1963-12-10 - Abyss I: Earth
Summary: Strange enters the Abyss in search of a gateway to find Leandra, mistress of the mystic arts, and finds the disquiet of his mind.
Related: Something is Rotten: Part II
Theme Song: The Hand Dealt - Michael Giacchino
strange wanda 


In the Abyss…
He falls through the hours in the day, the tick-tock of hands around the grandfather clock that stood somewhere familiar. A corner of the Sanctum. Maybe a corner of his grandparents’ house, a chime that plays in the breast of a bronzed statue on a steady strike. One for the loud, fifteen seconds of silence and a softer tick, and another, and another, right back to the next minute tapped out.

Stars flood past him, blurring through a windowpane spattered in droplets, fed by one of those late autumn storms known to blow across the Northeast and render everything into blurry sulfur lights and inky patches of darkness left in oil-stain smears.

Tick. Tock. Tock. Tock.

He can smell the tear of rubber against the asphalt, the white-hot brakes turning into dust from the pressure. Glass cracks in spiderweb frames along the windshield, the radio static drowned under an elongated cone of sound as he moves faster than the waves around him. They stack and build as he surges forward in the glistening darkness, accelerating.

The windshield shatters in front of him to a sonic boom, and blood forms in the cracks penned across his outstretched hands. Kindled brilliance saturates those growing wounds, writ in every curse and complaint lodged against the arrogant bastard in the office, each failing in the name of the Vishanti, right down to the scalded frown of Illyana Rasputina or the amber-eyed witch clenching her fingers into a loose fist.

Tick. Tock. Tock. Tock.

Citrine light flashes out at his breast, reduced to a spark on the reflection of the inert Eye, and he lurches forward from the car seat without the webbed tether of a seatbelt holding him fast. The steering rack points for his heart like a spear, and it comes crashing through his ribs on a shaft of darkness and a splintering, guttural shout.

Tick. Tock. Tock. Tock.

Everything closes in and down as he’s jettisoned from the vehicle in a blackened night, the dim water to his left consuming the vehicle he was in and the right, a slope of broken trees and torn bracken. Landing rough sends out clods of dirt in a cloud around him, and there are not even the comfort of stars in the sky or the familiar tightness of the cloak around his shoulders. Aches and pains radiate from broken fingers and glass-embedded wrists, the definite case of whiplash, every last sin and abuse ever turned upon his body given a voice now for a balancing of the scales.

He is but a man in a torn, dirty tuxedo lying in a heap below the road he careened off, naked and pitiless darkness staring down upon him. No light soothes the soul here but the ambient glimmer common to anything not cast in absolute dark.

Tick. Tock. Tock. Tock.

The damage is done as he seeks the unnamed Sephirah, the unseen realm.

*
It’s cold. Why is it so cold? Why is he having trouble breathing? It’s worse than an upper chest infection and he can barely summon any sort of cognizant control of his limbs. He can do nothing more than cough and feel hotter-than-saliva liquid spatter up into his mouth and onto his lips. It tastes like…blood. The car…the…cold.

Curling into a wetly-sobbing ball seems like the best thing at this point. It hurts, it all hurts, the agonies abound and rebound as he convulsively clutches at his chest. His fingertips shred further on the icy ragged spears at his carpal bones as he attempts to pluck them, to no avail. The numbness is setting in now as his brain attempts survival by force of adrenaline and withdrawal of life-force from damaged limbs.

Against the near-absolute darkness, his failing eyes manage to make sense of the more-absolute darkness of a being suddenly stooping in inky robes. He manages some sort of gurgling dismay before needing to clear his windpipe of the clotting sputum. The susurrus of quiet sympathy reaches him, the night wind on the coast willing him to hush-hush now, time to rest. The kidskin glove, covering bony digits, caresses his upturned face with all the warmth of a lover, all of the soothing of a mother, and all the inexorable presence of Death. His heartbeat is sounding farther and farther away as the tightness beneath his sternum crushes inwards still.

Surcease, she offers — quiet, peace, stillness, an end to these mortal woes. He leans into that softer-than-soft leather and the next forced exhalation is quieter. Clutched to his rent tuxedo vest, his ripped hands freely bleed in hues made shadow by absence of light.

Wanda…I’m sorry… It’s a thought broadcasted in muddled attempt, based in confusion, likely unable to break through the veils between Sephirot’s judgment and his home Realm.

Why fight? Why fight…he’s so tired. Pain is an old friend, but perhaps it’s time to let go. He’s so weary. Sleepy. Dizzy. His sight goes red and then black, like the sluggish weeping of his broken skin.

Then, with all the drama of a candle, the night wind snuffs his consciousness out.

*
The cold that breaches his chest leaves no tear upon the tuxedo already shredded and lost of its lovely shape and lines by the descent from the vehicle. Dirt stains the surface and fresh cuts to the fabric will appear when Strange moves, but nothing hints at an impact with the steering column. Instead, there is only that spreading cold from the initial impact that aches deep in the marrow of his bones and chills the clammy tissue.

His heart still beats. Slow. So slow.

Tick. Tock. Tock. Tock.

But he lives, even if the life can be the twilight state that beggared his career and destroyed his trajectory to the highest reaches of neurosurgery. Were he still on the same path, might he equal Laksell, Kandel, or Sacks. Will they sing his praises in the journals now, and will he be the light of hope in a dark world to the suffering, critical patients eager to test the cutting edge of the field with a true visionary?

A visionary in the dark. A visionary blinded. A visionary giving up, turning his back on the future and he present, curling up like a salted slug on a path.

Tick. Tock. Tock. Tock.

His hands blaze and burn in a strange way, damaged nerves thrilling to a sensation they cannot perceive, and the creeping march of fire ant twitches continues even when he’s fallen into unconsciousness. Crabbed fingers twitch and spasm.

Tick.

Tick.

Tick.

The stalled moment runs after itself. How long does it run? His mind will slip through the cracks in dreams and assert itself for a kaleidoscope of smeared images, rotating and fracturing until indistinguishable from the next. They won’t be something he recalls upon regaining consciousness.

When he does, the blood-warm sea licks at his calves and runs over the darkness of his mired and filthy garments. Seaweed tangles around the edge of the beach, and there’s the dark carapace of the car several yards offshore, a sea monster scantily visible given the grim darkness of a predawn hour when the world is at its coldest.

The stiffness in his limbs matches the throb in his hands and the discomfort of somehow finding himself wedged along the Hudson siltstream and rocks cast up, gnarled and misshapen pebbles.

