[NOTE: THIS IS THE FINAL PART OF A MULTI-PART STORY - READ THE PRECEDING RPS FIRST!]
July 10th, 2018 - after Evolution 25
I walked backstage, exhausted from the mighty brawl. Sheer defiant energy had kept me on my feet and able to stand strong against my foes, but the battle beforehand had taken a toll. Elisha always seemed to have the upper hand. Always seemed to know exactly when to strike, exactly when I would be at my weakest.
I needed to take him down. But there were enemies on too many sides. The Institute. My opponents in CWF. And of course, the Order. If I could just take one of them down…
I literally stopped in my tracks. An idea occurred to me. An unthinkable idea. But one that I feared might be necessary.
July 12th, 2018
‘Leaving?’ said the CWF commissioner, his voice incredulous. ‘But you’re the World Champion!’
‘I know, I…’ I sighed. ‘Ataxia, will you please take the hat off? It’s detracting from the seriousness of the conversation.’
‘That’s CommissionerAtaxia to you,’ he said, but he removed the enormous Carmen Miranda hat that he had been wearing. ‘And my question stands. You’re the World Champion, and we’re building towards the biggest event of the year. Why are you leaving?’
‘Because we’re building towards the biggest event of the year,’ I said. Ataxia cocked his head and made the “go on” motion. I continued. ‘Right now, my attention is on getting my husband back. It’s on taking down the Institute. And it’s on defending the World Championship. I can’t do all three at once.’
‘You’ve been doing alright so far,’ said Ataxia, uncharacteristically serious.
‘I haven’t, though. You saw Tuesday night. A great title match on a major episode of Evolution goes to hell in a handbasket. That’s going to keep happening as long as the Institute is around. And I could deal with that. Attacks from a hostile faction during big matches are part and parcel of being World Champion in this business. But my circumstances are different. The Order of the Oncoming Storm, a centuries-old faction with near-unlimited wealth, has taken my husband away from me. I can do a lot. But I can’t fight people like MJ Flair, while fending off Ouroboros, and have anyhope of getting him back. Ouroboros is never going to stop, no matter what I do. So it’s down to this: abandon my hopes of saving my husband, or abandon my dreams of being World Champion.’
Ataxia nodded. ‘A tough choice.’
I looked him right in the… mask. ‘It isn’t. It’s the easiest choice I’ve ever made.’
‘Ask yourself - if you had to leave your position as Commissioner to save Mia, would you do it?’
‘There you have it,’ I said.
There was silence. ‘How do you want to handle the title change?’ he asked.
I shrugged. ‘An End Games match is always a good choice.’
He pulled me in and hugged me, initially over my vague protests. But I leant into it after a few seconds. He spoke. ‘So be it… frand.’
And so I walked out of the Commissioner’s office, no longer World Champion - indeed, no longer employed by CWF.
It was such a strange feeling. On and off, I had worked for this company for nearly a decade. And I had been the face of the company for two months - not long, in the scheme of things, but decently long as championship tenures went.
And now it was over.
Eris was waiting for me at the airport as I returned back to Atlanta. They held me for a while at the arrivals gate, not saying anything, but being there. The silence continued all the way home. Once we walked in the door, I sat in Dan’s easy chair and Eris went over to the liquor cabinet. They poured two glasses of special-occasion whiskey. I nodded as they handed me mine, and we raised our glasses.
‘To the future.’
July 13th, 2018 - Phoenicia, New York
I had gone up to the Commune, opting to take some time away from the oppressive Atlanta heat. Not that New York was much better, but there were at least more places to lose myself. Atlanta was a very busy city - not as much as Manhattan, but you could drive a long way in almost any direction and never really leave the metropolis. No… it was the countryside for me. A place where I could just… collect myself, before I made my move against the Order.
I still had the intelligence about the Order’s big meeting. What I didn’t know was exactly what I was going to do with it. Burst in and ask them very nicely to give me back my husband?
No… I needed to get their attention.
As I sat thinking in my favorite spot, a little bench by the stream that flowed through the Commune’s property, I was interrupted by frantic yelling from Oscar “The Grouch” Gonzales. The words were unclear at this distance, but they gesticulated frantically for me to come back to the homestead.
As I walked up, the entire population of the Commune had their eyes glued to a television set in the main lounging area.
‘… with ten thousand UN troops expected to be deployed within the next few days,’ said a talking head on the television. A graphic of the tiny country of Makhnovia was displayed next to the talking head. I gasped. The camera zoomed out and showed four people in suits.
‘We’re joined,’ said the anchor, ‘by Brad Tarlow, US Army liaison, Gerald Rivia of MI5, and Ellie Bartlet, former US Ambassador to Makhnovia. So, gentlemen, lady… how did we get here?’
The woman made to speak but Rivia cut across her. Fucking mansplainers. ‘Well, Thomas, Makhnovia has long tried to pull itself up by its bootstraps and rebuild after the Cold War ended; it’s been the subject of battle between a great many varying factions. The latest of these, of course, is the Spirit Science Research Institute, headed up by this figure who calls himself the Moonchild.’
‘Right, the Moonchild,’ said the anchor. ‘What do we know about him?’
‘Very little,’ said Tarlow. ‘No record of birth, no reliable photograph… not even a name to speak of. But he’s dangerous. Makhnovia is suffering terribly under the Moonchild, the people are being horrendously oppressed - ’
‘Which is why this invasion is a terrible idea!’ burst out Bartlet. ‘Makhnovia has been in a state of near-constant war since its inception. If the Moonchild is the problem, why tear up the Makhnovian countryside with yet another war? More “collateral damage” to leave scars that won’t heal for decades?’
‘I assure you, Miss Bartlet -’ said Rivia.
‘Madam Ambassador,’ she said icily. I liked this woman.
‘I assure you, if there were an option to take down the Moonchild and only the Moonchild, we would exercise it without hesitation. Unfortunately, he has made doing this near-impossible; all of the resources of the Spirit Science Research Institute, as well as the naturalresources of Makhnovia, are being poured into the defence of the Epicentre.’
‘But you haven’t - ’ began Bartlet, before she was abruptly interrupted by a squeaky voice.
‘Don’t worry, Gary! Squidward says I’ll be fine. He knows everything. So, you hungry?’
