So… it's been a year. Almost 13 months, in fact.
Where have I been? What have I been up to?
Well, it hasn't been 'sitting on my arse doing nothing', I'll say that. Part of it is that as readers of Unfinished Business (the below-mentioned side-story)and my other current work will know, I'm in therapy. Depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Plus a whole grab-bag of neuroses and unresolved issues from childhood. I'm doing much better now, thanks to an amazing therapist, but point is, the demons finally caught up to me after many years of knocking at my door.
Other than that, I have… got a job (did wonders for my self-esteem), worked some ludicrous hours (I do evening shifts mostly), tried to get a better job and narrowly failed at the interview stage when I was in the last four for a managerial position, did really well, lacked that tiny bit more experience, done a lot of mind-boggling juggling of my personal finances (I hate managing money, it makes me nervous), getting the aforementioned therapy, helped my mother through a lot of chronic pain (medically sorted now, thankfully), and just over a week ago, lost my much-loved grandfather. He was 96, and going downhill for a while, but it still hurts.
As for writing, well. Mostly, writing-wise, I've been working on the side-story to this, Unfinished Business, which I really recommend you read if you haven't yet. That's been the real stalling point, not because I'm not getting ideas for this (I have had LOADS), but because the way the fic is structured, I can't actually move anything on until I've got that done. Why? Because it has major knock-on effects on the rest of the fic and series. But most importantly, on the next chapter involving Harry. I'm on the last chapter of it, which I've structured and I'm writing it now. I'm also writing a Star Wars/X-Men crossover called Children of the Stars, one very, very different to this series, in style and… everything, really. I wanted to experiment.
However, I saw the one year anniversary go by, and shuffled my feet awkwardly. So, I've pieced together a relatively short teaser chapter of things that other characters have been/are up to without getting involved with those knock-on effects or being a nonsensical arrangement of snippets. Which, considering the vast majority of my cast are/were involved in either the Fortress arc or the spinoff, is really fucking difficult.
Trigon: Yeah... there's gonna be fallout. Thank you. That would be telling. He won't be happy, no. I hinted at it, through Strange, way back when Strange finally cornered Sinister. Sort of, yes. Strongly the continuation?
Guest: Yup. Oh, that would be far too easy. Yeah. The band-aid on one secret, and not even the biggest.
SilverLion80: Part of one of your suggestions isn't that far off the mark. Also, I enjoy torturing you people.
OverReaction: The only person really lashing out at Hermione is Harry, who as he will freely admit, is not at his most rational when loved ones are involved. Everyone else believes she has a right to her anger, even if they also believe what was done was necessary, Wanda especially. Even Harry does, deep down. All Dumbledore did was gently introduce Hermione to the alternate perspective and give her something to think about.
Guest: Heh. First of all, thank you. Second of all, this is more or less exactly like looking at myself as a university student. Flattered as I am, I say unto thee: sleep is god, go worship. Also, last minute uni work can be brilliant, or it can be ridiculous. Again, I am deeply flattered, especially since characterisation and world-building are two areas I pride myself on.
Mitchell Konrath: Thank you. And as the old poem has it, 'miles to go before I sleep.'
David Najarian: This fic, as you can see, is not abandoned. I had a side-story to deal with first, adjusting to a new job, and then the small matter of therapy for depression, possible anxiety, definite suicidal thoughts, my mother having some seriously painful health issues (thankfully now more or less resolved), and most recently, my much-loved grandfather dying. Forgive me if my having a mental breakdown and difficulties in my personal life made life inconvenient for you.
Wanda stepped into Dumbledore's office, shut the door behind her, and let out an explosive sigh.
"I take it that the Grangers continue to be unhappy," Dumbledore said.
Wanda shot him an unamused look. "That is an understatement of epic proportions, Albus, and you know it," she said.
Dumbledore flicked his wand, and a bottle of butterbeer floated out of a drink's cabinet. Wanda raised an eyebrow.
"Right now, I don't think that anything alcoholic would be a good idea," Dumbledore said, mild but pointed.
"Probably not," Wanda agreed, taking the butterbeer. "Gods above and below, I wish it was."