At least they seem so. If he turns over, he’ll see them for what they are: chunks of bone and bits of slag, remnants of rings and debris torn from the fallen Sanctum walls, the library’s contents reduced to ostrakon-like chunks.

*
He dreams as he lies there, unable to contemplate more than the feverish images that crystallize and fade against the backdrop of his weakly-pounding heart. Dreaming might be a kind way of describing it; likely, these are the hallucinations of the brain nearing death.

Still…within the crushing weight at his chest glimmers a far more stubborn flame than the one blown out so easily by Death’s sigh. Unrepentant, implacable, the bane of all non-humanoid existence: the human soul. It shines with the glow of an ember and a rhythm in time with the stubborn beating of that bundle of muscle oft described in terms of love and bravery alike. It seems the kidskin gloves might need to be taken off to keep him from continuing on in this journey.

Too late, grimmest of Reapers. Her metaphysical presence fades away against the paltry darkness of his surroundings. His first moment of return to awakeness isn’t too far from the way he entered the world initially: with a sharp exhalation of agony followed by desperate gasps through a partially-clogged airway. More broken sobs, reflexive reaction to finding himself alive rather than in the fields of Death, and his shifting digs the sharp edge of a rock into his side. It’s enough to make him whimper and shift in the sand that can suddenly be sensed caked against his cheek in chill and wet crumbling.

It hurts. It hurts so very much to drag one elbow between the shifting ground and his ribs, but he manages to gain that much before resting his forehead against the torn fabric at his forearm. Tear tracks slick his cheeks and turn moist grit to darkened mud on his skin. Blinking blearily at his surroundings, he’s so very slow to take it all in.

Why…why are the rocks made of wood? Wood is made of wood and…he knows this surface that rises from the dark beach not an arm’s length from him. Knows it well. This is…that’s the same knot found just beneath the light switch for the library. Blinking at the double visions that haunt him, he reaches out and smears a glossy red handprint against the whorl to ascertain its familiarity. Grains of sand dig into his myriad cuts when trapped between skin and wood and he grimaces, clenching his teeth weakly.

It’s hell dragging one knee up and the other seems to be stuck in a miring of divoted shifted sand, so he trembles as he attempts to accomplish something of a push-up instead, sans bloodied hands. Weak as an infant, he cranks up his forehead against the searing agony of whiplashed nerves and looks around him.

Ivory. That looks…awfully like the rounded head of a femur bone, a doubled unevenly-sized bud on a thick stalk emerging from the rocks like a demented flower. And there…vertebra? The dome of…of… His breathing hitches as the whites of his eyes show. Bones. He’s surrounded by bones. A quick panicked shifting does nothing for the various bruises and cuts on his body.

However, it does jostle one of the many rings that litter his surroundings. A sizable specimen, the same diameter as a hubcap, contacts a nearby chunk of thick board and the chime makes him glance over at it, his impending panic attack slowed by the distraction. The writing is…what? His name, he can see it on the surface, it is him. Stephen. Strange. But what of the rest?

Idiot. Stupid. Failure. Can’t you read this? You’re better than this. He drops his forehead once more to exhale on a hitching beat. Then, the cold of metal versus saltwater-logged sand at his stinging fingertips.

His digits tremble as they scrape at a curved reflection half-hidden by black sand. It reveals a smaller ring with a handwriting that teases in its familiarity and there, again, his name. The writing is fractured by impact damage, blurred by fire’s scorching. Why does his heart hurt so?

In the House…
His corporeal body remains in place, model-like in its stillness save for the insistent, understated breathing. A statue never shone with such frozen life and color.
Moisture gathers at the dark lashes and puddles there, not drawn by gravity and emboldened by further volume. Not just yet. A catch, enough to break the predictable pattern of body’s need for oxygen, before back to meditation proper.

*

Rings: An assortment of rings might be found, some metal and others glass, metal and plaster, sized from small as his finger to large as a window. Fragments litter the stones and produce a ringing noise when disturbed, regardless of their composition. Each sports a variety of writing, sketched in using crabbed, fine arcane writing that eludes his mind, just within reach of insight and slipping through rather like the first time he read the books in the library of Kamar-Taj or bothered to peer into very deep tomes and treatises of neuroscience: none of it makes a lick of sense to the uninitiated.

Except for his name. His name, over and over, written in fading lines and graffiti smears of paint, chiseled or scratched, embossed upon the metal or stamped in deep, painted in betrayed swirls or blurry chicken scratch with the point of a knife. Printed officially. Broken off. Torn. Scraped. However, whatever. In among the mantras of a foreign tongue, he at least knows himself.

And yes, rings cracked that would have fit him.

*
In the house
Nothing prohibits Wanda from stalking around the room like a cat. Her vigil is not meant to be a still one, seated and passively awaiting time’s arrival. Examining shelves and bookcases might distort some evidence, but a hopeful finch nesting in the upper reach of the cupboards and the sorry state of affairs left by the police already assure the place is ransacked. They simply might not see what she can see, Sight opened once more for finite details.

Her gaze locks upon the silver cord spun from the astral sorcerer, and his body empty of its animating light. Catching a fever pang of something puts her briefly to her knee, fingers caught upon the floor. No ripple moves through the still, cold house. Of course, it’s chilly and he is unmoving.

Scarf removed, coat sacrificed by sliding off her shoulders, she carries both of these over carefully so as not to disturb the salt and argent binding circle. Leaning down, she drapes her coat over Strange’s hands and legs. A look to the Cloak: “It keeps him warm. I can borrow heat.”

She pulls her sleeves down and leaves him awash, in some respects, in leather, sandalwood, and Halfeti rose attar.

*
In the Abyss - The Crash
The ring jitters across his broken hand, the palsy almost throwing it back atop the bone sherds and gnarled wood cast upon the lonely strip of beach. In his moment of introspection, the pieces melt through the cuts in his fingers and the changing scrawl written into his flesh by bloodied wounds and searing ink. Then it reforms as a liquid droplet splashing onto the beach, whatever wisdom the handwriting would impart beyond his name captured in a bead rolling over another chunk of splintered wood.

Glass from the splintered and demolished windshield shines like tears around him, mixed in among the flotsam awaiting to cut or reflect his likeness back in miniature.

The pangs still shudder through his body, and they will do continuously, a clockwork metronome to the tempo of discomfort and indignity. There the spasm of his knee, and there the throb of his temples as though they burgeon with too much knowledge, seeking an outlet from the overinflated sac that contains the lore. His heart squeezes, and his hands shake.

Tick. Tock. Tock. Tock.

