Post by Howard Black on Jan 27, 2016 22:51:25 GMT -5
“No doubt you are wondering what you will find, out there.' The Commandant said it for me.
'Well, it would be useless for me to try and tell you. The desert tells a different story every time one ventures on it...”
-Robert Edison Fulton, Jr.
Even with the rain of El Nino providing for a warmer than expected summer and desperately needed rainfall, the great Mojave Desert saw no prosperity. As the winds rolled down the sandstone canyons and through the melancholy sage brush, the whole world seemed to sigh sadly around Howard Black. Even in the most “lush” part of the wasteland before him – within the confines of Joshua Tree National Park – the land was saturated with dry browns and muted reds. Even the eponymous Joshua trees themselves seemed less green than advertised and more of a dull gray – the long and oppressive California drought had taken victims even in the crucible.
Joshua Tree. It was the most uncanny place Howard had ever seen. It was odd to think that he was only a thirty minute card ride removed from Los Angeles as he stood atop the large boulder to gaze out over the desert before him, taking in the world. It was so strange and opposite Nebraska – the lack of lush flora or distinctive sounds of animal life. The wind still felt strangely hot, unlike the heavy snow he’d read blanketed Nebraska in the last few days. The silence was sublime – curious and deafening. Perhaps this land even felt holy as the forsaken Joshua trees raised their limbs towards heaven and praised God for their life.
The Sun held fat and red in the sky, its heat and light merciless upon the parched ground it looked over. Here, it was the undisputed tyrant. Here, all fled in its power or fell to its mercy, soon reduced to another bleached skeleton among the sands. The light reflected off of Howard’s sunglasses, but even behind tinted plastic he squinted to take in the dizzying diorama before him. As the camera gently spun from behind him to before him, he raised his lighter to the cigarette between his lips. As the flame touched the end and smoke began drifting through the air, he looked into the camera.
Howard Black: So, this is the forge within which you were born. To think, Dune, that we were born on opposite ends of this sacred wilderness: I amongst the Sand Hills of Western Nebraska, and you amongst the sand dunes of the Great Basin. Here I stand, Dune, at the mouth of Hell itself, waiting to first step through the gates into your realm. To journey into Hades, as Orpheus before me, to bring your soul back to the surface. I only pray I have the resolve to learn from Orpheus’s mistake and not look back.
Are you surprised I’m here? Do you feel betrayed? Invaded? I can never tell what goes through your head these days – you’ve changed. The Dune whom I stood beside in the WCF ring as a Sentinel – as a friend and a brother – would never dump a ton of sand on his enemy and strike them from behind like a starving coyote. The Dune whom I knew would never blame a man for his injury or question the dedication of his brothers in arms. But then again, the Dune whom I knew would never bring a fully loaded machine gun into a church on a man’s wedding day, no matter what he had done. The Dune I knew was a beast; a force of nature.
But he was not a monster.
Then again, now as I stand here above your desert, it occurs to me that this is the first time I’ve ever stepped foot on this harrowed land, and I did it with no invitation from you. Perhaps the biggest hole in your accusation that I’ve returned to “make up for dropping the ball” is the absolute lack of communication on your behalf. It’s time to confess, Dune – you never reached out to me for help. Not once. Joey could’ve torn my arm completely off my body, and if you’d have called, I’d have been on a plane to Los Angeles within an hour.
You know that.
I know that.
The only question remains as to why you’ve become so committed to this idea. I suppose rationalizing is the first step towards demonization, isn’t it? If you can find an excuse, no matter how petty or vulgar, you can build a logical basis for hating a man. But you’re smarter than that, Dune. This paper thin excuse suggests one thing to me: you’ve started from a determined conclusion and worked backwards. You don’t have reason to resent or hate Occulo or me. You have nothing to hold above either of our heads. But you need to hate. Hate made you strong. It brought you to water when everyone around you had died. It cauterized your wounds under the desert sun. It ended the ICE Age and saw you the most dominant WCF Champion of the year, perhaps of all time. Now you attempt to use that hate against me, the man you said was the closest thing you’ve had to a brother since losing yours.
Howard paused to raise the cigarette to his lips, the tip glowing red as took a drag, smoldering under the angry sun.
Howard Black: Damn you, Dune. You called me a brother but you never let me into your home. “It’s too dangerous,” you probably said. “You have no idea what you’d be signing up for,” likely also went through your mind. That sort of patronizing “older-younger brother” dynamic always defined our relationship, even if neither of us cared to admit it. It’s funny, Johnny Fly called it right on the nose: I’d never rise so long as I stood in your shadow, and at the Ultimate Showdown, he was proven correct when I choked. But loses don’t break me: I walked out the next night to defend my belt, even if I was walking before the firing squad. Unlike you, I taught Joey Flash the hard way that if you wanted my title, you’d have to pry it from my cold and dead hands.
