Melbourne, the Cricket Grounds, location for 2019’s edition of Confliction, just mere days away. Countless workers are busy getting the event set up, setting up trusses and canopies where the cage for the No Excuses match between MJ Flair and Loki Synn will be attached to. The stage is being built with the tron already in place between heavy steel trusses, everything being tied down even more than usual since the weather for Tuesday calls for rain and potential high winds. As the camera turns, some familiar faces are seated in some of the seats in the upper tier of the stadium.
Sanford Thibodaux: So I’ve been trying to check into what the hell happened with Ataxia, but that guy is harder to nail down than a cup of Jell-o.
The Shadow: The only one that ever was in his lair was Luciano, but he said that he has no idea where it is or anything, because he was blindfolded, correct?
Sanford: Yep. I figured I’d try to see, if Milenko might have anything to do with it, since he had re-programmed Mia, but he’s nowhere to be found either, but it’s just a long shot with him, since he doesn’t have anything to do with him.
Myfanwy walks into the picture with an ice-filled cooler with water in hand.
Myfanwy: Who does he have connections with?
Sanford: Milenko or Ataxia?
Myfanwy: Ataxia, of course.
The Shadow: Stewart, Steel, that’s pretty much it.
Sanford: Stewart is here…
The Shadow: Yes, but there’s something about Steel I would like you to investigate. He keeps calling Ataxia “son”. Could just be a manner of speech, but since we don’t have a lot to go on, maybe we could start there.
Myfanwy: He’s in Hostility now and they are here in Sydney, too.
Christian Fagermo: Yes, but nobody know where Steel is.
Sanford: Are you kidding me?
Christian: I do not kid.
Sanford: OK, I’ll see what I can find. Who can I take?
Christian: Dolgo and me. I’ll get us tickets to Pittsburgh.
Christian: He’s obviously not here and Pittsburgh is his base, so as good of a starting point as any, no?
He grabs a bottle of cold water, nods thank you to Myfanwy and marches off, leaving Sanford trying to catch up.
Myfanwy: This really got to you, didn’t it?
She sits down next to The Shadow, who is looking down into the arena with a vacant stare.
The Shadow: Something is not right at all. This is not just Ataxia snapping. He hasn’t been himself ever since he disappeared.
He turns towards the fiery redhead, who is trying to wrangle her hair into a bun to allow at least some of the air to reach her neck.
The Shadow: Remember that he could not remember anything of the last few months?
The Shadow: Well, we still don’t know where he was and what happened and that bugs me. This is more than just someone everybody considered nuts anyways completely losing it. And something tells me that if we find out what happened to Ataxia then, we might figure out what is wrong with him now.
Myfanwy: Will you try to approach Ataxia?
He shakes his head.
The Shadow: No, it won’t do anything. Ataxia does not know that something is wrong with him, he does not remember anything happening. I hope Sanford can find Steel, maybe he can tell us something. Anything…
Fade to black.
The picture fades in to a valley, lush with trees and greenery, giving way to gently rolling hills losing themselves in the distance. A little waterfall cascades down one side of the rocky sides, its water joining a small river winding down towards the plains far beyond. The camera slowly turns to show The Shadow sitting on a rock near the edge, his hair blowing in the strong updraft that scales the mountain behind him. Myfanwy is sitting a few metres behind him to the side and some of the Druids scattered about, McLean, Berardi, O’Fathaigh.
He produces a deck of cards.
The Shadow: Let’s see what fate has in store for us for Confliction.
As he turns over the first card, it shows the king of diamonds. A sardonic smile appears on his face.
The Shadow: And it all still feels so familiar. Dan Ryan. And so we meet again. And again. And again. Or almost. At Modern Warfare you came within inches of beating my latest best frenemy Ataxia to advance to the grand finals and instead you were left with...well, probably some sense of accomplishment nevertheless, since you made it this far, but if you look at what you actually walked out of Oakland with, it indeed is nothing. A bruised ego maybe, one of the ones you fame yourself busting.
Now people will time and again say that titles do not matter, that success is not just measured in terms of the gold you wear, but something tells me that it is not all that easy for you, is it? The grizzled veteran, decorated beyond belief everywhere he goes, success IS measured by what you could ultimately grasp in your hands, isn’t it?
The shriek of a bird of prey breaks the following silence, the camera following it using the winds to stand almost still in the air while it surveys the ground below for its lunch.
The Shadow: Well Canberra was not be the place for you to right this seeming wrong, because now that you finally could face me, you still could only look at the cake, yet still could - not - touch. It must be frustrating to be this close and yet so far for a second time in a row, isn't it?
