1963-12-10 - Abyss II: Sky
Summary: Strange continues his descent into the Abyss, having survived his past. Now can he endure the next trial?
Related: Abyss I: Earth
Theme Song: Dario Marianelli - Showdown with Grandfather
strange wanda 

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.

“Moronic, useless, vague spirits…” The growling complaining makes him feel better, at least, as he trudges along the road. Curve after curve, needing to reorient at least once more for the silent efforts of the weakly-bright foxfire flames — and a snarled banishment spell sparks with visible effort to blow out perhaps maybe three of the beacons. The rest simply continue their undulating escort of his person, bobbing on some unseen current and attempting again and again to lead him astray. A check back over his shoulder with no pause in gait proves the silent presence of the shade and he gives it a good glower, the one that the boys and any Apprentice, present and future, will dread. Unfortunately, with tattered clothing, he looks more indignant than threatening.

Eventually, the vague memory comes to fruition, but to no avail. He can tell by looking at the building, snow-glazed and set back in the trees, that it isn’t precisely what he’s looking for. Standing there, in the center of the road, he huddles a bit smaller within the clothing. It’s oddly chilly here. The icing of frost on dead leaves he notes during a glance towards the were-lights, still present and after this indeterminate time of walking, a grating yet comforting presence. Something stable, predictable, even in their irritating manner of existence.

At least his hands are warm. Although…hey, you know, it’s worth a shot. Bringing out his dominant hand, scarred in fresh red lines and still a-tremble, the Sorcerer clears his throat. Interrupted by a cough due to the colder air, he bends to clear whatever tickles his lungs and spits to one side. No looking at what color it is, nope, nope-nope. The Words are murmured with a blossoming of willpower, the pool within him fortified by the quiet walking undisturbed and unstressed, and he gestures from chin to belt.

Should his will have its way, at the very least, the black Belstaff coat will form up from the tatters of his dress jacket, with the unbalanced volumes of fabric between both items brought to rights by magic itself. Should a middling chance of success occur, the rusty-red uniform of the upper echelons of Kamar-Taj’s well-educated residents, Masters of the Arts unannounced. At the very best, a whole new guise entirely: the azuline battle-leathers, surprisingly warm and deliberately contrived so due to their origins in the heights of the Himalayan plateaus.

The shade offers a patient stare towards the man, head presumably bowed under the cowl shading its face. “An unkind claim. You would blame the tormented for their inability to escape their pain?” A fair question. “That would seem unlike a healer.”

Whilst he walks, he goes with that weird procession, pallid moth-lights ahead and the shade behind. The wisps need nothing to do with a dustier, unimpressive version of themselves and generally see fit to ignore any other silhouette cut from the dark, bemoaning its plight.

His garments melt into the rusty shade of old blood oxidized on metal, still smeared in places by fresh ochre mud and bits of soot. Not all the fraying bits are in perfect condition, some pieces better than others. His will manages to contribute this much, evaporating the garments of the ruined past off to oblivion. Somewhere, a shade blinks in confusion for a sudden appearance of a coat. Elsewhere, another cries out for its nakedness before the biting wind.

The lights shining on the building down below the road have the steady butter yellow shade viewed through a weakened lens, yellow diminished, brightness still inviting. It tugs on memory. Ahead lie more dark trees, thinned out enough to allow more of the savage chill of the erratic breeze to batter cheeks and cut through material with a particular unkindness.

Further on the road narrows, losing the track of asphalt, becoming much more rocky and rutted, traversing lumpy bulges and sudden drops on the back of a drunken serpent. Some effort to outline the direction exists in flapping, faded hanks of cloth driven by stakes into the ground, strung from the tree branches when the sheer drop-off encroaches terribly close. Occasional grumbles disturb scree from the upper slopes, sending rocks raining down on the unprotected path.

Snow dapples the route as much as before, gaining a fringe of ice or hoarfrost gleaming on ugly boulders, hinting at chilled temperatures.

Three-quarter sleeves will be considered a pain if the wind kicks up any higher, but the ambient air temperature is something familiar in the garb he wore so many years ago. It brings back mental-muscle memory of sorts, the realization that the minor discomfort of the chill can be tolerated. Still, he rubs at his lower arms and winces as he surveys his surroundings again.

Despite suspicions, it seems the best route is the one leading away from the road. The presence of sturdy boots on his feet (not as sturdy as the battle-boots, but more than up to taking on whatever uneven ground might pass beneath him on his travels) along with the persistent nudging at the back of his thoughts leads him to the cusp of the tarmac, its edging broken with time and lack of upkeep. No doubt the ivory foxfires silently encourage this decision and unfortunately cause more delay for the suspicion they draw forth, like a flush to a bruise.

A narrow look is granted to the grey shade, so very present despite its translucence, and he sighs, breath fogging in the cold.