That reminds me: where were you when I was nearly crippled? For all your talk of how we betrayed you and we let you down when we needed you, you exerted no effort to save me until it was too late. For all the impossible foresight you demand of myself and Occulo, you didn’t save him from Mullins. You didn’t save me from Flash. You can’t meet your own standards, Dune; your assertions are castles of sand. Of course, I’m not going to begrudge you of the events that befell us: I told you to stay in the back and let me have my match. I told you not to interfere unless absolutely imperative. I’m not blind, Dune: man is fallible. But turn your own mirror back upon yourself.
You went too far, Dune. Perhaps I’m a fool, but I refuse to believe the man who tossed little Christian Malignaggi off a roof could be you. That does not mean I could stand idly by and watch you beat a man to death, even if that man was Joey Flash. That does not mean I could allow you to brutalize Bonnie Blue after the bell rang.
Another drag upon the cigarette. Howard’s face tensed as his voice subtly rose in volume and intensity.
Howard Black: And now you think you can have your way with us. Perhaps you come into this match against the two of us with a smile across your mangled lips, seeing the numbers game and quietly assuring yourself that neither of us can match up to you. Perhaps you’re misunderstanding the combined power of Occulo and me as being a necessary development to defeat you. You look at the land in which you live, the land in which I now stand, and see yourself as a warrior, a man who has faced greater odds than two men. A beast who has to kill to survive. Yet you folly, Dune: the desert is not the only place men die.
Perhaps you’d be surprised to learn more men died in the Badlands and the Plains going West than they did in the desert. The unaware ambushed by native raiders in the canyons and beneath the grass. Bitten by recluse spiders or struck by venomous snakes. But worst casualties came from fools who left town for gold before winter. You may have been raised with little water and bitter rations, but I’ve now seen your crucible and raise you the harsh climates I know as well. You’ve overestimated your upbringing Dune – men can be forged from nature by places other than the Great Basin.
Where I came from, I didn’t have to kill to survive, but being weak was never an option. You’re a man of tribal origins, so I assume you know the law of the land – I assure you, it differs little whether you live in sunbaked shack or a rural homestead. If you’ve fought your whole life, I’ve fought as well. I was not born the physical specimen you were, Dune. I was not large, strong, or fast. Instead, I became the way I am because I had to. I did it protect myself and my friends, but more than anything to protect my pride and position. I fought for my place from the day I was born until the day I left for Lincoln, and though I never won, I never lost. And that, Dune, is what you can expect from me on Sunday: fight.
So now I stand on your front door, the same front door which Joseph Malignaggi was shown an open portal before me. I’ve come here on my own decision to learn. The Howard Black you meet at F15teen will not be the Howard Black you faced at Ultimate Showdown. It will not be the Howard Black who you stood alongside during the Trios Cup Tournament. Instead, I’ll be coming to finish what I started. The only reason I came back in the first place. The only thing I ever intended to do.
Take you down.
A hand on Howard’s shoulder silenced him. He turned to face Occulo who looked back at him, contemplative and determined.
Occulo: Are you ready, Howard?
Howard nodded, his own gaze steeled.
Howard Black: Yes. Are you sure you want to do this as well?
Occulo nodded as well.
Occulo: If you believe this will help, I trust you.
Howard took a final drag from the cigarette, letting it fall from his hands to the sandstone beneath him, and crushed it beneath the heel of his leather hiking boot. He reached up for the top pocket of the fatigue jacket and withdrew the long glass tube which housed the joint, the fuzzy blue plant rolled in cigarette paper. Tilting the tube, he slid the joint into his open palm and placed the end in his mouth.
Howard Black: Remember, we have no idea what this will do to us, and we’re in the middle of the desert. No one knows we’re here, and we have no idea if we’re anywhere near where Dune lives.
Occulo’s expression remained unmoved.
Occulo: Then I suppose we’ll just have to hope it takes us to where we need to be.
The two men shouldered their packs, loaded with water and rations to survive for however long necessary. Placing the joint in his mouth, Howard raised his lighter and ignited the end, taking a long drag of perfumed smoke into his lungs. It tasted like lavender and frankincense with a surprising coarseness, but years of cigarette smoking allowed him to keep the smoke held in his lungs. After exhaling, he offered the joint to Occulo, who followed Howard’s actions. After his second drag from the joint, the world began to darken as the Sun seemed to slide from the sky. As the clouds rolled back, the sky a dazzling display of purples, oranges, and reds as the Sun descended, a lone raven landed upon one of the lonely Joshua trees. It beckoned them to follow.
Through the darkness of future’s past
The magician longs to see.
One chants out between two world…
“Fire Walk With Me.”
