Click. Rewind. Click. Play.
<Muffled shuffling, labored breathing. A long sigh.>
I don’t know where I am. To a degree, who. Something is happening. Has happened–
<Abrupt shift in tone. Deeper voice, almost a growl.>
You exist as a vessel. End this futility, Padraig, it’s undignified. The pact has been sealed and no moaning will draw the blood back from the page.
SHUT UP! GET OUT OF MY–
–Our. Our head. And on the contrary, I enjoy this space. Certainly it can do with fewer self-doubts and misgivings, undoubtedly less crippling sentiments. Petty emotions and desires absent our ambitions, strewn about like waste. How do you function with all this clutter anyhow?
I want you gone, beast. You don’t belong here.
And how do you propose you carry that out, boy? Are you going to brandish a crucifix and send me reeling back into the void? Call an exorcist? No holy man of this world will deal with you. You’re the Carpathian Devil, herald of the wicked, Prince of Tears. Crowley has nothing on you in many of their creed-addled heads.
This isn’t real. No, it’s an illusion, a mind trick. Hypnosis.
Perpetrated by whom, Padraig? The boy?
<A long silence.>
Asher. Wait. It was that damned
“Shooting star! Wicked!”
Evan Kelley’s boy was enamored by the cosmic debris hurtling through the skies over Roane County. A contingent of MESSIAH adherents accompanied several classes of Abel’s school children to witness the phenomena. Officially it was a two-fold educational excursion, both science lesson and basis of the organization’s faith model. This was a carefully crafted ruse; dream readings pointed to tonight holding a greater purpose, possibilities of divine revelation visited on the devout.
This was why Director Bathory numbered among the faithful on that humid night, the first of the summer. The catalyst behind the surreal nightmare that would unfold beneath Abel, West Virginia, and turn MESSIAH International itself upside down.
Several of the children followed the streak in the sky, racing down a ravine and splashing across a roiling stream, finally bounding up and onto the shore of Lake Jonah.
They came up on the meteorite in a smoking crater. Aside from its unique origin, and the dull, heated red glow it retained after its trip through the atmosphere, it was a rather plain rock. None of this did anything to dilute the excitement of the rapt Abel children, most especially the pious kids of the group that proclaimed this to be a gift from Heaven. The other chaperones agreed to go back to the village with the children in tow, promising to return with others to claim the divine relic. The party headed back in the direction of Abel, all save Bathory and Kelley to mark the location.
Lake Jonah was a standing pool of moss and murk. It was curious when the Hungarian spotted a faint light through the watery gloom, strobing near the bottom across the bank to his left. He wasn’t sure why he stared at it, inexplicably transfixed. All seemed to fall silent, as if nature itself went mute, from the birds to the leaves to the lapping surface on the rocks. The first break in his reality on that night, the first day of summer.
“He took it. Gosh, he actually did.”
A thick, muscled arm constricted around his throat, two more reaching up to restrain his arms. He kicked and flailed his legs, battled to look into the faces of those who had crossed him. All the while, observing the struggle like a statue, Asher Kelley only grimaced.
“I’m mighty sorry, Mister Bathory. The angel told me this was the only way to protect my daddy. Besides, it’s an angel sent from God Himself. And I can’t very well tell God no. He’d be awfully mad.”
The Hungarian barely registered the boy’s apology through the thunder in his ears, his clouded vision. Even the stark reality of Asher reaching out to tear the copper coin from his chest went unnoticed as he drifted toward unconsciousness, breath depleted, struck on the head for good measure.
He tumbled into the lake, air dragged from his lungs. Darkness encroached, and swallowed him.
Delightful. How was the swim? I recall you being a menace in the pool back in Szeged with the breaststroke.
There was no swim. I imagined it. It makes no goddamn sense.
Are you sure? Check your pockets, poor Padraig. I’d wager you poke around and some algae is still encrusted in there.
<A long silence.>
He woke with a start, shivering, coughing inky and rancid water from aching lungs. After his eyes adjusted to the dark, the head of MESSIAH staggered down the tunnel ahead of him. Again the light flared, once, twice, a beacon beckoning him forward.
There had been no record of a cave system below Abel, nothing adjoining the lake. However there was no denying that he emerged into a vast, vaulted chamber beneath the Earth. Sigils were etched in fungus-crusted walls. Crystalline slabs ringed his position. He thought of druids, pagans, the collective watchers and sorcerers of millennia.
Nothing made sense in this cave. A haze hung over everything as an old shroud, like a dream. Julian’s head pounded like a drum, and a dull thrumming droned behind his eyes.