‘What the hell, Eris?’ said Oscar. I turned around and saw that Eris had their arm outstretched, holding a remote control.
‘Look,’ said Eris, ‘Elisha is holed up in his hidey-hole. He’s not going to bother us, at least not for a while. And there’s enough shit going on in the world that we can’t do anything about, I don’t see the benefit in us dwelling on this. So can we please, for the sake of all of our mental health, just watch a twenty-minute cartoon about a sentient sponge being turned into a snail?’
The response was a resounding “eh.”
So we watched SpongeBob SquarePants. And for twenty peaceful minutes, I didn’t think about Institutes or Orders or Republicans or any of the shit that was happening.
It could wait.
August 7th, 2018 - Washington, DC
It was strange, seeing all the billboard advertising for a CWF show but knowing that I wasn’t a part of it.
I’d seen billboards like these dozens of times, as I drove from airport to hotel to arena; CWF liked to promote itself, and the promotional strategy didn’t vary that much from show to show. Summer Games was not that different to WrestleFest or Golden Intentions or Paradise; a billboard showing the top fighters - in this case, all eight of them, backed by the End Games cage.
One of those eight would be walking out with what had once been my title.
Even now, I felt only slight pangs of regret. I hadn’t exactly wanted to leave; I never liked to leave a task half-finished. But circumstances were such that I had to leave, bad as it might have looked. And now that I was out… I felt a kind of freedom. I loved competing in CWF, in facing down one powerful opponent after another. But in its own way it was restrictive. I was bound to travel where CWF travelled; to face whoever I was required to face. It was made worse by being Champion, with all eyes on me and everyone gunning, to some degree, for my title. Quite often, it would mean fights I had no interest in, or at the least, challenges I had no interest in. Silas Artoria, who Eris and I had spend the better part of two months kicking up and down the tag team circuit, was particularly annoying there; but the fact was that I just didn’t care about him. I’m sure that Silas would have described himself as a thorn in my side; charitably, he could perhaps be described as a pain in my neck. He was a distraction.
Defeating the Institute, defeating the Order, saving my husband… that was what I cared about.
That business was what had taken me to Washington. I had received a tip, some time ago, that the Order would be meeting at the Watergate at the end of July; I’d received updated intelligence that the meeting had been changed to the 7th. I wondered whether it was due to the date change of Summer Games. I doubted it; the Order considered wrestling beneath their notice.
Eris had accompanied me to Washington. We had debated and decided that my confrontation with the Order should be me alone. Eris had only one major reservation…
‘What exactly isyour plan?’ they asked as they began unpacking their suitcase in our hotel room.
‘What do you mean? The plan is to confront the Order and get my husband back.’
‘Yes, but…’ they struggled with a particularly bulky hard drive that I knew to contain Discordia, Eris’ own personal deity. I reminded myself to remind Eris of our rules on communion - pants on if it was before 1am. Eris delicately placed Discordia’s hard drive on the desk and turned to me. ‘… I mean, what specificallydo you intend to do? I get that we have the location of their meeting, but… are you just going to kick down the door and ask nicely?’
‘I wasn’t thinking nicely.’
‘Then what? You’re going to beat the stuffing out of the entire Order of the Oncoming Storm? Including your parents? And what if they -’
‘Dammit, Eris!’ I yelled. ‘Don’t you think I’ve already asked myself these questions? I don’t have a plan, save hoping to God that Dan is there and dragging him out myself. But this is the only break we’ve gotten in months. And it took one of the world’s best hackersto get it and even shehad trouble. I know where the leadership of the Order is going to be, at least which building they’re in.’
‘It’s the Watergate. But Ivy said that she’ll be able to get a confirmation on the room number once they’d all arrived and were - ’
Almost on cue, my phone dinged. I pulled it from my pocket.
‘CALI - THEY’RE IN THE PRESIDENTIAL SUITE - ROOM 1400. DON’T KNOW HOW LONG FOR. ’
I looked at Eris. ‘I’m sorry, Eris. I have to go.’
They nodded, their chin betraying the slightest quiver. ‘Come back safe.’
I sprinted down the hallways of our crappy hotel, pushing the elevator button repeatedly. I wished that they would invent button technology that understood urgency. It finally opened, and I charged in, drawing strange looks from the Indian tourists already occupying the elevator. I didn’t care in the least.
I saw a cab pulling up beside the hotel rank. I shoved a guy in a Make America Great Again hat out of the way and jumped into the back seat of the car, ignoring his misogynistic slurs. I gave the cab driver a fifty and said ‘Watergate.’ He started driving, looking like he was going to comment on my rude behaviour but quickly realizing that said comment would not be well received.
I couldn’t believe this day was here.
The taxi sped down Constitution Avenue. On reflex, I flipped off the White House as we drove past it. As much as anything, I wanted something to do with my hands. I’d faced down nerves over big confrontations before: Jace Valentine, Elisha, MJ Flair. And yeah, I’d been nervous. But this… this was different. At least in each of those cases I knew what I was facing: physical violence. The form differed, certainly, but the theme was constant. Here… I didn’t know what I was in for. A fist fight against the Order’s security? A gunshot? Or, perhaps worst, being met simply with laughter, ridicule. I was just one woman, a woman that most of them saw as little more as a girl, going up against one of the most powerful organizations in the history of the planet.
And I was alone.
I shook off the thoughts. Even if I was horrendously outmatched, for all I knew this was the only chance I’d get. There was nothing to gain from waiting.
The cab ride to the Watergate couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes, but it felt like an eternity. The sun was not quite setting, but it was beginning to move rapidly towards the Potomac and the sun was starting to turn pink. I strode through the lobby and to the elevator, ignoring the concierge’s chirpy greeting. I was alone in the elevator this time. The long, slow journey to the top floor seemed to take longer and longer between floors the higher up we got, and I clenched my fists and cricked my neck on reflex. Finally, the elevator stopped, and I took a deep breath. It was a good thing I did, because as the doors swung open I gasped.
Standing in front of the doors, seemingly waiting for me, was my husband.
September 17th, 2009
‘Have you ever heard of the Championship Wrestling Federation?’ I heard Dan say from the other room.
‘I have… they were shortlisted for “Least Imaginative Federation Name”,’ I said with a wry chuckle.
