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Blarghy

Psichology [IC]

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GM

 

Content Note: Disturbing Content, maybe a little Gore

 

"Then we have an accord." 

 

The voice was deep and smooth, but its words dropped like stones into a grave.  He took his bargains seriously; even a verbal agreement strummed with power, especially in this place-between-places.  His new partner, however temporary, swallowed hard. 

 

Baku the dream demon was ancient by human standards; he fed in infancy on the nightmares of early Japanese hunter-gatherers, more than ten thousand years ago.  His travels across the world spawned numerous myths, and with those myths he himself changed.  Few had seen more of this planet's history--open and secret, the history of shadows and unseen things, hidden behind walls that were themselves beyond most mortals' comprehension--than he, but one such person stood before him now.  The deal he made tonight linked him to someone whose age dwarfed his own by orders of magnitude--who, too, walked freely through the borderlands and laughed at barriers meant to hold back flesh and blood.  Baku knew he wasn't the first spirit to make a deal of this sort, although he couldn't understand this person's interest here. 

 

What does it matter?  What does it matter, so long as he gives me what I need?

 

Looming over the tiny demon, the sorcerer held out a swirling globe of pure magic--a thing of beautiful light that defied color schemes, its shining particles moving in directions that corresponded to no physical space.  A living spell, ready to take effect even without its master present...for the right price. 

 

And that price, Baku paid.  He told his partner of the things he had seen, spying invisible and intangible on his enemy and those associated with him.  He dared not come close to Presto the Preposterous in the waking world, not after their last meeting.  He certainly would not risk approaching the terrible creature that had taken Presto under her dark and bloodstained wing.  Only from a distance had he watched, and through the bland, dull nightmares of average mortals.  Their memories often came secondhand, mere rumors, but some rumors spoke loudly. 

 

Beware the Grimalkin!

 

When they were done, when Baku had been wrung dry of everything he knew or suspected, his tall companion at last presented him with the spell.  Baku took it in his little claws and chortled.  Vengeance would be his!

 

He stepped sideways through the walls of reality and went to find a dream. 

Edited by Blarghy

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Samuel Steiner commanded the stage like a king at court. All eyes -- and there were many, many eyes -- were centered on him, their owners waiting with baited breath to hear his words. The magician strode from one end of the stage to the other, tailcoat flapping behind him, and rolled his sleeves up to the elbows. "As you can see," he began, "I've got nothing hidden there. Which isn't to say there aren't any surprises in store!" A wave of chuckles spread through the crowd, and Samuel smiled. He was clean-shaven, bereft of the goatee that he wore later in life more as a visual trademark than anything else. Missing, too, was the weight of the world that he would later bare across his shoulders, back bent and bowed as a result of his mistakes. This was a younger Steiner, a pure magician, without even the beginnings of the arcane trickery he would acquire in only a year or so. He worked his audiences expertly, saying just the right things to get them into the mood. By the time he was done, they would believe that his prestidigitation was real magic, and not the finely-honed product of careful planning and expert engineering it was. When he performed a trick, they gasped with a kind of awe and appreciation that filled his heart to bursting. He had never felt so alive, so perfectly content as he did right then, right there... and he never would again. This was a dream in every way, a perfect memory kept carefully preserved and often dusted off for admiration.

Edited by Sophistemon

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GM

 

How distressing, then, when it turned sour.

 

For no reason that Presto could immediately determine, the crowd's enthusiasm waned.  At first their cheers and laughter just became softer, but within a minute these sounds ceased entirely.  Their smiles faded to blank expressions.  Even beyond mere disinterest, the people in the audience appeared lifeless.  Empty dolls, realistic but utterly lacking that essential spark. 

 

And from all around him, Presto heard slow, sarcastic clapping. 

 

"Very nice, Sam," a disembodied voice said.  "This was the time you hold most dear in your heart?  I should not be surprised...ignorance and childhood is sacred to your kind.  Do you regret your path to greater power, then?  Has it frightened you, that mighty fire you failed to control?  Or do you simply lament the day your fellow sheep turned against you?"

