The air inside the passenger cabin of the Super Stallion Helicopter is tense and sombre as it jets high and fast through the air, getting further and further away from the region known as Pierreia. Though their engagement had been a successful mission, it had not gone according to plan. Zach van Owen studies his fellow passengers; Elijah, Omega, Dean Coulter, Ray Skelton, Serpico, Cyprian and Matthias Eddy all returning from the raid. Not a soul is willing to say or do anything for fear of exacerbating the fractures within the coalition and reigniting the internal fighting. Leaving the others to their thoughts, Zach exits through a partition and into the makeshift cargo hold of the sophisticated transport chopper. It would be perfect a location for solace and solitude if not for one individual shackled inside a small cell in the centre of the floor. That individual is the former leader of the world-wide shadow organisation known as the SSRI. The man known as Elisha.
The Moonchild stirs at the sound of someone approaching and looks up to regard his visitor. The once proud cult leader looks disheveled, forced into a kneeling position with his arms bound across his chest. His right limb quite noticeably missing a hand. Yet despite this, there is still a poignant aura of menace around him. Realising it is the young Zach approaching, Elisha breaks out into a smile.
"Ah the little self proclaimed Saint of Truth and Justice, gracing me at last with his presence. Why have you come young Whelp? To celebrate your victory...Or perhaps to assuage you of your guilt for inaction against injustice." The Moonchild dips his head to acknowledge his missing appendage.
"Consider yourself lucky, you are too dangerous to be left unchecked, and the alternative was killing you."
"Thus it justifies this punishment? The complete amoral willful ignorance of due process? With your banding acting as Judge, Jury AND Executioner? Let me ask you this Hero...Do you really think they will take me to the World Courts? As dangerous as I am? Do you really think they will even risk me going free?"
Elisha is met with silence.
"Is that the truth of our stalwart hero? A hypocrite? He who can talk of upholding such values of honour and integrity, but when the chips are down will conveniently push them under the rug to see his vengeance complete...Still the naive little boy, a mouse, fighting in a world of lions and wolves in sheeps clothing. You know nothing of the real world boy!"
Zach considers the fallen antagonistic carefully.
"You know...There was a time, laid out on that hospital bed that I thought you had truly broken me. Beaten me. Something I never thought possible. And I was prepared to give up. But then...then I realised. You were the Bane to my Batman. Yes you had broken my body. But my spirit, my heart was unassailable. I just needed sometime to fully realise it. And so I clawed and crawled my way out of that dark pit of your despair, rising like the Dark Knight. And for so long I desired payback, I wanted nothing more than to punish you for what you did to me, the CWF and the world...The truth is Elisha. I should be thanking you. No one really cared about me until YOU took off my mask. I was finally able to put the dusty old Impakt cartridge on the shelf and load up the AAA title, Zach. Now in High Definition! I've adopted a new mantle. And in essence it's all thanks to you."
"I am known for creating monsters."
"I am no monster! I came here to show you, your failure. To gleefully tell you that your worst fear has come to pass. The world has all but forgotten you."
"My fear little Zach? I believe you are displacing your own mentality onto me."
"You will not get into my head anymore! The changes you sought to enact have all but faded into obscurity. Ultimately you amounted to nothing."
"And yet here you are."
"We are the few individuals who wanted, needed, to bring this game to its conclusion. And we have done so. And though you can no longer threaten the sanctity of the world, you left in your wake a stain, a power vaccum that so many seem desperate to fill. Soon you and your cult will be all but a memory."
"Perhaps you know more of the world than I realised. How they do grow up so fast."
"And I have taken it upon myself to see that doesn't happen...Even if it means turning a blind eye to the lesser of two evils for the greater good. Then so be it."
"If that helps you sleep at night Zach. Then all the power to you...Isn't that right Elijah."
Zach spins around in place to see his former mentor standing behind him. Perhaps for quite some time.
"There are times when we must accept a necessary evil in order to prevent a greater evil. Be at peace Zach, we did no wrong this night."
"It doesn't feel like it."
Elijah places a reassuring hand upon the young Impact Champion.
"Get some rest. It has been a trying evening."
Zach gives the Moonchild one final sideways glance, then concedes to the suggestion and leaves the two bitter enemies alone. Every step of his departure is watched closely by the Moonchild, who hides a growing grin of satisfaction. He recognises the growing seed of doubt within the young man. His work here is done.
Des Moines, Iowa, January 2019 (After Evolution)
"I'm gonna beat the living hell out of Styles!"