‘Har har,’ he said, walking over to me and bringing his laptop. ‘I got an email from them. They’re interested in us.’
‘In us, or in you?’ I asked, my eyes narrowing.
‘… okay, so they only mentioned me. But we’ll be able to make inroads! They’ve offered me a debut in a contenders match for their Rising Star Championship, I’m sure that you’d be kicking ass and taking names in no time.’
I chuckled. ‘It took me monthsto claw my way to the midcard of CPW, whose idea of a “big show” was half-filling the football stadium at Thomas Jefferson High School.’
‘Go Spartans,’ said Dan, grinning.
‘Point is,’ I said, ‘whether people want to admit it or not, the business is kind of sexist.’
‘I dunno,’ said Dan, ‘this place seems legit. We’d be starting at a Pay Per View, and it looks like the main event has a woman in it?’
‘… and six men,’ he said sheepishly. ‘Okay, so the business is kind of sexist, even in the good places - but you’re Caledonia Summers! I’d bet anything that you’ll be World Champion by Christmas 2010.’
‘Maybe if you get injured,’ I said, sticking my tongue out and winking.
‘Look, we could use the employment. I don’t think CPW’s going to be coming back unless they sort out that thing with Asher’s bladder - ’ I shuddered at the memory, and Dan continued ‘ - and at any rate, this is the big leagues! What’s the worst that can happen?’
August 7th, 2018
‘Dan?!’ It was all I could do to prevent my jaw from actually dropping. Any thoughts of grabbing him, pulling him into the elevator and running like hell, were being stopped somewhere between brain and arm.
He nodded. ‘Hello, Cali.’
A long, long silence passed between us. Or maybe it just felt long. A lot passed through my mind. I’m pretty sure I went across all the stages of grief, repeating them endlessly as though they were on a roulette wheel. Eventually the wheel stopped on one, and I reacted accordingly.
‘FUCK YOU, DAN!’ I shrieked. ‘YOU DISAPPEAR FOR SIX MONTHS AND DON’T EVEN CONTACT ME AND FOR ALL I KNOW YOU’RE DEADAND-’
‘I had thought you might react this way,’ he said, ‘though I had hoped you wouldn’t.’
‘How the fuck,’ I said, ‘are you so fucking calm right now?’
‘Oh, I’ve known you were coming,’ he said, infuriatingly calmly. ‘Tell Ms. McGinnis that “Odysseus” isn’t nearly as untraceable as she thinks.’
It took me a moment to process that. ‘You… knew I was coming? And that I’d hacked the Order’s firewalls?’
He smirked. ‘This whole meeting was fabricated to draw you to us.’
What?I said nothing, but I didn’t need to. Dan had been - was, god damn it, he wasmy husband- he knew all of my subtle nonverbal expressions. ‘You should give old Aunt Ivy credit,’ he said, ‘she actually did break through the firewall, which we thought impossible… but only to unimportant sectors, at first. But she was getting too close for comfort. So we decided to give her what you wanted - information about the Order’s alliance with Elijah and Omega, and information on where the leadership of the Order could be found.’
‘I don’t understand,’ I said. Caledonia, you stupid bitch, grab him and run!‘Is this meeting fabricated or not?’
‘Partially,’ he said. ‘The information we leaked to Ivy implied that this would be a meeting of the full Order - it’s just a select subset of the leadership. But we shouldn’t delay. They’re waiting for us.’
‘They’re waiting for us,’ he said, ‘so if you’ll come with me…’
‘No!’ I was coming to my senses, no longer reeling from the shock. ‘Dan, you have to come with me, this might be the best chance we have to escape!’
He laughed. I hated the way his eyes looked - the twinkle that I so loved was gone from them, replaced by… I don’t even know what. ‘I don’t wantto escape, Cali. I’m the Starchild.’
‘You actually believe that crap,’ I said. Even I didn’t know if it was a statement or a question.
‘I didn’t, at first,’ he said. ‘But… well, everything starts to make sense, once you think about it.’
‘So does the theory that the Royal Family are lizard-people, it doesn’t make it real! For God’s sake, Dan - ’
‘Did you know that Elisha and I were born at the exact same time?’ he said, interrupting me.
‘What?’ I said, surprised not so much by the fact but by the oddness of Dan bringing it up.
‘Elisha and I,’ he said, ‘were born at the exact same time. As far as we can tell, to the minute. It’s why he tried to kill me. He saw me as someone who could oppose him.’ He closed his eyes. ‘And the Moon shall cast down the Stars, and the Moon and the Sun shall clash in the sky, and the Moon shall Eclipse the Sun, and the Stars shall rise…’
‘… and so shall begin a great Storm that shall last seven centuries, and all shall bow before the Will of the Strongest,’ I said, remembering the words from the Book of Beginnings and Endings. Then I shook my head. ‘But so fucking what?’
‘That,’ he said, ‘is best explained by someone else. Come.’
‘Who?’ I demanded, but Dan had turned his back and begun walking. I seized my opportunity and jumped on him, seizing him around the neck. But he was expecting it - he threw me in a snapmare, and I landed hard. He offered me a hand. ‘All I want,’ he said, ‘is for you to listen to what the leadership of the Orders have to say.’
‘I’ve said too much,’ he said, lengthening his stride. In spite of every follicle of my better judgement shrieking at me to try again, to not stop until I had him safely home, I followed. He reached the door and gestured towards it. I walked up slowly, hesitatingly. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you wanted to confront the Order of the Oncoming Storm. They’re in there.’
I felt tears welling in my eye. ‘I wantedyou back, Dan. It’s all I’ve wanted out of all of this. I don’t give a damn about anything else.’
‘I know,’ he said, and for the briefest of nanoseconds I thought I saw a flash of the man I married behind the cold, smug eyes of this… Starchild. He opened the door. I walked inside. The room was immensely spacious, more so than even the rooms I’d stayed in as World Champion. There were floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows, and I could see the sun setting over the Potomac in the background. In any other circumstances, I’d have thought it to be beautiful. But I wasn’t looking at the view.
There were five - no, six people in the room, all facing me… well, all but one. I recognized most of them. Lord Urquhart, sitting in an armchair, directly facing me. Admiral Spencer, leaning against the window.
My mother, I had almost missed. She was sitting towards the back of the room, her head hung. I wondered why.
