September 15, 2022
MGM Grand, Las Vegas, Nevada
The ghastly shadow puppets snapped and struggled on the wall, just as they’d done the first time he sat in this chair in the MGM. Those initial visions had chilled his blood, shades of dark portents. Now the hallucinations were more of traveling companions, invited as one would kin. Much had changed since that day; Julian Bathory had ascended from the status of unknown entity, riding purely on the renown of his mentor, to a singular force of unfettered malice that had definitively usurped said mentor.
He shot a glance down the conference table at Shanahan. His former handler’s eyes were red and sunken, weighed by heavy bags that sagged underneath. The makeup crew’s considerable skills couldn’t hide how disheveled and gaunt a figure he struck. Violence Jack was once an existential threat to every hero in sight, and here he was now, laid low by strategic missteps and drink. An exile in the organization he co-founded.
Fire Bathory. Cut off his platform.
The Carpathian Devil smirked, hoping the old man spied it. Duplicity had always sheltered in Shanahan’s heart, but making that petition so openly had laid out the depth of his desperation.
Years of failure, never reaching the zenith in PRIME, he mused to himself. Now I’m on the cusp of planting our banner in under a year. Poor, bitter, broken old man.
“Do you regret the incident at ReVival that saw Phil Atken dropped from the bout with a concussion? Is there any sense of remorse?”
Roused from his reverie, he cocked his head slightly at the reporter. Rolling a pen between his fingertips he took the man’s measure, clicked it a few times while deliberately prolonging the silence. Tanner Gleason, RingVerse Online. Another of management’s sycophants angling for a hit piece to sweeten up to Troy. The lanky, pale fellow’s throat tightened for a second under Bathory’s arresting eyes, uneasy. The monster that was Julian Bathory enjoyed these little manipulative tricks that he’d finally coerced out of Marko since the incident with the girl.
“Remorse for what?” His tone was icy, unrepentant. Most terrifying was its hue of genuine curiosity. Humanity wholly absent. “For expediency? Righting the balance back to where it should be?”
Gleason visibly recoiled before following up. “I mean, you and Jiles inflicted a concussion on Phil Atken and completely changed the main event for UltraViolence. The company has been scrambling. You each had to pay an unprecedented fine-”
“Say you’re driving on a lonely stretch of country road. During your travels you come up on a fallen tree branch obstructing your lane. You cannot pass. What do you do? It’s simple: drag the branch off the road and resume your journey. You merely remove the obstruction. The only remorse I feel is in co-opting that putrid stain’s assistance long enough to do so. Next question.”
“But what about the ramificat-”
“Phil Atken made a grave mistake and he paid dearly for his transgression. A concussion was a rare act of mercy. Next. Question.”
Gleason dropped heavily back into his seat, rattled and deflated. From a few rows back another reporter sprung up. Cindy Vaughn, On the Wrestling Beat. She pitched softballs.
“Great American Nightmare ended in a draw between the two of you. How are you preparing for Cancer Jiles in a rematch with the title at stake?”
“Jiles is deceptively tough and tenacious. Cunning for such a repulsive slimeball. That said, he’s going to do what he always does. He’s going to make wisecracks, spin a few puns. Might commit grand larceny without getting so much as a speeding ticket and management will laugh it off. And therein lies the crux of the dilemma.”
He leaned in. The press mirrored him. They danced for him like puppets on strings, much as he’d done behind-the-scenes for Shanahan before violently slashing away those strings, and even their controlling fingers with them.
“For all of the hate surrounding that petulant clown, he’s controllable. Predictable. I tossed a ball and Fido Jiles went scurrying after it. But MESSIAH and myself?”
The laugh of a maniac. “You may as well try to fasten chains to a hurricane.”
“What about Jiles’ claims that he may leave and take the Universal title with him?” Vaughn followed.
The mirth slipped. Bathory fixed her with the same matter-of-fact stare that he’d latched onto Gleason. He clicked the pen a few more times. MESSIAH and PRIME officials alike at the table watched intently, trying to scrutinize his blank face.
“We will find him. Drag the cockroach into the sunlight and destroy him, utterly and completely, and take what we deserve from the remains. The eGG Bandits will cease to exist. Whatever company is fool enough to offer him refuge will be razed to the ground, and cease to exist. Not out of love for PRIME but because defying our will cannot be accorded. Such is the penalty for crossing us.”
