But before that, there's one more match, made mid-way through Massacre #59. The Open Challenge.
"Here we go, it's time for Rob Chapman's open challenge! He's laid down the gauntlet to anyone in the XWA Locker Room who wants to step up and have a match on pay-per-view!"
“Guy's been out of action, what, a year and a half? Easy win, man. Take the payday.”
"Under no circumstances would I call a match against Rob Chapman an easy win, but you're not wrong about how long he's been on the shelf."
The crowd cheers, illuminated by recently-risen moon as The Black Mages' "Maybe I'm A Lion" plays over the P.A. system, broadcast throughout the ship. There's a countdown timer, shown on the XWA-Tron. A timer that begins at fifteen, and descends rapidly until it reaches one, while the shadowy figure of Rob Chapman paces in the background. Chapman slams his shoulder into a wall. Again. Finally, a punch breaks the concrete as the count rapidly ascends all the way back to fifteen, signifying the fifteen years that have passed since Rob Chapman's career began, wrestling for tXw in a dirty, humid warehouse back in 2005. Three world championships, two prestiege-building, record-setting reigns with innovative new championships, and one faction whose name is still talked about in the XWA to this day. No matter how much Rob may want to distance himself from the man he was in 2016, the word "ELITE" is no less apt to describe a man, who, despite everything, can still call himself "Lionheart" after twelve of those fifteen years.
MAYBE I'M A LION
The theme's main riff kicks in, and kicks in hard as Rob Chapman makes his way through the curtain and out on the stage to a shockingly thunderous ovation from the small, but raucous crowd of 1,500 on international waters. For the occasion, he's dressed in all new, yet familiar ring gear. A fresh, black leather biker jacket covers his upper body. It's a plain jacket, free from any of the sort of painting or filigree he's always worn over the years. Perhaps it's symbolic? New clothes, new man. Worn below are black, military-style cargo pants with stitched-in kneepads adorn him from the waist down. They're tucked into short, black boots with his signature Heraldic Lion emblem emblazoned on the outside ankles in red, and accented with crisp white laces. His signature beaded choker- black, almost metallic hematite- still adorns his neck, as it has in nearly every match since 2008. Unsurprisingly, he has MMA-style combat gloves with thick padding across the knuckles, designed to protect his hands as much as his opponents. It's a familiar look, but one that does the job and makes one things very, very clear. Rob Chapman is here to fight.
"Rob looks more fired up than I've seen in a long time, and he doesn't even know who he's wrestling."
“Yeah, the last time Rob looked this fired up was about twenty minutes before we got the shit kicked out of us by ELITE. Good times.”
"People change, Matt."
“I know that! If people couldn't change, your legs would still work. Ha!”
Rob punches his fist forward in excitement, pumping it once as he tucks it beside his body, grinning with anticipation. His first match since losing to Albion Gale all the way back in 2018. That feels like a lifetime ago. He only wishes he could have been here to see her become champion. Not once, but twice. But that's not what's on his mind right now. What's on his mind is professional wrestling. Giving some young gun the chance to make a name for themselves. But more than that, proving to everyone on this ship- the fans, the talking heads in charge of XWA, and the boys and girls who're dressed for battle in the back- that Rob Chapman is still a commodity in the year 2020. That Rob Chapman can still do what he's done so goddamn hard since 2005. Fight. He needs to do it for himself, too. Maybe more than anything.
"It's been a long time coming, but I'm excited to call Rob's first match back. This man has been through physical, mental, and emotional hell. To see him get himself into this kind of shape, and to be this happy to be in a ring... well, to some, it's a very heartwarming moment."
“Yeah, I'm sure Thomas and Jerod Barnez are watching this show with a box of tissues ready.”
Rob wastes no time stepping off of the stage to begin striding to the ring with confidence. He who hesitates is lost, and he's spent enough time wandering through the fog. Pumping his arms, the former Supreme Champion looks more than ready to take on all comers.
“Holy shit! His arms work!”
"The following contest is an open challenge! Introducing first, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, making his in-ring return to the XWA, and weighing in at two-hundred and thirty-five pounds... "Lionheart", Rob Chapman!"
