets,” Coral said in his best Frodo voice, before he sat down and relaxed while in full, clear view of Helen. “Never let a predator think you’re weak”, that’s the first thing Coral learned in wrestling school.
Keyes sat down nearby. Never too close, never too far, and always with a drink at hand.
Speaking of, “A drink?”
“Despite my situation, no thanks.”
“Pity,” Keyes mused, before he shrugged, “More for me.”
Despite only having half of his eyes, Keyes’ glance remained piercing, “So, doing alright? All your bits in the right place?”
The first thing Coral did when he got out of cryostasis was to check the status of… um… his Excalibur. Despite everything that’s happened to it over the last year, it’s still intact.
In fact, the rib that’d been plaguing him since May felt as good as new. What the hell? It worked?
“Slept like I was counting sheep. I haven’t felt this good in a long time.”
He’d certainly taken an unpleasant detour since losing the 5-Star Championship, but now? He smiled.
“Hope Arthur knows how to count. He’s gonna be seeing sheep when I’m done with him.”