“Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies in us while we live.” – Norman Cousins
The clack of the bell toll rang across the purple sky sending ripples of green and red across its shimmering surface. It was an incredibly dizzying display as the colors and the noise raced from the clock in the sky. Max might have even considered it to be strangely beautiful if he hadn’t fallen to his knees in pain, the ringing cutting through his skull, shaking his rain.
Another crack, another dragger into the back of Max’s head. It felt like a rock jammed between his eyes, with each toll of the bell the rock grew bigger.
He felt his eyes bulge and press against his eyelids, both of which were clamped shut from pain. As the thunderous crash reverberated around him Max began to scream.
It felt like his head was trying to rip itself open as the pressure behind his eyes continued to grow. He thought he could hear his skull popping as he collapsed to the ground.
The waves of light in the sky were now breaking free, raining down across the wasteland kicking up dust and debris while Max’s body began to convuls, foam oozing from the corners of his lips.
A sixth and final bell tone exploded from the sky as the hour hand dropped one final, precise tick to drop in line with the six at the bottom of the clock’s face. Silence save for the faint sound of ticking returned to the barren, red sands of the expanse the Minister had abandoned him in.
Max groaned as he rolled over onto his back, his hands clutching his face as he tried to push the fleeting memories of agony away. His breathing, at first labored, seemed to even out and steady. The pain passed and after a few moments could stand, doing so with some difficulty. Stumbling to his feet he was struck with a bout of dizziness but was otherwise unharmed.
“Only six more hours left, buddy!”
The voice of the Minister seemed to come from everywhere at once disorienting Max further as he tripped and fell back to his knees. The dirt around Max seemed to shift and turn, moving in strange ways that hurt his eyes. Only after a few moments of staring did Max realize that the ground wasn’t red dirt, it was a shifting mass of tiny red spiders clamoring over each other in a frantic sea of activity.
“Oh what the fuck!” Max exclaimed, pushing himself back and away from the growing mass of legs and chitin. The circled and swelled until they were a burning crimson conglomerate that stared up at Max with a mocking glare.
“Have you thought about what you want to say to Mike?” The trembling mass chittered excitedly before then spingling while fingers pushed up through the spider mound, gripping the dirt before the rest of the white suited Minister seemed to slip up into view. He wore a cheshire grin filled with teeth that looked like the faces of everyone Max of people he had met in High Octane Wrestling, their voices joining the Ministers in a weird, manic cacophony. “Half the time is gone! Rumble at the Rock approaches.. Ooooh so exciting!”
A swift kick from the Minister caught Max across the jaw knocking the hapless brother of Mike Best back down to the ground. Unseen things that lingered on the edges of Max’s perception laughed, the sounds of their lips flapping as they did so.
Max’s mind had always been a mess but he had never remembered it being this strange.
Holding his jaw Max turned his blue eye toward the Minster before spitting a wad of black red saliva onto the Minister’s shoes.
“Michael doesn’t want to hear from me. Right now do you know what he’s doing?” Max pushed himself back up to his feet, his withered frame standing tall against the demonic, towering pillar that was the Minister. “He’s realizing what is really on the line. He’s getting stronger, he’s already defeated you once. He’ll dig down, he’ll spend every drop of blood, every ounce of sweat, the last shred of will power to stay alive and win. It’s in his DNA, he’s a winner..a survivor. He’s better than you give him credit for..”
The Minister’s smile wavered for a moment as Max spoke. Within a few moments it had melted into sneer and dropped into a full on snarl.
“He’ll beat us, he’ll beat you. End of story.. That’s our narrative, buddy. We’re the losers, we’re the bad guy, Minister. My brother is an ass, sure, he’s definitely got his hang ups, but us? Michael is our silver bullet. I’ve faced him enough times to know by now; If you think you’ve won, you’ve lost, if you think he’s dead, you’d better watch your back.” The blue of his eye brightens, intensifying as he takes a step toward the Minister, a finger shoved directly into the monster’s chest. “..Michael’s better than both of us. I believe in Michael.”
High above them the purple sky darkens and grows angry, swirling clouds of malice and glittering eyes filled the void. The wind grew cold and bitter, a sour smell cut through the air like rotten potatoes mixed with lemon juice. The Minister’s demeanor grew grim as shadows fell across his burning eye.
“..we’ll see about that..”
The distant crash of the Pacific waters breaking against the dock’s concrete pillars was a familiar sound by now to the ears of Maximillian Kael. It was the sound of a place that had sparse few good memories, a place where he had shed the blood of enemies and, more often than not, lost a fair amount of his own.
But this was 2020 and they were strange days indeed. While Max’s ears heard the call of the Bay’s cold, shark infested waters it was the Minister who recalled the memories as he waited patiently on the deck of the private Sinclair-Kael yacht. The offer had been made to join the rest of the Best Alliance before the event, travel over together, make a big show of solidarity.