They had followed the Crow for what seemed like days – time moves strangely under the influence of Blue Crystal Fire. Undeterred, the men continued on, careful to conserve water on their journey. When they had first arrived at Joshua Tree National Park, it had been high noon, the sun hot and high over them. When they had taken the drug, it had suddenly been sunset. Now it seemed as though the dawn was breaking, though Howard could not remember it ever setting.
The barren wastes pulsed and shuddered beneath his feet, with each step the ground seeming to tremble in fright. A cold and ugly feeling had begun to course through Howard’s veins like dry electricity and nausea, and he chewed the end of a cigarette butt to keep from grinding his teeth. Before him, the Joshua trees bowed away, as though clearing the path for him to follow the raven. Looking back over his shoulder, he realized he was suddenly alone. His head spun – he couldn’t remember when or if he’d ever ceased to hear the echoed crunch of Occulo’s feet beside his. The ground left little clues, whether from hard packed dirt allowing no impression or viscous sand swallowing up any footprints. The magnificent vastness and hallowed silence was magnified by Howard’s awareness of his isolation. Only the cawing of the Raven cut the quietus of the moment.
Shaking his head, his entire feeling suffocated by apprehension, Howard’s eyes drifted toward a log under the shade of a Joshua tree. In a blink, he was no longer alone: a figure rapped in a keffiyeh sat with his back to him, staring off into the desert. A familiar voice rang through the air.
Scarecrow: Hello, Howard.
The man patted the spot on the log beside him.
Scarecrow: Sit and have a talk with an old friend?
Sickness rose up in Howard as he approached the phantasm, the air chilling around him as the day swiftly turned to night. The stars blinked like fires in the sky as his eyes wandered up and back to the ground as he approached the log and sat down. Turning to the figure, its identity was undeniable – it was Scarecrow. He looked worse for wear; his hair stringy and unwashed, his face dirty, and his clothes rugged and patched in odd spots. Still, the smile on his face was warm and inviting.
Scarecrow: Can you spare a smoke? It’s hard to find them where I am now.
Howard could only stare, his pulse beating in his skull. It was impossible; Crow was dead. A drug addict can become used to or even comforted by sights of long forsaken faces, but to one like Howard who’d never dabbled, fear coursed through him like oil in his veins. Crow chuckled – the laugh seeming to float on the wind.
Scarecrow: You look like you’ve seen a ghost.
Howard’s eyes went down. His whole body shook as adrenaline coursed through his system.
Howard Black: You’re dead, Corey. I saw you fall.
Scarecrow merely shrugged.
Scarecrow: Life is a funny thing when you’re a McMorris.
There was an odd sense of bitter humor in his voice.
Scarecrow: That being said, how about that smoke?
Howard dared not argue – his hand went to a pocket on his fatigue jacket. Drawing the pack out, he flipped open the top and tapped a single cigarette into his palm. He offered it to Scarecrow who took it with gratitude.
Scarecrow: Thank you.
The cigarette lit the moment it touched to his lips, and with an exhale the smoke drifted through the air like a dragon in the sky, snaking back and forth in unnatural rhythms. Lighting a cigarette of his own, a vain gesture to calm himself, Howard took a drag before attempting to speak. His voice was quiet and shaky.
Howard Black: Are you… a vision of Blue Crystal Fire?
Scarecrow shrugged, tilting his head as if considering the question.
Scarecrow: I’m not too sure. Blue Velvet works differently for me too, I suppose.
Howard Black: What do you mean?
Scarecrow: Well… I could be here. I could not be here. You never know. I hope you’re comfortable with riddles, as Blue Velvet doesn’t give straight answers.
Howard Black: Besides that one?
Scarecrow paused to consider this.
Scarecrow: I suppose we can’t even be sure that was a straight answer, can we?
The two men (?) looked out at the desert before them – no signs of life anywhere across the horizon. A cool breeze rolled through the valley, rustling the leaves of the Joshua trees.
Scarecrow: Before I died, I used to have the strangest dream.
Howard slowly turned his head to look at Scarecrow, but the phantasm kept his eyes forward, as though fixed upon a distant figure.
Howard Black: What was the dream?
Scarecrow: I suppose “dream” is the wrong word. A nightmare. I’d be in a desert, but it was not the Mojave. In fact, it was Pennsylvania. But it was barren, Howard. As barren and desolate as the land before us. And I’d find myself fighting through the whipping winds and barrages of sand, struggling to find footing, let alone my way… when he would appear.
Scarecrow took a long drag from the cigarette and exhaled. As the smoke rose through the air, it twisted into the vague outline of a familiar mask.
Scarecrow: I know he was your friend and brother-in-arms, but I never cared much for Dune. I hope you’ll forgive me – there was… always something about him. I never felt comfortable around Dune. The nightmare only made things worse. I’d find myself before him, and he’d stare me down and tell me to take seven steps and place my hand on his throat.
Scarecrow paused, looking down, over at Howard, and then forward once more. The cigarette smoldered between his fingers.
