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July 1st, 2016


Just outside Freedom City


The plane was private, small, and expensive. It landed smoothly, on a small private runway, and came to a smooth stop. 


The plane was silent, still. Not a soul moved in, or moved out. 




Presto the Preposterous had plenty of people clamouring for his attention. From autograph hunters, to female (and male) admirers, religious puritans, drunken students, and those pleading for help for the most unusual of predicaments. Only yesterday, Ms. Widdlecrumb, from next door, had demanded he conjure up Tiddles, her cat, who had gone missing the day before. Presto well knew Tiddles, the depositor of dung, and thief of food, who seemed to have several million lives rather than nine. He was, surely, not in peril. 


Today, a short, red headed man with thick spectacles and bad dress sense (in so much as he took the worst of student slacker and professional reporter and blended them most impressively into a hybrid horror), was banging on his door. 


Wesley Brush! Occult Times! C'mon Mr Presto! I got a great story for ya! Gimme a break! This could win me, I mean us, the Pullitzer! he shouted. 


The Occult Times was a semi respectable occult magazine that came out every two months, had a small circulation, and was desperately trying to lower its standards in order to increase its circulation. 

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Samuel Steiner stood from his seat in the kitchen and cracked his back. He'd been sitting too long, spending too much time on the computer -- still, the man on the other side of the door was an intrusion, and he could feel a dark cloud of irritation forming overhead. "Steiner," he muttered to himself as he made his way across the cracked and peeling linoleum. "It's mister Steiner; for Pete's sake. 'Presto' is a stage name..." He peered through the peephole and saw the atrociously-dressed reporter on the other side. Sam was wearing his costume -- he was only very rarely not wearing his costume -- but it was magically disguised as pair of bluejeans and a white polo shirt with dark green stripes. Compared to the man in the hallway, he was overdressed. "Mister Brush?" he said, loudly enough for the writer to hear through the deceptively thin wood of the door. The name was familiar, but only in an academic sense; the magician had read a few of his articles, but knew nothing about the man himself. "Mister Brush, I'm very busy. If this is going to be another hit-piece on why I should be back in prison I'm afraid that I just don't have the heart for it."

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"Yeah, yeah, sure thing Mr Steiner" replied Mr Brush. "And no, I don't want to see you in Prison. Not unless I get an interview first!" he said, with a snap of his fingers. 


There was a silence. A complete absence of a rimshot. 


Presumably, on another strange plane of existence (or maybe several), ethereal tumbleweed rolled past the astral plane between them. 


"Yeah, anyway. No way, Mister Pre--Mister Steiner" he carried on, shaking off his failed humour. "I mean, we at the Occult Times think you are pretty awesome and everything. Got a real story to you. And, you know, all sorcerer supreme and everything. No, I..."


He paused, and looked uncomfortable. He rubbed the back of his neck and looked down. 


"Look, man, I need a break. I got wind of this mysterious Austrian Count. Count Schwarz. Complete recluse, lives on a mountain. Studies the occult. This guy hasn't left his country in living memory. Guess what, he just landed outside Freedom City!" he said, excitedly. 


"Nobody knows a damn thing about him. I..I well this would be a great scoop, to interview him. But, like the dude is all royalty and stuff, doesn't speak to a soul. But, ya know, if I had you by my side, well, he might want ta, you know, talk then!" he said, dragging his eyes back to Presto with some shame. 

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This was... a rather roundabout way of scoring an interview. Normally, Sam would have left the door shut, gone back to his research, and quickly put this little encounter out of his mind. But the bait had been laid, whether Brush had known it or not. This Count Schwarz was a reclusive occultist, with reclusive being the operative word. Recluses tended to have secrets and a reclusive occultist would therefore know a thing or two about secret magic. Brush could hear a lock being clicked. And then another, and another. Finally, the door swung open and Sam revealed himself, a moderate scowl visible behind his goatee. "If I'm understanding you correctly," he said. "You've come to me, a magician, so that I could help you get an interview with someone else who knows magic." Not exactly a bad idea, at least concerning Sam himself. It wasn't as though his own mystical education was what you'd call 'complete' in any sense of the word. "But I'll admit that you have my interest. If I help you contact this man, this Count Schwarz... what's in it for me?"

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"Oh yeah, well, obviously and interview with you, would be great" said Wesley, on the back foot. He looked rather surprised that his desperate gambit had paid off. And besides, he was talking to Presto!


"I mean, real great. I mean, the Presto, right! Face that launched a thousand spellships, or something?" he said, rambling slightly from nerves. "I mean, you are awesome, man! Pow! Zap! Yeah, give it to em!" he said, shuffling from foot to foot. He was, it should be said, a rather animated fellow, whose animation danced a merry jig between infectious and vexatious, and probably both at the same time. 


