Ascension Chronicles #1: Lament Your Redeemer
Date: June 7, 2019
Location: Estate de Krauser, outskirts of Dresden, Saxony, Deutschland
"Ten years ago I sought my place among immortals. Acted as a conduit for energies of the unknowing public from their seats, their living rooms, their barstools. The more rapt the audience with my performance, the more that power flourished. I stood at the threshold, Julian, at the precipice of ushering in a new dominion of the Old Ones while inheriting their eternal gratitude. If not for Garbage Bag Johnny and Desade, Julian...damn them to the void...”
Bathory admired the landscape buzzing by as Shanahan spoke. His mentor had gone on at length ever since the chauffeur at the airport had slammed the door behind them, pausing only sporadically to check text messages across the security network. Regardless of recent intelligence rumblings they kept a light detail in their travels. Discretion kept conflict at bay.
The Hungarian languished in his smoking jacket and silken trousers, taking in the lavish countryside over a cigarette and often tuning out the frequent rambling of Father Shanahan. While Julian respected the guidance of the sage mastermind he also wasn’t blind to the incessant rants that periodically victimized anyone in earshot of his speeches. Such was the nature of a stressed man, enemy of the world-at-large and almost ceaselessly targeted for death, sufferer of numerous concussions and traumas across a storied globe-trotting career. Chosen of dark forces or not, Bruce would prove a medical miracle if he avoided brain damage. Symptoms may already be manifest but the high priest kept doctors at arm’s length.
Julian listlessly thumbed the code to his own phone and opened to Twitter. More followers, a deluge of new likes, partnership requests from intrigued sponsors. Rubbing out the butt of his smoke in a tray, he swiped to his inbox. The usual backlog of interview petitions and colorful death threats. The former he referred to Elijah Grimm and the latter were distributed to security assets. A rather ho-hum fact of life nowadays.
There was an astounding discrepancy between journalists. The wrestling sheets were overjoyed at the public return of an old mainstay. Some smaller sporting outlets even took up the story and gossip rags dispatched photographers in a wave of perverse curiosity.
Other organizations were less than thrilled. Just hours after the revelation that Shanahan had emerged beside Bathory in CWF, declaring the newcomer his successor, watchdog groups had arrayed and brandished arms in the form of print and more than a few hostile memes. Esoteric historians released all of their notes in effort to warn the world that a rabid diabolist had returned. Particular forums were blanketed in messages expounding less-than-subtle pleas to crowdsource a contract killer and nip this campaign in the bud. Some took the articulate route, others let a liberal use of CAPS LOCK speak at volume.
Their destination was a short ride from the airport in Dresden. The patron would attend to other business while the protege handled obligations to the Championship Wrestling Federation. Father Shanahan maintained that Golden Intentions was to be a coronation and now, here, one of their more invested donors would finalize tailoring him for the occasion.
Of course this wasn’t without generous quoting from the Books of Dirges and Requiems, or numerous other professed prophecies dispersed through his seminal Black Testament. Julian Bathory, heir to the throne of an occult empire, pledged his devotion to the cause and sighed inwardly as the Bringer of the Black Gospel trailed off. He was thankful to hear the Gregorian chants that hailed a phone call for his elder, and with that, Bruce broke off and shifted attention elsewhere. Not that he lacked gratitude, just that the oft-detached ramblings took a toll on a man still shedding his cocoon.
The Hungarian shrugged into a smoke-gray blazer and exited the car, shielding his face against the inevitable horde that already milled outside the gates with recording equipment poised to go. With cameras clicking and voice recorders almost brushing his nose, a din of shouted questions melted into one another.
“How does it feel to succeed Bruce Shanahan?!”
“Why now, why Golden Intentions?”
“Mister Bathory, can you respond to any accusations against the Sect of Black Wisdom over the years? What about the murders?”
“Can you shed light on what the cult is doing now? Why the silence?”
