Here Come the Creeps
Montague pauses in one of the shadowy alcoves of an Underlook corridor. He holds his breath for a moment, straining to catch the distant sounds of footfalls that will let him know that his pursuer draws close.
He’d waited too long to seek out some safe nook to tuck himself into, and now he’s on the run, trying to put distance between himself and the one who follows. He can’t be certain that the person chasing him through the underground warren, which resembles a midwestern luxury hotel, has actually spotted him, but he can’t be too careful, either.
Having caught his breath and confirmed that he can’t hear anyone approaching, Montague continues onward.
Presently, he turns a corner to spy a set of fire doors, closed and guarded by a coral snake.
Montague draws up short, just outside of what he perceives to be striking distance. He admires the bands of color that ring the serpent; red, yellow, black and white, and wonders how he might pass by.
Much to his surprise, the snake begins to speak.
Snake: If you wish to go further, you must answer my riddle.
Monty blinks, nonplussed, as he processes what he just heard. It’s not the most bizarre thing he’s encountered down in this labyrinth, but certainly the first oddity that has spoken to him. He considers for a moment before responding, but the echoing sound of shoes slapping the carpeted floor some distance behind him spurs him on.
Montague: Very well.
Snake: There is a house. One enters it blind, but comes out seeing. What is it?
The Showman’s mouth twists as he mulls it over. Riddles often use wordplay and double meanings to obscure their punchlines. He weighs the words the snake has spoken, and realizes the word ‘blind’ is the key. Just as his peers were blind to his history, they learned a difficult lesson when they entered the ring with him.
Montague: It is a school.
The snake nods, which is to say that it waggles the first third of its length up and down, then slithers aside to allow the Doctor-Professor to pass. He watches as it glides by, then rushes through the double doors, hoping the ophidian will trip up his hunter for longer.
On the other side of the fire doors, Montague is surprised to see the vestiges of the hotel start to melt away. The carpet becomes threadbare to the point that he can see the aged floorboards beneath. The wallpaper appears as though it has been sanded away, leaving only faint patches as a memory to how it once looked. Panels of wainscoting are missing entirely, leaving discolored squares of plaster and lathe in its place.
With a sense of awe, appreciating the singular beauty of a piece of architecture gone to negligent decay, Monty wanders slowly. He looks all around himself, tarrying here and there to admire the way a door sits oddly against its frame, or the tessellating pattern of black mold branches out from a rusty lighting fixture. He imagines someone with an appreciation for this sort of thing could spend hours getting lost here, but is startled to hear the clank of the fire doors far behind him. The predator has passed the snake’s challenge.
Montague picks up his feet again and hurries along, with some regret. It’s not long before he comes to a gaping maw in the floor, with a ladder leading down to the next level below. He’s certain he can evade his pursuer if he can drop down there and remove the ladder.
He sits down on the edge of the broken floor boards, dangling his legs down over the void. Leaning out, he’s about to grasp the ladder when he suddenly draws back. There, on the top rung, perches a banded scorpion, the size of a cat, its pincers and tail in the attack position.
Montague regards the rings of color that circle the scorpion; red, yellow, black and white, and puzzles over how to access the ladder without aggravating it.
To his shock, the scorpion speaks.
Scorpion: If you wish to use my ladder, you must first answer my riddle.
Montague’s eyes narrow as familiarity comes over him.
Montague: Very well…
Scorpion: This thing all things devours; birds, beasts, trees, flowers; gnaws iron, bites steel; grinds hard stones to meal; slays king, ruins town, and beats mountain down.
Exasperated, Montague repeats the verse in his mind a few times, parsing each word and trying to find the trick. There are several references to food and eating, but he can’t quite reconcile something that eats everything with something that destroys monarchs, villages, and summits.
In the distance behind him, he can hear a steady clop-clop, faint at first but growing steadily in volume. Shaking his head, Monty briefly considers swinging one dangling leg out to kick the scorpion from its position, but reconsiders when he takes the measure of the massive stinger.