"But yeah, I mean, you are so awesome, that everyone gets an interview with you, right? Your face in every paper? Probably on a few chicks bedroom posters, too, right? I heard of this chick who really wants to meet you, man...I could set you up with her and..."


"And...anyway you don't want to hear about chicks, am I right? am i?" he said, holding up his hand for a high five. 


His rambling continued. "But this Count, right, nobody has even seen him since 1971. Nobody alive, anyway. Could be spooky! Could be dangerous! Who is this mysterious royal figure, huh?"


His hand stayed in the air, ready for a friendly high five. His smile indicated that a high five would be rather splendid. 

Edited by Supercape
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The magician rolled his eyes and, sighing, extended his hand so that their palms made contact. So far as high-fives went it was lackluster, but it was there and Brush could certainly spice it up during the inevitable retelling. With that done, he stepped away from the door. "If he's been locked away on some Austrian mountain for the last forty-five years than I don't know how interested he'd be in meeting me," he admitted. "Hermit-mystics tend to be slightly... well, not concerned at all with current events, so I've found." He stepped back and waved Brush into the apartment, such as it was. "Please, come in. We'll talk a while about what you have planned." He looked back, into the room, and sighed. "I hope you can forgive the state of things. I'm... well, ex-cons don't normally rank very highly on the 'must hire' list. I'm making ends meet but I won't claim that my life is very glamorous. I've got plans in motion, though, don't you worry!"

Edited by Sophistemon
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"Awesome!" replied Wesley to the clashing of hands. He looked so happy, his eyes might burst. 


"I mean, I high fived with Presto!" he explained, to Presto, of whom he had just high-fived. 


"And yeah, I know this guy is like mysterious and 'all" conceded Wesley, his enthusiasm dipping slightly. "But hey, back in the sixties, he was known to seek out every sorcerer and warlock and occultist. Apparently collected strange and mysterious antiquities. The jade serpent of Cho-Wun, the Lamp of Al-Hazred, the Mirror of Mu"


He paused. 


"Well thats just some of the stories and rumours. Probably half true though. I mean, probably. I mean, maybe a few of them are true. ish. A bit. But still, guy was a collector. Of knowledge, of things. That's for sure. And he has come to America! So somethings up. And you know, maybe he would speak to you, huh? What do ya say? Gotta give it a shot, huh?"


He added a sly few words. 


"He might even be dangerous?"


Wesley did not look like he believed that. Although he did look like he wanted a superhero by his side just to be sure. 


"And that means, like, you--we---gotta investigate, huh?"

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Presto paused, thinking, and then led the reporter inside. "Have a seat," he said, and pointed to one of the old chairs that circled the battered kitchen table. "I suppose that, being a practitioner of the mystic arts, checking in on this man might be argued to fall under the purview of my civic duty. With that said, if he turns me away there's not much that I could do to encourage him to change his mind. If he knows about my history he may just dismiss me out of hand despite the moves that I've made to, ah, improve my public perception." He stopped, a thought occurring to him. "This conversation is off the record until I say that is isn't, mister Brush," he cautioned. "I forgot for a moment that I was talking to a reporter. I'm afraid that I'm going to have to insist that you respect my privacy regarding certain things." He raised an eyebrow, his point made clear. "Anyway -- coffee? -- anyway..." He went to the counter and set the machine to brew. "Certainly, we could take a look. You would be there to... what, exactly? Chronicle the meeting of two occultists of differing periods? A past-meets-future piece? I suppose that would be the best-case scenario, if he doesn't turn out to be trying to take over the world. That's always a concern, I've found. I was always content to rob banks, you know. Make sure that you mention that, in your article. Everyone wanted to call me a super-villain but I was only ever a super-criminal. I just wanted the money; the politicians can keep the world. And I wouldn't have ever even needed the money if I hadn't... if..." He shook his head. "Mistakes were made, mister Brush. I'm past it now, trying to make a new life for myself on the right side of the law. When this is over, make sure that people know that much about me, at least."

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Wesley looked to excited, to high on coffee, to sit down, but he did what he was told. He even relaxed; relatively. He was still wired with adrenaline but looked like he wasn't going to explode now. 


"Yeah, look, I dig you got history. We all got history. Done stuff we shouldn't have, Said stuff we shouldn't have. Tried to kiss Mandy Wells in fifth grade when her boyfriend had arms thicker than my chest" he conceded, memories and regret focusing on having his head shoved down a toilet repeatedly on that fateful day. 


