Post by Axton Gunn on Feb 27, 2021 23:43:34 GMT -5
Sorry, Ax. It’s over.
How did things get this bad?
I’ll pick up the rest of my stuff on Friday.
Why was this happening to him?
Tell the band I said sorry.
Why did this always happen to him?
Leaving his phone sitting on the kitchen counter, the messages app still open, he grabbed a half-empty bottle of orange Absolut from the cabinet over the fridge and pulled on a jacket. From there he stepped out the back door of his low-income Los Angeles apartment, climbing up to the roof on a steel ladder set up on his balcony. Even with one wrist in a cast, it wasn’t that tricky of a climb anymore--he’d done it dozens of times. He seated himself on the worn tiles, the dirty soles of his converse pushing against the rough finish of the shingles as he unscrewed the lid on the bottle.
Axton Gunn, newly single via text message, downed an emphatic mouthful of citrus-stinging vodka. He sighed heavily as he lowered the bottle, letting it hang between his knees in one hand, and stared out across the city lights sprawling up and far away from his empty nest.
That was when the tears came.
The distant city glimmers grew misty and faded at the edges, streaks of light caught in his eyes. As his chest knotted itself over a thousand times, he chased the pain with orange rind and fire, trying to be anywhere but where he was, but terrified to go anywhere but here. He didn’t want to be alone right now, but he didn’t want anyone he knew to know him like this.
Axton was supposed to be… fun. He was supposed to be the life of the party; he was supposed to be a light, a leader. If you wanted a good time, you only had to find him. If you wanted to have a night you’d never forget made up of moments you’d never remember, he was your guy. He was easy to love. He was a delight to be around. Axton Gunn had a way of making everyone around him feel like the brightest sunshine in the room; like they were his center of gravity.
Nobody wanted a version of Axton who cried. Nobody wanted a friend who they constantly had to nurse back to emotional health. Nobody wanted a boyfriend who couldn’t keep his shit together.
If he wasn’t fun, what was he worth?
Who would want to keep him around?
Axton was, unfortunately, familiar with a very specific type of dread. It was a sensitivity he’d carried with him his whole life, whether or not he recognized its roots; it started deep in his belly, like nausea, and curled upward between his ribs to wrap like a fist around his heart. The light-headed panic would set in, then, as he realized what he was feeling--as he realized that it meant he was already too late to fix it.
It was fear without the adrenaline hit that made life so sweet. Sometimes it felt like falling. Sometimes it felt like sinking, slowly, into cold water. What it always felt like was… isolating. Lonely.
It was the feeling of being abandoned, and it scared him more than anything else in the world. That feeling started to wind its way up inside of him then, as he sat in the passenger seat of Sarah Sanchez’s car on the way home from the hospital.
Sarah was an absolute stunner of a woman; from the moment Axton had laid eyes on her, he’d been stupid in love. She was taller than him by a couple of inches, and kept her inky-black hair in a short, curly pixie cut; she almost always wore lip gloss that complimented her sun-kissed complexion perfectly, which was painted with mesmerizing blackwork tattoos. She loved music, dogs, and exploring the city at night. Her slender fingers looked just as good on her bass guitar’s strings as they did knotted in his hair.
Right now, though, they were white-knuckled on the steering wheel, her deep brown eyes set straight ahead. Axton was sure he could feel her anger burning a hole into his temple, his shoulders curled up in a knot of anxiety.
“... I’m sorry,” he said, again, his voice hoarse.
“You’re sorry.” Sarah sighed through her nose, her fingers wrapping themselves around that steering wheel again as though she’d rather have them in his shirt collar, shaking some sense into him. “How many times are you gonna be sorry, Ax? How many times are you gonna say sorry, then turn around and do the same stupid shit again? How many times?”
“I…” The young musician swallowed the knot starting to form in his throat, feeling it rejoin the tangle of tension inside his ribcage. “I just… I’m just like this, Sarah, I’m an adrenaline junkie, I do dumb things just to see if I can, because it’s fun, because it makes people laugh or scream or--”
“Because it makes you the center of attention,” Sarah interrupted, her voice terse.
“No, that’s the reason,” she went on, her eyes remaining forward. “God damnit, Axton. You think I’m stupid? You think I don’t know why you do this? I know you. I’ve known you for years. And it was cute, and fun, when we were kids--when we were eighteen, when we had time and energy to fuck around. But it’s been four years, and you’re still doing it. You’re still risking your ass like a stupid kid and letting the rest of us worry about the consequences.”
She glared at him in the rear-view mirror as they came to a stoplight.
“You’re impulsive, you don’t think or plan ahead--you never plan ahead. You don’t think about the future. You can only live in the moment so long before reality sets back in, and that’s if you want this to work out--the band, us, everything--you’re going to have to think about what you do today and how that impacts tomorrow. You broke your wrist doing a stupid stunt. You play the guitar. Imagine if that was me, or Riley--you know, your guitarist? Imagine if we broke our wrists a week before a fucking show, and none of us could play. You’re lucky Riley knows your parts or we’d be screwed. That’s exactly what I mean, Ax--you’re letting this fall on Riley’s head, because you had a big stupid idea and didn’t use your big stupid head before you went along and did it.”
Axton said nothing, staring out the window. The fingers of that fist were closing in on his heart. His head was starting to spin. He couldn’t even feel his wrist right now; he felt like he was peeling away from his own body.
“I’m trying, Ax. I’m trying to be patient--I’m waiting for you to grow up and get a grip. But some days--nnghh.”
She shook her head, allowing a beat of silence to pass. In the silence, Axton felt like he was falling through ice water; helpless and frozen.
