June 6th, 2018 - New York City
I was feeling a little bit uncomfortable.
I was in a fairly run-down dive bar in... uptown, I guess? Literally, as far uptown as you can be towards the Bronx while still technically being in Manhattan,idly munching on an everything bagel with cream cheese while I sat and waited for a meeting. I was here because I had finally reached the end of my capabilities in finding my husband. Weeks ago, before I had won the World Championship, before the match had even been made, an associate of Mariella Jade Flair had made me an offer. Ms McGinnis can find anyone anywhere, he had said… I had been reluctant to believe it, I had thought that the forces that had taken my husband were too much for anyone not personally invested in the fight. But my efforts over the last few weeks had been fruitless.
The fact that I was sitting in a bar in the morning hours, with nobody around but a young looking girl cleaning the floors spoke to how desperate I was.
I had figured out, at least, who had Dan. He had been taken not by the Institute, as I had initially thought, but by the Order of the Oncoming Storm: some sort of ultra-capitalist organization… to which my parents belonged. It was my father who had made the decision to take my husband.
I didn’t know who to trust anymore.
So I had taken a risk, gone out on a limb, and trusted in new friendships. After Evolution, I had met with MJ Flair’s manager, Adrian Evans, who had set up this meeting with MJ’s aunt Ivy; who by all accounts was one of the best private investigators in the Western Hemisphere. I was nervous. But I was out of options.
As was my wont when I was feeling anxious but had nothing in particular to do, I was on my phone playing Candy Crush Saga(don’t judge me). I was struggling to get through a particularly tricky level, when a notification came in. CWF’s weekly card.
CALEDONIA © VS DORIAN HAWKHURST - Non-Title Match
Well. Hopefully I don’t get pasted for it being non-title. But still, I’d heard of weirder bookings.
…like the match on the midcard, Ataxia vs Mia Rayne. Huh. They were lovers, what was Rish doing making them fight each other?
And with me fighting a Forsaken, a nominal ally (or at least a non-enemy) for the second time in as many matches… hmm. Something was up. I’d need to do some contemplation. And maybe have a conversation. But that could wait.
Shaking it off, I went back to Candy Crush(again, don’t judge me!) - it wouldn’t do to go into this meeting with any particular degree of anxiety. I was just about to get past the difficult level, when-
‘Ms. Highlander?’ I looked up from my phone and saw Adrian Evans. ‘She’s ready.’
I rose and shook his hand, and we walked over to the door marked 'STAFF ONLY.' As he unlocked it and opened it up, he spoke.
‘Let me give you some advice,’ he said. ‘Be honest. The more that you tell her, the more she can help. Even if it seems insignificant.’
I nodded. The staircase was cramped but well lit, and we walked down one flight to the basement. There was a large storage area with several refrigeration units, and a walled-off section that looked like it was built as an afterthought was immediately to our left. Adrian knocked on the nondescript door, and a thick Queens accent barked ‘C’mon in!’
Adrian nodded at me and excused himself, and with no small degree of trepidation I walked through the door. Immediately I was aware of the smell of cigar smoke and whiskey.
Ivy McGinnis was quite a bit shorter than me, but she made up the difference in physical size with a sheer presence that I’d not often encountered. She was in her mid-forties but was still in fighting shape; no doubt if MJ asked for her backup, she’d be able to provide it. Her blonde hair was pulled to the sides in two schoolgirl-ish braids, but the innocent picture couldn't mute the danger she seemed to exude like perfume. She was presently sucking down a cup of sludgy coffee that looked too hot to drink quickly but too nasty to drink cold, but she finished her sip and shook my hand.
‘Cali Highlander. MJ and Adrian talk about you quite a bit; it's nice to meet you,’ she said, her voice deep and harsh, but not unpleasantly so.
‘Hopefully not altogether unpleasant things,’ I said.
She raised an eyebrow. ‘Why’d they be unpleasant?’
‘Well, I didchoke your niece out in the middle of the ring and force her to surrender her World Championship…’
‘Oh right,’ she said, giving a loud, barking laugh. ‘Meh. MJ's her dad's kid - every setback is a chance to do it better next time.’
‘I’m sure she will,’ I said.
‘But,’ she said, ‘that’s not why we’re here, is it?’
‘No, I fear it’s not,’ I said. She gestured for me to sit.
‘So.’ She pulled out an iPad that looked like it was from several generations ago. ‘Let’s start at the beginning.’
I hesitated for a moment. I looked into the eyes of this woman, eyes that had clearly seen troubling things. I sized her up, tried to decode what my intuition was telling me about her. Then I took a deep breath. And I told her everything.
