1963-11-28 - Strange Tales I: Death and the Tower
Summary: The good Doctor can't awaken from his horrors? No trouble. Just dream-dive on a man who loathes surprises.
Related: Strange Allusions
Theme Song: Gustav Mahler - Symphony No 2. in C Minor
strange wanda 

It is the Witching Hour. No doubt some of Mystical ilk might take offense to the layman terminology, but ultimately offer a resigned nod to the base concept: the wee hours of the morning, past midnight, before the creeping light of dawn, hold potential in spades for those of action and those in dreaming alike with the predilection towards magic.

The Sanctum is still. Well, as still as possible. In the same manner as a housecat, prone to nocturnal flights of fancy, the silvery wards dart down the hallway outside of the Loft, still in pursuit of a particularly pugnacious spirit. It's a small thing, no larger than a mouse, but with the tendency to slip from grip of all sorts, it's one of the few remaining left from the fiasco of broken relics and containers that came from the invasion of interdimensional spiders. Swish-swish-swish, comes and goes the passing by of the chase. Only those nearest and dearest to the protective spells would hear, but they are all asleep within their beds.

Mouth ajar, head tilted at a small angle towards his bedmate, Strange sleeps hard. One arm stretches away from him in a gesture meant to capture and contain the natural warmth of her while the other lies folded across his chest atop the edge of the black covers. Red silk frames them both, its color more towards wine and dried blood where it's not gilded by the light of a half-moon. It leaves him exposed to mid-pectoral.

His dark brows suddenly attempt to knit in concern; crow's feet appear at the corners of his eyes as his breathing suddenly increases and stutters. A moan halts behind closed lips and then the next is aloud, broken, muted. A sharp twitch of his head and the fingers at his chest grip tightly around the black cover.

"Mmmmmmnnno," he mumbles, clearly trying to do something within his dream. "Mmmno. No…no…no." The mantra of refusal continues, quiet and desperate. It's terrible to be trapped in a nightmare and be unable to escape. That glass ceiling of consciousness is just beyond him. "Noooo…st — stahp, no." Perhaps he's loud enough to wake his consort.


Benefits to a solid roof and a relatively secure building come new to Wanda Maximoff. A lifetime spent in less halcyon conditions than these forever make intact walls and a hole-free ceiling something of a blessing not to be trusted. Those safeharbours are few and far between. Worse, they bring dangers of their own, a softening of defenses against all manner of dangers. On the street, in the woods, no one with an ounce of wit trusts their in sleeping too deep, or very long. Even with a twin who can break the sound barrier holding watch, there are too many threats to name.

Never mind she luxuriates in the freedom to sleep on her side with a real pillow. One stuffed with cotton batting rather than moss and leaves, one made for a human head instead of a convenient, makeshift roll of a stolen coat or canvas. Sleep comes to her unwilling, and remains an unhappy captor over that most willful of prisoners.

Dusty wards might awaken her, though she can sink back under the broken waves of her submarine gaol. Pitter-pattering feet, mouse or fourth dimension centipedal mind-eater, awaken some restless portion of mental function alert to all forms of danger that paranoia can conjure. Still, she rests.

Eyes crack open at the first moan. By nature a compact sleeper, much like a cat, Wanda can curl up into the tightest spots imaginable and doze off. Not comfortably, of course. In one of those weird reversals of role, Strange can claim ninety percent of the available mattress space and still find her with room to spare. In part, that's because she spends much of her slumbering hours semi-prostrate atop him or welded to his side. The latter applies when the scarlet coverlet ceases to fall steadily on an exhale. But it takes a very keen eye to notice she is in control of her own breathing, given she continues the pattern. Never let them know you're aware of them.

Fingers steal above the silk sheet, easing it back. The disruption from the man pillowing her gives pause, momentarily. She whispers, "Ka-a," in the simplest of spells, a rune formed outside the visible spectrum. It floats there, iridescent, a litmus test for active magic while her heliotrope eyes pierce the darkness around the sleeping man's aura. This too is slow, timed, measuring for outside influence or some soul-destroying wound. She should know about that.


No magic, just a nightmare. Well…not just a nightmare.