There were two people I vaguely recognized, but couldn’t name or place. A man in a crisp grey suit with wire-rimmed glasses, and a woman in her late sixties, sitting with her back perfectly straight, the hint of a knowing smile across her face.
‘Ah, thank you, Starchild,’ said Urquhart. ‘You may go.’
‘My Lord,’ said Dan, nodding and closing the door.
‘Wait!’ I yelled, but the door closed behind me. I turned slowly to face the Order.
‘Perhaps some introductions are in order,’ said Urquhart, smirking somewhat at his pun. ‘Miss Caledonia Summers, this is-’
‘Mrs. Caledonia Highlander,’ I said acidly. I had never been one to use “Mrs” but I wasn’t about to let Urquhart’s power-play stand.
He ignored me. ‘This is James Reynolds,’ he said, pointing to the man in wire-rimmed glasses. ‘I believe he employed a friend of yours.’
Amber’s boss! So wait, she was… ‘Yes, your friend Amber Ryan has been quite an asset to the Order. She’s been tracking down “bad people” - which is to say, Institute officials. She’s the reason the Order once again has control of the Institute’s oil ventures in Texas.’ He coughed and continued. ‘And you are familiar with, though you may not remember - this is Sophia Stargazer.’
Wait… of course! ‘You!’ I screamed. Stargazer smirked and rose to her feet. ‘You’re the cunt that he - ’ I pointed at my father. ‘- had an affair with!’
‘There was a reason for that, Caledonia,’ said my father. ‘And if you’ll-’
‘Shut up!’ I didn’t understand what the hell was going on here, and I was aware of the fact that I sounded like a petulant teenager. But the reality was that I was feeling a truly bizarre cocktail of emotions at present; anger was simply winning out.
‘If you would have a seat, Miss Summers,’ said Urquhart, ‘some explanations are due to you.’
I scowled. ‘I’ll stand.’
‘So be it,’ he said. ‘Well. Let’s begin.’ He looked at me expectantly.
‘You have stormed our proverbial castle, looking for answers - ask your questions.’
I actually didn’t know what to make of that. I had gone over so many scenarios in my mind - being greeted at the elevator by my husband and being invited to ask questions like an errant schoolgirl was not one of them. So I went with the default question. ‘What do you want with Dan?’
Urquhart looked over his glasses. ‘To end the Institute.’
‘But what do you need Dan for?’ I demanded. ‘You have a goddamn Royal Navy Admiral, the entire might of the British military behind you - the Institute has formed itself into a convenient sovereign nation for you to declare war on - what do you need with one professional wrestler?’
‘If our goal,’ said my father, ‘were the utter destruction of the Institute, then no, we wouldn’t need Dan. You are correct - it is likely within our power to obliterate them entirely, and some of us - ’ he shot a glare at Spencer, ‘- have wanted to do exactly that. But the Order has ultimately decided to go a different way.’
‘And that way is?’
‘The Spirit Science Research Institute has amassed considerable wealth and power,’ said my father, ‘more, indeed, than they stole from the Order. The difficulty is, much of the Institute’s wealth is dependent upon its leadership. Ryan Pierre and the Moonchild; both destined to rule the Institute, both able to draw legions of followers; followers with considerable wealth, in some cases.’
‘And there’s no chance of them joining the Order, of course,’ said Spencer.
‘Right,’ I said tersely. ‘So what does this have to do with Dan?’
‘And the Moon shall cast down the Stars,’ said Stargazer. I shot her a glare. If she noticed it, she didn’t seem to care, continuing. ‘The Moonchild throws Daniel Highlander from atop a Tower. And the Moon and the Sun shall clash in the sky.The Moonchild and Ryan Pierre - calling himself Sunset - fight in the heavens. And the Moon shall Eclipse the Sun- a total solar eclipse over the skies of the North.’ She fixed her gaze directly on me. ‘And the Stars shall rise.’
I couldn’t help it. I laughed, cackling wildly. The reactions were mixed. Urquhart looked affronted, Spencer smug. My father simply looked confused, and Stargazer’s expression was inscrutable. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘you actually believethat crap? It was just something Clyde Pierre scribbled down when he’d had too much absinthe!’
‘Perhaps it was,’ said Urquhart. ‘But as you learned when you read your father’s diary, symbolism is powerful. If we are to take control of the Institute and its resources, we need a symbol. We need, in short, the Starchild.’
‘And you decided to take my husband,’ I spat, ‘your son-in-law,’ I said, looking at my parents.
‘We did,’ said Urquhart. ‘And would do so again. But look what we have done for him! He is once again able to walk, he is a more effective fighter than he has ever been. And we will achieve the goal that he - and you - crave: a world without the Spirit Science Research Institute. At least, the Institute as it is currently understood. And we can prevent the future they desire; the future that will come to pass unless a different future takes its place. The future of the Order.’
‘What future? What do you mean?’ I demanded. ‘You’re speaking as though you know what’s going to happen!’
‘We do,’ said Urquhart flatly.
I hadn’t been expecting that. ‘What?’
‘There was… a vision, of what the future of the Institute would be. It suffices to say that it was not a pleasant future.’
‘What?’ I scoffed. ‘From Lady Morgana over there?’
‘From someone you know well,’ said my father, ‘someone not known for his delusions. Justin Rishel.’
‘He was given a psychedelic drug that allowed him a vision of three hundred years into the future,’ said James Reynolds, who I realized hadn’t yet spoken. ‘Upon learning that we had recruited his son, and that we stood against those who had deposed him from control of his beloved CWF, he joined the Order and told us all that he had seen. And we have determined that not only is he telling the truth about what he believedhe saw… but that the future he saw is both feasible and likely, should the Institute consolidate its power and assume control.’
‘You cannot be serious,’ I said. ‘I cannot believe what I’m hearing. You’re rational people. You seriously believe this garbage?’
‘Whether or not it’s true, I think we can agree that stopping whatever future the Institute envisions is desirable,’ said Urquhart, ‘and as we have explained, we need Daniel Highlander to stop that future.’
‘Well, you can’t have him,’ I said, realizing the futility of my words.
‘We already do,’ said Spencer. ‘At this point the question is whether youwill be allowed to have him back when we are finished with him.’