A groan erupts from his chest. Montague quickly repeats the rhyme aloud.
Montague: This thing all things devours; birds, beasts, trees, flowers; gnaws iron, bites steel; grinds hard stones to meal; slays king, ruins town, and beats mountain down.
He throws his hands up, stumped. Any minute now, the one seeking him will be upon him, and it will be too late. Montague simply does not have time for…
That’s it! He thrusts the forefinger of his left hand into the air and announces triumphantly:
The scorpion lowers its weapons and scuttles off the ladder to the other side of the hole in the floor.
Monty leaps across and lands on the ladder. He practically slides down its length to the floor below them, into a much darker hallway of the Underlook. Here, he can’t see more than three feet in front of his face, and only then because of the light coming from the hole above him.
Taking the ladder down to slow further pursuit, he stows it against the wall and then feels around for a switch of some sort. No luck. Montague uses the wall to guide himself as he picks his way carefully along.
Finally, he turns a corner to spot a crackling torch in the distance. Sighing with relief, he marches forward, taking in his surroundings.
In the growing light, this hallway appears to be a mirror image of the one above. Untended walls and decor begin to give way to less-derelict surroundings, as if he’s making his way back into a more cared-for portion of the hotel. However, the reflection of the passageway that led him to the scorpion is more complete than he realizes: the diamond-patterned carpet covers the ceiling above him, the wainscoting panels the top third of the walls, and he has to pick his way around the light fixtures that seem to grow upward out of the floor.
Montague chuckles at the cleverness of it, but in his delight misses that something has floated out between himself and the torch. He nearly walks face first into a hovering jellyfish.
Cocking his head to the side, the Showman considers how this could be possible, but finally dismisses it, considering what he’s seen so far down here. Instead, he takes a moment to appreciate the beauty of the thing; it’s bioluminescence fills the hall with a light that wasn’t there before, and Monty is impressed by the circles of color that band the jellyfish’s tentacles; red, yellow, black and white.
Montague: I suppose I must answer a riddle before I can use the torch?
Jellyfish: Quite. Are you ready?
Montague: Very well.
Jellyfish: Little Nancy Etticoat in a white petticoat, and a red nose, She has not feet or hands; the longer she stands the shorter she grows. What is she?
Montague smirks. This one is far too easy, considering how desperate he is for a source of light.
Montague: It’s a lit candle.
The jellyfish expands and contracts in a way that the Doctor-Professor is certain is a sigh of frustration, but it floats past him, careful to keep its spined legs from brushing him. Grinning, Monty steps forward and grabs the torch.
That’s when he hears a thud coming from behind him, and in his mind he can picture the one hunting him dropping through the hole and landing on the ceiling below. Cursing under his breath, Montague presses on.
Now he can hear the speed of his pursuer increase. The damned torchlight has given him away, and he’s sure that if he looks back over his shoulder he can see the shadow catching up to him. Monty quickens his pace.
Before long they’re running and Montague has dropped the torch in his frantic rush to get away. He silently thanks the old gods and the new for keeping him from tripping over an errant chandelier. That’s when the floor gives way…
Tempest giggles childishly to himself as he tiptoes along the carpet of the Underlook. The lamps on either side of the hallway seem almost to dim ever so slightly as he creeps his way through the corridor. He’s on the first floor, but deep in his mind, he knows which floor he’s going to be in the end.
He approaches a dark hole in the floor that seems misplaced.
“Was this here before?” he says aloud to himself. He doesn’t think so. He cautiously steps to its edge and looks down into the abyss. There’s a ladder below that seems to reach out to him and he takes a step back, shaking his head defiantly.
“Uh-uh,” he says, “I’ve seen Home Alone. Not falling for those shenanigans, Mr. McCallister!”
He moves to the edge of the corridor and shimmies around it, smiling proudly behind his mask. His face paint is long since rubbed away, most of it on the inside of Jacky’s thigh.
He licks his lips and smirks, as much as he’s able to smirk, feeling the bubbled skin around one corner of his mouth pull tightly. He winces a little, but giggles again. He thinks he hears the shuffling of feet coming down into the Underlook and he freezes, holding his breath.