For the first time he gazed at the source of the light. An amber door, partially translucent, emitting a glow. A silhouette–
Is that all? Amnesia, is it?
Bits and pieces and everything is muffled. A jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t even fit together, like its edges were melted and shorn off.
Hmm. Well allow me to fill in the blanks.
Julian approached the door, keeping his distance, closely regarding what stirred behind it. Dream or not, there were too many unappraised elements at work in this dank cavern. The Hungarian was outmatched here at the heart of sundered reality.
“Who are you?”
The shadow shifted, morphed. Curved antlers sprouted from the head, their angles changing shape like ink on a canvas to form new contours, new profiles. An endless mutation of a thing whose true form had no place in three-dimensional space.
“You know who I am. I ride the black stars.”
It was a chorus, a multitude of voices layered over one another. Other tongues were distinct through the celestial din, long dead dialects among them. He’d heard it once before and now, trembling, lamented his folly in bringing its attention here. It had never left, only waited. Eternity wouldn’t dissuade its hunger.
“I was ancient when the stars cooled across the cosmos. Before the First Event kindled creation. Even Anna Daniels couldn’t hope to witness my genesis.”
Beside the amber door, a bulbous tumor pulsed on the wall. Liquid shadow trickled from a lanced wound, ichor pooling in the vaulted chamber. Still entranced, Julian Bathory watched in awe as the ooze radiated out, alive, and fashioned itself around several of the crystals. Grotesque cocoons in a displaced system.
After several moments the first shed its jet-black chrysalis, squeezing from the perverse womb. He had expected something regal, an expression of ageless intelligence. It was far from it.
A mannequin. A carbon copy of that stupid thing Blueberry lugged around back in Vegas. He blinked in surprise.
“He’s impatient,” the silhouette breathed. “Even the knowledgeable ones are hopeless.”
Bruce Shanahan’s youthful visage abruptly took shape on the mannequin, twisted and baleful. “Julian Bathory was never just a stage name. Not even a false identity. Julian Bathory is an idea given form, an entity. You accepted the devil’s tutelage and, as such, allowed that foul seed to take root. Has it ever flourished.”
A long and awkward pause.
“You expected some rambling prelude,” it continued. “Typical.”
I’m not crazy. This is just a bad dream. None of it happened.
Tsk tsk. That sounds like something a crazy person would say, Padraig. Does a psychotic know when he suffers a break? Is this your first ‘incident’? Did grandmother have long conversations with her Christ?
The golems – he’d settled on that designation – were crafted as a gallery. Unlike the Shanahan-thing, which occasionally shambled nearby to lecture, to probe, few of the others spoke, at least coherently, instead flitting about as shades reminding him of his many travails and missteps. All exhibited silvery blades in one form or another; an expression of the Season of Knives which Marion Sterling had prophesied, upheaval that would define Julian Bathory as master of his dominion.
Shweta, Paxton and Rhine formed a loose circle around his ailing, wheelchair-bound sister. They offered hushed prayers for Sasha, petitioning a litany of gods in a garbled host of languages. He was familiar with some, those outside patrons of the insane; few they appealed to were associated with healing, offering only pain in exchange for their reverence. Between clasped hands, all held bloody knives.
Nadia reached out to him, a smile on her lips. But the smile was wrong, darkly satirical, frozen as the rest of her twitched and danced in exaggerated, sweeping movements as unnatural as her lips. It was blood-curdling, as if it were put there by someone – something – that couldn’t grasp conventional human features as it knit them together.
Jacob Indra knelt in supplication, body torn to gruesome shreds, surrounded by a sea of shattered glass and knives. His eyes were stitched closed, tongue cut out.
Nova, pacing on a raised dais, wrists and ankles chained to the floor. Scales of justice rotated around the platform, tilting in conjunction with a silent monologue only he could hear. A gladiator on trial, facing judgment. Suspended above, its edge crackling with energy, the Sword of Damocles.
A mirror materialized above, expanding from a shard little bigger than a mote of dust, spinning slowly in place like a top. It descended, briefly luminous. Reflected in the mirror, a caricature of himself. Glowering and ominous, eyes constantly flickering between solid obsidian and snake-like with golden flecks, an aura that pulsed with infernal ambition. Julian Bathory, essence and apex, unshackled, resting on a rusted-out throne adorned with blades. At his feet, prone and crumpled, the outlines of Shawn Warstein, Jacob Mephisto, Genie Carlson, Hayes Hanlon.
“What is it you like to say, mortal?” the traveler beyond the door said. “Your absurd rallying cry?”
His reflection answered in his stead.
“Örökké a korona.”
