“I’m telling you, we need to get that bear banned from ringside,” Sid said, to no one in particular.
He’d been ranting for a while to anyone that would listen to him. Well, to anyone around him. Within earshot, really. That’d been most of his time at the Gates of Avalon from the moment he’d arrived.
The conversation had started with Joe, like most conversations Sid began.
Midway into that conversation, though, Joe had to excuse himself because Coral needed him for something clearly unimportant. The next person that faced the rantings of a man who wanted no part of any bears whatsoever was Franco Marchesi, Sid’s most frequent training partner in the building.
Much to his displeasure.
“As you’ve been saying.”
The Venetian Assassin, as he was known, had mostly recovered from the injuries he sustained in the Flynn Cup earlier in the year. He was back in fighting form just in time to help the students of this year’s class get ready for the upcoming Belmont Classic.
By the dry tone of his voice, Franco was completely unimpressed to have ended up in this conversation.
“Look, I’m not convinced that a set of headphones can truly restrain an apex predator from engaging in his base-level instincts,” Sid said, moving his hands wildly as he spoke, as he had no idea what to do with them while he was talking, “Sooner or later, he’ll succumb to his hunger, and you know who he’s going to go after first? Me. The meatiest boy. The real beefcake of this whole partnership by way of size. Have you ever tried to powerbomb a bear, man?”
“Not without a few drinks,” Franco deadpanned.
If Franco’s sarcasm couldn’t slow Sid down, nothing would.
“Well, let me tell you. It’s not easy. Not that I’ve ever tried, of course, because I don’t know if I’ve told you this yet, but bears are killing machines built by a hateful god. They’re nature’s Terminators. They only hibernate because they have to save up all that energy to murder us when they’re awake. They know no fear, nor powerbomb. Heathens. Blasphemers. Sinners.”
Franco rolled his eyes.
Franco bore some responsibility for the way Sid was. He was the man who first taught Sid the powerbomb. Everything that PRIME had experienced since February was entirely the responsibility of Franco. It was his fault. He knew it.
But he had better things to do today than accept this responsibility.
In the media room, Joe Fontaine was watching the Bandits’ loss to 2Become1 with Coral Avalon. Sid was still in the gym part of the school, complaining about bears or something, and Coral decided to leave him be and discuss the strategy with Joe instead.
Popcorn was involved, because popcorn was always involved.
“I don’t know why we’re reviewing tape of the eGG Bandits,” Joe said, “We beat them already. It’s the same stuff as before.”
Coral nodded, “I know.”
“So, why are we reviewing this?” Joe asked.
“Because overconfidence is an insidious killer,” Coral said. “The Bandits feast on it. They want you to underestimate them. They lull you in with what appears to be ineptitude, and then they do what you don’t expect them to do. It happened to Jared once. Well, actually, just his mannequin. But it could happen to us.”
He paused, and then added, “I told you this the last time you and Sid had to deal with them, of course.”
“Yeah, I know. What’s different?”
“Doozer is Fred Mayhew, now,” Coral offered.
“How’s that different?”
Coral picked up the remote and moved to another part of the video he’d put together. “Also, there’s this guy.”
It was GREAT SCOTT’s contest with Ned Reform, on ReVival 16. Specifically, the part where GREAT SCOTT threw Ned into the sky and brought him down with the SCOTTACANRANA.
Joe gawked at the sight of what just happened. It made no sense. To anyone. Ever. He snatched the remote from Coral’s hands and rewound the tape. He watched it again. And a third time.
Ned Reform might actually have a point that there’s a conspiracy against him (don’t tell him we said this). Only it wasn’t PRIME orchestrating it. It was physics. It was the natural law of the universe that so thoroughly hated a man of his wit and candor. Maybe it was a curse? A moon curse. A blood curse.
No. Worse. A math curse.
There were so many avenues and back alley shortcuts that such a conspiracy could take in this case, and all we had to go on was Joe’s very important question, “Why do we even have physics?”
“This man is the wild card. Scott Gratesburgh. GREAT SCOTT. Just when everything starts to make sense, he drives a train through your life. The conductor is a bear.” Coral said.
Full disclosure: That was not a nod of understanding.
Joe didn’t know what the fuck GREAT SCOTT was, or what they fed a man in Montana to make him into a hulking brute with the exact cadence of a thirteen-year-old’s Twitter feed.
Instead, it was a nod acknowledging Coral’s point, “So, he’s the problem.”
“Yeah,” Coral said, “He’s a GREAT problem.”