“Four years,” Sarah said, quieter this time. There was a strain in her voice--an audible hopelessness that to Axton felt like an anchor’s chain wrapping around his legs, pulling him down deeper.
“I really wanted this to work... I wanted it. I wanted the band to make it. I wanted you. You’re sweet as hell, Axton, your heart is always in the right place… but you never want to talk about the serious things. You don’t want to talk about money, or the future. You have the emotional maturity of a man half your age. You shut me out or just go down on me to keep me distracted when I try to get you to open up to me--you go out drinking or partying or getting high with your friends, sleeping with whoever and taking advantage of our open door policy, damn the consequences, and I can’t take it anymore.”
Axton’s hands were so cold.
“What do you mean, you can’t… Sarah…?” He looked at her sidelong, sitting up a bit. “Wait… Look, I’m sorry, I know I messed up, I’ll try harder, I ju--”
“You’re sorry,” she repeated, sharply. Axton shut up immediately.
After what felt like an eternal empty stretch of nothing, the car pulled into the driveway of Axton’s apartment. His own car was there, the paint still scratched from the near-miss accident he’d been in a few months ago. He stared at the scratches for a moment.
“I’ll text you later,” Sarah said, unlocking the doors. “I need to think… good night, Axton.”
“Go home, rocker boy.”
As he watched her car pull away back toward the city, Axton made a futile effort to fish his heart out of the ice water.
Well I'm not here cause I wanna be here; just dunno anything else Spent so long deep in love with you, fell out of love with myself I'm screaming at your memory, I'm saying "get the hell right out of my house" So I take your pictures off the wall and it's just me and Johnny Walker left around
You can lie lie lie, You can lie to me I don't care, I'm not losing sleep If it don't bother you, It sure as hell don't bother me
Man, it feels good to be alone sometimes…
Axton’s phone buzzed on the kitchen counter.
He hadn’t checked on it all day, honestly; he had a lot on his mind. The last day of February always put him in a rut; the 28th would mark the 4th anniversary of the night she left.
Four years together. Four years apart. Starting now, she would have been gone longer than she was around. It was surreal to think about… it put that strange, out-of-body sensation into his bones. That version of himself back then, lost and directionless, overlapped with who he was now. The outlines didn’t match up anymore, and though he was sure it was a good thing, it still put him off-balance.
He’d changed, just like she’d wanted. Just… a little too late.
The musician stole a glance at the clock; it was late. He had booze in the house, sure, but he didn’t want to be alone. He didn’t want to be alone, but he didn’t want anyone he cared about to see him like this.
… his breath hitched. He had to… he had to get out. He had to go somewhere and drown this feeling. He had to drink until he forgot about it. Fuck himself up in the head with whatever he could find. He had to dance until he couldn’t breathe. He had to put on a show for strangers--make up somebody who wasn’t torn up inside over old scars. Make up somebody fun. Make up for what he wasn’t right now.
He grabbed his phone and his keys, heading to the front door. He stopped, however, before opening it; several text messages from throughout the day caught his eye.
Hey, dude! How's your morning going? [accompanied by a selfie from bed.]
Hey rockstar. You up?
Thinking about you rockstar. Give me a call if you have time.
Got any plans for dinner tonight? Good night Ax. I love you. If anything's wrong please reach out. Babe, you okay? You've barely touched your spicy memes today.
He didn’t realize he was smiling until he tasted the salt on his lip, laughing in a moment of emotional overload as he palmed the stray tear away from his glossy eyes. Slowly, he returned his keys to the hook by the door, and walked back toward the living room, sinking into the couch.
Axton stared at his tattooed forearm, just below the phone in his hand. Underneath the blast-over of the championship belt, there were storm clouds. Underneath those, there was a bass guitar, wrapped in a rose’s thorns. That ink would always be there, and he’d always know… but so much had happened since then, it had taken on a purely new life. Silvio’s fine handiwork, a sign of his tender touch, and the symbol of what he and Jon had made together...
… how could he risk all of that? How could he let himself go back to being that shitty person--the one who had sabotaged all the good things he’d had going--when he’d come so far?
He wasn’t alone anymore. He wasn’t. He had people who were willing to take every part of him--even the parts that were hard to deal with. And maybe he couldn’t fix the past… but he could build on one hell of a future.
He could start looking forward. He could start planning ahead.
Love you too, loco. Thinking of you xoxo. I promise I’ll tell you about it later.
Missing your bed and your butt, ily <3 Good luck on your match, lmk if we can catch up after?
He could start... now.
“Alright, Legion! How are we feeling tonight!”
The cozy seating in The Niche had been filled out by a responsibly distanced crowd of Carnage fans tonight, who answered the musician’s question with a peppering of cheers and claps. It wasn’t the first time Axton had booked this little nook of a stage, as Jon Willis would remember. Presently, the other half of team Rock Lobster was seated at one of the front round tables near the stage, which he shared with the current World Champion, Silvio Leon; Axton had, of course, ensured they had the places of honour reserved tonight. Only the best for the ones closest to his heart.
“Good, good, I am also ‘whoo’, I’m glad we’re on the same page.” Axton himself was seated on a stool with a mic and his stickered-up acoustic. He had the sleeves of his flannel shirt rolled up to show off his ink; the bruising around his eye had healed up at long last, and thankfully hadn’t done any permanent damage. He started to walk chords to underscore his voice as he spoke, campfire-style, which worked well with the ambient warm light gleaming off the wall-mounted records and tabletop candle holders.