"Yeah, totally not recording this, or anything. All cool, all off the record man. Although, now you mention, I'd really dig writing a few words about ya for the next issue, if its groovy by you?"


He looked at the coffee, sweating with anticipation. 


"And as for pieces. Look, if I got a few words from the Count. Hell, if I even saw his face, I would treble the Occult Times circuilation that month. To be honest, I might sell the story elsewhere, someone would pay huge bucks for this. I could write anything I want. It would still sell". 


"Look, man, if you help me with this, Ill write a puff piece for the Occult Times. Your side of the story, soft focus, glowing sympathy, tragic regrets, turned over a new leaf. Whatever. Ill say you donate to charity and look after stray cats" he said, a hint of wobbling journalism ethics creeping in. 


"We gotta deal?"


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Presto paused, his eyes narrowed. "I don't need a puff-piece and I don't need to lie. Things were never -- I was demonized in the media, made out to be some cackling maniac and thrown into a hole to rot for five years. I was a bank-robber and I was a perfect gentleman while I did it. Nobody got killed or even very badly hurt. Heck, the money was even insured. For God's sake, they were practically victimless crimes." He breathed, calmed himself down, and poured two cups of coffee, one of which he passed to the reporter. "Anyway. Forgive me. It's still a sore spot, I suppose." He took his own seat and thought for a moment. "Yes, mister Brush, I'm interested in working with you to meet this Count Schwarz person. For one thing, it'd be nice to talk to someone else who knows the Art. I've met a few people since leaving prison, but not as many as I'd like. And if he can teach me things that I don't know, well, so much the better." He then looked over at Brush. "And if I look good in an article that helps restore my reputation in this city, well, that would be fine too."

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"Amazing!" replied Wesley. 


A little later...


Wesley had a car that was distinctly not amazing. It belched horrible fumes, juddered, and gave a horrible cacophony of infernal screeching when the breaks were used. 


"Hey, at least the breaks work!" smiled Wesley, continuing to say how amazing his car was. 


He had insisted on driving, no questions asked. His car was not only old, but rather dirty, with candy wrappers and empty CD cases littering the seats. 


They were driving out of Freedom City, the traffic being mercifully benign today. Perhaps the other drivers on the roads were wise enough to give Wesley and his time bomb car wide berth. 


It would not be far to the private air field, a mere five minutes away now. 


"So, Presto, erm, you want to do something awesome when we get there? I mean, his plane is still just parked. Nobody in, nobody out. 'Far as I heard. Maybe pull some rabbit out of a hat? Or summon up some magical fish bird or something?" he suggested. "You know, to show your credentials to the Count. Gotta get to him somehow!"

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Sam, who had been staring mournfully out the window, turned his head and looked across at the reporter. "I'd hope that two practitioners of the art, one of which is a hermit, wouldn't need to be introduced through showing off." He then shrugged. "With that said, if he needs proof of my abilities, a demonstration wouldn't be out of the question. I suppose that it depends on him; we'll be guests, in a manner of speaking. We should play it however he likes." He looked back out of the window and watched the scenery go by. "What else can you tell me about him, mister Brush? Yes, reclusive Austrian occultist royalty, that much you've said. What else?"

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"Collector of strange objects, owner of mysterious arcane library. Obsessive-compulsive. Deeply paranoid" guessed Wesley. "Look man, I ain't a shrink. I can give you a stream of rumours about this man, everything from being an alien, to the founder of the Thrule society, to being an bastard offspring of the unspeakable one himself!" he shuddered. 


"But truth is, nobody knows anything about him. Aside from being rich and Austrian"


"And, I guess, mad" he concluded, in hushed tones. 


There was indeed something silent and mad about the airfield, almost deserted, bar the solitary aircraft which made not a sound. If the occupants were aware of Wesley and Presto, they were not advertising the fact. 


"If there is one thing we can guess, is that the Count is obsessive about magic. He is a collector. At least of knowledge and art. Some say people, too, but that's just paranoid rumour. I hope..."


"Even his brother has maintained he has not seen the Count himself in years..."

Edited by Supercape
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Presto thought for a moment, and then subtly assured himself that his wand was safely inside its extra-dimensional pocket. After finding that it was, he relaxed. "I wouldn't worry too much about something like that," he advice Brush. "If he meant harm, I imagine that he would have gotten up to it long before now. He may just want to explore the world after having finally finished whatever work he was engaged in on that mountain. Freedom City is an important place; it's no surprise that he's here." Another thought occurred. "Besides which, if he's a collector of knowledge and artifacts, there are plenty of both to be found in the United States. We're a young nation, but our magical traditions run deep. The ley-lines alone... Well, anyway. I suppose that we just wait and see. If things do go south, stay behind me and I'll try to extricate us from danger."