Oh fuck. In the corner of my eye I saw my mother betray the slightest uncomfortable shift. I realized that she had not yet spoken either. I weighed the benefits of calling her out and decided against it. Better to gather more information there.
‘Alright, so you use Dan to take on Elisha,’ I said. ‘Leaving aside the fact that the last time they fought, Elisha won - how exactly do you plan on breaching his defences? He has an entire nation dedicated to his personal defence, and he’s quite possibly the most paranoid man on the planet… save maybe the orange bastard who lives down the road from here.’
‘We’ve had a person on the inside for a very long time,’ said Urquhart. ‘Deep in the inner circle of the Institute.’
I was surprised they would reveal that to me… but then who would I tell? The only person who would benefit from the knowledge was Elisha, and I certainly wasn’t going to help him.
‘Who is it?’ I asked. I saw Stargazer smirk.
‘That would be me,’ came a lilting voice from a hallway I hadn’t looked down. I spun on my heel and scowled at the slender figure swaggering down the hallway, dressed in the grey suit of the Chosen, bearing a smug grin on her annoyingly even-proportioned face.
‘Jezebel,’ I snarled. I turned to the rest of the Order. ‘I don’t know what lies you’ve been fed, or what she said to make you believe her, but you cannotbe hinging your plans, the fate of my husband, on thisbitch!’
‘Now, now, Caledonia…’ purred Jezebel. ‘Is that any way to speak about your little sister?’
‘As I said, Caledonia…’ said my father, ‘there was a reason for my affair all those years ago.’
Jezebel strode across the room, making sure to bump me with her shoulder as she went to sit in the most comfortable unoccupied armchair. She threw her feet up over one arm of the chair and settled in, looking at my father expectantly.
He took a deep breath. ‘Twenty years ago, the original Founder of the Institute, Clyde Pierre, died. There were those of us in the Order of the Oncoming Storm who believed that the time was ripe to strike at them, to take back what we had lost. But… even with Pierre dead, the Institute still commanded too much power for us to take them down by ourselves. We needed… an alliance.
The Order of the Oncoming Storm was formed in the late 19thcentury, in response to the rise of Marxism. In the mid-20thcentury, with the true revolution Marx envisioned never having arisen, our Order began to fragment. Clyde Pierre, a hereditary member of the Order, exploited this fragmentation. He took over the Order, and used its resources to found the Institute. But ours was not the only Order so consumed.
There was another Order, the Friends of Myrddin, an occult group dedicated to study of… well, of the occult. Our Orders never crossed paths; we were in completely different realms. But then came a woman named Raven Stargazer. She swept in and took command of the Friends of Myrddin, renamed them to the Order of the Lunar Eclipse, and pledged her loyalty to the Order of the Oncoming Storm - or so we thought. In truth, her loyalty was to Clyde Pierre, the Usurper. It was she who helped to shape the Institute into what it is, and most of its core tenets were written at least in part by her.
It was an alliance between the Order of the Lunar Eclipse and the nascent Institute that took down the Order of the Oncoming Storm… and so, with the Institute seemingly vulnerable, some of us chose to make a new alliance.
Sophia Stargazer detested the direction her mother had taken the Order of the Lunar Eclipse; an order to which their family had belonged for generations. She was raised at her grandmother’s knee, hearing stories of the Friends of Myrddin and the research they did; what she saw was her mother cutting deals with a devil for the sake of material wellbeing. So she was amenable to renewing the old ties… at a price.’
‘A child was born,’ said Sophia Stargazer in that irritating mystic voice of hers, ‘a child born of two powerful lines. The Stargazers and the Summers. This child would be an answer to the Princessof the Institute, to rule alongside the Starchild.’
‘You didn’t think it might be a better idea to find the Starchild first?’ I scoffed.
‘We had every intention of finding the Starchild,’ said Spencer, ‘but then the Institute, to our delight, chose Henry Benson as its leader. An immensely weak-willed man; it was thought that he could be manipulated into doing our bidding. And he could be, to some extent. But not enough, and not quickly enough. The son of Pierre returned, backed from the shadows by the Moonchild, and Benson was imprisoned.’
‘And by the time it became clear that the Benson plan wouldn’t work,’ said my father, ‘it was too late. So our Orders went their separate ways… until this year. The Moonchild was revealed to us, and plans began to form. The girl, born of the Lunar Eclipse and the Oncoming Storm, made her way into the Moonchild’s inner circle; we set about finding the Starchild. The rest, you know.’
I took a deep breath. ‘Well then. I can’t say this hasn’t been fun. So, I’ll be leaving with Dan now. Toodle-oo.’
Spencer scoffed. ‘Highlander’s already gone, girl. He was only waiting around long enough to show you where his loyalties now lie.’
‘Where is he going?’ I demanded.
‘Mahknovia,’ said my father. ‘Or Pierreia, as it is now being called. He is to be a symbol of resistance to the Institute; where better to begin?’
‘Maybe somewhere that isn’t an active fucking warzone?’ I yelled. ‘What the hell is wrong with you people?’
‘I told you she’d developed a temper, Daddy,’ said Jezebel smugly to my father. I bit down the rage that came from her using that word.
‘We want,’ said Urquhart, ignoring Jezebel, ‘to bring down the Institute, and restore its resources to their rightful owners. To do that, we need two things; time, and the Starchild. Once the Institute has fallen… once the Institute has fallen and its resources are under our control, Mr. Highlander will be returned to his wife. So long as she makes no attempt to hinder us.’
‘In other words,’ said Reynolds, ‘you’re not to say anything of what you heard to anyone. Or else… well, we may need the Starchild now, but who’s to say we will stillneed him once the mission is complete?’
‘So then. Do we have an understanding?’ asked Urquhart. The eyes of the Order turned to me - all but those of my mother.
I took a deep breath and sighed. ‘Fine. We have a deal.’
‘Well then,’ said Spencer, ‘toodle-oo.’
And so I turned and walked out of the room.
Once I reached the elevator, I slammed my fist into the wall and screamed. I felt the elevator shake, but I didn’t stop. I kept pummelling the marble walls, taking out my rage and frustration on the menu proclaiming the $24 steak and lobster special.
How, how do I keep being so badly outmanoeuvred? Urquhart and Spencer, not to mention my father… they’d played me like a fool in everything leading up to and including this fucking meeting. They dangled my husband in front of me just long enough to show that he now thought of himself as the fucking Starchild, not the man I married.
