1964-10-22 - Astral Welfare Check (A "What If" Tale)
Summary: After a thorough trouncing back in Prague, Jane Barnes earns herself a check-in by the Sorceress Supreme and while it's not in-person, it's possibly enlightening.
Related: A Golem's Heart II, the What If Tales
Theme Song: None
bucky strange 

Having left both the apprentice and the Golem's Heart in the wise and powerful hands of the Rabbi, Stephanie has returned to her Sanctum. A loose demon from the sixth ring of Hell loose in New York was no small issue and she's taken a 'day off' after banishing it. Plus, scrubbing sulfur from the battle-leathers and even from the hem of the Cloak is a task.

Still…her mind does wander, and even as she's wrapped in her bathrobe, summoning up the last bit of cleansing oil to work into the tunic, her brows are knitted.

Perhap a check-in on that particularly stubborn assassin is due. It's easy enough to track her down; after all, the geas is spun from Strange's own magics. Sitting cross-legged on the rug by the master bed, she aligns her spine, closes her eyes, and slip — out into her Astral Form. Aligning herself to the distant twinkle of her own workings, the realm blurs around her and she finds herself…

….in a room clearly underground, scooped out of stone. Far above there's natural light glimmering, as if at the end of a tunnel. Catwalks and scaffolding wrap around the curving walls, leading up and up to a dizzying height. A silo, or formerly one.

But down on the floor, in the depths, there are varying pieces of equipment that look distinctly medical in nature. Monitoring gear, chairs like something out of a dentist's nightmare….and in one of them is a familiar form, bound to it.

The long curves of the silo's walls echo the screams, turning that single voice into a chorus of furies.

"What in the seven hells…?!"

As if anyone can hear her whisper from beyond the tight seal of the veil between proper reality and the Astral Realm, but Strange still claps hands over her mouth. That looks…like torture!!! The way that the assassin's body is fighting the very leather bands that hold her in place speaks to a near-rictus of pain, of nerves overloaded and jumping and helpless to do anything but convulse, even if she's not some frantic fish on a line. The amount of sheer instinctive resistance that can be seen too, even nearly lost to the cries of pain. The Sorceress is frozen where she hovers near the ceiling, shocked at seeing first-hand one of the darkest displays of neuroscience in her life.

They may have medical training, the ring of attendants keeping watch over the subject in the chair, but they've long since kicked over the Hippocratic Oath and trampled on it. Not a one of them flinches as their 'patient' shrieks.

By the sound of her voice, fading and ragged, this has been going on for a long while. She's only in a tank top and loose pants, despite the chill of the room. There's that band around her temples, clearly it's a sort of electroshock, but like nothing practiced in any legitimate halls of medicine. Her eyes are wide and blank.

Sympathetic trembles briefly wend their way through the Sorceress's petite form before she wrenches herself back to center. It's a sterile place behind the logical barriers she throws up against the worst of the scene before her, and she flits down closer still. It makes her throat tighten.

"If I'd known…" What? In the end, would it have changed anything? Suffering rules with an iron fist in swaying her heart — but still, this is the woman who has tried time and time again to stop that very heart from beating, near-immortalized or not. "This is not medicine!" That much Stephanie can spit out like an offended cat. This twist upon her own oath-sworn mantra is hideous.

It's like seeing pale vultures gathered around a dying animal. But eventually it ceases, and they drift off, for the most part, heading for tunnels the lead into darker reaches beneath the earth.

The assassin is only left there for a moment, before two men in darker uniforms unceremoniously haul her out of the chair. She's dragged like a sack of potatoes towards what looks like a cell on the side of the chamber.

The Sorceress watches, her eyes narrowed so thin as to only allow a slit of bright amaranthine to show. Once they've returned the assassin to her cell and a modicum of space is granted — most likely with the slam of a door and some serious interlocking gears — she flits through the thick metal barrier.

On the other side, she observes what she can of the woman, fingertips of one hand resting over her lips. The other arms tucks beneath her chest and around her ribs. In the Astral Realm, physics behave differently. The terry bathrobe undulates slowly, giving her the impression of being underwater rather than hovering in mid-air. She's hesitant to reveal herself and glances about, both utilizing her Sight and other senses to test for permutations of Dark magic within true reality, just beyond that veil.

No such traces, not here. It's by 'pure' science that they accomplish what they do here. The cell is utterly bare, save for a set of metal fixtures in one corner. Can't be walking her out every time she needs the bathroom, after all. No bed, no blankets, and it's not terribly cold in here.

The assassin curls up in a corner, trying to bring her breathing under control. Her eyes are half-lidded, but apparently unseeing, and that long, dark hair is loose around her shoulders, half-veiling her face.