"Drinking your problems away solves nothing, trust me."
Both turned to the third figure in the room. Doctor Strange, previously silent, was staring off into the middle distance, brow creased in a frown.
"You've tried it?" Wanda asked.
"A few times over my lifetime," Strange said absently, and shrugged. "As coping mechanisms go, it seemed to be one of the most convenient, balancing desired effect with comparatively minimal damage."
"What desired effect would that be, Stephen?" Dumbledore asked.
"To forget, anything or everything. To banish the visions from my head. To silence the whispering voices of destiny," Strange said. "To try, for even a few hours, to be someone other than Doctor Stephen Strange." He smiled thinly, devoid of pleasure. "As you might imagine, it never really took." He looked up at them. "You see, I have a job to do. And it isn't the kind of job you can walk away from."
"Do you want to?" Wanda asked, after a long moment.
Strange waggled a hand back and forth. "Yes and no," he said. "For myself? Yes. All I want to be, all I have ever wanted to be, is to be a doctor. Perhaps a musician on the side. For the universe, knowing the nature of the role? No. I say this without ego, and as a matter of absolute and undeniable fact: the consequences to reality should I have ever managed to throw off my mantle, or if it had ever been taken from me, would be catastrophic."
"But what I want doesn't really matter," he said. "In this case more than most."
Wanda's eyes narrowed. "Hermione," she said.
"Hermione," Strange agreed.
"It did seem a bit sloppy for your style," Wanda said coldly.
"It wasn't mine," Strange said bluntly.
Wanda's eyes narrowed further. "Explain," she said, voice clipped.
"Hermione is... not what I expected," Strange said slowly.
That got attention. In fact, both Dumbledore and Wanda stared at Strange in a mixture of incredulity, disbelief, and horror. After all, both remembered what had happened the last time something that Strange hadn't expected had happened on this kind of scale.
"What do you mean by that, Stephen?" Dumbledore asked, quiet and careful. "What were you expecting?"
"A temporal mutation," Strange said. "Whether 'merely' the ability to travel in time at will, magnified to fit her powers, a similar ability to read the future and the past, or the ability to manipulate time outright, that was the mould her abilities fit in the vast majority of futures." He smiled thinly. "I would know: I engineered it."
Dumbledore's eyes widened, before he exhaled out slowly. "Of course," he said softly. "Simple, elegant… and brilliant."
"What is this?" Wanda asked sharply. "Stephen, what did you do?"
Strange cocked an eyebrow at her. "Tell me, Wanda, do you believe that even a truly exceptional third-year student would merit the unprecedented loan of a Time Turner, one of the most valuable and, in its own way, dangerous magical artefacts that the world has ever seen?" he asked. "Simply for the purpose of taking extra classes?"
"You bathed her in temporal energy," Wanda breathed, catching on. "For a whole year."
"Approximately 41 weeks, actually," Strange said clinically.
"Why?" Wanda demanded, eyes now flashing with fury. "So you would have someone to carry on your work? A replacement, ready-made?"
Strange was on his feet in a split second. "Never," he hissed, and though it was a single whispered word, it carried an ocean of outrage within.
That in itself was a shock. Strange normally gave ground in the face of Wanda's anger, accepting it. It was, after all, usually deserved. This time was very different. Now, he flung himself out of the chair, advancing on his former student in a towering fury, eyes ablaze with power and madness.
"As I have said to others before, the last thing I want is for someone to turn out like me, for anyone!" he said, voice rising to a roar.
Wanda, however, stood her ground and glared at him. "Then why, Stephen, why?" she demanded. "And no riddles, no games – you will tell me why."
Strange meet her glare for glare for a long moment, before slowly deflating. "Logic," he said tiredly. "Pure and simple logic. It was an easy equation to run: your father is Omega Class. You are Omega Class, and stronger even than him. One of your half-siblings, Pietro, has the potential to reach the upper-limits of Alpha Class. Your half-sister, Lorna? There is no reason that she could not match your father, with sufficient training and encouragement. Even without a look into the future, it was clear that Hermione was always going to manifest an extremely powerful X-Gene. And owing to the side-effects of Chaos Magic, it was likely to be both destructive, and unpredictable in the time and nature of its manifestation. Even to me."