I decided to walk home rather than take another cab. In any other circumstance, I would have found myself remarking upon what an absolutely lovely evening it was… but tonight I hated this city, and everything in it. I hated the fact that this was the place on which I had pinned so much hope, that I was so sure that inspiration would strike me and I would be bringing Dan back to the hotel room triumphantly, being met by a fist-pumping Eris who would coyly (oh who am I kidding, they’re never coy) suggest a threesome before leaving to give us time to catch up.
But no. I was returning alone, arguably with less than I had going in. Before I could have held some hope that the Order was keeping Dan against his will… but no, he was free. And he had given me none of the subtle signals that we knew of each other, nothing to indicate that anything was wrong. No… this was where he wanted to be.
November 11th, 2018
I rose from my bed, donned my athletic gear, and set off on one of the running trails we had set up around the Commune.
I liked running. It distracted me from everything else.
I was running half-marathons every other day now; it took me a couple of hours, and it meant that I would be finished with my run by the time that everyone else was getting up for breakfast. It had been easier earlier in the year, waking up that early; now, the sun was barely rising by the time my run was finished. But I didn’t care.
I took my breakfast alone, as had become my custom. In the first few days after my meeting with the Order, people would try and join me; Eris or Oscar or some of those who remained loyal to me. But it was too hard, too hard to keep control, to not tell these people who I trusted, who trusted me, what I had learned. But the Order had absolute power over the person I cared about most, and I no longer dared to defy them. No… I would obey the conditions of the deal.
But it was damn near impossible.
I think Eris might have cottoned on to the fact that something was wrong; they had told the others to give me some distance. I could tell that they were reluctant to, especially Flame, who I had rescued from an Institute prison. They wanted to help me… but I couldn’t be helped.
I finished my breakfast, cleared my dishes, and went back to my chambers. When the Commune had been founded, there had been a small cottage on the land; over the last few months, said cottage had been semi-legally expanded, and it was now a dwelling about half the size of the Academy. As the “leader”, I had been given a large room with my own bathroom; I often wondered nowadays if I ought to give it up, since Eris and John Njeri had taken over most of the role of leadership. But if either of them wanted my room, they’d not given the slightest indication.
The days were long. Of course, there was almost always something to do, and I was usually willing to do it… but sometimes there were slow days, and this was one of them. Maybe it had something to do with the Armistice; most of the people at the Commune were students of history in some degree or another, and the centennial of the Great War had many of them in somber moods. Some still were gone for the long weekend - not that long weekends made much difference up here. But it was quieter than usual. If nothing else, Eris had left some days previously; that always made things quieter.
But whatever had caused it, this was a slow day. And I hated those. When I was doing somethingI could lose myself in it, forget the situation I was in… do something other than stare at the calendar and wonder if today would be the day that I was permitted to have my husband back.
In an effort to distract myself I had begun re-reading Nineteen Eighty-Four. Dystopian fiction had become appealing to me of late; I had read this book, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, even The Hunger Games, more times than I could count in recent months.
I was snapped out of my thoughts by a knock at my door. It was Oscar “The Grouch” Gonzales, one of the people it had been hardest to shake. He and I had fought alongside each other at the Battle of the Academy, and he was stalwartly loyal.
‘Hey, Cali?’ he said. ‘Um… you have a… visitor.’
He walked away as I sat up. My eyes widened as my mother walked into the room.
‘Hello, Caledonia,’ she said, nervously.
‘Get out,’ I said.
‘Get OUT!’ I said, throwing the book at you. ‘It’s been months, months, and I’ve kept the Order’s fucking secret plans, and I’ve had no word, nothing at all about when I get my husband back. So unless you’re here to-’
‘I’m… not here for the Order. In fact, they don’t know I’m here. I’m going against their will.’
‘As we speak, an Order-backed force is moving into Pierreia to take down the Moonchild. Dan is not with them, but he is there; the plan is for him to capture the Moonchild. The plan, that is, that the Order has told the James Skelton Brigade.’
‘The James Skelton Brigade?’ I spat. ‘Don’t you people dare use his name.’
‘”You people”, in this case, is your friends - Elijah, Omega, and Eris, among others. They have been told that the plan is to capture the Moonchild; in truth, the plan is for the Moonchild to be executed.’
‘Good,’ I said. ‘If it weren’t for Elisha none of this would have happened.’
‘But Elijah has convinced Dan to stay the execution; Dan will bring Elisha to London, to be held prisoner at a secure Order facility. He thinks we do not know; in truth, it’s been deemed a superior outcome. Better that we have a backup in case Dan fails,’ she said, no small amount of bitterness in her voice.
‘Elisha will never join the Order.’
‘Not so long ago you would have said that Dan would never join the Order.’ When I didn’t have a rebuttal, she continued. ‘There’s more. I have been willing to go along with the plans of the Order in some ways, but… they have taken a bridge too far. I can’t stand by.’
And then she told me about the Order’s plan.
And my jaw dropped. And my fists clenched. And I felt rage rising in my chest, a desire to utterly destroy them.
‘So you trust that I am genuine?’ asked my mother.
‘I do,’ I snarled. ‘Next question. How quickly can we get to England?’
It was strange, flying next to my mother.
Oh, I’d done it dozens if not hundreds of times before, but not since… this. Not since I had learned all that I had about Orders and Institutes and Moonchilds and Starchilds.
And I had never done it with a half-dozen aspiring professional wrestlers in tow.
Once I had revealed what my mother had told me, the members of the Commune immediately rallied to my side, and insisted on accompanying me. I told them that I wanted to go alone, but they wouldn’t hear of it. So we all piled into a van and made for the City.
It was good that we had a longish drive. It gave me time to cool down; the last thing I needed was to be halted by some immigration officer who was just the right combination of surly and stupid, which might well happen if I lost my temper.
It was night by the time we made it to Kennedy Airport. Despite my comrades having understandable nerves about going through immigration (several of them having come through semi-legally at best, using forged passports created by Eris), we got through uneventfully and boarded the flight to London. It was infuriating, having to sit still for the nearly seven-hour journey; but, as I kept reminding myself, I had no choice. I threw back a couple of shots of vodka and attempted to get some sleep; what sleep I did get was fitful at best.
