Bathory pitched the garish belt onto a bench beside his locker, minding the splinters as he lowered groggily next to it. The champion despised everything about the thing’s appearance, from the ridiculous font down to the color scheme. It was the antithesis of prestige, nothing a dignified champion would feel pride in carrying. If he had to dominate this place much longer then he’d have the smiths back home design something that wasn’t so tacky.
His usual entourage were fanned out around the room and steadily initiated a light clap as he settled down. Waving them off, long since tired of the sycophantic gesture, he ran a towel over his face to mop up the sweat. Everywhere he traveled he was accompanied by his retinue of drones, loyal and capable bodyguards but drones all the same. But at least they cleaned up well, valued their vigil, and kept their vices to personal time. Gouskos drilled this lot even more efficiently than he’d hoped.
“I think they’re still trying to remove that boy from the canvas. It may take a spatula to clean up the mess.”
Turning, he beheld his mentor flashing a wry smile as he lowered slowly onto a bench opposite. Bruce carried a flat briefcase, a regular accessory as he’d taken on new duties through the restructuring. Julian was still acclimating to the sight of the mastermind without the trappings that once defined his place atop the Sect of Black Wisdom, having traded in the archaic robes for stylish threads befitting a businessman. Granted he still sold a product to the masses but the chic of Armani masked the forked tongue more effectively.
The younger man settled his gaze back on the title strap. “Deutsch Premier Ringen. What a joke. That kid should still be learning armdrags and fitting the ring together before shows. But that’s what passes for the ace in a spot that can’t fill a junior gymnasium.”
Shanahan just shrugged in response, flicking open the clasps of the case. “Promotion management owed me a favor. We needed momentum, to put a tidal wave of buzz into motion.”
Bathory, tired as he was, felt his curiosity piqued. There was a subdued exuberance in his mentor’s statement, a modern rarity.
“And just what have you orchestrated this time? Something better than a marketing stunt in the rustic foothills of Appalachia, I pray. I inhaled more coal dust over that weekend than the rest of my lifetime put together.”
Dismissing the jest, Shanahan shoved a stack of paper-clipped leaflets into his protege’s lap.
“The big leagues. No more treading water in talent-deficient cesspools. This time you’re ready. The greater world is going to quake at the whisper of our names again.”
A return couldn’t have come sooner. The putrid tang of these basements had grown especially revolting these past couple of years. Too many bad memories created in these ugly dustbins. Too much blood spilled in vain. More than enough triumphs to snuff out that brief CWF blight and cast it into the stars to die in vacuum.
“PRIME, risen from the ashes.” Bathory whistled, genuinely impressed. The old man had come through on vows that seemed ancient now. “And an invitation from Lindsay Troy herself? The plot thickens.”
A sigh matching a stoic brow, resigned in the face of his grinning protege. Bruce Shanahan’s humor hadn’t evolved like his choice of dress had. “Another favor, equal parts personal and professional.”
He placed a hand on his successor’s shoulder and a bottle of water between his knees. “I’ll explain specifics on the flight back to the States. The itinerary has already been cleared, I’m sending our associates to the meeting. Cross and Lloris can negotiate in our stead. Ms. Lloris has the measure of our friends in the Gate of the Jade Helix already, I’m confident she can use those relationships to tip the scales in our talks. Besides, I have it on good confidence that Maeda is involved so we have a leg up before anyone even sits down. He’s more amenable to our agenda in the East than most of his stodgier contemporaries.”
A raised eyebrow from the champion of Deutsch Premier Ringen, chucking the belt into his carry-on. “Where exactly are we headed?”
“Vegas. PRIME has some requirements and our PR team doesn’t fit their designs. They want the world to have a peek at the hero himself.”
“Hero?” The Hungarian almost cackled at the idea. “To the world outside I’m the devil.”
“Depends on perspective. From where I’m standing I see the image of the new PRIME. Besides, you learned from the best, right?”
That familiar malevolence slipped the affable veneer and marked the cult leader’s face. An evil spark danced behind the glass, long repressed and ready to bring its designs crashing down on humanity in another fiendish swoop. His own body was broken beyond repair, but in his eyes the greatest instrument of the new Sect was ready to cast its cyclopean shadow over PRIME, professional wrestling, and all of the sin-stricken civilization beyond.
