A moccasin weaved between reeds sprouting from the swamp. He clicked his tongue, mimicking some imagined reptilian call, and offered the soft flesh of his underarm. Leveling his gaze on the advancing serpent, establishing eye contact, time seemed to briefly slow around them as it darted forward and sunk its fangs deep just above his wrist. He grimaced, spitting curses despite himself, fingers biting into earth as his muscles grew taut, spasming. His heart quickened, breath slowing. A moment later his vision fluttered and he knew he teetered on the precipice, staring into a shallow grave. The snake slithered back into the murky water, leaving him to his fate.
Trembling, a sheen of sweat on his brow, he fumbled with the antivenin and hurriedly injected it into his veins. A preliminary shot, he’d require more back at the manor. This wasn’t the first incident, wouldn’t be the last. Perhaps not even the first time that particular snake had tasted his blood.
It had become a regular pilgrimage of sorts for Julian Bathory, advancing into the wilderness to offer a form of penance to a world he willingly betrayed. Another clause of the pact to obey, to honor, accomplice to the visions that may or may not be madness. His jaunt through the valley of the shadow of death to appease those formless patrons that lingered in the cold outer dark.
The natural world abhorred him, bared its claws and offered rebuke any time he trundled into the brush. It was as if he was marked with some acrid scent or mark, a grim gift of the angels, such as they were, that whipped the agency of creation into a frenzy when he dared trespass onto God’s hallowed lands.
The whispers came abruptly, probing, finding purchase at the prospect of exposed vice. Baleful, gleeful, ravenous.
Fishing the emblem from his pocket, Bathory slipped the chain over his head and let the engraved copper coin slide down his chest. Having donned his charm, the icon that tethered him to his sin-stricken humanity, he felt lighter, almost invisible, able to tread without reproach. The whispers died. His arm still burned, effects of the bite lingering, but the worst had passed.
He breathed deep, blinking, and the world around him progressively appeared brighter, illuminated. Sometimes, whether it be the alignment of the spheres, some far-flung cosmic alchemy, or any number of things evading his understanding, the charm acted less a cloak and more of a beacon. Predators would lower onto their haunches in pseudo-supplication nearby, birds serenading him with their avian melody as he lapsed into meditation. He’d once laughed after a black bear had nuzzled his scalp before sitting down just a few feet away, gnawing at some morsel between its paws, visualizing himself as some profane Disney princess. Snow White, corrupted, so deep in exile that no wicked stepmother would dare seek out her head. Any such bid for reprisal would herald a vengeful reign of darkness.
An unseasonably warm breeze swept away the chill, parting low mist that clung to the marsh. Something radiant descended from the sky and into the marsh, alighting tenderly with a small splash. Julian’s breath caught in his throat, that brief dance with death erased for the moment from memory.
She parted the willows like Ray Liotta in Field of Dreams, crossing the low grass in a few elegant strides. Lounging briefly in her shadow, the scent she brought carrying him back to happier, halcyon days, Julian felt the burn of tears welling up. The shade of Nadia Riegler caressed his shoulder as she languidly took his side. He didn’t turn, didn’t look at her, only basked in the presence. Unlike some of the wraiths that haunted him, looking on the woman he loved wasn’t proscribed; he could weather their unholy presence, even allow the foul avatars to leech scraps of his energy, but there was only woe as he thought of the distance between him and his beloved. Heavy was the crown of a man atop a nest of vipers.
“You never told me what you imbued this coin with.”
She shrugged, mocha brown curls bobbing. “I didn’t ‘imbue’ it with anything, silly. You were there when I found it and you watched me engrave it. I’m no witch and there’s no magic.”
“Then where does this influence come from?”
A long silence. Rays of slanted sun pierced the overcast gray, illuminating motes spiraling up from the bog. A dragonfly hummed by.
“Maybe projection. Perhaps you placed into it whatever you attributed to me. But I don’t know, you’re the occult expert right?”
A shrug and chuckle as he thought of all the hushed gossip, the scary stories. The tales always trickled back up to him in some fashion. “Diabolist consorting with the worst of beings, so they say. Weaver of chaos, master of lies. Even heard that I dabble in necromancy once. Would be sort of a fun party trick to open up a tomb and make a skeleton shamble around for a laugh.” He paused as she fought back a laugh. “The Carpathian Devil. Savior and heretic rolled into one.”
“Pity that none of it is actually true. Might actually make you a compelling conversationalist. Don’t know if it would help your dancing though.”
