A gasp of anguish from the ring. Something shattered, the mat thundered. Bathory digested the violence unfolding in the ring and tossed back his drink, feeling the floor rumble as the crowd stomped and howled in approval. Pausing for a beat to take in all the stimuli, he turned to his host. Behind him, rowdy drunks clawed at the cage separating the inner area from the mob, shouting at the competitors. A couple of them angrily slurred something about bets they’d placed.
“Financing and resources.” He nearly had to shout to be heard. “Access to our tier two archives. And I’ll give you connections to my personal market guy. Cervantes. Returns through the roof, guaranteed. Deal?”
A grin and a handshake. A toast. If only navigating PRIME proved so simple.
It was a different climate from the Sect of Black Wisdom’s reign of terror era. In those days there was limited negotiation – assimilation or assured destruction. Bruce had ruled his occult territories with an iron fist, his every decree laced with an unspoken but latent threat. Tonight they were honored guests of an associate ‘congregation’ outside the French Quarter of New Orleans, clothed in their finest Brioni ensembles while sipping fine bourbon and gin from elaborate glassware. Their hosts rubbed elbows with women dressed in low-cut dresses designed to catch the eye, laughing uproariously as the ladies fluttered their eyelashes and made flirtatious advances on the personal wait staff. Julian and his entourage recognized high-priced escorts when they saw them; all of the indulgence, the pleasantries were an extension of the theatrics. Sycophantic need to splash money and favors to buy acceptance. Maybe they feared the old ways would return and they needed to stake a claim before it all went south.
Even the venue was a cathedral of excess. Vaulted ceilings and ancient stained glass windows in the Gothic tradition and a mural of some vague, romanticized Civil War battle ringed the hall. Segregating them, the aristocrats, from the unwashed masses, was a wired cage. As trumped-up as the scene was it felt sleazy, a scene yanked from a cheesy 80’s flick. He almost expected a director to bolt upright in the crowd and yell “Cut!” the next time one of their hosts fumbled their drink while pawing at the rented window dressing.
At the arena center, the gladiators exchanged chops. Both bled heavily and a tangle of barbed wire dangled from the tights of the larger man, scarred and blubbery and barely able to breathe. Cardio wasn’t his strength. This man relied purely on girth, a garbage wrestler lacking a hint of technique. The other moved with honed agility, rolling across the ring to escape the weak lunges of the behemoth and striking back with kicks that eventually felled his defenses.
Dimitri Gouskos and Blake Ender paid no mind to the cocktails nor the women fighting to attract their attention. Bathory and Shanahan’s guard detail stuck to water, eschewed alcohol in unfamiliar territory. The former was especially taciturn, cold and aloof by nature in all his dealings, the consummate professional. He watched the ring, focused on the technique of a man he briefly had a hand in training across a handful of visits to the area.
The larger man could never regain his feet, chopped down repeatedly by his quicker aggressor. The smaller man hit the ropes, came off like a tempest and sprung off the shoulder of the other as he knelt, bringing an axe kick swiftly downward onto his head. The cover was academic.
“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! YOUR WINNERRRRR…JACOB INDRA!!”
Gouskos finally glanced over to Bathory and offered a curt nod, the MESSIAH director sighing in relief. The conversation had grown crass and sloppy, business talk falling apart with every drink delivered to the table. It all became moot.
They excused themselves. Their hosts, drunk and enamored with the paid company, barely noticed. Bathory took note, unimpressed, and the baleful stare of the sage Shanahan suggested a more malicious take. He wasn’t a man used to being shunned; stories surrounding such affronts whirled around Wyatt Manor, and hastily covered plots in the woods were said to be a testament to said tales.
Julian Bathory was no fool. Bruce did as he willed, offering him the freedom to carry out his own designs without too much probing.
When they finally navigated to the locker room, a doctor was fixing the damage on the winner.
“Why do you put yourself through that?”
Jacob Indra lifted his head. He didn’t try to disguise the pain etched on his face, barely had wiped the gore from his own wounds. Unlike their hosts in the arena, Indra didn’t feel the need to put on a fake smile or kiss the ring. There was a kinship here, between him and the two MESSIAH heads, that didn’t exist with the seedy bottom-feeders back in the hall.
“Director Bathory. Father Shanahan. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“It’s been a while, Jake. You’re still diving into barbed wire and glass for those animals. Why do you put yourself through that?”