After a few moments, he hears the sound again and he realizes it isn’t the sound of feet at all.
Unable to accept that thought, he quickly moves around the hole and walks hastily to the end of the corridor. He turns to the right, where the secret spiraling opening was supposed to be, and runs nose-first into the wall. He bounces backwards and yelps in surprise.
He looks around in a panic. Where is the spiral floor that leads down to the second floor!?
Suddenly, he wishes he stayed with Jaclyn.
“Jacky?” he calls out weakly.
Then he hears a ding. He tilts his head slowly.
The elevator! Of course! But who’s–
He turns in time to see his reflection in the silver sliding doors disappear. Standing in the elevator grinning is a very pale version of Johnny Hitmaker.
“Well, are you gonna get on or not?”
Tempest looks at him skeptically. He seems unnaturally calm.
Of course he does. Because he isn’t real. This is an illusion.
“But… I’m the one who creates those, not you.”
“Sometimes you spend so much time in someone else’s head, they find doorways into yours.”
Tempest stares at him closely.
“Dark Man?” he whispers. Johnny’s face contorts into a mixture of disbelief and rage.
“Let me make ONE THING… PERFECTLY CLEAR! Don’t you EVER confuse me with that idiot, do you understand me!?”
Tempest nods, and starts to apologize, but as he looks up, the yellow smiley face pin on Johnny’s lapel winks at him with hateful cheer. He slowly looks from the pin to Johnny Hitmaker himself, who only grins back at him. Then, he hears something that chills him to the bone: a raven’s caw.
The raven soars through the corridor all the way to the inside of the elevator, where it perches on Johnny MacLean’s shoulder. Johnny’s skin is beginning to decay, revealing the endoskeleton of a terminator with glowing red eyes. The Dark Man laughs.
And Tempest screams. A blood-curdling, high-pitched scream of absolute terror. The raven tilts its head curiously at him as he falls backwards on his ass and scoots backwards pathetically. Rogan Hitmaker’s mouth curls into a dark smile.
“I… can smell… your fear.”
His voice is distorted and warbles as if Tempest is underwater. Just as soon as he sees the spots popping into his field of vision, he loses consciousness.
When he wakes, he’s on the second floor.
He looks around cautiously. How did he get here? He isn’t sure. He gets to his hands and knees and begins to crawl, but stops suddenly when he hears a thud from his right.
He crawls almost drunkenly to the door and peers into the keyhole.
On the other side, a throne sits, a spotlight shining on it brightly. Snowflakes fall, seemingly only in that one spot. Bizarre, misshaped snowflakes, Tempest notices.
He looks closer and realizes they aren’t snowflakes at all, but torn up pieces of paper.
An icy blue eye suddenly rises on the other side of the keyhole, and Eden Morgan says, “Peek-a-boo!”
Tempest lets out another yelp as he falls backwards onto the carpet. He shakes his head in frustration and gets back up to his knees, slowly pushing his face to the keyhole, looking through with his only good eye. Eden Morgan sits on the throne on the other side, pieces of paper snowing down upon her.
“Won’t you ever learn,” she says, kicking her feet up onto one arm of the throne, showing off a pair of very expensive shoes, “that you will never be on my level.”
She throws her head back and cackles with laughter, kicking her feet gleefully. As she does so, patches of her hair fall to the floor. She doesn’t seem to notice, but Tempest can see the faint little bald spots from where the large chunks of hair fell. He squints curiously, and her face seems to change a bit too.
“You call me a High Society. Honey, I’m the only society in this company that matters. So many of you have forgotten that, haven’t you? And some of you, maybe even you included, never even realized it. I know that psycho circus bitch that you associate yourself with hasn’t.”
She grins what is at first a breathtakingly beautiful smile. It’s the smile that Dr. Baal fell in love with, Tempest knows because…
Because she told him! She’s got the shining! She told him through the conduits in their minds! Skull Crawler!