“And you know, it wouldn’t worry me so much if everyone just didn’t act like he wasn’t a horrible monster that would maul and eat any one of us at the drop of a hat.”
Sid was still complaining. About bears.
Franco had excused himself once Ignacio came over and requested his help to figure out the timing on some of the lucha libre he was trying to incorporate into his style. If Coral wasn’t around, then Franco was the one to ask. Of course, Franco might have excused himself, but he didn’t actually tell Sid this while he was delivering his soliloquy about the nature of man and bear. He simply walked away with Ignacio, glad to be relieved of the conversation.
But that’s okay. Sid had someone else to complain to.
Curtis Alexander Brown III was the star prospect of the Gates of Avalon. The nephew of “Codemaster” Allen Brown and the grandson of famed wrestling pioneer, Curtis “the Hammer” Brown. His natural charisma and talent had made him one to watch out for. It was no coincidence that he was one of the two men in the school initially selected for the Belmont Classic. He even had a contract offer lined up already.
He was also very confused.
“Ayo, who’re you talkin’ about?”
“GREAT BEAR, of course! God! Don’t you even pay attention?” Sid asked, apparently not even noticing that the person he was talking to had shrunk five inches, was black instead of Italian, and had dreadlocks instead of no hair at all.
Curt looked around.
Some might suggest that he was looking for a means of escape, but what he was actually looking for was the hidden camera that he was convinced was filming him.
He couldn’t find it.
“Yeah, the fuck’s a ‘great bear’? Why’re you shoutin’ it like it owes you money?” Curt asked, once he stopped looking for a nonexistent camera.
“GREAT BEAR is the enemy, of course. The enemy of all things living. He is the herald of PRIME’s demise. Not Jiles, not the Glue Factory, not even that Devin Shakur guy that I definitely didn’t just learn about last week. No. It’s the bear. It’s always been the bear.” Sid said.
Curt smiled and opened his mouth in response.
Words failed him.
So he turned on his heel and walked away.
If Sid paid more attention, wrapped up as he was with his anti-bear rhetoric, he’d have heard Curt shout “NOPE!” as he got the fuck out of the building.
Joe and Coral had watched all of GREAT SCOTT’s matches in PRIME where he lost.
“That Rezin… he’s pretty savvy,” Coral said, watching as Rezin managed to counter the dreaded SCOTTCARANA into a pinning predicament at UltraViolence, “Usually, when someone my size does a hurricanrana, it’s a tumble. You land in a roll. When Scott does it, you land on your head and you don’t get up. And Rezin… he rolled through a move that should’ve caved his skull in, and Scott didn’t expect it. That takes guts. Or mushrooms.”
“Rezin cheated the first time.” Joe pointed out. “Also, Paxton got a big headphone murder.”
“Okay, but it’s not a murder if he’s still alive, Joe,” Coral said, and then muttered under his breath, “Unfortunately.”
Coral rewound the tape.
He was looking for something. Anything, really.
Plenty of guys in pro wrestling waxed poetic about being students of the game. Very few of them were Coral Avalon, who spent much of his time studying opponents. He sought out their strengths. He zeroed in on their weaknesses. He prided himself on being the sort of man who knew how his opponents ticked before he even stepped inside the ring. If he could, he’d even learn what their favorite breakfast cereal was, because he was the sort of man that’d figure out how to use that to his advantage.
Yet, it hasn’t worked out so far.
There was an eye gouge from FLAMBERGE as he went to follow the Rhongomyniad. There was the kick to the “third thigh”, as Coral japed in an exchange with Ivan Stanislav after their match. Most importantly, Coral knew that GREAT SCOTT cheated when things went south. He saw it with Paxton. He saw it with Youngblood. Odds were good that if the going got tough, SCOTT would do the same to him. He had to be ready for it.
“Hey. Are you still thinking about the other day like I am?” Joe asked. “You know, breaking up the fight?”
The images of Jared Sykes’ attack on Paxton Ray flashed through Coral’s mind. No, not an attack. More like an attempted murder. The three of them were only passing by when they heard the commotion. If they hadn’t…
“That stopped being a fight well before we got there.” Coral said, as his eyes focused on GREAT SCOTT’s matches. “And yeah. A little.”
Joe looked over at Coral with a pensive expression. There’d been frustration over the last month. Joe wanted another shot at the Kings of Popsicles so badly that he couldn’t stand it. Yet, without a match in PRIME until now, all he had was training. Training wasn’t the same as actually being in the ring.
