An expansive estate forty miles to the Northwest of Caen, France, spread out across the rolling hills and wooded glens of Normandy. The stone structure, a former commune dug into the hills along one entire side, was at least 15,000 square feet, perhaps more. There was little else for miles around, and none could be seen walking or driving along the tree-lined winding road which passed just outside the gated entrance.
A bas-relief design decorated the opened inner gate of the property, a fleur pattern with a dozen swirling tendrils stretching out in all directions with symmetry to the central placement on the gate itself.
The structure is old, dating to perhaps the 15th or 16th century, and a sense of foreboding history lingered around it, thickening the air as anyone approached.
Through the front door and past a foyer, a dimly lit hall opened up for several dozen feet to either side. A fire flickered in the fireplace, the only light in the room, casting an orange glow on the faces of the two people sitting on the decidedly modern furniture. The interior design was recent, apparently, and likely temporary, judging by the clearly hasty arrangement.
Sitting on one of the couches, a wiry, gaunt young man with a pencil-thin mustache sat, and across from him on a rather large leather chair which matched its inhabitant’s size, was Dan Ryan. He looked down at the other man with mild disdain, but mostly indifference. Dan Ryan’s wife, Alaina stood to his side, one arm on the back of the chair, listening in to the conversation.
The smaller gentleman “ahem”ed to break the silence.
“Mr. Ryan, I’m sure you’ll find everything is in order just like you… demanded.”
“It better be.”
Ryan wrinkled his nose, almost imperceptibly, furtively glancing upward toward the stone roof of the lower level of the building. The younger man, an antiquities dealer from Paris, caught the glance but made no mention directly.
“This is not the first time I’ve been charged with handling important… expensive relics of this nature.”
Ryan nodded ever so slightly.
“Max recommended you. I expected nothing less. I’m also aware… that you’re aware of the penalties for upsetting Max Kael. So I’m also sure that you are aware that the penalties for upsetting me are no less… severe.”
The man smiled, but it was a smile that held hints of perverse delight and derision in equal measure, and he narrowed his eyes and snarled as he replied.
“Good,” Ryan replied. “Then I also want to make sure we are clear that since Mr. Kael is… not quite himself right now, your arrangement with me is to be kept strictly secret, under penalty of death, which I mean quite literally.”
All emotion drained from Dan Ryan’s face at that moment, and the target of his gaze, though no stranger to intimidating men of Ryan’s ilk, wilted slightly, thinking it unwise to be anything but agreeable at this moment. To wit, he straightened himself up in his seat and gave nothing more than a firm, polite nod in the affirmative.
With this, he stood, straightened his jacket, and turned to leave.
“You’ll find all security measures are in place. I trust you do not need me to write down any security codes.”
Having made considerable ground across the room toward the foyer, he dared one wry look in Dan Ryan’s direction, raising an eyebrow. Ryan made no movement from his seated position, and in fact lifted a massive leg to cross over his knee and leaned back, and returned the remark with a smirk.
“I think I can manage.”
Emboldened and satisfied by the cleverness of his ability to get this last bit of snark into their exchange, the man turned one last time and disappeared into the foyer, where one last loud opening and closing of the wooden door announced his departure.
Ryan stayed in place, holding an empty stare in the same direction, and it prompted Alaina to finally step forward and lean in just enough to get into his field of vision.
“Are you alright?”
There was nothing for a few moments, then, his concentration broke, and his countenance softened, replacing the empty scowl with a smile.
“Oh.. yeah, I’m fine.”
She shook her head and sat in nearly the same spot previously occupied by the antiquities dealer several minutes before.
“Well, you don’t look fine. You look like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders.”
“It’s War Games.” He smiled, this time a more genuine smile, or one good enough to seem genuine at least. “What do you expect? There’s nothing like it.”
She leaned back, looked down briefly, then back up.
“Last year you trained twice as hard, spent all of your time with your teammates and formed bonds, and led strategy sessions. This year you’re renting out medieval estates in France and taking visits from creepy little men who deal in ‘relics’.”
Ryan’s smile left his face.
“Last year I lost.”
But then, it returned just as quickly as it left.
“Actually, I’m somewhat relieved that Andy Murray has finally admitted his problem.”
“Yeah. I saw that.”