“So! I’m sure you all know that myself and my sweet skelly-boy Jon, the Lobster to my Rock, are gonna be defending our championship belts together for the first time. I’m pretty stoked, to be honest. See, I didn’t even really come to Carnage with a championship in mind; I came here to settle a personal vendetta, and because I’m a dramatic bitch. That ended up turning out way better than I expected--not only did we kiss and make up after he inspired me to get my act together, we’re still kissing, like, a lot. Hi, Silvio.”
Axton winks at his partner in the front row as the Legion claps, a few laughs and whistles making their way into the crowd noise.
“Not gonna lie, though--I had a messy entrance. I’m not gonna go into Strife’s strife tonight because that ain’t what this is about… but all of that did lead up to the formation of team Rock Lobster. That’s where I found a new inspiration--a drive to keep going, a new reason to keep coming back and kicking ass. Jon Willis here? He’s got a spark like nobody’s business. He’s got a drive to be champ that’s downright contagious. When you’re around Jon, you can’t help but feel uplifted. You can’t help but ride this wave he makes--this energy that makes you wanna break free from your old vices and be better. It’s hard not to notice and it’s easy to admire. In another life, where he wasn’t basically raised by luchadors, he prob’ly would’ve made a hell of a motivational speaker.”
Axton shoots Jon a warm grin before going on, happy to see him smiling.
“So there you have it--I’m in it to win it, between these two beautiful boys egging me on. I’ve got a lot of reason to want to hold onto gold--and a lot of reason to keep trying to be a better friend, and a better boyfriend, and a better team player. You know, all the things a tag championship stands for. I’ve always believed in found family, you know? Found family… it’s the family you choose, not just the family related to you by blood. A tag team is a found family. It’s finding the people who are vibing on your level, and pulling off magic together. It’s that feeling of belonging that you get to find and decide for yourself. And I’m finding it here. I’m finding it with you. I’m finding it with my tag partner… and it feels so right.”
He laughs and switches to a new chord progression, humming thoughtfully.
“Now… The Institute. Pandaemonium. Didn’t me and my boys in the Entourage pack up and ship an Insidious crate back to Cults-R-Us like, just a few months ago? Is there like some kind of auto-ship thing from that place that just sends us a new one on some kind of bi-annual subscription? Like Blue Apron, but shittier?”
He shakes his head, making eye contact with Silvio in the front row.
“I fuckin’ hate cults.”
Silvio salutes in agreement as Axton goes on.
“Incubus and Succubus… Ink and Succ…”
He pauses, lifting his hand from the strings in a beat of silence before playing on, a pensive expression on his face.
“You know, I thought about applying for a business license in Baltimore under that name--Ink and Succ. Get a stick n’ poke and a hot blowie at one fantastic price. But then I thought I’d wind up in legal trouble with some kind of giant conglomerate and my lawyers are already so tired of cleaning up after me.”
He sticks out his tongue, watching his hands as he plays.
“You lil’ Insti-shits sure had a lot to say about my skelly boy last round… didn’t sit right with me. You gotta know, I’m on the same wavelength as him, and that shouldn’t surprise you. The world isn’t a faithless, pull-up bootstraps kind of deal. Nobody has to face anything alone. That’s the root of the tag div, don’t you think? Well, it’s the root of how I live my life, too. I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if I didn’t have people to rely on--my found family. Sure, it’s shifted and changed over the years, and sometimes it's fallen apart because of me… but I’m not that guy anymore. I’m not the guy who’s willing to throw away those kinds of connections for a cheap thrill, or a momentary high… I’ve changed, too. I’m better than I used to be.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately of how the dark parts of our stories can be anchors… pulling us down, dragging us to places we don’t wanna be. But if you think Jon and I are the kind of people who let our pasts define us? You’re hella wrong. We’re building a future together--and that future is built on trust, and believing in the best of each other. Sometimes, we have to believe without knowing for sure what’s ahead. That takes a lot of guts… but we’re gutsy.”
He smiles up at Jon, the pair sharing a silent memory of a recent conversation among the gravestones.
“And you know what? I don’t think you have the guts to keep up with us, Pandaemonium. We’re Rock Lobster. We have conviction. We got matching towels. We got killer T-shirt sales.”
He sighs, closing his eyes for a moment.
“I gotta admit, it felt pretty awesome to dropkick Incubus in the back of the head back at Chaos. Yeah. That was sweet as hell.”
As the Legion bubbles with clapping and laughter, Axton starts to play in earnest, leaning into his mic.
“Once every hundred thousand years the most epic party in the universe will be thrown by The Institute, as it was foretold in the scrolls. So take that kool-aid, pour it on your chest and let it run down to your genitals. It's go time.
“Oh shit! Congrats, your ass just got invited To the party of your life--you motherfuckin' excited? It's a Pandaemonium party, so you know it's the shit I hope you like fun, 'cause we're havin' it! Let's get this fuckin' party started!
Fuck yeah! Your life was bullshit until right now Woohoo! Go ahead and let your trunks hit the floor Your destiny awaits behind that door!”
Axton stops strumming, tapping the body of his guitar like a clock in an empty room.
“Hey guys. You... playin'... uh… Twister? Is that what your logo means? That’s… that’s cool…”
He coughs, and then hits the music again.
“All right! This party's off to a bit of a slow start, But soon it's gonna melt your brain and bitchslap your heart! Check out this hopeless nihilism, reality is a prison-- Don't get me started on symbolism, you want 'em? We fuckin' got 'em!
And when the music starts to drop, The vibe's gonna be lit! We are way better than the left hand, Check out this amoral shit!
Axton stares at the crowd, which remains in their seats as he keeps strumming.
“I... I said dance, guys. Everybody. Anyone?”
He shrugs, looking pensive.
“...Alright this Institute party sucks. And why is Incubus named after a buttrock band from a decade ago? Weird. Who wants me to play Rock Lobster?”