“I can only help those who want to help themselves. So far, everything’s wanted to hurt or kill me, not ask for help. More like they want to help me to my grave.” A final dismissive ‘hmph’ of prickly defensive puffs white…and then his shoulders drop as he rolls his eyes. Manners, man. Have some manners. “You’ve been helpful in not trying to hurt me, so I thank you for that.”

Steeling himself, he takes that first step from the road proper and still, there’s hesitation as he completes the second step to pause again on the snow-patched side of the road. There might be warmth there. There might also be yet another distraction, another threat.

Grudgingly, he queries the shade, never bringing his gaze from the golden lights of the hut downhill.

“Who lives there?”


Regular puffs of breath leave his mouth, but none such occur around the shade, foretelling unquestionably this is a figure dead or manifest. Spirit stuff speaks to its translucency, potentially a weakness he can choose to exploit as he sees fit. Chill cares nothing for rank or title, only hot blood and the Sorcerer Supreme certainly counts as hot-blooded, even if he’s singing a cold, dangerous tune deep in the bowels of some astral dimension.

His feet may slip and slide on the broken, rutted earth forming a track winding around the many barriers, be they rocky outcroppings or boulders fallen, half-buried by a season’s mud and grit. Few isolated chunks of pavement survive, the lone terranes amidst a foreign sea veiled in gritty dirt and snow. Every step is treacherous.

Snug in its bole, the little hut almost blends into the gloomy dusk tide rolled over every corner of existence, steeping to a static darkness. Its dimensions barely stand out among narrow trees, some leaning crookedly at cross-purposes with one another, blanking out walls or the pitch of the roof through tenebrous foliage applied by a messy scribble of a charcoal stick and thumbed into oblivion.

Just one yellow rectangular window offers a sign of humanity. The will-o-wisps bob around and buoyed on invisible currents, bob up and down, teasing him to follow the lick of a weedy path down into the forest.

“One does not define all. Here this is a true fact,” says the shade. Its shoulders droop a little and it hovers near the cloth-strewn markers. “Thus why it is wisest to judge each on their own merits and not collectively. You met those who would harm, and those who would not. It may be beyond them to ask for help, closed in their own cells. Not everyone who needs knows to ask, sadly.”

Its shape renders sharp elbows poking out under the cloak and then it hmphs. “Harm you? You are very much mistaken about me, thinking that. Allowances must be made, I suppose.” Head turned to the alpine hut secreted in the dark, it says, “Home to one of the solitaries, it would appear. Some stand stronger apart from the others. They remember. Best entreat them politely if you mean to at all.”

Gods below, it’s like being back at Kamar-Taj again. Thinning his lips, the Sorcerer looks with half-lidded discontent still towards that one yellow-squared window. Where’s the Baron? Any time now — at any time, he’s expected to show.

“I’m being lectured. He loves this crap. Where is that canny bastard anyways…?” He mutters to himself, breath steaming. Another huff of a sign rolls dragon-smoke in the air before him. “Again, thank you,” this said to the shade, complete with side-glare that takes the legs out entirely from beneath the gratitude. No point in arguing with the thing, it’s not getting him anywhere.

Might as well attempt the descent down to the hut and see if anyone’s there. Maybe he can even scrounge up some manners.

“And nice try,” he adds to the silent foxfire lights, still attempting their job of leading him astray. Then comes the process of making his way down the questionably-stable path. Icy and prone to shifting, arms must be kept outstretched in order to preserve his skeletal structure and general well-being from being dashed by a misstep. Frost on shale nearly proves the end of his attempts and with a whooping sound of shock, he surfs down a length of straighter pathway on a shifting bit of rock. Still, not a perfect landing; clipping the exposed edge of a boulder means a baseball runner’s slide to one hip for the rest of the slope to the bottom and into snowy bracken. Slapped a few times with wetted flora and now muddied from knee to ribs up one side of his rusty-hued uniform, he grunts and gets to his feet.

So much for looking presentable. Wincing at the lingering discomforts of rocks ground against cloth in his travels, he walks with a barely-noticeable limp over to the front door. Craning his neck, he takes in the humble appearance of the place and grimaces one last time as he brushes cold bulk mud from his tunic and pants. He makes a point of using his non-dominant hand; what if the owner of the residence wants to shake hands? Appearances matter.

Knock-knock, his knuckles impact on the door, and he says in a moderately-raised voice, “Hello? Anyone home?”

The shade’s unwavering presence radiates a vague sense of disapproval, yet how that can be without visible expression or voiced dismay proves the power of unspoken communication. It follows him down the slippery, uneven path barely wide enough to accommodate two, much less any kind of vehicle, leaving the security of the rutted cart trail above. At least he doesn’t go alone, for all he slips and threatens to crash into a well-placed tree. Neither does it offer a hand. What would be the point, seeing its insubstantiality is apparent?