For the second time in as many weeks, Julian Bathory was the source of bedlam. Company officials present did all they could to soften the soon-to-be challenger’s comments, but this was a juicy story for any ambitious dirtsheet writer. This horde wouldn’t be soothed. Potentially threatening any rival, independent organization was a deadly serious matter. The longer the director of MESSIAH remained silent behind a live microphone, grinning at the chaos, the more traction the news gained. Julian Bathory was sincere about his grim prophecy and yet again put PRIME in a bleak position.
It was the first time in weeks, watching everything unfurl, that Bruce Shanahan expressed a smile.
They’d sent the boy to his room without supper again. Asher’s rebellion had become more troubling as his devotion to the Holy Word continued to slip. He’d started challenging his teachers in Sunday school, putting doubt on the Lord’s grace. Grades suffering as his isolation and withdrawal deepened, the Kelley’s were near at the end of their rope.
Janice swallowed a Xanax, washed it back with a sip of water, and went back to washing dishes. She hadn’t been sleeping well with her son acting out and had finally visited the doctor to effectively deal with the stress. Prayers alone hadn’t brought her errant son to heel. Evan tried to listen to a sermon on the radio, a fiery preacher from a neighboring county speaking about Solomon’s faith and conquests. Watching his wife as the voice on the radio bellowed with righteous fury, her husband was overwhelmed with sorrow. He switched off the radio.
“Asher will come around, hon. All boys go through phases when they’re young. Hormones and changes comin’ on. That’s all it is.”
He wanted to believe it. Judging by his wife’s stern frown as she slipped a plate into the cupboard, he would have his work cut out for him.
“Boys do go through phases, Evan Kelley,” she said, peering back into her dishes. Even with a dishwasher she still liked to do them by hand sometimes, claiming it to be an exercise in mindfulness. “They go through phases where they challenge their parents, question school authority, deal with feelings bubblin’ up about girls. They don’t question whether angels and demons are the same thing, appointed by the same hand. They don’t hypothesize that God is a broken vessel or a puppet of far worse things. It’s Satanism!”
A glass dropped from her hand, shattering into a thousand fragments. The muscles in her arms stiffened and she clenched her jaw, sighing loudly. Evan watched her, somber and silent, powerless. He couldn’t tell her that it was possible that what might be compelling Asher’s disobedience was worse than anything ever attributed to Satan. And he certainly couldn’t suggest that the boy’s theories weren’t as outlandish as her faith had molded her to believe, or how hostile and hungry that the cosmos was. That time in his life, and all the knowledge and sins that came with it, was still locked away in a vault. Its contents would never see the light of day as long as he valued his marriage, his family, the solace he’d found in his adopted hometown. MESSIAH and Julian Bathory had poisoned this community, and bought their souls with honeyed promises of revived industry and prosperity.
“Our son is slippin’ away from us, Evan. And I’m at my wit’s end.”
“What do you suggest? Some sort of therapist or counselor? I can ask around, maybe find someone in Charleston or Morgantown?”
“We have to try somethin’. Anythin’.
“I’ll look into it. I’m gonna try to talk to Asher again. Maybe I can cajole him into bein’ a bit more…forthcoming.”
He left the kitchen, stalking down the hall to the boy’s room. He didn’t register Janice’s last remark.
“Asher said he met a girl. Told me her name is Sasha. Ain’t that a pretty name, sweetie?”
There was no answer when he knocked on the door. After rapping a few more times, he peeked his head into the room. Curtains fluttered in a breeze drifting through the open window. Asher Kelley had slipped away into the blackness. Evan wasn’t surprised. He had a notion where the boy had gone.
He turned to leave the room. Something gleaming on his son’s dresser gave him pause. He crossed the space in a few quick strides, and his jaw dropped. Attached to a silver chain was a familiar copper coin, one side emblazoned with a crown.
Evan Kelley was gobsmacked. It felt surreal, like a fever dream. How was his son in possession of Julian Bathory’s talisman?
Seizing the necklace, he slipped back into the bedroom that he shared with Janice. He retrieved a blue key from a cabinet, slipping away a false bottom tile to access it. From there he hauled an iron lockbox from under their bed and inserted the key into a rusty depression under the lid. It creaked open, revealing over a decade of Evan Kelley’s most dire secrets. This was the safest place he knew to keep the coin until he figured out what to do. It was potentially a live bombshell he needed time to defuse.
Kelley slipped the coin into the box. It came to rest atop several yellowed newspaper articles, paperclipped together.
SEVENTH BODY DISCOVERED IN NEW CANAAN VALLEY
Most of Abel had descended on the community center tonight for the PRIME UltraViolence watch party. It was being trumpeted as the coronation of Julian Bathory, shepard and reclaimer of the town. The more extreme zealots had champagne on ice, ready to toast their champion when the moment came. Destiny undeniable. Beside the makeshift bar, cutouts out of Cancer Jiles were ridden with darts, and a cheer went up as one thudded into the Whited-Out spot between his legs.
