1963-12-10 - Abyss IV: Void
Summary: In the wake of a monumental betrayal, Stephen Strange has to face one situation for which his mystic defenses and scientific mastery mean nothing.
Related: Abyss I: Earth, Abyss II: Sky, Abyss III: Sea
Theme Song: Skylar Grey - I Will Return
strange wanda 

A mind overtaxed must simply exist to return to itself. Let the checklist begin.

Is there a heartbeat? Yes.
Is there air, so heavily-laden with moisture and tasting of the close presence of tarmac and perhaps the metal of blood? Yes.
What remains intact? …check in process.

Shreds of ultra-vibrant memory bounce around his pounding skull like hyperkinetic rubber balls. Try to determine what it is his brain summons up before his inner eye, swish — gone and replaced with another flash entirely.

There was a voice. “Cannot let go. Stephen. Cannot…violate. Not a dream.” The voice is modulated by faulty remembrance. Dark brows twitch together, attempting a frown. “Rules different here. Not a dream. Strange. WAKE UP.”

Eyelids flutter. The dark solid ground is what keeps him from simply floating away; the press of it along his side and inner ear tells him the world is sideways even as things slowly refocus. What’s this…? He knows that brush of silky fabric, stiffened with semblance of life, and the rush of relief brings him perilously close to tears. It hurts his neck to glance over, but indeed: the crimson Cloak brings an edge of its collar up to brush away something above his eyebrow and flick it away. Mmm, more blood. Scalp wounds bleed terribly.

With an audibly-pained grunt, he uncurls himself from the splayed half-fetal position he landed in. Old news, the amount of agony he’s in, though…this nearly takes the cake. Strange didn’t know places like that could hurt. At his shoulders, the clasping weight of the Cloak aids in getting him to sit upright and there he sits, breathing heavily. With back bowed, shoulders rounded, and chin tucked to his chest, he is, quite frankly, a mess. But what else is new at this point?

A slow look around him proves the small win of making it to the suspension bridge. In fact…isn’t that the shade? That ghost being that keeps following him around like some stray animal?

“Karl.” He says the name and needs must cough; vibrating vocal cords still coated with the raze of salted air means a gut-deep hack or two and spitting of the clearance off to one side. Maybe there’s a little blood; his face certainly bounced off the tarmac when he landed. A greater split lip is entirely plausible. The headache? A guarantee. Pulling one heel closer to himself leaves him with the other leg outstretched. A squint towards his boots and sigh. Oh good, the battle-leathers now. High time they showed up.

He tries again. “You…you’re part this…chaos.” A limp gesture of one scarred hand to include their surroundings, smudged by thick clouds of fog as it is. He can’t see beyond the hazy edges of the bridge or much past towards the other end of it, however many hundreds of steps that is. “Where is he?”

His expression is utterly world-weary. He’s prepared to hear that the Warlock didn’t survive the duel with the Lord of the Splinter Realm.

High metal and concrete towers soar towards the milky sky, lost among the ragged cloudy barques crammed at multiple levels in an aerial highway. He lies upon the pitted and ravaged deck, asphalt worn into deep ruts in the wake of countless vehicles. Coiling mist catches upon the shorter towers, creating an opaque curtain along the descending span strung by bobbing lights not a little like the disturbing will-o-wisps earlier.

Even did Strange wish to, the thick oceanic fog deprives him of a view beyond a few yards, revealing neither the width of the waterway or the whereabouts of Mordo locked in the horns of a massive mystical conflict.

Moisture lying in the air mantles him in the cool, slick kiss of a Pacific (Atlantic?) morning. He might even smell traces upon the air of wood and gasoline, runny sap and copper blood. Swirling trails of fog wind affectionately around his ankles and carry on, smothering all signs of the world except for those odd distant, muffled noises associated with life at large. Humming cables drone on. Maybe he hears a creak, a hiss of wave on pebbled beach.

The shade is nearly invisible, for all its form takes on more corporeal solidity. Standing an appropriate distance away means it vanishes into the obscuring overlay. It remains motionless and silent with patience beyond the grave while the doctor regains his footing and bearings.

Even the Cloak hangs a bit heavier, wetness beading on its surface in dew drops, some absorbed into the weft. For all its unflappable character, it hangs heavy and muffling upon his shoulders. Stifling, though as an old friend, it might not be thought of happily that way.

“Impossible to know,” says the shade, voice low and vaguely apologetic. “I cannot answer with certainty. Will you continue?“

A veiled arm gestures behind itself, indicating a wall of grayish fog churned by its own progressive creep. “This way goes ahead to the other side.”

“Of course you can’t…” His murmur is vaguely disappointed, but why waste the energy. His gaze shifts beyond the shade, following the motions of its arm, and he sighs simply to indulge in the action of it. A heavy huff, annoyed and resigned all at once. “I have to find Leandra.”

He doesn’t sound incredibly convinced, but saying it aloud is encouragement enough. With a series of grumbling creaks of sound, he makes his way to his feet, wincing and rolling shoulders, bending joints in a series of tests to see precisely what’s broken. Nothing broken, just an amazing array of bruises across his body. Ow.

Shifting the lines of his form brings the presence of the Cloak back to the forefront of his mind and fingertips reach up to tweak at the collars in affectionate placement. A little patpat back, faint frown accompanied by small half-smile from its master, and thus, the trudging begins.

It brings him abreast of the shade and he pauses beside its oddly-substantial form. Even this close, the spirit’s garb prevents identification and it does miff Strange, truly. A glance turns into a mild glare even as he stands there, attempting to suss out what he can, and — find it to be very little again — his eyes narrow more. That smart mouth opens…and then closes, clearly weighing the words on his tongue to be too caustic and ultimately useless. A little jerk of his head, the classic ‘come along’ motion, and he hesitates not a single moment before striding into the swirling of thickest fog yet.

Will he rage upon the figure standing before him, giving him no translation of the arcane nature of direction in a fogbank? The petite oscillations in a man’s decisions can be the butterfly wings to the impending outcomes a few tempestuous minutes or hours away.

The shade shrugs its shoulders at him, unwilling to make further explanations or excuses for the nature of things which, it must be admitted, are probably plainly evident for a denizen of these strung-together Underworlds on a gossamer thread of common experience. The dense, solid block of its translucent garments allow no semblance of build yet, as single mass rather than intriguing swirls spin from cloudstuff and oscillating currents of air.

Yet while Strange glares at the repentant figure with its head bowed, a little too much spice and vim in the narrowing of his eyes, Cloak promptly tugs him and smacks him on the cheek with the notched curl of a sanguine collar. Such is certain to break the doctor’s concentration, and failing that, a damp smack upside the silver-templed head out to be sufficient to knock some sense and sensibility of manners back into the traveler.

Maybe there’s more to the relic’s understanding of his mannerisms than it ever lets on. And then again, it’s simply a sentience bound by eldritch means into an abundant heap of red fabric. Take that as he will.

Trudging, then, endless trudging. Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge might be an unpleasant venture, though this trussed monstrosity carries more in common with the Verrazano-Narrows. Or so it might seem to a bruised, badly tossed about and discarded sorcerer forced to march his way across an unchanging expanse of weathered tarmac framed by endless swirls of mist. Each span fades from fog back into another cloudy swirl, an unbroken wall enclosing him. The only variations might be accurately measured by the metal suspenders shrinking in height as the graceful sweeps described by the long cables measure out the midpoint of the span and then begin to rise again.

Of course, by then, it might feel as though he’s tramped twenty miles, all without glimpsing anything more intriguing than a woven spiral of grim, grey steel buffed to a matte finish. Even a spider might be a welcome departure. Possibly a chipped pothole gives some excitement, but the glimpse through the deck predictably shows thin air and a torrential river of clouds, not even a hint of dark, unforgiving water or a stream of magma alight with prancing unicorns and manticores wearing Mordo’s own faces.

Verrazano-Narrows would cost him around five thousand five hundred steps, give or take. Mackinac would easily be double that, the mighty blue giant breaching the natural divide between azure Michigan and indigo-dappled Huron. Time proves a moot point without any frame of reference. He has naught to go on but the advice of a particularly reticent, doggedly certain ghost, the cloak smacking him into motion whenever he halts and a gentle nudge weakly pulling him back to his feet when he stumbles in the thick, opaque air.

Two worlds collide, emptiness of the sky and the mirror-stillness of the water.

But even bridges must run out, such being their essential nature to connect two separate points of land. After an interminable number of arcs and metal dips defying any architect or engineer’s current capacity, Strange has no doubt worn through enough boot leather to leave the thinnest margin of soul sole shielding his feet from the roughened ground. The shade never ventures closer than three or four steps, and never quite vanishes into the surroundings, though clearly it has an incomparable talent for stealth in such a place.

Lo! Is that a break in the monotony? It is. Strange, however, only discovers this by taking one step into the emptiness of space underneath him, and his shuffling, automatic stride very nearly carries him right over the ragged concrete and steel grate edge. The damp, weary Cloak flaps about in agitated horror, and the shade comes forward, both hands reaching out to grab the sodden wool hem…

Would that this was his home dimension of reality, the crimson Cloak would be due for a little chitchat about the fact that glaring never killed anyone. Words. There would have been words.

Regardless, the monotony of the surroundings serves to numb nearly every aspect to existing as he travels on. A certain author with a penchant for penning stories about long journeys spoken with few significant conversations between companions would appreciate this particular trial. Everything becomes repetitive. The shade never leaves but never offers anything more than its presence. A shadow, predictable and silent. The relic at his shoulders is no less lively, interacting only to cajole him onwards.

Man…his feet hurt. Are we there yet?


Adrenaline brightens the muzzy surroundings to silvered and stark black for what steel girders he can see even as his own volition and others all fight to save against gravity.

“Shhhhit!” There’s barely enough time for him to turn the flailing stomach-turning impression of a drop on a time and collapse to one knee with an audible thud of kneecap to tarmac. The next sound is curse meets breathless snarl of pain, but he’s able to pull the leg hanging over the edge of the sudden cessation to bridge infrastructure. Some weak drags by the Cloak aid in helping him shuffle farther back; there had been more than enough time and incarnadine fabric if the shade wished to grab two handfuls and tug as well.

Panting and staring at the ledge, barely visible now that he’s on one hip, he swallows down the thrumming of his heart. That was too close.

Given that Strange makes little effort to engage the shade in conversation, why should it be required to speak to him? Small talk in an unchanging world of the dead likely constitutes the same business as above ground living small talk: How’s the weather? Did you see Bob? No, I didn’t either, he’s totally discorporated. Sucks to be him.

Shade and cloak together haul Strange back from the abrupt ragged end of the bridge, the fog loosely boiling around the torn steel rods and broken metal grating. He might well come close to scratching up his misused leathers, though any opportunity the good doctor has for excitement where his leathers do not end up battered is, at best, a partial victory for him.

The disapproving wet newspaper flap of Cloak matches a ruffling duck, throwing sketchy drops that splash onto the ragged tarmac. The shade sighs, almost inaudible.

“You will have to advance with care,” it murmurs, and peers over the edge. No sign of water, but the vaguely harsh rasp might allude to its presence. Below, so far below.

At least he can edge along the broken front for the width of the bridge deck, a distance of about a hundred feet, finding his way to the other side. Ruin shears away the bridge deck on a rough angle, indented and brutally scythed, across its hundred foot width.

It seems like an obvious comment per the shade and he has the wisdom not to zing back with some terse response. He does indulge in a minor eye roll and side-glare as he makes his way to his feet with another wince, expressive enough to bare teeth, at his kneecap complaining brightly that the recent impact did it no good. Flexing the joint is painful, but again, nothing he hasn’t dealt with before. Onwards.

“Right, well…see you on the other side.” There’s the cocky stubborn streak shining forth in the gloom of the muting fog. Limping his way over to the side, with its questionable pathway in asphalt holding together with gods know only what, he begins the process of scooching sideways. Shuffle step, shuffle step, slide, all with an eye for what does not exist beyond his toes and what he can see in passing glimpses beyond the extended reach of his fingers. He wraps them around the dew-wetted strings of cables when they’re available; otherwise, arms work for balance on the precipitous edge.

“You’re going to catch me if I slip, got that?” This was for the crimson Cloak, soaked as it is with the gathering of fog.

The Cloak weakly flaps in agreement, though the heavy weight drags him down rather than buoys him up as freely as he might expect. Strange might fill himself sinking somewhat under its weight, neutral buoyancy dipping negative, albeit at a very slowed rate.

The shade tips its head, perceptible barely under the ghostly grey hood, and gives a little hop that reveals nothing of its feet or attire under the long garment. It comes down with the faintest tremor, one that rolls through his body and right up to his molars.

Huge cables supporting the wired span stops where the bridge does, mostly. The shelf juts out beyond the stony pier holding up the deck below, but it might be moored on a giant meringue or jellyfish for all the Sorcerer knows. He gains pale, tantalising glimpses through the rolling white fog bank, those of a dark jut of moisture ridden concrete that fades away. No glimmer lasts more than a second, a distance made difficult to measure.

It’s not near enough to cross lazily by a long shot. A running leap? Ha. None of the metal spurs stick out far enough to match that gap cleaved by some great axe or hammer.

How to advance?

How to advance indeed, especially after feeling the effects of the shade’s little jump. Rubbing his tongue over a back tooth, Strange glances back to the spirit and around it, not privy to what caused the weird vibration to resound through his bones. Not a comfortable thing, not while attempting to figure out how to make it across the empty space.

The fog is obscenely befuddling, making accurate judgments of distance nearly impossible. Keeping a grip on whatever surface is nearest to a hand, he bends his knees and even though the joints creak and various impact points remind him that he bounced off of asphalt not too long ago, he holds the position. Stubborn.

If anyone’s ever seen a cat readying itself to make some ridiculous and risky jump from one surface to another, the same process applies here. Alignment, subtle resets of limbs — shifting of shoulders and a pause. A frown. The Cloak feels…slouchy.