It begins like it always does. Him, in surgical scrubs, mulling over a patient's sheet handed to him by some idiot intern with a penchant for using him as a crutch to glory - "Oh my god, guys, Dr. Strange took MY case and I even got to HELP!!!" - while standing in the main hallway to the surgical ward of Presbyterian. He shakes his head, hands it back, gives the intern some dismissive comment and watches him walk away.

Slow turn of his head, acknowledgement that another body on a gurney is rushing in towards him. Heart leaps into his throat, Dr. Palmer wheels at one side of the gurney, clearly he's needed. Through the swinging doors and under the bright lights of the surgical suite. The sterile gloves snap on at his wrists and his face is behind a mask. The face of the patient remains blurry. People rush around him, aiding in prep, and then…they vanish. He looks around, suddenly noticing how alone he is within the room. Blotting gauze in one hand, scalpel in the other, he looks down at the patient and drops everything. His bruised and bloodied face, battered into unconsciousness and black-eyed, rests on the white pillow. A droplet of blood oozes from a cut on his forehead taped nearly shut with immediate care.

"Oh gods," he croaks, retreating a few steps — and then doubles over in pain. His hands! They bleed in dozens of place, white bone showing in flashes from within life-oozing flesh, and every quiver nearly knocks him to his knees with near-blinding pain. Shock. It must be the shock keeping him on his feet.

Not scrubs, battle leathers, crimson Cloak, Eye hanging from his neck and still his hands claxon with debilitating agony.

Blinking tears down his face, he looks up and his heart nearly stops.

Gaunt, skeletally thin and clad in black so dark as to absorb light, Death. She stands across the gurney from him. The depthless hood tilts to one side and then turns towards the still body lying beneath the blood-spattered surgical sheets. Battle-leathers, but now with a starlit sheen of Astral Form — he looks between his body and her with spluttering denial.

"No! No — not yet," he pleads, clenching hands in an action that doubles him over in pain.

Outside of the dream, the Sorcerer moans again, showing his teeth in a rictus of dismay. He looks clammy now, both hands gripping the sheets spasmodically.


Nightmare holds the sorcerer in its covetous clutches, bony fingers wrapped about his unconscious brain. Sentience spills to the expertly plied upheaval, toxic threnodies implanted by the creaking groans and chemical imbalances upon a largely empty mental landscape. Deathly stillness gives the noxious charade ample space to spread out, the players stamping over a ready stage of the sublime mine. For who, if not the most creative, are afflicted as sublimely by their own torments and doubts?

On the conscious side, the witch knows better than to shake Strange back to the lands ruled by reason rather than dream horrors spawned of the abyss. Rakshasi, he calls her, those demonic entities gifted at spinning illusions and feeding upon untapped wishes. The brunette slips back down under the covers, leaving the ward rune to hang there. It draws little of her energy until called upon, and even then, makes the slightest diversion upon her focus. A good thing, she needs it.

A garnet forever adorns her hair, even when she sleeps. Those barrettes are never far, tucked above her ears even when the headband is pulled off. Snatching one out, the little stone on its crimped brassy pin winks at her. A few strands bitten too tightly come away, but all the better. She breathes over it, whispering her invocation. The firelight inside the gem sparks to life, hot as a drop of blood, and she presses the stone facet down upon the third eye chakra.

Pray it's enough. Her fingers shape the mudras in practiced succession, a memory of Yaga and a ruler smacking her knuckles to bloody, pulped bruises until she could manage right. The darkness in her soul pinwheels, pushed away, a space opened within. First, align the auras, calm to turbulent. Invoke the channel by surrendering the self.

Why did you never teach me with others? A lamentation forgotten, a thought shoved aside. Her self forms inside the open lotus of Sri yantra, one as good as any. Triangles lodged within triangles open within a modified lotus. It's not sixteen petals, but sixteen ropes of interlocking foliage. Blended traditions work here, with no other choice. The garnet steals her energy and filters it straight into his pattern, and the moment the spell takes hold, her eyes go vacant.