As Rob reaches the end of the walkway, he darts forward; bracing off of the impending ring apron with one hand, "Lionheart" pops up and slides into the ring feet first. In a smooth, seamless transition, Chapman whirls around to face the opposite direction, rising to his knees and planting both fists on the mat in a "Terminator" pose. He nods his head to a few beats of his music before popping up to his feet. Rob does a short lap around the ring, taking off his entrance jacket in the process, and lightly tossing it over the top rope, where a ring attendant scrambles into frame to recover it. The former Supreme Champion is looking incredibly fit- the best shape he's been in in at least four years, if not more. Lean, ripped and ready to fight. More astute listeners may have noticed that Hana gave his billed weight as 235. A whopping twenty pounds lower than it was a year and a half ago, and the lightest he's been since his first stop in the XWA all the way back in 2013. He appears to have had his ink touched up to go along with the weight loss, as well.
“Oh, shit! Is he gonna kick Hana Ramierez now?”
"Will you stop it?"
Circling around toward Hana Ramierez, the man known as "Lionheart" greets her with a smile, and very politely asks to borrow her microphone. Hana obliges, and Rob can be seen mouthing the words 'Thank you' as she steps out of the ring and makes her way toward her designated seat by the timekeepers table. His music dies down as he taps on the microphone a few times with his open palm.
"Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, the Greatest Show on Earth is coming to you live from International Waters. How're y'all enjoying things so far?"
The crowd responds with a loud chorus of cheers- what some might consider a cheap pop- in response to their thoughts on the night so far.
"Glad to hear it. I'm not gonna grandstand or waste a bunch of time by telling you all how important this match is for me. I'm just gonna repeat what I said on Massacre #59, in case you missed it."
Rob pauses for a moment and begins to pace around the ring with that same anxious, excited anticipation he had back in the Battlezone. He raises the microphone to speak again.
"This is an open challenge. I want someone young, hungry, and ready to make themselves famous to come out here and give me the fight of our lives. This is an chance for someone to get their name in the mouths of the people who make the championship matches. You wanna crack the XWA Top Ten? Put in a showing against a former Supreme Champion. That'll get you a lot closer. I've been there, and I know what it's like when one of these big shows comes around. They don't put you on the card, and they tell you to show up. You sit there and you hope for something... anything to happen. You wait for them to come calling with a spot, for them to tell you that your name is on it. This is that spot. Your name is on it. This is an opportunity, and I want one of you to get out here and take it. So come out here and get ready to light the world on fire."
Standing in the center of the ring, Rob faces the walkway with an eager eye. He drops the microphone, crouches down, and makes a beckoning motion toward the stage, before planting both hands on his thighs in a ready position.
"Who's it gonna be?"
“Whoa, what the fuck? Someone-”
Something happens outside the ring; a scuffle. Somebody hops the barricade, but it doesn't catch the attention of the man in the ring. Security practically fall over themselves trying to catch the elusive... fan? Whoever it is, they slide into the ring. That, Rob hears.
“Goddamnit, some idiot fucking mark-”
Matt Steel's headset goes quiet.
Rob turns around, and for a split second, his expression says 'Gotcha!', anticipating being jumped from behind by some young gun looking to get a leg up on him. That look quickly melts away, replaced by a look that's equal parts confusion and apprehension, as he stares at the figure across the ring from him. Dressed head to toe in baggy clothes. A hoodie and sweatpants. Gloves and boots. A mask covers their face. A theatre-style mask.
A Wakaonna mask.
The same mask worn by Kaida Kagome the first, and last time he faced her. Massacre #33. July 18th, 2018.. 97 days before his breakdown. The figure tilts their head to one side as they get into... some kind of stance. Halfway between someone who's just been caught in the middle of a heist... and someone who's been backed into a corner, ready to lash out.
"Is that-? It can't be..."
Rob's visibly off-put; he knows this isn't Kaida. Even if he does have something coming from "Gokudo", he knows she's in the back. In a private room. Getting ready to beat the ever-loving fuck out of Troy Spencer. And yet... this icy cold stare, from this facsimile of a face... is penetrating him to his very core. He's rendered instantly uncomfortable. Maybe even afraid? Rob begins to take a slow step toward the hooded figure. He puts his hands up in a gesture of reassurance. He's not going to attack them. His slow approach continues. Security are almost in the ring.