The slope starts to shift and tumble, starting first with a soft hiss. There go the cracked yellowing remnants of a femur, and the little toes into the water. They roll right into the river without a hint of a splash, the lack of sound perhaps surreal and at once expected. Why would these things echo?

Another shift sends a cascade rolling from the higher slopes. Yews throw their branches in ruffled irritation, standing proud and harsh. Pines whip about, fretful, and the ferns spring back up when the slow-moving avalanche passes. A rock springs off an outcropping and smacks him in the head, then splashes off into the water.

Another strange, curved bone severed at one end slips by, clearly scorched around the midsection by a peculiar lasso arrangement, or a snake’s constriction — if said snake were on fire. And there is a name…

amhor separated by a burn from th.

It crumbles to dust where he touches it, if he does.

*
It isn’t the immediate horror of the surroundings that galvanizes him; it’s not the bones, even if they scatter across his field of vision amidst chunks of familiar wood; it’s not the rings and his name hundreds of time in repeated scrawls and printings; it’s not the persistent pulsations of agony through bone and flesh alike, so beaten and splits by uncaring impact — after all, pain is an old friend, he recognizes from some distant shore’s logic.

It’s the damn rock that bounces from his skull. This particular dimension offers up an indignity with all the insouciance of his younger brother demanding attention in the cruelest manner. Biting off a sharp sound and wincing, he realizes that the earth around and beneath him is shifting. A bloodied palm presses into the shore to begin a fight to his feet and the oddly-crescent bone is privy to two dusted chunks missing from its form simply because of how his fingertips brushed at it. In the same sense that one might check their watch and not remember the time at a later moment, so his gaze acknowledges the riddled name.

Each pump of pain endeavors to bring him back down. Whiplash burns while sand grinds into split palms. He shakes as he makes his way to his hands and knees, head hanging. While the plants around him lash, the Sorcerer draws on some wellspring of plain mulish willpower and then lurches to a kneeling position. Heedless of splinters as he uses the broken edge of a board to act as balance, he trembles…and manages to get entirely to his feet, even if the snapped darkwood feels like a fine wire pulling into his mangled hand.

Now he stands — bleeding, tattered, and resisting the sense of his temper burning in his gut. Unfair, it’s utterly unfair to be subjected to this again, why? Why?!

Uncertain as to where to go now, he lingers there, panting, looking about with glazed eyes. If the slope is unstable, that’s not the way — somehow, he has to get back to the road.

*
Tick. Tock. Tock. Tock.

Shout to the absent moon for explanations, and Strange can reasonably expect as likely a response; that is to say, none. The lurid tail-lights of his submerged vehicle illuminate the aqueous currents gouging out the shoreline beneath the curving cliffside, painted in garish smears no less blurry than a spotted ridge skimming in broad arcs. Dim memory might stir at the vague awareness of a bridge painted in surrealist arcs and jagged bars upon the oily atmosphere.

Even through his streaming gaze, any attempt to focus the bobbling icterious fireflies chained in a sickly arc attains no better sharpness than muzzy bubbles that leap up and down. Displacement ranges from a few millimeters to a few inches, leaving a hint they might move or his pupils simply fail to work correctly after the admittedly considerable trauma left in the wake of pain. Slight motions stir the glowing embers, flares saturating his crooked and swollen joints to the point his forearms shake uncontrollably.

The tuxedo coat hangs torn and shredded upon him, littered in bonedust and earth. Blood and tinkling glass falls onto the piles of bones racing away into the flat, dark expanse of river that flows onwards, and separates the far shore clouded in a dim forest similar to the one he occupies.

Tick. Tock. Tock. Tock.

Another step leaves the bones crunching and crumbling under him, his foot skidding lower and dragging him towards the river unless he scrambles away. It’s a definite threat, crashing into the water, as much as losing his balance and falling onto further piles. A displaced avalanche might bury him under the collective ossified weight of architectural and organic debris. Yet he can see the scar cut through the stalwart trees, those grim spectres tall as the mirthless sky, a stream of undergrowth crushed and spilling out their timeless lives to the sepulchral soil.

Tick. Tock. Tock. Tock.

So much higher up there must be the road. Lower is the river. Every moment ticks away with a finality of pitiless eternity. Time has no reason to fear. Only Stephen does.

*
An uphill battle it is then. The first step is frightening with how the beach gives way and nearly causes him to collapse forwards. Muscles scream as he scrambles a few feet farther up the shifting beach. Wide eyes stare at the swirling waters of the river, at the murky glow of the headlights. His inhalation shivers with the knowledge that such a fall would have hurt nearly beyond comprehension; sparing his palms would have left him to impact with the presence of whiplash still pervasive in his attention.

Of all the voices to flicker through his mind now, in all places…

“Fight! Fight like your life depends on it!”

Though his lip be split and face spackled with drying blood, he flashes teeth in a grimace and orients himself with the hillside once more. Each step is painful, but he fights his way in trembling advancements towards the undergrowth — not approaching the bared earth of the landslide, but a few meters to the side of it, where none of the land has shifted, indicating firmer solidity.

As he trudges, panting, he tucks his hands against his ruined suit. Bloodstains don’t matter anymore, not with how it’s shredded in places. If only he could heal himself…wait.

Like a tumbler in a lock falling into place, his brain nearly flatlines at the absurdity of it all. He is Sorcerer Supreme. He has magic at his beck and whim right now, even here, in this hellish place where his life repeats itself. He has to have his magics. Why wouldn’t he have his magics? He isn’t a surgeon anymore.

Paused in the shadows of the unearthly-tall trees, he holds out his broken hands. They shake madly. Licking at the tear in his lip, he sniffs and tries to pull together his fractured willpower. Akin to tuning an instrument, the focus slips low and high with the interruption of flaring nerves, glancing over the middling perfection of the casting, and he grimaces again, this expression nearing frustration. In a knee-jerk reaction, timed with instinct and his gut in the moment of centering, he roughly whispers,

“Changa!”

*

Bones topple past him, unsettled where his feet land upon the cervical vertebrae of a beast or the vastly elongated stretch of rib from something that would, on that scale, tower past his current crabbed posture. The sphinx riddled with Oedipus and he correctly conjectured on the doddering invalid of a man in his late years, a state the broken doctor much resembles himself, hunched over while trying to scramble up a torrential flow of yellowing masses and crumbling, wet soil slick under a rainbow of engine oil and gasoline. He slides and slips, for progress comes at a cost of crashing back or stepping on splintered shards jabbing through the battered soles of dress shoes entirely unsuitable for any activity but sloughing around a dance floor making idle conservation among the city’s creme de la creme.