I told her about how Dan and Elijah and Omega had met, back in 2005 in Japan, how the initial friendship had formed.
About how Dan and I had fallen in love, how we’d gone through the early days of the revived CWF together, how Amorality had entered our liveseven then.
About the long, wonderful break when Dan and I had lived a normal life, free from… all of this.
About how we had returned to CWF forjust one more match. And then another. And how piece by piece, our lives had become consumed with the Institute, with Moonchilds and Prodigies, with Princesses and Prophetesses.
I told Ivy McGinnis about The Tower, how I had been forced to watch as my husband, foolishly but bravely thinking he could defeat Elisha without stooping to his level, was thrown from atop the high structure, his back broken. About the dinner at my parents’ house, where so much seemed to have gone wrong. About going into battlewith the forces of the Institute and of Ouroboros, having my arm broken in defence of a place that I had been manipulated into thinking of as a home, when it had never been anything but a fortress, and where I had never been anything but a drill sergeant marshalling troops.
And I told her about how my parents had turned out to be deeply, deeply involved. How there was this organization from the 19thcentury, seeking to bring that century back, securing their economic dominance forever. How they had taken my husband, twisted him, manipulated him into becoming their champion, their Starchild. And how he had been nudged into doing it voluntarily by Elijah, someone I had considered a friend.
After all of that, Ivy McGinnis took a deep breath. I fell back into my chair, exhausted. She hadn’t asked any questions through all of it. She offered me a glass of water that I gratefully accepted, drinking it down almost in one draught before coughing.
‘So… you’ve been through some shit, is what I gather,’ she said. ‘And you want your husband back.’
‘Well then,’ she said, ‘I can help.’
‘How much do I-’
Before I could finish my question, she waved her hand. ‘Fuck that. You’re good to my niece, that gives you the family rate.’
‘And you think you can find him?’
‘I have a few ideas. Adrian?’ He opened the door and walked in. He must have been waiting on the other side. ‘Let’s see if Airstrip One is still working. That’s our starting point.’ I recognized the reference but opted not to comment.
Ms. McGinnis seemed to sense my discomfort, because she put her hand on my shoulder with some genuine warmth. ‘Don't sweat, kiddo. This works out exactly how you want it to.’
I left the building and sucked in a breath of fresh air; immediately regretting my decision, since this was New York City and “fresh air” didn’t necessarily mean “clean air”. I hopped a taxi and went back to the hotel Eris and I were staying at, up in Midtown. It was about a fifteen-minute drive, and I decided that now would be a good time to make a phone call. New York cabbies didn’t care. And I doubted this one was even paying attention. I dialled the number and waited.
‘Yes.’ The voice on the other end was deep.
Helpful as always. ‘I wanted to discuss the card for this week. Have you seen it?’
‘Something is clearly afoot.’
‘That’s one way of putting it. Look… I just wanted to verify that our deal is still good.’
‘Why wouldn’t it be?’ came the deep voice, a note somewhere between amusement and caution.
‘You know damn well why,’ I said. ‘This is the second time I’ve fought one of you this month. And since we have a non-aggression pact, I wanted to make sure that you understood that I had nothing to do with making this match.’
‘I know,’ he said. ‘Just as you had nothing to do with myself and Revenant being put against Miss Flair and Mr Dane, two fighters on a different front of the same war. Or with the Oreos’ mysterious absence from the card, save Judas fighting Autumn Raven.’
I wish people would stop calling them that, I thought, not taking them seriously is how Impakt got put in the hospital. ‘Yeah. That’s another thing. Dean’s basically been handed a win. I don’t know what’s going on with Rish, between this and the thing in last week’s main event. I’m worried, Shadow.’
‘As am I,’ said the deep voice on the other end. ‘But concern yourself not with me. You have abided by our agreement thus far, and Dorian is looking forward to this as a sportspersonlike match. As for the booking… leave that to me. You have enough to be worrying about.’
‘Damn right,’ I said. ‘Well. Just wanted to check in. See you next week.’
‘Indeed. Stay safe.’ He hung up, and I sat back. Well. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about the Forsaken interfering. The Chosen might, but that was a risk with every match these days. And it was even money whether they’d attack me or Dorian. So nothing I could do there.
There were a few blocks left to go; Eris and I were staying at a hotel on 45thand Madison, and my cab was just now passing Trump Tower. I flipped the building off, earning an approving chuckle from my cabbie, and began to think.
I had been subconsciously processing my decision to confide in “Aunt Ivy.” It was strange, trusting someone I had just met… but something about her led me to believe that she was on the level. She was brash, crude… but that was just a New York thing. I had been around enough New Yorkers to know that their brashness simply reflected a lack of opacity. It was very different from dealing with Atlantans. Even there, Southern “manners” still prevailed, and unless you knew the signals it was entirely impossible to know what someone really thought of you.