Red starlight falls in thin arrows around the vastness of the mage's consciousness, slowly shifted ever so pale to the other side of the spectrum. Violet is easier to hide in, closer to native blue, and simulating citrine… Not this time. Not without obvious need. Down she spirals in fragments, bits of herself cast wide, like she did in the mirrored dimension he conjured. It's the easiest form to attack in, diffused, where nothing quite raises an alarm. Down, down, down into his being, or left outside the shield.


The man inhales sharply, whether from dream or outside influence in scarlet, unknown. It leaves him in faltering breathing patterns just shy of the very first act of shedding tears physically.

"N-no, please, it's not time yet, I have things to do!!!"

What does Death care? Death cares for naught but ushering on the souls that no longer belong to the worlds. The hood turns towards him and there's the sense of a heavy gaze, with all the weight and majesty of a god. The sense of spoken words that resound in the room with sepulchral sibilance but not malevolence — the same cadence as the last exhalations of the deceased.

She reminds him that «Death does not care for worries or duties.»

"I am the Sorcerer Supreme, I am needed! You can't just TAKE me!!!" Another languid shrug and slight tilt to the hooded head.

She adds, with utmost care, that she is «inevitable, as sure as the setting of the sun, and he cannot resist her even if he tried.» That pricks him.

"No. You CANNOT take me."

Death cannot laugh, but she can offer bone dust-dry humor. «Was there not an author so long ago that wrote about not going softly into the dark night? Is he going to rage?»

Clenching his fists causes more lancing agony and dripping of blood to the smooth floor. It's a slipping hazard. The raking sensations remind him that he is still alive. "Try me, you hooded harpy."

Death draws up a little taller still and considers him in thoughtful, nerve-grating silence eventually broken. «Insolence, even in the face of demise,» she ponders. «A rare thing these days. Most souls are content to relax into her soothing presence.»

"Not me," he growls out, heedless of tears hanging at his chin.

A facsimile of a sigh from her, perhaps some eerie near-mock of a biological need meant to charm in the face of her universally-disturbing presence. «We all pass, Doctor. It is inevitable. Why fight?»

"Because it is not my time," he repeats, his voice breaking towards the end. "And I am needed."

«We are all needed. You will never bring them back.» His family. His sister who died in his arms because he did not know of the way to get water from her lungs. His parents who succumbed to disease and age. His brother who died upon impact when he stepped in front of a bus. «Don't fight it.»

"You…stupid thing, you don't UNDERSTAND!!!"

«No, she does not. She only understands peace and quiet, both of which you do not embody.»

"Damn straight I don't!" He points at the unconscious self in the bed. "He is needed in the future. He has a love and a life. He learns to be humble. You can't TAKE him. Me. You can't." Even bloodied, weeping, within this nightmare, Strange steels himself. "You will not."

«She can and she will, when the time comes.»

"That time will NEVER come. Not while I'm Sorcerer Supreme."

«You wish to defy Death?» What's this? The note of interest as faint as the crackle of a dried grasshopper's wing.

"To the end."

«Then defy her, Stephen Vincent Strange. Prove to her why her hand should pass by you.»

A hiccough from the twitching Sorcerer. A single tear that slides down into his silvered temples.


Infinite tenderness spirals around this man, chosen by the Vishanti in their exhaustive wisdom, to be their scion. How many have stood in his boots and faced incalculable dangers to life and limb? The power of the gods does not assure sanity, especially not in the wake of ghastly beings being comprehension of mere mortals such as herself. However versed she is in the infernal — an alarming amount, too — it is nothing compared to the lexicon he will be required to bitterly explore and indulge.

He dares to stand against the Reaper, for whom all beginnings reach their end. Iron decays into rusted flakes at her hand. Children become ephemeral ghosts through all the long years of their family trees. Even those endowed by immortality quiver, assuredly, for immortality does not withhold her ability to take and take, save to the highest powers above the celestial embodiments of being. Can she slay an idea? Can she end a presence, suspend time, and take all back to the void?

Frightening thought, even for Chthon's vessel and ill-got creation. For even he, demon king, infernal principality, is subject to her. The darkness in being quivers at the knowledge upon an atomic level. The rest?

It simply rebels for sake of him.