 

He would surely recognize the voice...especially when it repeated words he had heard before, this time mocking and with underlying resentment: "How did it feel when you let her fall?"

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The light faded in Samuel's eyes when he stared out into the suddenly lifeless crowd, and his brow furrowed when he recognized the voice of the speaker. Suddenly, all at once, he aged several years in a moment. He reached up with two white-gloved hands and adjusted his hat before speaking. "Baku," he said, his mouth a thin line. "It was wishful thinking that you'd crawled off to lick your wounds and would stay gone, but I'd hoped for a few more months of peace. Things had just started taking a turn for the better." He motioned with his right hand and his wand appeared, a sturdy shaft of black wood capped on either end with silver tips. He shook his head. "Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the bed..." He pointed the wand out, into the crowd. "It felt terrible," he admitted. "But you know that already. We've danced this waltz before, and I beat you." A small smile worked its way onto the corner of his lips. "With one shot, I beat you. Alton freaking Bailey was a bigger challenge, and he was just your hired muscle." Inside, though, Sam was somewhat less confident. Baku wouldn't have returned with a new trick up his sleeve. He'd know better than to challenge Presto again without having first stacked the deck in his favor. "What do you want, Baku? I don't suppose you're here to offer a truce?"

Edited by Sophistemon

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GM

 

An angry hiss emerged from the corners of the theater; Presto's boasting undoubtedly had merit.  While Baku laughed off his talk of truce, his voice sounded sullen now.

 

"...No, Presto, that is not why I am here.  I am here to ruin you."

 

Out of thin air, something small and shiny appeared opposite to the stage, near the back row of seating.  It rolled and bounced down the center aisle toward Presto the Preposterous.  This thing, whatever it was, had no color he could describe; he had no way of detecting the supernatural like some magicians, but the way it glittered, the way its glowing threads intertwined like a yarn-ball designed by M. C. Escher, suggested that it must be arcane.  Like a tiny star from some other universe, it slowed and levitated about a meter off the carpeted floor. 

 

"Do you know what this is, mortal man?" Baku's voice snarled.  "This is a gateway.  For all my wondrous skill at navigating dreams, I am barred from the realms behind them, the places from which they flow.  I have never before entered the mind of a human, to twist and torment it as I wish.  But tonight, that will change."

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Presto -- because he was involved, now -- sucked in a startled breath at the idea of Baku invading his mind, of twisting his thoughts around until he didn't know which way was up. He fretted for a moment over the idea of... of regressing, of being forced to go back and be the man he'd once been, and who he was so desperate to avoid becoming again. He slowed his breathing and composed himself. To the outside world, hopefully to Baku, he looked relaxed and in control. "That isn't necessary, Baku," he said. "Our fight is done, the game is over. I don't hold any grudges, though you started it all. I know what it's like to get in over your head and just... get sucked under the water. It doesn't have to be this way, where we come after one-another over and over again. You know where that ends, don't you? It ends with one of us dead. Maybe both of us. You'll never age to death, Baku. Why not retire somewhere warm for the next fifty years or so and just wait me out?" He smiled, somewhat sardonically. "With my luck, it won't even be that long."

Edited by Sophistemon

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"Oh, you have it right there, Presto," Baku agreed; now he spoke smugly again, whether sensing fear in the wizard's words, or just assuming that his attempts at diplomacy implied fear.  "You have much less time than your natural age."

 

The orb of magic twirled in the air.  Its outer edges expanded, like solar flares.  Brilliant waves of silver and gold draped over the aisle around the central core of indescribable energy.  "But not to fear!" Baku laughed.  "I do not mean to enter your thoughts.  Far too unpleasant, shortsighted, and without ambition for my tastes.  No, I have chosen another option.  I will destroy you...but first, I will destroy your ally."

 

In the folding magical tides, resembling thin sheets of fabric thrashing in the wind, came a new shape.  Its colors were all wrong, but the form was a man's, shorter than Presto but wider in his shoulders.  His face became clearer: amidst his light stubble sat an angry, perpetual scowl.  And in those scowling lips, he held a cigarette...