The doctor plucked several more shards of glass from his back and the Cajun winced. “A paycheck. Catharsis. Excursion.” The doctor wiped blood from one of the lacerations in his back, getting ready to stitch, as the kid leveled his eyes on the infamous Violence Jack. “Just like you did.”
Bruce scoffed, sitting down and putting on a sympathetic look, a grim-faced but supportive counselor. He’d really adopted the role well as he readied to play it on a greater stage. “And I barely knew the difference between a figure-four and a figure skater. I shredded my own skin and punched men in the face, full stop. Sometimes I yelled angrily into a microphone about the crime-ridden slums where I grew up, drew some polite applause from Japanese fans that didn’t understand a lick of it. I had to brawl because it was the only approach I knew. Rage was my singular drive and all that gave me relevance. I didn’t have your gifts, I wasn’t a natural athlete. You don’t need to carve yourself up like I did.”
Three years ago Bathory had sat with Jacob Indra at the soul food joint that his parents owned outside of Eden Isle, trading philosophies over the best plate of southern comfort food he’d ever tasted before or since. Jacob’s parents were salt of the earth and God-fearing Southern Baptists, modest in money but bursting in spirit and hospitality. Julian and Bruce had always felt drawn to the fringes of society, outcasts by genetic lottery, but Indra didn’t need embrace those woes. He chose conflict, of wrestling in particular, as a form of expression. As for why he’d rejected his parents’ faith and turned to the other stark departure of his life, revering what lie in the abyss, he didn’t say.
The doc cut away the loose stitching and slipped his tools into a bag, bustling silently out of the room, sensing this discussion wasn’t meant for his ears. In his wake he deposited a stash of gauze and cleaning solution. Indra daubed a deep gash running along his bicep.
“You traveled down here to proffer another alliance, eh? Were you satisfied?”
Bathory looked back at his mentor, the older man skimming over documents pulled from his briefcase. A cold lack of enthusiasm. “Useful idiots. We gave them a low-ball offer and they jumped on it. We actually came down here to talk to you.”
“We need to keep this brief. Find Tribe Leviathan.” Shanahan was succinct, measured. “They’ve gone dark to our people. If anyone can point out where they’re languishing right now then it’s the Anointed of the Maw. You’re their pathfinder and compass.”
Indra rubbed his chin, reached out for his phone. “Never easy, even with tendrils snaking the globe. They stay off of GPS, social media, everything. Often off the grid completely. Still, I’m confident I can pinpoint something.”
Julian lounged against the wall, shook his head. “They creep me out.”
Indra turned, his face blank. “They creep you out? Dawg, you run a cult aimed at ending the world as we know it, masquerading as some new-age help and outreach shit. But you find a traveling caravan of colorful hippies to be creepy?”
“Gives off a weird clown vibe. And I hate clowns.”
“Don’t we all?”
Shanahan was peering down the corridor, beyond his attentive sentinels and at the scenes in the stained glass above the foyer. “Thiel is conniving. The Season of Knives dawns. You know of it, Jake?”
“I do. There have been omens in our house too. I understand that they extend to the reaches of the MESSIAH network.”
A nod of assent. “Keep our request quiet. We feared posing this remotely might prove…problematic. Friends and foes aren’t so easily distinguished right now.”
“I live to serve. Be so kind as to close the door behind you. I have calls to make.”
His voice was flat, mind pointing elsewhere. Drenching his fingertips in rubbing alcohol, Indra peeled another jagged shard from his torn flesh. Shanahan pivored, marched from the room with Gouskos and Ender in tow. People milled about the arena and the old mastermind’s muscle worked to give their master a wide berth through the gawking riff-raff.
“Director? A word before you depart.”
The Carpathian Devil paused, waiting for his predecessor to exit. Indra let the silence draw out, fishing more glass from his body and dropping it into a chipped and bloodied saucer. A sharp report.
“If I may, what are you willing to sacrifice to achieve your ends? If you wish to add to your arsenal I may have just what you seek. But ponder this: how much of yourself are you willing to part with in that bargain?”
Thunder boomed beyond the mansion.
“There is a way. Indra stumbled on the key and passed it along. We have a path to both surviving the Season of Knives and winning the Invitational. I carried out the first step.”
Shanahan shifted his posture, rising to full height. Pupils dilated, projecting distress, he gave his protege an accusing shake of the head.
