Click. Rewind. Click. Play.
Time and again I’ve dreamt of the end of the world. It always plays out differently. Sometimes things and people just wink out, like a light switch being flipped, no fanfare or resistance, only acceptance, even gratitude. Other instances it’s long, drawn-out, preceded by weeping and wailing and cursing, material existence unraveling or inexorably consumed by a ravenous devourer.
Maybe it’s happened before, under all of these guises, over and over again. A highlight reel of extinctions visited on the entire universe, immutable echoes of a past erased by His stirrings before forming again by will of His slumber, beamed directly into my tiny, primate brain. Wave upon wave of nonchalant annihilation. No salvo of warheads or chorus of prayers will slow that creeping, inevitable annulment.
In my youth I was told that my amoral path would lead to an encounter with the devil. I laughed back then, brushed off the old-world melodrama that shaded those warnings. Years later, my journey indeed brought me to the devil’s doorstep, and not only did I make a deal with the fiend, we forged a powerful bond. Diamond-strong, out of necessity. It turns out that there are far darker forces warring to steal us, corrupt us, and the Great Adversary makes for a useful ally in an impossible war where even a pyrrhic victory is the best we can reach for.
In 2009, Bruce Shanahan employed the ultimate gambit: through esoteric rituals and intricate channeling, he attempted to destroy the world as we know it. He failed. He was always destined to fail because not only was his solution faulty, but he asked the wrong questions. Still driven by malice and rage, he misinterpreted the messages, even those he’d personally edited into the grimoire known as The Black Testament. No, wholesale destruction was never in the cards. A transition is what was required.
With time comes insight. For the greater scheme of things, and for MESSIAH’s ascent in PRIME. They work in absolute concert. What happens in that ring is still integral to operating the machine. Failure projects weakness, weakness doesn’t attract converts.
Two major defeats in the span of a week. I attracted something uncontrollable and nearly brought calamity onto this house through misguided trust and ambitions, allowed my relationship with Jacob Indra to think his counsel infallible. He was deceived and thus was I, the key event that birthed the Season of Knives. The Dream Broker walks our world a while longer, my own transgression to bear. Subsequently I walked into my bout with Impulse troubled, defeatist, and left Las Vegas as a casualty of the Almasy Invitational. A driven veteran got in my head, I didn’t adapt. That’s a part of what happens out there under those lights. Despair won’t alter the income.
The Sect of Black Wisdom was well acquainted with setbacks. MESSIAH will face the same. No empire flourishes without enduring losses, some defeats across scattered skirmishes. Evolving under adversity will see us through. The old man panicked, as he’s oddly wont to do even after so long. I fear he may be slipping more than the public realizes, more than even our closest confidants suspect. A lot of concussions and plenty of trauma. He can’t boast the accolades to validate that level of damage, alas, and I intend to excel him.
Stop the clock on the Time Lord. Trip up the Marathon Man. Demolish the Wayward Son. Then we sound the horns of war and assault the peak.
ABEL, WEST VIRGINIA – MARCH 31ST, 2022
“Daddy, what do you reckon the Devil really looks like?”
Evan peered into the rearview mirror. Outside, the headlight beams barely pierced the veil of night and sheeting rain, and the wipers thrummed as they fought to skim away the torrent. Thunder rumbled again in the distance, a muted roar past the hills.
“You’ve heard Preacher Ruth the same as me, Asher. I suppose’n he ain’t been lyin’ none. He went to one of ’em fancy colleges to learn the word of God and I’m right happy to take his testimony to heart. Ain’t no reason to doubt a man sent by the Lord.”
Asher Kelley smiled and settled back in his seat, weathered Bible pressed against chest. He was whip-smart and he knew his daddy was too. Heck, his daddy seemed to know about everything there was to know, even about the big old world beyond Roane County, West Virginia. He never talked about it none though, what he did before meeting Asher’s momma a few years before he was born. Had even told Asher more than once that some devils need to stay caged forever, or until God comes down to banish them forevermore. The boy didn’t fully appreciate what his father was hinting at, but there was a shameful glint in his eye that communicated to Asher it was best to let sleeping dogs lie.
The moon had risen about an hour ago and promptly slid behind the black clouds that delivered the storm unto Abel, pouring and howling across Roane County. Evan Kelley had stayed late to work overtime at the machine shop and rued missing the pre-service supper the preacher had laid out for the congregation; Preacher Ruth had a special announcement, one he felt rushed to bestow on the families and friends that long helped the church thrive, and wanted a grand pot-luck to precede his words. As a whole the community of Abel was impoverished and destitute, even against the Mountain State at large, but what they lacked in wealth they made up for in surplus in neighborly spirit. The town had its share of rogues and ne’er-do-wells, sure, but they were all in this fight together, this endless battle against a cold and heartless world that would as soon spit on them as help them to their feet.
