“Tell me again why you lost.”
Wilhelm Von Krauser, despite his age, was still a sturdy man, a powerful man. When he delivered strikes it was like getting walloped with cinder blocks. Tonight, in a grueling and brutal session that concluded he and Dimitri’s rendition of Three Day Hell, he laid in with those thunderous attacks until Julian’s chest was raw, minced meat from knife-edge chops, pulverized his ribs and gut with an array of technical blows ingrained by years of training in underground cage fights. Fights where it was rumored, in some more high-stakes circles, both men didn’t always emerge with a heartbeat.
The Iron Warrior watched from outside the ring, Bruce Shanahan at his side. There was a small security detail but the gym was otherwise empty, and every blow echoed as a muffled gunshot, leaving debris in the form of Bathory’s blood-speckled phlegm and sweat. His penance for a downward spiral of failures.
The German took a step back, expression empty, anticipative. Julian, exhausted in the wake of the unceasing exercises, dropped to one knee. More blood dribbled from his nostrils, mingling with that still caked on his upper lip from the thrashing he’d endured under Gouskos earlier.
“My guard…” he breathed, chest tight, heart hammering. “I…I lowered it. Thought…the match was won.”
Ugly flashback, had nightmares about it for the past week. The rush of spiking Daniels, premonitions of entering his World championship coronation dancing in his head like sugar plums. The audience had booed, gasped even, a world that vilified he and his vision, helplessly watching the inevitable unfold before them. His moment, MESSIAH’s triumph.
That wily son of a bitch, the thorn in his side, Impulse. Knox’s boot had ended the reign of terror before it could start. Whatever was loaded in Krauser’s fists paled against the iron boot that had denied the New World Savior his deserved harvest. Failure, more failure. Another blemish on the organization, his pride, the plan immaculate.
Another weighted shot from Krauser woke him from his bleak reverie. This time an elbow, a Muay Thai-styled strike as his dragon outside would deliver, and a follow-up roundhouse to the ribs that bounced him from the corner and spinning across the ropes, air driven out of him. Julian could barely keep his eyelids from slamming shut and yielding to the pain. Unconsciousness beckoned, relief, and he reached out his hand as if to greet an old friend.
“Not good enough, Julian,” boomed Krauser in German, snagging the director by a limp elbow. “Strict instructions, son, you rest when we will it. Your lessons will continue.”
His hand shot out, seized the sweat-smeared copper coin against the director’s chest. He wrenched back, tearing it from the taut chain holding it around the other’s throat.
Gouskos sucked in a breath. Shanahan lowered the glasses on his nose, one eyebrow arching in piqued curiosity. Julian Bathory had decreed one rule long ago, a lone decree to not be infringed on even in heated combat training. In a nutshell, Wilhelm Von Krauser had trespassed on unhallowed ground.
Fury, overwhelming. Power, presence, possession. And then
Click. Rewind. Click. Play.
The first vision that I remember happened the day after we buried my little sister.
Sasha was spirited and tireless at everything she hopped into. Sharp as a knife too; I have no doubt that she’d have the wit to outthink me and any enemy of MESSIAH were she here today. Not that I’d ever have been able to induce her into embracing any of the more…foul tenets of our faith. We were close but even blood has its limits. Really can’t fathom that purest of souls being claimed by Bruce, or walking the path I’ve chosen.
Always the optimist, glass half-full, framing the silver lining of any situation or person. Where I’d watch news coverage surrounding war and death and only see the dark side of humanity, that visible stain on the human condition that drives our destructive impulses, Sasha Marko would always just sigh at me and put a hand on my shoulder, as if trying to reassure me of some grace I was missing just offscreen.
“Don’t be so gloomy,” she would say. “There are jerks in the world, big brother. Bad people. But that’s not most of us. We just want to smile and love and watch the sun rise and eat cookies and all that stuff. Just have hope the bad people will go away. Believe it enough and God will stop it, right?”
She also used a lot of lines taken from American cartoons. Those inspirational type of lines that usually ended episodes about goodness and caring and generosity. I don’t recall many of those. But I have absolute clarity when I think back and remember the two things she always had by her side when we had any conversation like that, where my growing cynicism clashed with her innocent, buoyant idealism.
One was a rosary given to her by our devout grandmother, a totem to keep her on the straight and narrow. The other was a doll I’d given her as a present when she was seven years old, one in the shape of a vampire count, a caricature Dracula. Mostly plush with inset plastic buttons and wild, warm colors. Largely nondescript, something I picked up with my allowance money to put a smile on Sasha’s face. The eyes, however, were copper. Two copper coins. She named him Big Baron Fang.
Those she loved carrying with her everywhere; the colors faded quickly from the doll as much as it rolled through the dirt and went through the wash, and the beads on the rosary chipped a little, much to her dismay. That was our little secret that grandmother never found out; Sasha didn’t want to feel sacreligious, clumsy about her faith. I made assurances but they didn’t always stick.
The other thing that went with her everywhere was her eyepatch, and the glass eye beneath it. There was no joy attached to that.
When I saw her clutching that rosary, I often looked at the eyepatch. I wondered why God would let such an innocent and devout child suffer embarrassment as Sasha did, and on the rare occasion I prayed I asked that he lift that curse from her heart. Let her be defined by her smile, the cheer that she inspired in other kids. Not the result of an infection she couldn’t control from a crib.