Tempest is about to back off and run away, but he sees her smile change again, and now her face is broken. Bruised. Ugly.
He peers in, watching the shadows inside the room dance and play with his vision. She turns her head slowly and he thinks she looks like a broken porcelain doll. His heart beats out of his chest.
“Pisces?” he says softly.
Distantly, seeming to come from another world, he can hear a gunshot.
Pisces Morgan screams and rushes unnaturally towards the keyhole, crawling like a giant spider, her legs thumping against the floor as she closes the distance at an alarming speed. Tempest shoves himself from the keyhole and falls on his bottom again. He looks up at the room number, though he, just like you, already know what it is:
Room Two Thirty-Seven.
Another gunshot, closer this time. Or, more likely, he was more aware this time.
“Jacky,” he breathes, his heart thumping hard in his chest. He gets up and rushes to the source of the gunshot.
Jacky calls down the hallway. She has been wandering the corridors of the Underlook for some time now, or at least that was her plan to tell anyone who asked. Stumbling a step, her hand reachs to the wall for balance. An eerie picture of a bearded king comes crashing to the ground, completely on its own.
“Thash what I’m gonna tell them, at leasht,” she giggles to herself. Jaclyn brings the half-finished bottle of Lunazul Blanco to her lips and drains it of its soul. Part of her believed there was a reason she was down here and it didn’t involve the alcohol.
“Or did it?”
She tips the bottle over. Not even a drop falls free.
“All gone,” she pouts, discarding it on the mesmerizing orange, brown and red carpet, the design of which appeared to be infinite hexagons.
“Infagonsh.” Jacky attempts, “Infagoonsh.”
Careening back-and-forth, the heavily intoxicated clown’s stops moving forward in an attempt to right her equilibrium. She closes her eyes. There is a squeaking noise. At first it is distant and she dismisses it as the whispers of a migraine, the impending consequences of her actions. The sound draws near, finally squealing to a stop just in front of her.
“Jackkkkky….” Re-opening them, she sees a pair of twins sitting on red tricycles, complete with bone-white streamers. Each one wears a matching, periwinkle blue lolita dress with white frills and a pair of black Mary Janes. Jaclyn covers one eye.
“Are you an only child?” She removes the hand and squints. “Quadruplesh?”
“Come play with us…” The girls speak in unison. The clown-faced woman leans forward at the hips, tilting her head to listen, “forever…”
Jaclyn Pierrot erupts with honking laughter.
“Forever?” she asks.
“...and ever and ever…”
She matches her cadence with the twins, doing her best to hold back the laughter that simmers just beneath the surface. Unable to hold back any further, the jester erupts once again. She wipes away a tear as the twins continue to repeat those words.
“Well, then.” she smiles. Her bloodshot eyes become overrun with the expanding sea of gold while her pupils become lost in the expanse.
“How good are you at playing…?” Jacky pulls the .44 magnum from its home, tucked in her back waistband. Her thumb draws the hammer back as she aims the gun unsteadily between them. They stop repeating the phrase. “Catch!”
The bullet goes wide. Jaclyn’s blood-alcohol levels combined with the heavy recoil of the massive revolver puts the small woman in a violent spin. She stumbles to the wall once more, this time putting her entire iron side hand through the drywall. Wasting no further time, the two twins make their move to retreat, only to turn towards one another instead of away, resulting in a two-trike pileup. As they attempt to disengage themselves from the wreckage, the clown manages to pull her arm from the wall.
She aims the gun once more.
“Lesh try that again…”
The twins finally drag themselves free. Another slug erupts from the barrel, barely missing them. They take off on foot, ducking around the corner. Jacky does her best to sprint after them, though she mostly moves in a zigzag pattern. That is, of course, just before her foot gets wrapped up in one of the tricycles and she goes crashing to the floor.
Her revolver discharges.
“Fuck!” she yelps, kicking wildly to dislodge the tangled steel heap. The more she struggles, the more she gets wrapped into it, until finally the two three-wheelers separate and she crawls free. Jacky rolls onto her back and takes aim at one of them and fires.