The Kelley family SUV bounded over potholes in the cracked blacktop rolling up to the church on the hill. Janice reclined in the passenger seat, a choir on the radio belting out old hymns she’d grown up on. Evan loved her for that sentimental side as it filled a hole in his own soul that he hadn’t known in his life pre-Abel.
Preacher Ruth leaned expectedly on the stoop.
“There are a few morsels left, Evan. Sorry ya had to miss the feast but I assure you our neighbors came through in fine style.”
Ruth was jittery, uncharacteristic of the older man that filled so many hours the part of a bombastic orator in front of those he considered kin. Now, as he glided between congregants in his customary fellowship, the preacher blinked often, fidgeted in his pockets, adjusted and readjusted his wire-rimmed glasses almost feverishly. In those moments Kelley intuited that something was amiss, a dark and invisible cloud separate from that presently bringing rain and gloom onto Abel.
An unspoken dread hung over those pews like mist over a summer marsh. Kelley hadn’t been the only one to pick up on Preacher Ruth’s disquiet, and even old Mrs. Cogar’s normally tight organ play produced a few uncharacteristic hiccups.
Tears already wet his cheeks as he stepped to the pulpit. Resignation out of the blue that blindsided his loyal flock. To his credit, he did well to settle the good people of Abel.
“I will not be leavin’, nor headin’ to a different church to preach the word. No, sir, this is my family and always will be. Instead I shall be seated among you all myself, rapt and attentive and hungry for God’s message. It will be of a different ilk than my own, yes, but I can affirm that it will quench your thirst for the gospel all the same. I ask that you welcome them with open arms and receptive hearts.”
Through the door of the church emerged a procession of dapper outsiders. Their dress was so modernly prodigious as to strike Evan Kelley as expressly disparaging this assembly of simple means, a wordless mockery. He’d spent time in the coastal cities and recognized excess when he came across it, guaranteed each of these attires cost more than any man in Abel could afford with six months gross wages.
He didn’t move as the first few entered the sanctuary. Any perceptive enough, though, would have noticed the Kelley patriarch bristle with recognition as the dual ringleaders of the party came down the aisle, their fellows offering bows of deference. Janice gripped his wrist, nails biting in, a wordless exclamation conveyed between spouses. Even young Asher’s jaw fell open as hushed murmurs were raised through the chapel.
Kelley had shaken off the first to enter, believing it just misplaced memory imprinted on a stranger. The buxom, red-haired woman in the green sheath dress stalked down the aisle like a model on a Parisian walkway, middle-aged but matured like a fine vintage. He recognized Marion Sterling nary a heartbeat before the final two emerged, probably fresh from the pits of burning brimstone, ringed by a brigade of security and fawning, senior devotees.
Bruce Shanahan was too familiar to Evan Kelley, a specter that had haunted his nightmares for over a decade. Demon in human skin, malevolence incarnate, a nefarious dealer in the infernal. The other was familiar to him only through TV. While he didn’t know Julian Bathory personally, it wasn’t a stretch to conclude that any man willing to strike an accord with such a villain wasn’t one he’d take kindly to breaking bread with. Evan Kelley had the luxury of such familiarity, such insight. His neighbors didn’t, and were almost reverently starstruck. It didn’t take long for their guests to pounce on that awe.
Perspiration noticeably swathed Ruth’s brow and neck. This wasn’t an amenable transition, it was a hostile takeover masked behind good-natured smiles and handshakes. It hurt to see; Ruth had been among the first to welcome Kelley into the community on his arrival, back when he was still running, envisioning daggers falling from every sidelong shadow. What did they have on him?
It was during a prayer that a hand fell on his shoulder, one of the sullen brutes flanking the dastardly duo. He’d expected it, and raised himself from his pew without a word. Only Janice and Asher appeared to notice as he swept from the church proper and out the side door. There he faced the doom that trespassed onto his home of Abel.
“Evan Kelley huh? At least you kept your real initials, Ethan.”
No response. Wasn’t necessary. Shanahan circled him, a predator toying with his prey, enjoying the rage and sorrow radiating from his wayward son, basking in it. Even the darkness of encroaching night had begun to feel unwholesome, the air of the adjacent swamp acrid and choking as a breeze carried it into their midst. Nature wasn’t immune to the taint he spread across creation.