The Bathory in the mirror gave a morbid smile, and stepped one foot out of the mirror just as it shattered. An ear-piercing shriek erupted like a siren, dropped Padraig to his knees as he tried to shut it out.
In his head, the traveler spoke, bereft of zeal or triumph.
“It is done.”
The door clicked, opened with a creak. Bruce Shanahan glanced up from penning another of his edicts, annoyed, furrowing his wrinkled brow.
“You missed the press conference. All that work to hype up this contest and you blew it off, Julian.”
His protege remained wordless. Candles were set around the room in a circle, doubtless another of his wards. Still silent, he marched around the study, snuffing out each candle between forefinger and thumb.
“Imbecile!” Shanahan roared. “How dare you violate this sanctum with–ugh!”
The director swept across the room with bewildering speed, reached out and squeezed his teacher’s neck, turning his head awkwardly.
“Filthy fucking wretch. You dare to command me, old man?”
Something was wrong. A hellish light danced behind those eyes, alien and unwholesome. Even with the death-grip of his protege suffocating him, Shanahan was defiant.
“Idiot…fool! I created this organization and…ugh…I can tear it down on a whim!”
A chuckle, one part mirth amidst an ocean of exultant malice. “No. You just created the Sect of Black Wisdom and its bastard tenets. I crafted MESSIAH. I made this behemoth and brought it into the new age.” He released the sage and forced him backwards with little more than a flick of the wrist. Shanahan stumbled, retreating, possessed of an all-consuming fear at the monster in his midst. This pitch-eyed wraith, the thing in the flesh raiments of Padraig Marko, of Julian Bathory, advanced like a plague-spoiled tide, destruction inexorable.
“Enough with the masks and the games. We are going to devour that house, the middling fucking afterbirth trying to reconstitute itself into the PRIME of old. In time it shall be as the village of Abel, both dead yet deathless, a raging pyre of spiritual carnage.”
He snuffed out another of the candles, plunging his corner of the room into darkness.
“Is this not what you wanted, Father?” There was an eerie and uncanny echo to his words, as if the shadows themselves offered added depth to the chamber. “The champion of MESSIAH, doubts cast away, king-in-waiting, avatar of ruin? Have we not been striving toward that very ideal?”
He stepped forth out of the murk, arms spread in mock embrace, the parody of a savior. Memories bubbled up in Shanahan as he beheld that grim form, remembering first the undoing of Horace Tully in the jaws of MESSIAH’s trap, and subsequently the tempestuous fury the day that Krauser had torn the talisman from his chest. The novelty of Julian’s fleeting shifts in personality had been torn asunder; the devil poised before the patriarch was beyond the scope of his designs.
“Gods,” he whispered, the realization dawning on him. “What the hell are you?”
Bathory hissed, spat on the floor at Shanahan’s side. The warped glee was gone, swapped out for a face of untempered venom. In his mentor he perceived clearly what had happened to the infamous Violence Jack, wrestling antagonist and scourge of the world’s occult underbelly. Before him was a husk of that mythical figure. The great and powerful Oz, exposed, curtain forever put to the torch.
“Of course not.” Julian Bathory ignored the other’s words, judging them rhetorical, slowly advancing to draw out the numbed terror radiated by the villainous guru. “You always wanted your puppet, however inept he might remain. Tell me, Bruce, how long did you labor in PRIME, across that entire coalition of companies for that matter, never reaching the top of the mountain? So much gritty bravado and how many times did you fall on your face across Rush Pro and Primetime and the rest? An icon of ghetto-fueled hate and blood-soaked brawls, feared mastermind of a conspiracy that would drive many men to insanity, but never more than second fiddle in a world of amped-up gym rats, tycoons, freak pariahs cosplaying creatures of the night.”
Bathory’s mind returned to the cavern, what he’d experienced in that labyrinth winding below the streets of Abel. Unforeseen back then, a core of what ultimately drew them here. Fate with a dash of spite.
“That’s your greatest fear. It took you years of clawing to achieve something I’m already on the precipice of. The Sect of Black Wisdom is buried and MESSIAH is thriving atop its corpse, by my hand. The powers you sought to control, to collar and direct, betrayed you. Never cared an iota for your fucking reverence. You were their first model, the flawed initial experiment paving the way for the complete prototype.”
Despite the relative size difference, he towered over his mentor, hulking and stern.
“I am Julian fucking Bathory, New World Savior, arch-heretic of PRIME, suffering made flesh. I am these things because you failed, just as Padraig failed.”
