Seattle, Washington, January 2019
It is a clandestine meeting that adopts the ideology of the best kept secrets being those left out in the open as a car pulls up, parking street side, in front of the Deja Vu Showgirls strip club. From out of the back passenger seat steps former CWF Co-Commissioner, James Milenko. He rearranges his suit jacket then looks to the front of house of the adult establishment with a clear look of annoyance.
A quick name drop and palming of legal tender and Milenko is fast tracked through the queue and ushered through the door, with mention of being expected. As if that wasn't already apparent since James was specifically requested to meet at this venue. Milenko and his shapely escort make their way through the main room, passing by the main stage without a seconds pause. James isn't exactly in the most festive of moods nor is he appreciative of the arrogance of the summons. But here is he nonetheless. Upon entering the backroom he is instantly welcome by the unpleasant visage of John Kreese, Private Investigator.
"Well that explains the location..." James scowls. John shrugs his shoulders in response, drawing more ire from the businessman.
"Ain't a guy allowed to enjoy himself?"
"When did you get back into the country?
"John's been around for a while now, proving he isn't just an outright waste of time and space. He's here by my invitation, just like you James."
James Milenko shakes his head in response to the absurdity of the current situation. Not for the first time he considers the deal he made with this particular devil, still deigning to keep their identity a secret, cloaked in shadow and mysterious machinations. All directed towards one individual, the young Impact Champion Zach van Owen. James can't help but wonder what slight their enigmatic benefactor had suffered to target the young aspiring superstar so.
"Man. You must really hate poor Zach." He exclaims, giving voice to his thoughts.
"Hate..." The shadowy figure pauses. "I suppose it could be seen that way. But I assure you, I don't hate the boy. But I seem to be one of the few wise and willing to do what is necessary. The boy is misguided and naive."
"And therefore deserves to suffer?"
"I didn't call you here to question me, James."
"Sorry, but then I wonder. Why did you bring me here?"
"To offer you the respect you've earned. I asked you here so I may say to you, person-to-person, that as you no longer hold a position of power and authority in the CWF you have no use for me. Your arrangement has come to an end."
"What?! You ask em here to this...cesspool, simply so you may fire me?! I mean twice in one week!!" The logical part of Milenko's brain, usually the dominant one falls into sway beneath the rise of the irrational and emotional parts. "You can't do this to me you son-of-a-bitch! We had a deal!"
"And you are unable to hold up your end of the bargain, so I'm giving you this easy out. Take it Milenko and walk away with some dignity left."
"Don't think I wouldn't take you done with me! I'm sure the authorities would love to know about your plans..." James realises how badly he crossed the line as soon as the words leave his mouth. Tense silence fills the backroom.
"Walk away Mr Milenko and I'll try to forgive that threat. But just remember the company I keep...If I get so much of an inclination you are trying to fuck with me then John here may have to pay you a visit."
The alarm bells inside Jame Milenko's head finally win over and he calms himself, realising how precarious of a position he is now in. It would not do him any favours if he continued to push this particular individual at this particular moment. Taking the exit, James turns on his heels and makes a wordless exit. John Kreese watches him leave with malevolent satisfaction.
"Want me to tie up that loose end..."
"You worry me sometimes John...alot."
"No. That won't be necessary. James won't risk implicating himself in our dealings. We are safe to continue our business. Here's what I want you to do..."
John Kreese listens with rapt attention to the details of the next step in the plan. There are few things he finds more enjoyable than the spectacle of the ladies dancing in the club, but sweet vengeance is certainly a close second.
If it was Halloween Zach van Owen would be well on his way to a respectable Mummy costume with his body wrapped in gauze and bandages, remnants of his intensely violent glass table match against Freddie Styles at Frozen Over. The pay-per-view is well and truly over, and though he remains the Impact Champion, the erstwhile and self-fashioned hero still bares the marks. Accompanied by Leona, the Game-Changer exits the Virginia Mason Hospital and together they hail down a cab to return to their room at Hyatt Hotel in downtown Seattle.
"Maybe its just me, but you'd think after such a harrowing ordeal at Frozen Over, they'd give you a break, a chance to rest and recover." Leona says, giving voice to her growing frustrations and concerns.
"It's the nature of the game Leona. When one level ends, another begins. And with it comes a whole new fight."
Leona glowers, giving her boyfriend a Look, with a capital L.