For each fall, his flesh comes away mired in powdered bone dust or the fluids leaking out from the vehicle in its fatal descent to the river, spills of rusted wetness possibly bloody or thick from the ochre-heavy soil. Filth mires his ragged suit, doing no favours for vanity, and what a state he must appear to be in.

Lungs ache against bitterly bruised ribs, heaving and bubbling. The slow wisp of water in every breath that spills through his chest would be worrisome if not for the weird weight of time upon him, a nearly imperceptible soporific effect stultifying the workings of his mind and burdening his constant need to correct for the slip-slide of so ignoble and strenuous a climb.

Healing himself little improves it. It tends to the manifested bruises and whiplash, the very certain lumbar damage taken from the car careening at high speed of the road. Small cuts mend up and tears in his flesh thin out. But not his hands: the ghastly webwork of scars remain, peering up in livid tributaries cut through his clammy grey-white flesh. Thickened knuckles of an old arthritic man besieged by gout crab shaking fingers curving inward, talons more than fine digits that saved lives.

Or turned them away on the stroke of a pen.

Weariness subsides, some. Much remains as an unwelcome suit of chainmail thrown over his shoulders, rung after rung interconnected by some fastener common to them all.

From his position among the weeds, it’s a long way up to go, and not without its certain sense that something lurks in the bushes awaiting his next move, a witness there a very long time. He surely realizes with the lassitude ebbing in some detail that something stalks his shadow, hunkered low.

But not a trace shows itself.

*
“Dammit,” he hisses, following the curse by a thick cough as his knee drives into sludgy earth littered with what may as well be shards of glass for all they are ivory bone. More bones, more upon more upon myriad of bones… What in the everliving hell is this hell?!

The healing spell should have done more, in any place but this it would have, but at least he’s not free-bleeding anymore. Still — it might have been a stupid move for all the momentary relief it brought from the pangs of torqued joints, but he can’t breathe any easier for it. His heart feels so heavy too. There’s an odd mentally-hollow point that he’s reaching, where instinct takes over logical reasoning; where primal survival means reactions that might go against the grain of sanity. Tired. Hating it all. Spurned on by the whip of his sheer stubborn nature.

Beneath him, more muck slips and it’s to the other knee he goes even as he tries gripping at a nearby branch with palsied hands. The muscles won’t respond as he wills them. Back another ten feet in a rapid descent until he digs the torn pad of his dress shoe against some lodged femur bone belonging to some creature larger than human. Groaning and coughing, he presses himself onto all fours, squinting up at the oil-slicked expanse above him…

…and feels the hair on the back of his neck rise. Not so slow, no, not anymore, and the sensation is of mincing panic that floods his veins with icy adrenaline. No freezing; one becomes an easy target and he can’t blend into these surroundings. Gathering his balance beneath him, he winces as he rises, still bent from the effects of exerting the healing spell upon himself. No flight; one encourages a predator by acting as prey. As his father schooled him about coming across a mountain lion: stand tall, don’t run, look much bigger than you are, make sound.

“Show yourse — ” The force of raising his voice triggers another cough and he growls even as he clears his throat to try again. “Show yourself!” Would that his will make manifest in the weight behind his words. Or perhaps he’ll regret calling out whatever watches him to cause his mouth to go metallic with something other than blood.

*
What threat ever beheld by the likes of Stephen Strange simply announced itself when he waved his arms and shouted loudly?

His voice rings weirdly off the trees, melting into the gloom haunting the forested shroud over the riverside slope. It distorts into groans and shouts, cackles and ominous hisses, deflected among the atramentous foliage spangled in widow’s weeds overhead. “Show” becomes “Oh…” and “No, no, no” or a bestial hiss leaking out from a disembodied throat.

It doesn’t take particularly long to realize their direction comes from practically everywhere. Only the river stands apart, not reflecting the vile reshaping of his voice. Echoes tease at the senses, carried deep and wide, announcing to anything and all his declaration.

Nothing answers. Nothing in its own voice or movement, at least.

He can see the wavering lights hung like will-o-wisps on the bridge far off in the distance, and the road presumably leading there a ribbon of satiny shadow among the gap torn by the car. His progress so far puts him one third of the way there, and at least he’s got the rush of adrenaline to hurry him, shaking off the persistent lassitude.

*
Well, there was that one blue-skinned demoness in Central Park, byproduct of the Hellmouth, though he didn’t wave arms at her, but the canid demon that promptly attempted his life afterwards.

Other than the eerie echoes of his own voice and that hair-raising spitting, he doesn’t get an iota of what he originally wanted and it seems wiser to abandon tempting whatever it is out of the shadows. The light gloving his hands is present, though weak and sputtering like a badly-wired bulb, as he trudges onwards.

That branch he missed before, grasped now, gets him beyond the point where the ground gave way and acts as bulwark for another backwards slide; luck on his side as one bent leg plants a torn shoe sole against the barely-buried root. Adrenaline serves him well. Blowing and panting for air, the Sorcerer presses on, aided too by the sensation of interest lingering at the base of his skull as well as the slowly-growing unease.

He doesn’t want to run, but damned if it’s becoming a fine line between controlled upwards ascent and mad scrabbling out of fear.

*
Voices hiss and seethe in the nocturnal forest towering over him, pouring out from around the vast, high sentries.

“Murderer…” snarls one, a sibilant murmur coaxed around crumbling bones.

“Life stealer,” gurgles another.

“Break bone doctor, under a mantle of blood, grinds innocents into blood.”

“Did you feel a quickening of joy when you ripped my arms from my body
you like the sound of screams, makes you feel powerful, doesn’t it?”
“I begged you to stop, I begged you, but you couldn’t hear you wouldn’t hear how could you hear me? I couldn’t breathe so you turned me to dust… “

“A heartless killer, just like the Ancient One, just like Newton, and all them gone before. Sneer at me for being a servant of Dread Dormammu all you like. I saw the look in your eyes. You think I’m not human anymore, you’ve justified yourself. But oh, oh, oh, you should know better… You’re not even human yourself.”

The voices grate and hiss. Some are no more than grunts, feral howls, sounds made by creatures without orifices remotely construed as mouths. A spider’s palps clatter. Bones rattle. Things ichorous and oozing, deprived of bones, squelch and slosh and bend in absence of physics.

Clamber as he can, those bones tumble and side underfoot to reveal more: ribcages and broken legs, avian claws and cephalopod beaks, bits of twisted and spindled appendages that belong to no human creature. Skulls groan their protests, “Murderer” and “Criminal,” chiding him where he runs. “Was I not good enough to live?”

