”An enemy is a nuisance but a nemesis is someone for whom you harbor an abiding, relentless dislike. A nemesis must be a worthy adversary. A nemesis can give you purpose, can hone your ambition. What I am saying is that having a nemesis is motivational.” – Roxane Gay
Late Saturday night, February 1
Allstate Rosemont Horizon Arena
This is becoming familiar territory and Lindsay Troy doesn’t like it.
The Lady of the Hour sits on a cold, metal examination table while High Octane Wrestling’s medical staff flit about her. The inevitability of this was apparent as soon as she walked back up the ramp and through the curtain after the main event; she took some hard bumps out there, courtesy of her brother-in-law. Rather than put up a fight, she headed straight to the infirmary to get checked out and, fingers crossed, get cleared to keep competing.
Lindsay already knows she’s fine but she doesn’t have the final say in the matter. Her elbow, still a point of concern, needs to be looked at. And so does her neck. It feels stiff, yet there’s no apparent pain…not like there was three and a half years ago when Dan put her through DEFIANCE’s announce table with a devastating Burning Hammer.
She got lucky then; only had to wear a neck brace for two months. She could have been paralyzed. In the end, she got her pound of flesh by tearing the ligaments in Dan’s knee with the Key to the Kingdom and wresting the FIST of DEFIANCE from his grasp.
Nobody said this business was easy. And it’s usually a long road back from the lowest points.
Now, up 1-0 in the Lee Best Invitational and momentum in her favor, Lindsay does as she’s asked, moving her head back and forth, side to side, testing her range of motion. She’s already passed the concussion protocol. Ice and ibuprofen is the recommended course of treatment, as is taking it easy for a couple of days.
With Mike Best up next?
Like that’ll happ–
Three pairs of eyes turn toward the entrance where a sweaty, stoic Ego Buster takes up the entire space of the doorframe. His adrenaline is starting to drop, the high from their bout subsiding.
“You mind giving us a minute?”
The doctors-in-training look dubious.
“It’s fine,” Lindsay says, reassuring them. Dan moves into the room while the staff clears out. He shuts the door behind them.
He looks directly at her, not breaking eye contact. A few moments pass as he considers his words. “You alright?”
“I’ll live. How’s your face?” She tosses him a smirk, expecting the dry humor that usually comes her way in a moment like this. Dan’s expression stays the same, though, other than a slight nod.
“It’s fine. Nothing a few pills and some rest won’t fix. You did good out there.”
“Yeah. Amazing what a little focus will do.” Lindsay slides off the table, careful not to jostle anything too much. “I’m glad we got that out of the way early. Not that this is going to get any easier from here on out.”
Normally, there’d be some talk of strategy. Plans to be made. Next steps laid out. However, Dan is still holding his eyes on his sister-in-law, barely doing anything more than occasionally blinking.
“Look,” he starts, “I just wanted to come and make sure I told you…. If you’re good — I’m good. We’re good. I figured you might be worrying about that a little bit considering my past, so uh… yeah. I wanted to make sure you were okay and that you knew that we’re okay, as far as I’m concerned.”
He flashes a little half-hearted smile.
Lindsay squints, a little taken aback, not only by Ryan uncharacteristically fumbling over his words, but by the appearance of something…heartfelt. In public. She quickly catches herself and shoots him a smile of her own. “Oh, you and I? We’re shiny, captain.”
She walks toward him, pats his arm, and leans in close. Her voice lowers a tad. “The family stuff, though? You know you’ve still got some squaring up to do there.”
Dan had looked down briefly, but on contact between her hand and his arm he flinches. His eyes dart up and an oddly intense stare passes between them. She sees this and frowns slightly, yet he seems to shake it off, and the expression is gone as quickly as it came.
“Uh, yeah, look…” He blinks a few times more. “I’m gonna head to the dressing room. I just um.. Wanted to make sure we were okay.”
Troy’s head moves back slightly. “Yeah.. you said that already.”
Ryan nods, then smiles. “So I did. Um.. so, hey, I’m gonna go. I’ll uh… talk to you tomorrow, probably.”
He turns, putting his hand on the doorknob and letting it rest there for a moment, tightening his grip to an alarming degree. His hand eventually relaxes and Ryan carefully opens the door and heads out.