The Legion laughs and cheers; Axton starts into an acoustic cover of his Tag Team’s namesake, as the last chills of February take their leave.
Last Edit: Feb 28, 2021 1:08:08 GMT -5 by Axton Gunn
The tower was enormous. Located in the heart of New York's financial district, a short walk from Wall Street, the headquarters of the Order of Plutus stuck out amidst the skyscrapers and billboards. Where the buildings around were modern, unassuming, professional, the tower was a relic from another time.
The windows were tinted black, with an imposing door made of solid oak. A brass plaque fixed to the door read:
Founded 14th June 1871.
As for you, Plutus, the most excellent of all the gods Come in here with me This is the house you must fill with riches today By fair means or foul.
Raziel and Incubus stood outside. Incubus wore a plain grey business suit, while Raziel was in a blouse and skirt, strategically unbuttoned at just the right places.
"Aristophanes," said Raziel.
"What?" asked Incubus, glancing at them.
"The plaque. A quote from Aristophanes. A fine man, though he never did get over his fixation with frogs. Drove him quite mad by the end. Not that I had anything to do with it, of course."
Incubus shrugged, glancing at them out of the corner of his eye. He was still unsure what to make of the person who stood before him, the young woman barely out of her teens, now speaking in the name of a spirit that was ancient before the dawn of time.
Was Raziel an angel? Or a fraud? A spy?
Did it matter?
Raziel pressed their fingertips against the lock on the door. There was a soft click and it swung open a little. They pressed it open and the two of them entered.
Inside, the building was palatial. A Victorian era desk, made from mahogany, was ahead of them, with marble staircases winding up behind it to the left and right. Portraits lined the stairs, figures from the history of the Order from its founding to the present, interspersed with pieces of classical art.
The bannisters were painted with ornate designs drawn in gold, roses, spirals, intricate calligraphy. Everywhere, the impression was one of elegance and opulence.
Seated behind the desk was a young man, glasses perched on his nose, working on a laptop. As Incubus and Raziel entered, the man's head snapped up, his eyes suddenly wide.
"Who the -"
Raziel raised a hand, and the man fell into a sudden silence.
"We require information," said Raziel. "Your organisation has meddled in affairs that are none of your concern."
The receptionist sat frozen to the spot, barely breathing, arms rigid. Raziel closed their eyes, radiating an overwhelming intensity and concentration. The lights began to flicker.
Raziel opened their eyes, speaking with a harsh, rasping tone. "David James Marlborough. Born 13th August, 1997. Presbyterian, a Minister's son. Engaged to Claire Wils - wait." Raziel smirked. "Engaged to Claire Wilson. Yet not all is as it seems. Secrets within secrets, lies within lies.
"Tell me, David, does your darling Claire know about Washington? Does she know what you did, or why you had to abandon home for this rotting husk of a building? Answer now, my dear. Tick-tock."
Raziel bowed their head. David slumped over the desk, breathing heavily, the tension holding his body suddenly loosened. His eyes were wide, pupils dilating and contracting wildly. Raziel stared at him with a calm, detached amusement. Incubus glanced from one of them to the other.
There was an undeniable aura surrounding Raziel, a sense of energy, power. Like standing next to a furnace or liquid nitrogen, at the edge of a precipice or the depths of a cave. The room itself felt electric, as if the slightest movement might send the place into flames.
David pulled himself upright, staring at Raziel, unblinking. "Who are -"
"Our identities are none of your concern. I take it you have archives located in this building. Take us to them."
David shook his head, even as he pulled himself to his feet, Behind the desk, sandwiched between the two staircases, was what seemed to be a blank wall. David made his way over to it and tapped out a pattern - tap-tap, tap tap-tap tap, tap-tap-tap. The wall opened up. Raziel and Incubus marched across, stepping past David and into the vault.
The walls were lined with thick folders and books, arranged in date order, dating back nearly one hundred and fifty years. The air was cold, crisp, the lighting dim to avoid damage. They walked through the archive, taking in the labels identifying their contents - investments, political engagements, blackmail. Records of the World Wars, and the role of the Order in withstanding the upheavals of the 20th Century and onwards. Revolts and revolutions, coups, uprisings, wars both civil and domestic on every continent.
The most recent documents were dated just days ago.
Raziel ran their fingertips along the spines of the folders, quivering with an almost erotic excitement. They glanced at Incubus.
"You should leave. Trust me. It is for your own safety."
Incubus nodded and exited the vault. David stood outside, shivering. He turned to Incubus.
"What is she doing? Whatever it is you want, for God's sake just get it quickly and get out before anyone sees you. Nobody can know you were here or I'm done for."
"It may be a little late for that," answered Incubus with a smirk.
Before David could respond, the two of them were knocked off their feet by the force of an enormous explosion. As Incubus went tumbling, he could just make out the figure of Raziel inside the vault. The folders and files had burst into flames, the room filled with billowing smoke. Raziel stood in the middle, tall, impossibly tall, the fire drawn towards them, streaming from their hands like serpents. Even through the smoke, Raziel's eyes glowed bright, almost hypnotic.
Raziel lowered their arms and the flames abated, leaving the vault with nothing but ash and a few small fires. Raziel exited the vault and greeted Incubus with a nod. As the two of them went to leave, Raziel glanced at David with a smirk.
"Sorry about the mess."
And they were gone. As they left, Raziel withdrew a mobile phone and sent a text message. Thousands of miles away, Cassandra, sitting alone in the Palace, received an alert. She checked her phone and noted a single word with grim satisfaction.