Shadows flit through the impenetrable wall of dark, his dank Edison bulb spell throwing weak shafts of bronzed light a short distance. Enough he can see the path ahead of him, or pick out a way through the soggy, sucking soils or avoid the puddles gathered on rare flat places, pooled when the slope meets the bole of a tree’s roots.

Off to his left, steady lights shine weak and solid over the bridge painted in cobweb details above the dead, still water. He cannot see much of it through the trees, nor the dim bank awash in the lurid taillights of his car any longer. Cut off through his travails, the dense foliage blocks out sight of the sky and gives strength to the flitting spectres moving among the tall onyx boughs, ephemeral silhouettes black on black.

He called them. Was it a mistake to think they would come? They or it, how can one count the visitors seen only from peripheral vision, measured on soundless feet? They flit and zip, possibly hallucinations of a fevered mind. Only once does he see something more than a dissolving limb, a wisp of disturbed fern.

A black smile burning in the dark, acid etched upon the night, three meters off beside one of the great behemoths upholding the black ceiling of this gloomy, slanted hall he trawls through.

Something passes behind him right as he threatens to slip, so close the terrible cold and slithering fur brushes up against through his torn coat…

Or did it?

He’s not far off the road now, surely, maybe a few bold more strides through the tangled briars rising in black serpentine crests from a mucky sea, long barbed thorns glittering in a fell shadow, and if he gets within a yard, the wall bursts into ghostly flame.

*
The Sorcerer called, they came, and he does regret it. There’s no compartmentalizing the spit-flecked derisions and guttural snarls as some simple mis-construed rush of wind through branches. The trees that provide bulwarks between the flitting spirits and himself seem to close now, hemming him in even as he locates what constitutes a path up the hill.

Nothing more than the mirrored reflection of a natural highway for wildlife, likely the ever-populous deer of the wooded areas of the northeast, it provides him the chance for an even stride bordering on a loping jog. His lungs hurt, but they pull in air even as the path twists and turns, affording no quick route to the looming, rolling edge of the slope that marks possibly flat earth and the road. He can flag down help there.

Every sticky exhale on his part might fog in the choked light emitting from his hands; no doubt one of the spirits, if not all, appreciate the suffering he undergoes and savor it like a fine wine, even if that concept in-and-of-itself is but an assumption on his part reflected by this terrifying plane. An errant glance up on his part gives horrified acknowledgment to the demon-bastardized Cheshire Cat leer and that’s nearly the last straw. It grants him an extra spurt to climb up what seems to be the last incline on the rock-strewn, puddle-riven path — and the slicking pass of some texture akin to moldering fur worn by a coffin’s occupant goads him to scramble fast enough that newly-scarred hands need act as extra stabilization else he faceplant in the scummy terrain.

That staggered, over-reaching gait nearly becomes the means to his end. Such an acute reverse of direction means that those windmilling arms catch passing kiss of were-fire even as the wash of icy-heat nearly forces him back physically. Down to his rump he goes, quick to scramble away farther, but not so far that gravity might pull him back through the wending minefield of stygian trunks.

The white of his eyes show, reflecting back the silently-roaring foxfire that consumes the thorny wall without eating it away. “NO!” Another harsh cough and Strange is on his feet, light-headed for adrenaline and weariness. The retort of attempted banishing magic is quick, sparking like an ungrounded wire, and the classic example of letting one’s temper control the results of an evocation. “Ti mutkal maraiya!!!” He exerts his will upon the flames, holding out both hands and breaking immediately into a sweat as the banishment spell attempt to wedge an opening in the flames and thorny plants alike. The physical parallel to the resistance shows in the muscles strung visible in a pantomime of pulling open rusty sliding doors.

*
Fire devoid of hue leaps ghost-white through shades of grey and blue imagined only by the mind’s eye. Truly absent of colour, the spectral grain imparts only shades of opacity. Yet the hungry flames can singe just fine, bypassing the black sleeve torn in a dozen places before reaching the elbow, fine hems bloodstained and stiff, frayed by the descent from familiar winding path to oblivion’s shore. What barrier the clothes do not provide him, skin will suffer for. The prickle burns and ignites the reddened lines cut into his flesh by broken glass and the destroyed steering column, which by rights should have punched through his chest and impaled him, severed him from life.

Has the neurosurgeon ever replaced those moments in slow motion, reversing them like a movie reel, and watching the life he led come undone in front of him? How lucky he was that sportscar didn’t suffer somehow from the fatal anomaly of most vehicles of its class and era, plunging a two foot rod of steel, Detroit’s finest, straight through his ribcage and out the other side, pinning his bloodied corpse like a voodoo doll?

Thin branches rustle from the boughs overhead and then start to fall, cracking under the weight of ice and memory, raining down, down, down. Needling arrows launched from a vengeful god blacken the already lightless gloaming, plinking among the bones, setting off miniature avalanches behind him to swallow progress and the thin deer-trail of a kind disrupted among the flotsam of another life.

The jetsam of his victims, one and countless many.

Voices rise and tumble over in an ocean of meaningless babble, fragments of scream and accusatory moan bludgeoning him in a swell of noise from behind. Sonic waves boom in and out, none disrupting the crashing serenade of the volley, worse than when the Welsh darkened the day into an effigy of the witching hour at Agincourt, their fletched barbs screaming down vengeance and defiance upon the flower of French nobility.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Flames give obstinate presence even when the blackened wall contorts, a great bast jerking and howling in the fever-pang of agony, lashing ground and striking out using twenty canes sporting nine-inch hardened thorns. His anger and his pain draw them, stretching with a determined, singular purpose towards so bountiful a source. The flames will die as their power is extinguished, but a last gasp from the barrier might be enough.

Beyond, the track of hardened ichor painted by chipped white and yellow lines, tantalizingly close, so far. Yet within reach, if he moves. If he’s fast enough.

*
What speed granted to his leaden muscles comes from the heart of human evolution, aided on by the icy sluicing of terror brought on by a culmination of the reality against him.

No graceful leap, no powerful lunge — just the madcap dash ducking under wrist-thick canes of a thorn bush clearly out to drink his blood. Time, that haunting presence above and within all aspects of this experience, seems to stretch as the spell breaks against the smash of mortal dread that blends the approaching drumbeats of supernatural predator into the jeering reminders of all those he banished to their dooms in the name of safekeeping Earth’s fate and the hyper-blurred darts flung by enraged trees into one damn good reason to run.

Run. Run as he did when he was but a Master of the Arts and in over his head. Distance. A moment’s grace to think about what to do next beyond simply react.

