Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 2015
17 year old Zachary Vaughn is always eager to disobey the sanctions imposed on him by his disgruntled and embittered dad. Zach constantly sneaks out, leaves home and indulges his aspirations by participating in backyard wrestling. They have emboldened the growing teen, instilling a sense of rebellion and confidence. What Zach now plans to do however, makes him incredibly nervous. If his dad found out it would be the end of the absolute world.
He’s inches away from the door of a house of a relative stranger, known only to Zach by a nom-de-plume. It’s the house of Christoph Hemming, formerly Chris Zenith; another of Philly’s wrestling talent, since faded into self-imposed semi-retirement. Chris Zenith was the man involved in the accident that crippled Zach’s dad, destroying any hope of Adam Vaughn’s career ambitions.
Understandably, this had caused a bit of a stir.
Steeling his nerves, Zach rasps on the door and waits anxiously, each passing moment more agonising than the last. Mercifully, the door creaks open slightly.
“I ain’t buying anything.” Christoph barks, peering through the gap.
“I-I-I’m not selling anything.”
Zach’s instincts are telling him to just walk away, that his purpose is folly. It’s a strange experience for the boy, ignoring his instincts.
“Then what do you want kid?”
It’s clear Christoph is in no mood for nonsense.
“Mr Hemming, my name is Zachary Vaughn.” Zach stammers out his name.
“Jesus Christ!” Christoph scoffs in disbelief and goes to close the door. Zach predicts that outcome and has his foot in place.
“Piss off kid!”
“Mr Hemming please…”
“It’s been years since that accident, people have finally stopped tearing me a new one over it. I don’t need the kid of the guy I ACCIDENTALLY forced into retirement coming here and bringing it all back up again.”
“No you don’t understand.”
“Then what the hell do you want?”
“I…I need help…”
Something about the way the boy speaks, pleading, gives the former Philly wrestling star pause. He takes a moment, sighs in resignation, and welcomes Zach inside.
“Can I get you anything?”
The host motions for Zach to take a seat on his way to the kitchen.
“Ah…just a Health Potion.”
Christoph raises an eyebrow, confused.
“Oh sorry. Just water thanks.”
There is a shuffle of awkward movement. Zach waits for Christoph to return with a glass of water in one hand and a stubbie of beer in the other before taking a seat. Even then an awkward silence hangs between the two.
“Alright. So. What can I do to help you? Out of everyone who condemned me for the accident, you’d have the most cause to blame me. As I recall you idolised your dad.”
Since the accident and Adam Vaughn’s drastic change of personality Zach had used martial arts training, rebellion, extreme sports and backyard wrestling as a release for all the confusing and pent up thoughts and emotions building inside him. Those activities gave him a way to avoid and ignore the reality for a time, but now…Zach wasn’t sure what pushed him towards it, but he was done running.
“Ever since…that day, dad’s a different person. Bitter. Angry. Resentful. Dragging everyone around him down with him.”
It had truthfully been an accident, but that didn’t stop Christoph from feeling pangs of guilt and regret at the pain evident in young Zach’s voice. It was known that Adam Vaughn had dotted upon his son, pointing him out during matches and sharing his glory with his heir and protégé. That had all changed.
With the flood gates now upon, Zach couldn’t hold back the tide.
“It’s funny you know.”
The edge in his voice revealed it wasn’t funny at all.
“I wanted nothing more than to be exactly like my dad. He had the respect and adoration of everyone. He was happy, he loved what he did, and he loved me-us. But the moment he got home from the hospital, told he could never wrestle again, it wasn’t my dad who came back with us….”
Tears well and fall down in little droplets from Zach’s face.
“It was a monster.”
Sitting there, Christoph was shocked and amazed at the scene before him, with no idea on how to respond. He errs on the side of silence, trying to do his best to empathise.
“He refuses to train me, let alone entertain the idea of me EVER stepping the foot into the ring. He claims I haven’t got what it takes, not the physique, not the attitude. Anything!”
Relieved at the interruption of his cathartic deluge, Zach looks to Christoph for…well…anything.
“I can’t begin to understand what you’re going through and for the life of me have no idea why you’ve come to me. But your dad…I want to say that it’s just him trying to cope with the drastic end of his dreams…”
Christoph stops to consider his words. He can understand why the boy has such a starry-eyed perception of his father and the wrestling industry, but he is also clearly hurting. Is it really his place to say more, disparaging the father in front of his own son?
“The issue is there’s another side of the wrestling industry people don’t see. Guys like your dad are traditionalists, set in their ways, and if anyone sits outside that narrow box, let alone think outside it. Well they’re in for a bad time. It just sucks you have to experience that. And I feel his resentment towards you is a reflection of his own insecurity. Almost a backward compliment, it means you’ve got some talent for him to worry about.”