“If they want the devil, we give it to them. I can’t think of a better beast to drag them screaming into Hell. As they weep and howl in those black pits of sorrow, petitioning a heaven that has discarded them, they will do as all of the damned are wont to do given the opportunity: they will implore you to be their savior.”
Around his neck, fitted to a white-gold chain, Bathory caressed the copper coin that brushed his chest. A gift and a reminder. “And how will I answer?”
It was a moment before the other replied, as he seemed to drift elsewhere for a time; it had become steadily common in the trailing months, perhaps a fusing of age and a turbulent, violent life taking their toll. The younger man wasn’t sure if Shanahan’s frown post-pause was disappointment or borne of other internal musings, as his tone was flat. “If you still need me to solve that riddle for you, Julian, then your position truly is an illusion. No more legitimate than the cheap trophy you carry in that bag.”
Something seemed to shift on the edge of the Hungarian’s vision, a roiling movement in the corner of the room. He didn’t move, nor did he allow his gaze to settle onto what encroached from the dark angles that he recognized no sentinel could repel. It perched (slithered?) beside him and waited, resting (on haunches?) as a loyal dog might. Shanahan couldn’t perceive it. His armed detail were certainly blind to it. Even to openly behold it himself was proscribed. These realities weren’t new or unforeseen as the figure’s arrival was almost as clockwork by now. The presence was yet another reminder of the invisible throne he was fated to defend. Part of the compact.
At least he had convinced himself so. Far more a comfort than the alternative, that his destiny was sheerly a prison of complete and sweeping madness. Come to think of it, he hadn’t taken his medicine today. Left the bottles at a connecting terminal stateside. Under an assumed name, thankfully, lest the risks compound further. The accords made for strange and uneasy bedfellows.
A string of syllables, alien and incomprehensible, exploded in his thoughts. More gibberish to drown out, another audience striving for his ear. At the same time, mired in the cerebral static, his outer guard detail’s distant voices chirped over nearby earpieces.
Gazing straight ahead, eyes glazing as he measured what was to come, his finger tapped at the crown branded into the coin. “At the end everyone gets what they deserve.”
The formless thing emitted a sound. It was almost, but not quite, a chuckle.
“Almasy was an honorable opponent. He was the better man between us then. We’re going to honor his memory in this illustrious competition, and do our part to pave the road ahead to creating new memories. A generation of young and hungry athletes has cemented itself as the new torchbearers of this profession and I have no doubt that they will send it sailing to new heights of popularity and public perception.”
A stirring sight was a dapper and shaven Bruce ‘Violence Jack’ Shanahan donning a formal suit while offering platitudes to old rivals and pitching phrases coined by the corporate animals he once hated. Even from his place offstage and surrounded by the buzz of conversing production hands, Bathory could feel the collective astonishment of the assembled press, blindsided by the radical shift in demeanor. Everything about it was duly a shocker to those familiar with his antics over the years. Rogue and villain of professional wrestling for two decades, sinister mastermind of an underworld sect long rumored to traffic in death and the arcane and the infernal. It was a bombshell of an appearance that had raised a buzz from the moment they touched down at Harry Reid International, when the sage had emerged onto the tarmac minus the robes and sermons of cosmic damnation of old, instead waving the proverbial flag of cultured diplomacy and flashing almost whimsical grins to a wall of photographers.
While there was time-honored wisdom in how even the wildest mellowed with age, few believed this to be anything but a farce or smokescreen. Still none could say Violence Jack was less than a consummate showman, a modern reflection of P.T. Barnum returned to the stage that defined him.
These were his final moments in the spotlight. Let the old man amass his headlines.
As Shanahan played to the crowd, motes of ash appeared to drift from the ceiling, and a wave of disembodied whispers trickled into Julian’s left ear. A deep murmur arose, trembling bass beyond the far side of the dais that Bruce made his pronouncements from. As attendants scurried by, shadows warped and took on shapes unchanged by nearby movement. Ragged shadows tore at the light, a grotesque shadow puppet show. Light began to trickle down the wall, spilling onto the floor into a luminescent puddle, bleeding out onto cold concrete. No one else reacted, certainly didn’t see it. Another hallucination, an abstract vision gifted the man who would be king. Or perhaps another stab of impending insanity.