The sweep is apparently clear. Still, Stephanie considers the assassin for a minute or two more, weighing options in her mind, before flitting down to kneel on what passes as the flooring in this odd variation of true reality. Then again, as Sorceress Supreme, the Astral Realm responds readily to her impressions of how it should be. She leans in closely, far closer than anyone in their right mind would allow a sudden stranger, and attempt to read anything within those closeted eyes.

Empty — hauntingly so. Swallowing, she flits backwards about five feet and then reaches out to touch the veil between the two realms.

It fractures around her palm, half-melted facets of glass and light all caught within a gel-like matrix, and she pushes through. Fingers part on one side and then the other to shove the hole wider and out pops the phantasmal head and shoulders of Strange. Her hair is back in a loose bun, still dampened from a shower and yet untouched by the relative chill of reality around her — after all, this is more soul than physical self, even if it's more a totality of self in the end.

"So this is how they punish you." Her voice is soft, faintly echoing as if spoken in a crystal chamber, and while she's glowering, it's equal parts for the suffering scene as well as the…apparently far-more hale form on the floor. Dammit. It was supposed to take weeks for her to recover!

That metal arm is there, that utter oddity, hammered back into shape. No bruises or hemorrhages, but the way she moves is painful. The harder stuff….it's still there, if within. Deeper damage and not all of it physical.

Which is witnessed by the way she reacts to that vision. In that she mostly doesn't. Strange can see the pale eyes focus on her, and she flinches back. But beyond that, she seems to simply accept the sorceress's presence, blinking up at her. "…..Steve?"

"They must have done a harder number on you than I thought," Stephanie murmurs to herself, the usual amount of dryness lacking in the face of such discomfort in plain view. "I was half-expecting you to jump like a scalded cat. No Steve, whoever that is." She takes a moment to pull up the lapels of the red bathrobe about her neck, the color translating with an odd liquid clarity across the visual barrier between Astral and physical realms. "An old friend?"

Say it with me: all knowledge is worth knowing….especially if it's a connection who could tell the Sorceress more about the assassin dogging her bootsteps.

She looks down at the floor, the gesture of someone trying to dig through memory, gaze darting back and forth. Someone reading from a page where most of the words have been reduced to the black bars of redacted material. Finally, she looks up again. "I don't know."

Stephanie wrinkles her nose in a vague sense of frustration.

"Definitely a number. If you can dredge up a name after being subjected to whatever bullshit science experiment that was out there," and she thumbs towards the cell's door, " — it's important enough that I hazard your memory attempted to preserve it, even subconsciously. Do you even recognize me?"

Granted, the last that the Winter Soldier saw of the Sorceress, the practitioner was far more bloodied, pale, and had no semblance of control on her hair in the least.

"I know you. You're the witch, Strange," she says, but with no real heat. Perhaps she's deeming this all a dream or a hallucination. Or…..simply doesn't care. Strange didn't kill her before, chances are excellent it won't happen now. "Are you here? Am I dreaming this?" Her tone is incurious.

The grin that shows the faint glint of teeth is definitely mildly malicious. "Sorceress, please. Not witch. There is a difference," she murmurs, smoothing away the briefly-prickling of affront. "And I'm present, though not as you'd normally expect. Can I hurt you? Of course. Do I care to?" The shrug is dismissive. "Not right now. No dream, assassin. Simply a welfare check."

Those glowing eyes, even translucent as they are, run over the other woman's body with the detached interest of a medical professional. "You're healing well." And by the subtle steel beneath the words, Strange sounds decidedly displeased for it.

That's greeted with a furrowed brow. "…..what *is* the difference? And why do you care?" Is this a hallucination? It's more diverting than cold and silence.

"Indeed, why do I care…" Stephanie seems to weigh the concept before simply sighing. "I'm now aware of your current state and ready for the next attempt on my life. You strike me as one who needs a rather severe…scolding to cease such behavior." Slitted eyes rest upon the assassin. "If it's a game of chess you wish to play, consider your opponent more wisely."

She reaches up and tucks an errant strand of ink-wet hair away from her face as she takes on a near-bored tone and adds, "A sorceress may be of any race, even non-human. Witches seem to be more strictly human by ilk. I would expand further on the discrepancies between the two titles, but I'm not about to hand you information on a silver platter."

"It is not me. It is not personal, sorceress. Even if you had killed me, they will still come. Just with bigger guns, smarter assassins. Do not delude yourself." By the way she lets her head fall to the pillowing arm, Strange might be doing her a favor to cut this particular thread of fate short.