Once Rob gets within six feet, the masked assailant explodes forward, absolutely battering Rob with a rapid series of kicks to the legs and body- to combat sports veterans, they may recognize the strikes as belonging to Muay Thai and Escrima- backing him across the ring toward the far ropes. For a brief moment, the assault ceases, as Rob clutches at his left thigh and backpedals towards the ring ropes; Security are finally able to hit the ring and charge, only for the masked figure to spin around and floor them both with a single high kick that lands, raking both of their faces in quick succession! CRACK-CRACK! The two security guards drop to the canvas as the assailant follows through the motion of the kick and lands facing the startled "Lionheart". The look on his face changes from one of confusion to one of anger. Rob realizes that, regardless of whoever this is, he's going to have to fight, because they're clearly here to do just that. Lowering his head, Rob charges across the ring like a bettering ram, going down low for a Spear, but the quick-footed assailant nimbly leapfrogs over the top of their oncoming target, and carries his momentum through into a forward roll, landing on their feet. Chapman screeches to a halt to avoid stepping on either one of the security guards. He quickly whirls around, and this time it's the masked attacker who charges headlong. Rob's been doing this long enough, and he knows exactly what he wants to do. He ducks down, keen to deliver a back body drop that'll dump this asshole to the floor below. Unfortunately, with his current ring rust, that isn't what happens. Rob ducks a second too early, telegraphing his attack. Instead of running headlong into Chapman's waiting arms, the attacker leapfrogs again, clearing Rob's shoulders entirely; drawing their legs together in mid-flight, the nimble individual lands with their legs in a seated position on the top rope. Gravity catapults their body backwards, straight into the exposed back of Rob Chapman, which the attacker proceeds to roll over before landing on their feet in front of him. A few people in the crowd cheer the athletic feat, but most of the 1,500 strong are booing ferociously at the individual attempting to ruin the comeback of a fan favourite. Dean Richardson, meanwhile, is most likely shitting his pants in fear over one of his talents being attacked by an un-contracted individual for the second time in three weeks.
“Whoever it is has moves!”
Shocked by his attacker's ring savvy, Rob stands bolt upright, only to feel the punch of a boot sole slamming against his mid-section, pushing against the soft flesh between his stomach and ribcage. An Escrima, or Kali-style front kick- almost like a pump kick- Visibly winded, Rob stumbles backwards, hits the ropes, and instinctively stumbles back in his attacker's direction. A sickening CRACK echoes through the air, dying somewhere on the open seas as vicious round kick strikes the side of Rob's padded knee, causing it to give out and buckle. A gloved hand wraps around the back of Rob's head and expertly sends him rolling toward the center of the ring with a low Biel. Rob climbs up, unsteadily, onto all fours, then, rises to a single knee. A shift in angles reveals the masked attacker staring straight into the hard cam, followed by another head-tilt. As quickly as it stops, it starts again. Turning, the assailant bolts past the kneeling "Lionheart". Straight toward the ropes, where they rebound with practiced precision. It was already obvious before, but now there's no question; this is no ordinary fan. So who the hell is it? Hurtling back off of the ropes with critical velocity, the individual in the Wakaonna mask steps up, planting a foot on Rob's raised knee, and using it as a step to swing their other leg in a bicycle motion. The butt of their knee slams against the skull of the former Supreme Champion, laying out the man the XWA faithful were so ready to see fight just a moment ago. They boo the individual responsible for bringing the fight to Chapman. Irony.
"Shining Dragon! Oh, god! Is it?"
“If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and sounds like a duck...”