Lee knew the Minister wasn’t a team player but he was a valuable monster. He’d show up when he needed him. Minister had a Death Match against his brother to prepare for while Lee had to prepare for the possibility that one of his two largest draws was about to go onto the injury list in a more permanent fashion.
“You have some explaining to do.” the Minister growled beneath his breath, a wisp of pale vapour escaping his lips before disappearing into the night. He shifted, his red eye peeking over his shoulder as he spied the porcelain mask of Elenore Kael slipping onto the forward deck.
“I disagree.” she replied quickly, icy blue eyes held high while her voice carried a sense of Imperial stuffiness. “What are you doing on my yacht?”
She snapped her fingers as two armed guards saddled up behind her, her eyes hidden behind pairs of aviator sunglasses, real professionals these two. Minister turned to glare at Max’s sister and her two friends, a measured scowl on his face.
“Strange flex, here I was under the impression we were one big happy family now.” he chewed the words and spat them at her feet. His burning red eye flickered menacingly as his jaw clenched.
“One big happy family with you.. Some.. over there.” Elenore made an overexaggerated motion of her hand, dismissing the twisted husk that stood before her. “Now leave, immediately, before I have these two gentlemen remove you.”
Another snap of her fingers and like two obedient dogs the guards stepped forward, their hands resting on the firearms strapped to their sides. Minister let out a disgruntled, unpleasant sound, the kind you make when you’re halfway through pushing a coil and realize the roll of toilet paper is empty. Straightening the dirty, stained red tie around his neck he waited patiently for either man to attempt to grab him, a warning smile stretched across his face.
As they grew closer the Minister’s eye seemed to grow wider, more excited, like a rabid dog catching sight of another victim. Caution was the better part of valor and the guards, despite outnumbering him, were in no rush to make contact or as of yet force him to do anything.
“You heard me, get him off this ship immediately!” Elenore’s patience had worn thin as he continued to watch her two of her personal security detail beating around the bush.
A familiar voice called from below deck as all parties froze for a moment. Sauntering up from a set of stairs appeared the youthful visage of Sutler Reynolds-Kael, his face bright with something unfamiliar. Confidence?
“Auntie, this might be my dear ole’Dad’s final days on this Earth.. Maybe we at least give him a lift to Alcatraz?” the young man, now twenty years old, eased past Elenore flashing her a brilliant pearl toothed smile before turning his eyes toward the Minister. “..after all he is the reason we’re celebrating.”
Minister’s brow lifted as Sutler mentioned a celebration, his eye taking in the young man for a moment before he returned to staring down the two guards.
“Fine.” Elenore relented, her voice colored by her annoyance. Her thin, delicate arms folded across her chest as he kept those icy orbs locked on her treacherous brother. “Leave us but.. Stay nearby.”
The two guards were eager to step away and leave the last surviving members of the Kael Family to their own devices. As they scuttled off the Minister’s demeanor relaxed slightly, his chin dropping to his chest while his hands came to clasp one another at his waist.
“Brave, Elenore, you know I really should finish the job and burn the rest of whatever’s left of you under that mask for what you pulled at No Remorse, helping Mike Best like that!” he snarled at her before his attention shifted to his adopted son, Sutler. “And you, I thought I left you catatonic after the little brain injury, glad to see you’re walking, brain seems a little soft still though.”
“There you go thinking again, Father, I would have thought by now it would have gotten you killed.” If being snide could be distilled into a liquid, Sulter had just tossed a glass full into the Minister’s face as the two glared at each other. “Oh wait, that’s on Saturday.”
“Why did I send the guards away?”
Elenore’s rolls her eyes and prepares to snap her fingers again when Sulter is quick to grab her hand, shaking his head with a friendly smile wrapped warming on his handsome face.
“Wait, wait.. We’re giving him a ride to Alcatraz, remember?” The scion of Kael winks toward his aunt before turning to look at the Minister, that warm smile just as charming as his father’s smile was disturbing. “‘Cause of what we did at No Remorse we bought into the game, Max. Or.. Minister.. Or whatever the fuck I’m supposed to call you.”
Sutler’s smile melts away as he shakes his head in disgust. His dark eyes seemed to search for something in the strange blue eye that was left in Max’s head, the last gay eye of Mike Best left to rot in the socket so many years ago.
“Doesn’t matter who you are or what you are in there.. What matters is that it pushed uncle Mike to make a deal with us. Part of that deal was helping us deal with you, which we did so then uncle Mike did right by us. And now..” Sutler’s smile returned as he took another step toward the Minister, his hands coming up to smooth out and brush down the ruined white suit the Minister had been wearing since No Remorse. “Daddy-O, now either uncle Mike is gonna put you six feet in the ground and I don’t have to worry about killing you myself.. Or your gonna kill uncle Mike and I’ll get to kill you myself.. Somewhere down the road. Either way, I get a High Octane Wrestling contract. Win-win, Papa.”