“And a stripper for a bride. How far you’ve fallen.”
Kelley spit at the affront to his wife. “Janice is a fine woman who courted a brief fall of grace. All can be forgiven by the mercy of the Lord.” He leveled an accusing gaze on Shanahan. “Almost all, that is. Yours went into an express elevator to Hell a long damn time ago. Ain’t nothing left for you but a shallow grave and the worms. If even they can stomach the rot, anyhow.”
“And the boy–”
“Leave my family out of this, you ratfucking slimeball.”
Shanahan shrugged mirthlessly, putting up his hands as if in deflection. “If it’s any consolation, this…assimilation was Director Bathory’s prerogative. I wanted you dead. He had other ideas.”
His attention pivoted to the European. Julian Bathory carried himself as an aristocrat with the regalia to match.
“Don’t fret. Your family aren’t players in what we’re putting together. More like props, stage dressing. You, on the other hand, you were destined to bring us here, Ethan. To raise up these people into a glorious example of the power of MESSIAH. Your new role is just beginning.”
He settled into a chair opposite Kelley, a triumphant look on his face. He paused, breathing in the chill, country air. A ghoul nearly as corrupting as his mentor. “That’s the saving grace of these putrid little backwaters. These broken people, they’re malleable. Open-minded in all of the right ways with the perfect blindspots. Best of all, they are dying for a savior. It doesn’t matter if it’s an ancient Jew on a cross, a patron millionaire promising to bring industry back to their rusted-out, drug-addled little burg, or a demagogue vowing to revive dead jobs in a dead sector. They crave absolution and a chance to find equal footing with a pitiless world that abandoned them. MESSIAH is going to give it to them.”
He drew himself upright, imposing and statuesque even through his lavish trappings. Evan Kelley had to admit that the cruel architect of the Sect of Black Wisdom had chosen his successor superbly.
“Yes, sir, I’d say we’re going to rejuvenate this sleepy antique of a town. Call in some favors, grease some palms, oil up the gears of industry. Won’t take long until Abel is a modern boomtown, a testament to what our programs can do for even the most distressed. The organization could use a new stronghold, a sister center to Wyatt Manor. Expansion is a tough business. By the way, we rooted out Tully. Doubt you’ve heard. Kept it kinda quiet.”
A long silence. “Is the stubborn bastard well?” Kelley asked. The sarcasm was anything but subtle.
A grim chuckle from the Hungarian. About what he expected. “You’ll have to ask him if he ever wakes up. Shine your light in enough places and eventually you’ll flush out the cockroaches. Crush them underfoot. Simple enough.”
“There’s always more in the cracks, breeding, spreading. Those hardy insects will survive nuclear winter, outlive us.”
Nothing from the Carpathian Devil but an understanding nod.
“You are, of course, familiar with the significance of Abel? In the Bible?”
Evan locked eyes with the protege of Bruce Shanahan, spite seared into that look. “I know the Good Book, heretic.”
A musing smirk from Bathory as he adjusted his tie. Fire still leapt from the former silencer of the Sect of Black Wisdom. “We have a lot to talk about tonight.”
There was the sound of feet crossing rain-slicked grass. Almost as one, the circle of ill acquaintances turned, and there illuminated under a radiant moon, was Asher.
The director of MESSIAH knelt before the boy, taking his chin in one hand, soothing his distrust with a disarming smile.
“Revel in this, Asher Kelley. Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.”
His father shuddered. God was a nebulous term in these fiends’ lexicon. It occurred to him that there hadn’t been intent to lie to his son about the Devil. But having spent nearly ten years in the service of that monster, he’d obtained clarity that the fantastic features attributed to the Lightbringer were just that – fantastic. The reality was far more grotesque. He walked this Earth as a man, normal on the surface, but inside a reflection of humanity’s ideals most warped and debased, a conduit of sin and its honeyed, toxic promises.
He knew what was to follow in the wake of the demons of MESSIAH arriving in Abel. It was going to be a massacre. No blood, no bodies, not a solitary scream. Purely a spiritual massacre as that unholy dogma was delivered from the pulpit formerly of Preacher Ruth, poor and broken Preacher Ruth, a devout messenger of God shorn of his faith and purpose.
Abel would grow. But the price would be more than any of them could pay.
He was right.
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA – APRIL 8TH, 2022
Jacob Indra’s heart caught in his throat at the form passing through the curtain, the silhouette poised beneath the blinding lights. Fists and feet wrapped in tape, biceps bulging against tassles, eyes of gauged death, Dimitri Gouskos ambled into the arena.