Black Site Baltimore
--Act of Defiance--
The atom-in-ouroboros glowed brightly against the darkness. Slowly, it faded, replaced with the figures of Incubus and Succubus.
They stood in what looked like an alchemist's laboratory. The ceiling was covered in stars, mingling with signs of the zodiac and words of cosmic power, the secret names in a dozen languages binding the divine spirits that rule the universe. The walls were painted with archaic symbols drawn in red, green, silver and gold, crumbling, almost indecipherable.
Mounted to the wall were two idols made out of solid gold. Human figurines, one representing Incubus, the other, Succubus. Their eyes were finest rubies, their outfits stuffed with emeralds, their bodies battered and beaten. Around their waists were the tag team championships, drawn in exquisite detail.
Incubus and Succubus wore robes of matching grey, the atom-in-ouroboros emblazoned on their foreheads and right hands.
"Good evening," said Incubus, his voice low and measured.
"So. The great night approaches," said Succubus. "An Act of Defiance. Men and women gather together for bloodshed and glory, for power, lust and ambition.
"For one night, the people of Carnage allow themselves to live the way we - those of us with the courage and strength of character to hold to the teachings of Spirit Science and Amorality - live every day. Not beholden to any sort of imagined moral code or higher purpose; even friendships and alliances once thought unshakeable are now called into question. Each one acts for their own self, in their own interest, crushing enemies underfoot like so much vermin.
"Baltimore calls us. A siren song from across the ocean, summoning us from Pierreia to the United States. To Maryland. To our fate and yours."
"Willis. Axton." When Incubus spoke, his voice was low and filled with venom. "The golden couple, the lovers, brothers in arms. You may believe your devotion to one another to be a sign of strength, of a bond stronger than mere professional pride or ambition could ever build.
"Yet in truth, that very bond you hold so proudly is your greatest weakness.
"Emotion is the source of weakness, of vulnerability, of instability, the pathetic whims of the lovesick heart being the greatest vulnerability of all. Those who love are doomed to act against their own interests, to risk all in the name of some fleeting sentiment, to undermine their own goals and ambitions for the sake of attachment and affection.
"We are bound by a higher purpose - or a lower one, if you prefer," Incubus added with a smirk. "In twelve months time, your love will be naught but a memory, a brief rest stop on the highway of life. Your romance is decayed and empty.
"The Institute is eternal. Amorality is eternal. Our names shall echo through history."
Incubus reached into his pocket, withdrawing a solid gold dagger, its handle studded with rare gemstones. The blade was stained a deep crimson.
"This world is ours for the burning," said Succubus, her eyes drawn to the blade. "Axton and Willis are the next in our sights. They will not be the last. One day every star in Carnage Wrestling shall know our wrath."
Incubus took her hand in his, cutting deep into her palm, blood beginning to flow. Her eyes went wide and she bit her lip, eyes closed, body tense, caught in the thrall of pain and pleasure. She took the dagger and returned the gesture, cutting into his skin, the dagger's razor-sharp blade gouging into Incubus' flesh.
They turned, acting in unison, allowing the blood to drip over the two figurines. The blood spattered down, showering them, bright red against the gold.
"Axton," said Incubus.
"Willis," said Succubus.
"Act of Defiance is just a few short hours away. We only hope you are ready. This is not simply a match," said Incubus.
"This is a prophecy," said Succubus. "A warning unto the world, written in your blood and ours. A prophecy and a warning. Accept the truth of Amorality and Spirit Science, the reality of the power of the Institute."
"Or perish," said Incubus.
Suddenly everything fell to darkness, the room disappearing from view. All that remained was the two figurines, solid gold, now stained deep with blood.
As the scene faded out, the figurines began to glow.
When he opened the Abyss, smoke rose from it like the smoke from a gigantic furnace. The sun and sky were darkened by the smoke from the Abyss. And out of the smoke locusts came down on the earth and were given power like that of scorpions of the earth.
The air filled with the sound of gunfire, a dozen rifles going off at once. The Chosen stood, side by side, weapons raised, a series of targets in the distance. Pause, aim, then another volley. Pause, aim, repeat.
Cassandra stood behind them, watching the practice with evident satisfaction, Incubus and Succubus by her side. She nodded to the Penitent, a prisoner of the Institute clad in white from head to toe, head bowed, condemned to serve. The Penitent walked across the hall, examined the targets one after another. Each target took the form of a human being, photographs of enemies of the Institute in life-size scale like mugshots.
Mia. Jimmy. Zach. Dorian. Chloe. Jon Willis. Rob Axton. And more - members of the Children, members of the Academy. Enemies of the Institute both within and without Pierreia.
The Penitent examined the targets with careful precision, noting the position of each shot. There was a sudden gunshot as Hades fired, sending a bullet screaming inches away from the Penitent's face, laughing with a high pitched giggle as it lodged into the wall. The Penitent froze but did not flinch or respond, stuck to the spot a moment before continuing their work.
Finally the Penitent returned to Cassandra, whispering a few words in her ear. Cassandra nodded approvingly, before glancing over at Hades with curiosity.
"Hades!" said Cassandra. "Your shots struck the right arm, the crotch, and the heart. Explain."
"For information," said Hades. "The arm as a warning, the crotch for cruelty. The heart as a death blow and a warning to others."
"Good work." Cassandra nodded. The twelve Chosen filed out of the room, placing their rifles on a rack by the door. Each gun was scored with a series of marks, cut into the metal and stained red, each mark a different symbol, spelling out the gun's history.
As they left, Cassandra turned to Incubus and Succubus. "I trust you have everything prepared?"
Incubus nodded. "Raziel and James Gelli are waiting." Incubus, Succubus and Cassandra exited the shooting range and made their way down a corridor.