Lindsay tilts her head to the side, considering this exchange as the medical staff filter back in. “Is he alright?” one asks.
“I don’t know,” she says. “It’s probably past time that I stop worrying about it, and him.”
How’d you like that, Mike?
You had a front row seat for the Ryan/Troy Family PrimeTime Drama and, arguably, one of the biggest upsets of the LBI so far, and all of it was all your doing. Let me give you your flowers, you genius you.
I know, I know; I’m probably not giving myself enough credit for beating Dan, but would you? After he lifted the ICON Title from your bestie Cecilworth? After you stole that win from me at ICONIC to set up this GOD Group? This was a non-title match at Refueled 14, after all. All that was on the line was three points and some more bragging rights between us.
And that, mon petit ami I will gladly take.
That’s French, not Spanish, so you might not speak it either. Wink wink.
Before you start thinking that ol’ LT is deep down BIG MAD that she couldn’t grab the duke over you, let me set the record straight, because you look like the kinda guy who thinks we don’t need to call anymore witnesses and I’m the kinda girl who needs this to be put into evidence.
Mom’s not mad. She’s just disappointed.
Who the fuck likes to lose?
I had it all planned out, y’know. I wasn’t gonna set my own group up, oh no. As tempting as that was, I had a much better idea. Never let it be said that the Queen settles for the roads laid out in front of her. You know I’ve always got a plan, kid. No, I was gonna go to dear ol’ Daddy Lee and trade in that rabbit he dangled in front of us like we were his two prize greyhounds racing ‘round the High Octane track for the opportunity to set up your group instead.
Could you imagine that, Mike? I beat you, and then your fate is in my hands? The look on your face would’ve been absolutely delicious.
They once called me the Sovereign of the Swerve, after I shocked the world and won the Empire Pro world title after being under a mask for months. I almost shocked the world again and ended your three year win streak.
It only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
I’ll give you that one, though. You’re a wily little shit. Didn’t expect anything less, really. You and I don’t get to where we are in this business without having a few tricks up our sleeves. And now, we get to do this dance all over again.
The air is different in the room this time, though. I can feel it.
Got my “don’t give a fuck” attitude back. And, Mike, you’re lookin’ a little shook.
You might want to try and find your footing before Saturday….
Monday, February 3
Michigan Avenue, also known as the Magnificent Mile, may be one of many well-known Chicago tourist traps, but that doesn’t mean it’s not without its gems. The Purple Pig gastropub, boasting over 750 wines in-house and renowned for its tapas-style, pork-heavy Mediterranean fare, has been delighting visitors and locals alike since its doors opened over ten years ago. Waits are the norm, reservations don’t exist, but arrive early enough and you may be pleasantly surprised to find a table with your name on it.
Today is such a day.
It must be fortuitous; an unseasonably mild winter has temperatures near 50 degrees, the wind downtown isn’t unbearable, and the sun is out for the first time in over two weeks. The Pig’s dining room is a third full, mostly business people in pairs seated either at the bar or at the two-tops along the Spanish-tiled wall, grabbing lunch or a drink and hoping no one from the office catches them imbibing.
From his seat at a four-top near the end of the bar, Julian Bathory could very well be mistaken for one of those businessmen just by his attire alone, although his “work” never sees him inside a cubicle or corner office. Impeccably dressed in a steel grey suit, black shoes, and plum tie, the young Hungarian takes in the scene with an easy smile and a glass of pinot noir from France. The waitstaff has, thus far, been attentive without hovering, and the other patrons are mostly deep in conversation with a few lifted glances tossed his way.
Julian knows those gazes aren’t meant for him; after all, he’s barely a blip on anyone’s radar…just the way he prefers until the time is right. Rather, those looks are meant for his more famous, and utterly nefarious, colleague – slash – mentor sitting across from him; a man whose presence has cast a black cloud over the professional wrestling industry since the late 80s; the scourge of the Primetime Central circuit, and the Bringer of the Black Gospel: Bruce “Violence Jack” Shanahan.
And Bruce, per usual, is in a foul mood.