He grinned right into the face of his adopted father, stared bold eye into the red and blue eyes. His hands on his hips Sutler Reynolds-Kael looked stronger, fitter and more confident than he had in his entire, broken, terrible life. Opposite him the Minister looked savage and twisted, the smile he wore was more a mockery to joy while his ruined face and mismatched eyes searched Sutler’s own face.
The giggle was offered up to Sutler, coughed right into his face with a wet smack of saliva and foul breath. His expression relaxed as he slipped back from Sutler, his attention turning toward Elenore once again.
“Oh it’s funny is it?” Sutler’s smile faltered for a moment as he realized the attention had slipped off him.
“Sutler, come away fro-”
“You think I’m funny?!” The rage that crossed Sutler’s face ignited a bloom of red as his charming smile broke into an angry roar. Elenore attempted to reach out and grab him but it was too late. Youthful arrogance and a massive chip on his shoulder had been the proper kindling for the Minister to draw out a thoughtless reaction.
Lurching forward the young man lifted both hands seeking to find purchase around his father’s thin neck, that all too familiar look of bloodlust glittering in the whites of his eyes. The Minister waited patiently for his opening as Sutler reached out for him before his fist flew straight and true.
The sound of his fist connecting with the ribs on the left side of Sulter’s chest filled the ears of Elenore and the Minister followed by the sucking noise of the air being driven from the teenagers lungs. The Minister wasn’t sure what kind of noise he was expecting when he landed the heart punch but he assumed it would be somehow more catastrophic, not so simply as a thud and the rattle of lungs.
The color of Sutler’s face seemed to fall ashen pale as his snarl froze then shattered into a pained cry though no sound was emitted. He clutched at his chest, at the point of impact from the Minister’s fist before he sank to his knees, his mouth opening and closing as though he were fish trying desperately to gulp down a fresh breath of water.
“Holy shit, it worked!”
The Minister’s face was split with a smile as he stared down at Sutler, his hands now crawling at his throat as he struggled to breath. The Madman within Max looked at his hand like a serial killer might examine his favorite knife, a few sporadic, excitable chortles sneaking past his grinning lips. Elenore quickly moved to the side of her nephew before swinging the palm of her hand down hard into the small of his back.
Whatever had kept him from breathing seemed to break after the assist from his aunt, Sutler coughed and wheezed, collapsing onto his chest as he sucked in the sweet, life giving air of the San Francisco Bay. Using her body in part to shield the recovering Sutler, Elenore glared up at the Minister with her accusing blue eyes. Noticing that Sutler appeared to be breathing and decidedly not dead the Minister’s jubilance dimmed.
“Aw.. still alive? God damn, Price promised the Heart Punch was a legitimate kill move! Come ON!”
Grumbling to himself the Minister stepped over Sutler and Elenore the way one might attempt to navigate around two children. As Sutler continues to gasp for air Elenore turns her burning eyes toward the back of Max Kael though unlike the boy, she knew it was not her brother she was looking at.
“Don’t worry Elenore. Max wants you dead which is all the argument I need to keep you alive. Besides..”
Minister choked back a laugh, his eyes turned to the distant lighthouse that marked the legendary prison he was destined for. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out a watch, checking the time briefly as a smirk settled tightly into place.
“I’ve already got a fratricide scheduled this month.”
“Tell me about the dreams, Mr. Kael.”
Doctor Galt shifted in his seat, his brow knitted together in concern as he thumbed through a small note pad. Max was laid out on a couch nearby, an eye patch covering his left eye, his face shallow and gaunt. He looked sick and wasted, frail by any standard, his strange blue eye dull.
“It was strange. I keep having it, often after treatment, a sort of.. Like I’m part of it. I’m watching it, from different perspectives, like my life is a show or a story. I’m not in control of anything and it’s terrible. I’m fighting my brother in a death match, not like.. Some Japanese Death Match.” the HOW Hall of Famer whispered, his voice more of a haunting of it’s previous strength and yet he didn’t look older. “A literal Death Match. One of us has to kill the other one, not just maim and pin. One of us has to die. Literal. MurrDurr. Now I’ve done some crazy shit, don’t get me wrong.. But.. fighting my brother to the death? I know I’m losing my mind when I’m dreaming things like this up.”
Galt smiles to himself, nodding as he scribbled a few notes down. After a moment he settles back into a more somber tone, always forgetting that Max was a professional wrestler until these little interactions happen.