“Hey, come on,” he murmurs to one of the collars, concern shadowing his eyes. “Perk up, I might need you.” A mental command, to cue levitation, and a sense of confusion from the relic. Straightening in place, Strange glances again at the collars, between them, frowning deeper still. “What? What’s the matter? You’ve been wet before.” An ill-defined response, wispy like the fog swirling in thick sheets across the chasm. Not the same, the relic seems to imply. “I’m exactly the same as last you hung around, what are you talking about? It’s me.” The mental chime comes back as a perfect echo of before: not the same.

Okay, that’s enough to shake him. Cloak never lies. Plays tricks, plays along rarely with his Consort, but does not lie. It’s not woven into its make and sense of self. Finicky, yes, but stalwart.

“No, come on, try again.” He does lift from the mist-slicked tarmac beneath his feet, but in a slow roll from heel to pad of foot rather than swiftly up and it’s enough to make him flail a bit. “Cloak, you — GAH, DOWN!” The ‘down’ part is perfectly — and unfortunately — normal and he skitters back against whatever vertical surface rises behind him, lips rolled against a barrage of curses. “Okay, so, here’s what we’re going to do,” he finally mutters. “I’m going to jump, you’re going to start lifting the second I jump. By the arc of the motion, you will have kicked in and be able to levitate me across the rest of the distance. That’s the plan. Okay? Okay.”

Inching up to the very edge, where metal bars extend out, bent and warped for the loss of their concrete, he crouches down again, like a runner at his blocks.

“And…” The commitment is there. Major muscle groups tense into action and he uncoils all six feet plus of his body to throw himself out into the misty air — with an extra push of willpower from the worn soul-soles of those boots that flashes in the wane light.


Cloak lied that one time he moved the tea box. No lies. It stank, ew, lapsang souchong. It’s what tea tastes like when distilled from charcoal, ashes, and a forest fire. It clearly has no idea where the box went. Plausible deniability about it vanishing into the ether.

The sanguine garment pats his cheek, and rests in a smothering, friendly weight in the limpid light. Hems flutter up and down a bit, dusting against the ground, spilling off more water accumulated on the sodden garment. No, it does not like being wet, it’ll have everyone know.

Stepping off the familiar bridge deck, even if the jagged edges confined Strange to the uttermost promontory over empty space, is not a happy experience. He leaves behind the thrumming cables beaded by moisture from the persistent breath of the cloud titans, those slippery handholds infinitely better than the sheer unknown he faces.

A jump. Define a jump, the act of springing from one place to another. The run down a road and striking a foot out, arms thrown out. It’s the essential act of childhood freedom. For some, the only means of escape from oppression to hope, as a very few fortunate souls escaping through Checkpoint Charlie or over the DMZ into South Korea know. Terrifying, for so many adults, it’s the psychological equivalent of letting go and surrendering oneself to the whimsy of fortune. O fortuna, most untrustworthy of personification, bringing gods and men low as often as high.

Without a running start, there should be absolutely no way for Strange physically to leave the bridge, clear one of those struts, and find the other side. The fog is dense, but not so thick he failed to note the other end is a yard away. Most certainly the distance spans far further than he can hope to reach across by stretching himself out to the very tippy toes. Yet he launches himself and Cloak valiantly flaps about, the collar smacking him behind the ear.

Shuttled through the unknown, the ascent arcs him only so far and then he starts to drop, crashing down, down, down at the behest of gravity. The realm may be odd, but so far every expected physical force has behaved more or less with the laws of science or magic present.

And thus, a man will fall when coming short of the ledge, rather akin to a wet cat springing up to the counter and dropping like a stone.

Until someone or something seizes him by the sleeve and hauls him forward through the emptiness, leaving him for an instant standing on empty space. The cliff face is a distance off yet. Wreckage of broken cars lies upon the wet, foam-lashed stones below Under his worn boots, black water pours around detritus, tail lights bleeding red stars on the sea.

In this, the most critical and primordial of leaps, certitude is essential. Indeed it is everything, the only thing that matters. Faith.

Another tug and he’s on solid ground, somehow, and released. Twenty feet ahead of him, tarmac deck becomes a wooded path through the shadow wreathed boreal forest, evergreens studded along a narrow trail. A thin stone spire rises in the distance, little visible thanks to mist and clouds gathered in a low bank.

A young woman sits on a boulder directly adjacent to the ruined bridge deck, hands looped around her knee. Wet, tangled hair falls in a dark curtain around her shoulders, and her damp cardigan and knee-length skirt cling heavily to her. One leg crossed over the other scandalously at the knee, she is poised, a bright smile fixed on her lips.

“You made it! I was starting to fear no one was going to come.” Midwestern accent, broad as ever, confirms what his heart knows, even if his head doesn’t want to process it. (And it doesn’t.)

She gives him a wide-eyed look and tips her head, water moistening her cheek to a pearl gleam. “Stephen, you can’t just stand there all day. I’ve been waiting so long.”

Donna beams at him.

All the calculations, all the desperate extension of limbs and tendons alike for a full body lunge across that space — it all comes to the turning point, the highest point of the arc, the middling moment where failure can become tangible in a bitter instant with dreadful results.

The fear is primal and marrow-deep and flashes through him with a split-second vision of plummeting like a stone, a bird with plumage plucked, down-down-down to what lies below and which gravity will shatter him upon with no hard feelings. No small wonder he meditates aloft at times to remain awake. Nothing like the jolt of free-fall to brutally remind him to keep his thoughts upon his task at hand rather than counting sheep, a Shepherd dozing on his watch.

A fall, short and terrifying and yoink, what?! What invisible madness is this, glass beneath his feet? With an arm outstretched, he stands there stunned before yet another yank pulls him farther still, insistent and borderline rude and…familiar. A familiar tug that has him glancing to his side even as the forested sprawl appears before his eyes.

And her.

Oh gods. A swift metaphysical punch to the gut; nausea swirls with knee-watering hope and fear and brutal understanding that this is some dimensional nonsense and she is dead. No pulse. Dripping water. Water in the lungs and he can't breathe either, not with how he stares and eventually finds the wherewithal to unstick his tongue from the roof of his mouth. His fists are gripped white-knuckled into his tunic, wet as it is with mist.

"You're dead," Strange chokes out, his voice completely uncertain and expression equally as such. Captain Obvious, even when warring between cautious approach and summoning a spell to scarred hands in defense because this is just plain wrong.


“And you’re a sight for sore eyes, even if you’re looking like you’ve been through the wringer, Stephen.” Donna smoothes a wet piece of hair behind her ear, the damp blue clips holding back her heavy tresses pulling free from her scalp, hanging looser than she’d like. Reaching up to pull two bobbypins free, she slides them higher, securing the sagging coiffure. “There, that’s a bit better.”

She sits up a little straighter, conscious of her posture and still smiling with such unalloyed joy and hope burning in those piercing grey-blue eyes. Less stormy than her brother’s, they run deep and calm as the waters that slew her. The water still dripping off her feet, her pristine white socks painted against her skin.

While Strange attempts to cleave tongue from palate and formulate any sort of comprehensible sound, the shade lingers in arm’s reach. The Cloak flaps about him in a bit of a sullen whuffle, occasionally dusting at the ground, its motions heavily constrained by weakness and weight.

Time stretches out, and she fixes him with that penetrating look. A glittering drop weaves over her brow, drizzling along her temple. Slim shoulders droop a little. “You’re going stand back there and not come say hello? I always knew someone would come along if I waited long enough, but holy mackerel. I didn’t think I’d goofed it up this bad if you wouldn’t even want to stay and talk. Take a load off, and tell me how you are.”

She pulls her knees together, sweeping them neatly to the side, resembling nothing so much as the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen harbour. Fingers pluck at the pleated skirt she wears, naturally wringing out another dribble of water as she flips the hem back and forth, idle nervous motions. “It’s been a long time. No fooling, Stephen. It’s me.You got this far and I figured that you might need help, a shoulder to cry on even. You never were very good at letting me in.”

Every time he’s found the words he wants to say, she talks again and they all go to tasteless dust in his mouth.

Strange can’t surrender to hope. Not this time. Not after everything the dimension has put him through. The Cloak is noticeably heavy on him now, for all his shoulders do the same slouch of disappointment. World-weary; jaded as all hell, he looks upon his long-dead sister and tries not to wince at the barb delivered with no real semblance of cruelty.

No, he never did let her in. He never did cry on her shoulder. Never needed her help. He was the oldest brother. He did all of that in her stead for her. He was — is — the strong one.

A sharp sigh, hard swallow, another sharp sniff. “Donna, you are dead. Do you know you’re dead? I — you had no pulse.” He spits it out as fast as he could, bundling up his tunic tighter in his hands now hidden away beneath his arms folded tightly across his chest.

Donna’s smile wavers, lower lip quivering and undermining the whole structure. Her mouth tightens in a last ditch effort, and then she drops her gaze to her hands, still wringing her skirt with deliberate squeezes and rolls of the fabric instead of unconscious anxiety. She finally smooths the hem against her knee again, blowing out a deep breath. “Of course I know. I couldn’t be here waiting for you otherwise.” A little of her proper education comes seeping out around the natural pace of a late teenager to twenty-something’s speech, though it’s all stilted to the ear now. Old slang, almost two decades out of common use.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Tick tock. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Looking back up to him, her posture stiffens a little in the very image of ladylike manners, the kind she practiced in her younger years with the phonebook on her head, and when that wasn’t big enough or thick enough, his science textbooks, an encyclopedia volume — so precious, never with their parents around — and even the Bible. Definitely never on Sundays or with the parents around. So proud to have that proper, Miss Manners-style posture, shoulders back and chest open, chin up but not too bold. She makes herself adopt the stance now, prettily positioned for a camera that isn’t there.

The rock stains dark around her, granite glistening in the mist whispering past them in faded tongues. Evergreens breathe in and out, exhaling the moisture into the very air itself. It’s peaceful, in a sense. “Don’t flip your wig, okay? I’m all right. This doesn’t mean I haven’t got feelings. Believe me, they never go away.” She blows out a breath through rounded lips, spluttering only a little. It’s only if he looks too close he’ll see any bubbles, proof of the water she can’t help but aspirate when she speaks.

“Ease up a little, and give me a chance to help you if I can. Look at you.” Her gaze softens a little, tone the same. “I always knew you’d make something of yourself. We all did. You’re one in a million. But geez, seeing it for myself is swell. Even if you really look like you need a bath.” She can’t help herself, cracking a little grin.

No-no-no, don’t start crying. If she starts crying, he’s done for. His own throat tightens up to choke him to silence and so, Strange listens to his long-dead sister expound upon the fact that she waited for him. Almost twenty years, she waited — for what? For him? No, that can’t — that can’t be.

“I believe you,” he manages to croak out, massaging what fabric entangles his fingers in a motion indicative to simple need for distracting a brain firing way too fast.

Ease up, she says. Let me help you, she implores. He draws his shoulders up a tad higher now.

This is incredibly difficult to process. His gaze tears from her to look down his battle-leathers and they aren’t up to snuff in the least. Muddied, scuffed, close to being torn in some place. Bruised like him. It’s hard to bring his eyes back up again and his pulse leaps when, indeed, Donna is still there.

“I did make — make something of myself, yes.” A hand slips free to rub frenetically at one silvered temple and then shifts back into his hair, briefly gripping hard at it. Pain. The pain is real, at least. Pacing. Pacing is good, let’s try pacing. The first step is noticeably wobbly-kneed and he catches himself nearly automatically, never looking away from her, even if the direction means she nearly becomes a peripheral sight. Back the other way, arms tightly tucked.

“Why did you wait? How did you know to wait?”

“You did. Maybe not the route I expected you would take, but you seem to enjoy taking the hard road instead of the straight one,” Donna agrees, a bob of her head alluding to being a bit self-conscious and stiff, her movements not quite as smooth and confident as they were before.

She tugs on her cardigan, pulling the resisting fabric around herself, and hauling the bottom down with a little shift left and right. It sticks too well, resisting her efforts, grounds for a touch of a frown in frustration. Meanwhile brother fusses with his cloak, and the circle fully closes. “I’m not being very polite, am I? Hello there.” Her fingers curl into her palm, a tentative hello.

Not to him. Not to the cloak. To the grey shade standing behind and slightly to his right side, a thin, nebulous bar of shape covered by a mantled hood and a long sweep of dull opacity rendered into clothes. It chooses to respond, “Well met.”

Finally giving way back to looking at Strange with that odd blend of poignant hope, she twists around on her boulder to watch him walking over the asphalt deck or the thin soil laden in pine needles, a few sticking to his battered boots. “You’ve practically worn your sole through.” A worried tone follows nibbling on her cuticle, a habit stopped by putting her hand back in her lap. This might be an old chestnut, echoes of his mother’s voice despairing at the boy who grew another two inches and out of his pants yet again. “There are a lot of questions above my pay grade, Stephen, and you know I’m not as smart as you. Not like that. You always dig and dig into those books, trying to figure out how everything fits together. I just knew. I needed to stay put because someone was going to come for me. Someone had to come for me.”

Her absolute certainty leaves little doubt, even if she splutters and coughs on the liquid pumped out from her lungs, always leaving her lips cool and glistening wet. No cherry lipgloss there, snuck on when she got to school or went out to see the newsreels in the cinema. It doesn’t even phase her, given she hasn’t eyes for anything but him. “And I needed to be here. You know when they tell you, sit still if you lose your way? Like at camp and you’re not sure if it’s north back to everyone or west or south… I knew. It sat right here in my heart.” She touches her chest to reinforce it, and the fabric and skin squelch a little. “So I waited, and it wasn’t so bad.” There are volumes not being said there. “Little lonely, but you’d come. I knew you could find me and when you did, it would all be worth it because we’d see one another and talk, and you’d tell me all the things you did, your time in the big city. I am ever so jealous you got there, and look at you!”

She wipes her finger surreptitiously under her eye, smiling, but not without that correction dipping her head. “You did so well. Your own place and now you’re a doctor, taking care of everyone. There is so much you can tell me. I imagined it, sometimes, when it got hard, because you must be having the time of your life and doing good things. And you did, didn’t you?”