His noisy landing leaves Strange wreathed in the bobbing lights again, a dimmer crescent spun in a C-shape behind him and contriving to leave the shadows greyed in a filmy mist. Their accompaniment up to the door persists even if they swat at him.

Humble as the shack is, the snug wood and stone at least stand to keep the snow out. An uneven door nailed from weather-roughened silvery planks clearly has no lock and much less a handle, pushed open against the resistance of hinges and possibly a well-placed sack of millet acting as a doorstop. Unmortared flagstones lead to a sunken living room, the only room at that, with a dirt floor, the lone windows pointed on an axis bleeding light from a lonely lantern strung to the ceiling. Yet that faded Edison bulb casts a homey bronzed glow in a realm devoid of colour, aging the stone walls to sepia and worn cloth carpets to amber. Soot stains the little hearth, and a teapot, dinged metal pots, and a few bowls stock the high shelving around the room. A few books fit the snug built-in shelves behind a generous pile of chopped wood necessary to endure the winter for approximately the next four decades, and the banked embers give at least some respite from the cold seeping in through the uneven vertical planking.

Someone lives here, clearly, though an ascetic at best and a seasonal hunter and poor outdoorsman at worst. Possibly Norwegian at this rate. But for a flat pallet probably serving as a table and a plain old chair without a back, making it more a stool on three rickety legs, the furnishings are rather spartan.

Which makes his voice all the more clearly unanswered until warning kicks in right before the shade announces, “Oh dear.”

And a solid wooden stick raps him soundly across the shoulders, more likely than not, wielded by a man of indefinite years in a shabby chougu, wrapped around him and worn over an equally dull, dun sweater. The sleeves are rolled down over his gnarled hands, and his grey-pepper eyebrows are severely drawn low in a beetled stare. “Rude!” he barks in the basso, stentorian voice marking a man who never need yell to achieve the same effects as headmasters had on legions of schoolboys from the seventeenth century. Their counterparts also made pages fumble their books and squires their training swords. “What manner of insect just barges right in to the nest without making an offering? Hmph. And you just stand there allowing it.”

The shade doesn’t dignify the schoolyard taunt with any reply.

“Well? Have out with it then. I have much work to do without interruptions from a plumped-up snowcock.” Somewhere close to fifty, the edge in age gives the woodsman authority of senior years over the scruffy fellow mired in dirt and rusty garb that might feel somewhat ostentatious.

It’s not like he walked through the door or anything. He knocked enough to make sound, not stiff-arm the weakly-closed barricade open. That bag of millet needs to bulk up if a simple ‘knock-knock’ can displace it.

I mean, sure, the man leans to one side to look through the door and take in the frugal interior of the place. No denying himself the simple curiosity of observing without crossing the threshold. He wasn’t raised in a barn; he was raised in a farmhouse, where manners were paramount. Life muddied them up later on.

The Sorcerer does react to the shade’s nonchalant warning with a ducking flinch, but the wooden stick still glances over a shoulder-blade and leaves him whirling in place, scarred hands raised in readiness to catch and contain any following blow. There were lessons at Kamar-Taj on how to deal with an enemy wielding a bow-staff; a wooden stick makes very little difference.

Eyes glittering with restrained anger makes him still something that intelligent folk would be wary of. Kicking a muddy dog doesn’t make it any less likely to snap and snarl. However, according to his experiences thus far, everyone and everything around here is a few bolts shy of a full toolbox, so for now, he defers to not lashing back. For now.

Stentorian voice notwithstanding, he’s unimpressed. Wong never impressed him, the Ancient One had to go to extreme ends to humble the apprentice when he first arrived, and the older gentleman is granted the barest extent of manners, especially after the unwarranted attack.

“I have not trespassed, so lower your stick.” He lowers his hands, though they never leave their readied states, held about the height of his bottom-most ribs. “I was simply passing by. However, if you’re not entertaining guests, I’ll leave.”

A few steps are taken off to one side, hard eyes never leaving the figure in dull clothing.

The wooden staff is something more than a staff, if only because the fellow has a hand-axe through his worn cloth belt. He carries the staff in his left hand, and leans against it. “Mm. You say so.” Whatever charm he holds is like the hut, rustic and rather to the point. Beetled brows don’t substantially rise, and his flat, dark eyes more resemble pieces of onyx set in his mature face than actual colour. To be sure, the Edison bulb shines with some colour favourably over him and there’s nothing unwelcoming about the warm light in the windows or, indeed, inside.

Too much time stretches while he stares at Stephen, looking him up and down, as though trying to make sense of his getup. He’s not exactly one to talk, except his chougu has faded away to the colour of overcooked oatmeal through one too many washes. One thousand too many, maybe.

“I’m home. What did you come for?” Direct questions have none of the niceties of idle conversation, much like the whole of Germany and Belgium. He isn’t mealy-mouthed or given to inanely smiling for no reason, something off-putting to the American psyche, as much as Americans grinning all the time is highly suspect to the Teutons.