“Yes, well, the tumor in your head can cause all kinds of strange illusionary moments. I remember reading from your file that when you were younger you used to experience all kinds of strange voices and psychosis. I think, the more I am learning of you and your profession, that this tumor has been affecting you more than you may realize.”
Max shifts his weakened gaze toward Galt, a look of interest perking up his expression.
“Really?” he muttered in surprise. “Huh..”
“And furthermore I think the treatments are causing the tumor to swell which is causing these vivid experiences. And we don’t want that.” Galt added with a measure of seriousness. “Which is why I think we need to consider that.. These treatments are not the answer we were hoping for. We’ll do some more testing before we rule this out completely but I don’t think this is a promising sign. I am sorry.”
Max’s face dropped once again, a sign slipping out of thin, dry lips. It had been a long shot, this drug therapy he had signed up for. The doctor didn’t have to tell him, he knew what the insulation was if this did not work.
He was going to die.
“How long has it been since you talked to Mike?”
He was pulled out of his thoughts by Galt’s question. The shift away from his dream had caused it to already begin to fade away when it was ripped back to the forefront again. Blinking Max considered the question before the answer came to him.
“It’s 2017 so.. Nearly two years? I haven’t wrestled as many..heh..”
“You should call him.” Galt stood up from his desk, collecting the collection of medical files that had been opened up on Max over the last few months. “Take your time, I’m going to get these put away then have your nurse come take you back up to your room. We’ll hope for better news tomorrow but the clock is ticking..”
A consolatary nod from Galt was his last parting gift before he hastefully exited the office, his arms full of paperwork. Reinhart Galt had an excellent mind for the analytics of medicine but a terrible bedside manner, Max had decided.
The man did have a good point though.
Reaching into his pocket Max pulled his cellphone out. He hadn’t spoken to anyone involved with professional wrestling in nearly two years. The last time he had seen Mike they had run into each other outside of HOW briefly. Promises of reconnecting fell through and lives drifted apart. Somewhere in his head there was an insane reality where Mike and Max were about to murder each other on Pay Per View.
The thought made Max giggle a little, the absolute absurdity of it. After a few moments he found Mike’s number. He stared at the phone for a solid thirty seconds, he knew the exact time because in the absence of noise he could hear the pale clock that hung on the wall ticking away merrily.
Finally he touched his finger to Mike’s name and the call was made.
Five torturous rings in and Mike’s voice chimed to life. It was the exact same voicemail he had recorded there since 2014, Mike was definitely consistent. He realized as he listened to Mike that he had forgotten the sound of his brother’s voice, chiding himself for doing so. He was a terrible brother, he should have stayed in contact, this number could have disconnected, Mike could have had a completely different life, Max would never have known..
He was going to make it a point of being a better brother, he told himself, at least for as long as he had left.
Then the beep came and he realized he had no idea what to say.
“..uh.. Hi? Hi! This is Max.. Kael.. Maximilian Kael. From High Octane Wrestling. Well, not now, it’s closed, but from before, a few years back. Your dad adopted me so we’re technically brothers. Listen.. I.. don’t know if you are going to even get this far into the message but, uh. Gosh.. mm.. It’s been awhile hasn’t it?” Max fumbled over his words, his brain filled with thick fog that made it impossible to come up with the right words. He imagined Mike listening to the message at a bar, playing it for his friends before he ripped into it.
“I hope you’re well. Still wrestling? Married? Anyway.. So I’ve got news. It’s good news and bad news.. Which do you want first? Right.. Let’s go with bad news first, that way we can end on something positive. Alright well. Bad news, I’ve got a massive tumor growing in the middle of my brain which is slowly killing him and will eventually result in massive brain hemorrhaging and death. The silver lining is that this is likely to kill me quite suddenly so there will likely be no pain.”
Saying it out loud didn’t really make it feel any more comforting than it did in his head. He sighed again, his chin dropping to his chest.
“..apparently the tumor also caused a lot of my episodes back in the day. I was.. I was a terrible brother. I’m sorry. Maybe this is cosmic justice for everything I did to you and other people just to get a little attention from your father. I think I’m okay with it. I just.. Hate.. that I’m alone here at the end. I didn’t think I would but.. It’s not good.”
He felt his hands begin to tremble as tears began to slide down his face.
“..I’m sorry Michael. If I make it through this I promise I’ll d-”
Mid sentence Max was cut off by the merry chime of the message box followed by a friendly female voice informing him that his message had exceeded the allotted time and had been erased. If he wished to try again he would merely need to hit 1.
The Hall of Famer chose to hang up his phone.
The phone chirmed an alert up at him. A message! Mike must have seen him calling, he must have messaged him back!
A message from a number he had never seen before. Opening the message he scanned it carefully, his blue eye narrowing in.. surprise.
..to be continued.