Marion Sterling had arrived for the festivities, dressed in a sparkling green ensemble with glittering diamond earrings and an emerald broach. Despite appearances, she lacked the conviction of her boss’s most ardent lapdogs. This was all theater. While MESSIAH’s activities had never been truly immaculate, something especially wicked stirred in the organization’s underbelly. And it all started at the top.
Beware those who now follow the man and not the message.
There was an uncanny clash of ideals in MESSIAH International’s home of Abel. The transplants brought in to oversee operations were thoroughly reserved and professional; loyal servants of the cause without the excesses of zealotry. The local populace was a different beast. Though these poor folks labored under the tenets of Christianity for generations, it did little to stop the vices that plagued similar one-light rural villages. The addictions, the adultery, the abuse. While Pastor Ruth’s guidance kept years of simmering issues from boiling over, it had taken a demagogue like Julian Bathory to really unite these people. He’d achieved as a nigh-heretical bombast what decades of reciting Psalms and Proverbs had failed to instill in the flock.
On a visceral level, there was appeal. People in this room that would die for his vision. Bruce had harnessed similar sentiments but channeled it differently. Neither was a paragon to aspire to emulate.
Outside the building, at the edge of the light, she paused and pulled a pack of cigarettes from her purse. Scrounging around deeper, Marion realized she’d left her lighter at home and cursed under her breath.
“I know the feeling. Don’t sweat it. Let me help.”
Sterling looked around for the source of the voice. From the shadows strolled Nadia Riegler, silver lighter already proffered.
Marion smiled at the Austrian woman. “Nadia. It’s good to see you. I’m actually surprised you didn’t make the trip to Vegas.”
The raven-haired Riegler shrugged, lifting her own smoldering cigarette. She didn’t appear to be deflated by her lover’s snub. “Distance makes the heart grow fonder, or something like that. Besides, the conqueror king couldn’t endanger his queen, right?” Contempt laced every word as she grinned at Sterling, exhaling a plume of smoke.
High above, the clock in Bathory’s office tolled its haunting hourly toll, far louder than usual as if amplified, reverberating even at street level. The gathering went silent, gazed upward with a subdued awe, almost reverence. The two women just settled onto a bench, waiting out the clock’s unsettling tone.
“Why do you stay?” Marion asked. It was a forward question, but then their visitor from Vienna made little effort to veil her woes. She even seemed to invite the inquiry, oddly enough. “Julian has been cold to everyone. Condescending, contentious. Turned his own mentor into a pariah. I can’t imagine how let down you were coming all this way to find how vicious he’s become. He’s a force of violence, obsessed with domination.”
“I’m not as surprised as you may think, Marion Sterling. Something awful took root in him long ago. The man I love is still there and I’m going to get him back. There have been…cracks. I can weather the storm. Tell me – did he ever tell you about his journey here? Specifically what happened in the little town in Germany?”
Sterling blinked, blindsided. “Not really. Most of his history is pretty secret actually. Closer to folk tales.”
Nadia inhaled deeply from her own cigarette. “Padraig once quoted Nietzsche. The bit about staring into the abyss and the abyss staring back. That idyllic, self-contained little village in the Black Forest with all of its cuckoo clocks and yellow paint, the village fool in yellow, it broke him. There was madness in that town. The abyss branded an aspect of itself on his soul that day, or so he believes. He’s never shaken it. It’s a part of why he’s here.”
Marion bit her lip, flashing back to esoteric tales in her own occult library. Cuckoo clocks in the Black Forest. The ominous clock in Bathory’s office. The man in yellow. If the dots connected, the implications made her shudder. She cast a look to the top floor, questioning her own memories.
Doomreach, the Wayward Summit. Was Bruce right? Has the director finally opened the bridge? Impossible.
Nadia watched several drunks whoop at the sight of Bathory appear on-screen, stepped into the vaulted viewing hall. She wanted to share that jubilation. But not until he was whole again. Not until he was sane and smiling, sipping their favorite red together.
Marion joined her, stomping out the dying cinders of her smoke. “If he accomplishes his goal, what’s next? He might go any length to stay on his throne. That keeps me up at night more than anything.”
Both ladies turned. Asher Kelley stood in the doorway, looking at Marion and Nadia. In one trembling hand, he clutched his once-loved and now-shredded Bible.
“Is it over? Did the devil win? Are we finally free?”