 

"I will take your companion, do you see?  I will poison him from the inside out.  In his madness, who knows what he'll do?"  Baku's cackles rose higher; they seemed to bounce off of the spell, which rippled its outer edges in tune with his voice.  "Before he turns against this city, before he inevitably dies at the hands of his own agency, before all that, Presto, I swear to you that he'll come for YOU!  In his mind, I will plant the seed of hate against Presto the Preposterous!  Do you understand now, Presto?  This is my revenge!  Why should I battle my enemies when I can force them to destroy one another?"

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There was silence for a moment as Presto processed the perilous proposal. Then, almost in opposition to himself, he said something incredible, mind-mindbogglingly stupid. "Baku, don't." An edge of desperation crept into his words, and he hated how they sounded coming from his mouth. Still, he continued. "Warne... Baku, he doesn't deserve that. I'm the one that beat you. I'm the one that burnt you to a crisp. You're beef's with me. Let's settle it here, like men."

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GM

 

Baku, eater of nightmares, drank in that desperation like a fine wine.

 

"But I am not a man, Presto," his unseen tones pointed out, silky as they were evil.  "And soon, you will be but a corpse."

 

From the curtains at the end of the stage to Presto's left, a hawk suddenly emerged.  It flew rapidly with just a few beats of its wings, and in a blink, it had reached the edges of the spell.  With a triumphant cry, and one last taunt, it vanished through the twisting waves.

 

"I'll give the agent your regards!"

 

And he was gone...but, at least for the moment, the portal remained. 

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Presto watched as the hawk flew up, and into, the portal. The magician grit his teeth and gripped his wand before rising, with fluid grace, into the air.

 

"Like hell," he murmured, and followed Baku through the breach.

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GM

 

His passage was not precisely comfortable; once in the swirling magical energy, Presto felt as though whitewater rapids snatched him away, or perhaps that he was a human airplane during turbulence.  Still, the warm tingles all over his body weren't so bad.  More importantly, he wasn't rejected or shredded or any other unpleasant thing, despite not being the intended traveler here.  The spell might've been a broad one...or maybe something else was at work.  Baku's avian shriek at the other end of the portal certainly wasn't gleeful, when he saw his pursuer; he sounded surprised, and decidedly displeased.  When they landed, he flew away in a flash, out of the initial room, around the corner, and presumably down the following hallway.  The hawk slammed into a wall in the process, bounced off the floor, and struggled to regain his bearings in midair.  Presto faced the same daze; his vision blurred and spun upon arrival so that all he could see at first was a sea of white and tan.

 

When that passed, he found himself on one knee in what appeared to be an empty lobby.  The neat, clean tiles under him felt cold; the walls, largely bare except for one map of the ground story that he saw posted between two elevators, and further down, a plaque indicating a stairwell.  On his other side was a reception desk with no receptionist, and opposite to that were the front doors, made mostly of glass and framed by windows.  A glance at the signs and structures across the street set his eidetic memory to work, and he realized in a snap where he was, whether or not he had ever been inside.  This was the Federal Building, where AEGIS made its headquarters in Freedom City.

 

Right before he could launch away to catch Baku--who thankfully hadn't made it far, squawking and banging around in the nearest corridor, still attempting to throw off his disorientation--Presto was rocked again by the portal itself.  It imploded, dragging him backward to the floor with it, and with a loud pop, seemed to vanish.  When Presto rolled to his side, he could see a pinpoint hole in the floor underneath him, as though the energy didn't precisely disappear, but rather shot down

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Reeling, struggling to make sense of his new surroundings, Presto reached out towards the frantically fluttering Baku and shouted after him. "Baku! Wait! There's still time to do the smart thing!" He glanced around, taking in the interior of the Federal Building's first floor, before he forced himself onto his feet. Something occurred to him, suddenly, but with the force of a hammer-blow. "Baku! Where did you get the spell? Do you even know what you're doing?" He took a stumbling step after the fleeing dream-eater, and then another, and then he ran. "Look, let's just talk about this, okay? We can work something out!"