“This is not a good idea,” Shanahan sneers, keeping his voice low, although there really is no need. The din of the room and the sounds from the kitchen are enough to prevent strangers from overhearing. Unlike Julian, Bruce sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the restaurant’s clientele, giving the appearance of a demonic priest in glyph-scrawled black ceremonial robes. His wardrobe of choice. Time has not been kind to the man: his bald head is scarred and wrinkles crease his face. Seven years away from the ring has not helped with his physical ailments either. His knees might be held together by black magick.
“Yes, you’ve said,” replies Bathory, the smile still present, the lilt of his accent keeping things light. “Multiple times. And I disagree.” He swirls the wine in his glass then takes a healthy sip. “You should really try this, it’s quite good.”
“I’ve no need for alcohol.”
“I’ve no need for it either, Father Shanahan. I just happen to enjoy it.”
“Pfah.” Bruce dismisses the notion with a wave of his hand while his young compatriot signals to their waiter for a refill. More wine is poured and, from the kitchen, two additional servers bring their meals: milk braised pork shoulder, grilled broccoli, lamb ribs, and scallops.
“Tell me, what is so bad about wanting to expand our ranks?” The knife in Julian’s hand cuts through the pork shoulder and scallops like butter. “You have hand-picked me as your successor. The Sect of Black Wisdom is mine to control, to direct as I will. I see an opportunity here.”
For fifteen years, the Sect was shepherded by Shanahan, its founder. A vile flock spawned from the Bostonian’s obsession with the occult and the obscene whisperings of demigods and mystically-sensitive macabre auteurs once thought contained only to the works of Lovecraft, Bloch, and Campbell, Bruce led them with the mercilessness of a dictator and the lunacy of a madman. He didn’t just preach, he led his horde across the globe under the veil of conventional military operations, experiments, and even terrorist-type attacks. Professional wrestling provided the cover to spread his blasted gospel and no one was safe from his insane ramblings.
Five years ago, after traveling around Europe to ‘find himself’ as many youngins do, Julian Bathory felt guided to embrace a calling and followed the proverbial beacon to the West. Dreams, visions, and acts of some divine hand took him on a pilgrimage of which he had no idea the end, yet he trusted providence. That providence would provide him destiny, and bring the wayfarer to the doorstep of the Sect’s headquarters in upstate Vermont. Bruce took him under his wing and one year ago, almost to the day, officially named Bathory the patriarch of the brotherhood and the New World Savior, as was foretold in prophecy in the Black Testament, the Sect’s most sacred book.
“The true believers still flock to us in droves, Julian,” Shanahan counters, stabbing a forkful of greens. To this day, he struggles with his new mentorship role. Or, as he secretly thinks of himself: a glorified backseat driver. Turning over the reigns of power has not been easy, even though it was necessary. “They make their way to Wyatt Manor by the dozens. You don’t need to prostrate yourself amongst the heathens. Especially not one the likes of Lindsay Troy.”
A chuckle from across the table. “I have yet to prostrate myself in front of anyone.”
“But you will. That’s why you insisted we come here to this infernal city.”
“The Queen is impressive; anyone who doesn’t think so is a fool. You saw her match Saturday night against her brother-in-law.” Bathory polishes off a lamb rib and wipes his mouth with his napkin. “During our brief return to the Championship Wrestling Federation, I knew she was someone we needed in our circle. She remained unflappable when confronted with adversity. I dare say, you just don’t like that she’s never been afraid of you.”
Plates and glasses rattle and clink after Bruce’s fist makes contact with the table. “She is a mongrel with a blasted tongue!” he retorts, voice raised. A few people look over, intrigued at the outburst.
Julian laughs, not because this is funny, but because this rage for his counsellor’s enemies is well-documented. “I rather like that about her. She is not easily tamed, or swayed, this rival of yours. It makes the challenge to bring her in that much more fun for me. She is hungry for change, Father Shanahan. I sense she is not satisfied with her current cohorts. The stardom she can bring would be a boon to our cause and under our guidance she will flourish. Perhaps, even win this tournament she’s in?”
“We don’t need her, Julian,” Shanahan says, shaking his head. “She will not come. She is infuriatingly righteous.”
“The Black Testament has prophesied such an arrival to our ranks. I read the Scripts of Baron Kinzler, and they said…”
“Don’t you dare throw my own teachings back at me, boy.”