It’s as friendly as one is going to get over a bowl of millet and a bit of grainy beer, especially given the fellow probably came back from chopping wood or scaring off spectral bears ambling through his grove.

The shade stands off to the side in silent observation.

“Shelter.” And all that the word entails for however it could be interpreted.

He can do rustic and terse with the best of them. It was something to overcome once he entered medical school, along with the brunt of that Midwestern accent.

“And to ask if you knew someone. Leandra.” This can be answered here and now if need be. Never mind the mud, the bruise forming on his back, the mild gravel-burn on the outer plane of his hip, and the way he’s being eyed as if he’s a complete outsider. It might cause him to decide to move on, leave the yellow light and the inside for the compass point given to the lost Witch. It might make him linger, most so if the offer is extended.

Arms folded away, he’s quiet as he awaits the response. The Sorcerer does not address the shade and ignores the ivory-hued werelights entirely. His attention is for the older man in the faded garb, staff and woodsman air and all. Mind you, for all that his gaze never strays, his other senses are now hyperattentive to the environment around him.

Another hard reminder. Don’t drop your guard here.

“You have a name, student?” The question falls from the broad lips seamed in his face, and he strokes his hand down his chin to smooth out the weathered salt and pepper whiskers. The growth forms a neat, well-kept spade along his chin. He keeps leaning on the stick mindfully, though presumably the caretaker of the dark grove is willing and prepared to deliver another smack with the butt end if he feels the need.

He gives Strange a once over, not dismissive, but certainly measured and reading what he can of a stranger wandering in to the dark, snow laced grove. “Awful far for a student to be going.” He gives a look over his shoulder. Hanging back, the spectral figure eases in a step nearer to Strange as though to melt away behind him.

A knock of the staff to the door wedges it open slighter, and he makes his way in, his rangy stride full of a loping grace.

“Doctor.” Huzzah, as always, the minor grating on the ego for the lack of respect. As if the woodsman would know or get any indicator by the Sorcerer’s current get-up or general state, but — old habits die hard. “Doctor Strange.”

The title is announced without emphasis, likely to the passing figure, and the good Doctor follows behind after admitted hesitation. The shade is given a speculative glance, but any queries die before they leave his mouth. There’s a sense of familiarity between the woodsman and the spirit and that puts the translucent being one step on the side of not-to-be-trusted.

He too slips through the doorway and into the abode, lingering with a palm resting on the edge of the door. Note the boot resting solidly to block the sudden slam-shut, in case of dramaticism and terrible cackling villainry. Suspicious much? Yes. Always.

“I haven’t been a student in years.” The interior of the hut seems warmer in comparison to outside. It’s tempting to step further inside, but that leaves his escape route to shut behind him.

The woodsman sets aside his handaxe with care, pulling it free of a crude loop and setting it to hang from a thong on a pegboard among several other tools, some obvious and some outright peculiar. An adze, a duck-billed knife of some sort, and an awl stand among the more recognizable sorts.

He heads over to the fire and puffs his robes out, allowing him to kneel or sit before the handmade hearth. Taking the metal poker from its stand, he pokes at the charred embers until orange sparks stir to life and a few soot-stained scraps flit upon the air, blown past him by a downdraft. The gentleman speaks quietly, almost talking to himself. “Strange. Different choice of name, there.“

Those scraps flitting by aren’t all wood; some are consumed moss, and some clearly paper, torn from a book or a map, marked by ink against the blackened soot. The sorcerer might catch sight of words or diagrams, rendered incomplete by the greedy flames consuming them before they burn out.

“Quite a young man for that much responsibility. Rushed into it?” The shade tips its hooded head in wordless reproach, though he ignores their activities in favour of building up a rather healthy little fire. Empty handed one moment, he tosses in kindling in crumpled heaps. “Sit down then, and put your feet up. You have covered a lot of ground and it’s left you rather gaunt. Hungry?”

Allow me to add you to my list of people who have commented on my name. Stick-loving Backwoods Hut-dweller, check, muses the unspoken reply. From the open door, he watches the art of the fire built. The inclusion of paper, especially with the rapidly-consumed tattoos of written word or drawn imagery on it, bothers him on some deep level and thins his lips more. The woodsman doesn’t seem to be lacking for much, even with the scarce fixtures scattered around the interior of the building. Why use knowledge over the wood of the trees that surround the hut? Dried shavings catch alight just as fast.

In the warm light cast by the Edison bulb, he sees a small table off to one side of the sunken dirt floor, near to the fire for warmth, and considers it with all the trust of a stray cat.

Still, the choice is all his and he chooses to believe in what glimmers of kindness he can catch in spite of the earlier attack. Maybe it’s folly, maybe it’ll haunt him later after the need to fight his way out of yet another trap wins out over common decency. The door is shut behind him, given a bit of a lean to lodge it firmly in the frame, and he steps in a little more, hands held in loose fists at his sides.