Despite everything, Zach almost speaks up in defence of his father, more out of moral obligation than anything. But he stops himself. After all it’s hard to contradict when he’s been living the proof since that moment.
“Would you train me?” Zach asks without thinking about it. Christoph replies by almost choking on his beer.
“Train me? I’ve been participating in some ah…’Indy’ style stuff, and am ready to get serious.”
“Oh hell no. No offense but I’m staying well away from that one. The community would have a field day if the guy who retired Adam Vaughn was discovered to be training his kid. But I’ll be rooting for you for sure. It doesn’t really matter where you came from, just that you do things your way, not caring what others have to say or think.”
There’s no denying Zach is disappointed that Christoph refuses to take him under his wing and train him, but the final piece of advice proves exactly what the boy needs. It instils a new sense of hope and determination within him.
After all. This is his origin story.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 2018
Zach is roused from his sleep, if you can call the paltry moments Zach’s eyes were closed ‘sleep’, by the arrival of Leona Gainsborough. It wasn’t easy for Zach to step back into the halls of the Pennsylvania Hospital, but John Irvine is a friend and Zach’s desire to be by his side, to apologise for getting him involved, overcomes that apprehension
“How is he?” Leona asks.
Her concern is two-fold. The wellbeing of John hospitalised after being attacked by an unknown assailant and for Zach, her childhood friend, who is taking the assault quite badly.
“Broken jaw, some missing teeth and a concussion. Doctors believe he wasn’t hit hard enough for any brain damage. Apparently his attacker wasn’t that strong.” Those last few words are spoken with an underlying sense of venom.
“I can’t believe he was attacked.”
Something about Zach’s tone gives Leona pause and she notices his nervous fidgeting and anxious expression.
“Zach? What’s wrong?
“Leona look I-I gotta go.”
He makes for the door.
He gives her a sideways glance, almost one of guilt and remorse.
“I shouldn’t have come here. Kreese followed me and did this to John. It’s my fault. People keep getting hurt because of me and there’s nothing I can do!”
He reaches the door but feels Leona’s arms around him, embracing him from behind.
“Zach, please stop.” She pleads with him, trying desperately to fight back her own tears. “This isn’t your fault. John loves you; he wouldn’t ever blame you for this and would have gotten involved in a heartbeat.”
“But…I’ve put two people in danger now. Two people close to me.”
There’s a pang of hurt at Zach’s admission of affection for Celia, but Leona forces it to the farthest reaches of her mind. Now is not the time.
“You can’t be blamed for the actions of those fuckwits. You don’t control them. They are responsible for their own actions. What you CAN do is make them pay, get them back for everything they have done!”
She gently releases him and Zach turns back to face her.
“Are you afraid you will fail? That you no longer have it takes?”
Zach pauses to consider his answer. Leona gazing up at him to try and get a read on her long-time friend, to try and find the fun-loving person she remembers.
“I don’t know what I should be more afraid of. Not knowing if I can even get revenge against Xander, or the possibility of enjoying it too much.”
He buries his face in her shoulder. She tempers her thoughts, picking her words carefully and letting her childhood friend release the pent up emotions in peace.
“I want to hurt him Leona. REALLY hurt him. But this isn’t why I wanted to become a wrestler. It’s going against everything I believe in. All this anger. It leads to hatred and then to suffering. Just look at Kreese and Haze, perfect examples.”
She takes his head into her hands gently, looking into his eyes as to ensure he achieves crystal clarity of her words and their sincerity.
“You are not them. You could never be them. You are one million times better than them.”
“How can you say that?”
His hands cover hers.
“I grew up with you; I think I know you fairly well.”
“How can anyone possibly know me, if I don’t even know myself anymore? I mean these days I’m just Zach. No last name, no identity. I’m just…around…you know…filler…”
“You know as well as anybody that you can’t skip to the last level. You gotta progress and all that jazz. As fucked up as this is, this is just another arc, or side-quest in the grand tale that is Zach.”
“Yeah…I should learn to follow my own philosophical insights from time to time. I kinda tried to take on the Last Boss when I took on Ouroboros. And look what happened there. Thing is…it just doesn’t make sense. I mean sure Kreese has got beef with me, apparently I cost him a dime by getting forcibly unmasked and nearly paralysed to boot. As if it was some sick and twisted plan of mine. What’s in it for Xander? Why go to so much trouble and get other people involved? Besides just being a douche-bag.”
Leona shrugs. Though it does seem as if some life and energy is returning to Zach, his mind clearer now.
“You got me. Jealousy maybe? Envy? Who’s to know what goes on in the minds of sociopaths? Whatever their reason, it don’t excuse what they’ve done.”
The young Zach casts his mind off, travelling to a different time and place.