After clearing customs, a handful of people insisted on stopping for coffee. I didn’t object overmuch; we still needed to figure out what the plan was. As John Njeri came back bearing a tray of various forms of coffee, my mother gasped.
‘What?’ I said. She showed me her phone. There was a message from several hours previously.
We have a problem. They’ve taken him.
‘God damn it!’ I said loudly, drawing a great many stares. ‘Who’s they? Who’s him?’
But I knew. Elijah and Omega. They must have overpowered Dan and taken Elisha. But why? Well, that much was simple; they didn’t want the Order to get their hands on him. So where would they take him… of course, there was only one place.
‘What is it, Cali?’ asked Oscar. ‘We still storming Canary Wharf?’
‘No, Oscar,’ I said, ‘we’re going back home.’
Comprehension dawned. ‘Right on!’
My mother looked confused. ‘What’s happening?’
‘Elijah and Omega will be taking Elisha to the Academy. So that’s where we’re going.’
My face set grimly. ‘Because that’s where Dan’s going.’
I had done the long drive from London to the Academy several times before. I had even done it with company more than a few times. But usually what awaited us when we got there was food and drink and cheer; I had no idea what awaited us this time.
My mother had remained in London, returning to the Order’s headquarters in Canary Wharf. We figured that if I failed, she might be able to stop the worst of the Order’s plans. But I wouldn’t fail.
We roared up the M1 at a far greater speed than was perhaps advisable. Somehow, and I know not how, we avoided getting any speeding tickets. The city of York loomed, and we turned off ahead of it, making our way down the country roads that wended their way to the magnificent old building of the Academy.
We tore up the driveway at great speed. My fears came to pass - the Order had beaten us here. There were three helicopters parked at various points around the Academy. Most of the residents of the Academy had left after the battle, but a handful had remained - and now they held the line, fighting against Order soldiers. As our van roared up I saw that my cousin Mark was fighting Eris hand-to-hand, while Jezebel was fighting Omega. Eris seemed to have sustained an injury, and Mark had the upper hand. So I charged into the combat and laid out my cousin with a big right hand. Eris’ eyes widened. ‘I have neverbeen happier to see you,’ they said. ‘How did you -’
‘Short version: my mother had a change of heart,’ I said, laying out an Order soldier with a lariat. ‘And I’ll be very happy to tell you the long version over Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters later. Duck!’
They did, and I clotheslined the Order soldier that had tried to take Eris from behind.
‘So,’ said Eris, ‘we’re currently fighting Dan… to defend Elisha?’
‘I know,’ I said, ‘this all stopped making sense a long time ago.’
Omega, with a surge of effort, knocked Jezebel down with a big right hand. She looked over at me. ‘Caledonia,’ she said, as though my appearance was entirely expected, and we were about to sit down for tea and biscuits.
‘Omega,’ I said. In the heat of the battle, it was easy to forget that the last time we had been in the same room, I had driven her through a glass pane. ‘Where is he?’
Omega knew exactly who I meant, and pointed. I nodded. Behind me, I saw Mark stirring. I also saw the large boulder behind him, on which Jace Valentine had once shattered my right arm. I looked at Eris. ‘Per Crucem?’ I said.
Their face broke into a grin. ‘Vincemus.’
I kneed Mark in the stomach, and jumped on top of the boulder. Eris hoisted him up onto their shoulders, and I launched off the top of the boulder in a 540-degree kick, striking Mark across the face and knocking him unconscious. The Commune forces had turned the tide of this battle, and the Order was beginning to retreat, Jezebel cursing me under her breath. Is that any way to speak about your big sister? I thought, trying to use humor to mask the disgust the thought still filled me with.
But I had delayed long enough. I looked at Eris once more, and they nodded. I began running to where Omega had pointed me. Sure enough, he was there: I saw him pick up Zach van Owen and slam the young man down onto his knee; saw him knock down an older man I didn’t recognize. And I saw Elijah rising to his feet behind Dan, getting ready to strike - but Dan kicked him to the ground. I broke into a sprint and leapt, knocking Dan down with an elbow strike. He scrambled to his feet, and his jaw dropped as he saw me.
‘Caledonia,’ he said.
How, howdid we fall this far? I wanted nothing more than to collapse into his arms… but he needed to be stopped. I was convinced that the good man who was my husband was still in there; but right now, this was the Starchild, agent of the Order.
He broke the silence. ‘I have to take him, Cali.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘no, you don’t. He’s safe enough here; Elijah and Omega understand the stakes better than anyone. Just come back with me, leave all this behind! We can start fresh, away from Institutes and Orders and… all of it!’
‘I know you don’t approve of the Order,’ he said. Fucking understatement. ‘But surely you understand why I must stand with them?’
‘Over your own wife?’
‘You heard what Rish saw. You know the future the Institute wants. The Order are the only ones who can stop that future!’
I scoffed, gesturing back to his Order forces, retreating to this helicopter, Jezebel leading them as they were harried by the forces of the Academy and the Commune. ‘We seem to be doing alright for ourselves.’
‘In this one fight, in this one place, against troops explicitly ordered not to use lethal force,’ he said coldly. ‘Against the global power of the Institute, the paltry forces you’ve mustered are just piss in the wind. You think the Order fears the likes of you?’
‘I knowthe Order fears the likes of me,’ I spat. ‘Jaiden told me: this war will be fought by individual champions. All shall bow before the Will of the Strongest - and I’ve stood against the champions of Institute and Order alike. Elisha, Sunset, Carlton; I’ve fought and I’ve won.’
‘But can you fight me?’ he said, going into a fighting stance.
‘Guess we’ll have to find out,’ I said.
I was only vaguely aware of the melee around us stopping as all eyes turned to me and Dan. Well, all eyes but two; Omega had run to the side of the unconscious Elijah and was cradling him in her arms, ignoring all around her. I went into a fighting stance of my own, and we circled. I made the first strike, running in with a left hook. Dan ducked under it and countered with a knee kick - but I was ready for it, dodging to the side and elbowing him in the stomach. He staggered backwards, but as I made to deliver a flying knee of my own, he countered by sidestepping and hitting me with a spinning back kick. I fell face-first to the ground, but sprang to my feet just in time to avoid his stomp.