“Well, some of it is true.” The Hungarian wiped blood from the wound. A trickle of venom seeped out from where one fang had entered. “We traffic in deception, but our fictions tend to be sown with seeds of truth. We invent monsters, then shine magnifying glasses on them to make them bigger, meaner, more malleable to our ends. It’s a useful illusion when you deal with some of humanity’s most bitter rogues across the world.”
“I curse the day I let you walk away and into that world, Padraig. If only I’d have known.”
He winced at the other name. It brought back a flood of memories. “You’re my anchor, Nadia. A lighthouse in this storm. I lament every day that I can’t return to Vienna and walk in the gardens, or pluck grapes from the vineyards. But I still can’t risk your safety. Dark days are ahead. The symmetry is off. There’s going to be death and it’s unavoidable. I can’t have you caught in the schism. When everything subsides, I’ll come back for a time, and we’ll go back to the opera and the libraries and everything else. You’ll have me again.”
He met her eyes for the first time since her descent into the first of cattails. Her cheeks glowed as she placed a hand on her heart.
“I don’t want Julian Bathory,” she said, pleading. “I want the man I fell in love with. Give me back Padraig Marko.”
“It’s not that simple.”
He adored her pouty face, the playful one that she flashed during their more whimsical moments of disagreement. The ones that had resulted in flirtatious laughter, his happiest times spent in Vienna while she nursed his ailing soul. None of that spirit was there now; this was disdain, sorrow, lack of recognition. And he understood the agony.
“Yes it is. You toss it into the trash and come back to me in Vienna. Withdraw from that fiend and his schemes and let the other monsters in the world deal with him. Hell, scatter some tips into the wind and watch what it brings down on him. ”
He shook his head, watching any betrayal progress like a play in his mind. There would be death, retaliation, maybe other world-shaking plan like the one that summoned Julian to this life a few years ago. Another ward that the sage would cast and warp into his heinous champion.
“He’d scour the world searching for his Judas. I have to play this game.”
“Bruce is irredeemably damned. You’re not. Come back to us. I just—”
Krauser’s voice boomed out, sent wildlife scuttling. Nadia Riegler swept in, whispered into his ear, and vanished with the breeze. A moment later the German barged through the stalks, albeit with none of the flowing grace of the Austrian girl. Like Shanahan he was still an imposing presence despite his long absence from competition.
“Who are you talking to?”
The Hungarian, feverish, finally swiveled his head to gaze on where his muse had been moments prior.
Some of his phantoms were more welcome than others.
* * * * * * * * * *
Click. Rewind. Click. Play.
There was calamity in the cards. The spread soured my mood for the next few days, infiltrated my strategies for Carlson. When driving that rock into her skull didn’t instantly dissolve the fight in her, panic invaded my senses. Like a virus threatening to scramble the system. I feared we had misinterpreted the drawing, fallen into a trap of my own bitter hubris. I’d seen comebacks like this play out before, watched the vanquished rising like a spiteful Phoenix. Her eyes were glazed, insane at the bloodletting and ready to gash me. I planted her immediately, dashed the hopes of a rally before the adrenaline carried David to fell Goliath.
She may be a problem in the future. Yet to identify if she holds grudges, has a penchant for revenge. I can never assume a respite with PRIME and its more ambitious souls. Will observe and revisit in the future. Hanlon looms and all of my focus has to settle there.
Anyhow, Sterling reviewed my inaugural performance as the face of MESSIAH. As a reward, with the Vegas skyline framed beyond her posh suite, she offered a performance of her own, a gesture of appreciation for the poise I’ve injected into the organization. It could have culminated more favorably. A massive understatement.
No, not that kind of performance. Marion Sterling and I keep it platonic and professional. She’s too valuable to risk a fractured alliance. Never cared much for Bruce’s brand of dread and paranoia as a liaison to the Sect, I don’t think.
The Season of Knives may be upon us. I’d hoped for a longer grace period atop MESSIAH before the need to fret over fortifying my house. Unfortunately, destiny isn’t concerned about how it vexes mortals.
The visions of Nadia are too ominous to ignore if Marion’s divinations hold. Unrest has been stirring in the ranks of the other faiths since we unveiled the path of the organization. The next act is going to be the most harrowing yet, it will be rife with deception and poisoned daggers. Examples will have to be made and I’ve already reached out via some backchannels. Let it be done.
Strike first. Prove who the apex predator is.
I’m sorry, Nadia. I love you. I want to be the hero you dream that I should be. But first I need the devil’s rage to build a better kingdom. I have to pray it doesn’t claim me in the process, and bring ruin on us all. Örökké a korona.