Zach van Owen's shout can hardly be contained by the thin walls of the room in the Staybridge Suites. A fact that Leona Gainsborough is well aware of and is trying her best to placate the enraged Impact Champion.
"Zach! Please! You need to stop glitching out. Calm down. I'm fine!"
Someone dressed as Zach's former alter ego, Impakt, and using one of Freddie's signature moves had attacked Leona as she was about to share Zach's victory. Naturally Zach had given chase to the attacker and he had stumbled upon Freddie, unmasked, backstage. Chaos erupted. Stage-hands, even the Forsaken, had intervened, all the while Freddie's claims of not being the masked attacker falling on Zach's deaf ears. Hence his current tantrum. A tantrum that is likely to bring the ire of their fellow patrons and possibly hotel security crashing down upon them. Zach struggles. He struggles against Leona who is holding him tightly, struggles to find the words, and struggles to get his rising anger in check.
"I don't want you anywhere near the match at Frozen Over."
"What? Not that tired old trope? How many times has the person trying to protect a loved one inevitably hurt them?"
"You don't understand."
Zach collapses, sitting at the foot of the bed.
"It's not for you...it's for me." The pain in Zach's voice as he says it, is enough to give Leona pause.
"Whatever's going on. Whomever's behind this knows where to hit me to do the most damage. They are forcing me to test Limits I would prefer to avoid. We'll make it harder for them. During the match stick by the Forsaken."
What he chooses not to mention is his own growing fear of what he may do to Freddie, what he could be capable of if the pushing doesn't relent. Not something he wants Leona to witness first hand. She clearly seems skeptical, looking at Zach as she considers his words.
"You sure that's the best thing for me to do?"
"I...I don't know..." Zach breathes. "I think I'll go for a ride. Clear my head."
Zach goes to collect his gear for a motorcycle ride, but Leona stops him with a swift clasping of his hand.
"Zach. You sure you're ok?"
"I'll...I'll be fine Leona. After all I got you."
"Your damn straight. And if you ain't I'm fully prepared to knock some sense back into you."
Finally a smile appears on both of their faces.
"It's one of the reasons I keep you around."
"Only one? What's the-"
With an arm around her waist Zach pulls Leona in close to him and kisses her. It's several moments before the couple release each other.
"Go have your ride you dork. And when you get back we're gonna get into some serious training. I may have a few new tricks I can teach you. And together we are beat these bad guys. Starting with Freddie, showing him just exactly why you are the Impact Champion the CWF needs, wants and deserves."
Normally Zach wouldn't have it any other way, but lately he's not so sure.
The story of Freddie Styles, once a role model, a competitor who emphasized the thrill of competition and in-ring innovation, corrupted by pride and greed and driven to immoral acts. He turned his back on the CWF.
Zach van Owen may share the same fate.
There is no denying Zach wants to beat Freddie, wants to win and retain his title, but is it for the sanctity of the title belt and the federation, or is it for his own personal gain?
You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain...
Such is the epic battle that rages on inside Zach's head. After his attack on Freddie following his match at Evolution, there's the grim feeling creeping up his spine that he is failing as a champion.
"Zach van Owen...you have failed the CWF." he whispers into the wind, with CWF Impact title belt in his hands and a panoramic view of Des Moines spanning beneath him.
Away from home and without his Fortress of Solitude, the Game-Changer seeks an alternative and during his introspective joyride through the city streets he settles for the Grand Avenue Bridge. Fro his vantage point he breathes in the serenity of the Des Moines river beneath him and the hustle and bustle of the city around him. Movement out of the corner of the eyes, a flash of familiar green and black and Zach snaps his attention away from his vantage point to a fleeting figure disappearing down a darkened alley. It would appear he was followed from the hotel. The logical part of Zach's brain is screaming out a trap, but a Vulcan he is not. The Game-Changer is far from logical at this point, he just wants to put an end to the mind-games and reveal the identity of the person behind the mask. He bolts down the alley.