“Peace, Father,” Julian holds up his hands. “I mean no harm in that.”
Bruce scowls, aware of the truth in Bathory’s revelation and feeling incredibly uncomfortable with the knowledge. It’s true what the Scripts foretell; although they don’t mention any one person by name, they do predict a memorable and powerful addition to the Sect’s ranks, a warrior of fierce resolve and fiery temper, whose unexpected arrival will shake the mortal world to its core.
He didn’t think, never dreamed, it would be her.
“Can I get you anything else?” Their waiter again. Bruce forgot his name immediately after he said it earlier.
“Just the check, thank you,” Bathory says and the waiter makes his way to a register. “So,” he continues, reaching for his phone to thumb his code in and read a text message. “After we finish here, I think we’ll make our way up town to rendezvous with the Lady and get reacquainted. She left her hotel an hour ago and arrived at a gym for a training session.”
Shanahan nods solemnly. After all, what choice does he have?
Do you want to know a secret, Mike?
I kinda like your moxie.
Oh, I know I’m not supposed to. It’s nearly blasphemous to admit, and it’s been such a long time since I’ve had an actual nemesis. You’re not quite at the level of a Sonny Silver, or a Vic Creed, or a Troy Windham, or a Bronson Box, when it comes to this deep-seeded rivalry between us. At least, not yet. But you’re getting close to cracking that Top 5.
You’ve got the brashness and the talent and the absolute fuckboiness seeping through every pore and etched across that perfectly chiseled jawline of yours that makes me want to ram my knees right on through you. The work you did on my elbow makes me want to keep paying you back ten-fold. You’ve got your boys to back you, you’ve got the run of HOW, and nobody’s been able to tell you shit otherwise. I like that you present a challenge; it gives me a real purpose for being here.
Wanting to take you down a peg or twelve? Hoping to see the eMpire finally crumble? Yeah, Mike. I live for the thrill of one-upsmanship. I live for the eventuality of triumph over The Bad Guys©. It gives me great pleasure to see you incensed that you can’t rattle me.
I had to learn the hard way. When I was much younger, it took nothing to see my temper flare amongst the boys. But now, it takes an act of God to see that volcano erupt. One day, maybe you’ll stop kicking chairs and “injuring your knee” long enough to learn those lessons too. And maybe you won’t. The tantrums will be much more fun to watch if so.
For now, we square off one more time, to see if we’ve learned anything from ICONIC almost 20 days ago. I stole your thunder when I signed my name to my High Octane contract’s dotted line almost a year ago, and you took it right back at that pay-per-view. You’ve been a big fish in Lee’s frigid pond and I’ve been a big fish everywhere else I’ve ever been.
Every match from here on out is my Super Bowl, Mike. The most important game of the season. All eyes on me, do or die, no second fucking chances. Every athlete is elite, every one deserves to be there. “Match. Tourney. Title.” isn’t some cute little catchphrase I came up with to sell some T-shirts; it’s a refrain I’m repeating in my head with every step to the ring, with every move I hit, with every pinfall or submission I’m putting my opponent in.
I’m keeping that loss to you in my back pocket, as a reminder that the Group of Death is nothing more than the Group of Opportunity. When I beat you on Saturday, and I look at the tables on Sunday, it’s gonna be real sweet to see six points next to my name and a big fuckin’ goose egg next to yours.
I’ve got my eyes set on Cecilworth at the end of it all. I’ve got a score to settle with him, and he’s the final boss at the end of this LBI. It’s not enough to only win the tournament. I want Farthington…and I want The Belt.
It’s another battle of the sharks, Mike.
This time, I’m gonna eat you alive, and make sure I take the win along with me.
EFK Martial Arts
Two days removed from yet another battle of a lifetime and Lindsay Troy isn’t stopping for anything. Not with her rematch with Mike Best looming. Not with the group lead within her reach, thanks to Jack Harmen’s bye this week.
The soreness is still present, but bearable. Her elbow feels OK; it’s her neck that needs to loosen up. Dan Ryan’s belly-to-back overhead suplexes, like all of his moves executed with the utmost precision, aren’t a joke. This is nothing she can’t handle, though. She’s been following the High Octane med team’s orders for the most part: taking Advil when needed and pushing through it. She rested on Sunday. She’ll ice herself down after this workout, schedule some acupuncture tomorrow.