Scarecrow: Simple enough to determine, really: it was foreshadowing the Ultimate Showdown. Seven competitors between Dune and I. Of course, I could never make the seven steps. He knew I couldn’t; I knew I couldn’t. The sand would swallow me every time. At first, I figured it was simply about the Ultimate Showdown… but the dreams didn’t end after Ultimate Showdown. In fact, they persisted, growing more sinister every time. And every time, the sands took me. Until… the sands did take me.
Crow’s voice trailed off sadly at the end of his sentence, looking down at his hands. Howard reached over to place a hand on his shoulder – he was bitterly cold to touch, even just the fabric of his jacket.
Scarecrow: But that is Dune. The Sandman. The Fire Starter. Dune was marked as a harbinger of death from his birth – it follows him like a stench.
Scarecrow took another drag from the cigarette before exhaling once more. This time, the smoke swirled into a dancing set of figures: men in keffiyehs armed with janbiyas stabbing a man between them to death. As the man collapsed, the anguished face of ICE Beckman became clear.
Scarecrow: It was only natural that a vulture like Joey Flash would become intoxicated on the idea of Dune. He was the perfect opponent: a massive, larger than life figure and athletic freak. Big, strong, fast, and long. The perfect whetstone for Joey to sharpen his knife on before feasting on the WCF. He almost succeeded, too. Had Joey been able to corner Dune at Revenge – had Bates not gotten in the way – perhaps things would’ve played out differently. Perhaps tragedy could have been avoided.
Of course, the stench of death attracts far more scavengers than mere buzzards. It attracts hyena, lions, beetles, … and Jackals.
The lingering smoke warped, leaving the gaping, fanged mouth of an animal skull pouncing through the air before dissipating. For a brief flash, static shot through Howard’s mind like the first throws of a fit. Crow’s voice became low, distorted as though another voice lay beneath his.
Scarecrow: “Born of man’s greatest folly and destructive nature. From chaos he rises, and through chaos shall survive.”
The sudden prophecy made Howard tense, turning abruptly to Crow. The voice beneath his had been all too familiar.
Howard Black: Corey?
Scarecrow stiffened for a moment, his eyes fixed on the horizon. After a beat, he shook his head as if waking from a dream.
Scarecrow: Excuse me, Howard. Sometimes things can slip through. Again, I’m not sure I’m entirely here.
Frustration and fear overtook Howard. His voice barked forth.
Howard Black: You keep saying that. What does it mean?!
Scarecrow maintained his gaze forward.
Scarecrow: Blue Crystal Fire works differently for me.
The silence hung in the air, buffeted only by the breeze. It occurred to Howard neither cigarette had shrank in length, as if they’d hardly been smoked at all.
Scarecrow: I’ve always had a sense of being in tune with things, Howard. Once, I saw a great human centipede slithering through space. Imperium, of course. And as I’ve mentioned, I foresaw Ultimate Showdown, and even my own demise. The Omega Man taught me a few tricks, you could say.
Scarecrow smiled to himself before the smile dissipated into a quiet frown.
Scarecrow: But some things cannot be changed. Death, Howard, catches up to us all. I couldn’t outrun it. I couldn’t save Christian Malignaggi.
A tinge of regret laced his voice before being replaced by marked assuredness.
Scarecrow: But I learned. That knowledge is power. Things can be changed in the present, if not in the past or the future. And that is why I can tell you that the man who threw Christian Malignaggi to his fate was no man at all, even if in the body of a man.
Scarecrow took another drag from the cigarette.
Scarecrow: And in those eyes as cold as the snow he’s never seen, I saw two: I saw fear and horror, the man trapped beneath. His eyes reflecting the snow globe prison his own body had become. And the other eyes, I saw fire. I saw a detonation and heard the screaming voices of Hiroshima. I saw the Jackal laugh. The man who threw Christian Malignaggi to his death was the man with those eyes, not the icy blue eyes screaming in anguish. No. Just a puppet on a string, with a corpse eater pulling his strings. When you combine a monster of a man like Dune – a Fire Starter – with a creature forged in the very flames of human evil… you’ve got a serious piece of work on your hands.
Flash forgot an important lesson: when you play with a Fire Starter, you’ll be burned. And the fires consumed not only Joseph Malignaggi but everything he loved. Figuratively… and literally.
Scarecrow flicked the ash from his cigarette. As the embers hit the ground, they erupted into a miniature blaze, a tiny cathedral within them and a little man with an even more little boy in his grasp standing atop the parapet.
Scarecrow: But fire is indiscriminant. The winds didn’t just guide it into Flash’s home… but Dune’s as well.
Scarecrow waved an arm beside him. As Howard followed it, his eyes beheld the charred remains of the Double X.