They were in the Abyss, the enormous building on the south-east edge of the City of Dis, capital of the tiny, landlocked nation of Pierreia. It was home to the Locusts, the military of Pierreia and the armed wing of the Spirit Science Research Institute. The Locusts were first founded in the mid-1980s, a coalition of disgraced military veterans from two dozen nations, outlaw mercenary organisations, drug cartels, and terrorist organisations that had long since abandoned politics for brute power, all gathered together under the control of the Institute. From its founding until 2018, the Locusts had served the Institute's purposes as a security force that would go places even Blackwater would not touch, able to nudge global conflicts one way or the other in the interests of the SSRI or simply to profit from the bloodshed.
In 2018, the Institute carried out a coup in the tiny nation of Zeboim, renaming it Pierreia. The institutions of the old state were fused with those of the Institute, and the Locusts became the military of the new nation, with millions of dollars, euros and pounds flowing into the country to give it capabilities far beyond its tiny size.
They took a turning in the corridor and entered a private meeting room, Cassandra pressing her thumb against the door to allow entry. Inside were a wall-mounted screen, a bar stocked with all manner of liquids, pills, plants and powders, and a large table around which sat Raziel and Senior Agent James Gelli. Gelli sipped from a glass of tonic water. Raziel's nose was lined with white powder, their pupils dilated, expression amused.
"Welcome!" said Raziel. "This body does offer some wonderful opportunities for indulgence. So many intoxicants, so little time. My presence means their effect is limited, the body better able to recover. But still!"
Cassandra took a decanter filled with red wine and poured glasses for herself, Incubus and Succubus. She withdrew a tablet from her pocket and switched on the wall screen. It filled with data - names, addresses, bank transactions, business records, flow charts and diagrams. A man's face filled the top right quarter of the screen. He was middle aged, with a thin, grey beard, black-rimmed glasses.
"James Bates," said Cassandra. "45 years old. Originally from Boston, moved to Baltimore fifteen years ago. Qualified accountant, works with the Baltimore branch of the Federal Reserve Bank. His family have roots in Boston going back before the Revolutionary War. In 1871, they were among the families who founded the Order of Plutus, to protect the interests of the wealthy in the aftermath of the Paris Commune and the threat of working class revolution.
"In 1968, the Order split, with one faction joining with the Spirit Science Research Institute and the other refusing. The Bates family were among the latter. This remnant of the Order has long been seen as an irrelevance, a drinking club for wealthy socialites but little more. Recent events suggest that this may be changing."
The screen cleared, replaced with a diagram filled with arrows and symbols, connections between different companies, banks, politicians, organisations.
"As you are aware, the past months have seen a rise in militant activity within Pierreia. Thus far, the opposition has mostly consisted of groups such as the Children, or the Saved Souls - pacifists, or those who will only fight when forced. Moralistic parasites and busybodies vainly resisting the rise of the Institute, like ants trying to stand in the way of a marathon. To be crushed underfoot without concern.
"Yet these more recent attacks have been of a different sort, acts of terrorism targeting civilians, targeting the opposition movements as much as our own forces. Reports from prisoners at the Epicentre suggest that a movement is growing, the Patriots of Zeboim, who seek to restore the country to what it was before our seizure of power, and are quite willing to shed blood in this pursuit.
"A pity. Such single-minded, ruthless efficiency, could have been put to our own purposes. Yet they have chosen the path of foolishness.
"This group does not act alone. For all their nationalist pretensions, their campaign of petty terrorism has only been made possible through outside support. The information obtained by Incubus and Raziel" - Cassandra gestured with a nod - "shows that the Order of Plutus have been funnelling money, weapons and propaganda to the Patriots of Zeboim. This year is the Order's one hundred and fiftieth anniversary; they seek to use it as an opportunity to return from the wilderness into the world's eye, and to heal their wounded pride from what happened in 1968.
"The support for the Patriots of Zeboim is coordinated by a single individual - the aforementioned James Bates. He lives alone in an apartment in south-east Baltimore. In twenty four hours, we will be paying him a visit."
"What security does he have?" asked Incubus.
"One bodyguard stays with him at all times," said Cassandra, tapping at her tablet. The screen changed again, this time showing a younger man, military haircut, eyes of piercing blue. "Mark Carlton. Formerly with UK Special Forces, now a full-time bodyguard for the Order. He comes from an Order family; after he was forced out of the British Navy in disgrace, he took on a role protecting especially high level figures. It's safe to assume they have backup on call if needed."
"So what's the plan?" asked Succubus.
"In 24 hours we will launch a raid. The five of us will form the core team, going in to take the banker - and his bodyguard, if necessary - in person. We will have teams of Locusts located at different points in the city, as well as paying a visit to the rest of the Bates family as insurance should James prove uncooperative. An OSA agent will be assigned to each team. Contact will be maintained through -"
"Me," interjected Raziel. "I will be maintaining a psychic link with the teams."
Cassandra nodded. "Once we have detained the banker and bodyguard, they will be taken to our black site in Baltimore. We have many questions. These two may hold the answer. And even if not," she added with a cruel smile, "we may have fun finding out."
[/b] The apartment building was plain, uninspiring. The streets were empty, save for a single black dog wandering in the road. It was raining.
Incubus, Succubus, James Gelli and Raziel stood on a street corner, huddled together. Cassandra stood to one side, tapping at her tablet.
"The teams are in position. Our exit vehicle will be here in thirty seconds, as soon as we give the signal. The Banker, we need. The bodyguard is optional." Cassandra patted a bulge on her hip.