Infamy came with the territory. He’d been trained to withstand it as his promotion neared and the throng of reporters assembled outside every barrier, airport and rental car. Marching forward and dismissing the vultures massed around him, Julian hit a buzzer on the gate. The clamor subsided and died abruptly as a gravelly voice burst through static.
“Tenacious pups, are they not, Herr Bathory?”
“Fortunately their bark is worse than their bite. A pleasure as always, Herr Krauser.”
A dramatic crash of thunder wouldn’t have been out of place at the moment. The gates took only seconds to rumble open, and by then, the mob had evaporated as if into dust. This was the fear generated by patrons of the Sect of Black Wisdom.
His host had stepped away from his own wrestling career at nearly the same time as Father Shanahan. Unlike Bruce, however, Wilhelm Von Krauser remained in imposing shape through a punishing training routine. It wouldn’t be a wrong take to observe he may have actually appeared larger and stronger, forfeiting leanness for a compounded form of rippling muscle found on the bodies of strongmen; the reclusive German had traded agility for brute power by several degrees and regularly sent sparring partners to medical clinics by way of his newly cultivated strength. When Julian came upon him, escorted by a timid aide to the mansion’s sprawling basement gymnasium, Krauser was garbed in a training singlet akin to his in-ring gear of old and raining a torrent of blows into a worn heavy bag. Rivulets of sweat poured from him and drizzled onto the cold floor.
The facilities struck the Hungarian as more of a dungeon than he preferred to admit. The presence of several MMA fighters, beaten ragged and resting against scuffed walls around a clammy fighting cage, gave just that aura of aristocratic sadism he expected from the estate’s hermetic master.
“The elements have aligned well,” the other said, transitioning to German. His eyes never swiveled off of his target and Bathory wondered what poor enemy of his that Wilhelm now projected onto the swaying bag. “The night is clear and the moon is bright, rich. A natural setting is always superior to that sanitized studio look from my own experience. Give the mind free air and the words flow sweeter.”
A mingling of anise and spices masked the aroma of sweat hovering around the host's gladiator cages. He made a mental note to refer to them as "warrior platforms" as his benefactor requested they be branded, lest his ire be raised. Again. Kinzler's outer civility veiled a tempest of a personality that so befit a schizophrenic. Popping his fantasy bubble had, on occasions, provided both brutal consequences and amused guffaws from any of the amoral guests regularly in attendance. The image remained imprinted in Julian's memory of the dumb sap that addressed him by his birth name recently. It also whet his appetite for a rare and well-marbled steak.
Wilhelm finally turned, his breathing heavy. It was then that Julian finally noticed he wore the cannibal mask during his workout, an eccentric staple of his wrestling character now a true-life quirk. “I admit that your standards of dress far outstrip your mentor, mein freund. Not to be too frivolous, but Father Shanahan’s taste in dress left much to be desired.”
Bathory’s dress was largely casual but he’d taken a thought to complete a modest ensemble. Hardly black-tie but worlds apart from Shanahan’s usual choice of ceremonial and even quirky raiment. He’d heard the high priest spoken of as the “Anti-Pope” recently in quiet circles, more affectionately by some than others.
“Left the habit in the closet,” he quipped. “And the black gowns are still blood-stained from the litany of sacrifices. Dry cleaners are threatening to strike.”
"Your paparazzi are still hounding you, I presume?"
"Yes. Lucky for me in walking through the gates of your...house of ill repute, shall we say? You'd think we loosed attack dogs as quickly as they scuttled back to their cars."
"It wouldn't be the first time. You've seen the kennels. Do I strike you as a rescuer of neglected puppies, eh?"
A shrug. “Every man needs a hobby.”
Wilhelm Von Krauser grinned before motioning to a crew rolling cases and luggage into an adjoining staging room. Foremost among them was a bearded, lanky man with glasses, his slacks torn. Curious as it was, Julian’s first impression was that he hated the pastel choice of his shirt. Funny how the mind behaves sometimes.
“Your work tonight is in the hands of this gentleman.”
"An American? Color me surprised. I’d expected that fringe film genius from Rotterdam. De Varjk, wasn’t it?"