Stephen Vincent Strange — so that's his middle name? — defies all time, and the faint, sustained web of her being wrapped artlessly around him, an intimate veil enfolding the cosmic reaches of his essential being, whispers its rapport in turn for his efforts. Resistance nudges along ever so slightly as she insinuates herself in the spaces between, fatal cracks and minute fissures, wispy imperfections that exist in nearly every mind outside a babe's. One drift of amaranth spills in, gathered upon the shallows and the depths, and there she remains.

His name is a dream shared among dreams. Fizziness as the intangible form of her witnesses through his own eyes, a double behind the man.


The dream begins to blur. It always does. It seems that even Death finds a way to cheat him, in turn. She is chary of another ever learning of her momentary defeat — however the good Doctor thwarted her intentions, it remains lost even within the vivid painting of subconscious interpretation. It is as if she knows someone else is watching, that presence omnipresent in all facets of time and space. She is not here, within his mind, and yet she is.

Some aspects remain feverishly clear. How he ends up crawling away from her on hands and knees, bracing himself on elbows at one point, before ending up cornered in the room. Bloodied handprints, some scuffed and dragged through by boot and Cloak, mark his retreat and inevitable last stand. Adrenaline causes his heart rate to soar, both in dream and out. Back to the wall, Stephen Strange throws his absolute best, whatever it was, in the face of the looming avatar of Death.

Another watercolor blur and then her hand reaching out to him, gloved in finest inky kid-skin leather, soft and pliable and impossibly worked without seams or thread, all the better to interlace digits around limp wrists or perhaps even drag in the face of resistance. «Enjoy it, Stephen. You will call on her one day.»

"Not anytime soon," he spits, leaning as far as he can away from her approaching touch with an inescapable urge akin to opposing polarities.

Her touch rests on his cheek at first, gentle as a lover, soothing as a mother, and despair floods him as he feels himself succumbing to a tugging need to simply…stop. Everything. Then it slides and cinches around his neck, tightly enough for him to realize that there is no flesh padding those tarsal bones, not any more tightly than a lioness might scruff a cub. He hangs there, able to breathe, but do nothing else beyond stay on his feet with visible effort.

«Not true immortality, not for you, feckless scion of the eternal Vishanti. She will grant you ageless years, but you must take great care in the face of your worries and needs. Rage too hard, Sorcerer, and you will see her again.»

There was something tart or angry to say, he's sure of it, but it's hard to do around that literally-bony hand.

The sense of succumbing to unconsciousness at a slow speed, even as he can feel every single inch of himself becoming different — rearranged, imbued with ever-lit fire, marked by a numbness that flows and ebbs — and then that terrible, slack-limbed fall into darkness as Death releases her grip.

With a huge inhalation and ragged cry, Strange jerks awake and immediately goes about reacting to the amount of adrenaline surging in his veins. Sheets thrown back, lamp knocked askew on side table, Sorcerer tumbling to the floor as his feet get tangled. The silvery wards are immediately present around him, testing, tasting at his aura even as rolls onto his side, gasping for air and squeezing his eyes shut. His hands, how they shake madly as he clutches at the area over his heart.

"Oh gods, oh gods, oh gods," his wheezing mantra.


Ejected from the dream, the young woman's countless forms go hurtling outwards. The spell follows the recoil on a surging wave rising from the weighty oneiric abyss, following the craggy contours of underconscious geography. Amassed thought sparks collect into a great, towering wave, pushed higher by the unwavering force of countless volumes of energy behind. Volition permits no less than the forefront of awareness to ascend incalculable distances, for how far is it from a dream to the surface of REM to the first crack of gummy eyelids and sleep-caked lashes other than implausibly far? The witch skims the very depths, forced ever higher by her arcane buoyancy, gaining wings and luminous scales best suited to cut through aetheric dreamstuff with maximum efficiency. Trailing bannerettes as wide as a star's heliosphere burst away in plasma waves drenched by his hypersaturated memories, drops of quicksilver plunging back into a cauldron fomenting with greater chunks of self tumbled end over end.

Reconstructing a mind as complex as an adult male's, one engaged to a high science then the mystic arts, requires speed and terrible, vast force. Debris would crush her under its immensity if she were caught, ephemeral dragon-daughter that she is.