Cassandra walked up the steps into the apartment building, the four following behind. Raziel pressed their hand against the keypad by the door and the lock clicked, opening up the door. She nodded and the group entered, making their way up the stairs to apartment 221b.
Raziel pressed their fingertips against the lock of the door. There was a click as the lock turned, followed by a second click as it slid back into place.
Raziel shrugged and pressed their fingertips against the door once more. For a moment, nothing happened. Slowly, smoke began to rise from the door, forming a ring around the handle, the wood beginning to glow. Suddenly there was a loud thud as the handle and lock fell out of the door, leaving it to swing open freely.
Incubus and Succubus charged into the apartment, Incubus wielding a baton, Succubus wearing leather gloves covered in sharp spikes. As they ran through the apartment there was a loud bang and the sound of shattering glass, as a gunshot went off.
The living room was small, clean and functional. A sofa and a single chair, a small table and a television broadcasting the news to nobody in particular, Royal gossip, rumour and innuendo.
Incubus and Succubus both lay face down, surrounded by shattered glass, taking shelter behind the sofa, Incubus bleeding from a graze on his shoulder where the bullet had skimmed him
On the other side of the room stood a man wielding a handgun. He was a little over six feet tall, with a short, military style haircut. Behind him was an older man, eyes wide with panic, mumbling prayers to whatever gods might be listening.
"CARLTON!" Cassandra's voice echoed through the apartment as she entered, flanked by Gelli and Raziel. "YOU SON OF A BITCH, I SWEAR TO GOD IF YOU'VE HURT -"
Carlton glanced in the direction of Cassandra's voice, momentarily thrown off guard. Succubus flipped up to her feet and launched herself at him, using the sofa as a springboard. Carlton went to swing his gun in her direction but too late, her body collided with his and they went crashing to the ground.
Bates charged for the window, desperate to flee by any means necessary. Before he could escape, Incubus tackled him to the ground and pounded him with a series of baton strikes to the shoulder and ribs, bones breaking with a sickening crack.
Outside, there was a roar of engines as a group of vehicles pulled up. Cassandra glanced out of the window; three vans, grey, their windows blacked out.
Cassandra glared at Carlton, lying prone face down on the ground, Succubus' knee buried painfully in his spine. "Call off your little attack dogs or I swear you will live to regret it," said Cassandra with open contempt.
"Go to hell," snapped Carlton.
"Gladly," said Cassandra. "But I might just take a few with me."
Cassandra reached into her pocket, withdrawing her tablet. She tapped a few buttons and it lit up, showing footage from around the city. Groups of Locusts, clad in solid black, marked atom-in-ouroboros armbands, lurked in alleyways around the apartment. One feed showed a building across the street, a sniper on its rooftop.
A final video feed showed a woman and two young children huddled together, their mouths taped up, wrists bound. Carlton glanced up at Bates, held upright by Incubus; the banker's eyes were wide, but he stayed silent, even as his body quivered.
Succubus wrenched Mark Carlton upright, arms held tight behind his back. "Call them off," she whispered. "Call them off or we blow this whole shitty block sky high."
"I….the alert was triggered automatically when you broke through the door," said Carlton.
"When you fucking WHAT!?" yelled Bates.
Cassandra shrugged. Raziel glanced to one side sheepishly. "Yeah, that one's on me. I -"
"That door was 17th cenury teak! What sort of monsters are you people!?"
Carlton stared at him. "You….you do remember the part where they HAVE YOUR BLOODY FAMILY, right?"
Bates paused. "Well….yeah. But still! They could -"
"ENOUGH!" Incubus's voice was loud enough to make the windows rattle. "Enough of this inane blathering. Call off your little friends outside. Tell them we will be leaving. Tell them that the Banker and his little pet will be coming with us. And that if they even try to follow, we'll do the rest of humanity a favour and leave a Baltimore-shaped crater behind us. Understood?"
Carlton nodded. Succubus released his right arm, holding the other arm tight, her body tensed, ready to strike. Carlton raised his watch to his mouth and whispered a series of code words into it. Outside, the vehicles sprang into life. They paused a moment, as if waiting for some further instruction, before slowly exiting, making their way down the street in single file.
Raziel closed their eyes, sending out a signal to the Locusts, summoning them for the pickup. The five Amoralists exited the flat, bringing Bates and Carlton along with them, held tight by both arms. As they exited the building, a black van pulled up and they piled in.
Inside, the van was fitted with a set of armchairs and a small bar, the roof raised enough to allow one to stand. Attached to the roof were two sets of shackles. James Gelli and Raziel swiftly got to work suspending Carlon and Bates by their wrists, arms bent at a painful angle, every speed bump and sharp turn sending shocks of pain down their arms.
Succubus leaned in closed to Bates, staring deeply into his eyes.
"So," she said with satisfaction. "Let's just say we have a few questions."
--Black Site Baltimore--
Officially, the building in downtown Baltimore didn't exist.
The land existed of course, the bricks and mortar, the geographic area. But in any legal, financial, political sense, it was simply a void. No owner, no taxpayer, no record with local government. Nothing. Even the building seemed an afterthought, a simple store front surrounded by houses, its windows shuttered, moth-eaten curtains hanging on by a thread.
Officially. it had stopped existing when the block had been refurbished sometime in the mid-2000s. Until then, the venue had been home to a succession or less or more successful shops selling anything from groceries to sex toys to exotic animals and imported tea. Then the up and coming techno-aristocracy figured the area seemed quirky and picturesque enough to take over, so take it over they did. Surrounding buildings were drastically overhauled or outright demolished. Somehow this one store front managed to survive where all those around it failed, an eyesore and point of gossip to the chattering middle classes, forever concerned about the property prices of houses they were never going to sell.