“You want to know what John said about you when we realised you left m-ah us?”
Zach cocks his head quizzically; glad to move his attention away from his own thoughts yet again. It’s an invitation for Leona to continue.
“He said that regardless of success or failures, championship belts or not, the pro-circuit would be lucky to have you. You inspire people; bring the best out of them. They feed off and share your energy. It’s a commendable superpower to have. And as much as you like to help people, to push and pull them up. I think it’s time you accept the same help from other people. Haven’t you already got the support of a group from the CWF?”
That brings something akin to a smile on Zach’s face. It’s hard to stay downcast when reminiscing about the shenanigans of Mia, or Ataxia.
“Yeah. The Forsaken. They are an odd bunch, but I’d gladly fight beside anyone one of them.”
“See. And I bet they’d go that extra step for you. Be it, Impakt, Zach, or anyone else. You just gotta rise above this, kick-some arse. Button-bash if you have to. But you can’t let this, or Paradise, be your Game-Over. Not when there’s so much left to go. But most importantly Zach. Just be you.”
That raises yet again the question of who Zach really is, but Leona’s words have their intended effect and Zach feels less helpless than before. He even recalls a specific offer from one of the Forsaken who also lives in the neighbourhood. Maybe, just maybe, he will hit them up. Though he is loathed to leave the side of John Irvine. Leona recognizes the conundrum as Zach switches his gaze from the docile form of Irvine to the door to the hospital room.
“Go get em Zach-Attack. Make them all rue the day you stepped into the ring. We’ll be here waiting for you when you’re done.”
Zach replies with a confident and curt nod of acknowledgement. Then he is out the door. Only to return seconds later to give his child-hood friend the warmest and tightest embrace they both had experienced to date. It took everything in Leona’s power to not tackle him and follow it up with a kiss.
“We’ll always be here waiting for you...” She whispers as Zach disappears.
Baltimore, Maryland 2018
It would normally be quite easy to disappear in the chaotic hustle and bustle of the industrial Orangeville neighbourhood of Baltimore, except that Agent Armstrong, ever the consummate, secret agent man, knew exactly who he was looking for. From across the street, from an unused room in a run-down apartment block, Armstrong watches through the lens of a camera as the rather distinct form of John Kreese pulls up to an abandoned factory and adjoining warehouse. Tracking the signal of the video broadcast from last week’s Evolution, Armstrong tracked the Private Investigator to Baltimore. From there it was leg work, and let’s face it, a guy like John Kreese isn’t exactly the subtlest of figures. It helped the guy had some rather…interesting appetites. There is currently no sign of Celia Lockheart, but it is almost certain she would be found contained within. The Agent reaches for his phone and presses the Speed-Dial.
“Yeah…It’s Armstrong. The Princess is definitely not in another Castle …That’s correct, I’ve eyes on Porky…Affirmative…I’ll await your instruction. Out.”
The first part of his mission is complete. The fun part will begin before too long.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 2018
Bringing himself back to the present, despite the veritable deluge of thoughts and feelings raging inside his head, Zach notices the back of the figure that is, Dorian Hawkhurst, getting closer once more as he comes round for another lap of jogging around Lake Galena in Peace Valley Park.
“Don’t you say it!’ Dorian groans as Zach approaches.
“On your left!” The young man says as he passes.
“Oh, Come on!” Dorian exclaims in mock disbelief and frustration.
Zach continues for a few more paces before glancing back to see Dorian in what looks to be a combination of a jog, shuffle and stumble. Showing mercy, Zach slows to a halt. Dorian catches up, doubling over to reclaim air into his lungs. He struggles to catch quick and short breaths between each word.
“Dude *breathe* Dial it down a bit. *breathe* I’m more of a sprinter. *breathe* Very dangerous over short distances *breathe*.”
“My bad, had turbo mode on without realising. A bit too much in my head I guess.”
“Makes sense. *breathe*.”
Zach watches Dorian gasp for every precious breath, throwing an arm over his younger fellow Philadelphian’s shoulder for support.
“You sure you’re up for this? A lot is riding on this match and I gotta really push myself to feel even the slightest bit if confidence. I ain’t on Easy Mode, I can’t afford to be.”
Dorian half-heartedly waves him off.
“Don’t worry about me. We have to focus on getting you prepped. I’ll just keep this in mind next time I need a spotter for power training.”
“You guys have been amazing, and I appreciate all the support. But it ain’t all about me. I mean you guys got jumped last week. And that thing with your daughter.”
“Chloe’s actually recovered thank god, and throwing herself back into her martial arts training. Maybe you should spar with her sometime.”
“Dorian, I grew up constantly getting one-upped by Leona…I think I’ll pass on that one.”