Anyways, welcome to CWF, where sometimes the rivers flow backwards and the inmates run the asylum. Can you imagine that Ataxia not too long ago had been our commissioner? To some a probably scary thought. But as unpredictable and manic as he can be, he still managed to sneak past the seasoned warrior, snatching the opportunity for the big win right out of his hand. That must have stung. The oh so well laid plan gone awry in the end.
You aren't just content with having admired the cake, maybe gotten a whiff of it, no, you want that cake, the whole cake and nothing but the...wait, that's a different story. No, you want to eat it. To the last crumb. You already had one piece on your plate right in front of you, but then Ataxia took the sledgehammer and smashed it into pieces right in front of your eyes.
But lo and behold, we just keep cranking out the cakes around here and now all of a sudden there is a brand new one to vye for, but what's that? Duce is there. Ataxia is there. I am there. But where is the cake? Oooh, we will have to get to it first...
I can just imagine how grating it must be for you, Dan, for someone who values past exploits and successes to much, be it titles or just matches, to have this ugly stain on your shiny armour, the one that got away. But things aren't going your way overall, no are they?
He holds up one finger.
At Modern Warfare you lose against Ataxia, preventing you from progressing into the finals. In Brisbane you could have gotten your revenge against Ataxia, but apparently my mere presence managed to throw both of you off so much that it ended up being a no contest. And Ataxia would just not stay down...
He holds up a second finger.
In Canberra I guess Ataxia decided to pay back when he showed up and tried to stab us… But you showed something that most people I have faced would not do, would not even think of doing - observer and learn. Too many of them are far too full of themselves, they firmly believe that they can just step into the ring with whoever, whenever and triumph just by their strength, technique, daring, whatever they throw into the fray. You, however, show your age, in a good way, by trying to learn your opponent, get a feel for him. This is what you truly call preparing for a match. And I hope that I managed to keep enough aces up my sleeve not to have given away my hand too early.
He winks at the camera.
So now will the third time finally be the charm? The cards have been completely re-shuffled by throwing in Duce on top of us three, maybe the man that you have the least mental notes on, he has not been in Modern Warfare, he has not wrestled at all actually because of his injury and before that he was more involved in the tag team scene and the infamous Glass Ceiling protest, so he might be the joker in your deck.
But there also is one other interesting element that one should not forget. I had mentioned it in the past, but its relevance has not changed one bit. Ataxia and I used to be the Forsaken. Ataxia and me, the odd couple that is so vastly different, yet at the same time somehow fits together. And now we are all at odds in more ways than you could imagine. Good memories, now bad connections, emotional turmoil galore. And here you stand all alone, no attachment to either of us, unless you count loathing over the missed opportunities, being able to observe and analyze and see how you could use all of this to your advantage... Interesting premise, isn't it?
He throws the card into the air and it is immediately whisked away, Myfanwy and Alistair following its upwards travel. He turns over a second card, a queen of hearts. He absentmindedly nods.
The Shadow: Cheshire, you are the one missing piece of the Modern Warfare puzzle, but your cranial inmate has you occupied otherwise…
He releases the card into the wind and he turns over a jack of clubs.
The Shadow: So that brings me to the wild card, or joker as I had called him, if you look back at how we all came together here, Duce Jones, but the Jack-of-all-Trades fits you well. You seem to pop up everywhere, but I guess we have to “thank” both Mr. St. James and MJF for this opportunity, since she figured out how to use a chair as alarm clock to wake up the beast once more. And see, Cheshire, THIS is what I was talking about, is Loki truly gone? She is/was not…
Anyways, back to you, Duce. Will we ever have closure or will there always be some more loose strands popping up that need to be tied up? Everywhere you look, you are there. Tag teams, heinous attacks, singles, stable wars, picketing, the only place you were absent from was Modern Warfare, ironically enough the tournament that “made” you last year, that put you on the map when you beat Harley Hodge for the World title and only lost it under more than dubious circumstances to a duo that is not even anywhere near CWF anymore. You’ve been hovering around this title on and off ever since you lost it, but similar to Dan you just could not get your hands on it again, however close you were.
He inspects the card closer before turning over two more cards, showing the 9 and 10 of clubs respectively.
The Shadow: Now you worry me more than Dan and Ataxia in a way, because you rarely show up alone. I know that Freddie might be in rough shape after his Parking Lot brawl with Big Rig, but even if he would be out of commission, Byson is still there and since the whole affair is going to be a non-DQ, I am very leery about your companions showing up. And even though Jarfish has been MIA for weeks now, you never know, when he will crawl out of whichever hole he went into. Unless AQIS wouldn’t let him into Australia, which is just as possible.