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GM

 

"I tried to talk, before you ruined my operation with Bailey!" the bird snapped, before bouncing off another all and screeching again.  "But then, you were in control, so you wanted none of it.  Now this is my domain, and there will be no negotiations!" 

 

If Baku truly had that level of control, odd that he continued to bother flying.  Odder still that he had to flee in shock when one of the doors branching from their corridor slammed open from the kick of a black boot.  Attached to it was a full-body uniform of the same color, resembling SWAT armor without any logo, and of course, with Presto's luck, the man had an automatic rifle in his hands. 

 

He opened fire on Baku, which was good.  The two friends behind him turned their weapons on Presto, which probably wasn't

Edited by Blarghy

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Samuel saw the gunmen, yelped, and took a running leap behind the receptionist's desk in the hopes of using it for cover. "That wasn't talking!" he shouted at Baku. "That was a villainous monologue! You wanted me to join you!" He gripped his wand and prepared a spell. "Hey, guys! Look, this is all some weird misunderstanding. You want the bird, not me! I'm a friend of Agent James Warne! Get him on the radio or something, he'll tell you I'm a good guy!"

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Presto made the jump just in time; bullets riddled the desk, spraying chips of wood onto his hair and puncturing metal.  Judging by the penetration in the nearest walls, these were uncommonly powerful weapons.  They gouged out large holes, and Sam couldn't be sure how long his cover would last...

 

Baku's cries faded beneath distance and the gunfire.  He took his chances on the wing, hoping to outrun the shooters, one of which ran after the bird.  Both others stood impassively, firing round after round at Presto, clip after clip, reloading in stages so that the pressure never let up.  Neither replied or acknowledged his pleas, nor did they appear to take any joy in their work.  These soldiers were highly professional and numbed by battle--assuming that they were remotely human at all.

 

It appeared that Sam would have to fight his way out, or find some clever way to avoid potentially damaging Agent Warne's mind (who could say what consequences might unfold if he "killed" a native of this place?), when the stairwell door opened.  Out strode an elderly man with white hair to his shoulders, a well-groomed mustache, several shiny metals pinned to his blue buttoned shirt, and an enormous pistol in his right hand.  He raised it, a smooth practiced motion, and unloaded four quick shots at the armored defenders, who scurried around the corner for cover.

 

"This way!" he motioned to Presto, backing toward the open stairwell. 

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Sam looked at the man, then peeked up over the desk to see the gunmen run for cover. Making a split-second decision, Presto ducked low and dashed towards the stairwell. "Go, go, go!" he shouted, and took cover behind the door. "Thanks for the save," he told the man, then looked him over. "How'd you get in here? Is the portal still open on the other side?" There a hanging moment where he considered what he'd just said. "No, that can't be right. The 'other side' would be my dream. What's going on?"

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GM

 

His rescuer flowed quickly after him, slamming the door shut and making a slicing gesture with his free hand.  From thin air, a stout steel bar appeared across the door, complete with heavy bolts that pinned it to the wall on either side.  Whether this answered Presto's questions or raised more would be up to him.

 

For his part, the newcomer stuck his pistol back in its holster against his ribs--he wore it as an agent like Warne would, rather than on his belt, despite the Old West vibe he gave off--smoothed back his hair, and extended one calloused hand.  His grip was very firm, his skin dry and rough. 

 

"That," he said in a husky but smooth voice, "is what I aim to ask you, Sam Steiner.  My name is Colonel Carroll Reyes, of Texas and the United States Army, not necessarily in that order, and you aren't supposed to be here.  Neither is that bird, but I gather that the two of you aren't affiliated, from the talk I overheard."