The German's fists crashed into the bag in a high-low barrage of combinations. It trembled a moment longer as he turned, and the chain creaked. "Mister Rison has been on my payroll for a number of years now. He has been shooting some vanity project outside Hamburg for the past few weeks. Has a particular eye for lighting that I appreciate in my own films. Should suit your own aesthetics, mein Freund."
Bathory didn't pry further than that barren admission; rumors swirled that Wilhelm Krauser trafficked in snuff for the loftiest of European elite and some ventures were best left to the realm of plausible deniability. Krauser was affable enough to extend him that courtesy. Instead Bathory nodded and heightened his focus on the heavyweights squared up in the cage, gauging footwork as they lunged and riposted.
“I have a sizable investment in Meier tonight,” the host confided as he paused his own workout to watch the bruisers stride the ring. Adjusting the straps on his gloves, he pointed to the hulk looming on the left. “His right hand hits like a bomb. And he’s lethal on the ground.”
Banners and family crests fluttered in the wake of a phantom breeze. While Bathory didn’t understand it, he understood they both were affiliated with one of the most infernal organizations the world had ever known. Those phenomena stalked those associated with Father Shanahan as if personal poltergeists, creeping into dreams and haunting their waking lives. He acknowledged the phenomena, as did Krauser, but the occurrence was a negligible side-effect of their fiendish brotherhood. He’d seen stranger events in the days since he first crossed the threshold of Wyatt Manor.
“What if he loses?”
The chuckle was more ominous than he’d hoped.
“The stakes are high. Meier knows the score. I trust my instincts. Handle your business, Julian, the director should be ready by now. The man is efficient.”
Derek Rison knew the vision he wanted to impart. Bathory was greeted by gargoyles glowering from crumbling towers and other effigies of Old World folk horrors crouched on supports ringing the estate courtyard. While he found the approach cheesy and cliche he wasn't blind to American predilections. This was still the Sect of Black Wisdom and certain decor needed to be observed until the mantle was truly passed in public eye.
His heart wasn’t yet in this element of the game, but rules were rules. He looked to his right hand where a slender silver band wrapped around his middle finger. Austere, devoid of markings. Both a simple memento and the engine that had propelled him to a figure of power and fear.
Wolves howl distant and hungry in the night. Through an overhead shaft between rustling leaves, the moon illuminates a courtyard. A cluster of arcane glyphs are engraved on a wall.
Black-and-white, grainy, a film stock mirroring the golden era of Universal. Another standby of the Sect promo line as established by Bruce ‘Violence Jack’ Shanahan and upheld by ‘The New World Savior’ Julian Bathory.
Been a wrestling fan my entire life. One of the few aspects of the commercial American circus I found palatable. I appreciated the art, the theater, the ballet of violence. In time, as my mind wrapped around the irony, I likewise found a comfort in the people shrieking for blood. Even then I saw through the veneer of exceptionalism and civility to the rotten core. The parallels to another empire’s fall from grace may have been the big x-factor. On a whim I began hitting the gym and rolled up to a training ground in the north of my home country. It wasn’t a career, it was a hobby. Wrestling in Hungary was a diversion from a life of mundanity. No big-money contracts, no world tours, an utter lack of ambition to climb into the esteemed international tournaments. I walked the path of most part-time talent, happy for a meal and a fistful of Euros.
Then the axis shifted.
About a decade ago there was a calling. Whispers in my dreams urged a journey to the west and coincidences piled up. Initially I entertained it as mental illness. I’d seen the phenomena, but who hadn’t? Crops died without reason, priests slashed their own throats, the air itself felt inexplicably...wrong.
I left the land I’ve known my entire life, bid farewell to the few I loved. I was a pariah guided by visions and divinations. Blasphemy was the most regular beacon I had. I shunned the church, finding so-called houses of heresy the most sheltering. There was a greater solace in discussing what writhed in the pit than any confession had offered in my youth.