“I did do well, yes.” He rolls his lips inwards, slowing in his pacing as if bogged down by the process of speaking alone. “I did well and I’m — I don’t understand why you’re here, Donna.” Strange ignores the cold and the wet, for the neural identifications are practically similar in nature, as it seeps into the bottom of his boots. He ignores the shade, quiet-spoken as it is and silently present when so.

He can’t hold the spirit’s eyes as the realization comes to him. He can’t even find a safe place anywhere on her person, from damp hair to soaked socks, to look instead because all of it — all of her — is dripping the very lake water that took her from his life.

“Donna, I’m not — ” His voice fails him utterly, breaking. “I don’t think I can take you from here. I — you are a soul. You should be — be somewhere good. Somewhere at peace. Not — not waiting around.” Swiping a hand across an eye helps and he swallows hard. “I have to find Leandra.” The Sorcerer dares to look beyond to the narrow trail shadowed by thick evergreens and the distant tower wreathed in clouds. “She’s nearby and — and I don’t think you can come along.”

Donna stills when he begins to speak. Something more important, the animation in Strange’s body she reads like an eager student, picking up on those finer details memory erodes away to shady miasmas in a faded photograph. How well does a twenty year old recollection hold up in a nearly unchanging environment? He renews the bleeding photo-negatives by the shift of his weight upon his feet and the worn, haggard price of his journeys pulling down on his shoulders. She covets the animation in Strange’s expression, the way his eyebrows give more expressiveness than anyone would expect and the sly humour sometimes ghosts behind the surface emotions displayed with considerable rigidity, a gamboling puppy disrupting the impressive formality that comes with age and self-restraint.

When he looks away, her smile cannot totally fade, even if an inkling of revelation creeps in through the fixed pathways of action and response. She palms aside a dark, wet lock of her hair from her cheek and ducks her head, sheepishly smiling, caught in the intimate act of re-establishing familiarity with someone nothing like the young man he was, boyish and coltish, an ingenuous scholar driven by twinned demons of ambition and remorse into the bright lights of the Big Apple. He stands weathered and worn, the innocence chipped away and the resulting maturity chiseled into place upon the familiar structure that makes him her brother. Mannerisms don’t tend to change so much. Those consistencies are catnip to the wet teenager.

“You’re going to leave.” It’s a statement, not a question. She nods, as though hearing a radio too quiet for him to pick up. She stretches her legs out from the rock and the boulder glistens with the wet silhouette of her calves and thighs, her bottom planted in a mandelbrot splat of water. “You have to see the road through to its end. I can walk it with you too. We could go together, share the way. I’ll be quiet.”

How many times did she promise to be good and quiet, if he’d let her follow him into town to buy sweets at the gas station, or catch sight of people eating their dinner in the diner, full of dreams how one day she’d have enough to go out for pie for dessert — and no other meal — if she wanted to. “Stephen, you think this isn’t good? We’ve got the chance to finally talk. That’s worth more than twenty angels in nightgowns strumming their little harps, or whatever they promise. Besides, you can take me. I’m sure of it. Someone as smart as you surely can find a way to bring me along it’s you. How hard could it be, with all your fancy learning and doctoring you know?”

She’ll be quiet.

And pulverize his heart to nitty-gritty shards that serve to pang at the upper-middling of his sternum. Yank — there go his heartstrings, looking upon the youngest of the Strange siblings long-lost and yet so familiar that it’s mind-boggling to him.

She promised so many times. So many he can’t count them all and always, he had to bend to the whims of his parents. She was too young — and he was too impatient to keep half an eye on a younger sister consumed with sights of pastries anyways. After all, he was on the go, go-go-go, must do this and that and absolutely not be seen with Donna around whomever had caught his eye at the time. Little sisters were cute until they started talking and inevitably something embarrassing crossed their lips.

Find a way. He always found a way…didn’t he? Didn’t he… Blinking hard and looking up to the cloudy skies above, grey and emitting just enough light to betray the sheen along his bottom lashes, he rolls his lips before tucking his chin again. A Strange habit, seen in all three of them.

“Well?” He’s not addressing Donna nor the Cloak. This is to the ephemeral shade, with existence as phantasmal as the atmosphere above and around them. Glittering eyes shift to the spirit. “Well?” He asks again, more insistently than before. He’s getting tired. Feeling rather thin, a fraying cloth yanked this way and that.

Forgotten to the turbulent upheaval of white mist, the shade remains silent. It flits in a grey sweep past the deck of the bridge onto the path littered in pine needles, falling in next to Strange and blocked from Donna’s hopeful expression. For there is a fleeting moment when her features turn even younger than nineteen years, give or take, graced her with. The apples of her cheeks round out, water damp and sparkling on her pearly flesh. “I’ll be happy to come. Leandra might be friendly, do you think?”

The shade reserves its opinion, dead silent. Silent as the grave. Too many mortal similes and metaphors.

Around his shoulders, the Cloak rolls gracefully around the sorcerer’s body, hovering a little higher off the ground. If it could blow out a humming bluster, it might do so now. The argyle pattern winks and vanishes in a sanguine fold curling inwards, playing almost coy in the damp air.

Ahead the trail weaves through cloying shadows painted brown and grey, rather than black, steeped in an absence of ready sunlight through the low-hanging cloud cover. Boughs high up gnarled evergreen trunks knit in fuzzy prickles, black-green smudges barely defined thanks to the moisture hanging thick overhead. Whatever stray beams pierce through the forest lose their way high up, following motes kicked up by a total lack of a breeze. Silence hangs heavy and mournful in the air, contemplative rather than directly ominous, though someone might find an unpleasant sense of weight if they walk for long.

The route wanders around tall pines and broad cedars, turning around as bracken and lichen-studded logs bar the way. No one looks to have passed in quite some time, the loam dotted by toadstools and sullen bushes dotted in withered white berries on spindly grey twigs. Donna doesn’t seem to mind, marching along, picking up her feet. Every step comes down with a squelch and when she exerts herself, she coughs up water more noticeably than sitting still. “It’s just like an adventure from a children’s story, isn’t it? Well, minus the spooky faces on some of the trees, but I don’t care. It’s exciting!”

Given no answer, the choice is clearly his own. Looking back to Donna and narrowing his eyes, he wars with himself — and loses.

“If you can get up off the boulder, you can come along.” Strange isn’t about to go touching her. Not now. Probably not ever. He remembers the literal dead-weight of her limp body in his arms as he dragged her from the tepid waters, how the lack of animation within her was insulting to the very concept of life itself. Without a soul, it wasn’t her. It wasn’t her. Just a pitiful shell that haunted — haunts him. Grief pries open old scars and he slowly bleeds inside, even as they all travel along the narrow trail, one collection of motley characters seen in tales of Little People and those far-gone from Kansas.

Strange was enjoying the silence — well, enjoying is a relative term. Accepting of it, even maybe mildly grateful. Then comes the reminder of her presence, one he’d been gradually phasing out of his active notice for staring up the path ahead of him with red-rimmed eyes and clearing inhalations through his nose.

“Yes, it is.” Maybe she’ll take the hint, just like she did when she was younger, and be quiet. Equally as likely that she’ll continue on in her songbird way, prone to commenting on every single thing she sees along the way. Stephen, oh look at that! Stephen, that over there! Stephen, we don’t have one of those, oooh!

Ooh, Stephen, why aren’t there any bears here?

Did you see the way the bridge bent downward at a funny angle through the mist?

Is that really a tower or just a gatehouse, do you think?

Have you tried eating those white berries? Whaddya think would happen? Would our tongues get all tingly? Double dog dare you to try one!

Questions are not asked that way, but she does occasionally raise her voice in a humming melody, some old Andrews Sisters’ tune, mostly as a reminder she is still there. So comes the damp slap of her skirt on her bare legs, the drag of her shoes over the hard-packed soil that heaves from the hidden skeletal structure of roots and dips where the sylvan behemoths cause subsidence. Donna cannot possibly be silent, and the leached wetness leaves a trail of tears behind her.

The shade needs no such efforts, given it floats over the ground at a distance of an inch or two. Processing in lockstep, the disciplined tone Strange seeks following suit. His straggling line of ghostly ducklings continue along, and Cloak does its best not to let the man fall through a log or trip over a foxhole that might break his ankle, though that involves mostly a lot of tepid flapping about.

Glimpses pass in and out of a stone tower wreathed in ivy and dully quiet, lacking outward facing windows. The rounded spire lifts up through the treetops, split stone broken by narrow wood-framed windows insufficient for more than letting light in. Clearly the need for defense, rather than stylish beauty, preoccupied the builders’ minds when they laid down huge, polished blocks one another the other in a concentric pair of rows going up and up and up. How high up? He still can’t see the top through the trees, blocked of a clear view. The base widens from the tapering body of the building itself, surrounded by a squat, squared wall and a pile of brambles ten feet tall. The white wisps he left behind?

They sit there, bobbing around merrily, dripping off the thorns like so many fat ghost berries.

Presumably a doorway lies behind that untamed bramble garden.

Now Strange has the “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” song stuck in his head. Thanks, little sister. Thanks.

Latching on to the melody saves him from the teeth-grinding unpredictability of her squelchy sounds and thank the gods that Cloak keeps him from eating moss or chunks of wetted bark. But finally — finally — after some indeterminate amount of time, he can see the base of the tower, with its huge blocky make-up in mist-licked stone and…

No. NO. Those gods-damned wisps!!!

Cloak’s heavier-than-usual length smacks against the back of his legs, wraps around him for the sudden stop and stare. No doubt Donna has some comment regarding his slack-mouthed expression before it clouds thunderously.

“You! You —- you!!!” He’s incensed that they have the audacity to show up and pretend like they were going to actually lead him straight to this tower. NO WAY. Adrenaline makes him shake in place as he masters his temper, though it doesn’t keep his aura from crackling around him. Those thorns will part for him and he will get beyond them.

“Stay here,” he commands to Donna. The shade can do what it wants; this isn’t going to change any time soon. Rolling up his sleeves as he strides forwards, he’s summoning up the Words even as he plants himself within ten feet of the thicket. Hands outstretched, glittering with Mystic-fire yanked from the wellspring running low within his center, he mutters in a tongue and exerts his will upon the ten-foot barrier.

Part! Give way to the Sorcerer Supreme!

The white globes of eerie radiance float above the thorny canes, bobbing in ripe clusters that overlap the sickly leaves large as dinner plates. Proper Siberian blackberries grow in thick bushes meant to withstand the arctic blasts chasing over the permafrost and intense cold biting into the marrow of the bones, leaving no prisoners alive in the climactic gulag.

When he practically splutters, Strange attracts their attention in a mass. They practically bubble over themselves to create a united front, strung out as so many sparkly flames giving no prospect of warmth or adequate illumination. Yes, they remember him, such as their sentience implies a limited sense of direction and identity. Sorcerer Supreme, meet nuisance baubles. One of them flits around a tree and hovers annoyingly two inches off his head, disrupting whatever night vision accommodates the dim wilderness which cloaks the earth up to the base of this incongruous tower jabbed out in the middle of nowhere.

Donna stands on her tiptoes, peering up at the lights. “Oh, they’re so pretty! They look just like the lights at those parties in Paris. Someone painted them. Renoir. Pisarro? Oh, fiddlefaddle, I can’t remember.” She reaches her hand out to poke at one of them, only to have her arm batted away by the shade.

“Ow! That wasn’t very nice. You know perfectly well they will not hurt me.” Her pert mouth turns down and she shuffles away while Strange throws his hands out in high dudgeon to command them back into their cupboard, or whatever an angry man does in his blackest moods. The dim spectre stands back on the path, head bowed down, the tower outlined in grey behind it.

This means scolding the landscaping. Last time around, he got several scratches. This time multiple canes move aside a little too willingly for comfort, revealing more of the narrow, long path lined in stone walls.

“I would take the path less traveled,” Donna adds, huffing a sigh. “I think the plants want to eat you up. I’ve never seen them stay open, and they are a little too eager to part. Unless you had something like that.”

At least they’re friendly if not astoundingly annoying little wisps. With spell cast, intent thrown with bladed intent at the thorned wall, Strange utilizes one upraised hand to waft at the nearest hovering white-fire to his head.

Stop!!!” He’s nearly spitting for it, but still doesn’t lash out or lose his cool beyond the tremendous glower that would have any apprentice at Kamar-Taj squirreling off around the nearest corner. Indeed, he needs to squint to see precisely what the canes have done — ah, yes, separated.

Unfortunately — and man, does he grind his teeth visibly, one corner of his lips having risen into the beginning of a snarl of frustration — the little sister is correct. Before, what seems like miles and hours ago, he had to apply intense effort to part a similar wall — and that was with the haunting of corpse-fur at his back.

“No, I did not.” She probably recognizes the clipped enunciation of the words as precursor to a particularly-sharp flavor of exasperation in her older brother. “Don’t touch anything,” the Sorcerer adds, likely in some ingrained habit or possibly some sibling intuition. He missed entirely the earlier actions by the shade. She probably also recognizes that steely set to his mein, even though there’s a faint tremble now and then, as he walks closer to the opening he’s created.

Tempting. Deliberately.


Strange might grow to regret taunting the thorny canes. As he steps forward, the spell holding the great wall back does not appear to break. High, pointed arcs studded by glistening obsidian points appear, up close, to be far more crude than nature’s design. Rippled, flaked edges transform each barb into a vicious natural incarnation of a macuahuitl, uneven and jagged teeth reared towards a misty sky. Other long points taper needle line, teeth forged from hardened lead on bony canes that yellow and twist under the shadows of their droopy leaves.

Serpentine coils perch ready to strike.

The ground ahead holds few wonders, faded paving stones leading up to a blocky wall, unscathed by any greenery attempting to climb its side in a more abundant season. Fallen leaves and dead needles thinly dust the earth, proving none have passed this way, at least that the bramble canes did not disrupt.

Sign of a doorway appears off to the left beyond the knee-high wall, a grooved lip normally lost behind the high briar barrier in the way. It’s this way the thin path eventually turns, hiding in the lee of the grey, grim tower.