The shot goes wide and the concussion of the blast drills her backwards into the carpet. In a rage, she shoves herself up before grabbing one of the tricycles. She squeezes into the seat. Knees almost in her chest, she begins to petal, slow at first, but quickly she gets the hang of it and picks up speed.
“Hey Kidsh!” she shouts, “I’m baaaaack!”
Thighs pumping, she rounds the bin, just in time to see the pair duck into one of the rooms ahead. She tries to aim the gun, but the added effort makes her lose control and she smashes into the wall.
Jacky touches her head.
She snarls at the door: “I think you hurt my head real bad.”
She picks herself up and begins to stumble towards the room. The lock clicks shut. She begins to wildly laugh and huff, winded from her excitement as she rushes towards the door. As she gets close, she aims and fires, once again forgetting the sheer power of the pistol. The force turns her into a clown-faced missile which ends with her bloodied face going straight through the center of the door.
Crimson droplets fall from her chin. She looks around the room, a vast study lined with rows and rows of books. She grins.
“Heeeresh…Jacky…” she manages to mumble before losing consciousness.
Jaclyn Pierrot comes to with her head still firmly in the middle of the door. A combination of blunt force trauma and the direct application of large amounts of alcohol to her liver have left the sound of tricycle tires squealing somewhere in the depths of her brain. With some effort, she is able to pry her eyes open as the lids have partially dried shut due to the blood.
Using her feet to brace herself, Jacky forcefully tears herself free from the door. Crawling forward, she jams her arm through the head-shaped hole and flicks the lock. She pushes the door open and crawls in, gun still clutched in her hand.
“Come out...come out...wherever you are…” she sings, peeking her head around the bookcase. Nothing. She drops down low and looks under the desk. Nada. Jacky pushes herself to her feet and stomps around the room. Zilch - empty.
“Where the fuck did they go?” she asks the room. Surrounded by words, yet not a phrase is spoken to help her on her search, Jaclyn moves behind the desk, drops into the large leather seat, and begins sorting through the drawers.
Records. Statistic reports. Rankings. Notes and references going all the way back to 2010, she quickly becomes lost in the series of arrows and circles needed to put the data together. Jacky holds them up and tries to focus instead on the words, but some idiot has decided to write everything with moving ink. With a shrug, she flicks them over her shoulder. “Boring.”
She thrusts her hand to the back of the drawer.
“Bingo!” she slurs, pulling free an unopened bottle of Pappy Van Winkle. She looks over the label. “Isshat the Colonel?”
She giggles, ripping the top off. Liquid sloshes around her. She tilts the bottle over and pours out a few ounces, ‘for the Chicken King’ or rather ‘Shitkin King’. She takes a pull from the bottle and looks around the room.
“Okay, where the fuck are you lil’ schits?” She stumbles over to the shelf and begins to pull books free. The works of Wolfe, Phillip K, Truman, all tumble to the ground in front of her, the beginnings of a much larger pile.
Soon, the molehill begins to form a miniature mountain. She aims the pistol once more and drives two bullets into one of the shelves. The books shift under her feet and once again she loses her balance and subsequently the bottle. Almost in slow motion, she watches as it flies just out of her reach.
She lands and tries to military crawl over to the overturned bottle, but ends up just swimming along the surface of the pile. She is helpless to watch as the rest of the bourbon empties onto the carpet. The door bursts open and Tempest bolts into the room.
“Jacky?” he asks. The clown, an absolute mess, looks up from the ground. Her eyes slowly fill with tears. Her lip quivers and she points to the bottle. He looks at it and then at her and laughs. “You got drunk, didn’t you?”
She bites her lip and shakes her head. He effortlessly pulls her from the pile and to her feet. Jaclyn Pierrot falls into him, her arms wrapping around his neck. He can feel himself catching a buzz as she whispers up into his ear. “I’m not-I’m not drunk.”