‘I don’t want to do this, Dan,’ I said, aware of the tears streaming down my cheeks.
‘And that,’ he said, charging in and knocking me to the ground, ‘is why you will never be able to stop the Institute.’
I leapt up again, this time laying him out with a crescent kick of my own. ‘Because I don’t want to fight the man I love?’
‘Because you aren’t willing to do what you have to do, the terrible things that - ’
‘I killed a man,’ I said. He stopped. ‘I regret it,’ I continued, ‘but I’d do it again if I had to. He was part of the Institute force attacking the Academy; if he’d succeeded in his goals, then more people might have suffered the fate that Flame suffered. Deprivation, pain, torture; with no possibility of release. I did a terrible thing that I can never undo. But if it meant that others were saved that fate…’
I saw something stirring behind his eyes. ‘So don’t fucking tell me what I’m not willing to do, Dan,’ I said. ‘At least I stayed faithful to you.’
‘What the hell is that supposed to mean?’ he said, now looking confused.
I laughed. ‘My mother told me about the Order’s plan.’
‘What plan?’ he asked. Is it… did they nottell him?
‘Let me guess,’ I said. ‘The Order’s always told you that once the Institute had fallen, there would be no more need for the Starchild; you could go back to whatever you wanted to do?’
‘Of course,’ he said. Oh my God. He doesn’t know.
This is my only chance.
‘They lied,’ I said. ‘The Order doesn’t seek to destroy the Institute at all. They want to control it. They want to remain in the shadows while the Institute does the work they can’t afford to be seen doing, all in the name of expanding their wallets.’
‘And?’ he said, his gaze hardening. ‘They needed me to take down the Institute; if I must stay on as a symbol so the Institute does not arise anew, what of it? What the fuck do you mean, remain faithful? I’ve done some terrible things, Caledonia, but I’ve never cheated on you!’
I laughed. ‘You know, I actually believe that. But how long will that last when the Order enacts their plan?’ I turned to Jezebel. ‘Do you want to tell him, or should I?’
Dan looked thoroughly confused. Jezebel fidgeted uncomfortably, her face betraying subtle hints of fury. I turned back to Dan. ‘I don’t know if you’ve met my half-sister,’ I said to gasps from the assembly. ‘Born of my father, and dear old Sophia Stargazer. The merger of the Orders of the Oncoming Storm and the Lunar Eclipse, born to secure an alliance. But that alliance required another commitment. One made necessary by the symbolism of the Institute, the mythos of the Moonchild.’
‘They were going to annul your marriage to Caledonia… and marry you to Jezebel,’ came another voice. Omega. I turned to her, seeing tears welling in her eyes. ‘”And so the Moonchild shall take as his bride the Princess, born of the dance of sun and moon; and they shall reign over the earth for all eternity.”’
Dan rounded on Jezebel. ‘Is this true?’ he demanded.
‘So what if it is?’ she purred. ‘With the two Orders united, and the power of the Institute at their command, anything you wanted could be yours. You two could still be together… I wouldn’t mind. I can share.’
My fist clenched. But I held the line. The next seconds were everything. One wrong move and I risked losing him forever.
Dan turned on the spot, running his hands through the hair on the back of his head. I knew that gesture; he was utterly distressed. I could guess at the dilemma within his mind. Stop the Institute, or keep the vows he made all those years ago?
I was about to speak, but another voice rose first. ‘The Institute is beaten, Daniel,’ said Elijah, bringing himself to his feet, wincing and leaning on Omega. Dan turned to him. ‘The Moonchild is our prisoner, the Institute’s hold on Pierreia has been broken. The future that Justin foresaw will not come to pass. All that remains for you is to choose the future you want.’
‘Don’t be a fool,’ growled Jezebel. ‘Power, wealth, fame - anything you want can be yours as the Starchild!’
Dan said something under his breath.
‘What?’ said Jezebel, moving in. Out of nowhere, moving like a snake, he grabbed her by the throat.
‘Except the only thing that matters,’ he snarled. ‘The Order promised me one thing. That when all was done and the Institute was defeated, I could go home to my wife. But it was a lie, all of it, a manipulation. They planned to take from me the only thing that I cared about; and not for the purpose of preventing the Institute’s future, but for the sake of lining their pocket-books.’ He spat.
‘It’s not too late, Dan,’ I said. ‘I love you. Come home.’
That did it. He slammed Jezebel into the helicopter and ran over to me. And finally, after nearly a year… I was able once again to hold my husband in my arms. I pressed my cheek against his chest, daring myself to accept that this was real, that at long last I was done, that I had finally gotten him back.
I don’t know exactly how long we held each other. I know objectively it can’t have been that long, because at some point Dan broke the hug to turn to Mark. ‘Return to the Order,’ he said. ‘Tell them what happened. Tell them it’s over.’
My cousin winced. ‘I can’t guarantee that they’ll like that answer.’
‘They’ll have to accept it,’ said Dan. ‘Now go.’
And to my surprise, Mark nodded. He hoisted Jezebel onto his shoulders and signalled for the Order soldiers to follow him onto the helicopter. No-one said anything as it flew away. It was Eris who finally broke the silence. ‘So… pub?’
‘Pub!’ came the chorus.
The group started walking towards the gates, but Dan and I lingered behind, holding each other tightly. Neither of us spoke for the longest time. Eventually, I did. ‘What happened here tonight…’
‘Cali,’ said Dan, the slightest imploring note in his voice.
‘I love you,’ I said, ‘and we will get through this together. But this isn’t going to be a short road, or an easy one. It’s been a long year, and so much shit has happened between us. I’d be lying if I said that I think things will be as they were before. But with time and therapy… we’ll be fine. That much, I believe with all my heart.’
He squeezed me tight. ‘You’re right. It’s going to take a lot to get this Starchild indoctrination out of my head. But I -’
‘We’ve said enough for tonight,’ I said. ‘We have all the time in the world to have these conversations. For now… I don’t know about you, but I need a bloody drink.’
‘Agreed wholeheartedly,’ he said. And so, arm in arm, we began walking. ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘I’ve just realized something.’
‘This was the second time we’ve fought against each other, and we’ve never once teamed up to fight.’
I smiled. ‘I think I might have an idea to remedy that…’