“Of course.” Ryan leaned back once more. “I said he was a dick right from the beginning.”
“Addict,” she corrected him.
He remained stone-faced. “That’s what I said.”
She shook her head.
“You said he was a dick.”
“Right,” he returned back to her. “It was literally the last thing he said in that one promo.”
She leaned in.
“That he was an addict…”
Ryan leaned his head back, nodding again.
“Exactly. Like I said. I knew it all along. But it’s good to hear him actually say it. Not only that, but I have a sneaky suspicion he might have a pill problem, too.”
Exasperated, she stood, finally, giving him a sideways glare as she made her way across the room and to the back door just behind him. He leaned his head back, lounging one leg over the side of the chair, and closed his eyes.
“You’ve never appreciated my sense of humor, I want you to know that!”
He smiled and listened as her footfalls click-clacked on the stone to the door, followed by the opening and closing of it, then closed his eyes and let the smile drain from his face.
He sat there and listened, listened to the fire crackling in the fireplace, listened to the breeze outside the window blowing the trees lining the building, and whooshing back and forth, listened… to the thoughts ringing in his head, and opened his eyes, finally.
His gaze landed once again in a direction somewhat angling toward the upward level. But this time, both feet found the floor and he pushed himself up and out of the chair. As quickly as he could, he crossed the West end of the massive room and turned a corner to face a spiral stone staircase extending both upward and downward. The stone had been cut many years before, but modern touches lined the walls — a handrail and some inset lighting meant to give an artificial matching of the time period.
He took the steps upward, taking them two or three at a time until finding himself at last upon a landing in front of a wooden door lined around the edges and in lines through the center with a steel alloy that coalesced around a retinal scanner at eye-level.
A nice touch, that, he thought. A man sent by Max using a retinal scanner for security. Cute.
He leaned in, it scanned, and the door clicked open. He shoved it open, a considerable feat even for a man of his strength, and was met with a second door, this one steel but without any of that pesky wood. He looked at the dial set in the middle and quickly punched in six numbers, something complex, based on the Fibonacci sequence or the golden ratio. No, it’s just a date. Actually, if you think really hard, you might even know what the date is, particularly if you are obsessed with wrestler biographies.
This door broke open in the middle, leading to one final door. To open this door, one would need to find the clues left by Benjamin Franklin during his many trips to France during the 18th century. Dan looked at it and at once knew what he was going to have to do.
He was going to steal the Declaration of Independence.
There was a keyhole to the right of the door. Ryan reached into his pocket, pulled out a key and inserted it, turning it clockwise until the lock released and he pushed his way inside.
Before him was the vast expanse of the entire upper level of the structure. Instead of walls and rooms, the entirety of it was one large hall, at least one hundred feet long and thirty-five feet in width. The ceiling stretched in a forty-five-degree angle to a point at the midline, some sixty feet above. Offset from the wall on either side were pillars of stone, the functional use of which supported the grand structure above, and attached to beams of dark wood which stretched from side to side across the roof.
In front of each pillar was a marble pedestal, and upon each was a relic of some sort with a small placard placed in front of each with a spotlight shining down on it.
Ryan’s eyes squinted, adjusted to the lighting, and focused on a particular item at the very opposite end of the hall.
He started forward, only briefly looking at each item as he passed:
A coffee can labeled “Bishop Steele”.
An old faded map leading to the lost city of Jattlantis
An intricate marble statue of Tim Shipley and Justin Decent locked in a “69” position.
Brenton Cross’ time machine.
Kostoff’s original head.
Jellied “bottom line eyes”.
Alex Redding’s book of fables.
Christopher America’s slave chains.
A “Beauty and the Beast” style rose in a jar, except it’s a tampon.
An empty book titled “Cecilworth Farthington’s Losses: 2019-2020”.
A seemingly empty glass case. Dan approached it and opened it, only to hear MJ Flair repeatedly say “dude” over and over. He shut it as quickly as he could, shivered, then continued on.
The golden fleece of Perfection, the source of his power, and recently captured (hint: it’s his hair).
The deed to a small farmhouse in Maxopotamia and a contract giving the holder the right to demand no less than four chickens from the government there. Ryan lingered on that one briefly, making a mental note to thank Mike for it later.
