The Learning Tree
Normally, one would find this formerly abandoned bunker in the Mojave desert teeming with members of The Family. Perhaps the Montgomery Twins would be sparring in the ring under the tutelage of The Rooster. Maybe the dregs of Las Vegas, commonly known as the Coyotes, would be lounging about, or trying to prove themselves to The Patriarch in one fashion or another. In fact, normally we would be in the training center deep within the facility.
But, not tonight. There’s a stillness here this evening, like the calm before a deadly storm. Deeper into the complex, through a maze of underground corridors carved out long ago, we find ourselves in a circular room, the floor covered in a comfortable, soft carpet of deep red. Several armchairs dot the room, comfortable in their own way.
Jacob Mephisto can live in a moment for a long time. He sits here, in his place of comfort, his place of power, and he watches the footage from Culture Shock for what is probably the hundredth time. He watches the moment when Solomon Richards is taken by surprise. He rewinds it. He plays it back. He watches the black mist fly into the eyes of his old adversary. He laughs out loud when Solomon swings and misses, punching at ghosts. He even sighs wistfully when The Twins practically cave the big man’s skull in with stereo chair shots.
He doesn’t just watch the footage. He relives it in his mind. To him, he’s still there, in the ring.
Jacob Mephisto can live in a moment for a long time. He’s created many moments in his career. He will create many more. But, for right now, he lives in the moment of torment for Solomon Richards.
He, at least, gave him a warning… a lesson, even. After all, Mephisto is “The Patriarch” of The Learning Tree. He is the head of this family that has continued to grow. Perhaps he should have offered Mr. Richards a place here.
“That boy would have scoffed at the notion.”
He’s not talking to anyone in particular. No one’s here. He’s still in the moment.
“He wants his own personal vindication. He thinks I’m the root of his problems. He’s probably right.”
He plays it back one more time. He watches the light go out in Solomon’s eyes. Mephisto gave Solomon Richards a warning. He’d told him to run home.
“He won’t, though. He’ll stay. He’ll fight. Because, for all of his emotional damage and all of his sulking, Solomon Richards is like so many before him. He’s the plucky hero. He’s the never say die type. I’ve seen that so many times.”
Mephisto smirks, the low light of the room flashing in his pale, grey eyes.
“Speaking of plucky heroes…”
He pulls his phone from his pocket, bringing up the public profile of his opponent for ReVival 6. He sighs.
“Right now… I’m seeing Red.”
Hi, Alexander. Can I call you Alexander? Doesn’t matter. I want you to know that what’s about to happen isn’t personal.
It really isn’t.
Well, maybe a little bit.
See, you remind me of him. You remind me of Solomon Richards.
I mean, sure, he’s the brooding type while you’re the more outgoing and outlandish type. He’s always so serious. You? Well… to be honest? I don’t know if you take much seriously here.
But still? You’re the good guy. You’re the plucky hero. You’re the never say die, right? One half of Red and Ted.
It’s all very… wholesome.
I hate it.
I hate it.
I hate it.
I warned Solomon Richards at Culture Shock. I told him to run home. I’m going to make you an example, Alexander. I’m going to show him why he should take my warning to heart.
But, make no mistake. I’m not looking past you, Alexander. I know you’re talented. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t. So, make no mistake. I’m focused on you. I’m seeing Red.
The Learning Tree
It’s busy here today, a stark contrast to the previous emptiness. The dojo area of the complex is packed with those who’ve come to learn and be a part of the family.
It is a family. There are those who call it nothing more than a common cult.
Those people are wrong. Jacob Mephisto doesn’t force anyone to do anything here. People come and go as they please. There is no shunning here. There is no forced activity. If you want to be here? Show up. If not? Don’t.
Mephisto stands on one of the balconies above, watching… observing. He sees a new arrival being led into the dojo and he smiles. He sees the young man looking around nervously, the slight twitch of addiction ever present. He watches as the new arrival is led to the ring built in the center of the room. The young man hesitantly enters the ring and all eyes in the room slowly turn to him.
They are hungry eyes. These are the Coyotes. They see fresh meat… prey. The Coyotes in the ring begin to circle, prepared to pounce as the young man takes a hesitant stance. It’s clumsy, unprepared.
They move forward.
He doesn’t speak it very loud. He doesn’t have to. Jacob Mephisto’s voice cuts through the room like a hot knife and everything stops.
“This isn’t how we operate. This isn’t a prison and this young newcomer isn’t a slab of fresh meat. We are a family. Act like it.”
Johan Dietrich and KC Rockefeller, the team known as KHARRION, arrive and stand on either side of Mephisto.
“All of you were in this position once. Before you came to me, you worked for another. He preyed on you. He used you and threw you away, back to the desert. Don’t treat this new youngster the same way. Do for him, what I’ve done for you. Clean him up. Prepare him. Teach him. Tell me, boy, what is your name?”
The young man looks up, fear and wonder in his eyes.
“M-my name is Edward.”
Mephisto nods slowly and smiles.
“Not anymore. As of this moment? Your new name is Alexander. Welcome to the family.”