Even as he feels the ghost-fire pinch at recently-closed slices in skin, smells the consuming of ragged flesh, the momentum of his dive carries him through the narrow aperture so willed by the Sorcerer Supreme. Should no errant thorns impede his passing, snag on cloth, he lands beyond the thorny barrier with a whuft of expelled air.

With wind knocked from himself, he’s left to clutch to his chest again and cringe as his body revolts against the lack of ability for breath. From within the confines of memory’s vault comes a sweet voice, warm and steady.

“Just lost your breath, slow down. I know it’s scary, but if you calm down, it’ll come back faster. Shh. Calm down.”

Shh…calm down. Just for a moment, even as the ghost-fire burns out on his skin and the feral monstrosity with thudding impact of approach remains present — calm. Peace. Accept this state, move through it — allow it to pass.

Breathe.

And he inhales gratefully.

*

The fire feels like shoving his fist into liquid nitrogen, searing the nerves in cold, rather than heat. His coat and shirt, however their state of disrepair, do not suffer this added ignominy. Whitened flesh sports a grayish, blotchy consistency where burned, rather than turning angry red. Instead, the patches shrivel, withering upon themselves, creped by great age.

His tumble comes with consequences, leaving mire smeared up his leg and almost losing a ruined shoe in the process. Strange lands heavily on the weighty, cracked asphalt shoulder of the road, and the disturbed ferns and undergrowth releases a pungent, stomach-churning odor from bruised leaves and broken stalks. Blood and motor oil mingle for a revolting stench.

Breathe not easy for too long, o sorcerer. His folly to calm himself spends a few moments opens the opportunity for the ephemeral creature to manifest out of the gloaming and strike upon distracted prey.

But as for what lies behind him… that was not banished. Not by a long shot. Another ozone tear on the night, and then the bodily form of something heavy and unaffected by the arrows raining down comes galloping, galumphing, except no stately lope is this, rather something speaking of heavy weight hauled out of nothing. Great paws strike down and churn muddied earth, and then it leaps.

With weight in excess of a man, it might well take him to ground: stinking breath and charnelhouse fur, the crackle of magma under shadowy carapace. It has so many names, cu sith, Garmr, Cwn Annwn, gwyllgi, Baskerville hound, barghest, on and on and on. None are true to the horror larger than the fabled dire wolf of Ice Age Britannia, stalker of the dark Caucasus.

All that hurtles at his back, the gwyllgi seeking to snap at his tailbone or legs and bear him back down to the ground and hold him there where snapping, slavering jaws are sure to do their work.

*
At a certain point, the brain kicks into survival mode. Nothing more matters to it than simply ensuring its host body lives to see another day. While it took effort to fight down panic and pain to enable his diaphragm to engage, it takes far less to slip back into the white-water rush of adrenaline in his blood. Mud, blood, oil smears, ashen skin — all that be damned in the face of the realization that something is still after him.

Avoid it, dodge it, whatever the hell it takes! A sinuous roll to one side, guaranteed to encourage the return of aching muscles suffering whiplash, brings him to roll through putrid-scented flora. Even as he flings his complaining body away, the impact of the ghastly creature is felt in a minor subsonic rumble where his torso once existed. A crushed rib cage followed by a one-two shake at the nape of his neck, a fate narrowly avoided and still not safe yet, not in the least.

Another rise to his feet, another battle to fight, and he stares at the Cu Sith with hands upraised and shaking violently. The light around them sputters and he shakes the dominant hand in silent panic, willing it back once more. Maybe, just maybe, the defensively-inclined magic can act as some sort of Mystical firebrand and keep the predator at bay. He recognizes it in some vague addled way; hellhound, the most basic description his shaken mind can conjure up. One of the many creatures keen on escorting souls to their various places and none of them full of rainbows and sunshine.

“Back off!” The Sorcerer spits out, bloody lip reopened and stinging madly.

In the House…
His lashes remain clumped with grief unshed and the expression on his face is edged in agony; crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes crease not with laughter, but with a weariness the Witch has seen time and time again, harrowingly similar to the stress that was the Hellmouth and the days leading up to its closure.

No longer catches in his breathing pattern, but a raggedness beginning to show in its steady pacing, parallels drawn to what he endures within the Astral reality he visits. At his temples, sweat shows to darken the argent towards iron in places. Whatever he is subjected to, it is taxing.

The scarlet leather jacket providing cover for hands and legs alike wards off some cold and provides a tenuous thread of stability through its presence. It seems to have no effect within the plane, but here in Earth reality proper, it is helpful by its existence.

*
When has telling off a predator ever worked? Not like it’s a real wolf, with little reason to attack a man in his prime. Mind you, is a battered, half-drowned sorcerer smeared in mud, bruised and covered in torn clothes, really in his prime? A bioethics quandary, and not one to spend too long considering or the gwyllgi will be upon him, biting out the finer points of his soul stuff.

Gaining a sense of its size or mass is difficult, doubly because the great hulking shadow behaves according to no law. It should not be able to roll so smoothly, regaining its footing on front paws while the back end still rotates. Glinting eyes burn dully in the night, somehow blacker than black and paler, though a dichotomy of that nature is truly a paradox.

It crouches lower, hackles lifting in a grand swell worthy of a peacock, diminishing none of its size. The trotting lope allows it to rush him rather than slink away, taking another set of snaps tearing at his shirt and coat, leaving chilly spittle dripping on his skin, and dragging him back and forth perhaps.

It flows and slides around the shafts of sunlight, seeking the places unguarded: ankle, elbow, back.

Wolves don’t hamstring their victims, a widely reported falsehood, but the black dogs of the moorlands, the spectral forces straddling the breadth of western thought, are another breed entirely.

“Murderer…” moans a voice in the trees.
“You deserve no chance. You gave me none. I want you dead, rotting on the ground like you left me…” howls another.

It throatily grumbles, almost a laugh, a ghost of a jackal’s cry, a hyena cackle, a rattle of empty box cars over the tracks through the summer night, and the snap of white teeth in the night. They leer, larger than life, a vast grin that hangs there instead of ultramidnight, a bitter grin instead of a white moon.

«Run, little man, run. You cannot outrun your past, and how tasty a morsel you will be.»

The gwyllgi nearly laughs. Puddles ooze around the shoulder of the road. It dodges back to stand on the asphalt, blocking the route, redoubled into a more compact form of itself. Under paw, the ground cracks and craters. It grumbles again.

White pale flames detach, the corpse candles ringing Strange in a weird, otherworldly procession.

«Boo.»