* * * * * * * * * *
Dallas Brand tested the ropes, satisfied with the tensity of the cables. He’d pulled the opening bout, and that likely granted him some latitude in what he brought to the table. The town was small and not known to be wrestling rabid, the promotion fresh. A perfect spot to shave off some ring rust following a long time away and establish a new identity under a new face. He had to reenter the world again eventually and the payout was too tempting to resist after a decade on the backburner.
The buses had emptied and their riders filed in, taking their seats. Almost to a person they were silent, alarmingly so. Not like zombies or machines; these people were animated, communing through wild gestures, simply dismissive of his movement in the ring, focused instead on the card programs they all clutched.
A lively song started up as the ring announcer jogged to the ring, like a gameshow theme playing its host to the ring. Dallas Brand continued to stretch, stepping back in time to visualize his old moves and counters. It was his return after years of inaction and he was prepared to give them a show for the ages.
The announcer grinned and shot Brand a toothy and disarming smile. Again, the look of a welcoming host on a network sound stage. “Ladies and gentlemen, we welcome you to the premiere of MESSIAH CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING!”
Brand, befuddled by the introduction, turned to the ring announcer with upturned palms and a quizzical expression. That wasn’t the promotion he signed onto. Was he going crazy? Did the dapper man in the tie make some backroom deal and go into business for himself?
Finally the fans stood, erupting from a somber and crushing silence into a deafening ovation as if activated by a switch. They were all fixated on the announcer, still all but oblivious to him turning in the ring, scrutinizing this erratic audience.
The referee was more brazen. Reaching into his back pocket he produced a copy of the distributed card, stepped forward, and shoved it into his chest. Brand, stomach roiling, flipped it open.
There was one match on the card.
He and his opponent.
This wasn’t his name. Not his new one.
His adversary almost stopped his heart.
The audience began to chant, fiery and even frenzied.
He seized up, frozen, his mistake ultimately dawning as the blood chilled in his veins. Curse him for ignoring his instincts and not fleeing the venue when the red flags appeared. The buses outside. The mirthless no-names skulking in the locker room. The faceless promoter and jittery crew.
The hounds of the Sect of Black Wisdom had sniffed him out and cornered him. It was a death sentence framed in the flamboyance of an old acquaintance, may death take him. He leaned back into the corner, resigned to what was unfolding. Years of caution crashed down around him.
The opponent’s music started and a spotlight fell on the curtain. As expected, Julian Bathory entered the gymnasium, flanked by the man who had once groomed his present opponent for succession, the original protege turned traitor. Bruce ‘Violence Jack’ Shanahan leered at him, grinning, a triumphant aspect to his face. With the pit door open, he was loosing his champion to destroy his original defector.
Never dropping that damned jovial smile, the announcer turned to him with glee. “FIRST AND ALREADY IN THE RING! HE IS ‘THE ADAMANT’ HORACE TULLYYYY!”
The crowd jeered, a sudden, hostile and aggressively violent hate that he hadn’t experienced even in those days striving to replace Shanahan.
“‘The Adamant’?” The king of MESSIAH expressed bemusement, mockery. “What are you adamant about these days, Horace? Scurrying for sanctuary like a rat? Running from the past?”
In Shanahan’s grip a few yards away, a rock. A rock tinged with flecks of blood. The one that Tully had watched Bathory use to split open Genie Carlson on TV, and appeared again in that damnable promo spot. A first trophy.
“AAAAAANNNNDDD HIS OPPONENT! HAILING FROM THE CARPATHIAN MOUNTAINS AND SZEGED, HUNGARY! HE IS YOUR NEW WORLD SAVIOR…JULIAAAAANNNNN BATHORYYYYYY!!”
They were his people, his zealous minions plucked from among the true initiated of MESSIAH, and their thunderous adoration washed over the Hungarian like an empowering wave.
The New World Savior spread his arms wide as if preparing to embrace a long-lost son. Tully, for his part, didn’t retreat, vowing to make his destroyer bleed to get what he’d come for.
“Redemption or doom. Choose and I shall carry out judgment.”
While there was little disparity in their comparative size, Tully’s veteran eyes perceived the intangibles that made his resistance hopeless. Julian Bathory was as a lion hunting a lame antelope at the rear of the herd, hungry and even somehow demonic in stature. He’d assuredly availed himself of the faith’s vast knowledge and power, things he himself had never fully seized in his years being groomed for what the Hungarian had now become. It took almost twenty years but Bruce Shanahan finally had his perfect weapon.
The bell sounded. With a defiant roar, Horace Tully surged forward.
Surrounded by an army, set against a devil and his deranged handler, defiance was all he had left.