Traditionally this is the time where I mock opponents and declare my superiority. As if I need to gallop through the company roster and pluck out flaws to attack for everyone that will hit the ring, punctuating the whole rant with a threat to Dan Ryan and his manhood and his strap. The thing is that I’m not a traditional component in this grand machine. If my odyssey as a vagabond taught me a scrap of truth about myself then it was precisely how non-traditional I am.
This is a trivial errand. I’ll scream that morsel of fact from the ramparts of this estate. Boys and girls, I’ve communed with gods and balked at the things that tread between the stars. Witnessed the stirring of things in the wild that would make grizzled men quake in terror. All of you bleed and all of you can be broken. It will be daunting. Still, as an outlier that’s braved zealot lynch mobs and backwoods crusaders, I’ll see your tenacity and raise you far worse. Johnny Olympus was a fluke, a mistake borne of arrogance. In the end some perceived transgressions end up our most glorious blessings.
I am Julian Bathory, a pariah of the Old World, the Carpathian Devil, the New World Savior. I am the herald of your ruin and I’m bringing a storm with me. I suggest you hunker down. Let chaos reign.
He returned to his host having donned casual wear for the evening’s festivities. With the singlet put away and the training gloves packed up, Von Krauser was a suave and elegant master of the estate, flashing accessories that would have been excessive for the world’s most exclusive cocktail parties.
The German inclined, finishing the caramel-hued contents of a lowball glass with a lack of surprise on his face. Bathory’s frustration was palpable but not remotely blindsiding. “Obviously not your groove. I’m sorry, brother, I merely passed instructions on to Herr Rison.”
“Father Shanahan is the venerated high priest of the Sect of Black Wisdom. Proclaiming abdication is nothing. To everyone in our world it’s a hollow decree until I bare fangs and make waste of our enemies. This is little more than an act.”
"Ah, straight to the root of the disease. One day the sun will rise on an organization that is fully your vision, Brother Bathory. There will be work involved. The faith is Shanahan's brainchild. Constructed on a mountain of bodies and insidious evils that even I shun memories of building. Many of us traffic in the worldly obscene. We're destined for the pit, but not like him."
The sullen barkeep slid a tumbler of absinthe into the German’s hands, prompting a break as he slugged back a full half of the glass. The color of the liquor seemed off but Julian quickly chalked it up to the ‘additions’ he liked to inject into his stock.
"Bruce walks the margins of diablerie,” Krauser resumed. “He's tainted the fabric of reality. A special damnation awaits him for what he's already wrought. Some have said the abyss itself might curse the bastard and spit him back out for his crimes.”
Grunts reverberated through the dungeon and were drowned out by the shifting clatter of film equipment. One of the fighters in the cage crashed to the mat, showered in his own blood as his nose erupted under an arcing right hook. The behemoth Meier seemed to be running a gauntlet of sorts.
"I've read the Dread Gospels, Herr Krauser. Dabbled in said magicks even. It's doubtful I'd escape the same fate."
A shake of the head. "You haven't done what he has. I still question whether you have the stomach to fracture the world as the patriarch is driven to. He is far beyond redemption. You can further our ends without destroying your humanity."
"The abyss focused its gaze on me long ago. I've been in Hell's orbit ever since Father Shanahan defied Heaven."
"It has left its imprint but not dragged you into its maw. One can embrace its touch without ceding all that they are.”
Men in suits filed in a side door. All already drunk, some also intoxicated on any number of Wilhelm's own narcotic cocktails, this was an upscale den for high society's hedonists, the morally deviant. Here men of fortune would gamble and scheme, parlay winnings into wicked carnalities that Julian still shirked. He preferred not to linger on what was behind those locked doors in that red-lit corridor.
“You’re not the first he’s groomed, only the singular one to be judged a worthy inheritor.” Krauser ignored the other guests for the time. They were already plotting out their wagers for tonight’s line-up. “Horace Tully and Ethan Knight denounced him, splintered off with their own set of traitors. Blake Ender didn’t make the grade. Brother Ender has his strengths, yes, but he isn’t fit to oversee an empire. Too impestuous, too fickle...”