*
Act, react, all one chain of responses to the unearthly predator — it’s down to the wire for the torero lacking his crimson muleta and left only to shed blood for color should the avenging creature break skin. Reliance is heavy upon the lessons drilled into him again and again and again, hour upon hour by a certain Baron, and they pay off with allowing him to live.

He’ll take the nightmares over all else.

It’s a terrible dance, the way he needs to recover his own balance as the Cu Sith makes easy work of whatever mutilated dress jacket and shirt remains. It’s an insult that the teeth don’t shear with how they slice through the fine, stained fabric like scalpels and still manage to pull, spin him nearly off-balance again and again. It’s a shame that he’s getting so dizzy.

Stay on your feet, stay on your feet, you’re dead if you fall.

The Sorcerer does counter-attack when he can, though success is up to interpretation as well as execution. More swat than pinpoint strike, weakened chops by fingers that won’t form a firm blade for impact, and the magic keeps guttering. Any contact he makes seems to start with the feeling of corpse-fur and end with the gwyllgi lithely out of reach. The slaver spattered on his skin tingles uncomfortably, but later — he can brush it away later, when he’s not reeling and executing some bizarre pirouette in order to keep his Achilles tendon intact. The terra doesn’t play any nicer and all tendons ache with the burn of keeping joints from hyperextending in wrong directions.

When the creature dodges away, the latest muffled clack of jaws snapping together to tear a huge swatch of fabric from his dress pants still echoes in his ears. The trees moan, the white were-lights dance about him in macabre rhythm, and the Sorcerer coughs for air with a throat that burns and body complaining near to breaking.

Can’t escape his past? No. No one can, much less him. That was a lesson taught by the Ancient One and something he accepted with all the grace of grinding glass between his teeth.

He looks no less pleased, though worlds-more tired, as he rasps back between pants,

“No. I can’t. I accepted this a long time ago. See these hands? These hands right here?!” Trembling, limned with faint light, he holds them out palm-up. “I can’t control anything but myself and these, I could have changed these a long time ago, but no. They remind me that decisions have consequences. They will not limit me. My past will not limit me. I am Sorcerer Supreme and you, asshole, are Death’s stooge. I defeated Her, you are nothing.”

Weirdly enough, he begins to laugh. It’s a hysterical note in each guffaw, for sure, and he’s finally able to talk again.

“Gods below, you are nothing. If she could thrive here, I can too. Go on, try again. I will move you. I can move worlds with these hands.”

Inhaling and narrowing his eyes at the Cu Sith, he settles into a martial stance once again, an odd calmness settling about him again. Come hell or high waters, he will survive this, even if it brings him to his knees.

*
White corpse candles float around him, ringing in the beaten man on the threshold of the road. An uninviting black strip of asphalt if there ever was any, the far side of Brooklyn or the edge of the state where the DOT ceases to give a damn marks the rippling edges of the state route where some incurious drivers imagine themselves to be in Monaco or races of Italy, imagining all those twists and turns to be the nearest and dearest reflection of Gran Turismo. He faces the briars lying in wait beyond the crushed bracken, and somewhere close, the melted rubber and burning remnants of his life should be marked. That would be south; the bridge, not distant through the twists in the forested byway, lies to the north.

West, east, these are the cardinal directions of the slope and the cliff-face, a good location to hem in a man who cannot outrun a four-legged animal, much less himself. Not in that state.

Spectral light casts no brighter hue than a weak candle, and oddly, that radiance does not illuminate anything but the disembodied flame itself. They number how many? Does he stop to look? Enough to say there are a good many and the radius hems him in, giving no direction but to the black dog lurking in the middle of the road, grinning with fell teeth and arrogant eyes upon someone stating their place.

«Wrong.» It flicks its tongue over its jaws, a disarming gesture made natural from something so evidently not. «Death, Stephen Vincent Strange? Death bows to me. What am I concerned by it? I am god over the Vishanti, a god above Death, a god above this realm, a god over your dimension. I am the god of the world.»

And to stare upon the gwyllgi is terrifying, sickening in an aspect, awe-inspiring in another, for it lifts its hoary head and the shape grows larger and greater, blotting out the trees and the inky sky overhead, gaining mass as it goes.

The whispers from the trees only build, accusatory choirs layered so deeply through many languages that he may be unable to distinguish English from French from the eighth dimension from Spanish.

They are drowned, in turn, by the whispered words from the black monstrosity bending to point its vast snout in Strange’s direction. «I have seen the misery of your life. I have heard the people crying out because of your cruelty, for I know their sorrows. Have you not receive all good and boundless things, all that which a man may desire, and been without cares? Now, see how you squander them all. Behold, the lamentations of the worthy, reaching me even now. I see now how you oppress them, and I am sending another to bring the Masters of the Mystic Arts out of your tyranny.»

The burning lights rotate slightly, dwarfed and utterly without a glow.

A very small voice echoes behind him, one nothing more than a dream. Faint, but heard like the badly tuned radio turned to a channel it only receives in a moment out of an hour. “Traveler, mind where you are,” says it, possibly feminine, someone for whom English may be stilted, “on the road.”

*
On the road.

The Sorcerer’s grounded stance became a cornered stance with the unbelievable increase of the Cu Sith’s size — it certainly acts like a god, able to defeat common logic with its ability to expand and blanket out any ambient light. Still, while the ghost-lights gutter, the magic around his trembling hands remains steadier, seeming to gain intensity for the shadow cast by the now-monstrous canine. Obstinate incandescence holds true in the stygian pall.

The voice is hushed, the breath on the waters, and his gaze slips aside from the looming creatures as it registers to his near-numbed senses. They’re reaching overtaxed, but still, the message is processed, though at less-than-usual speed. Gritting teeth in a jaw that aches, Strange looks up towards that gigantic nose and coughs.

It comes to him even as he shifts his weight on knees jellied but for the tenacity to remain upright. The thing hasn’t attacked again. Wait…if he continues to not engage with the Cu Sith, not attack…thus far it merely talks.

Dropping his hands to his sides, he glances past the were-lights to the brambles that remain silent. Then to the cliffside, still tall and impassible, and then to the sky-blotting gwyllgi.

Another rough clearing of his throat and he mutters, “That’s nice. Let me know when you figure all that out. Excuse me.” This last command is uttered to the white candle-points floating before him and accented with a dismissive gesture, as if one were shooing away a fly.

He passes through the ring and a few more unsteady, squelchy steps that soak his socks with disgusting muck bring him to the solid surface of the tarmac. He might be near enough to the initial points of contact by the Cu Sith to note the fractured divots, as if tons of concentrated weight rested briefly in those spots to craquelure the dusky road.