Scarecrow: For Flash was not the only one with child – Dune’s unborn son fell into the creature’s drooling jaws. The unborn son’s grandfather. Friends and family. Soon, the blaze was out of control. And don’t think for a second it’s extinguished. Tell me, Howard, do you know what a backdraft is?
Howard’s eyes stayed fixed on the ruins before him. Fear had so completely overtaken him, he was unable to move or speak, gripping him like wires wrapped around his bones.
Scarecrow: When a fire burns a room of little oxygen it can use up all available fuel. That, of course, doesn’t mean the fire is dead, simply dormant. And should the door of the room be open, reintroducing fuel…
The ruins exploded into flames once more, the pillars of fire spiraling upwards and lighting the desert like a beacon. Howard’s hand instinctively came to his eyes, shielding them from the piercing light. Within the inferno, he could saw a laughing jaw and a set of malevolent canine eyes staring back at him.
Scarecrow: The fire still burns, Howard. And it will only continue to consume unless it is extinguished. Dune can be saved, Howard, but I need to confront my murderer at F15teen. I need you and Occulo to finish the job. But you must be warned, Howard…
The fires lowered, revealing the eye of the storm. No longer did the blaze contain the remains of the Double X… but the Black Family household with two figures beating at the window, desperately trying to free themselves.
Scarecrow: When you play with fire … everything may burn.
Howard lept from the log, rushing straight into the blaze. The fire licked his body, singeing his clothes and sending stinging pain along his skin, as he threw himself against the door of the house, breaking it off its hinges to enter the living room. The sight before him brought him to his knees, choking on smoke and sick with horror.
They were dead: both Sarah and Joey Black. Their remains, slaughtered like animals, lay on the ground, piled like firewood. But there was more than them: Joseph Malignaggi, Occulo, David Rogers, Dune. His dearest friends murdered. And their murdered stood above them, a long black figure with the head of a Fox which he know knew a Jackal. The Jackal laughed as static tore through Howard’s head, sending him to the floor as tears streamed down his cheeks and fire consumed his body.
Jackal: Reduce it all to ash.
And it a moment, it was over. The fire was gone. The bodies were gone. The house was gone. Scarecrow was gone. All that remained before Howard was the lonesome Mojave Desert at sunset.
Dream beneath a desert sky
The rivers run but soon run dry
In God's country
Dream beneath a desert sky
The rivers run but soon run dry
In God's country
Deep in the Mojave Desert, within Area 10, twelve miles southwest of Groom Lake, Nevada (best known as Area 51), lay the Sedan Crater. Created in 1962 by the underground detonation of a nuclear device by the United States government, the crater was the only man-made construct truly visible from space by the unaided human eye – and the only nuclear blast zone listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. On the edge of this abyss, measuring 1,280 feet in diameter, stood Howard Black – alone and vulnerable to the elements. He’d long since removed the shirt he wore under his fatigue jacket, having wrapped it around his head and neck as a makeshift scarf. Sweat tricked down his chest and stomach as it simultaneously beaded upon his forehead. He paced the ridge of the crater deliberately as he gazed into the camera.
Howard Black: It’s about goddamn time.
Here I come, brother.
Does this sound familiar to you? Ring any bells? They were words you once uttered as you strode towards battle against what you believed was the greatest enemy you’d ever faced. For the past several months, Joseph Malignaggi had dedicated his life towards cornering you in a WCF ring. He’d toyed with you – broken my arm and beaten your mentor half to death. He’d invaded your home and left you to die in the wastes after helping you dispatch of the meddler, Bigfoot. But you misjudged the situation: it was not Joseph who was the greatest enemy you were about to face. So blinded by your hatred, so beaten tender by the man before you, you failed to see the true predator lurking beneath the surface. That mistake did not just cost you; it cost everyone. It cost Joey his wedding day and son. It cost you your unborn child and the love of your life. It cost our friendship. Our bond. And it nearly cost you your humanity. But I’m not entirely convinced you are beyond saving.
Here I come, brother.
Perhaps you mistake my homage for mimicry – poor little brother Howard Black still walks in the shadows of Dune. For too long that charge was leveled against me. The Sentinels; we stood for something, didn’t we? We stood together. Brothers. Equals. And now in your sickness, you’ve forsaken those very ideas. You’ve forgotten our principles, likely deliberately. You’ve erased the memories we’ve shared. In your madness, you’ve twisted my portrait to the one so many once tried to paint of me. But deep within, you know this isn’t true. You know that when I echo your words, there’s no mimicry: the tables are simply turned.
Here I come, brother.
What lies within this crater? In this consecrated testament to the horrors of humanity’s thirsty for power, what sort of evil slithered its way through the sands to your home? What sort of animal licked its lips in hunger of fresh meat? What sort of ugly scavenger desire to wear your skin like a suit and inflict as much pain to those around you as it did to you? You know it well, of course, but now I know it as well. It was a corpse-feeder who feasted on human suffering. It was a predator who looked for easy prey to strike down. Joey Flash was not your greatest enemy – he simply left you damaged. A wounded animal, ripe for consuming.