“Do you have to go in there?” Donna asks, staring up, her chin pointed to the cloudy sky. “It doesn’t look very friendly, Stephen. Whomever stays in this tower doesn’t look like they much want company. They went out of their way to keep the mailman from getting to the door with his life.” Her nose wrinkles and the thinning of her lips follows that old family trait to a tee.

The will-o-wisps bob around in frozen bell-peals, not in the least perturbed. Fickle light gives no warmth or no real radiance, each of the ghost white blobs lined up along the freshly revealed path.

Cloak flaps and the shade slides away from the flapping hems. “His choice to make. None of the options are good. Where will he go, through a misty forest or up a questionable tower?” it says, voice a murmured rasp.

“Something isn’t sitting right about the whole situation. We can’t just sit here debating which way to go if he wants to find that Leandra dame,” Donna mutters behind him, squinting at the door. Then she gives a little shrug, water staining her damp shirt. “Whatever way you go, I’m going with you. I waited too long for you to have it any other way, Stephen. It’ll be like when we got stuck under the gas station in that lightning storm.”

An exasperated lift and fall of his shoulders proves he heard the conversation behind him. However, he only has eyes for the thorny canes. Up close, they’re monstrous things and absolutely, they look like they could do some serious damage if they wanted to. Hmm… Stepping this close on the ground hasn’t triggered a reaction, but he does note the lack of footsteps.

This could mean that the living wall has taken apart anything attempting to get through. Or — it could mean that going over is the answer.

But Cloak has been struggling. His eyes travel to the nearest collar and he reaches up over his heart, fingertips grazing the dew-soaked silky fabric.

“You’ve done enough. Take a rest,” he murmurs at a nearly inaudible pitch to the relic. Assuredly, it might flutter and balk, but at the gentle insistence of its master, it unclasps and hovers back. This leaves Strange in soaked, muddied battle-leathers and alone as he takes yet another step closer to the thorny wall. “I’m here to speak to Leandra.” He’s addressing the plants; maybe there’s an odd sentience to them as well, akin to the pale will-o-wisps? “Let me through.”

The Sorcerer would be chuffed if his footsteps were the first in what might be an eternity to grace that dusty, pine needle-scattered path leading to the tower. Still, caution is ever-present; his hands at his sides already form the mudras for throwing up a protective shielding of a spell and this one is long-practiced with the fluid speed of a quick-draw professional.

Obedience may be built into the swaying sanguine garment, but it will not stray far. In arm’s reach, it counts as closer than the shade and his sodden sibling who tries to follow his way through the garden of thorns. Her feet slap down and leave wet prints on the paving blocks, dripping water a trail to follow her all the way.

Donna chides the grey figure with them, “Sometimes he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed. Oh! Look, it doesn’t even have a hanger. It stands by itself. Marvelous!” The cloak might end up pinched and damper for the cool, wet fingers squishing a bit of its relative shoulder.

Rattling thorns echo in the wake of the Sorcerer passing through, headed for the door. Black obsidian facets capture his likeness in the pale, deathly light of the hanging globes, eldritch things with a will to follow behind him in another annoying half-circle. Those in front remain in parallel lines, teasing their route to the curved side of the tower.

Strange can see the three steps leading into a deep, horseshoe archway at the base of the tower. A solid door rests there, scarred and damp to the touch like everything else, made of a solid chunk of bleached wood bracketed in parallel black iron bands. Several deep pockmarks afflict the worn groove. A keyhole is lacking, the primary feature a gargoyle-like knocker that sneers down with the ring mounted in claw and tooth.
Another rattle forms behind him, and the bush which wasn’t moving before near the curve in the path bending to the door is, all eight feet sweeping back towards him in a ragged, descending line of briars and tangled canes, while the rest of the bushes almost gleefully awaken from their spellbound somnolence.

“Oh fiddlesticks.” Donna utters a bubbly, coughing curse. She hurries after Stephen, the slap-squelch of her feet growing hasty. “Don’t leave me behind. You promised, you must not!”

The shade flits around the cloak, hiding in the lee of the stone wall, defenseless. The nearest window is at least fifteen or twenty feet off the ground.

Let me past never meant let me arrive.

Like the bones on some ghoulish necklace, the percussive sounds hail movement he was hoping-against-hope not to hear. A whiplash look over his shoulder turns his whole body with it even as he bares his teeth, temper flaring up again.

Donna might not curse, but many a year alone and without polite company means that the string of curses that slip hissing from her older brother’s lips would singe her ears and definitely earn him a long grounding by their mother. He is the Guardian, Shepherd — once the others have passed him, he dances as elegantly backwards as he can towards them, the molten surujin summoned to his hand cracking at lashing canes with equal fluidity of motion.

Back to the door, literally, is when he throws up his hands and barks the shortened spell for the Shield of Seraphim. Translucent violet, it expands around them all, hemming them in as cleanly as it keeps out the attacking plants. Cornered. Joy —

— and it’s taking a lot of energy. Even as he grits his teeth, he can’t…can’t keep from falling to one knee. The draw is harsh, like the letting of blood, and he feels every impact to his marrow; it tingles to leave numbness in its wake.

“Somebody — somebody knock on the damn door!” he snarls, holding up his hands that begin to shake.

Hell, it’s worth a shot. Agamotto, hear my plea — return the diadem of Sight to me! The mental call is projected as loudly as he can make it given the buzzing that’s beginning to fill his ears.

Vibrations roll around Strange’s shoulders and back to the surge of power he calls on, will flung as a lance over the inky distance to an all-hearing guardian.

He does not answer. The Eye does not come.

Why would it, when it rests on the neck of Karl von Mordo?

Donna backs up from the bubble of energy springing up in their defense, and she trips over an uneven flagstone. Footing fails and she drops, crabwalking on feet and palms, her knees akimbo in some faulty memory of modesty. Why it matters to her now to pull her skirt down when scrambling away speaks to the depth of shock rising. But then she can see what’s on the other side of radiating amethyst bands.

Thorns rattle and rise all the higher, taking on a distinctively organic form that no mere bush achieves without the assistance of human shears to achieve topiary. Yet they would never create something so inherently loose, favouring clipped hedges from English box, rather than this.

Black obsidian barbs clatter and the will-o-wisps chaotically spin around Strange, deflected by the shield, practically haloing him. Rearing canes braid together, spinning around in a fat column suitable for Jack and his friends, no beanstalk leading to a giant. Not when the pointed head descends, frilled in limp tarnished silver foliage adding entirely to the gloom. Great sprawling waves engulf its heaving, articulated sides as the twenty foot long tail lashes off the shield, stopping bare centimeters from contact.

Pressure might knock anything else off its feet, but its clawed talons are rooted deep in the soil. The glittering white eyes, the same milky pale shade as the wisps, peer down with all the clarity of a fortune-teller’s crystal ball. Pungent, earthy scents pour out over them from the ephemeral bellows of its heaving chest, a thunderous exhalation throwing dozens of razor-sharp obsidian flechettes flying into the side of the tower, where they bury deep into the stone. Smaller fragments rain down, shattered from the napped stone.

Donna jumps behind Strange, cowering directly behind him. The Cloak flattens over the shade, the grey sprawl of ephemeral arms reaching out for Donna’s ankle.

The primordial guardian bristles, five thousand neat bone-pale spines running up its long backbone. Given the size of the tower, and the web of briars enclosing the base, it’s probably not a fun idea to decide how large the creature is. Very wise not to consider, especially given it stares him down with burning intensity and the rolling mists around the stone spire churn into thicker walls by its mere proximity. Strange may well wonder what his spell forced apart, and it might have been scales or talons, to achieve a rendezvous on home turf.

“We cannot open the way. Only you can,” says the shade, quiet and tone quietly strained. It bats at the voluminous red fabric slithering out to cover its arm, flopping over wrist and fingers to hide those, too. Donna kicks a little, unable to pull her foot away.

The teenager spits out water and coughs. “I hate to say a ghost is right, but the g-g-ghost is right. I don’t know where the door is. I don’t see a door, Stephen.” She gulps.

“I only s-s-s-see a…” A hysterical element joins her whisper. “D-d-dragon….”

It’s impossible to keep his mouth from dropping open as he needs to tilt his head up to follow the line of woven cane stalks, easily too large to span arms about (though who would want to hug a Siberian blackberry bush-dragon?), to the snarly thorny head with its broad-leafed frill that now descends to eye him with a sentient malevolence. Whatever he did to annoy it worked wonders. Whoops.

And no Eye to boot. “Son of a bitch,” he hisses, warring mightily to bury acidic disappointment deep beneath the veneer of stalwart protector. That the bush-dragon doesn’t touch the shield proper compounds his irritation; the creature would taste a Mystical shock for it, possibly even end up burnt by contact — it’s an excellent deterrent this way.

Donna’s scared mumblings reach him through the atmosphere of crackling plants and he flinches for the volley of sharded stones bouncing off the shield and onto the ground around them.

“What do you mean there’s — there’s a door right behind you!” His line of sight points to the shade since he needs to keep hands stubbornly upraised in order to maintain the shield. “With the ring hanging down!” Oh, it’s pointless, his ghostly entourage all appear frightened by the elemental being threatening them with thorn and stone alike. “Back up! Back!” He spits over his shoulder and retreats step by careful step, trying hard not to trip over Donna in the process. She’s doing that one thing where she practically clings to his back like a limpet and it’s not helping.

“Okay, focus.” It’s a self-motivational reminder mouthed at barely any volume. His dominant hand takes the reins of the shielding spell, nearly all of the willpower channeled down into a scarred hand that fights not to tremble; nerves burn alight. Reaching blindly behind him with his other hand, he tries to grab for the circular door knocker and instead runs into the sleek fabric of the Cloak. “MOVE!” The stentorian voice commands with the whipcrack of expectation. The roll of beadlets of sweat can be felt in lines before his temples and his heart is pounding madly in his chest.

A shifting aside of the Cloak means that he wraps fingers in a hysterically-strong grip around the knocker and yanks on it with all his might, teeth bared and eyes squinted as the shielding flickers for the split attention.

His sister screams, and in the scream is all the fury of a wave, all the abominable terror of a drowning swimmer. “There’s no door!“ A gulp for breath sounds horrid to the ears, all bubbling water fountaining up from inundated lungs. “Stephen!” A screech comes down the octave as she repeats in rapid force, “There is no door! I don’t see any door, it’s not there!”

He dares to move and she clings to his tunic, shaking in terror, fingers white knuckled as her blue-lipped face turns up to him. “Don’t leave me. You promised you wouldn’t leave me. I waited, I waited, you cannot leave me here, don’t you leave me here — ”

Cloak remains a firm, insistent force prostrate atop the gossamer grey figure, a humanoid lump uncomfortably similar to the petrified remains found in Herculaneum and Pompeii, shrouded in their hardened blanket of ash and volcanic debris. Every contour hints at a human body, and the finer details vanish under heavy wool and enchanted knotwork.

Strange retreats to the door and it maintains that awareness, all the while refusing to release its protection or confinement of their erstwhile companion. The dragon throws another volley of obsidian spines aplenty, leaving gouges and barbs in the somewhat impervious tower. Studded rows chase up and down, forming an intersecting pattern, forbidding an easy path to climb up the blocky structure without being flayed to ribbons. The Aztecs certainly knew the value of obsidian weapons against heavily armoured foes, and Europeans didn’t stand a chance from those hideous war clubs.

Tremendous wings rattle and it twists its sinuous draconian neck around, circumnavigating the spell to come from the other side. Great hind legs support the lengthy serpentine volume of its organic body, and it hisses out a wheezing sound that thickens the mists around them so tight, not even a hand can be seen five feet ahead. It vibrates again.

The shield extends up. Forward and back. It does not protect from the ground itself, and those sprouting canes force their way through the packed soil and the spaces between the unmortared stones on the path, poking out to snag boots, shoes, wet socks, cloak bits. Of course, that and the shout naturally offend the relic to such a degree it swoops up, hanging like a pelican’s saggy throat, mantled and flattened to keep its burden thoroughly buried inside. Struggles from the grey figure leave impressions of palm and elbow, but little else.

Strange drags the knocker back and barbs shoot into his hand. The curled gargoyle shifts and a blackened iron face becomes a death’s head snapping its jagged teeth into his knuckles, the teeth razored glass and broken metal, reddened wounds reopening from their doubtful scarred state.

The door opens in, though he pulls out. It sucks him forward, an irresistible force, ripping him into the space narrowly afforded in the open door. Donna screams again, clinging onto him, and red light ripples around him as black needles and white gossamer shadows converge on a blur of the dancing wisps.

He hits the ground on a pathway of assembled bones, twisting on a circuitous helix up, and up, and up. Bones of human and inhuman devising link together, a pile of them so akin to the first damnable slope he sought. Oddly enough there’s a somewhat faded, handsome Persian rug on the floor, a great rectangle patterned by vines and pomegranates, fruit favoured in the genteel east. Spinning spells twist where normally might hang a chandelier, wobbling globes that rotate violently at sick angles to one another, a red plasma poppy dancing around a black hole of coal, a citrine tiger lily and emerald double-system weaving in and out. The wobbly core seems to be an apple, red and ripe, fading to withered brown and becoming a green seed, in no particular pattern.

Two planters filled by enormous figs, the sort probably inherited from a Victorian grandmother, mark the bottom of the ossified staircase that winds around the outer walls of the room. He’s as much in a lighthouse as Rapunzel’s tower, bleeding and ragged, where every arrow slit window is covered in fog and potentially peered in by a dragon’s foggy eye.

No light comes from anywhere but the wisp incorrigibly placed directly in his line of sight to annoy the doctor’s night vision.

Unexpected pain blurs everything, as it always does, though it’s less and less impossible with time to fight through the vertigo it causes. Dragged along again, certainly not of his volition and with ragged teeth embedded in the hand gripping the knocker, there’s an attempt to wrangle up Donna by some snag of soaked clothing with his free hand. It means the collapse of the spell, but perhaps that was foretold for the cataclysmic rush of events happening in the blink of an eye.