Few had any inkling of the truth, aside from the occasional vehicles coming and going at strange times of day and night. Most assumed it was a drug house, or some sort of shady business deal. Few had any inkling of its significance.
For the past ten years, this place had belonged to the Spirit Science Research Institute. Black Site Baltimore. A transition point, a place where unfortunates would be held until they were reasdy to be taken to Pierreia or one of the Institute's other detention centres around the world. Or just to be cast into the street and left to fend for themselves, struggling to piece reality back together after being granted a glimpse of what Spirit Science had to offer.
Beneath the quiet, unassuming shopping front stood levels upon levels of basements going deep under the ground. Archives holding documents that would never see the light of day, cells holding prisoners who were likewise doomed for eternity. And finally, twelve floors beneath the surface, there was the Pit.
Used as a form of interrogation for high level prisoners, a teaching tool for recalcitrant Amoralists, or just as a form of entertainment for the Institute's higher ups, the Pit was a place designed for violence above all. A rectangular hall, its walls were lined with weapons of all shapes and sizes. There was but a single door through which the victor could escape. The loser would be condemned to the cells of Pierreia, never to return. For many, the Pit was the last thing they saw of the outside world.
In one corner of the Pit stood Incubus and Succubus. On the other, Bates and Carlton. Their arms were cuffed in front of them, wrists bound tightly together, bone grinding painfully against bone. Carlton's face was marked wiith cuts and bruises; Bates was clearly suffering, leaning to one side, struggling to stay upright.
A voice boomed over a loudspeaker, echoing through the chamber.
"MARK CARLTON. JAMES BATES. TOGETHER, YOU STAND ACCUSED OF AIDING AND ABETTING ACTS OF SEDITION AGAINST THE NATION STATE OF PIERREIA, AND AGAINST THE SPIRIT SCIENCE RESEARCH INSTITUTE. YOU ARE ACCUSED OF ACTS OF MORALITY, OF JUSTICE, OF COMPASSION AND ALTRUISM. HOW DO YOU PLEAD?"
Mark Carlton managed a whispered "fuck you". Bates did not react. A siren sounded, and the cuffs fell from their arms. Time to fight.
[/b] Incubus and Succubus charged at Mark Carlton and James Bates, tackling the two men to the ground. As his fists came crashing down into Carlton's face, Incubus saw him change, the British bodyguard's features shifting, changing, merging into another.
Suddenly, in his mind's eye Incubus felt himself transported, away from the Pit, away from all of this. They were in an arena and Axton was in his arms, Incubus scooping the tag champion's body into the air, sending him crashing down to the concrete with agonising precision.
Succubus whipped James Bates into the wall, sending the banker colliding with a ring of barbed wire. Before she could capitalise, Bates ducked, grabbing a set of brass knuckles, sending them crashing into Succubus' skull with a sickening thud. She staggered backwards, eyes crossed, struggling to stand. A wave of adrenaline and anger rushed through her and she lept into the air, twisting her body, nailing Bates with a roundhouse kick to the skull.
Incubus and Mark Carlton were locked together in combat, trading punches, kicks, their skin broken open, blood flowing, bodies bruised. Incubus nailed Carlton with a boot to the stomach, while the bodyguard responded in kind, an flurry of kicks to the knees sending Incubus reeling.
Succubus launched herself at Mark Carlton and drove him into the concrete with a spinning DDT, his skull connecting with a hideous thud. She pulled Incubus to his feet and hoisted him into the air, using his body as a weapon.
At the last second, Carlton rolled out of the way and Incubus crashed down, his spine crashing into the concrete. Incubus felt the pain rush through his body, a sudden, electric jolt rushing through him. It felt as though every part of him was in pain. Yet he was somehow detached, distant, aware of the pain but not experiencing it, observing the physical world with a calm amusement. The chamber seemed to almost shimmer, reality itself shaking, vibrating, suddenly seeming all too real.
He glanced over at Bates, watching in slow motion as the banker tried to flee, rushing to the exit of the Pit. Despite the pain, Incubus pulled himself upright and charged at Bates, leaping at him and tackling him to he ground with a spear. As he watched, Bates too began to change, his face changing, body morphing.
The veteran, the warrior. The one who fought his battles, won some, lost others. Possessor of gold. The obstacle.
Incubus tackled him to the ground and wrapped his hands around the banker's throat, strangling him, the air rapidly leaving his lungs. Incubus pulled himself upright, never letting go for a moment, hoisting the helpless banker into the air, holding him upright.
With one show of almost superhuman strength, Incubus hurled Bates at the wall, colliding with a collosal impact that reverberated throughout the chamber. His body crashed and fell, landing and laying helpless, motionless.
Incubus glanced at Succubus, just in time to shove her out of the way as Carlton came to attack her from behind. She tumbled to the ground, flipped over, swept out a leg that sent Carlton crashing to the floor. Succubus grabbed a shovel mounted to the wall and raised it to high before bringing it down on the back of Carlton's skull.
Succubus knelt and dipped her fingers in the unconscious man's blood. From the violence and energy of the fight, the Pit was suddenly quiet, calm. She strode over to Incubus and dipped her fingers in his mouth, dripping the blood over his tongue, using it to daub occult symbols over his cheeks. She kissed him deeply, her fingertips playing over his crotch, her boot crashing into Bates' skull for good measure.
She slipped her hand into his and the two of them made their way out of the Pit, leaving two broken bodies behind them, unconscious, barely breathing. As they left, Incubus turned, gazing back at the two men.
He saw them change once more. Axon. Willis.
An Act of Defiance.
Incubus squeezed Succubus' hand, his eyes filled with a rare excitement. He whispered in her ear a single word.