But I digress. One thing that one has to admire about you is your business acumen, though. As much as some people might want to just put you down as a stoner that needs an interpreter to translate whatever Ducinese you speak into English, you are a wily veteran that belies your young age. How else would you have managed to turn a strike into a shot at the World title? Granted, I would have thought that you would rather use it to get a one-on-one instead of stepping into the ring with three others, but then again, if you really think about it, it is a shrewd move. Sure, you have two more people to deal with that could just pin the other and you’d still stand there empty handed, but like I said, it is a no-DQ, so even if you singled out one man and, say, Freddie and Byson would take care of the other two, there is nothing that could stop them. Well, there is, but let’s not put all of our cards on the table, right?
Alistair, Ciaran and Luciano just smile at the hint as he throws all three cards into the wind. He turns over the next card of the deck and reveals a joker. But not just any joker, one with a burlap bag concealing his face.
The Shadow: And finally the very special case of Ataxia... The man with more screws loose than a Lowe's store...
He looks down and shakes his head.
The Shadow: I am not sure what they did to you, how they finally managed to finish scrambling your eggs completely in that mask of yours, but needless to say, I don't like it. The final fuse burnt and something really went wrong up there. It must give your twisted mind this perverted kind of satisfaction to stand before the ruins of the Forsaken, with Mia still buried deep within the mind of now Cheshire, Dorian instead of being a demon fighting his own and you, well, I am not quite sure what to call it. But that is not at stake at this moment in time, but your next, maybe last (?) shot at the big title. Oh, you fought hard, you fought dirty, my friend and it was obvious how much this belt, this title meant to you. Well, you better make this one count.
How does this fit into your grand master plan I do not know, all I DO know is, though, that when that something deep inside your brain snapped, the dark side took over and while I am sure that you still covet the title, there is more to it, a more sinister force driving you forward, something that is tugging on strings way beyond the regular confines of your soul. Yeah, sometimes I wonder, if you yourself can even fathom the edge of your sanity, with your inner universe being in constant flux. I may at one point have come closer to understanding you than anybody else, but that definitely is out the window now. What it taught me, though, is that to expect the unexpected is only the beginning with you. The only thing that is predictable about you is the fact that you are completely unpredictable and that is what makes you so dangerous.
He absentmindedly twirls the card in his fingers as he looks down into the valley, past the camera.
The Shadow: There are few things more dangerous than somebody who throws all caution to the wind and cares as little about his own body as he does about his opponents’ welfare. And that, my friend, is the truly unsettling thing. How often have we seen you dislocate your shoulders to escape whatever predicament you were in? This shows that you are willing to go to great lengths to win and that was before you snapped, so I can’t even imagine what you will be capable of now. Amidst all the perceived insanity in the past, there always was that thin red line threading through your thoughts and actions, there was a method to the madness, even though most people would not be able to see it in the explosion of colours that is you.
You say that everybody used you, including us, including me. In hindsight it is easy to look at things and begin to interpret them one way or the other. Sure, there have been many people that just put you down as the maniac with a bag on his head. You stood alone. And then the Forsaken came along. You, me, Mannequin, well, him at least on paper, but with Mia and Dorian we were complete, four completely different characters and minds the somehow seemed to complement each other. It was not use or abuse, Ataxia, it was a symbiosis, where one would fall short, the other could pick up.
His eyes re-focus on the camera.
The Shadow: You’ve always danced to your own tune and that is what has always made you special, different, often alienated, but I will not do you the favour and just write you off. Not now, not in the future. You may call me foolish or gullible to believe that whatever happened to you is reversible, that this is not the end. Now I do not know much, if anything, of your past, what happened to you for you to become Ataxia or now for you to become - whatever it is that you are now, but one thing I learned is that (almost) anything is possible.
That old trope of life giving you lemons - with me it raided a whole citrus orchard and shot it at me with a rapid fire bazooka, but look at me, I am still standing. I have loved and lost, I have beaten cancer, I have been betrayed, I have been insulted, but I am still here, I am still among the living and not just a weakened husk of myself. I have taken all of these things and used them to make me stronger. And nothing you, or anybody else, can do to change that. You have shown what depravity you are capable of, but no matter how low you might go, you will not be able to break me.
He gives the camera a grim smile as he flicks the joker into the air.
The Shadow: So what does this make me?
He fans out the remaining cards and holds them out. Myfanwy lets the nail of her index finger glide over the cards, making this light rattling noise before picking out one card from near the centre. As she turns it around, it shows...
The Shadow: The Ace of Spades. For those that know cards, the ace of spades has often been connected with ill-fortune and death and is the maybe most ominous card in any deck. So gentlemen, the cards have spoken and they foretell ill-fortune to beget you at Confliction and to prepare for the death of your hopes…
With that Myfanwy flicks the card at the camera at the same time that The Shadow throws the remainder of the deck into air, where the wind picks up the cards, scattering them into the valley below, showing that they all have been jokers.