In your weakness, you were bitten by a Jackal. And though you’ve shaken the beast loose, its disease still seeps through your veins, creeping into your mind like a spider to sink its fangs once more. You believed you cut your strings, but to the beast, that simply looked like a tighter leash. Now you’re fooled, blinded by a false sense of independence. Confused by the rose-tinted lenses still perched upon your nose. Maybe you’re wise enough to realize the world isn’t rose; that this is the lingering effects of a long con. But you’re broken. Defeated and accepting of this new hue that colors your world. Rose. A shade of red. The color of blood you still see on your hands. But there is hope to cleanse them.
Here I come, brother.
In your madness, you’ve blamed Occulo and I for your attack at the hands of Joey Flash. You’ve mistake our commitment to the principles which you helped found as a betrayal on our behalf. Do you not remember what we once preached? The Sentinels stand for the fallen, the Sentinels stand against the rising. And when you returned, Dune, you rose from the flames like a demon of Hell. In fact, you ascended so rapidly – just as you once did – that no one dared question your near crippling of Jared Holmes or beating of Bonnie Blue. And with his reputation, no one dared to intervene to prevent you from murdering Joey Flash at ONE. Except for us. Because, as you once preached, it matters not who is the fallen: the Sentinels will always stand between them and their assailant. When I ran down the ramp at ONE to help Occulo in fending you off, I was not betraying you. Any more than you would be betraying me if you caught my hand before I could deliver a death blow. I was saving your from yourself. And I still am.
Here I come, brother.
The Dune I’ve faced since I returned from retirement is not the Dune who carried my broken body to the back. He is not the same Dune whom I welcomed into my home and once propped my son on his knee. He’s not the same Dune that son refers to as “Uncle”, nor the same Dune my wife invited to stay for dinner. The Dune you’ve become is one whom is the reason I hesitate to let Joey watch WCF anymore. The Dune you’ve become is one who disturbed my wife so terribly we’ve moved from Lincoln to Valentine so she can rid herself of the sound of your footsteps which still echo within the walls of that old white house. But perhaps, underneath the scar tissue of traumatic months, I can make out the faintest outline of the Dune we welcome warmly. And that is enough.
Here I come, brother.
I’ve descended into the underworld for you. I walk the expanses of desert which made you so I can understand what became of you … and how I can stop you. And in this cauldron you call home? Even the oppressive heat and uncaring rays of sun have not slowed me down. You seem to think that your life in this desert made you a unique man, one who was able to survive in a situation no others could. But you’ve underestimated the strength of those in your ranks, just as our enemies once did. Confronted with your world? I’ve survived. And if I had more than a week, I could probably continue to survive. It’s as though you forgotten that not only did I once pass an Impassable Mountain – twice – I also left him a shell of his former self by the time you faced him in the ring.
That even though I had few opportunities to prove myself in singles competition, I remained unpinned and unsubmitted until the Ultimate Showdown. And perhaps if I’d been given that shot, if the deck had not been stacked against me by proxy of being stacked against you, I could have been facing you in that ring for your belt. That perhaps we stood shoulder to shoulder all along. And I think that you may know that. And that’s why you’ve lashed out so violently at Occulo and I – you know that we will be the breaker against your inferno.
Here I come, brother.
After F15teen, there will be no more excuses. No more linger doubt. Just as your dog once snapped its jaws at you, I will finally restrain you and protect the helpless from your fangs. But just as the malevolence left that animal and it whimpered, I will afterward temper my hand. Because though I fight to put an end to this ceaseless violence you’ve wrought – to this fire you’ve started – I love you. And I will always love you. As a friend. As a brother. That’s why I’m back: you would never leave me behind were our roles reversed. I come to fight you not out of anger or hate but out of that feeling of comradery. Because no one understands who you really are besides Occulo and I.
Here I come, brother.
I don’t expect it to be easy. The fight with you will be more vicious than any locker room fight I faced in high school. It will be more taxing than any struggle on a football field, and more will be at stake than any championship match I had in the Indies. But it will also mean more to me than any title shot in the WCF. It shall define my legacy whether I succeed or fail, whether Howard Black truly was “the greatest who never was” or the kid brother who never could stand up and be counted on when it truly mattered. If I cannot save you, I deserve to be labeled a failure. Not because I’ve failed the WCF. Or my wife. Or my son. But because I’ve failed you.
Here comes the end of our story, brother.
Here I come.
Howard’s eyes turned from the camera back toward the crater, but as the camera followed his gaze it revealed not the Sedan Crater but the empty streets and ticky-tack houses of Doom Town, the hollow city where US forces trained for war. The world still swam around Howard, the occasional distortion or pattern a reminder that Howard was still very much under the influence of Blue Crystal Fire. He wandered like a zombie, shuffling the streets with no purpose or reason until a light within a house caught his eye. Approaching the front, the door burst open to the sight of another familiar face.