“As for the other thing…”
Though not a stranger to ambushes, the events of last Evolution were a bit of sour note.
“You got enough to worry about without getting involved in any more business. We’ll be fine. We’d be in the wrong business if we were afraid of getting jumped.”
Their communal jog has now turned into a casual stroll along the lakeside, parkway track. Zach notices they are approaching a quaint family-owned coffee cart with portable tables and plastic fold-out chairs.
“How bout we hit pause and take a break?”
“If you want. I’m cool to keep going.”
Despite his best efforts Dorian doesn’t quite hide his relief at the offer, stifling the pain from a stitch. Together the two Philly natives take their seats, falling into silence for a moment and gaze out onto the panoramic natural landscape.
When the silence is eventually broken, it is done by the Demon of Sobriety, opting not to go straight to business, but instead invoking the more philosophical within the confused and conflicted young man.
“Not sure if you realise, but you got yourself a real golden opportunity here.”
Zach raises his eyebrow.
“And I’m not talking kicking the shit out of Haze. But there’s that. I’m talking about something far rarer. You got yourself a shot at a second chance. After the mask came off you’ve practically got yourself a blank slate. And now it’s up to you to fill those blanks. Who cares if your prick of a dad has denied you the family name, or his patented move? Do something different. Throw his arrogance back into his face by making a NEW name for yourself. And just go back to the basics. You’re capable of some seriously flashy stuff, but the best way to perfect the craft is to take it one step at a time.”
“So like a Jedi?”
“All Padawan have to learn Form 1, Niman, before they move to the more advanced Forms. Isn’t that what you’re saying?”
The former Impakt does take a moment to consider Dorian’s words; they seem to resonate with him.
“I guess I never thought about it that way. I get a new character sheet and can recreate it as I see fit…I like the sound of that…Hm…What you reckon…Introducing…Zach Power!”
Dorian almost spurts out his coffee.
“You come to Summer Games as ‘Zach Power’, and I’ll kick your arse myself!”
But the Demon quickly realises that it was in jest, pleased to see Zach sincerely and wholeheartedly smiling again. It doesn’t last however, as Zach’s mind returns inwards.
“Kid. Stay out of that head of yours.”
“Just thinking…you know what’s really sad? Xander has the potential to be an inspiration, a role mode, and a real hero to so many people out there. Those also striving to overcome hardship, who feel they can’t achieve anything because of their stats, were rolled low. But he can’t see past himself or that massive chip on his shoulder. Shame really. He has well and truly fallen to the dark side. So he decides to pick on the young and naïve kid. The one already hurt and kick him while he’s still down. I never realised that cerebral palsy completely removed the backbone. It makes sense then why he’d fall into line with the likes of John Kreese. Like attracts like after all. But they should have just kept it with me, instead of going for those I car-. Ah-you know, my friends. I mean it’s the tired old Damsel in Distress trope. That’s just lazy writing! And this was AFTER he tried to literally kill me in the hospital. Now I don’t know what’s gonna happen after Xander and Summer Games, I guess I’ll sort that out when it comes to it, but what I do know is that I’m done moping, all this woe is me nonsense. Ain’t nobody got time for that! It’s not my type of game. But you want to know the real irony?”
Zach briefly glances over to Dorian who wordlessly motions Zach to press on, not wanting to interrupt his flow.
“I should be thanking Xander and Kreese. They’ve kick-started the recovery from my funk and shattered the romanticised image of the industry I’ve had in my head for years. I see the dark truth and realise where I’ve been going wrong. I may’ve been declared clinically dead, but it’s like I’ve been given a Phoenix Down and here I stand. If Haze can’t even kill me, imagine how worried he’s gotta be meeting me in the ring. I bet the reason he’s doing all this is, he realises he doesn’t have what it takes to beat me under the proper circumstances. Even as my masked, lesser, self I was always able to bring it at a higher level, day-in and day-out. And I think I can feel that returning. Despite my lack of successes, I never let them get me down, I strived to remain positive and determined in a world otherwise ruled by the Heartless. And how dare I be happy when Xander’s had it so rough. Well come Summer Games I’m going to show Xander my appreciation by beating the living shit out of him…and I promise. It’s gonna be Epic!”
There is no denying Zach is showing signs of his former confidence. It’s hard for the Demon of Sobriety to not be swept up by it all. He does however have some concerns about the Livewire math that awaits the young man, for it will be no easy task. Not to mention the likely possibility that John Kreese won’t play fair. The cost of failure could damage Zach more than the beating at Paradise ever could. But if Zach is to have any hope of coming out victorious and saving the day he needs to focus on building himself up. So Dorian pushes those thoughts from his own mind.
“I’ll drink to that” He says, and the two clink their coffee ups, before falling into silence and gazing out to the horizon, to their own respective uncertain futures.