It is empty, and strangely silent, showing no indication of anyone having gone through recently. Zach stops in place and tries shaking some sense back into himself. He's so worked up he's no imagining ghosts. Then he sees it, the familiar Impakt mask lying on the ground and next to it is a newspaper article. His hands starting to tremble Zach as he scoops up the article and apprehensively reads it. The article is from a British paper, detailing how a tavern in England, the Lockheart pub to be exact, had recently burned down. Zach had worked there, befriended the owner Sydney, and his daughter Celia, after his exodus from the fabled Academy. They had looked after him. The Lockheart Pub had been like a second home. The source and perpetrator of the fire was not known and luckily Syd and Celia were only mildly injured, but still, Zach knows this is no mere coincidence. This is a message. Yet another attack on Zach. Overcome with despair and rising anger once more Zach doesn't notice a green-and-black figure approach from behind. The next moment, Zach embraces unconsciousness.
A cold, wet towel is placed atop Zach's forehead, rousing him partially awake into the early hours of the morning.
"Mum? Mum is that you?"
"Eh? Nah mon amie I'm not ya ma. Yews been out for hours."
"I had a horrible dream...I dreamt that I was the CWF Impact Champion and someone was making my life a living hell. It was terrible."
"Yous prob not like what yew see when you open ya eyes den as yew staying in casa de Devereaux."
That revelation is enough to snap Zach back to reality. He fumbles out of bed, wide awake and realises that sure enough, he isn't in his own room and looking over him is none other than Tobias Devereaux.
He instantly goes on the defensive.
"Oh I see how it is, ole Tobias only found yew on de street, took yew in and made sure yew not headed for land of dead but don't bother wit a bit of tanks. I told yew Is not a bad guy our interaction has been pure business."
Refusing to panic, the Impact champion studies his options, of which there aren't many.
"How long was I out?"
"All night. That fella in de costume got yew good."
"All nigh-? Leona?!"
Zach scrambles for his phone, throwing the bed sheets over the room floor. Tobias reaches over to the bed side table, retrieves the phone and offers it to Zach who looks incredibly sheepish.
"I talked to yew woman. She's on her way. Yews lucky, she clearly cares for you."
"Yeah..." Zach slowly begins to calm "Though I feel I'm only gonna let her down and hurt her in the end. I'm not the man she deserves."
Tobias pulls out a cigarette and offers Zach one, who wordlessly refuses and studies his one time saviour. Is this another part of the plot? Or a genuine act of kindness? It's hard for Zach to know anymore.
"Why did you help me?"
"I ain't de enemy, but I ain't a friend either. Yew got someones out for ya blood kid and I figured I'd tip de scales a bit. Give yews a warnin'. It goes beyond Freddie and Milenko. Just cause James ain't in de picture no more don't mean yew in de clear."
"I can handle Freddie."
"Yew tink so? Wit all dis shit goin' on?"
"I'm no shrink, but I got Freddie's number. He is afraid and his actions are driven by that fear. His fear leads to anger, that anger evolves into hate. And through that hate he wishes to cause suffering. Our match at Frozen Over is gonna be bloody and brutal, Freddie desires carnage. Well he can call me Cletus frigging Kassady because I am done playing the game everyone elses' way. This is MY game god damnit! I am the Impact Champion! Chances are Freddie is just another hapless Badnik in the scheme, and I know they aim to psyche me out, but just like Elisha and Xander, he will come to regret it."
"De odds are stacked against yew, believe me I know alot when it comes to odds mon amie."
"If desperate times call for desperate measures, then extreme times must call for extreme measures. And I will not only rise to the challenge. I will rise ABOVE it. I will Kaioken the crap out of my potential and show Freddie the true power of Zach van Owen. There's always new button combinations to try out. New builds. I could go all day if need be."
"And people tink I'm hard to understand..."
Tobias Devereaux allows his curiosity to come forth, studying the young champion. The inner struggle is all to evident, Zach not having any points in the skill to hide his emotions, and the diatribe seems to be more for the Game-Changers own benefit, as if forcing himself to believe it. On one hand the kid does have a way to inspire the best out of people and it would be a shame if that was corrupted. But on the other...what a sight it would be if Zach were to one day truly let go and unleash the monster growing within.
"Tobias, I got a favour..."
The request seems to surprise both men.
"Yeah I get it. I know you won't get involved, but if need be, could you make sure that nothing happens to Leona?" The request of a man with few options.
There is no definite response, and the question is left hanging between the two competitors when Leona finally arrives with her own tirade against Zach prepared. As he departs, Zach gives one final look to Tobias, deciding then and there that the Cajun Sensation is no longer involved and ultimately not a villain.
You do not truly know someone, until you fight them.
At Frozen Over, the flames burning inside of Zach van Owen are too hot, too wild to freeze over and all hell is going to break loose on Freddie Styles.
One way or another this game is over.