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"Yeah sure, I mean, think positive, right!" agreed a more enthusiastic Wesley, clicking two "thumbs up" signs with his hands, in what he surely thought was a cool pose. 


"You can bet Ill stay behind you if it all goes bad. I mean, waaay behind you... I don't want to get turned into a toad octopus or anything..." he said. 


The door of the plane hissed open. 


Wesley jumped behind Presto. 


"Like this!" he explained, clutching at Presto's tailcoat. 


From the plane, a tall, broad, strong man came. He stood at the top of the staircase, not moving, dressed in vague pilot clothes and mirrored aviator sunglasses. His jaw was strong, his hair cropped short, and he had a faint scar or two. He nose looked like it had been broken and reset more than a few times. 


His accent seemed Russian. His English adequate, but not good. 


"Count Schwarz asking who is the you both" he said, folding his arms and looking solid, impassive. 

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Sam cleared his throat. "Hello!" he said. "My same is Samuel Steiner and my associate here is Wesley Brush, a reporter for the Occult Times -- a local periodical concerned with the mystic arts. I myself am a magician, and I've been told that your employer, the Count, is a man of great knowledge concerning the Art. Mister Brush is interested in conducting an interview with Count Schwarz, and I am merely hoping to speak with a man whose education exceeds my own." He paused, waited for some response, and then continued. "If it isn't too much trouble, of course. We would have -- should have -- attempted to contact you, but with this being a private airfield and no one seeming to know how to reach you... we felt it most prudent to come in person."

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There was a brief, steely pause as the pilot looked and studied. He barely moved, like he was carved of ice or granite. 


"Count Schwarz is knowing of the you" he concluded. "I am being the instructed to invites you to meet Count. Please be the entering" he said, a voice deep and scared. 


He waved one hand in, turning slightly, a gesture of invitation. 


"Holy thundercrap!" exclaimed Wesley. "Meeting the Count! We gotta go! We gotta go!" he said, gripping Presto with iron fingers that were clearly possessed of a transient strength out of keeping with his small, and unimposing frame. Such was adrenaline and excitement. 


"I mean, I'm right behind you. I gotta confess I's scared ghostlike" he babbled, his face indeed pale, and clammy. "But we still gotta go. Just...just if he turns me into a toad, please turn me back!"

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Samuel smiled, pleased, and then turned to Wesley. "I'll do my best," he said, grinning. He took the steps up into the plane with a steady stride and grinned at the bodyguard as he passed him. "Thank you," he said. "You have my word, we don't mean your employer any harm." Once he boarded the plane, Sam looked around and worked to commit what he saw to memory. Later, when he wrote it all down, the initial impressions would be some of the more important details and he didn't want to miss anything. Inside, his heart was beating rapidly, drumming a staccato in his chest. His palms were slightly sweaty, and he thought about conjuring his gloves, only to decide against it. Better to meet bare-handed. It seemed more personable that way.

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The interior of the plane was most splendid. Wooden, antique, comfortable leather chairs. 


And dark, dim. Even dusty. 


The pilot lead them inside. The Count was sitting in a big leather chair, in the centre. The windows blacked out. Around them, books, ornaments, art. A large mirror, a statue, a few paintings, covered with dusty purple covers to conceal them from prying eyes, only the shapes remaining, hinting at something underneath. 


The Count was an old man with thinning white hair and black eyes, lean, of average build. Something aristocratic about his nose. A square jaw, or at least it would have been thirty years ago. He wore an elegant, well cut black suit, and a monocle which seemed to be of a dull gold. 


There was an unpleasant, clammy, almost fishy smell to the air that seemed to crawl up ones nostrils and into ones skin, without being overpowering. However you looked at the old Count, when one did, Presto had an unpleasant, nauseating feeling. As if he was looking at something rotting and horrible rather than merely an elegant old man. 


"Please, sit. We have a tea" gestured the Count in a faint, almost tremulous voice. He gestured to the teapot and cups next to him. One could smell earl grey tea, but its aroma was marred by the faint but unpleasant smell that lingered. 


"I am glad you came. I could do with your help" he said, looking at the two of them, but with eyes that drifted mainly to Presto. 


"If you are willing to help an old man" he said, faintly. "I only have my pilot. Nobody else must see me. This is...difficult..." he said, wheezing slightly. 


"I have come to stop my Brother. The fool is digging up something in Wharton Forest that I believe he should not..."