The high-flying Cajun realized the night was taking a turn for the worst the moment that wild-eyed announcer proclaimed his challenger would be a stand-in. He’d seen the kid he was booked against less than an hour prior, pacing the corridors. Hadn’t added up.
The Iron Warrior tossed a lump of fabric at Indra’s feet. He looked down, fists tightening at his sides. Embroidered on the soiled elbow pad were the initials DB. Dallas Brand.
“You hid Tully from us. Used the assets of the Maw and Tribe Leviathan’s movements to conceal him from Father Shanahan’s vendetta. Strike two. But that one’s between us, kid. Bruce and Julian don’t know about it. My own contacts dredged up that particular sin.”
He sighed, casting wary glances around the ring. Trepidation was an alien expression on so taciturn a man.
“Shield your eyes for a moment.”
Indra did as his old trainer requested, unsure what to expect. A moment later there was a gentle tinkling before a full-fledged deluge of stabbing pain showered from above. Something caught the meat of his shoulder, parted flesh, rolled off and to the mat.
Glass shards littered the ring. All slight, no piece that could slice deeply enough to maim, more twinkling sand than translucent knives. The message, however, was clear. Indra’s shoulder bled weakly from the tiniest of lacerations. Alone, negligible; as the first of a thousand it would prove part of a lethal alchemy.
Gouskos dropped to one knee, ground his taped left hand in the carpet of little, lingering deaths. Some stuck, lending a piercing threat to his already fearsome power.
“I’m sorry, Jacob, but punishment must be meted out. The director cannot abide betrayal, however misguided. I am his fist, and the responsibility is mine.”
“I didn’t know. Thiel lied to me.”
A nod, brief look of sorrow. That was the most emotion one could hope to evoke from Julian Bathory’s dragon, his destroyer. “And that’s why you won’t be crippled. Why you will not suffer Tully’s fate. Redeem yourself through blood.”
The big screen flickered, shifted to a wall of white noise and static. A moment later appeared a live feed from Las Vegas, the pre-show of PRIME Culture Shock. Both men lifted their eyes to the screen, a roar erupting from the assembled as Julian Bathory’s hardened visage appeared fleetingly on the promotional graphic. The fanatics of MESSIAH brayed for blood as Gouskos turned slightly, pointing at the screen.
“Bleed for your savior. Prove you’re no Judas and that you deserve to remain among his chosen disciples. He condemned Horace with his own hands. Don’t force my own.”
Gouskos took up his stance, an aggressive Muay Thai form that promised unflinching destruction. Indra had personally watched tree trunks splinter beneath his blows.
“Forever the crown, Jacob.”
Crouching defensively, Indra inhaled deeply, exhaled, nostrils flaring. Dimitri would work for every strike, every cut. It would be a gore-soaked baptism that would wash his spirit clean.
He was right.
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – Culture Shock, April 8th, 2022
Production assistants had been sent away, leaving him in solitude. The MGM Grand rumbled and pulsated, and Julian Bathory, silver-and-green towel draped over his head, ruminated what was and what lay before him. A murderers’ row of contenders corralled in one ring, one fall.
Shanahan, arms crossed and atypically sanguine, admired his chosen. “It’s almost time. How are you feeling?”
The New World Savior’s eyes were fixed on the curtains, strategies and scenarios playing out in his head, counters and exchanges in rotation.
“I am ruin. Put the gates of Heaven in front of me and I’ll shatter them like kindling.”
That part was true. Empowered, focused, a ruthless machine. What he neglected to mention was how Nadia’s talisman burned against his sternum. Ever since Abel its touch had ranged anywhere from tingling to scalding. He’d woke this morning to searing pain as it branded a ring on his chest. The aegis was breaking.
More hallucinations, intensity amplified. The formless thing was back, hovering at his side, droning unintelligible whispers that made his head ache. A malformed hand fell across his shoulder, more of a tendril really, reticulated like a serpent.
Elsewhere, the town of Abel reeled against encroaching doom. Jacob Indra clashed for survival and renewed favor against an old instructor.
Now or never. Unbound horrors of the cosmos at his heels, Julian Bathory walked through parted curtains and into the blinding lights to face destiny.
Tonight PRIME crowns a new king, whether it be Youngblood or Jiles. The first of the new era. A new strife. For MESSIAH, initiatives are being born and fresh allies bolstering our forces. The Season of Knives swells. It’s the time for ascension.
Forever the crown. Albeit a crown spackled with rust and blackened by blood. Fit for a king of carrion and the insane, to reign alone in my house of Stygian ghosts.
Julian is strong, angel, and Padraig is fading fast.