It’s like skidding along a xylophone. The protrusions of his frame — shoulder, elbow, knee, skull — all bounce along the short distance before friction and slack limbs mean a halt. A broken cry escapes him as he tucks his torn knuckles to his chest, shoving fabric of his tunic around it even as he grips it tightly with the spared hand. Sitting up woozily on the eerie floor means more pain — yay, bruises! — and he lets out another snarling sound of agony through clenched teeth.

Still — “Donna!” Too easy to call her name first once he finds a breath not devoted to pumping desperate oxygen into his reeling body. Bones? Oh gods, more bones, everywhere! The lighting is something out of a penny dreadful and despite the presence of greenery, he’s not any less comfortable being here.

Though it sure as hell beats trying to fend off that thorn-dragon.

“Donna,” he groans again, trying to find his feet by going first to his knees. Oh, the world is still kind of wobbly, hold up. Nothing wrong with simply breathing for a bit. He drops his chin and his inner ear sings to the twinned thump of heart and bloodied hand clutched close to his sternum.


Squinting in the dimmer interior, Donna is slowly rising to her hands and knees. Damp clothes leave a puddle on the floor, and she slips onto her belly, forcing herself back up and continuing deeper into the tower. A horrified look leaves her eyes white around her narrowed pupils, and the ghastly greyish complexion grows all the clammier without any healthy circulation found earlier running through it.

“Stephen,” she cries in alarm, hastening the extra yard to get back to his side. About to clamp her arms around him in a desperate hug, she changes her mind at the last moment, seeing the extent of his pained injuries. Her own knees are scraped, palms abraded, but nothing nearly as severe as his increasing numbers of injuries. “Oh no, you’re bleeding. I don’t… here.” Fumbling with her wet skirt to tear the fabric proves ineffective, other than pulling out handfuls of water onto the ground. At least she can offer to dab at the cuts with her sleeve, heedless of the stains left in the fabric. “Nowhere to sit but on the stairs. I’ll pretend it’s a stair. Let me help you up.”

How someone so frail and small compared to a full-grown adult might achieve this matters less, as she offers her hands and will haul Strange up, if he lets her.

Behind him, the Cloak flops to the ground and allows the pale shade to tumble out, sustaining as gentle a departure as it can allow. The grey figure stumbles out and gains its footing, tugging and adjusting the fall of its cloak with habitual practice. Looking back at the relic, it nods. Collars tip in soundless accord, not quite apologetic, but clearly chastened a little.

“No, don’t,” he snaps breathlessly, clutching the limb closer to himself. “I’m fine.” Glancing up at her means showing how pale he is in turn, how he has a good scrape along his forehead that might start oozing blood given enough time and internal pressure to veins. “Let me…I’m fine,” he repeats, as if simply saying it will make it so. The tunic turns mulberry where the fabric soaks in what gashes offer up.

He blinks — hard — and realizes that the damn glow-light still hovers before him, that it’s not some figment of his addled imagination. “Where are — dammit, GET.” He keeps the immediate injury tucked away as he blocks what pale light he can with the solidity of bloodied palm, albeit this hand simply bears the ink of sharp edges driven home in a bright well. “Where are the other two? Cloak? …spirit…being?”

A head count means more to him now than anything else. Clearly, his long-dead sister is present. She drips water incessantly onto the floor, heedless of ivory bone or Persian rug.


Cue snapping of hemlines that drip a fair bit of moisture and an unimpressed wiggle, given the relic hangs not far from the door. The quiet passenger now restored to its own two feet huffs a sigh. “This is not a happy place.” Given a pat by the cloak’s sanguine weight, it limply flutters around and plants itself adjacent to the battered sorcerer questioning its whereabouts.

Donna’s shoulders droop and she drops her hands to her sides, wringing her skirt again rather than her clammy hands turning on themselves. More water cascades onto the patterned rug. By now she’s contributed to the overall water table by a centimeter in the forest, a record for any single person.

They all wait on him, paralyzed perhaps by choice, or simply interlopers on the task he must perform for himself: Strange must decide which way he will go, and how.

He knows the sound of enchanted fabric pulled tight enough to displace air and the comment by the shade finishes said head count. Thank gods… His upraised palm drops to rest in his lap as he sighs heavily, lips curled in a grimace of discomfort.

“No, it’s not,” he agrees. Alright. Time to pull himself up by his bootstraps. The handprint on the floor is broken up for the incomplete smearing of blood and knuckles. One foot, then the other, and he’s standing, though he does wobble precariously for a long enough moment to probably increase Donna’s worry another four-fold. Squinting, he attempts to take in his surroundings. Honestly, whoever decorated this place has a fetish for the sepulchral and it’s disturbing.

Skeletal stairwell it is. He’s sure as hell not going back outside, not with that elemental guardian still creaking and lashing its thorns about.

“Dammit…” The whisper is tired and creaky and hollow, reflecting precisely how he feels in this moment, when trudging steps take him towards the first of the ossified steps and then upwards.

“You could let me help you,” Donna whispers from behind him, quiet enough she probably assumes the shade and the cloak cannot hear her, though the prospect of her worrying much about an object remains low. “Hold my hand, Stephen, I’ll keep you from falling flat on your nose.”

A sniff comes from the other figure shielded by the magical relic, its enchantment sadly preventing it from facial expressions. It weakly flutters and flaps, shooing Strange up the stairs as soon as he shows the least signs of climbing. Consequently, he leads the procession over the jumbled bones formed in stepped terraces no more than a meter or so wide. Donna clutches him, and if allowed, helps hold the Sorcerer up, the shade and the Cloak exchanging places every few steps.
Uneven footing slopes somewhat towards the open air shaft above the rug and plants at floor level, and no railing makes the path hazardous, though not impossible. Different perils might present themselves, as the annoyingly persistent wisp hanging a step higher than Strange’s head refuses to be totally dislodged. It alone gives very much direction to the monotonous sameness. Only the arrow slits in the walls serve to determine progress, and each one leaks with mist and the occasional rattle.

And an obsidian blade or bone dart shot through at them, reversing the use of the windows from defensive to offensive.

The first time, Donna shrieks and ducks. The second, the shade shakes its fist angrily. The third, he takes a needling stab to the arm. Yet more pain, as the tendrils strive after them. Thin mist never quite gets far unless they linger near the wall, grabbing for them, taking the warmth from his skin and the hope from his bones.

If he continues to climb, he reaches a flat, round terrace. Another huge tangle of bones continues up, and he can espy an alcove cut into the wall. A female statue carved in the neoclassical style stands there on a base, holding a slender staff topped by a crowned sphere tucked in her left hand, angled down upon her hip. Her open hand points a finger at the deeper shadows of the alcove. He can go deeper in, or climb on.

“I’m fine,” he mumbles back to his dead sister, even as gravity becomes monotonous in itself. Say it enough, it becomes so, truth through action. Just…keep on keepin’ on, in the truly tenacious manner that probably drives his family nutty. Up and up and up, up the bones and past the thin windows.

It’s difficult keeping his balance with one hand tucked within a wrapping of his tunic, but time at Kamar-Taj and the brutal acrobatics required of his mantle mean it’s just another state of being to overcome. When Donna shrieks, he flinches and jumps — nothing like a sudden soprano cry resounding in one’s ear and around the tower. Oh, the thorn-dragon. It’s a tenacious one too, utilizing the narrow windows to throw darts.

Too slow, his reaction time, and the shard of obsidian is sudden, scalpel-sharp, and embedded deeply enough to be a very present splinter-like agony. Hissing, the reflex to curl his dominant arm quickly flips to extension and back, finding an awful neutrality where it simply burns rather than digs deeper into muscle.

“I’m FINE.” Strange spits it out before anyone else can comment and after eyeing the wound site dubiously, he decides it’s not a mortal thing to address. Walk on. Just keep walking, up the bones and up farther still. “Watch the windows,” he warns whomever is listening. Obvious statement, assuredly, but the trickle of blood inside his sleeve isn’t all blotted by the shirt. It tickles as it runs down the line of his forearm.

Curiosity piques at the statue, but wearily lies its head back to the floor as its master continues on. Up to the top. Everything important is up. At least, that’s the assumption.

The silvery tendrils seeking to wrap around their limbs, and Strange’s in particular, force the Cloak to slap its sides in bristling dismay against the interloping touches. Mist recoils from the retributive smacks, contracting back into the mass of the briar-studded dragon that peers through the arrow slit windows with a milky, storm-rage eye. Flaring in a swirling incarnadine tremor, it hangs like a great, angry curtain in front of the window and flits back down onto Strange’s shoulders, a muffled warmth still registered as damp.

Donna frowns at the sharp rebuke from him, though she doggedly continues to climb up the slanting steps, catching herself on the wall when her wet shoes slide. For anyone following in her wake, the danger of slipping right over the edge from the thin puddle left behind is terribly real. “We can rest on the landing if you want. No harm sitting for a bit, and then I could bind your arm.”

As he leaves behind the first landing, the second takes nearly as long to reach. An eclipsed view of the sinking staircase vanishes into darkness, no memory of what lies in the core of the building. For all the sorcerer knows, he might be treading the same hamster wheel, running around in circles, with only a mere incline giving distinction to direction and progress. Is there such a thing as progress?

He passes a second landing, a semi-circle curtained in sepulchral shadows. Another statue marks the alcove sinking back presumably into another chamber, and its guardian is another neoclassical statue of a woman. She wears a draped white chiton, belted under her bust, and holds a flat tablet balanced upon her forearm, a round shield resting casually against her side. A crouching lion sits at her feet in such a fashion she resembles a sphinx at a distance, the fabled female and lion amalgamation. The lion’s marble eyes are narrowed, mouth shut, only a hint of fangs bared.

If he continues on, the nature of the steps changes from bone to bare stone, perilously narrow. The spiral tightens to his shoulders practically brushing against the inner spiral wall, the outer scraping his elbow. A slip here might entail skidding down whole floors before he catches himself, a nearly medieval construct comparable only to lighthouses in the American lexicon. Advance ends with a wrought iron grate placed overhead, metal leaves frozen forever in twining flourishes and ivy wandering in a round disk. Hinges allow entry, and he can push it open with terrible effort that burns his bleeding hands.

Then all that remains is to pull himself through onto what looks like a tight landing. Through the grate he can see a few weathered tapestries faded of any colour, a scratched up wooden pedestal-style lectern that might be used by a teacher at the front of a classroom, on that, a book softly wrapped in gold and green foliage. Another statue in white marble stands against the wall in the small, round chamber, a helm on her downward tipped face blocking her view. She leans against a tree trunk and clutches a broken sword.

The weight of the Cloak is unreserved affection and despite the fact that it seems to feel water-logged, dragging him down a bit more, he’s silently grateful. Even the brush of its silk against the outside of his arm every now and then sending a bolt of agony to make him grit teeth is ignored for the rhythm of rising steps.

“We can’t stop. If I stop, I won’t get up again.” A terrible confession to make and it breaks his voice somewhere in the last three words, but he composes himself and trudges on. Thigh muscles burn, but it keeps him present instead of allowing him to wander off into the recesses of his mind and thus condemning him to a stumble or even a tumble backwards.

The second landing receives a similar mildly interested look of scrutiny, but he reminds himself that stopping is anathema now. Must trudge on or he’ll never reach the top. The narrowing of the steps could be construed as a blessing as well as a curse. It means single file, yes, but it means he could brace hands on the sides if need be. However, any narrow windows are terrible close now and it’s harrowing to place nearly all of his trust in the defensive instincts of the Cloak about his shoulders. Hopefully it has the wherewithal to keep slapping away the foggy tendrils that seek out his warmth — though he might not much mind it if they numbed the area around the obsidian shard. It throbs, present with insulting prejudice towards pain.

Thank god he looks up when he does. Otherwise, he might have cracked his skull on the grate. A horizontal door was unexpected.

“Give me…” he pants, grimacing. “Give me a second.” A glance over his shoulder proves the headcount unchanged. Okay, come on. The splinter slices deeper still as he tries to raise his arm. “Goddammit!” No more. Rolling a shoulder to move aside the hang of the Cloak, he unravels his hand from his tunic and leans against the inner spiral of the wall. Closing his eyes allows him to focus on the interloper, with a grippable length still protruding from beyond the fabric of his sleeve, and half-dried blood proves a beautiful enhancer to friction. Sparkles flash behind his eyelids and he can’t help the guttural sound. Yank — and the shard clatters to the stone steps. There’s a warm rush in place of solid stone. Clapping a palm to the site means staunching the immediate blood flow. It’s not a massive thing, just deep, a sucking wound, not too different from a knife blade’s thrust. Blinking his vision back into place, he hazards a glance up through the grate, trading in a little thump of skull to wall.

A shove, painful for the one hand used with a bicep that burns, and it eventually takes the brunt of his shoulder to completely raise the balance of the grate high enough that a shove will tip it open. Getting through is a Herculean task, complete with tacky smears of red left in his wake, and finally — finally — he’s into that landing.

It might have entailed some crawling, maybe he was able to stumble upright a few steps, but he does make it to a fairly centralized location within the small space before thumpthump. Down to his knees, white around the lips, and glazed of eye.

“This is…this is it?” He’s not talking to anyone in particular as he blinks hard, fighting a sense of vertigo. The knocker-razed hand lays ignored in his lap alongside the other, untouched but for recently-healed scars; the damage is farther up that particular limb, pulsing in time with his ear. Oh, yes, heartbeat in his ears too, joy. Weaving back and forth slightly in the kneeling position, it’s difficult to keep things from doubling or tripling in his vision now.


It. A round chamber suspended at the top of a tower cannot be much larger than a generous closet or a typical bathroom by any New York standard. Arms outstretched might capture the chamber’s tapestry-lined walls, giving very little room to mess about, maybe eight or nine feet around. He can see the sight of the Cloak and Donna crying out in frustration, hands going for the wet iron grate, and the shade blitzing past her slippery, squelching form.

And then he sees nothing.