“Look, I understand it’s not really my, uh… berry business, but you gotta understand that the longer you cater to Jared Blueberry’s whims, the more we start to wonder if you really have our best interests here,” Joe said. “Even I know a lost cause when I see it.”
Coral placed his hand above his eyes, hoping that feeling wasn’t a headache coming on.
“I’m serious, man,” Joe said, “You saw how he was. We all did.”
Avalon had been in the wrestling business for twenty years. He’d just about seen it all. He’d seen that look in Jared’s eyes a few times before, in other people. When it became personal. When it became bloody. When it went beyond athletic competition.
That look haunted him.
Because while he’s seen it in the eyes of his enemies before, he’d never seen it in the eyes of a friend.
“I know exactly what we need to do. We all need to get into the building on ReVival 20, and we need to form a crack team of hunters. We need to hunt down and eliminate all traces of bear from our locker room. It’s for the good of everyone. We can’t have anyone else succumb to the bear virus like Ivan did. God, Ivan. He had so much to live for! And then the bear took him. Claimed him. Made him one of its own.”
Sam Smart exchanged looks with Wally Wallace.
“This guy cracked?” Sam asked.
“Been cracked for a while, if you ask me.” Wally responded.
Sam Smart and Wally Wallace both had the displeasure of being the latest to find themselves in the middle of Sid’s sermon about terrifying woodland creatures. It was a far cry from what either expected when Sam left Denver and Wally left Walla Walla to attend Coral Avalon’s wrestling school, which previously produced such luminaries as Joe Fontaine, Greg New York and Powerslam Anubis.
And Sid, of course.
“Hey, Sid, are you listening? Could you stop talking about bears?” Wally asked. Then he remembered his manners and added, “Please?”
Sid gave Wally a look only when he said the last word of his question.
“Bears? Yes, the bear plague has already claimed Ivan. He is lost to us. The best thing we can do for an undisputed hero of the entire Russian nation is to put him down with extreme prejudice. Russia will hate us, but even they should know the danger of consorting with bears.”
Sid, in the throes of his grand speech, had no idea that he was even talking to Wally or Sam. For all he knew, Franco had split into two shorter muscular wrestle mans after a period of time as a dreadlocked black dude. Maybe, in Sid’s maddened, powerbomb-laden eyes, Franco was a warlock.
“Oh, yeah. Definitely cracked.” Sam said. “Must be why Curt bailed.”
“Must be.” Wally agreed, “Hey, maybe we should get Gabe to help. He knows ways of getting responses out of you.”
It would be a simple thing to say that you could invoke Gabriel’s name and he’d appear, as though stepping out of a seam in reality. But when you’re a professional wrestler that actually came from a line of stage magicians going back four generations, you knew things. Like how to make an entrance, how to appear as though you actually did know magic, and how to work a smoke machine.
Yes, as though Gabriel Reynolds were a reincarnation of Dusk himself – nevermind that he’s still alive – the Renowned Gabriel appeared through the fog and the smoke. Over the top of his gym outfit was a long black cape. He wore his magician’s top hat. He carried his wand.
He was the Renowned Gabriel.
The man known for making miracles happen in and out of the ring, and for being entirely too extra to be in such a straight-laced wrestling school.
“Hey, guys,” Gabriel said, placidly, like he was visiting a neighbor’s house for some sugar, “You rang?”
“Could you do something about him?” Wally asked, “He won’t stop with the bears.”
Gabriel turned to Sid.
Sid’s head turned to Gabriel, slowly and mechanically, like he was on puppet strings.
This was not a miracle he was prepared to make happen.
“Hey, Gabe. Let me tell you about bears.”
Gabriel realized only too late that he’d appeared in front of something unpleasant, like a husband cheating on his wife or three bears in a trenchcoat mugging the Hulk.
He uttered a very articulate response, “Uh?”
The gears in Coral’s head turned as he watched GREAT SCOTT’s body of work.
“Explosive, but can’t bank worth a crap. Moves in straight lines. Wants to keep things simple. So play evasive, stay out of his reach. Try to minimize the damage you take if you do get in his reach. Keep him frustrated. Don’t let him build momentum. Try to take his knees if you can. Don’t assume that your physics and his physics are the same. Don’t let yourself believe that he’s invincible. Pretend the bear isn’t there. Bears are merely the construct of an unhealthy mind. Bears don’t exist in the ring. Though it’s a disqualification win if the bear mauls you, your wife will be very angry with you if it happens.”