Her tongue follows her words and she leans into him. On the unsteady ground, he tumbles back and into a bookshelf. The sudden weight and impact causes the false shelf to rotate and swivel, and the two tumble free on the other side. Jacky pulls free of his arms and the two look around in awe.
It is a large room, dominated by a massive bed pushed against the back wall. Everything, walls, sheets, lampshades a shade of crimson. Metal hooks and chains dangle from the ceiling. There are two rows of cabinets on either side of the bed, each with its own set of whips, paddles, manacles, and blindfolds.
“Whoa…” Jacky says. She steps in front of Tempest, taking his hand into hers. “This is perfect!”
She squeals and spins around to him.
“We can have a training session!” she laughs and grabs his other hand. He barely resists as she pulls him towards the bed.
“Jacky, there’s-” he starts to point back towards the other room, but before he can continue, her mouth crushes against his and they tumble back onto the bed.
Montague crashes to the floor just in front of the bed, pieces of the ceiling forming a small circle around him. Coughing, he stands up from the rubble and begins to brush the dust free from his dark clothing. He stops when he sees Jaclyn Pierrot, arms lashed above herself in a large wooden X. Tempest stands a few feet behind her, his shirt off with a cat ‘o nine tails in one hand and a riding crop in the other. They look over in his direction.
“I…” he begins, then turns his head away. The clown begins to laugh, wiggling her rear towards Tempest.
“He turned, keep going!” Tempest considers for a moment, then swings the flail one last time hard across her bare back. She screams in pain, her fists clenched in the leather straps. He sets it down and begins to remove the straps.
“Can I turn around now?” Montague asks. The door in the other room slams open. Everyone freezes, except Jacky who continues to yammer on.
“Is that Kosner?” she asks before shouting out, “Hey Kosner, we’re in here!”
Tempest frantically pulls the final strap free of her wrist and jerks the surprise clown away from the device and behind one of the dressers. He pushes her against the wall, his hand covering the mouth that continues to murmur from beneath. He looks over his shoulder to see Montague sliding under the bed.
The trap door slowly creeks open.
He holds his finger up to his mouth, indicating for Jacky to be silent. A set of deliberate, clicking footsteps enters the room, softened by the thin rug at the entrance. Tempest holds his breath. From under the bed, Montague and see the pair of expensive black loafers.
“Miss Pierrot?” Daedalus says finally. “Are you in here?”
From under the bed, Montague motions towards the door. He holds up three fingers and Tempest nods. Two. He takes a deep breath. One. Montague slides from under the bed and Tempest pushes away from the wall, Jacky’s hand interlaced with his.
“Olly Olly Oxen Free!” they shout as they rush past Daedalus. Jacky fires her gun off into another part of the ceiling as she is dragged along behind them, the group cackling all the while. Daedalus sits on the edge of the bed and sighs.
“I hate this game.”
The camera is set up in front of them. The three Astro Creeps sit, glaring into it. That’s not entirely true. Jaclyn isn’t sitting, she’s standing between Montague and Tempest, swaying from side to side.
”These are your words.
This is your definition. I am defined by your terms and not my own. That is the rule. That is power. You control the terms, you control the narrative. What's my narrative? The ever spiraling clown, once great, now reduced to a memory. She had such potential, she had it all in her hands and look where she is now.”
She shrugs with impatience, perhaps expecting an answer from the idle camera? Tempest and Montague neither seem to feel her behavior is bizarre, which is probably not a surprise. They only sit quietly, nodding in agreement with the Ragdoll.
This is your narrative, and I accept these terms. For some things there is no escape, for others, it's merely a matter of perception. What matters to you?”
She makes a motion across her abdomen with her hands.
”I have no belts for you to steal. I have no key for you to sneak away with. So what will you gain here? Respect? For two of you we could call this getting even, for the Prince of Pain however, there's still two more steps to go. However, by your terms, by society's terms, I am the loser.”
She sways to the left.
”I am the failure.”
She sways to the right.