Then he sees everything. The round petals open as dimensions warp, a buttercup opening to the warm sunshine of a distant spring. Walls within his reach leap back, widening from a middle point where he kneels. Dead faded tapestries eaten by moth and time come alive in a shock of colour, the maidens in their tall, pointed hats and flowing robes taking on a panoply undimmed by time. Green becomes vivid jade and deeper verdigris, the rose and rich poppy of their elaborate, embroidered sleeves. Swaying flowers nod in the field and the long branches studded by silver-green oak leaves dance along the vault of the each. Fruits hang in abundance that practically spring off the woven threads, luxurious and glimmering, mouthwatering as bright gemstones.

Broken floors in stone are swathed in carpets reminiscent of the beautiful carpets found in the abandoned manor, as luminously green and lively as the water-stained variation. Cracked flagstone is thus sheltered against the cold, muffled to the touch. The statue of the helmed maiden remains, the broken sword still in hand, face and body veiled in a dance of flame cast by the overhead chandelier, and sconces mounted to the walls, caged in elegant volutes throwing patterns against the ceiling and walls.

A mirror stands angled towards the window, an honest to god loom positioned near a window that presumably looks out on the landscape below through a hidden window. Hidden, in the sense a long curtain hangs on the serpentine rail.

He bleeds onto the floor and no one judges him, for there is none here to judge him. Cubbies full of papers and scrolls, tablets and small books rise around an empty desk, and in the middle of the room at its very heart stands a closed book on a marble lectern. A stylus and an old-fashioned ink pot mark the corners, and the leather-covered tome itself radiates presence; a kind common to old books, Bibles in churches, treasured illuminated manuscripts in university halls, and sancta.

The air has a calming herbal scent, something terribly, joyously invigorating. When Strange slips in, the cloak pats his cheeks and disengages from his shoulders, floating away to flump itself against one of the tapestries full of many, many patterned garments.

For a second, after his moment of tripled vision, the Sorcerer is certain he’s passed out. Blackness and the realigning of reality around him is more than kin to flumping to the floor. Echoes of dismay still hang before dropping away.

But no. The sudden colorizing of the room around him, suddenly larger and vibrantly-hued, is enough to throw him for a loop. He’s wordless, confused as all hell, and drawing conclusions too slowly to be of any use to anyone. The lifting of the crimson Cloak from his shoulders brings his attention back to the present, with its bright smells and office-like feel.


“Donna?” Woozily, he cranes his head around, his brows tightly knitted. It’s very hard to keep the anguish from tone and expression. “Donna…?” He stays kneeling.

His voice echoes in silence.

The warm light suffused through the chamber never wavers. He stands alone at the peak, the doorway or grate he entered through nonexistent, no obvious means to depart save possibly the window.

Nor does the place embody discomfort or any obvious threat, no more than a grandmother’s kitchen or a welcoming bedroom would for most people. The chamber carries its own significant resonance, something profoundly important, the lightness of the man's own exhaustion and pain pushed back.

Pushed back, jammed away, ultimately the deepest sucking wound of all bandaged away to scar over once again. No Donna. Lost again. What else does one do in a comforting place like this other than lick wounds and attempt to reconcile with the unfairness of it all.

Staring down at his hands, Strange finally blinks, hard, once, and then swipes roughly across his eyes with a sleeve. Fine. Fine. He’ll be fine. Joints creak but ache distantly as he rises to his feet, wounded hand still tucked to his chest. One last wipe with a sleeve-cuff, so moisture no longer glistens on his face, and he takes a moment to observe the room more closely.

“Hello?” It’s a half-hearted call, muted for the rasp of his voice. Wincing as he flexes his arm, he hazards a step closer to the desk. With the grimoire in his path, it’s no surprise he lingers before it. The temptation is there to graze fingertips along its cover, but he abstains, jaded by experience. One doesn’t touch enchanted books lightly and there’s been no predictability to his inherent abilities for quite some times now. Only the gods know what would happen if he did.

Movement registers in his peripheral and he turns on the spot, ready to smite anything at this point, but — simply the mirror. He sidesteps into complete view and his reflection shares his lack of appreciation.

“You’ve looked better,” he mutters, a thread of honest-to-god humor beneath that self-deprecation. Entirely true, of course. The statue is given a leery glare. His wanderings take him behind the desk, where his eyes travel between stacks of papers, hoping maybe to catch a glimpse of legible writing in a language he knows.


No Donna. No drowning sister bubbling up the stairs, spitting out water or protesting at the cloak tugging at her skirt. He is entirely alone, save for the statue, and the relic floating, rubbing its sanguine hem affectionately against the woven picture, shamelessly content.

His choice about the grimoire is too late. The cover springs open the moment the hesitation, the thought, passes his mind’s eye. Brittle whispers follow the shivering papers in motion, and the muffled thump marks where the leathery cover lands, revealing a fresh set of pages. Ink scripted down the left page forms a block of text, image of a sun in splendour painted there, while on the other side, a tree comes to life around far less language. An open space awaits completion, another dark black line of text painted along the bottom.

It waits for him.

“Hello” will echo off the walls and the ceiling, evaporating away into nothing. Nothing will cut into his conversation with himself. The mirror is not so unkind, likely to show himself exactly as he is: bloodied, bruised, wet, a man of nearly forty and frozen in place, his garments less than precise in tailoring and serviceable nature. Plan to spend any longer, and he’ll see his own aura flashing back at him, carrying the weight of the world upon it, and still not gutted. No sign of the consort or the body, the world at large, the backdrop glinting in faded silver.

The desk lacks an inkwell; that lies on the pedestal with the grimoire. Contents of the desk are orderly, wrought in English, details of spells heavily focused upon growth and life, protective and healing elements braided together. The hand is feminine enough, and the illuminations down the sides of the margins scrolled with fennel and acanthus blooms, red poppies, even leeks. Someone’s decorative flourishes are unnecessary but joyous.

“Hmm.” He frowns and reaches out to rotate a sheath of paper to be better read. It’s a twist on a spell that the Sorcerer knows well enough, now committed to ever-bright memory for later testing.

A belated realization comes to him and his gaze flicks up towards the pedestal. Wait a second. That grimoire was not open a moment ago. When did it…? Warily, he rounds the desk and approaches it once again, ready to retreat as necessary. The furtive steps bring him in place to read it properly, standing before it spread open as it is. The blazing star and floral giant are noted with another quiet ‘hmph’. Inkwell noted. Empty space noted with a dubious squint.

It’s clear what needs to be done — or at least, what the grimoire is attempting to imply by deliberately opening to this particular set of pages. Still…his reach for the stylus hesitates. There will be consequences for writing in it.

After all, it’s not like he’d be able to go back and erase it, or even lie. Doctor’s handwriting and all. Chicken-scratch compared to the orderly, neat words written within.

Fine details are laced in the nigh Gothic writing upon the page, line on line. They might be English, though it’s difficult to pick apart the Old English used amongst Latin and a smattering of ancient Greek. What clearly stands out is Yao, departing from the usual language, drawn in a most unusual hand that wants to bend instead of folding around in the sharp angles and details common to English, even that from many centuries past.

Under the tree, the lines diminish into a waiting blankness, as if he might just spin his own handwriting out in fine detail. Or he could roughly strike a pen with the ink, charging his identity to that particular hole.

The cloak snuggles the tapestry, wrapping up the tasselled fringe along the bottom up in itself. Clearly it’s enjoying its time with the finer weaving.

That particular name is different, but it is a name. The shadow of his outstretched hand lays across the parchment and still he looks down upon the page. By the grinding motions of his jaw, the Sorcerer is heavily considering what options are available.

This Yao person, whomever they were, clearly made it to here in order to sign the book. There’s an odd familiarity to the script, but there’s no pinning down that memory, not at this moment. It’s too wispy — and he’s still dubious. Sometimes monsters lurk even in the brightest of lights and antifreeze is sweet until you die from its poison. However, fortune does favor the bold…and makes the gods use their Conduits hard for it. What’s another roll of the dice?

He rolls his lips inwards. The faint tremble in his hand betrays him up until the point when scarred fingers, unbloodied but for staining, retrieve the stylus. With tool now dipped now in ink, the Sorcerer puts the tip to the grimoire’s page and scratches out into the empty space,

Doctor Strange.

The moment he starts to write his name, taking up the stylus, its comfortable weight drinks up the entirety of his pain and suffering. Blood and bruises strip through his extremities, bolting through stiffened limbs and burning muscles, pouring out through crabbed fingers alight to reddened, scarred pathways. Flaming agony curves out into the scarlet ink scribing each doctoral scratch, purposeful dashes and flourishes captured in the shucking off of his frailties.

Once he starts, Strange cannot stop. What happens is imperative, conducted by the dilating temporal nature of a timeless realm, taking a lifetime to finish, and done all too soon, as soon as the thought is done.

The stylus vanishes from his hand and reappears on the pedestal where it stood, and the book gleams with the fresh, wet ink laced in psychotropic detail. One breathless heartbeat later, the grimoire’s outer metal bands rotate and their gilded, serrated prongs fold across the corners of the pages lovingly as any ivy ever enfolded a building. Tiny gold leaves bud and spring open, freshly revealed to the daylight pouring down through a suffused source, no single one so much as many.

He couldn’t shut it if he tried.

No pain remains, no floating discomfort lingering at the back of his skull or worn from the dregs of his being. Without any obvious transition, the leaching of cares and suffering melts off, to the point he simply no longer endures the toil and taxation of his journeys. The emotional pain of Donna cannot be taken away, but others can.

He breathes out. The world collectively breathes in.

The grey shade stands facing one of the tapestries depicting maidens around a fountain in the midst of the woodland, a sylvan encounter brimming with peace and delight. It turns its head to him, and the statue upon the plinth steps away from the sturdy oak with a sigh. Her sword drops low, and her foot stands on the broken point. The metal helm slips forward over her dark hair and she stumbles. Leather sandals rasp against the ground.

“Who comes?” The question of a woman with a very proper British accent, undimmed by New York, flows from once marble lips. Cloak flutters around the grey slip of a silhouette; it won’t hurry to him. The figure of Minerva - Athena - Sophia takes another step. Her crackling robes become fabric, white and sooty in places, clinging to her leg. Her battered breastplate sparkles dully, fresh scratches painted on the matte surface covered in natural motifs.

“Why have you released me? Is it safe?”

Grey, wise eyes seek his, so weary, ablaze in hope.

Left standing before the locked-open grimoire, fingers still upraised before his sternum with grip half-formed for holding said stylus, the Sorcerer has to literally unwind the stained tunic to check why he suddenly can’t feel throbbing discomfort and the crackling of newly-clotted wounds reopening for each accidental jounce. Gods below. It’s as if…nothing happened. A full infusion of brilliant life, straight to the vein, as potent as a child’s laughter, replaces all agonies. Twisting about at the waist, he scans his body. Joints pass muster and the bicep once subjected to rude intrusion by nature’s scalpel is flexed with full vibrancy and noted strength beneath supple skin. Why…? Did inscribing the name mean he passed some muster?

This means he can turn and upraise mudras of self-defense for the sudden liveliness of the helmeted statue. The shade and Cloak are given a circumspect look before he watches the marble take on supple motion and a soul of its own.

His cautious nature settles down when he reads exhaustion in the creation, as do his hands to his sides, and even as his mind is categorizing just what this statue could represent, he does offer up the same name written now indelibly on the grimoire’s pages.

“Doctor Strange. I didn’t intend to release you and I don’t know what threatens you.” A quick scan of the room, with its warm lighting and light scents. “This place is a hell of a lot safer than what’s outside.”

Liquid sunshine dances through his veins, a bright amber flood racing through a network of capillaries, sizzling in the roots of his hair and coalescing like cool icy mist from his breath. His scalp tingles and his widening perceptions catch the edges of deep synaesthesia usually occulted from his awareness.

And the greens!

Every thread picked out from the tapestries embodies such a range, he might as well have been colour-blind moments before. Not only jade, he been see the million shades between jade and celandine, all of them rendered in lush, lovely texture that tastes sweet and bright, summer berries on the tongue and the thrill of waking from a good nap.

Strange may end up hypnotised by the carpet, staring in dreamy abandon at the molecules wandering in certain patterns according to actual forces visible, as much as visible means anything to someone who about breathes in the memories and tastes them.

The helmed woman runs her hand over her dark hair, trying to smooth out the stylized curls. A blink gives her deepened focus, measuring him. “Doctor,” she replies. “Stephen.” A nod acknowledges him and she lays the weapon aside on the desk, the wood groaning with its weight. “They… they came, the Deaths-head squad. It's been years since I saw Nazis, and never in America, but the squad assaulted our sanctum. Did you receive my message? Did she make it safely to you? We were betrayed by my apprentice and I held out as long as I could. Buying her time.”

The cloak flaps and lightly pets the ghostly silhouette, rustling covering up the soft moan of dismay, maybe despair.

She slumps her shoulders a little, and tugs at the girdle around her waist. “I wish I had better tidings.” A thought jogs her. “Outside? Indeed, the perils afflict everyone differently. I would suffer considerably, as you have coming unprepared. But you are alive and safe here, and your return assured. If, I hope, you do not deny the truth you experience. Self denial is a sort of death, a kind of self harm.”

Oh. OH!!! The sharp inhale marks the recognition now that the helm doesn’t hide so much of the face and exhaustion doesn’t cloud his faculties. It falls upon him to inform Leandra, now found after this extensive journey, of what occurred after her retreat beyond the fringes of the metaphysical horizon.

The empathetic expression is fed by a solid thread of his own lingering pain over the disappearance of his long-dead sister, drawing the divot between his upticked brows deeper still and the normal thinned lips downwards noticeably.

“They did a number to your Sanctum, Leandra. My…my Consort and I, we arrived not long ago — ” Well, that’s…metaphorically-speaking, he’s been away from his body for some time now. “ — to find it ransacked. They defaced many things, broke…broke a good number of things too.” Strange aches for what he saw. “We didn’t find Elroy, but a keystone led us here, a statuette that had a recording on it, from her.” Silence follows as well as a pitying tilt of his head. “I’m sorry, Leandra. I don’t think that Bridget made it. There was gunfire and…” There’s no need to finish that sentence. Imagination, cruel and true, can probably do the job. He nods once, delaying the rise of his head for a sideways glance off to one side. Loss of life is a terrible thing. Clearing his throat, he continues, meeting her eyes again. “We tracked your retreat to the Sephirot and…here I am. Here you are,” he adds with a breathy laugh. “You’re alive, thank gods — and they didn’t get to the Gardens.”