There was polite applause a couple of minutes later to welcome the sage’s hand-picked man to the podium. Bathory’s introduction was accompanied by honeyed words from his mentor, fanfare from PRIME officials that briefly commented both on his signing and how it bridged into the promotion’s plans for the long-term. Julian knew his window to revel in the spotlight was limited and, following a brief glimpse into his resume and personal history, anticipated the first question cast from the gallery. His instincts proved true.
“What about the Sect of Black Wisdom?”
He had long prepared for this moment, rehearsing before mirrors and colleagues while visualizing just this public occasion. Breathing deep and exhaling, he lifted his eyes to survey a rapt press audience before dropping his bombshell. “The Sect of Black Wisdom is dead.”
The old man bristled for a moment, though the change was minute enough only Bathory seemed to have caught it. Something in Shanahan’s aura also briefly blossomed and settled again, a flare of rage and indignation. Such a thing was a necessity in a time and world that, if the old path were sustained, would see them cast into an exile that would forever destroy the organization. Still just the notion that his monster was buried truly gouged the man’s pride. But for the time being this was the narrative to control. What social influencer would take to Twitter or Jabber and declare their allegiance to a cabal like that? You drew in the mob and built community with honey. The hooks themselves were masked under the sweets.
The reaction of the assembled was far less tempered. The press predictably reeled, absolute jubilation from some, open doubt from others. Bruce had more enemies than some nations and this was his successor. It was several beats until the din subsided, allowing him to continue, for now shunning the flood of questions that rang out in chorus.
“The Sect of Black Wisdom is a relic from a bygone time. We’ve moved away from the old ways and into the future. Under my charge, gone are the days of dark hoods, cloak-and-dagger secrecy, whispers of the abominable. We want to open our arms to a worldwide membership and introduce people to new trends in spirituality and philosophy. The organization has established a global base with associates across five continents. Our ultimate destination is spiritual liberation and working toward a transhuman experience, ascending the human condition as we understand it. That will be driven by supporting one another, by community.”
An animated image flashed onto the wall behind him, lingering as a backdrop as he resumed the brief pitch. A stylized M fit with a silver crown, the emblem linking them with a new age.
“This is MESSIAH. I won’t dawdle on specifics on what we’re bringing to the table, as today is dedicated to celebrating PRIME’s return, and the life of Seymour Almasy. But I decided that it was in the best interest of us all to release our plans here and now so we can focus on the festivities that brought us together here in Las Vegas. There will be skeptics and nay-sayers, and I won’t pretend that some of those under the MESSIAH umbrella don’t embrace tenets of pessimism or nihilism. However we and our partners aim to cater to an expansive clientele from all walks of life, sharing philosophies and life-altering techniques to best tailor a foundation of belief palatable to every individual.”
For almost fifteen minutes he weathered the anticipated storm of questions and accusations, sticking to the general talking points and directions they’d agreed on before the promotional event. Julian rattled off some general history of the company, professed admiration for its past stars, affirmed his commitment to PRIME and the Almasy Invitational. He’d trained for these occasions, and Julian Bathory navigated the media tide like a well-drilled student whereas his predecessor did so through sheer force of personality and an entrancing charisma. Differing techniques, similar endgame.
A woman in a form-hugging green pantsuit, hair like burning embers, waved a pen in the air. “You retain Bruce Shanahan as a consultant. How do you explain his continued involvement if the Sect of Black Wisdom is dissolved?”
This was the most taxing argument of all. Convincing a long-traumatized press that Bruce, while still no aspiring Sunday school teacher, had shed the skin of a fiery bombast bent on dragging Earth into a festering hellscape of insanity, was a rough sell. Not everyone bought it, unsurprisingly. Doubt was inconsequential at this stage anyhow. This was the preview stage, and opening night which would be on everyone’s lips long after the curtains fell.
As the conference reached its end, Bathory slipped offstage and into the back corridors of the MGM Grand, searching for a lounge to collect and sort his thoughts. He’d barely taken five steps alone before a familiar pair of loafers fell in-step beside him.
“Admirable performance,” Shanahan offered in praise. “But compartmentalize it and move on to Genie Carlson. Slip up now and that diamond loses its shine quickly.”
Again that CWF blight slipped back to haunt him. A ruined debut chalked up to arrogant hubris. He couldn’t countenance the idea of lightning striking twice; you only had one chance to make a first impression and this one had to establish his conviction.