This form is not fast enough, not by half. Anthropomorphic form drops away entirely, limbs shed on the crushing maelstrom starting to form a telltale surge-wall blotting out the grim misty gyre of Death's own cloak stretched over the thinning meniscus separating murky psychic travails from highest parapets. Wanda Maximoff, cries every iota of being, vibrating with it, twin to Pietro, once student to Agatha, daughter, mother, beloved.

A trail of amaranthine starfire erupts as the waves crush in and drown her away. Jettisoned self slams across the bedroom as her ragdoll body lies vacant on the bed, the rune suspended over it flaring in ultraviolent shades that swing wildly from cobalt starshine to sparks of scarlet and back again. Comet trails skim where he lurches forward, pingponging from the wards in avoidance, and perching high at the pinnacle of the ceiling.

Light-slick fixtures show a brief glimmer of the spellbound witch, for a heartbeat, and the starspell bundles the tighter in its descent. The garnet cracks, a wisp of red flame in his lap, harmless entirely from where it lands among the slack spirals of her dull, lank hair.

Home is found, and the star skipping off the stone leaps airborne over the body, incongruously dragon, star, Persephone, rusalka, witch, wave, firebird, Rakshasi, Parvati-Durga, maiden, mother, tree?, eldritch flame, wisp of laughter, shimmer-sheen harp chord, celestial music, Wanda all at the same time as it falls back into itself.

Unless, of course, he catches it.


The silvery wards perk at the sudden rebound of her soul form from their proximity, but they recognize the Beloved and go back to nuzzling at their hyperventilating master. Clad in pajama pants, he's trying desperately to find a steady rhythm of existence in the middle of tachycardia brought on by that nightmare.

Who could blame him? The mortal has had a brush with literal Death, the grimmest of Reapers, and it seems she came to remind him of the 'blessing' she's granted him. Not only that, but a nice side dish of past failures too. Still also a reminder, even if they're as useful as being shot by rusty nails from a nail gun, and certainly not offered up for him to mourn over. She is practical, the Hooded Lady, and emotions are ephemeral to her.

Perhaps it's her utterly unfathomable way of saying 'Buck up, buttercup, you're not dead yet'.

"Oh gods — oh gods — Donna…" The first name comes out, unsaid aloud in years, followed by an asthmatic inhale in a battle against tears in this reality. "I'm sorry… Victor," the next name, a half-sob. "I'm so sorry. So sorry. Oh gods…"


Amaranth light bleeds hotter than any open vein, spilling through her body and briefly illuminating faded honey skin from the inside out. A breath drawn reflexively by the hindbrain becomes a satisfactory gasp as she enters her own self, shuddering awake. Ottery quakes cause her to squirm about a touch bonelessly, toes curling and feet kicking at the frothy sheets until they spill to the side and limit her confinement. No sheet shall be tucked by morning's arrival on her side of the bed, accept this fact.

Rising from the waist up by locking her elbows, Wanda slides over the bed, creeping forward as her legs protest in vigorous shivery sensations of pins and needles. She can appreciate pain and soul-deep scars. Her own are less numerous but real on all fronts.

His arm is touched, a gentle caress running over the arc of his bicep, cupping the top. Tender whorls flutter there, snow angels paved onto skin, unless shrugged away. Provided Strange lets her, she enfolds him in her arms from behind, chin on his shoulder, tuneless crooning in his ear as the only comfort she knows how to give.


No words describe the touch of another human in the face of desolation. Even if he does flinch at first, purely from the surprising sensation of her hug and consequent snuggle against his neck, he doesn't resist. Who would? She is solidity within grasping for answers in a room of smoke. Sound too drags him back to the present, even if there's no melody, just comforting notes.

It seems to take eternity itself, but finally, he's able to martial himself. No more words escape him now, just ragged sighs that hiss in and out from clenched teeth as he fights with the lingering psychic slime that clings. Eventually, even that and the quivering slows, steadies, only shattered every so often by shaky breaths.

Finally, with all the irritatingly-prideful force he can muster, eddied below by instability and acknowledgement that this is, in fact, a lie: "I'm fine."

Would she expect anything else from him? The man just faceplanted on his own bedroom floor, probably broke the lamp on the side table, knows how the body reacts to adrenaline plus a panic attack, and now wipes as secretively as he can at his cheeks. He will not sniffle.