”Well, I have failed time and time to live up to your expectations and I will fail time and time again because the path you seek is not mine. Each victory over me brings such joy, such a sense of accomplishment, well if it had so much value, then tell me: why has there only been one woman ever to place my shoulders to the ground without help? If you do not fear us then...who do you keep reminding? Us?”
For a brief moment she looks sober as she raises a questioning eyebrow. Questioning? Maybe closer to accusing.
She bends down and raises a bottle of liquor with not a whole lot of liquid left in it. Bottoms up! She gulps down the last of it and hurls it to the side. It shatters against the wall.
”Why are we your mantra? Your Mount Everest? Cause we are Creeps? Well glory be unto he, the king Creep. Unbreakable. Unstoppable.”
Tempest smirks and bows his head for a brief second.
”Now, by your own terms, each of you may consider these moments you’ve had over us as a victory, but you should only see these moments for what they are: failures on your behalf. Failure to defeat losers like us on your own terms. A failure to be the people you tell the world to be, well me?”
An evil smile tries to reveal itself on her lips. Her gold eyes pierce through the camera.
”I am who I am.
I’m the bitch that kicked the hornet’s nest to see if it had honey, and I found out first hand that sometimes no matter how big, and how bad you are, numbers matter and so I learned to count. I’ve had my bumps and my bruises along the way, but the truth - I like the pain. Well, Donovan Hastings I know you have your two little Baals that you're ready to put in between us, but sooner or later, you're going to be face-to-face with me, Jacky P and you'll get to learn first hand what it feels like to get your dick shook from the bottom.”
Jaclyn makes a kicking motion with her foot, stumbles and starts to fall over. Tempest and Monty chuckle at their clown. It’s Montague who looks up into the camera now.
“I suppose I should thank each of you. For better or worse, every one of you had a hand in welcoming me back to this industry. Little did I know, however, how much of an effect you each would have on my journey to becoming an AstroCreep.”
He smirks. Behind him, Jacky is keeping herself balanced by holding onto his shoulders.
“I was content to fill my niche, occupy my little corner of the company, out of your way. But anytime I started to rise, one of you was there to shut me back down. It didn’t have to be that way, of course, but you couldn’t be held responsible for someone relatively unknown making an indelible mark on the company, not when you were each struggling to re-etch your own names into the ledger that was threatening to leave you behind on the earlier pages.”
Tempest nods in agreement as Montague pauses. The Showman seems to ponder for a moment before he continues.
“Only after you had crushed me utterly and moved on to your own individual glories were you satisfied to leave me to my own devices. Little did you know, however, that you’d been pouring lantern oil over the wreckage. Little did you know that Tempest was ready with a match.”
The Spider King grins behind his mask. The very mention of fire seems to nearly send him in a trance.
“Since then, you’ve all but forgotten me, I suppose. You’re so focused on making sure you each finish the year out in glorious fashion, you’ve missed the rise of the AstroCreeps entirely. You’ve dismissed us while the rest of the roster prepares for war.”
Montague’s eyes turn cold as they narrow into the camera. His voice lowers, and matches the chill that resides in his eyes.
“We tried to avoid it coming to this. But come to this it has. You’re all three in the crosshairs now. The Creeps are coming.”
Jacky stumbles over to Tempest now, using his shoulders for balance. Behind the mask, he growls.
He nearly spits out the name of the cooperative team.
“You might think that’s reflective of the two of you and your philosophies…
But, you fail to realize that it’s an interchangeable moniker for myself, as well. I could be thought of as living, breathing, Incendium. You know who else would be a better fit for the name than the two of you?
That snot-nosed, spoiled, entitled, whiney…”
The Ragdoll claps her hands mockingly, her braying laughter echoing in the chamber, deep in the bowels of the Labyrinth.
“Sad emo boy!!!”
Tempest grins again, and this time when he speaks, it’s eerily gentle.
“Yes… the sad emo boy himself.”
He pauses, leaning forward.
“Does that make you tick, Eden? Gabriel? To know that the two of you have domesticated the other so deeply that some pretty boy who shouldn’t be in the same conversation as you, is actually of more important conversation than you?