“I’m carrying out my due diligence,” he said without breaking stride. “I don’t intend on being bounced early.”
“I’m speaking from experience, Julian. Karina Wolfenden put me down more than once. Troy did the same, sits atop a mountain of bodies as a legend, gender be damned. And I stalked the Primetime Central landscape at the same time that Aimz and Tempest were tearing those barriers down. Heed me, boy, stick to the program or everything will be jeopardized.”
“What are the chances she can be drawn into the fold? After all, the new gospel is palatable to all, is it not?”
A grin from his mentor, turning on his heel to march away and into the throng of company staff. “We’ll reach out. Hold up your end and head to the gym, Dimitri and Wilhelm are waiting. Film room at six.”
He already endured a gauntlet of a schedule, running himself ragged between the business and grappling ends. Weary, he loosened his silver tie and steeled himself for whatever those sadists had concocted. Down the hall, Bruce abruptly halted and spun around, jerking a thumb back at the room of roving journalists.
“Consequently, Lady Sterling said you passed the test. Not one hundred percent compelling but some practice and coaching will get you there. She requests your company before our associates burn you out.”
The redhead in green winked, vanishing like a ghost into the crowd before Julian could return the gesture. He could think of worse ways to spend his cooldown time than discussing the fine points of debate structure with Marion Sterling. What happened in Vegas, right?
Click. Rewind. Click. Play.
This is the first record of my trials, as dictated by me unto our trusted scribe, Elijah Grimm. I have granted the esteemed recorder certain creative liberties during the editing process as an opportunity to put a personal stamp on his writing detail. He has done us well and has earned such distinction. Örökké a korona, Elijah.
This is among the earliest of my abbreviated travel tales, likewise my initial brush with the forces beyond the veil and associated familiars. Call it a dialogue with demons long before my pilgrimage guided me to the Wyatt Manor gates. A proper Campbellian hero’s journey if I may say so myself, really, though I realize few outsiders would label me so kindly. Most beyond our kindred instead call me destroyer, monster, heretic. One such title, the Carpathian Devil, has stuck better than most. Rolls off the tongue I suppose.
The town therein shall remain undisclosed. It is situated in the Black Forest region of Germany yet might be somehow immune to the efforts of cartographers, as it appears on no map of the area. The people, their ways, and their purpose will be thus preserved. So let it be written.
These records shall remain encrypted and hidden until my say so, away from the prying eyes of the public and even inspiring acolytes of our collective faiths until their requisite level of ascension. Revelation of my experiences to the unworthy will only raise doubts of my sanity and possibly drop me into a mental hospital, shattering the organization and damaging the fraternal bonds we’ve forged globally these past several years.
I traveled exclusively through the countryside in those early days. It was in the sun-dappled vales and virgin green reaches between cities that I best aligned with that source of wanderlust urging me westward. I was unaware of The Keening then, the arcane song drifting between worlds released by Father Shanahan’s designs. Dreams and fancy guided me through the Black Forest of Germany, winding through misted wilds by morning and picturesque valleys in the daylight. I still recommend the vineyards to any will listen, really..
My wanderings one day set me on a dusty road bereft of any traffic. There were no signs, no indicators of distance. The only track marks were bicycle treads. If nothing else it was place to stop and lay my head for a couple days. Following the road, it felt as if the evergreen trees progressively squeezed you in, funneling you toward the village sprawled ahead. This was when I arrived in <REDACTED>.
The hamlet was postcard idyllic, rows of small houses and huts and shops with a traditional town center at the center. The architecture was an old style unscathed by anything contemporary, gambrel roofs entirely of wood and slate. In every window was a cuckoo clock, most hand-carved and all in the chalet style that was the regional trademark. While odd not completely fantastic given that the Black Forest is renowned for the timepieces. The experience was almost akin to stepping into the past, or the tourism wing of a theme park. The clothing of the few residents milling around the streets, however, appeared more modern; I hadn’t slipped into a time-shifting wormhole after all, this must have been a people which admired and stuck to bits of old world framework.
Aside from the engineering, another peculiarity immediately struck me about the local decor: almost everything was awash in yellow. The shades varied, ranging from amber to saffron to bright lemon, but absolutely every building in sight featured yellow. Endless yellow and those markings over every door, suffused into every threshold.
There was a peal of laughter. My first brush with the nether awaited, rest my accursed soul.
TO BE CONTINUED