“Uh, you okay over there?” Joe asked, “You’re talking to yourself.”
Coral snapped out of it.
“Oh. Sorry. I didn’t say something weird, did I?” Coral asked.
Joe repeated Coral’s last three sentences verbatim for him to hear.
“So, I did.”
Gabriel tried everything to deter Sid from further talking about bears.
Every trick he thought to try, passed down from great-grandfather to father, had done nothing. He pulled off a rope trick, yet the only thing Sid could think of was how ropes would avail them not against the might of an ursine monster. He pulled a quarter out from behind Sid’s ear. Sid scoffed, citing that bears came from a world without god and currency.
He even tried to get Sid to pick a card, any card, and somehow Sid picked out the one that had a bear on it.
Gabriel didn’t even shuffle that one into the deck.
Everything was becoming bears.
“Furthermore,” Sid said, a mad look in his eye that was usually reserved for powerbombs, “I am preparing to lodge a formal complaint about the increase in bears in PRIME to our HR department, where I am sure to be given a warm reception. That complaint will be powerbombed directly onto Lindsay Troy’s desk. She’s our HR department, right?”
“Bro, I… I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Gabriel said, horrified.
It was worse than he feared.
Sid didn’t just have a one-track mind. It was a single track that ran two opposing trains of thought into one another and now there was a tragic train accident in the center of mass. Then more thoughts would collide into that same spot. Many brain cells riding on these trains, hoping to get their work done on this fine brain day, were unknowingly being sent to their deaths.
Those trains, as stated before, had bears for conductors.
“Great. So, let me explain how PRIME works. See, it’s run by psychopaths. Psychopaths who allow bears to run roughshod over the whole thing. This pro-bear coalition has been undermining the good, non-bear people of PRIME for too long. Now there’s precious few of us left who can see the truth of this agenda. We must rise up! We must stand together and unite! The bears shall not do as they please! Fuck the bears! Not literally. That’s weird. Fuck the bears! Metaphorically! Today, we shall liberate PRIME of all bears! Rise up! There shall be no dawn for the world of bear!”
He stood there expecting the cheering of thousands.
Instead, Gabriel shook his head.
“What the fuck?”
It was late, and Joe and Coral were done in the media room.
They’d put together a plan for the match at ReVival 20. Coral would largely be in charge of managing GREAT SCOTT, while the Winds would handle the Bandits. Plans rarely went accordingly, but at least they had one.
“You know,” Joe said, as he set his popcorn aside, “I think it’s cool that you hold Jared Blueberry with such esteem. Really. Doesn’t seem like a lot of people do. It’s just that from where I sit, he’s making decisions that are horribly affecting everyone around him. Not just Calvin Raspberry, either. It’s you, me, Sid… everyone. Everyone in PRIME. My dude would set the whole place on fire and claim it was for the good of everyone.”
“Am I wrong?”
But… he had to be honest.
“No. You’re not.”
Joe tried very hard not to give a self-satisfied smile, but the effort was in vain.
“You know that thing about gazing too long into an abyss, and all that? That’s Jared Blueberry to me. The abyss has done a lot of staring back at that dude. With its fuckin’ abyssal eyeballs. Gettin’ all Bloodborne in that shit. You know what I mean?”
Coral stood from the couch, stretching as he did.
“A little bit, yeah.”
Joe stood up, too, “Okay, cool. Didn’t know if you knew what I meant by a Bloodborne, since you’re so old and all.”
“I’m still 38.”
“Yeah, very old.”
“I don’t even have any gray hairs yet.”
“So, so old.”
“Okay, you’re not Ria, stop that.”
“Fine,” Joe said, “You know, sometimes, I think you wish he’d asked you to team up with him instead of Cal. That you wish you hadn’t been saddled with me and Sid.”
Coral shook his head.
“You know that’s not true.” Coral said. “I chose this.”
“I know. Really. But… I don’t think I want to hear about ‘berry business’ again for a while.”
Coral and Joe left the media room. Coral was going to respond to Joe, but then the two of them saw a scene they didn’t expect.
Sid was bound to a chair and gagged. Three of the Gates’ 2022 class stood around him, watching Sid with agitation. Sam was holding the back of his neck, as though he’d caught an unexpected powerbomb in the middle of what happened. Wally looked like he just went through a near-death experience.
Coral arched an eyebrow, and pointed at everyone.
“Why is Sid tied up?”
“He was being, uh… bear-ly tolerable.”
Okay, Coral definitely had a headache, now.
“I don’t have enough yakuza kicks for this…”