As Rob lays motionless on the canvas, the masked figure stares down at him. Looking straight into his eyes. Another tilt of the head. Rob's in danger. And he's too punch drunk to do a goddamn thing about it. That gloved hand comes down upon his head again. This time, it grabs a hold whatever strands of Rob's short hair it can, then tightens into a death grip. The attacker pulls "Lionheart" up to his knees and begins slowly circling around his heaving, defeated form. The attacker raises a hand, and grips the chin of the mask in between their forefinger and thumb. For a brief instant, it looks like they're going to unmask, but then... the hand stays there, and doesn't move. They're thinking. Contemplating. Wondering just how to go about finishing off the man kneeling before them. It clicks. The masked figure circles around to Rob's back, reaches down, and takes a wrist. As a matter of fact, they take two. Gripping both of Rob's wrists, just above the glove-line, they pull back, planting the flat of their boot in between the shoulder blades of the thirty-three year old Canadian, and pulling backwards. A Surfboard Stretch. It's a decades-old wrestling hold, typically used by much larger men to bully opponents into submission. Modern practitioners of the hold tend to opt for a much lower grip on the arms, and the butt of their knee instead of the sole of their boot, as it allows their opponent far less room to stand and mount a comeback, but the old execution has its advantages. Significantly greater leverage, for instance, as the full length of their arms is yanked behind them, potentially beyond the capacity of the shoulders. A move that can dislocate. A move that can dislodge. Rob knows the hold. It's fundamental. He's taken it and taught it a thousand times. He's shown it to dozens of students, and he's taken it from accomplished athletes. He knows just how much it hurts. He also knows how to counter it.
"Somebody get word to Dean, we need more security out here-"
Mark Sanction's headset goes quiet.
The power struggle begins, as Rob tries to twist his body, wrenching in both directions back and forth in a furious attempt to pull himself free and get his hands on his attacker. He doesn't expect the attacker to release his wrists so quickly. He also doesn't expect their knee to come crashing into him a second time, but it does. BAM. The butt of a knee slams against the base of Chapman's skull, causing his head to snap forward. "LionHeart" collapses forward, landing face-first on the canvas. His eyes are open, but they're glassy and sightless. His mouth hangs open like a fish out of water, as warm drool spills out onto the canvas. The attacker looms callously over the fallen body of their hall of fame victim... and then slowly, reaches up, loosens the drawstrings around their neck, and lowers the hood covering their head. Jet black hair spills out around the back of the hooded garment, falling just below their neck. The removal of the hood reveals straps holding the mask in place, which gloved hands then begin to unfasten.
“Fuck! That was completely goddamn unnecessary!”
As the last strap is undone, the attacker grips the chin of the mask once more, in between thumb and forefinger, and pulls it away, revealing a face- like Rob's- last seen eating a loss to Albion Gale. It's also the face of another former XWA Supreme Champion. A man trained, in part, by the man whose body he's standing over now.
That man is...
"What the hell?!"
“I'm sorry, what? R-run that by me again?”
"Jace Albright just took out Rob Chapman. One of the men who trained him... we haven't seen Jace since he lost the Supreme Title to Albion Gale at XWA On A Pole..."
“I thought his contract ran out?”
A terrified hush falls over the crowd in attendance. Inside the ring, cold, brown eyes- like a vaccum of emotion- stare down at the motionless form of the man who gave him his XWA career. There's no hatred, there's no feeling, there's no anything. Whatever fleeting heart and soul Jace Albright had left before he faced Albion Gale appears to be long gone. The man standing over the prone body of the hall-of-famer kneels down, reaches into his own pocket, and then produces something. Something cold. Cold, metal, and jet black. The other hand feels around the canvas for something that Rob dropped just before Jace cleared the barricade. A microphone.
"Hi Rob. It's been awhile. Don't shoot the messenger, but... I'm just here to let you know... that Troy Spencer sends his regards. And he wants you to know that this isn't over. As for... well, me? For your purposes, consider me his... baby faced assassin."
Jace turns his attention from staring at the drooling profile of Rob's half-conscious face, to staring at whatever it is he's got in his other hand. Marveling it. After a few seconds, he slowly turns his head back toward Chapman, and lowers his mouth toward the microphone.
"Oh, and one more thing. I know you can't really hear me right now, since my knee probably just ruptured both of your eardrums, but... I know you'll watch this back and obsess over every little detail, so... from both of us... "
Jace trails off... and then his mouth splits wide open in a terrifyingly cold-hearted grin.
"This isn't over."