The Sorcerer glances around the room again, appreciating the psychedelic brightness of the colors after the muted general gloom of his travels through mire and muck and mist and madness.

“But I’ve been gone for a long time — and I need to get back. Come with me. My Consort would have hexed me back were there any trouble. All the trouble seemed to be here…and what an experience it was,” he murmurs, rubbing at his bicep that lacks the pain; the memory remains.


Descriptiveness requires Leandra to seek comfort, and she pulls out the chair at the desk for herself. An apologetic tip of her head says what words will not, out of respect not to interrupt the Sorcerer Supreme in her midst. The Doctor. Whatever he is. She settles, the breastplate shifting about on the linen chiton she wears, fine wool pleats of her longer robe brushing around her feet. Darkness speckles the surface of the garments, spots in a custard, proof of incipient violence before or after her flight. Her hands rest quietly in her lap, her posture the sort of thing governesses in her native country would rave about, privately and out of sight.

Leandra removes her helm, setting the Greco-styled metal upon the table next to her. Where he withdrew a scroll earlier, apparently the pattern was sufficiently disrupted for her to notice and correct, putting a sidelong scroll atop the heap in a nook to create another pleasing balance from before.

Her tone says volumes that her expression will not, stiff upper lip and all. “Dear Bridget, brave to the very end. Pray the lady takes her soul into her loving arms.” The most she will allow herself, averting those greyer-than-grey eyes, heavily laden in the awful wisdom obtained through experience and no other route. Those who wear their scars will always show, whether they lie at the surface on the backs of the hands or deep inside. “You will know I appreciate your assistance, however much in vain my preparations were. We never anticipated this degree of malice, not in New York, and certainly not slicing through the wards. I can take some small comfort aware the knowledge reached you before it was too late.”

She stares at her hands, and then up again at Strange. Resolve already hardens the line of her jaw. “A generous man holds the door open and allows someone to go ahead of him. As a point of fact, your Consort cannot draw you back had you failed the trials. That power remains only to the divine, powers so great we — even, I imagine, you — can barely fathom. From here, your path leads you back to the living world.”

In agreement, there, though she gives him an unwavering look that might be peeling back the layers of the personality and the reputation, trying to put a sense to his actual character instead of the bedraggled shade stumbling into her bower. “By grace of all, you can take back one thing from the Keter. Had you no magic, it might be the capacity for spells. A vision in the mirror of anything you desire to see. The form of a spell never imagined, or long forgotten. Someone.” Weighty consideration, there. “Transcendence brings a special knowledge, and imparts insight, a shaft of sunlight into a dark world that will forever brighten it. Make your choice, and this place, it seems to acknowledge and abide. You have made the journey. You may claim your prize. None go away empty-handed, so think not to be the generous man who takes nothing, Doctor Strange, or you will be sitting here quite some time.”

Her smile curves pallid as a winter blossom, alpine white and a limpid memory even spring follows winter, and growth overcomes all disasters. Life finds a way.

“You have time for more questions, if you want them.”

Strange matches that look with an even look of his own, almost daring her to do so. He is whom he is. The dimension dissected him like a cadaver, down to emotional nerves and soul-sluicing arteries. In his quiet, he is noble and balanced, steadfast and brimming with endless potential. He is impossibility given power. He is human; he bleeds, weeps, and crawls when necessity deems that forward motion wins out over weak knees. He is.

The Sorcerer remembers — and his heart aches. He cannot, even if he could — should not, though it drives bitter screws through his chest to pin his heart betwixt his collarbones.

“A spell.” In this brilliant room, he manages shadow in his eyes, though hope springs eternal in the face of grief. “A spell that defies Lady Death well and good. That can cast beyond any dimension, any realm, any time — no limits to its reach. That returns any soul to me, marks it unseen by Her tally. Returns it whole and hale, with all of its memories.” He sets limitations, ever-cautious. “It must be only able to be by someone with full intent and the knowledge of what they intend to do with the soul after it returns to them. Otherwise, it is illegible, unable to be deciphered, should it come written on parchment.”

The strong jaw shifts for grinding his teeth. It brings cheekbones to sharp relief briefly. But — this is his request. Silence follows, cementing his decision in the matter.

Questions may follow soon enough.


“You will have knowledge of it, then, when you return. Such is a test of faith, though I swear it will be if such a thing can ever be conjured in the space of human knowledge. For we are in the sum of it, outside the curvature of time and the spreading weave of space.” Leandra leans forward, clearly wearied by the burdens of stone become flesh, and the simple knowledge of her apprentices lost or dead.

She selects the second drawer on the right, pulling open the drawer. “If the Bright Lady sets her blessing upon this undertaking, let it be shown.” A bit of rummaging leaves three objects, eventually, on the desktop. A single ostrich feather rests on the left. In the middle is a stone tablet about the size of a playing card, unremarkable for its features. On the right, an acorn, albeit one bearing a loop driven through the fuzzy cap, and a length of leather strung through the loop to allow for easy transport. She passes her hands over the three objects, her movements smooth as both her palms converge overtop one another, drawing infinity circles in delicately drawn arcs. Her fingers curl to seize upon the dreamstuff of the place, weaving it to her will.

The silhouetted shadow, the only ephemeral one in the room, stirs itself from within the folds of the sanguine relic drawn close, affectionately cuddled up to the shade as a cat seeks out a child to share their intense warmth in a snug bower. Sensing something of its master’s certainty, Cloak gives a rustling fluff. It props up the shade a little further and swirls around, large enough to put one of the tapestries to a challenge, if not shame, dusting the floor and poking the tips of its fully extended collar to the ceiling, antennae on a great ruby-winged butterfly.

“Oh, hush,” Leandra tells the relic with no real malice or annoyance in her voice, standing aside from the desk to allow the choice to be made. “As if I would not know, you dear old rag? You walk the path of wisdom. Do so mindfully, for while steadiest of all roads, it is also the furthest to go. Not all lessons can be gathered with the stroke of a pen or the shock of a spell.”

The shade tilts its head forward, grimness stitched through the dove grey. No sunlight quite touches it, not that the light possesses an obvious source, and it remains as much an ephemeral creation as the moment he met it on the ruined road of his body-breaking experience along the Hudson River.

Red cloth ruffles, worse than a hen. If the Cloak could brood and cluck, it would.

Well and good. A proper reward for the Sorcerer Supreme, the very rules of the spell set to be cast by his hands and power alone. Maybe one day he’ll be forgiven.

And here’s a question.

With attention drawn by the Cloak’s usual confident airs, Strange’s gaze lingers on the shade.

“I’ll be careful. But…who is that? Do you know them?” While he might walk up to the desk, it’s clear that he’s not going to choose an item until he gets an answer, even if it’s unsatisfactory. His hands remain lightly folded away.

“You do not know your own faith?” Leandra’s voice holds none of the mercurial amusement it normally might given the situation. She injects no chuckle or grimace of disbelief, adopting a little more of the phrasing and timbre used commonly among teachers to gifted pupils, albeit those of a closer age than a young teen and a woman of thirty (!). “Your belief has never faltered and never abandoned you, no matter the difficulties and perils you faced. A piece of the bright lady, displaced from her temple. You found her or she found you.”

A glimmer of understanding breaks through the poise of listening attentively. He looks from Leandra to the shade, still in the care of the crimson Cloak.

“Why, my Lady? You are…beyond all of this.”

After all, they are secure here, in the room betokening spring’s brightness and bloom. Indeed, why remain as ghostly as she is? This might as well be a seat of power for her.

“Her temple is cut off, and this part of her is adrift. Go, now, and do what you can to restore that connection.” Leandra frowns, shaking her head. “Take her back and all will be well. Farewell, Doctor Strange. May we meet on the other side.”

And with that, she gestures to the mirror and turns her attention fully to it, Stelling through the distorted glass. An image of greyed gardens bitten by winter ripples through, and then she is gone, the mirror smooth.

“I have no doubt of it,” the good Doctor replies quietly, watching Leandra make her way through a reflective surface turned portal. With the Witch gone, only he and the Cloak remain as the corporeal beings in the room.

He can count Leandra as found. Were that he had brought better news than he did. His gaze lingers for some time on the mirror, its focus at some middling distance or even beyond the silvery glass. The old scars of loss twinge; his own Sanctum still bears its own markings from the betrayal brought by silken web and multi-legged horror. The Sanctum. Wanda. He closes off his eyes and tucks his chin as a slow sigh escapes him.

He’s got to get back. He’s needed…and it’s getting risky, the amount of time he’s been gone.

But first…to the desk. Scarred fingers close around the thin leather length that strings along the small acorn. There’s a soft spot in his heart for the tree-seed that stems from childhood memories of finding squirrel caches and perhaps even flicking them about. He wraps the length several times around his hand, tucking the seed within closed fingers.

“Continue to keep Her close.” The command is spoken to the crimson relic even as he then approaches the mirror. Reaching out with empty palm, he attempts to ascertain whether or not this is the doorway home, back to the familiarity of the world he calls home and his heart contained in one Transian woman, the dark-eyed Witch who wears scarlet and shares his soul-song — back to two young men who may be blood — back to his darkwood library with its myriad tomes and living room with comfortable chair and tea.

Don’t forget the tea. And the tea room — he misses that dearly.


The levitating relic curls around the shade, once again taking up its post of scooping up the ephemeral embodiment of Strange’s faith. Ends tuck in and the hem sweeps up, once more carrying the grey figure much like a hobo’s bag or a pelican scooping up a fish. It floats along after the Sorcerer Supreme, its collars chuffed if their perked state is anything to go by.

He will find the touch of glass cool, the mirror hardly wide enough to take him fully. The oval shape tilts to catch a view of the world beyond the small window, and a glance there might reveal the astral plane or some grandiose sweep of dragons, pines, and a destroyed bridge. It’s not a sure thing, especially not when the glass ripples thickly and absorbs his hand, then his arm, and he can push through the unlikely oval to go hurtling through the dimensions back to himself. Such is a journey of a moment and a lifetime. He falls through the eye of a needle and plunges past a quasar’s hyperactive, volatile heart, and spills across the windswept starry night of his own mind.

In the house

Chill hangs on the air, a dampness still thick with the scent of soot and charred furniture in the ransacked interior. Blood crusts a track down his nose, not quite reaching his goatee, though its traces lie on his upper lip. Stiff joints answer the gnawing cold, and his knees throb from the cool weather. Salt rings him still, a protective barrier from the cascade of dust and debris kicked up. The cloak hanging on his shoulders smothers him fairly heavily, assuring that any heat stays trapped under the checkerboard textile lining the interior.

The Witch isn’t in sight of him immediately, though a pile of kindling bears the hallmark slashes and hacks of a knife. Piled up against a door, the debris gives some eye to defensiveness, whereas the upper staircase leading to the top floor hosts her endless trudging to assure nothing percolates down.

A final farewell, though not with true finality, before he makes contact with the mirror. After all, there is the probability of a spell with worth beyond reckoning in his home realm.

“Donna. I’ll be back. I…you are loved. I’ll be back.”

His entire posture tightens for a moment as he fights down a vicious lance of grief and then slowly relaxes with the gauze padding of a promise made. A nod to himself and then through the mirror, down the rabbit hole, across time and space and best friends again with scintillating flecks of cosmic light.

In the house

Ejected from the Sephirot in a plume of golden light, with a trail not too unlike a certain fairy prone to leaving pixie dust in her wake, the Astral form of the Sorcerer Supreme does a tumble in mid-air before righting himself. He groans, holds a hand to his head for a second as he reacquaints himself with his surroundings, and then locates his meditating body post-haste.

With an audible inhale, Strange is back. Eyes flash open, dazed even as his lungs protest for lack of movement and he coughs violently. The salt circle is scuffed by an arm outstretched and locked for balance as he realizes that oof — yes, held too still for too long and it’s cold!!! Pins and needles mark the extension of one leg…and then the other…and he looks around the room as he remains sitting. Kindling noted, absence of the Witch noted with double-timed rate of heart.

“Wanda…?” A voice box unused needs to warm up and he clears his throat roughly. Mmm, cotton-mouth too. The sudden realization of a small presence in his other hand makes him look down to see the acorn come into view from behind closed fingers; the leather thong is still wrapped tightly about his knuckles. The seed has a beautiful sheen unseen in the natural fallings of the oak tree, even to the mundane sight. There’s…almost a luminescence about it. Simply feeling its insubstantial weight resting centrally in his palm is enough to settle some soreness in his heart, to remind him of the glittering of sunlight in his veins and the breathless joy of springtime — to remind him that it was worth every minute of toil and trouble, of blood and sweat and tears — to remind him that he has limits and they are precious in their own rights; that weaknesses and failings are beautiful because they make him who he is and scribe upon his actions his signature alone. It was a journey that he won’t forget and it’s sure to make its way into his dreams.

Wetting his lips, the Sorcerer captures the acorn away before looking around again. Brr — his body shivers, willing heat back into its core for the automatic muscle twinges.

“Wanda?” His nose itches and he wipes at it to find the clotted blood crumbling on the back of his hand. Oh. That explains the dull throbbing between his eyes. Yikes.

To look deeply into that acorn reveals a whole world of possibilities. Every seed has the capacity to generate a field, a forest, a living ecosystem supporting insects and bacteria up to apex predators, man included. Amidst the meat concealed by the hard amber surface, amorphous filaments swirl around a tiny opalescent grey figure restored to barely a hint of colour. Grey catkin robes swaddle the ephemeral being, all the potential locked into something like a proverbial Thumbelina.

She sleeps in the dreamless sea of possibility, a fragmented incarnation adrift from its whole, or simply an outward manifestation of his own faith.