We arrived at the hotel. I paid my fare and wandered into the lobby, vaguely contemplating whether I wanted to go and get something to eat now or wait for Eris. I’d gone to the bar early enough that all my sense of time had been thrown out. It was 10:30am at that point. I decided to go back to the room, stopping briefly to sign a few autographs of fans I encountered in the elevator. One of them jokingly asked me to sign it to “Ebay”. Jokingly, I did. I smirked at the slight disappointment on their face. What can I say? I hear that joke four or five times a week, it gets old.
When I walked into the hotel room, Eris was deep in meditation, communing with Discordia. I coughed, and Eris excused themself from their conversation.
‘Eris, what have we discussed about communion when we’re sharing a room?’
Eris sighed. ‘Pants on if it’s before 1am.’
‘And yet there they lie,’ I said, pointing to Eris’ underthings on the floor.
‘This is America, I have freedom to worship.’
‘I’m not putting you under arrest for masturbating in our hotel room, just… frowning upon it.’
‘Don’t you oppress me!’ they said, winking.
‘Were you getting Discordia to read you Marielledonia fanfiction again?’
I shook my head, and the mental images, off. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘my meeting is over. We might as well start heading up to Providence, unless there’s something else you want to do in the city.’
‘You’re always so down-to-business,’ said Eris. ‘Isn’t there anything youwant to do in the city? This is New York, the second-greatest city in the world.’
‘The first being?’
‘York Classic, obviously. But it was better when it was Jorvik.’
‘Oh god, you’re not going to start the Make York Jorvik Again protests again, are you?’
‘We need to build a wall!’
‘There is a wall! It’s one of the main tourist attractions!’
‘Fine,’ pouted Eris. ‘But just so you know, if I ever succeed, I’m going right back out there with Make Jorvik Eboracum Again.’
I sighed. ‘But no. There is nothing I want to do. I don’t think I could really enjoy anything right now. I just want to get to Providence and get back to training.’
‘Well,’ said Eris, ‘there is, in fact, something I want to do in New York.’
‘But you said - ’
‘Not the city.’
Well. That was unexpected. ‘Oh?’
‘Yeah. And… you’ll want to see this too.’
‘Eris, if you’re going to drag me to a train platform to make a pun…’
They shuddered, remembering The Tale of Two Garforths. ‘We swore an oath.’
‘That we did. But still.’
‘Right. Well. Anyway. Erm. There’s something I’ve been working on, and… well, let’s just get up there, okay?’
This is either going to be something for the ages or something that’s going to make me want to call my lawyer.
We stopped in for a slice of pizza before getting my car back and beginning the drive. It took us the better part of an hour to clear Manhattan, but the proverbial sailing was smooth once we got out into the upper state. Eris was driving, since I had no idea where we were going.
‘So,’ said Eris, breaking a particularly long bout of silently staring out the window. ‘Hawkhurst. Again.’
‘Yeah.’ I thought for a moment. ‘Hawkhurst has a lot to prove right now. He wants this title. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow… but eventually he’s going to go for it. And beating me next week would drastically shorten that timeline.’
‘You’ve already beaten him once.’
‘In a tag match, and he wasn’t the one who tapped out. The records will show the loss, but I’d be surprised if he’s taking it as anything other than motivation.’
Eris nodded. After about another fifteen minutes, we turned off the highway. We’d been traveling up the I-87, parallel to the Hudson River. I had wondered where we were going, but hadn’t asked Eris any questions. I knew that I’d only get told not to spoil the drama.
It was about half an hour before we turned again. We’d entered Phoenicia. Not the ancient civilization, but a tiny hamlet of a few hundred people. We stopped outside a liquor store and Eris had gone inside. I hadn’t; I opted to just get out of the car and take a few breaths of fresh mountain air.
I hadn’t realized how damn tired I was. It had been a long year. And I’d not really stopped for any of it. Being in a sleepy little town was kind of nice. Even taking these few minutes not to do anything was about the most time I’d taken off in quite a few weeks. Gave me time to think.
Hawkhurst had claimed that he had been the reason I’d defeated him and the Smoking Aces. I had re-watched the tapes, and I hadn’t quite figured out what he’d meant. The climax of the match had seen me isolated from my tag team partners, Hawkhurst having taken Amber over the ropes and Omega having been laid out by Duce Jones. I had faced the tag team champions by myself… and managed to dodge Duce’s finisher, having it hit Freddie Styles instead. And in the distraction, I had gotten The Kid That Never Dies into my submission lock.