“Not hungry, no. Tea, though, if you have it. And the choice was my own.” Everything still persistently aches and the warmth comes with the double-edging of inherent relaxation, which reminds him of the fact that he’s not at his best. Hence, the minor glower that clouds his features. “I’ll stand, thank you though.”

The abundant pile of wood inside the hut, taking up the majority of available floorspace, laid down with geometric precision, creates a very handsome pattern and provides the logs for the fire. Though shavings bedamned, he apparently has an abundance of paperwork to burn, too.

What furnitures exist are homey and rustic, the backless chair one, the platform enough to act as a table, bed, or meditation spot depending on how one prefers to approach it. Proximity allows to the hearth assures light and warmth in spite of the single-paned window and encroaching chill of winter, spangled hoarfrost and snow deepening to drifts piled up in the open stretches defined by the dusk-lit grove.

Those will-o-wisps pile up against the window, as though peering in through the glove-rubbed circle at Strange. No doubt they will chase him around the moment he steps outside. The shade remains in the corner, largely unspeaking, but observant in the way of a ghost.

One good jab using the poker, and the woodsman stands up, his knees not so much as popping. He gently lays the metal tool on the stand, muffling the clinking resonance by his palm, and then gives a good nod. “Now, get those wet boots of yours off by the fire. Best they dry out completely.” He indicates the worn rug, vacating it in favour of unslinging two mismatched mugs from the shelf and taking down a kettle clearly well-familiar with the flames. A post spans the width of the hearth, adorned by resilient black iron hooks he can festoon with pots or cauldrons of a diminutive size.

“As you want. No one’s going to tell you to be comfortable.” Let the man stand all night through, if he must. Pride will goeth before all else. He bends again to get the water on, after pouring some from a jug. Evidently his spartan quarters contain the necessities and niceties, for tea apparently isn’t too hard to obtain. Maybe he pops down to shore and canvasses the general store. Adding a little more quality vellum and parchment brings the fire up to a cheery burn, much to his satisfaction. He returns to his stool; and settles there like he’s part of the fixtures or they part of him, hovering practically with a lightness of being.

“A long route. Much longer to go by the looks of it.”

No reason why he can’t stand over by the fireplace and let said boots dry. A bit of scuffing signals an attempt to get most of the bulk mud and grit from them by the door and the usual stride takes him across the small expanse of the hut’s interior. Since the single stool-seat is occupied, this means the floor for him. At this point, Strange is beginning to not care. It’s warm, not damp, and the future possibility of tea is something to look forwards to. Surprising how a simple gesture of sharing drinks would bolster the spirit so.

Long legs fold to allow him to settle down and then comes a task. Wet boots are a bit of a pain to remove and the muted sounds of effort are accented for the stiff joints and general bruising from the tumble down the goat-path. At least he’s not standing and hopping about in an attempt to keep his balance. Finally though, the footwear is off and aligned side by side close to the growing heat of the fireplace. Assuming a slouched Lotus posture, pretzeled legs and all, seems natural given the circumstances. He won’t attempt to float from the ground, no reason to at the moment; rather, the Sorcerer stares into the glowing logs, where the heat causes the consumed material to incandesce nearly white. Arms provide some semblance of support for the elbows resting on his knees, though his hands merely interlace above his shins.

“Long and uncomfortable. Doesn’t matter how long it takes, I have to find her.”

The woodsman proves competent at brewing tea from humble means, relying on the pierced filter to steep leaves applied by the scoopful, rather liberal to the water coming to a proper temperature. Another pinch added for good measure gives off an earthy scent, not in the least damp or cloying, the mature concoction blended in humble terraces for the palates of the consummate peasants. Or tea-drinkers of any calibre. All said and done, he leaves the trust kettle to do its work.

Burning logs and leaping flames in the hearth lend an unnaturally normal sense of life, for all that it must be strange with a shadow floating a few feet away near the woodpile, not a stick of comfort to be found beyond the necessities, and darkness everlasting lurking outside in the cauldron of winter.

“At the expense of all else? Takes a singular type of focus to do that,” he observes. A prod to the logs sends one expiring in a firefly cloud of sparks, and he gives a thorough nod. “It is important, then. You reconsider your other duties for this quest, yes?”

“I don’t expect it to take an incredibly long time once I find her trail.” Over the bone-pile and through the woods, to Leandra’s presence, he quests. The lean shoulders shrug. “The other duties can wait. She has answers I need. Can’t solve some problems without them.”

The smell of the tea is wonderful in its familiarity and his savoring it can been seen in the long, indrawn breaths through his nose. The heat of the fire is finally sinking into his bones and relaxing muscles tensed up for what seems like weeks. Reaching back to dig a massaging heel into the transition from shoulder to neck, Strange frowns at the embers beneath the burning logs.