“Julian, what have you done?”
He peered at the scroll in his hands, gritty papyrus stamped with sigils and an esoteric, flowing script, and his breath quickened.
“The Dream Broker. Enter into an accord and let our enemies suffer the–“
Bathory went limp and blacked out. The sage had never moved so fast, certainly never struck his protege so hard or with such unbridled violence. Malice had flared in his eyes with such intensity as to disquiet demons.
He drifted back into consciousness after an indeterminate time, fingers stretching out, tracing absently through a gritty circle. Salt. A mountainous deposit of the stuff had been dumped in the center of the room and encircled almost its entirety, a sundry of crushed herbs sprinkled in and incense misting the air. A ward.
Julian had rarely seen Shanahan unnerved since the day he arrived at the manor gates. Now he was visibly terrified, barking out orders to a handful of acolytes in a shaken timbre and directing their efforts to contain whatever threatened to breach Wyatt Manor. Blood ran down his arm in thick rivulets, collected into a bowl as it dripped to the floor by a hastening follower, and he feverishly scrawled runes onto the walls with what leaked from his veins. Groggy, Bathory dragged himself against a bookshelf, watched in horror and shame. He opened his mouth to speak, fell to a hush.
“I HAVE TRAVELED FAR. WHO SEEKS MY BOND?”
The voice was actually a chorus, reverberating in a litany of tongues including dead and alien. The pronouncement echoed distinctly in English and Arabic, with what Bathory believed to be Sumerian and Enochian hissing amongst the din. No one living spoke the language that spawned in the cradle of man, nor was the speech of angels articulated by any but the divine and damned. Layered below were those blasphemous mono syllables of Those Outside.
This was power. The air crackled with it, pulsed like a beating heart. Color hues shifted and morphed, a surrealist nightmare.
He peered out the window into the clear and starry night, blinked, opened his eyes. The stars were black spheres against a pallid yellow sky, stretching out over a still lake that stretched to the horizon. Looming over the distant shore, the silhouette of a city with spires jutting to pierce Heaven.
He feared it to be another hallucination, another gradual step in his inexorable march toward madness. Then an acolyte grunted, fell to one knee. Blood trickled from his right ear and cascaded over his clenched jawline. An audible crack echoed as one or more of his teeth broke under the strain.
“Lower the blinds. Immediately.”
Even seized by fear, Shanahan’s voice seethed with rage. Disregarding the man vomiting on the floor, clutching his head, the other minions raced to the windows, dropped the shades to shield against the impossible landscape. The aged Bringer of the Black Gospel leveled bloodshot eyes on his peer, his raised apprentice, and spit onto the floor.
“Julian. How many times must you fail me?”
Click. Rewind. Click. Play.
My arrogance has compromised everything. I trusted Jacob Indra and let a dagger slip between my ribs. Intuition tells me he’s not to blame, that he was manipulated as much as I was. That doesn’t excuse my decision or alleviate my shame. A reckoning approaches, regardless.
Bruce can’t leave the manor as long as the Broker stalks our world. He is marked, and if he refuses a pact with It, the price is annihilation. There is no ritual, no method of banishment. Even we, of MESSIAH, can merely cower before the Broker’s promises.
Anna Daniels would prove a useful ally in this predicament. Alas convincing that…hivemind, or whatever influences her, to aid us is a fool’s errand I won’t pursue. It’s too early to spark that war so we have little choice but to wait, allow time to grant sanctum. Besides, perhaps a period of convalescence is what our sage needs. His body is worn and the constant travels have exacted a toll. He would never admit it. Fears even a hint of weakness would bring ruin on the empire he built.
Still, his guidance would be a boon I can ill afford to surrender. Neither Carlson nor Hanlon boast the experience of Impulse. He’s a different breed than Horace, poor, broken and displaced Horace. He will strike with resolve, a ferocity I have yet to encounter.
Tully was once the prodigal son, the prototype Frankenstein monster as pieced together by Bruce and given life. He balked at his purpose and lashed out against his creator, rejecting his gifts. I elected to embody them and balance their tenuous equilibrium. But crushed an already broken man is a far cry from what Impulse brings to the table.
We both fight for family, in our own ways. Impulse and Julian Bathory. Randall Knox and the specter of Padraig Marko. I expect this won’t be the last time we spin this tale in PRIME’s run. But for now, this time, I have absolution in my crosshairs.