Perhaps there’s a tunnel of sorts between the trunk-legs of the supernatural canine, grown as large as it is, and the Sorcerer aligns himself towards the distant flat and faint lights of the bridge and society as a whole. He’ll trudge on for as long as it takes in order to find some sense of normalcy and spiritual succor.

*

Razor-thin margins separate the road’s crumbling, mucky shoulder from the humped, uneven body of the road. It winds on through the trees and the massive black phantasm hovers where it is, the candle-wisps going after him. They waver and flicker in a sinuous line, befuddling to the senses, turning straight lines into curves and straightening along the hairpins to lead off into the woods again.

His trudging steps do not come easily, and what differentiates one stretch of the road from another? Nothing. He lacks any sense of time with a grim sky clotted in clouds and stygian woodlands compressing in from both sides, narrowing the world in a most unpleasant sense, reducing his frame of reference to a narrow oval fringed in stone and dingy boughs. A rare glimpse of something else — maybe a power line, a tall support of the bridge — might peek through, but they are increasingly rare as he sinks into the sylvan tunnel on that sinking, slow road.

Strange has the distinct sense throughout he is watched, and the source remains elusive through the endless twists and turns. The wisps keep trying to lure him astray and when his thoughts flicker from the journey, they cluster around him, pulling him towards the inviting places to stop and sit. A bit of rock, a spot among the blighted ferns.

Only in the purposeful stride, however pained, will there be any sort of interruption to his thoughts. Or perhaps it is his thoughts.

“You mustn’t go back,” says the quiet voice. If he ever turns back, he will see the traveler, a cloaked figure resembling nothing such as Death. Rather an ephemeral presence draped in a drab, long jacket to the ankles reveals a pair of booted feet, but the heavy blur of time washes away definition in any features. A heavy hood or snood conceals its face, and the tone makes unclear whether it’s man or woman. “It waits back there, and will harm you. Many things here can.”

*
Put one foot in front of the other. It’s obscenely annoying, how the nursery song comes to him, how the ants go marching two-by-two, hurrah, hurrah… The Sorcerer walks on, all alone, accompanied by no one but the ivory-hued were-lights and the small voice.

Now the aches return to remind him that his body is but human despite the mantle’s assistance and years of training at Kamar-Taj. It’s been some time — sweet, sweet time, passing by here in some speed he can’t fathom. A bleary glance upwards proves the stars difficult to find between branches and cloudy sky alike and he sighs, tucking scarred hands away under his armpits. It’s not that he’s cold, not necessarily, but the natural cadence of his walking, long legs and all, reminds him of what holes exist in what used to be a beautiful dinner suit. So much for that. White dress shirt? More like beige at best, dried-red-rust and blackened with oily loam at worst. His bowtie was lost eons ago, it seems.

He has some vague memory of a gas station, perhaps, on what could be construed as the outskirts of the major city limits. It would be one of those last stops for gas with the sign advertising a demise spawning from an empty fuel tank and the pronouncement that anyone passing by without filling up is a fool. The possibility of a phone and a taxi seems brilliant and — wait.

Thoughts interrupt walking. The Sorcerer finds himself not a step shy of the edge of the crumbling tarmac, led astray by the white lights. They don’t react beyond indicating a line of direction: into the woods once more, of course.

“Assholes…” he mutters, glowering at them as he reorients himself. A few more steps and the faded yellow dividing line is found in the gloomy light.

The voice makes itself heard. In the rarest excuse of a shaft of light, Strange pauses and looks back at the figure.

His heart does a sore thump-flip at the owner of said muted words due to the likeness of his least-adored omnipresent acquaintance, holder of the longest grudge possible in all of time, and remains at his throat until he realizes that this figure has not the same weighty presence of Lady Death. He knows when the Hooded Lady nears as the wild geese can fly by magnetic north. This vision is something else.

“I have no reason to go back. There’s nothing there for me.” His voice seems equally muffled by canopy and shadow alike, maybe hushed by wounds and toil as well. “I have to…I have to find someone. Someone needs me, I…” Those brows wrinkle in consternation until the name clicks. “Leandra.”

Maybe it would be best to try a locating spell, now that he’s got the wherewithal and space to execute without some drooling fiend breathing down the back of his neck. Turning in place again towards the distant bridge, he waffles on what to do. He has nothing but a vague memory of the woman and his magics haven’t been working as they should. The execution is…well, of a novice.

His eyes land on the long-coated figure again. “Do you know her? Leandra?” Hell, why not ask? Maybe this is a benevolent or at least neutrally-inclined apparition within this realm.

*
“After a fashion,” says the quiet-spoken shade, keeping contact with the ground only in an imaginary sense. Through boots smudged grey, the tarmac’s imperfections are clearly visible. “The question is whether you do. We here have no certainties, traveler. Some of us know more than other lost ones, and you would be wise to be cautious asking them.”

The wisps do not seem to care about the shade, forming landing lights for him off into the grey shadows cluttered among the road. Trees are thinner and closer together, replacing the behemoths witnessed earlier, though the sheer density painted in charcoal and soot among the canopy may not help greatly with visibility. Here and there, tendrils of mist creep among the stiff, shining trunks laced by lichens, and old man’s beard dangles from a few choice boughs stretching gnarled, crooked twigs accusingly towards Strange.

The shade has no mannerisms common to the living, no wringing of hands or inflection of words by gesture. Its hands are visible enough under the long, dated shape of its cape styled outer garment. It also stands behind the Sorcerer Supreme at a respectful distance.

If he paces again, the shade follows, still at a distance none could find much fault with. Rustling feathers and crackling leaves are part of their journey, reaching the ears, incandescent in harsh lamentations. Crackling paper and crunching leaves, what’s the difference?

*

The interminable journey leads to some certain destination, though few of those turnoffs or memories of a gas station survive, though he might see a building now and then, set back from the descending slope. One such weakly glows in patchwork glimpses, the faint shine of yellowed bulbs wavering slightly in the thin coating of snow laid over every surface.

A spiderweb path eases off the embankment of the road, switchbacking on itself past a deformed, barely there railing down into some kind of hollow carved from the trees.

Air shines colder here, full of an icy breath hinting at winter’s onset. Crisped leaves curl under a hoarfrost finish, and the slick finish on the road's increasingly pitted surface might let him slip if he’s not careful. His breath ghosts in front of him, torn to shreds by the thin breeze knifing along the gap.

Continued in 1963-12-10 - Abyss II: Earth

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