“Leandra. Do you know her?” When he glances over at the woodsman, the shade catches his attention and garners another question. “And that spirit. Who is it?”


The delivery of a dented but serviceable mug of tea comes afterwards, the woodsman’s hands showing the measure of his injuries, his age. Time inflicts wounds on all, and the gnarled knobs of his knuckles stand out against the relative suppleness of each movement. He isn’t someone who makes excessive motions, precise and steady. His arm doesn’t waver.

Once Strange takes the little handleless mug, he fetches his own and sets the teapot back on a hook further from the flames than when he boiled them. The tea thus continues to perfume the hut, all without boiling. He turns a little upon the stool, his posture erect. “Mmm.” Not so committal a sound bubbles through pursed, thin lips. He swishes the folds of the robe back, making room without spotting the bland fabric by accident. “A doctor: find symptom, chase cause.” No judgment there, except that imparted by greater age and wisdom, supposedly.

He shakes his head to the question of the spirit, and the shade doesn’t helpfully spit up its identity to either of them. It remains apart, back to the cold and hiding from the fire that defines its body in ephemeral degrees. “A respected witch, very proper manners that conceal an iron lady.” Hard to say if he approves of this from his dry, measured tone. “Storm’s coming in, shepherd. Mind you don’t get caught. You can stay here.”

The good Doctor does notice the state of the hands which offer him the mug. He’s reminded of his grandfather, with joints afflicted in old age and use alike. The mug itself exudes the warmth of the hot tea and his own hands gratefully absorb what heat they can. Certain places might sting a bit at first, with how new the reddened webbing of skin is, but it’s worth it.

He’s not terribly surprised that neither the woodsman or the spirit itself brings identification to light; the shade is given another coolly speculative glance and finally filed away as ‘Unidentified — For Now’. The scientist in him can tolerate that. “Solve the problem, fix what we can,” Strange adds in quiet agreement to the brief line of thought in regards to medicine.

“What kind of storm?” There’s a small smile at the bestowing of the rustic title; yes, shepherd, sure, he supposes. Still appropriate. “I’ll travel through it if it’s not bad.” Sipping at the tea proves it to be a simple dark blend, nothing particularly exotic or exciting, perfectly in theme with the general stable, stark simplicity of the abode and its sole inhabitant. The hot drink settles in his stomach to spread comfort in its wake. “Something caused her to flee and I need to discuss it with her.”

Wanda might like this iron witch with the trappings of manners. He has a deep hope for not only finding Leandra, but also bringing her back to the manor to introduce them. It may seem trite in light of the current circumstances, but it’s another human connection that could come in handy during times of duress in the future.

Might as well ask the moon what it sees in the future, inconstant celestial companion that it is. The woodsman sips his tea and thrives in the unhurried experience. Heat percolates into his hands and eases the malaise of labour. Earthen tones saturate his olfactory senses, bringing calm and a soothing quality to his rigid, perfect posture that somehow feels supple as a willow. Maybe his knuckles are swollen, maybe his fingers callused, maybe his nails dirty, but they can articulate entire languages without more than a few gestures. A whole world, held in hand.

He sips the liquid, letting it settle upon his palate and infuse his breaths further by the fresh flavours released from the boiled leaves. Something can be found in the familiar angle of the cup, his quiet appreciation performed as ritual probably done a hundred times over in a month.

Finally, he speaks, leveling a thoughtful look from unspeakably dark eyes upon the good doctor.

“A bad one,” he says after a swallow. “How bad depends on forces outside your control. But dangerous to leave now. Dark and snowy, brewing up trouble.” He peers into the cup, encouraging the leaves to swirl around again. The results earn a frown, a shrug of broad shoulders. Another sip begins, paused. “What will a few hours gain you? She ran to ground, your odds of finding her holed up are poor. Stay, and look for signs come the storm’s end. No shame in that.”

As if he needs permission, but the thoughtful statement is made all the same.

The old man has a point. Blue eyes shadowed for lack of ambient light other than fireplace linger on him, watching, tirelessly and tiredly calculating. He hates the conclusion that he comes to and tries to hide his quiet unsettled dismay within his own enjoyment of the mug of tea in his hands.

Finally, Strange murmurs, “A few hours might mean the world where I left it. I can’t stay for long. Enough to see just how bad the storm gets and then if I can press on, I will.” If the old man is as learned and world-knowledgeable as he seems, he won’t miss this as an off-handed attempt to divert from the Sorcerer’s gut choice: hunt out the missing Witch, even if it means more risk.

Where there is risk, there is substantial reward for those who endeavor.

“How did you get stuck here?” Might as well get to know his host better if he’s going to be wait here for a bit.