Strange’s return on its own might not warn Wanda to his presence, for the fall of the protective circle goes without an audible chime or a pop of limbs. No spell rushes down to investigate. She will, given a few moments, pushing a carved wooden panel back against the blank plaster, having performed a thorough assessment whether any of those bullets up in the belltower belong to errant Nazis or some other unwelcome source.

Several of those destroyed slugs rest in her omnipresent belt pouches, jingling along, sacrificing a little stealth in favour of projectiles should she need to call upon them. Swinging over the rail, she peers down with eyes cloudy and violet laced, her hair in a braid that swings off her shoulder. Ascertaining movement where not even a ruffle came from the cloak before, her fingers glitter in a wreath of lotus light, a searing shade closer to rubies than amethysts, supercharged by a hex that few of the Ahnenerbe would be capable of deflecting. They might know magic, but they tend not to know Chthon’s darkest arts.

Contact established visually, she can’t fight her own guarded inhibition, springing off the railing and dropping into the curving stairwell. It’s little good to get down fast, but catching the rail with her foot means an easy skid lower. Her gloved hands control speed and she skates across the brass, finally jumping down to the landing.

Trishul?” A question on her tongue, and the slow undulating effect of her loose bangs straying around the garnet-dappled headband speak to the full charge of power waiting to be unleashed on an interloper. Nice to know she asks questions first and flings hexes later.

A quick flick of surprised brows is precursor to the twinkling knowing in his eyes. Always a sight to see, the Hellcat on her guard — woe betide anyone who underestimates her.

Rakshasi,” the Sorcerer murmurs, giving her a duelist’s nod of curt respect follow by a goatee-curling smile. He grunts as he makes his way carefully to his feet, wincing for stiff joints and the still-retreating pins-and-needles. The Cloak flutters its collars to the Witch before settling down once again. Its master smiles faintly at it before stepping beyond the broken salt circle. “Ungh…success,” he reports, pausing to rub at his lower back through the relic’s length. “Leandra is alive, safe wherever she chooses to be. We — you and I, we have another task set to us.” He unveils the acorn on its leather string to her, outstretching it to show but not fair enough to insinuate that she should take it from him. “This needs to be planted.”

A quick scan of the room again proves that nothing has changed. Well, hold up…it looks…dustier somehow? He gives Wanda a mildly concerned look. “Did anything happen while I was gone?”

Strange’s questions meets with a mild shake of Wanda’s head. She suppresses the curse dancing on her fingertips, draining the energy back into herself and the warped fragments of reality snap back into place. “Other than a storm and shakes that moved the house? No.”

Power bleeds away from the witch, and the vacant shell of the building holds onto none, only the distant memories withdrawn by the tumble of grains through the neck of the hourglass. Time moves on, diminishing the cozy, homey atmosphere and weakening the remaining magical traces. Nothing is there to greet questing perceptions except in the lens of pitiless eternity.

“Did you not bring her back? Her body is… here? Other places?” Fine lines radiate across the witch’s gilded brow, pitching the curved arcs of her eyebrows into steeper descent. Unable to quite complete the sentence, she covers her mouth with her hand, stifling the clear basso inhalation of a yawn. “Yes. Planting the necklace, we can do this.”

Never mind that she might topple over without the wariness and caution pitching her mind to a keyed up state, Wanda doggedly continues on, waiting upon further instruction. Strange knows something, after all, and she is clinging to consciousness by her fingernails.


Hmm. Perhaps the reality around him was reacting to events inside the other dimension. Something to consider over a cup of tea later.

“Leandra chose to travel to a safe place after we discussed recent events,” the Sorcerer explains as he picks his way across the room. “Where her body is, I don’t know. That her soul, or what could be construed as such, remains vibrantly alive last I saw gives me hope that she’ll return of her own volition.” He saw the yawn, recognizes that it must have been a terrible strain keeping watch over him, as boring a shell as he was while away, and stops before her.

“She was grieving, «Beloved». We may not see her until she is finished.” A heavy shadow of pain shadows his own eyes, blotting them to the underbelly of a storm. She should know of Donna — it will aid in healing to tell her, but another time. Now it the time for last actions, preservation of power and faith in the face of loss. A scarred palm is held out for the Witch to take. “I know that I ask much of you, but do you have enough gumption to aid in one last task? The gardens in the back — they may need extra care to return them to their state. Would you be able to confirm this for me?”

He acknowledges the precious connection she has with the Earth as a whole, with the mother deity who lives in all who walk it and touch the dirt, still cold with winter’s touch.

Boredom hardly enters the equation for the sorceress, though duration does. Her vigil required the utmost awareness without surcease, and now sleep stalks her from the hazy silver ocean limning conscious thought.

“The gardens rose to the defense for the building. I think maybe one of the witches tried to wake them. Bushes grew too quick and covered bodies.” Oh, he’s likely not going to be happy to hear those were active graves dug on the east side of the house. The girl is profoundly unmoved by the revelation or came to peaceful terms already.

Their undisturbed sanctuary within the ruins of a life preserves a careful balance. A step no longer separates them as she moves to Strange, narrowing the divide. She closes her hand over the acorn, but more importantly, his palm. Overlapped, her fingers curl around the side, giving warmth and living connection. “I do not know this ‘gumption.’ Is it magic? Yes, I have enough. Or the things you need to grow plants happily? That is a very odd word. ‘Gump-shin.’” Sounding it out does not assist her understanding.

Her thumb tracks lower in a back and forth arc, caressing Strange’s hand, giving him some of her borrowed assurance, if not any greater strength. “Planting this before the ground is warm, not ice, will be hard. We could start it inside at the sanctum, put in a pot, and bring it here. Or we tell it the sun is bright and the soil is warm, and it has enough water. Which way?”

“Gumption. Spirit, energy, the drive to do something,” the good Doctor explains of the Midwestern slang. With the sleeping shade safely held between palms, he squeezes Wanda’s hand carefully as not to scrape bone upon bone or impress the seed into sensitive skin.

“This little thing should have… a lot of gumption,” he says with a faint laugh. One last look around the room proves nothing more of interest, at least to him in this moment, and he glances back to Wanda. “I trust your green thumb, «Beloved». It would be very safe starting the seedling in a pot in the Loft. By the Window, perhaps,” he adds, referencing the large round stained glass window-more-than-such. “A good amount of light comes in there.”

A pensive sobriety settles onto him like a gossamer shadow and he seems to look through her for a second before returning to the present. “I’ll need to return another time, likely after the acorn has sprouted and has a good set of roots, and see what I can do about fixing this place up. I can always access the ley lines, but…with Leandra still gone, the property would need another watcher even if I was to restore it to its pristine state, at least Mystically.” His brows knit. “The Black Sun would be tempted to try again without active keeping.”

The decision is made. “Yes, a pot in the Sanctum. No one trifling with it but us. I’ll need to set wards around it… What I remember from childhood of our cat, they like to take bites out of indoor greenery.” His eye-roll is half-hearted. Aralune is an adorably-annoying presence, redeeming herself for her adolescent feline shenanigans by snuggling on his chest in the early mornings. “Still…we should go. I’ll open a Gate and you go on ahead. I should bring up illusory shielding around the place, at the very least. No need for anyone to poke around more.”

“Very good.” Gumption explanation goes in one ear and out the other, something Wanda may revisit when not teetering on the last reserves of her energy before she needs to sleep or at least sink her toes deep into the earth and beg of its forgiving mother a boost so she can escape from her dolorous mortality. For all that three jars of honey stand in the cupboard in a tidy row, they cannot stave off that most unforgiving of masters, sleep, and its eventual brother, dreams.

A nod agrees with Strange, unhesitating. “Oaks grow well. Some seeds do not take in the soil but we can try. When they get light and water they will be happy.” The trust he places in her, as Sorcerer Supreme to the consort, will not go unnoticed then, for all she vaguely ponders the soft feather quilt and the possibility of a cup of tea before falling atop it. Her fingers curl around his still and conform to the inevitable tremor bound between them.

He is a thousand yards from her, and a light year. No need to interrupt the pattern of Strange’s thoughts, the riddles and enigmas invisible to both their eyes. Around them the house holds itself apart, timeless and forlorn, emptied of its treasures and most importantly its life. Those animated sparks giving any building an existence outside of the architectural domain have fled, scattered on storm winds and rattling gunfire.

“I will wait until you are done. All your trials…” No more needs to be said. No one needs to tell him how long this vigil has been, how many dawns and dusks have slid through the curve of her fingers. “Do not ask I leave you until you are done. It not an easy thing to see you without yourself.”

A small, somewhat sympathetic smile flickers across his face before disappearing.

“I can imagine. I don’t intend to subject you to such a thing again for…a long time. Hopefully,” the Sorcerer adds with a minute grimace. The Vishanti could change this at any time. One of the perks with being the Conduit to the trio.

It’s a solemn walk to the landing of the central staircase. It means passing by shredded wood, remnants of defenses failed, and the destruction he’d momentarily forgotten about in his journey through another world. By the time they reach the spot, he’s more than ready to commit a little extra juice to the skeleton of the wards he intends to cast upon the fallen mansion. Leandra can come back and build upon what base he sets, even mould it to her specifications.

Readying himself for the casting means releasing their shared grip and he’s hesitant to do it, even as his eyes travel from fingers intertwined up to her face. The reassurance is silent, shared via subtle squeeze and expression with the knowing calm of someone much older than him, a mentor long lost. The acorn on leather length is temporarily hung about his neck and it nestles near the Eye at an appropriate length in a karmic twist of amusement.

With hands freed, they assume appropriate mudras before being held crossed at the forearms before his chest. Already, dusty air begins to stir around him in response to the enforcing of his will upon reality around him. Before his eyes disappear behind a shuttering of intense concentration, they flood amaranthine. No warning need be given — anyone who stays close risks inundation by the spill of magic threatening release by his intent.

Perfectly grounded, he snakes the wish for accessing the bruised ley line beneath the mansion towards the deeply-underground Mystical river of undiluted Gaian magic. The air buzzes around him, plays with any loose object in the immediate area with snaking passes and lifting flips, and the atmosphere charges with the impending potentiality for lightning.

With a metaphysical caress juxtaposed in its cautious care, Strange encourages the ley line to follow his will — the Pied Piper plays a merry tune and the eldritch power follows in a sudden rush like a undammed river. The lightning rod draws true. It’s not a proper waterfall splashing about, like restructuring the Sanctum after its disastrous victimizing. No, simply the simplest of wards, watch-dogs with enough bite to dissuade intruders and to alert him in the case of a more stubborn intrusion.

Without the essence of what made the mansion itself, with it gutted of its sense of self, it’s all he can do — that is, until the acorn sprouts its first precious leaf in newest green and the breath of spring reaches the northern hemisphere to thaw the ground. Only then will the spirit return to the manor. The wards are not the lustrous silver known to the Sanctum, rather a smoky sylph of a spell that swirls around him lovingly before dispersing into the remaining structure. Sneaky things, not blatantly curious like his own guard-spells, quick to inspect and just as quick to retreat to alert him across the psychic plane. Bonus aspects to the incantation fools the mundane eye: from the outside, Wychwood Manor remains beautifully intact, brimming with manners and grace — to the practiced eye, it warps to a misty blur and chimes a warning not to examine it further for fear of a retribution.

He lays the ley line back to its resting state after imparting a sense of thankfulness and a bolstering from his personal stores, a mending of what wounds it exchanged in empowering the original fight to keep the manor secure. It’s the least he can do; after all, he showed in the aftermath. A slow sigh escapes him and those dark lashes slip open to blink a few times as he comes back to himself.

“That’ll do, I think… Don’t you — Wanda?” Oops. Scooping the Witch up in his arms is easy enough and he holds her close. She was his keeper long enough, it’s time that he was hers. With her head tucked into his neck, he’s able to press a gentle kiss to her forehead and murmur sweet nothings about sleep and tea even as he draws up a Gate to the Sanctum.

“I’ll be back,” he murmurs to the manor as a whole before stepping through the tear in the veils. Unfinished business here demands completion come the vernal equinox. No better time to plan seedlings than upon the cusp of spring itself. No better time to encourage new and better beginnings towards a hope of a brighter future.

Wychwood Manor stands, shadows of itself contained in the malleable presence of a sustained spell. Throughout it all the sorceress remains at an appropriate distance, eclipsed such that the myriad numbers of charms hanging on her belt or the relic necklace at her throat will not interfere. So, too, Wanda watches and learns with a keen insight gained at the foot of perhaps the most ancient living witch in the world, or close enough to count. Mystic Arts vary in their permutations and applications; this is certainly a prime opportunity.

Such passes through in such intensity that her lowered, battered guards simply cannot hold against the rising leylines charged through Strange’s aura and, hence, her own. Their overlapped communion at times has drawbacks and being especially susceptible for energy draws. Thus might her own end up blurred in the current, the transparent amaranthine aura pulled into the vortex of the Vishanti’s conduit gladly casting about with raised hands and purposeful decisions conducted with the elements, rather than woodwind and brass sections.

And she lies at ground zero for that symphony, tumbled unexpectedly into its heart. No wnoder, then, it carries her away in the complexities of a rapturous response. The shove of energy on a tide combined with the luminous swells of power converging into elaborate designs in her Sight cannot be understated for force.

When Strange offers his own stores to the line he drops, no doubt he ends up redirecting some of her own offering along with it, further doubling why she buckles to a state shorn of tethers to the waking world.

Wychwood will wait. The life he has built for himself beckons.

In the Abyss
A girl splutters and coughs up brackish water, beating her clenched fists against a blank stretch of stone. Her skin slips over the damp wall, rivulets of diluted scarlet running onto the bone plates beneath her legs. Again and again, she slams her hands over the solid wall.

“You promised!” she screams, the words interrupted by a deep, wracking cough. Falling to her knees, she slumps forward, unable to hold up her head or keep her soaked hair from limply flopping over her shoulders, sticking to her face. Cold tears run over clammy cheeks, and a wet stream of murky liquid runs from her nose, the same lake water pumped over her lips. Clutching her heaving sides, she howls in a broken violin thread.

“You promised me! You said you wouldn’t leave me…”

Donna sobs. And where there is no time, there is no end to her purgatory.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License