"Cut that promo crap out with me babe. You could've been seriously injured. Sometimes you just gotta save your game, turn off the console and come back to it later. Why'd you even agree to the tournament?"
"Cause it's a great opportunity, and I can't be seen as coasting along on Easy Mode."
"Easy? Frozen Over was EASY?!"
Their impassioned discussion draws the ire of their cab driver.
"I just meant-"
"I know what you meant and I'm still not happy about it!"
Zach sighs. At times it feels no matter what dialogue option he chooses, Leona is just going to disapprove.
"I know, but...could we press pause on this until we get back to the hotel room?"
Arms crossed, Leona huffs and puffs, turning to gaze out the window to watch Seattle zipping by. Zach feels like he's unintentionally pushing Leona away. He doesn't mean to shut her out, but he isn't yet ready to risk voicing his own concerns about himself and for the first time regrets his stance on wanting to always play it on the highest difficulty settings. However the problems for Zach and Leona are only going to get worse. They return to their hotel room, only to find it completely trashed. Furniture is turned over, their clothes splayed out all over the floor. Frantically the couple sweep the room to identify any missing items. There is only one, Zach's bag, but as far as they can tell the contents is all over the floor. Except for one important object...The life drains from Zach in an instant. The CWF Impact Championship belt is nowhere to be found. It is missing, no, it has been stolen.
"You have got to be kidding me." Zach growls.
"Babe..." Leona's voice grabs Zach's attention in some desperate hope that the title had simply been misplaced. It was far worse. She motions for Zach to come stand beside her in the bathroom. Stuck to the mirror is a photo. The photo shows the trashed hotel room with a figure seated on the bed. Zach recognises the individual immediately, it's his old nemesis, the antagonist known as Xander Haze. Xander has the Impact title draped over his shoulder and is giving the camera a thumbs up. Stunned Zach stumbles over to the bed with the photo in his hands, Leona watching in fear, concern, trepidation, frustration. A whole host of similar emotions.
"FUCK!" Zach cries out, tearing up the photo and falling back onto the bed. "How the hell can I continue to play the game when no one is gonna play fair! Every time I feel like I'm making progressing in protecting the fed. Everything glitches out and this shit happens!"
"It's never gonna end is it..." Leona says despondently, lying down next to Zach and pulling herself closer to him. The usually stoic and tough Lioness is cowed and meek, not something Zach is used to, nor enjoys. But regardless, it feels as if she is right, it doesn't look like there is any end in sight to the torment and mind games.
"It was a fool's hope to think that it ended with Styles. But now...now at least I can put a face to the enemy. Cause if Xander's back in action then my Spider-Sense is telling me that his former...benefactor can't be far behind. I'd be a Goomba not tot think Kreese isn't somehow involved. God I hate recurring villains sometimes."
"So what are we gonna do?"
Zach pauses, unable to look at Leona and possibly give away his doubts surrounding the use of 'Us', cause if John Kreese and Xander Haze are back to their old no-goodnik ways then chances are they'll be coming after Leona.
"C'mon Zach. You can't seriously be thinking about that with these guys back."
"If they are back, then they'll be wanting to try and take me out. Hurt me, stop me from competing. At least if I'm out in the ring they'll have to come to me. And I have a chance of knowing what I'm doing. At the very least I can Button Bash. But I can't go into hiding. Not now."
With a hand gently on his cheek, Leona turns Zach's face to look at her eye-to-eye.
"It's ok to admit if your worried Zach. Even the greatest superheroes have their moments of doubt."
A moment of silence falls between the couple, until finally Zach responds, quashing the rising fear and doubt with a mostly false charade of bravado.
"The only thing I'm doubting is if this Clyde Walker has enough quarters to see this game to its end."
Unpleased by the veiled response, Leona sits up.
"Fine. Have it your way." She starts cleaning up the room. "I'm not the only one worried that if this keeps up Zach, your gonna Red Ring of Death and then what?"
Zach simply shrugs.
"You can't exactly save the day if your unable to compete...Heroes know when to back down, ask for help and live to fight another day."
Further evidence that maybe, just maybe Zach isn't the hero he claims to be after all...
Agent Armstrong studies the off-brown coloured liquid in the mug that apparently passes for coffee in the Grizzled Wizard dive bar in Seattle. The venue seems a rather apt location to meet up with the young Impact Champion, but the CIA spook wishes he would hurry up. There's only so much poison his Constitution score can take. Armstrong checks his watch.