The Bed of Roses… hard to get out of, certainly, and painful… but now it was being called “one of the deadliest moves in professional wrestling.” I didn’t know when that had happened, and yet there had now been four former World Champions who had submitted to it. Including Jace Valentine, the Overnight Submission Specialist, and Duce Jones, a man who would rather simply pass out than tap out.
Of course, one of the four was Dan, and I wasn’t sure if I counted that. He hadn’t won the World Title at the time.
I really hoped that Ivy McGinnis would be able to find him.
I was snapped out of my thoughts by Eris returning with two large bags filled with liquor. I raised my eyebrows. ‘Eris, if this is some sort of ritual effigy burning, we can just stop at a petrol station…’
Eris chuckled. ‘Not what this is. You’ll see.’
We drove a little longer, out to the outskirts of town. Despite the fact that I trusted Eris, I was beginning to grow a little apprehensive. It was about another fifteen minutes before we turned onto a dirt road, a private property.
‘Erm…’ I began, but Eris held up a finger. My car was not optimized for this kind of road, but it trundled along and eventually we reached a clearing, and a paved road. My jaw involuntarily dropped. Eris smirked.
In the middle of the clearing was a large house, almost identical to the Academy. Surrounding it were tilled fields and crafting workshops, being worked by people I recognized.
People I had trained.
‘But why are they…’ I said, unsure how to finish the sentence.
‘The Academy was a place for people who didn’t have anywhere else to go,’ said Eris, ‘and yet a great many of them wanted to go somewhere else after the Invasion. They wanted to be away from Institutes and Ouroboroses and such. So we found this place.’
‘What… is“this place”?’
‘A story for another time,’ said Eris. I noticed that a crowd was beginning to gather. ‘And I will tell you soon. But you should probably talk to them. They’ve been expecting you.
‘Why?’ I asked.
Eris chuckled. ‘Why do you think?’
‘I honestly have no idea.’
‘These are wayward souls, Cali. At the Academy, they felt like they had some sort of a purpose. But that purpose was false. Except where you were concerned.’
‘You didn’t have an agenda. No hidden manipulations, nothing. But you were still a teacher. A friend. A leader. It’s time for you to take up that mantle again.’
‘I never wanted to be a leader, Eris.’
‘Which is why you’re perfectly suited to be one,’ they said. ‘Now go on.’
I sighed and got out of the car. The gathered people applauded, and I waved. I recognized more of the faces now. Oscar “The Grouch” Gonzales, and his sister Rosa. Phoenix and Flame. John Njeri. Wang Xiaolei. All people who had fought alongside me at the Battle of the Academy.
The applause died down and they looked at me expectantly. I cleared my throat. ‘Erm. Okay. Well. You should probably know that Eris didn’t tell me anything about this, presumably to maximize the surprise. But…’ I looked out. This was an impressive setup. There were apple trees and grapevines that had clearly been there for years, but also new fields of corn and oats and potatoes. I saw whiskey stills and pottery wheels, as well as what appeared to be a fairly well put-together carpentry shop. ‘… but you’ve done great work here. And I don’t know why you want me back as your leader. I fucked up. Badly.’
‘You saved me,’ said Flame.
‘Aftermy fuckup got you landed in the Institute’s prison,’ I said. ‘Look… I get it. I get that you feel the need for some sort of teacher, some sort of leader… but that was the setup we had at the Academy, a setup that was rotten at its foundation. We’d need to do things differently, if we want this place to be different.’
There were nods and murmurs of assent in the crowd. I continued. ‘I’m sure I have things I can teach you. But… there’s so much more that you can teach me.’ I cringed. ‘Sorry. I’m too tired not to speak in clichés. Point is, I appreciate your trust in me, but I think we’re better off without a single leader, don’t you?’
More nods and murmurs.
‘I’ll be a teacher, a guide, an advisor… but following the leaders got us into trouble. We’re equals here.’
‘So,’ said John Njeri with a grin, ‘you’re suggesting that we take it in turns to act as a sort of “executive officer” for the week?’
‘And all the decisions ofthe officer have to be ratified at a special biweekly meeting…’ said Phoenix.
‘… by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs, but by a two-thirdsmajority in the case of more major - ’ continued Flame.
‘Alright, alright, I’ll be the supreme leader, just… stop,’ I said, unable to contain my grin.
‘Help, help, I’m being repressed!’ cried Eris.
We see Caledonia standing in a mostly-finished promo studio. She takes a deep breath.
Caledonia: So here we are again. But this time, one-on-one.