Kazy Mazy: Jam Willy Tip, if it ain’t my nigga Howie BAD-GUH!
The sight of Kaz stopped Howard in his tracks, almost causing him to fall back in surprise. Kaz, of course, had been confirmed alive and well in recent weeks; that did not mean Howard expected to run into him in such an area. The realization slowly sunk into him as he furrowed his brow and stared at Kaz.
Howard Black: You’re a hallucination, right? Like, you’re not here the way Corey was here?
Kaz Mazy: The fuck would I be doin’ livin’ in some fake house in the middle of the desert? Now come inside, I’m makin’ dinner for the triplets.
As Kaz beckoned, Howard followed him inside, taking in the absolute lack of interior in the house and eventually coming to a single card table. As Kaz sat down, Howard followed him.
Kaz Mazy: You hungry?
Howard Black: Huh?
Kaz Mazy: You hungry? You’ve been out in the desert, and I got all this left over chocolate cake. Figure I’d offer.
Howard stared for a moment before shaking his head.
Howard Black: No thanks.
Kaz Mazy: Figured I’d offer. So, you’re uut here lookin’ for Dune on a head full of bad juju, huh? Mighty bold, my man. Mighty bold.
Kaz paused to rub his chin, stroking his beard as he smiled thoughtfully.
Kaz Mazy: But that’s a word that described you pretty well, huh? Speakin’ your mind or bitin’ Z-Mac’s shit while tellin’ him to suck a dick to befriendin’ a motherfucker like me. You sure been around the block, ain’t ya Howie?
Howard laughed, looking down at the table.
Howard Black: I guess I have.
Kaz Mazy: You’re worried, right? ‘Bout Dune? Whether you can save him or not?
Howard’s eyes shifted up to Kaz before shifting past him, focusing on the exposed interior of the house’s façade.
Howard Black: Well, yeah. Of course.
Kaz’s hand reached out and lay on Howard’s shoulder, giving it a quick squeeze.
Kaz Mazy: Lemme tell you somethin’, my man: only a THICK mothafucka like you could see the good in someone worth savin’. You remember our time at the bar, right? You know how much that meant to me? You know how much talkin’ with you – formin’ that bond with you and reconnectin’ with Cory – did for me? I was ready to fire TMNT Security and walk into the Ultimate Showdown a different man. Take your advice and make #wrestlesmart mean more than a cheap excuse to take the easy way.
Howard looked his friend in the face, slowly smiling as his mind went back to that night in the bar, drinking the finest Poon glorious Rum and throwing back shots of THICK Vodkuh. Kaz and Crow had been his only true locker room friends outside of Dune and Occulo – it was another example of the unlikely connections he’d forged in the WCF.
Kaz Mazy: Look, I know Corey’s kinda weird on Dune, but in case he got in your head too much, I think you’re on the right track.
The images of flames and snapping teeth came back to Howard. As he shuddered, the façade swayed as if threatening to collapse. A number of man-sized Gila monsters danced just beyond the window.
Howard Black: You do?
Kaz Mazy: Unlike Corey, I actually knew Dune. He was a good guy – one of the few guys to show me respect even when I was in Imperium. Guess that’s somethin’ you two had in common.
Kaz slapped Howard’s shoulder affectionately.
Kaz Mazy: See, there’s a lotta UNTHICK snake mothafuckas in the WCF who want to pretend they’re the good guys when they aren’t. Think that troglodyte Tommy Bates or his bitches Gonzo and Gemini. These guys? They’re stuck on their senses of good and evil. They wanna draw some sorta lines. They never wanted to look for the real me. Respect me. They just wanted to label me “Imperium” and boast about how they beat us in the Trios Cup.
Kaz raise a spoon of chocolate cake to his mouth, chewing for a moment before swallowing. Howard could not remember the bowl’s existence up until the moment.
Kaz Mazy: Hell, think of being cool with a guy in Imperium while they were talkin’ all that shit on you, trying to paint you as the bad guy. For all the flack you caught, you were rubbin’ elbows with guys in both Imperium and Pantheon, my man. That’s not the work of a bad guy – that’s the work of someone who can really see the good in others. See whose worth saving.
He took another spoonful and chewed thoughtfully before speaking again.
Kaz Mazy: It’s funny, Dune also approached me while I was in Imperium and offered his respect. But you know when I knew he was sincere? When he asked about Sophia.
Kaz jabbed with the spoon toward Howard for emphasis.
Kaz Mazy: Tommy Bates would’ve never given a fuck enough to know about, let alone ask about, my wife. Hell, I don’t even think Beckman knew about her or cared. But Dune? He knew. And I’ll always remember him as decent mothafucka for that.