This second match of the Lee Best Invitational is even more important than the first. Redemption is on the line. Another chance to end Mike’s win streak. Three more points are at stake. Training and preparation cannot be put off any longer.
Is her neck now another target for GOD’s favorite Son? Absolutely. It would be for her if the roles were reversed.
Will she pull out all the stops to not let it be a factor, and knot it up 1-1 against him? Bet the fuckin’ house.
“Nice job today.” Alex Creed extends his fist and Lindsay mashes hers against it. The two sit on the blue mats by EFK’s wrestling ring, cooling down with stretches after their training session. “You probably didn’t need to go as hard as you did. I understand why, though.”
“No rest for the wicked,” is the Queen’s response. She pulls on a long-sleeve tee over her tank top, then reaches for a hoodie. Time to layer up before heading out into the February air. “Only four matches are making it to primetime on Saturday. No way do I want the world to miss my chance at revenge against the Misbegotten Youth.”
“Well not only that, but he did counter out of the Keys. That hasn’t happened before.”
Lindsay frowns, nodding. There is a first time for everything. A submissions and counter-specialist herself, she prepared herself for the possibility, of course. After her pin counter to Mike’s reversal, she let herself get caught in a counter-pin of Best’s own, and he illegally hooked her tights for good measure. A point she made sure to bring up last week. A point that has been eating the HOFC Champion, and the Architect of the GOD Group, alive since he heard it straight from her lips.
No matter how much it’s driving Mike to the point of obsession, Lindsay cannot let it happen again. Fool her once, shame on you. Fool her twice, and she’ll be down 0-2 and her Match. Tourney. Title mantra suffers a serious hit. The climb out of the GOD Group becomes harder. Mike Best becomes even more intolerable, if such a thing is possible.
This match is an absolute must win. Not only to stay one step ahead of everyone else, but to ensure that Mike stays one step behind.
And it’ll mean taking more risks and going back to her roots to do it.
“Let’s start a little earlier tomorrow, Alex. Do a double session.” She reaches for her phone, a pair of gloves and ear warmers, zipping the duffel bag closed after they’re in her hand. She stands up and fires off a quick text message. “I’ll talk to Anthony, see if he can open a little earlier for us.”
“Sure thing.” Alex stands as well. “What did you have in mind?”
“Well, I almost had Mike the last time and my ground game couldn’t get the job done. The stakes are too high now. He knows what’s coming and how to maneuver out of it. So if one way doesn’t work, it’s time to mix it up.”
The Mecca nods, his interest piqued. “OK. I like where this is going…”
“Jack Harmen’s not the only one renowned for his high flying ability.” The duo move toward the door. “My strikes are great for keeping him off-balance but I need to up the ante even more. It’s time to hit him by land and by air. Just like the old days. Always keep him guessing so he never knows what’s coming next. He’s already looking to get cute and throw me off by trying to learn the Raynes of Castamere. I’ll need to go deep into the well to figure out my plan of attack.”
The door swings open and the chill hits them full-bore in the face. Alex hugs his jacket tighter to his body. “Just text me a time and I’ll be here. We’ll work this out together.”
“Alright. You want a ride? My driver’s at the corner.”
“Nah, I’m good,” Alex smiles. “I can call an Uber.”
“I’ll wait with you.”
“You don’t have to.”
Lindsay gives him a Mom-look and Alex laughs. There’s no arguing with her, really. He pulls his phone from his pocket, swipes his code across the screen, and opens the app while Troy looks off into the distance. People walk behind them, paying them no mind, until two men cross from the opposite side of Clark Street and make their way toward them.
“Ah, Ms. Troy,” Julian Bathory declares, approaching with a smile and an affable air. A lit cigarette burns noxiously in his leather-gloved hand, and his blonde hair glimmers under the lamplights. Bruce Shanahan skulks a pace or two behind him, malevolence upon his face. “How lovely to see you again!”
Both Alex and Lindsay turn to their left. Troy does a double-take. Creed looks puzzled.
“Do you know them?” he murmurs and moves to flank her.
“Yeah.” Her face immediately hardens. “How I wish I didn’t…”