Pain defines a shared human experience, the separation of a sociopath from the great majority of his or her species. Reaction to suffering moves even infants to respond, even if it's merely crying in chorus along with the wounded, the suffering, the despairing. Consolation lies in those warm arms guiding someone lost in the dregs of life's negative experiences. Mothers pull their bruised children close and kiss their brows, offering the earliest of benedictions. Priests touch the brows of the distressed for a blessing almost universal to faiths and creeds. Lovers give one another unrestricted access usually denied to all but their own flesh and blood, sometimes deeper still, the choice to open that door and hold it.

What else can one be but moved in the face of agonies wrought from the blackened leaves divining awful dreamstuff?

Wanda is only human. She drags Strange back a tiny bit towards the bed, arranging herself around him at least to assure the sorcerer can be enfolded properly. How often her own experience ended with sniffling in the dark, rubbing tears away lest anyone notice, unable to find comfort except in her own gods-cursed lunar reflection. Their bonds are built so unbreakably strong by shared misery, a crucible as empowering as the struggle for heroism.

Her smooth cheek rests right by his ear, pressed into silvered streaks at Strange's temple. Let the man have his pride. It shan't be questioned here, some show of bravado torn down by a younger belligerent. The low hum in her voice box almost parallels a purr, deviating a little higher and lower, coursing along the soprano backbone into alto shades as best it can. The warmth of a fuzzy blanket might be ideal under the circumstances, but soft fleece belongs to the next decade. Instead he's got the pressure of her bosom against his spine, her chest conformed to his broad back. Warm metal nestles there, the beat of her heart thumping steadily while his gallops away to the far field and comes back laboured, pretending nothing spooked the man within.

Yes, he's fine. She needs the comfort by comforting. Let that balm soothe the freshly torn wounds. "«Yes, beloved.»"


With a grunt and a groan at muscles that rebel after being strained taught in demi-true panic for his life, Strange slowly levers himself upright into a sit. He moves with her, never allowing her touch to leave him, and finally gets his legs folded beneath him.

Shaking hands scrub at face and through sleep-mussed hair before finally coming to rest folded in the lean diamond his posture creates. "It was just a dream," he says roughly. "No, a nightmare. I have it every now and then. I didn't mean to wake you."

He glances over at her, still bleary-eyed from interrupted sleep and emotional haranguing via the mental conjuration of her Hooded self. "You can go back to bed. I'll be up for…for a while yet." It's hard to admit it aloud, though stating it doesn't make if any less true.


"Loud clouds wake me." Truth, in a way. The road out from explaining himself is one offered by respect for masculine pride rather than intentional lies; she is not, as it would happen, much of a liar with him, nor disposed towards deceit. Wanda combs her fingers through her hair to push away the mess of dusky chocolate tangles and waves, face framed by her hair's native tendency to form loose whorls so beloved in later years — and not now, with pin-straight or bouffant styles all the rage. More tumbles over her shoulder and pins between them, making sudden movements a touch uncomfortable really.

A peck presses warm lips to the curve of his upper earlobe, pinning it flat against his hair. Hot breath passes over his scalp, lost in the wandering byways where midnight meets umber, and she scoops her arms around his neck more firmly for a backwards hug of a kind.

Her Slavic accent manifests more strongly in the hovering elements of sleep. "No, I cannot." Simple as that. He has a need, she meets it. She has nothing more important to do than this, his helpmeet and blanket. "I will make us some tea. Better to sit in bed, the tearoom, or walk?"


He leans into her kiss and more into her still. Scarred hands come to rest against her forearms, clasping him, and squeeze gently at them.

"Bed, I think. That way, if either of us falls asleep, it's as simple as lying down rather than waking up hours later with a crick." Strange clears his throat before bringing up one of her palms to his lips for an equally-affectionate peck. The adrenaline is fading, leaving him hollow while his mind still races at the speed of light through cosmos of thought. Tea. Tea will be good. He holds those delicate fingers within his, marveling at their grace, before he sighs once more.

"Are you sure? I can make tea as well."

Continued in Strange Tales II: High Priestess and the World

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