In the end it appears God answered that petition, in a sense. God’s typical macabre and mocking humor. The monstrous bastard.
the Devil’s eyes flipped open, locked onto Krauser’s gaze, and consumed his German trainer in horror. Whatever had gestated behind those eyes, inhuman and predatory, was a new sight.
Bathory uttered not a syllable, firing a hateful glance at his mentor and bodyguard before pouncing on Krauser with an almost superhuman vigor that defied the fatigue settled in his muscles. In those fleeting moments the form of the German dissipated, and Julian Bathory beheld only Impulse.
The striking game wasn’t a hallmark of the Hungarian, but the first elbow he threw, sudden and mighty, shattered Krauser’s guard. He roared in pain, right arm numb and trembling from the attack, staggering across the ring. Bathory followed, weaving like a prize fighter once he got into range. In his eyes, a hunter’s eyes, he perceived a stunned Randall Knox fleeing his flexing jaws, blood on his claws.
“If he’d landed that shot then Krauser would be a crumpled heap right now,” mused Dimitri Gouskos. “Might have had to set him up in a nice hospital suite.”
Shanahan grunted. “Maybe a funeral home. Did you teach him that?”
“No. I couldn’t teach that force either, that velocity. Should I intervene?”
Bruce Shanahan, shadow king of MESSIAH, pursed his lips and observed. He wanted to study the steps of this new dance, what his protege brought to the table in this unfamiliar scenario.
Bathory lunged and
I heard her screaming outside the school, behind the playground, and came running. The assholes had already stomped all over Big Baron Fang and moved onto tossing Sasha’s glass eye between them in a belittling game of keepaway, laughing like you’d expect any gang of sniveling bullies to do as they tormented a little girl.
Liam, Gabor, some other pint-sized thug whose name is lost in the ether. One year older than me and already projected to be felons in adulthood.
When I intervened, the cowards they are, they rushed me as one. Surrounded me, battered my face, shoved me into the dirt and drove kicks into my ribs like sad sack imitations of Ferenc Puskas. All the while, my little sister watched her fallen hero beaten like her doll was, one hand still covering her source of shame, eyepatch cast high into a tree, and the prosthetic still in Liam’s hand.
When they’d finally left, proclaiming victory like hooligans staggering out of the pub after a match, Sasha wrapped her arms around me, protectively, as we waited on the nurse. Shoe on the other foot, her my sentinel as I spit up blood all over the grass. The other kids, even her friends, pointed and stared. Kids can be cruel.
Sasha never went back to school. She was too ashamed. And by then the cancer had spread too far to contain anyway. God’s plan, I’m told. His grand, cosmic design entailed my best friend wasting away in our home, her last time in public embarrassed and sobbing as a gang of punks did what punks do. More than once, skeletal hands grasping that rosary, she’d finish her prayers and look at me with tears rolling down her cheeks. Cheeks once flush and full of life, now emaciated and hollow. She told me she didn’t want to die. Pleaded with God to take away the affliction, just as everyone in the neighborhood joined together in appealing to Heaven. She wanted to live, lift her wayward brother up, and prove God would be there to help and get rid of the bad men of the world.
It was less than a week after her twelfth birthday that God’s plan came to fruition.
Sasha was right. Most people aren’t jerks, they’re not heinous, or vicious, or bad.
blasted a round of forearms into Impulse’s skull, imagining cracks emerging along the jawline. In this moment he was Hell incarnate and his wrath poured out onto the stubborn old bastard that had seen to thwart that which was unavoidable.
A burst of alien language pervaded his thoughts, overwhelming him. More adversaries appeared, phantoms, hallucinatory, but some ineffable ambition urged him to kill. He lashed out, ferocious and animalistic.
Krauser dragged himself across the mat, grimacing. Bathory cleared his eyes, blinked. There was no more Impulse before him.
Instead there was Bruce ‘Violence Jack’ Shanahan.
There was a pause in his wild assault.
“For fuck’s sake, Julian, calm down. Breathe.”
He registered Gouskos’ voice as his Greek bodyguard slipped through the ropes, lowered into a defensive stance. Steadily, almost glacially, his fingers looped around the chain that held the copper coin. He tossed it back to its owner, Bathory casually snatching it out of the air and staring with lamentation at the object.
Outside of anyone’s sight, Shanahan grinned and mentally noted to file this one away for future analysis.
I found them goofing off in a parking lot a couple of weeks after the funeral. The voice led me there, that and the labyrinthine series of surrealist dreams. Guess I was marked long before I ever thought. You want the full story, the raw details? Story for another time.
Misguided rage. Unhinged vengeance. Call it whatever you want. They pleaded, said they were sorry, all of the textbook excuses their ilk use and bawl over when their advantage is out the window. When they’re facing a monster wielding an iron pipe. I’m told Liam never walked again, and Gabor moved away in the following weeks. Pint-sized thug was an alcoholic prone to raving in town square, back in Szeged, about a devil walking us. Gossip is that he hanged himself.
Maybe that’s another aspect of His magnificent scheme, huh? Leave it to the bad men to weed each other out.
I’m putting Warstein to the torch. Let his demolition be a worthy sacrifice as we continue our march to the throne, and the abyss swallows PRIME. There will be time to weep once I sit on that charnel throne.
Forever the crown.