Last time we fought, you talked about being an eighteen-wheeler, coming straight down the freeway at me. Some people, you said, would jump out of the way; and some would meet the truck head-on. Maybe you thought that I would jump out of the way of your demonic path; I expect you knew better.
I met your proverbial truck head-on. And to give credit where credit’s due - yeah. That big truck knocked me on my arse. You knocked me off the wagon, and Omega saved me. Perhaps reluctantly, but she saved me.
And for all your strength, for all your demonic rage, for all that you said that you were going to do - I was still victorious that night.
See, Dorian, you’re strong. Nobody would deny that. You’ve overcome tough battles, you have someone to fight for… and now you even have backup. There may well come a day when you’re World Champion.
But it is not this day.
Not because our match isn’t for the title. But because you’re not going to win. I’ve come too far, fought through too much, to suffer a loss here and now. I’ve only been pinned once in my career. I’ve never tapped out. I don’t plan to start losing again anytime soon.
She takes a deep breath.
You’re a force of nature, Dorian. The Shadow wouldn’t have named you as his fourth Horseman if you weren’t. But you’re not an unstoppable force. And me? So far, I’m looking like an immovable object.
See you in the ring.
June 9th, 2018 - Phoenicia, New York: The Commune
I had slowly begun to adjust to this new life. It was an assured change of pace, but I liked it. It was good to have open air again; that was something I had missed about the Academy, something it was impossible to get in Atlanta or New York or any of the big cities.
I wasn’t sure if the path on which I was running was there before the Commune had been set up, or if it was a product of the previous owners. But I didn’t care. It was nice to be able to run outside and feel some degree of solitude.
Or at least, I was feeling solitude until a drone descended. I stopped, catching my breath.
‘Urgent call for you in the house, Lady Caledonia,’ said the drone.
‘I’ll be right there,’ I said, a little annoyed that my run had been interrupted. But Eris had given the drones fairly strict protocols, and they wouldn’t interrupt me unless it was important.
I towelled off as I walked into the video conference room that Eris had set up. I stood facing one of the blank walls as one drone hovered over my head bearing a projector, another in front of me with a camera.
‘Let’s take the call,’ I said. Both drones bobbed in obedience, and an image of Adrian appeared on the wall. He looked… harrowed. That wasn’t a good sign.
‘Ms. Highlander,’ he said. ‘We’ve gathered some information that we think you might be interested in.’
‘You found Dan already?’ I asked incredulously. ‘I know you said Ivy was good, but…’
‘That… isn’t what I’m calling about,’ he said, looking more uncomfortable that I had previously seen him. ‘I wouldn't have called before the job is completed, but this is exceptional information.’
He took a deep breath. ‘We’ve been able to access the United Kingdom’s CCTV feed.’ As I made to express my shock, he held up a finger. ‘Please, Ms. Highlander, this will be faster if I am uninterrupted. This was part of an ongoing project called Airstrip One. It has proved successful, and we have used our footage, combined with the Oncoming Storm files you provided, to determine the location of their London headquarters.’
I gasped. ‘But-’
‘Dan is notbeing held there,’ he said, sensing my next question. ‘I’m sending over some video files.’
After a few seconds, the drone shifted Adrian’s image to a small window, and showed a picture that virtually any Londoner would recognize.
One Canada Square.
‘Well, they’re certainly hiding in plain sight,’ I said. In his window, Adrian nodded.
‘This has historically been the modus operandiof the Order of the Oncoming Storm. Hide in plain sight; but reveal no secrets.’
More images flashed onto the screen. Various people, entering the building. ‘These are people that we’ve been able to identify as members of the Order.’ I recognized a few by name. Lord Urquhart. Admiral Spencer. My parents. My uncle. My cousin.
And there were a few that looked familiar to me, that I didn’t quite recognize. A middle-aged man in a tailored black suit that I vaguely recalled encountering at the Manor - an Institute official who couldn’t stomach Elisha? - and another man, this one in a light grey suit, with wire-rimmed glasses and a facial expression that looked as though his limousine driver had just loudly broken wind.
‘I mean, this is all very interesting, and I’m glad we have a record, but…’
Adrian cut me off before I could say that this wasn’t especially useful information, yet. ‘Ms. Highlander, please. The purpose is to show you that this is, in fact, the headquarters of the Order. What I intend to show you is next.’
I waited with bated breath. I saw my father, waiting outside One Canada Square as a car pulled up. The two back doors opened, and two people climbed out.
It was all I could do not to scream with rage. I felt bile building in the back of my throat, my neck muscles tightened, and my teeth clenched together…
… as I saw Elijah and Omega shake my father by the hand.