“You don’t know the accord you’ve struck, Julian. You disregarded basic safety measures against outside–”
The Carpathian Devil dashed his broken predecessor halfway across the room, shattering a vase before rolling over his desk and sending a cloud of papers into the air. A shard of broken ceramic tore open a gash on Shanahan’s forehead as he toppled onto the floor. Sheets of his work drifted in the air, settled around him as Bathory’s footfalls resumed in his direction.
“Your act may have cowed Marko. But, just like your archaic Sect, Marko is gone and I remain. Your Frankenstein monster, your cultivated weapon. But now so much more. Beyond your vain control.”
One hand reached out, again gripping the older man by the throat and yanking him to eye level. Hell burned behind those flickering windows.
“We’re in this together. And, like it or not, I am the centerpiece now. Carry out your role dutifully, like a good dog. Keep strutting around, preen yourself for the public, remain relevant. But your advice is no longer necessary. You are a relic, Bruce.”
He released his shaken elder. For the first time that he could recall, the front had collapsed and Shanahan was rattled. There was no partnership, no calling the shots behind the scenes. Only bitter fealty.
“I should volunteer you. Offered up as tribute to Youngblood or Knox, one final slaughter to add to your foul legacy.”
He shook his head, disgusted.
“No matter. There’s mileage to spare in you yet. So much as think about treachery though, Bruce, and I vow you will be praying for death.”
Everything you’ve encountered in your travels across the dark corners of Europe, all of the secrets that you’ve studied and brought to bear with your own hands. Yet this is where you draw the line?
I won’t believe it. They must have had some chemical, some drug to bring on hallucinations. Besides, what the hell could Asher Kelley offer?
What is so difficult to understand? A fissure split in your mind, and from that charnel pit, I arose. The best of you. Padraig, you finally stopped wallowing in self-defeat and took your own fucking advice. Communion and transcendence. You made a deal with the Broker – a Faustian pact, no doubt – and thus we find ourselves here, at this crossroads, this fork in the road. I’m going to carry onward to paradise.
Phantoms can’t carry anyone. I was drugged, that’s all there is to it. Someone read sky charts and I was baited there.
What a dilemma, eh? One conclusion is that stress has facilitated a psychotic break and these delusions of some arcane persecution. Plus you’re talking to yourself, so that doesn’t bode well in the greater scheme.
There’s another explanation. There must be. Even if Bruce–
Unreliable narrator, cult founder and master manipulator extraordinaire, Bruce ‘Mother Theresa’ Shanahan? By all means trust his ethical word. Anyhow, conclusion two – that is, the savage truth of the matter, Padraig – points toward the only fracture here being the filament between worlds. Great news, buddy! You’re completely sound and sane! Lucid as can be! The bad news, though, is that I am at the helm now. You’re not snapping out of your reverie unless I decree so. A titanic improbability until I erect the kingdom you couldn’t.
<Hushed murmuring. A lengthy stillness>
Padraig? You there, barátja?”
<A long pause. Static.>
Together we flew too close to the sun. You and I, Cancer, the Twins Icarus. The loss of your wings has driven you mad, burned away your reason into primal desperation. My own brush…well, Padraig’s brush with failure forged a nightmare creation. I’ll realize those dreams minus the vices, the squeamish indecisions.
Padraig seeks you out because, to him, you’re an abomination. It’s in your damned name. Hearing your voice sends him harkening back to better days, those idyllic summers in his youth before his sister wasted away, and it gnaws at his soul. Denying your redemption quest would allay his pain. Metaphorical yet cathartic. Why do you think he’s so obsessed with that damnable foundation? Those self-righteous rats and their squabbling?
You threw the egg at that event. Cast the first proverbial stone. In doing so, you drew his ire, offered him the excuse to direct his fury on you. An affront that drew Sauron’s eye. Woe unto you, Cancer, for that miscalculation. Your heart was in the right place, cowboy. But even Billy the Kid misfired on occasion.
My own philosophy is more simple and removed from the grief of my…counterpart. One of expediency. You took my spot, lashed yourself to the hood of the lead car while I was forced to crush the competition, turn a sprint race into a demolition derby, send them careening into irrelevancy.
I could actually lean on some of Marko’s zealous hate if it shaved seconds off of my work. Alas, that’s not how these gears turn. You should hear him in here with me now, caged up, petulant. He won’t shut the fuck up. You think Impulse got him going? You know how to make enemies, son.
I’ll have it all. From atop MESSIAH International I will claim PRIME, just as Padraig should have done from the start. Perhaps I’ll even up the stakes on this little endeavor, my humble Luciferian dream. PRIME will become part of our empire, whether that accursed little Troy likes it or not. A deal that can’t be refused and all that.
Great American Nightmare. How befitting. An event named for me in my debut, incognito though it may be.