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Samuel smiled at the count, the expression genuine despite his nose being slightly wrinkled from the smell. The growing sense of unease, the faint sense of nausea that slopped in his guts, could be ignored for now. The magician spread his hands. "I... don't know what to say about the idea that we were expected," he admitted. "Or that you had a brother." He glanced back at Wesley, feeling slightly betrayed that the man hadn't told him such an important detail. "If what I've been told about you is true, you're a man of great knowledge, Count Schwarz. What is there that we could assist you with that you couldn't handle by yourself?"

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"I am an old man. And not well" replied the Count, weakly. "And I am cursed. Do you not feel it? Something in the air, something telling you I am horrible, something telling you that this is not right?"


In this matter, the Count was not wrong. The longer you looked at him, the more something felt wrong. He might look like an old man, of whom the worst could be said that he had a slightly stuffy air, but it felt like one was looking at something terrible and malign. And there was that faint creeping smell, that lingered on the skin. Like rotting fish, or marshlands. 


"Yeah...I mean....I don't feel so great" mumbled Wesley. 


"You delve too deeply, you get burned. I was fortunate the calamity that I unleashed was only personal in effect" said the Count, staying in his chair. He left his tea. It was cold. 


"My family seem to have been born to unearth, unveil, and possess that should remain hidden and unknown. I have been successful and unfortunate in these endeavours. My brother, he is less experienced, less successful, and less wise in these matters"


"For long he has distracted himself with mountaineering and exploring. He has climbed every peak in the world, and met many hidden tribes and cultures. And slowly, he has crept towards the occult. And now, he has found something in Wharton Forest. I believe an ancient burial site of the native Americans"


"I fear not much for my brother. The truth be told, we are not fond of one another. We are distanced and apart. But I do fear for what he might unleash. I now understand that the Schwarz blood is rich and powerful, and both my brother and I have an uncanny ability to unleash the worst, and magnify the most..."

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If anything, Sam was even more aware of the sickness that permeated the plane than was Wesley Brush, due to his education and knowledge of the mystic arts. He couldn't sense magic the way that some people could, but he was somewhat more in tune to its effects. When he spoke, it was with a thoughtful tone, and one got the distinct impression that he was already playing things out inside of his head. "So, Count Schwarz, you're saying that your brother's preparing to uncover some ancient aboriginal American magic?" He turned back to Wesley and inclined his head. "I told you there were things in this country worth looking into, didn't I?" He turned back to the Count. "Do you have any idea what he might be looking for? How dangerous it could be?"

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"Yes, I do" said the Count, weakly. 


"Things have been locked away under Wharton State Forest. Things from another age, another world. The time of Lemuria, the serpent people. Agents of the Unspeakable one. Some say it is merely a resting place for the dead. They are not wholly wrong, for the dead but slumber, if dead they are at all" he continued, his hands pressed together, his face pained. 


"And what concerns me is an account I have read in several texts that should not be read at all. Guarded by eternally bound undead. Quite what it is, is beyond my perception. Something that eats flesh and form, incorporeal, from another world, something of fire" he explained, somewhat cryptically. 


"If this thing could feed, it will burn. Maybe it will just flee this world, leaving behind the bones of its feast. I hope so"


Wesley felt faint. "Oh...yeah...well that's more serious than I wanted..." he said weakly. 


"The texts refer to many names. The ghost that burns, The faceless eater, The star of unlight" continued the Count. "It would be foolish to speculate much further. It is surely dangerous, it is surely alien"

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Samuel paled, but irritation crossed his face when Wesley spoke -- the man had gotten him into this and seemed more and more likely to rabbit with every passing second. To the Count, Sam spoke: "I am familiar with... Outsiders," he said. "There are many paths to power, and making deals with alien or extra-dimensional horrors is something that I considered, at one point, during my earlier exploits. Thankfully, the people that I asked about it were kind enough to steer me away." He took a breath and thought for a moment. "Does your brother hope to gain something from releasing the Ghost that Burns? Does he know about its nature, or is he ignorant of the danger it poses?"

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"My brother is both greater and lesser than I" replied the Count. One could almost imagine his face crawling, repulsive despite every sign that it was just an old man. 


"Younger by decades, brave, courageous. An explorer. An adventurer. He should have be born a hundred years ago, when their were more frontiers to traverse. Yet, for all his strength and steel, he is not as wise or clever as I"


"That sounds arrogant, I know, but it is the truth, and the truth will serve us best. He is no fool. He is a scientist, with a sound mind, but he does not have my nuances, or experience. He is a man of drive but not judgement. Not malign, no, just a man driven to explore whatever the cost, to himself or others" he explained. 


His tea, untouched. 


"But I am not a mind reader" he explained. "He may know more, or may know less. But by my judgement he is a fool who sees things dimly, without heed to consequence". 

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