All of the items, he was forced to recognize, were starting to show signs of extreme use and rot, a fine layer of dust covering all but one, which he was now approaching at the end of the hall.
Set against the back wall was a large wooden clinical table such as might have been found in a medieval “doctor’s” work chamber, made of thick wood with ornate finishes trailing down each of the four legs holding it perpendicular to the floor below.
He looked up where attached to the wall under a golden light was a large four-foot by six-foot oil painting of Andy Murray’s knees. Dust floated through the light because that’s what happens with magical golden light. This relic, like the others, was beginning to deteriorate.
But just the knees. The feet seemed fine. Maybe an ingrown toenail or something, but otherwise good. Could probably just put some Dr. Scholl’s on that and clear it right up, and maybe take a nail file to those yellowing talons every now and then.
Dark linen was stretched across the top of the table and various vials of liquid sat upon it:
Tonic of Guilt
Tears of Eric Dane
Flask of Enhanced Reflexes
Essence of Having More Agility Than Most Big Men
Draught of Not Giving a Shit About Your Weak Ass Insults
Vapors of Changing Your Mind When You Realize Your First Idea Was Dumb
Elixir of Youth.
It was this particular vial that held Ryan’s gaze, and he noted that it was approximately 80% consumed. He shook his head in disgust and anxious worry, knowing that Andy Murray had likely discovered his secret. He knew the time had come to return to the Scottish Highlands once more, where the pool that contained the magical waters which maintain his youth reside, deep in the stony crag where Andy Murray’s own ancestral clansmen mastered the dark arts that allowed Murray himself to continue his reign of terror despite a head of gray hair which resembled a diseased sloth’s pelt.
Ryan raised the vial to his lips and drank deeply, then watched as the portrait of Andy Murray’s knees deteriorated further, and an old-school mechanical split-flap display, clearly out of place in this setting, whirred to motion on the wall above, changing from the date “May 1, 1979” to “May 1, 1981”. He closed his eyes, breathed deeply, and smiled. The golden glow that once surrounded the oil-based depiction of the most famous knees in wrestling stretched down and enveloped him — and he floated, basking in the magical qualities now bestowed upon him.
Some or none of that is true. This is a story.
He looked back down at the empty vial and considered an opportunity. Perhaps a deal could be made. Perhaps he could offer Andy Murray the thing he wants most, the chance to go back and relive the past. Ah, to be young again. To have the vitality he once had – vitality which allowed him to dominate the wrestling landscape.
He would offer Andy the elixir of youth. He could pour it over his aching knees, and by morning, anyone who looked upon them would see two fully healthy and functional knee joints, where now there were only two calcified knobs held together by string cheese and regret.
He considered the likelihood of this chain of events. It seemed no less likely than anything else. We cut the heads off of strong men, and buried others alive. We stabbed each other through the chest and lived to tell the tale. We laughed at fables and gawked at metal men with laser eyes, and we tore each other down until victory meant nothing.
We looked, straight-faced, into a camera and pretended that we were men of legend when we are little more than brittle children with paper-mache’ knees, golden-haired piles of filth with mouths running far too fast for our legs to catch them, and children with Hot Topic credit cards trying so hard to be hip that it takes dragging a man out of mothballs with two replaced ones to get us back on track.
It’s hard to deny the truth when the truth can be changed on a dime and reality is warped behind desperate attempts to claw your way out of the well you’ve dug for yourself. You put the lotion in the basket, ladies and gentlemen. The claw marks are on the wall, and your nails are breaking off in the stone.
When you put no care into the foundation you’ve built, it’s all washed away so easily…. so easily.
Eventually, the momentum of inevitability catches up to us all. It finds us wanting when we aren’t prepared for it, and those who speak much but say little find themselves right where they were meant to be all along. Their constructs crumble to dust, and they pass to the wayside like so many others.
Bring them on to war. Let them find out for themselves the cost that must be paid to survive it, and let them see the result of their hubris, their condescension, their schemes.
This has never been for the faint-hearted. We go to war confidently because we know who we fucking are.
They — You — pray to survive. Maybe you’ll be one of the lucky ones.
But hey, what do I know? I’m just a narrator. Maybe I’m just an alter-ego, too, and I have my own story to tell, my own championship to win. Maybe I’ll break right out of this story and win it all. Maybe.
Anything is possible.