The very distinct sound of flicking metal- in close proximity to the microphone, at that- elicits a horrified gasp from the crowd in attendance on Xtreme Cruiselines, as it's revealed that the object in the hand of the former champion is none other than a switchblade. With surgical precision, Albright lowers his hand, and then places his other, gloved hand on Rob's back, steadying it, like he's about to cut into a steak. Which is exactly what he does. Rob screams in anguish as his entire body comes alive to register the pain of a blade dragging across his skin and parting the flesh. Bright red blood spills forth, saturating and obfuscating the ink that makes up his shoulder tattoo. His first tattoo. A winged ankh, signifying rebirth, that he had done all the way back in 2007, when he was making his way from the WWA to the 2-Worlds Wrestling Federation. The symbol of his everlasting career longevity... and here comes Jace Albright, carving an "X" through it.
“JESUS FUCKING CHRIST DEAN, GET SECURITY OUT HERE!”
This still isn't over. Rob screams in pain; many of the fans in the background are visibly shielding their eyes as Jace starts a fresh cut beside it. He drags the blade down in a diagonal arc as security begins to rush out from the rampway. For the first time since unmasking, Albright shows emotion. One emotion. Anger. And it spills over, just like the blood from Rob's back. It practically has to, to be heard over the frantic screaming of one Rob Chapman.
"STAY RIGHT WHERE YOU FUCKING ARE. I want you to fucking watch this, Dean Richardson. I want you to watch as a man who you forgot was under contract shows you exactly what happens when a company forsakes its own homegrown talent for "stars" that washed up on your barren shores. You boys are gonna stay right where you are, and you're gonna watch as I finish making one... final... cut."
Chapman roars in pain before falling quiet. Tears, previously welled, spill onto the canvas, mixing with both blood and drool as Jace makes a quick diagonal cut back at the opposite angle. Two letters carved into the back of the man this "assassin" was sent to take out.
"He... he just... he just cut... initials... into... Rob's back... I-I can't watch anymore."
“It's... it's the number fifteen. X V. Roman numerals. Fifteen.”
The number of years since Rob Chapman made his wrestling debut. A number he wants Rob to remember, as he has every intention of making year fifteen his final year.
Troy Spencer's mission to continue the destruction of ELITE is far from over.
Jace stands, flipping the switchblade closed. He slides the weapon into his pocket, and walks away from the now-unconscious form of Rob Chapman, still brandishing the microphone in his hand.
"Now, Dean... this is a professional wrestling show, and I know you had this spot on the card scheduled for a match. So if you wanna send some EMT's out here to get Emo McWolfcry's bloody carcass out of your ring, you can send out whoever it was that was gonna accept his challenge. I'm still a professional wrestler, and if my math is right, two degrees of separation from Mark Storey's Supreme Championship. Your cute little security guards are free to take this bloody knife of mine away, and for the remainder of the night, I'm simply a contracted employee playing by your rules. If you wanna lock me in a room until we get back to shore, and if you wanna press charges, that's fine by me. I've done what I came here to do. Send 'em."
The Emergency Medical Team rushes out from the backstage area to tend to the still-bleeding form of Rob Chapman. Slowly, and carefully, they cover up his wound, and begin rolling him out of the ring, straight onto a stretcher. The camera- for those watching at home, or on stream- switches to Jace, who is still staring at the stage, ignoring the whimpers of barely-conscious pain as his victim is rolled out of the ring and carted off. His gaze hasn't shifted from the walkway since walking away from Chapman. Casually, he begins to remove the baggy clothing used for his disguise, revealing all new gear. Black elbow pads, black leather arm guards with gray and red trim. As Jace removes the hoodie, he carefully wraps it around itself- the switchblade is in the pocket, after all- and slides it toward the ring edge motioning mockingly towards the security guards assembled near the ramp to come and collect the weapon. One does- Jace leaves him be- and then makes his way to the backstage area, following the EMT's. Next, Jace removes the baggy sweatpants, revealing black Boxing shoes, and all-new black tights with a gray grid pattern. Considering the circumstances of his return, the fans are utterly silent, and offer no reaction to Jace's fancy new gear. The man now definitely FORMERLY known as "Starlight" seems fittingly indifferent to the lack of crowd interaction. Geared up, he waits in anticipation of whatever unfortunate soul was about to accept Rob's challenge.
(To Be Continued)