The woodsman rises from the stool, his knees not even uttering a pop. His dun robes fall from his shoulder and smooth over his body, revealing someone hale enough, his shirt sleeves pushed up slightly. Putting the tea cup aside, he heads over to one of the built-in shelves, pulling a drawer open. Inside are all manner of things, flowers and plants strewn among the folded linens in the same hue. He pulls out a woolen blanket and shakes it out, a familiar scent teasing at memory. It might be hard to name it, though old paper certainly fills the air.

“Get yourself comfortable. Let down your manteau a while.” His tone is gruff, as usual, though not unkind. Another drawer full of old books wrapped in fine chains drifts into view, and he plucks up an aged scroll. This is not given to Strange; he carries it back himself and breaks the old marigold wax seal, examining the contents. Tearing a strip from the paper ought to bisect it, somehow, but the parchment mends when he tosses the jacked black handwritten signature into the fire along with the rest.

The flames burn green then citrine, reduced to a regular cherry glow. Antiseptic smoke smell brings a moan from the shade, lamenting.

“Stuck?” The woodsman shakes his head. “Chose it, you mean. I can complete my work without interference from the rest of the world.” A thump of his hand ought to shake the hearth, but it doesn’t, and he gestures to the ‘table,’ which is evidently a built-in sleeping pallet. “You can stay long as you need. Always the choice. It’s a fool who thinks there is no man who will not take his place.”

With a sip of tea on his tongue, the Sorcerer can’t respond right away to the obdurate opinion that he should put up his feet and nod for a while. He merely takes the blanket from the gnarled hands that offer it. It’s not too unlike a stray dog accepting scraps set out, down to the cautious eyeing of proferrer’s retreat to boot. Setting aside the well-used mug, the diversion of attention to at least spreading the covering across his lap allows the sound of opening drawer instead to bring up the eyes shadowed.

Wait a second. Even as he stills, pieces are falling into place. The quiet rattling of linked containment lengths brings back a swamping of memories as the dusty ghost of an old acquaintance rises in tandem with the earthy, herbal scent of Tibetan incense seemingly woven into the fibers of the thick blanket.

There’s a half-aborted reach for the shred of parchment that is torn from the scroll in the Woodsman’s hands, stopped only for the possibility that this man is who the Sorcerer thinks he is. The trembling, scarred limb is drawn slowly back against his chest, fisted nearly white-knuckled, and Strange’s brain does leaps beyond the simplicity of the hut and its occupant.

Oh gods above and below and it’s all coming back to him and how did he miss the finer details?!

“…Master?” It’s a breath of a title nearly broken for the incredulity. The mug of tea lies upon its side now for an errant swing of sweeping leg, its brew spilled out and soaking into the dirt floor. Strange stands and stares, mouth hanging slightly open. “I thought — I thought you were — ”


Even as the sentence hangs cut with the guillotine blade of disbelief, hope and denial warring against possible truth, the calculations play out behind those canny eyes. He draws up taller still, a string singing with tension at the off-chance that this is a cruel ploy of the dimension. Some manifestation of his own stressed mind wanting succor in the face of tribulations.

Blanket, tea, they can be left behind in the event of a scuffle or needing to hastily retreat from the hut.

“What — what — ” The Sorcerer swallows and forces composure. “What are you doing here?”

Handmade sticks of incense blend purified substances, mingling nag champa, saffron, and juniper, herbs like dukura, agur, and sandalwood, the old favourites of the Lamas found in kapur, nagi, and jattamasi. Evoking purity and clarity of thought, such offertory sticks breathed through Himalayan halls, an essential component for rituals of Kamar-Taj to assist masters and neophytes alike in centering their mind and spirit in one. How can anyone forget the impression of amber cut by sacred pink salts, when exposed to it? It’s no more likely than overlooking the marigold offerings at spring.

While Stephen takes the blanket, the woodsman returns to pour himself more tea from the banged-up but serviceable kettle. Earthy fragrance mingles with the blended fragrance still infused on the blanket, hidden in the shelves. Turning the cup in his hands barely disturbs the liquid within and he raises that to his lips, swallowing the liquid despite its rather toasty surface temperature, suffering no ill-effects. Doubtful that heat would trouble him greatly. The little shack sways as another knifing wind tries to break in, searching for a weak point in the hammered planks and door barred by a sack of millet.

The shade’s hooded frame retreats further, hiding near the woodpile, fully visible through its translucent body. If it could become any more a wallflower, it would, keeping its silence at a meaningful reunion even if the significance could not possibly be understood.

“Rags are over there,” says the Ancient One mildly, although a far younger Ancient One than someone capable of wielding that title. He inclines his peppered head towards the small cluster of open cubbyholes, filled by household detritus. Locating said weathered rag among wax or clay seals from great tomes and holy emblems in a language Strange comprehends only by grace of the Vishanti — realms, divine names, dimensional beings, sacred books — isn’t very hard. The master sits with his legs folded in lotus pose beneath the dun robes cloaking his entirely hale body.