As if on cue, Zach steps through the door of the bar. Wearing a long-sleeved hoodie to try and hide the bandages still covering his limbs he draws a few quizzical looks from staff and patrons, before he lays eyes on the agent and joins him.
"If you're getting a drink I would suggest NOT getting the coffee. It tastes like something Jabba the Hutt might create."
"I'm fine with a Health Potion thanks."
Armstrong raises an eyebrow.
"Ah, a water."
"Geez. With all the shit going on with you, you're still determined not to drink? Props to your convictions kid."
"If only convictions could change the world..." Zach trails off.
"I wish I had some good news for you kid, but unfortunately your instincts were right." He drops a series of photographs taken from an airport security camera. The photos show John Kreese in the standard Hollywood incognito kit of baseball cap and sunglasses making his way through the airport. "Don't know how he slipped by, but John Kreese has been confirmed returning to the country. He's taken to ground, but I'll find him."
"Oh he'll come to me. I'm certain of that. And at least now I know who and what I'm dealing with." Zach studies the photos, wishing they weren't real and finding it hard to believe that someone of Kreese's gait could be so dastardly sneaky.
"I'm not so sure. John's a disgusting guy but he's no evil genius. He needed help to get back in the state and to remain hidden. In my professional opinion, he's doing the dirty work for someone else."
Zach groans. Who else could hate Zach so much to fall in with John and Xander and be orchestrating all the mind games and attacks?
"Probably not a coincidence this happens now, before Modern Warfare. HashtagNotCool."
"Actually on that. I'd thought I'd do you a solid and look into this Clyde Walker fellow."
"But ah...isn't that misusing government resources or something?"
Armstrong shrugs as he offers over a typical manila folder which contains a file on Zach's first round opponent, "Big Rig" Clyde Walker.
"The dude's got a few parking fines I thought worth investigating. No biggy."
"With a name like Big Rig, and from the way he looks the guy probably hits like a Mach Truck. I don't doubt if he gets his hands on me it's gonna frigging hurt. But a guy like that, probably doesn't have a high initiative score. It's the usual David and Goliath story, an overused trope where the big bad dude looks tough and hits hard, but has that one glaring weak spot that negates all the attack bonuses and advantages his size and power may give him. I just gotta find that weak point and then I can assure you it's game over, man, game over."
"Don't get cocky kid. In my line of work you can't afford to underestimate the situation. Surprises can get you killed."
There's a slight pause as Agent Armstrong asks the big question.
"You sure you're up to this?"
"I really wish people would stop asking me that! Alright yes, my mind is all over the place, I'm constantly watching my back and worried about those closest to me. And maybe I won't be fighting at full HP or MP. But when I'm in the ring, I am in the ring.See, unlike Clyde I got no brakes. He can't even dream to keep up with me. I'll be Sonic, attacks coming in at light speed, hitting the Rig from every possible angle like Destruction Derby."
The Game-Changer pauses as he laments on his career up to this point, staring into the crystal clear contents of his otherwise dirty glass, as if the water was some sort of scrying pool into the past.
"Under normal circumstances I'd be keen for the excitement of competing against a new opponent, someone new to the world of wrestling like I once was. And I would love to offer Big Rig the deference of a man who could have really pushed me, made me a better competitor simply from the experience of the bout. But times have changed. This is the end of the road for Clyde Walker. His game has to end before it even begins simply so mine can keep going. I have to do what is necessary to win this tournament and steer the federation back on the path of the light. I thought being the Impact Champion was enough, I thought carrying that +5 Belt would empower me to make the necessary changes. But the truth is, to save the federation I need to work from the top down. Starting with some answers from Shadow, and how else am I gonna get to him then by winning this tournament! It's a world for only the brave and the bold and I can't falter now. I admire the determination of Clyde Walker in taking this golden opportunity, but he's come to the CWF at the wrong time. I see the pillars of integrity starting to crumble under the assault of the evil-doers and badniks that roam the dark hallways. I'm no longer fighting for the grind of random encounters. I'm fighting for a greater purpose and I can't let the likes of a truck driver from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma get in my way."
"...a simple yes would have sufficed."
Armstrong didn't say anything at the time but he could see Zach's facade of confidence for what it was. A mask that is starting to crumble. They bid each other farewell.
The fight for the Impact Championship is temporarily over, but the war for the sake of the CWF is far from finished and the lines are starting to blur...