Edited by Blarghy

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The magician took to his feet and nodded, sparing a moment to smooth back his hair before shaking the offered hand. "He's called Baku, and he eats nightmares. Or, he did. I don't know what he's up to know. He's after Agent James Warne. We worked together to stop Baku from playing havoc with Freedom City's magic users." He breathed, suddenly uneasy. "Baku's after Warne. He couldn't get into minds before, not really, but he got a spell from someone or something else that's let him in. If we don't stop him, he's going to twist Warne's brain and make him go crazy... or worse. I can't let that happen."

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The Colonel listened to this grimly.  He hmmmm'd to himself, thinking, but soon came to a decision.  Much like Presto, he was a man of action, and this situation certainly called for it. 

 

"I'm glad to hear you say that, Sam.  The last part, anyway.  Not so much the rest.  Follow me; we'll go down a level by stairs, then take the elevators all the way to the main offices.  My knees aren't what they used to be, but--"  The door to the lobby shuddered under a hard impact, and when that failed to move it, dual blasts of gunfire splattered it with small convex bulges on their side.  It held...but probably not for long.

 

"--But," Reyes went on, "we can't exactly use the elevators on this floor."  He hustled for the stairs, and despite wincing with each step, took them at a rapid pace.

 

"Kill-squads," he said on their way down.  He pointed a thumb over his shoulder as the door continued to rattle.  "They're a, uhhh...representation.  Metaphor, what-have-you.  The watchdogs in these parts, keeping out undesirables such as yourself and that Baku, or any other psychic tricks.  Normally don't see them in the flesh like today, but I normally don't get visitors either.  They won't bother me, being a local, but they don't know you and they don't care to.  Can't be bought, begged, or reasoned with, 'cause they got no reason.  Only other piece of advice I can give is to keep that fancy wand in your pocket unless your back's to a wall.  Magic and the like will bring them right to you.  It's how they found you so fast, with that portal in the lobby.  If we're lucky, Baku'll have the same problem, and either way, he'll find no friends here.  I'll take you as far as I can, round up another guide to finish the job, and see if I can't find some way to slow that wicked sumbitch down."

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"Does Warne know I'm here?" Presto asked, his voice a nearly-panicked whisper. What the agent might do if he knew... Sam didn't want to think about it. He shook his head, deciding it didn't matter in the long run. "So, if you're taking me somewhere, I guess I can't get out the way I came in? I understand stopping Baku, but, ah, where do you think he's going?" There was a lot going on here that he didn't understand. Did everyone have internal defenses along the lines of Warne's kill-squads? If so, what were Sam's like? The idea of needing to avoid using his magic or risk summoning their attention was also disconcerting. Sam was mildly athletic, but without his mystic might he'd be of little use against Baku.

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GM

 

Reyes shook his head.  "No, I don't think James is aware of this, whatever it is.  Can't feel the germs in your body, now can you?  You just feel the effects.  Fever and pain.  Let's clean up this infection before it comes to that."

 

They didn't need long to reach the first basement level on foot; whether or not this existed in the real Federal Building was hard to say, but given that Warne and his fellow agents held their court here, his memories were likely accurate.  This floor appeared mundane, for storage and mechanical access, but when Reyes ushered Presto into the elevator, he held down the HELP button with one thumb, pressed the ALARM key four times, and followed it with a series of the floor buttons.  The doors slid shut, and down they went.  The real AEGIS headquarters were not on Floor 23 in their standard suite of offices, like the public believed.  Presto had been here for a matter of minutes, and he already learned more than Warne could possibly approve of.  Good, indeed, that the grim agent didn't know.

 

Now in a position of safety, the Colonel answered the rest of Presto's question.  "I felt that spell of yours when it shook the place.  It went down, deeper in.  This is my layer, you see; we're only on the perimeter.  My guess is, the magic and Baku both are headed to the core.  That's where the bird will do his damage, and if you're lucky, that's where you'll find your escape route after you catch him."