Incendium. It’s the very definition of the Astro Creeps. We’ve set this company ablaze and its first responders have desperately arrived to try to put out the flames, to somehow… neutralize us. And, you may think that you’ve put a pretty good dent into us as a whole. But, you’ve all seemed to have forgotten one person. You’ve forgotten to cut the main head off the hydra, haven’t you?”
Jacky wraps an arm around his neck loosely, leaning down against him with a drunken smile. Tempest pauses, letting his thoughts sink in.
“You’ve forgotten about the original Astro Creep. Me.
You’ve also failed to realize that you haven’t broken the Ragdoll.”
Ragdoll rises. Defiantly. Glaring soberly into the camera.
“Nor have you destroyed the will of the Showman.”
Montague shakes his head. Nope, it said, not even close.
“You, High Societies, have failed.
And we are all still right here, seething with animosity.”
They all bare their teeth simultaneously, uncomfortably balancing on that line between comedy and horror.
“I suggest the Coalition sends something better than fighting fire with fire, to defeat us.
Oh, did they send their world champion?”
Tempest readjusts himself, pulling his feet up and sitting with his legs folded beneath him.
“Hello Mr. Hastings. A month or two ago, you and I ran into each other in an unlikely location. As expected, you looked down on me. You looked down on me just as everyone else in this god forsaken company has. And, just like them, you didn’t realize: you’re already dead.”
The three of them cackle with laughter. Jacky hiccups.
“You and I have had a very unique and, believe it or not, parallel relationship over the last five months.
I can feel you watching me, fighting the urge to call me absurd.”
He shoots a dirty index finger at the camera.
“Think about it, though. You’re a man who loves statistics. Try these on for size.
July 24th, I began my Cross-Hemisphere championship reign.
July 25th, you began your World championship reign.
You’ve spent the last five months dominating your division.
I’ve spent the last five months dominating my division.
He holds up the same index finger.
“Except I’ve been a busier bee than that, haven’t I?
I’ve also been placing my game pieces on the board strategically, picking apart the entire Coalition piece by piece, division by division. The Chaos division? We took it hostage.”
He reaches over and squeezes Montague’s thigh, never taking his eyes off the camera. Montague smirks.
The Conquest division?”
He reaches up and blindly runs his fingers against Ragdoll’s neck.
“Mmm, we took it hostage.
The Co-op division?
Spoiler alert, in twenty-twenty-two, we’re taking it hostage.”
The three all nod in unison, again balancing on that ominous line between comedy and horror.
“It’s funny to me, the way that the Coalition works. You all think that you’ve accomplished something when you took titles that we initially stole from you in the first place.”
Now Tempest stands, twirling his hand in circular motions to illustrate his confusion as he paces in front of Monty and Ragdoll.
“You think you’ve made some sort of statement by taking back something that was yours in the first place. Oh, how the social media world erupted when Centurion took the Conquest championship off of my Jacky. To us? Goddamn, that was pathetic. You all acted like you just won the fucking World Series or something. We’re talking about the Conquest championship, a title that has zero prestige, and is but a shortcut to the top of the mountain. Nothing more. Nothing less.”
He stops pacing now, and leans down, so that it’s only his face in the camera.
“What you fail to see is that we’re lurking in the shadows. You’re playing our game. And your god forbids that any of this was by design. Or by our own amusement.
How many fucking times do I have to tell you, it isn’t about the gold… It's about sending a message.”
He stands back up straight, taking a deep, disappointed breath, before walking back to his chair and sitting next to Montague. Ragdoll pats his shoulders and hiccups once more.
“And my message for you, Donovan Hastings, just happens to go through the championship I hold. As you bask in your own glory, hand-picking your opponents on your way to a legacy that you’re determined to shove your peers’ noses in, I want you to think about the shadows that will soon surround you, and the Creeps that manifest within them.”
They all cackle with laughter again, but they stop abruptly and their faces contort to twisted hateful glares. An uncomfortable silence fills the void, and just as it seems that they’re about to jolt forward, the camera cuts out.
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