Kaz paused to adjust the collar of his Girl Scout uniform, a thick carpet of chest hair curling from the top of it. After fixing the collar he reached up, frowning as he repositioned the hat on his head so it sat at the right angle.
Kaz Mazy: So what I’m sayin’ is, you think Dune’s worth savin’, yeah?
Howard nodded, though his eyes veered uncomfortably from Kaz’s displayed chest.
Howard Black: Yeah.
Kaz Mazy: Then don’t even second guess it. That’s how you fuck it all up.
A cry echoed through the hollow façade, followed by a second and a third. Kaz bolted upright, looking down at his wrist before gazing up towards the ceiling of the façade in shock.
Kaz Mazy: MUTHAFUCKA, I forgot their cuppah KAH-FEE.
And with that, Kaz sprinted up through the air and disappeared into the darkness of the ceiling. The moment he vanished, the room started spinning wildly as the ground below Howard trembled. The timbers supporting the façade quaked and shuddered as a deafening clacking rang through the air, and soon the ground began to give way beneath him. Howard lunged forward, grasping in vain for the card table before it sank beneath the sands, then pushed forward as the walls disintegrated around him and he was once more at the Sedan Crater, now deep at the floor of its blast.
The figure stood atop the ridge, long and black with the face of a Jackal. Beside him stood a masked figure, hulking and swollen with strength, gazing down with icy blue eyes. In one hand of the behemoth was clutched an hourglass, the top dangerously low on sand. In the other hand, the figure clutched a scythe which shined in the moonlight. The Jackal-Headed Man leered down at Howard as he struggled to clamber up the walls. Music flooded the air.
…I’m so alone…
…Don’t have nobody to call my own
…So please turn on your magic beam…
Mr Sandman, give us …
As the wastes swallowed him up once more, Howard could only gaze up in horror at the gleaming metal warhead heading straight for him.
…please, please, please…
There was no way out; he was trapped within the suffocating sands. With each thrash, he only sank deeper into the crater. The warhead was close enough to make out a smiley face with red eyes painted upon the nose cone
…bring us a…
In the desert a fountain is springing,
In the wide waste there still is a tree,
And a bird in the solitude singing,
Which speaks to my spirit of thee.
Occulo: Howard…? Howard?
As Howard’s eyes opened, the sun pierced his irises and brought his arm reflexively to his brow. Occulo hovered over him, dabbing a wet cloth on the forehead of his fallen friend.
Howard Black: Yeah… Where the fuck am I?
Occulo: Just outside of a town called Baker. We were separated for a time; it’s lucky that I found you.
Howard slowly pushed himself up on his haunches, looking back and forth to take in his surroundings. His backpack was long gone, as was his shirt, but he still had his fatigue jacket on. As he pushed himself up, Occulo quickly swept under his arm to hoist him to his feet. Howard’s lips parted, and his voice came out hoarse and dry.
Howard Black: John… I know what we need to do.
Occulo paused to cast his view aside and look at his friend before looking forward and begin walking into town.
Occulo: I do, too. I don’t know what that stuff was… but I think I know the answers.
Howard plodded along under Occulo’s support until he felt his legs gain strength under him. Then, by his own power, he relieved his teammate of the burden and carried himself forward.
Occulo: I suppose the only question now is… what do we do?
Howard’s eyes remained forward, his pace slow and measured yet determined. A small smile crossed his lips.
Howard Black: We finish It.
This is where my story ends. And now, as I make my way to Philadelphia to face my greatest challenge, I realize that this was all my story in WCF was determined to be. Not everyone needs to be a main character – not everyone needs to be the hero. Sometimes, if you do what matters the most at the time it is most needed, being a supporting figure can be just as important. Just as powerful. Just as rewarding.
After my match at F15teen, my time in the WCF will be coming to perhaps a permanent end. In the time I spent, I made friends and enemies, but most of all, I had my life changed and changed the lives of others. I came back to save my best friend – my brother – from the cruelest of fates. I understand that at F15teen, my life may come to an end.
I accept that. So long as he becomes free again.
The creature I walk into battle against both wears my friend’s skin and toys with his mind. Through his hand, this creature has destroyed. He has killed and caused harm, ending families and ruining lives. Through his actions, he sought to stain the hands of my friend and brother with blood. He waited until we had fallen – until neither of us would be there to protect him – then he struck. And he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
But he was arrogant. He didn’t believe we’d be back. And if we came back, he believed we’d be too terrified or too sentimental to do what we know we have to do. Neither of us have any false pretenses about the risks; both of us understand what may be the consequence. Still, we will fight because we made a promise. A pact. A brotherhood.
My name is Howard Black. I’m a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a comrade, and a friend. But above all, I am a Sentinel.
The Sentinels Stand for the Fallen. The Sentinels Stand against the Rising.