"I'm not deluding myself. I hope they send you, of all the myriad minions they have available," and she does a less-than-impressed twiddling of fingers off to one side. "They'd be a fool to keep you shuttered away in here. Fate…has plans for you, I think." Strange chooses not to expand further on that softly-spoken observation.

She watches Strange with those ice-pale eyes, thinking whatever slow thoughts for a long time. "Why would they? I've failed with you, twice. If I am used again, sure it will not be for you."

"I can't even begin to guess as to why your handlers do half of what they do, the batshit-crazy bastards." Another sliding glare towards the room, with its chair of despair and mind-melting capabilities — the better to mold the woman in the cell to their whims. "And if they send you after another practitioner, I can guarantee you that you will find me there and we will clash." By her tone, it's bound to be a near-guarantee. "So…they will be sending you to me one way or another, assassin."

Is it resignation? Acceptance, that look? Like an oracle gazing out of the smoke, knowing that all her warnings will be misinterpreted and misunderstood. Cassandra's despair. She actually sighs. "A threat like you doesn't fit into their calculus. So they have to neutralize it."

Stephanie nods, the very smallest hint of a smile found at one side of her pert lips.

"I break every mold attempted to fit me, so I'm not surprised. By all means, go on," encourages the most prideful of Sorceresses.

The tiniest of shrugs, but enough to make the plates scrape on the floor. "I don't know further," she says, softly. "I'm only one piece in the unseen war." One broken and swept under the table, at this point.

"Hmm." Somehow, the Sorceress is able to rest an elbow upon the misty edge of the oculus between the Astral and physical and then her chin upon her folded hand, along the ordered curl of her fingers. "They leave you with the barest possible amount of information and if I didn't know better, I'd swear they were testing me in turn. Perhaps I should truly insert myself as the negative one to their attempt at squaring and rooting things away. That'll turn their calculations tail-over-tea-kettle." A snerk of a laugh.

"What makes you think they are not? They throw me at you, you win handily. Me, I'm disposable. But there is only one of you," she says, still in that offhand voice. Like this is of no real moment to her. Maybe, despite those assurances, she thinks this all is a hallucination.

"There will always be only one of me and only one of you."

And probably in some fit of pique, or maybe because there exists a streak of vindictive sport in the darkest corners of her soul, Strange reaches out to the end of her possible extension of arm. It's a tap to Jane's nose with her Astral finger, the touch no more possibly present than a butterfly wing's passing flap or perhaps the very twinkling tip of a kitten's curious paw, all graced with an extra tickle of static. Just as quickly, she settles back at the aperture between realities, smiling that Cheshire Cat smile saved from animus by the softening at the corners of her Art-bright eyes.

"And you will see me again, assassin, whether you like it or not. You're dangerous enough to keep tabs on and who knows? You may let slip more information the next we cross paths."

That makes her cross her eyes in disbelief, and jerk back - whole body at once, somehow, like a startled cat, until her back ends up against the wall. "I know little," she says, gaze fixed warily on Strange.

"I believe you know more than you're aware of," the Sorceress opines, watching the assassin after her retreat to the far wall much like a leopardess keeps a lazy interest on a passing jackal. "And the more we find ourselves standing apart from one another, the more will come to light."

She tilts her head enough that the singlet strand of dark hair falls forwards of her ear again. "I'm no hallucination. Does this change your opinion on the current state of things?"

"No," she says, quietly. "You will do what you will do. So will I."

"Isn't that always how it is: people doing what they will and thinking that they control the world around them." Her expression gains a shadow that passes like a cloud on the water and therein the formal air is gathered about her, invisible in comparison to the celestial wafts of her body at its visible edges. It's a blurring for the sheer wattage of power found in her Astral form, like the corona from a star.

"Fate will deal us another hand soon enough, assassin. I expect you to attempt to stack the deck — know that I will be prepared."

She lets her eyes half-lid. It gives her a feline expression. "Be careful, wizard," she warns, in turn. Wary, for all that she's still sprawled like a broken toy left in a corner.

Breaking through that aloof mask, a sickle-moon curve of lips.

"Didn't you know that 'careful' is my middle name? Besides, I'll let you in on a little secret, since we're momentary cell-mates." Her voice drops to a crisp whisper as she imparts to her audience, "I'm functionally immortal." Wink. "And please, Sorceress. If we're to be at odds, I'd rather be addressed correctly."

A sudden widening of eyes and full-body quiver before she turns and glowers off over her shoulder. "If you'll excuse me, I'm apparently needed elsewhere." With that questionably-proper farewell, she ducks backwards and the opening in reality bleeds back into itself. Reaching out and feeling at the air will prove it to be…air. Empty space, three-dimensional and mind-boggingly devoid of the ghostly dark-brunette, red bathrobe and all.

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