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"No spell of mine," admitted the magician. "Even at my worst, I never dealt with minds. I was always... well, I was always more of a showman than a manipulator." After that, he fell silent for a while. "I'm sorry," he said. "I had a chance to capture Baku when Warne and I went up against him the first time and I blew it. I thought he'd lick his wounds a while, stay away from us after the beating he got, but the truth is... I didn't even look for him after the fight. I was so high on victory that the idea of following up on the little monster didn't seem that important." He sighed. "This is my fault, and I'm going to set it right if it's the last thing I do."

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GM

 

The old man turned to him, his blue eyes twinkling, and put a hand on Presto's shoulder.  "You're not as bad as he thinks you are, Sam.  Hell, you're not even as bad as you think you are.  James bullied you into helping him, and in return you did him and Freedom City both a great service.  You protected the weak and showed more compassion to your enemies than they deserved.  I watched you in action, and I know your dossier; you've done things you shouldn't have, but no man alive can say different.  The world can be a cruel, dark place, and it'll kick you more often than it extends a helping hand.  It's easy to let those scars cover you up until you're so numb on the outside that you can't feel anything anymore, good or bad.  That girl's death left its mark; I'm sure Blackstone left even more, and you risk another cut whenever someone blames you for your past.  Despite all that, you've got real goodness in you.  It certainly isn't buried as deep as it is here.  You'll see that for yourself soon enough, and when you're gone from here, I want you to remember it.  Don't make the same mistakes James has.  Don't be thankful for your armor."

 

The elevator came to a slow stop.  When the door opened, Reyes gestured silently to the long, white hallway beyond. 

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Presto stared at the older man, this internal representation of something, and felt the beginnings of a smile stretch the corner of his cheeks, lifting the ends of his goatee. "I... think I needed to hear that, Colonel Reyes. Thank you." When the elevator doors opened, Sam looked down the hallway and bit his lower lip. "What's at the other end?" he asked. Then, suddenly, a thought occurred. "Who are you, sir? Outside Warne's head, I mean. He didn't make you, did he? No offense to Warne, but you seem too real to have been cooked up by his imagination."

Edited by Sophistemon

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"No, I do exist," he chuckled.  Reyes stepped out of the elevator and strolled down the hall; it seemed they still had a little time left together.

 

"I was his superior officer, when he officially joined the Army.  Seems I made an impression.  I let him be normal, 'least for a little while.  Made him work, made him learn, but I did my best to be fair."

 

With a wave of his hand, the wall to their left transformed to a window back in time.  Dozens of soldiers in a loose line ran an obstacle course; among them, scaling a climbing wall, was a young man with Warne's general features.  His hair had not yet begun to gray--then again, he kept it shaved close to the scalp--but his perpetual frown already looked familiar.  Observing them all was clearly an earlier Reyes; his own hair was much shorter than the version accompanying Presto, to comply with Army regulations, but aside from that and a diminished level of wrinkles, he appeared much the same. 

 

"Hustle, hustle, hustle!" he ordered.

 

The scene changed; now Warne faced off against another recruit.  They boxed, bare knuckled, while the rest of their unit watched.  A punch slipped through Warne's guard and his sparring partner exploited it, driving him back, then lunging for his legs and bringing them both to the ground in a tight grapple.

 

"Life was never easy for him, not even under my command," the "real" Reyes told Presto.  "And I couldn't undo the damage he'd already suffered.  He grew his armor at a young age.  Too young.  Much too young.  But I treated him like a man instead of a psychic weapon, and he never forgot about that."

 

Unbidden, the opposite wall became a third memory.  This time, Warne sat in his office, looking much as he had when Presto last met him.  He leaned over something on his desk, writing carefully with a pen.  Reyes stepped through the window easily and plucked the sheet from Warne's hands. 

 

"He sends one every year," he said, holding it out to Sam.  It was a card.  Blank on the front, simple and boring white, and with hardly any further decoration inside, it simply had a few short words on the inner pages:

 

Happy Birthday, Sir.

 

- Warne

 

"Not much, hmm?"  Reyes lifted his eyebrows and smiled.  "But he sends it every year.  The man with no friends, who trusts no one, who loves no one and never has.  We've met in person only four times since he left the Army over a decade ago.  But he sends it every year."

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