The Hungarian’s phone buzzed. Shanahan’s business concluded, the car idled outside the gate. Sadly too many immediate obligations to pay a visit to a man he once called a tag team partner.
“The chariot awaits. Father Shanahan sends his regrets. We appear to be a hot commodity at the present. Meetings, ventures-”
“I understand. So what of the girl, Brother Bathory?”
The Hungarian froze. Krauser hadn’t even finished the sentence before her image burned into his mind like a flash-bulb shadow.
“The girl, Herr Krauser?” he replied, feigning obliviousness.
“The Austrian from your travels. The young lady in Vienna. Is she well?”
“Yes. Nadia.” A chill swept down his spine as the memory took deeper hold. Even his breath caught for a moment, and he had the brief sensation of drowning. He’d woken in the night often over the past couple of years under that same weight, the same breathlessness, the nightmares always similar. Always watching her torn away from him by forces he couldn’t shackle, whether demonic or man’s dark heart. “It has been some time, alas. My schedule has been rather full.”
Rage-stricken images clouded his thoughts. I don’t want her involved in this business. Not until I’m in control and untouchable. He wanted to warn Krauser off, tell him to forget the girl for now, demanded he avoid Vienna at all costs. He felt dropped into the role of a child emperor, still impotent and toothless. The most he could do was continue to monitor the city from afar and covertly deploy allies to walk the streets if anything suspicious was flagged. He wished he could trust Wilhelm in that pursuit; his contacts were myriad across the continent and his resources had impeded enemies from harming the Sect far more than once. But Bathory realized that his ally’s loyalties were still largely uncertain. He needed to reign with absolute power before Nadia could be affiliated with him and stay safe. This life was full of variables he still couldn’t manipulate.
“Thank you again for your aid and your guidance, Herr Krauser.” It took effort but he tore himself free of the turmoil, anxious to avoid breaking appearances. Too early to lay bare any frailty, even to the most allegedly loyal of allies.
The world he was set to inherit was one of cloak-and-dagger treachery, decadents chasing dragons, paragons of immorality seeking immortality. He still needed time to properly steel himself into the man he needed to. To control other monsters he would transform into one himself. To combat predators he would evolve into the ultimate of apex hunters.
Innocence still prevailed in this world; his promo words were theater, the white lie-ridden drama he claimed to hate. Her gentle nature had sheared through the bulwark around his heart and affirmed it. Julian had done unholy things and conjured unholy abominations, but Julian Bathory still wasn’t a full-fledged devil. He wasn’t certain how to be a savior yet, let alone realize the form his deliverance would take. Only that his resolve would march him over the waves like the biblical Christ, through the fallen angels’ myriad circles of Hell, and into the arms of Nadia Riegler. Some pacts couldn’t be broken.
His gaze rested a final time on the silver band. Nadia’s parting gift as he resumed his trek five years ago. She’d seen through his rage then and dragged him back from the brink. Whatever he was fated to be, she couldn’t be compromised.
Chatter came over the network as guards escorted Krauser’s guest back to the outside gates. The German’s phone hummed, tearing his attention from the suddenly frenzied melee in the cage. Pressing one finger into his ear to mute the shouting of his bloodthirsty visitors, he opened the line.
Krauser’s eyes widened, the glaze in them dissipating almost instantly. He’d been a fool in his judgment.
“Seal the compound immediately.”
Let the slimeball and the kid know we’re coming.
Wha-? Who the hell is this?! This is a secure channel!
It -was- a secure channel, scumbag. Tell your boys they need to brush up on coding firewalls. Pass the word along to the dead men walking atop the chain of command. Give notice to Shanahan and Bathory that we’ve already commissioned their gravesites. It was a mistake coming back into the open.
I don’t think you realize you’re dealing with. If this is a prank-
We do realize it. Pass it along, message boy. Tell them the War Hound has their scent. For what little good it will do, warn them that Blackhelm is coming.