A knowing look passes over the startled sorcerer. An eyebrow hitches higher. “Same could be said for you.” He raises his cup again to take a sip, supple in movement in spite of being a notch past his prime. “I am always present at a time of need.” Dark eyes lift, full of wisdom, recognition, and maybe a dot of mirth under a veneer of terse acknowledgment. “Shelter is yours. Rest.”

A tired scoff. “I told you why I was here. Leandra.” There’s that old Strange that the Ancient One likely knows so well, the one that gets more terse and snappy with less energy and less understanding of his surroundings. “And I don’t want to rest.”

Petulant Sorcerer is petulant, even as he crosses the room and locates the rag. There’s a good part of his mind arguing that the floor is dirt and would soak up the tea just fine. Still, the man has manners and he’s not about to go toe-to-toe with his old mentor over spilled tea. Not that it wouldn’t be anything short of spectacular, but the Sorcerer knows he’s running low on fuel — whatever that’s considered around here, in this weird dimension that’s out to run him to rags himself.

Only half a mug spilled, an easy clean-up, and then Strange rises from his kneel, the lightly-muddied slip of fabric held in an overly-tight grip.

“It doesn’t feel like a storm is coming.” The man was, after all, raised in Nebraska, smack in the middle of tornado alley. One doesn’t live there without getting a good idea of precisely what a shift in barometric pressure does. He dismissed the first whallop of wind against the hut easily enough; it’s not so easy to dismiss the second, so very akin to the waves that blew across the plains to torment the family’s farmhouse to groaning. Rolling his lips and closing away his eyes as he tucks his chest, it’s clear that he’s fighting badly with himself. “Fine. Fine. There’s a storm.”

He can accept this. He doesn’t like it, but he can accept it. He hang the sodden rag near the fireplace, perhaps upon some iron extension, to dry and then returns to sit by the mug, now upright and empty upon the dirt floor.

“I don’t want to rest.” Likely the Ancient One, if he’s the real thing and not some fantasy on the mind of the Sorcerer, knows that tone as well. The one that intimates rest as giving up even as it professes a bone-deep need to simply not be for a time.

“You think too much in terrestrial terms.” That tone is not pedantic so much as knowledgeable, and it’s very likely the incarnation of the Ancient One before he grew into the wise sifu complete with his deep, warm eyes and flowing facial hair equally has the taste of pride and impulsiveness common to most sorcerers blessed by the Vishanti’s grace. An arched pair of peppery brows underline the tacit questions left there. For some things, even Strange has to figure out on his own.

Still, the sorcerer nods when the wet patch of spilled tea gets mopped up, and he pours more into the cup to restore what was lost. Generosity costs nothing but a little patience, and the Ancient One leans over to put the cup higher on the sleeping palette rather than end up crushed underfoot by a master of the Mystic Arts landing flat on his posterior in shock, or being knocked off his feet by an open-palm blow to the solar plexus.

Unlike the elder form of his equally hale master, this one is clearly used to a life of physical effort along with tempering himself mentally. Chances are good he has the muscled physique to match under those forgettable robes. “Look at yourself. Can you carry on in so battered a condition?” He turns the questions on Strange without looking up, selecting another ceramic bowl and putting it onto the logs and burning papers, spells consumed in the weird flames. “Worn down and injured. Deep wounds drip even when bandaged, and how much strength have you depleted to come so far? You are drained, pushed to exhaustion.” A gesture indicates he stay even if Strange wishes not to.

The shade murmurs its assent, even if clearly reluctant to do so.

The Master looks out to the frosted window, already glistening in amber, “This is not even the greatest of the trials you may face. What good are you to her walking dead?”


The shade stares at the other spirit from beneath its hood. Whatever transpires between them trespasses on rude when the cloaked figure bunches its hands into fists. “You cannot leave him there.”

Master looks upon student, and then unknown spectre hidden by the woodpile. “I offered him the bed.”

Irritation might only set off sparks. The fire starts to turn weirder white, the banished will-o-wisps hammering against the frosted over windowpane. Another step forward, and the low, guttural growl of the wind melts into harsh words the sleeping Sorcerer himself cannot likely hear. “You are a bad host.”

For a moment, they are silent. Then, stooping, the woodsman wraps an arm almost effortlessly around the unconscious sorcerer’s chest, bracketed under his armpit, the other lower to haul Strange up like he’s barely a piece of chaff. Putting him flat onto the pallet easily mistaken as a table, he lays out Strange and drops the wool blanket over him a moment later. Heat from the grimoire-fed fire seeps through the block and gives even deeper comfort, lassitude encouraged by the exchange.

The shade does not approach the hearth, but sheer willpower gives it the strength to stand in the other corner watching. The Ancient One goes back to his meditations. He pulls another strip out of a book, and hurls it into the fire.

Spiraling ink bleeds out to distort the flames citrine, briefly going up. A name burns away from the rolls. “Time to pick another.”


Continued in Abyss III: Sea

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