September 20th, 2022
MESSIAH HQ, Abel, West Virginia
Macabre tapestries hang from the walls, art evoking the horrors of medieval war and the vast unknown. A portrait of Julian Bathory, eyes steely and grim, his posture and clothing regal.
The New World Savior steeples his fingers behind his ornate oak desk, flanked by the imposing and sharply dressed Dimitri Gouskos and Wilhelm Von Krauser.
“Cancer threatens to flee. But where would he go? Precisely what promotion would harbor that rogue narcissist knowing that MESSIAH will be coming to ferret him out? We would torch the place to the ground simply for offering our enemies asylum. Is High Octane Wrestling prepared to invite our wrath? Could Missouri Valley weather our siege?
Blink. The courtyard beyond is now littered with the dead, impaled on spears just like a certain figure of old world infamy. All is bathed in a red hue by way of a blood-red sun. The portrait has altered; a perverse caricature of Bathory now smiles ghoulishly from ear-to-ear. Tentacles skirt the border of the frame, ensnaring it like a kraken seeking to drag a ship into the depths of a black sea.
“You will welcome the void. You will plead for death and not find it. You will be collared, paraded across the world as a trophy, and embrace the thing that keeps you up at night – failure, irrelevance. Taking dives to middling rookies at our whim. And that’s ultimately what you’ll seek. Because when UltraViolence wraps up, just the term ‘main event’ will be enough to send you into a PTSD-induced breakdown. The sniveling court jester you were meant to be, Cancer.”
= = = = =
The camera light winked out. Almost immediately the lights followed suit, plunging the chamber into abject darkness for several moments. There was only the ticking of the clock for a few seconds before the overhead bulbs flared back to life. Everything was back to normal; the outside landscape was pristine Abel in late summer, the portrait returned to a baroque Bathory, visage severe but minus the alarmingly alien features.
The kid running sound for PRIME whistled as he lowered his headset. “Wild bit of stage magic, man. You guys must have real effects wizards in this building. I wanna shake their hands.” He roved toward the portrait, scanning for mirrors, speakers, projectors.
Julian smirked and arose from his chair. “Special effects. Of course. Get this package to the powers-that-be. And by all means give Lindsay Troy my warmest regards.”
The latter message was soaked with venom. He was beyond political finesse for the time being. The PRIME crew cleaned up their equipment and departed, escorted by Krauser, leaving the director and his stern-faced bodyguard.
“It’s up to you now,” said his Greek enforcer, arms folded across his broad chest. “Are you ready?”
Bathory breathed deep.
“Our believers are legion. The enemies of MESSIAH tremble. PRIME opened the Trojan horse.”
He looked at the clock with its grand pendulum swinging back and forth.
“I am ready. But it’s up to us.”
Gouskos followed his eyes, frowning at the everpresent sentinel looming in the corner. Like Sterling, something about its presence here unnerved him.
“Yeah, right. Fine. But remember what I told you. Watch for that leg. Stay alert for his tells and that damn mist. If he blinds you-”
“Everything is under control.” Bathory cut him off without so much as a look, watching the second hands tick.
Dimitri Gouskos felt his cheeks burn. He’d grown tired of the director’s flippant disregard for counsel in these trailing weeks. “Is it? You’ve trained for strength and neglected technique.”
“Hmph. Your concerns are noted. I’m knocking that sewer-mouthed fuck out. Then I’m putting him into the ground. We don’t need a loose cannon derailing our crusade. As I once told a friend, people are dying for a savior. Not a martyr, but a leader and a shield. The enlightened shall flock to me and know salvation. All others shall perish. Taking the title and humiliating Jiles will usher in a renaissance of faith.”
Dimitri spun on one heel to exit, leaving Bathory to admire that damned oversized artifact. The fickle, single-minded fool.
“Forever the crown, Dimitri,” Bathory muttered, barely audible. “The campaign is nearly over. Rage, Icarus. Rage against the dying of the light.”
He looked up. Unshed tears glistened in the corners of his eyes like diamonds.
How is this possible?
His visitor smiled. Slipping petite hands through the bars, she rested a palm on his knee. Her hand was warm. The first warmth he’d felt since the horrors of Lake Jonah.
He’s attuned to the relic. A door that swings both ways. What he thought he was using to seal his victory has given us the opening we needed. It’s time to fight back.
Rising, she offered a mischievous wink.
You always looked out for me, big brother. Leave this one to us.
The girl disappeared, dissolving like smoke in the wind.
Beside him sat Big Baron Fang. He pulled the silly old plush toy to eye level, gazed into the copper coins sewn into its face. Lowering his head, Padraig drew it in close and wept.