"So you exposed her to temporal energy," Dumbledore concluded. "Having her travel through time, over and over again. You wanted to influence her mutation."
Strange nodded. "A temporal mutation would be predictably unpredictable," he said. "It would be easy for me to detect, and easy to undo any unfortunate side-effects."
"And you didn't think to inform anyone?" Wanda asked. Her anger had mostly subsided into irritation, especially irritation at the fact that she couldn't find any major flaws in Strange's logic.
"You would have tried to stop me," Strange pointed out.
Strange raised an eyebrow.
Wanda's glare intensified.
"That is admittedly quite likely," Dumbledore said diplomatically. His eyes turned flinty. "And the subject of Hermione's X-Gene and the lack of even an approximate warning of its manifestation will come under discussion. Soon."
Strange grimaced an acknowledgement, and inclined his head in acceptance.
"The fact remains, however, that Hermione's abilities are present, extremely potent, and most certainly not temporally related," Dumbledore continued. "My own belief is that they relate to spatial manipulation, not unlike the Tesseract."
"There are worse analogies," Strange agreed. "Functionally, Hermione is not unlike a miniature Tesseract. Not by any means of the same order of power, of course, but allowing for her mortal limitations, her abilities are quite similar to those of a correctly used Tesseract."
"By Hoary Hosts of fucking Hoggoth," Wanda sighed. "She's stronger than Harry, then?"
"Possibly," Strange said. "When one reaches power on that level, the precise level of power becomes a bit nebulous as the power itself offers access to so much more. Then, of course, there is the matter of how one defines 'power'."
"In raw energy, I suspect they could both raise similar amounts, but Harry's experience and physiology give him far greater stamina. Then there is the fact that he actually understands his powers moderately well, whereas Hermione's new powers are, well, new, and her Chaos magic is a work in progress. Yet at the same time, her combined powers defy conventional classification through their very nature. And that nature..."
He ran a distracted hand through his hair.
"I can honestly say that I have never seen anything like it before," he said, sounding baffled and awed in equal measure. "Which, for me, is... astounding, really."
Wanda tilted her head, frowning, before her eyes widened in comprehension. "She contrasts Order and Chaos," she said, after a moment. "My mutation complements chaos, but hers… she has chaos magic in one hand, and the spatial manipulation, manipulation of the ordered universe, in the other."
"Precisely," Strange said. "She is the pinch in the hourglass, the fulcrum, the single point of balance."
"A nexus being," Wanda murmured, in a mix of wonder and horror.
Strange nodded. "An individual of vast, if not limitless, potential," he said.
"She stands in-between," Dumbledore said meditatively. "She is truly liminal... and on a correspondingly hard path."
Wanda eyed Strange.
"Don't look at me, I didn't choose it for her."
She sighed. "I know," she said.
"And neither did you," Strange said pointedly. "You had no way of knowing that you would pass on both Chaos magic and X-Gene. Or, indeed, either."
"You did," Wanda retorted.
"I suspected," Strange corrected. "There was a moderate chance she would end up with only one, or, indeed, neither." He regarded Wanda. "I could remove her X-Gene, you know. Not turn it off - that's actually a good deal harder, and in any case, her Chaos magic would just turn it back on, and most likely in far more disruptive fashion than before. But I could remove it."
Wanda blinked. "You would do that?" she asked, in disbelief.
Strange read the subtext and smiled sadly. "Do you think I would let your daughter suffer for my own potential gain?" he asked. "I will admit, Hermione's powers could be very useful to me, as could yours. My plans rely heavily on Harry, but every plan needs a back-up, and hers fit into one of those back-ups just as neatly as yours do, if not more so. But they are not critical, either."
"Of course, it is not for either of us to decide, but it is an option, and one that I will put to Hermione when she is not inclined to a knee-jerk reaction - and there are reasons for her to choose to do so that aren't simply a reaction against a new disruption in her life," he said.
"Or against me," Wanda said sadly.
Strange and Dumbledore did her the courtesy of not trying to deny it.
"In truth, I think she will come to rather like these abilities. Unlike her Chaos magic, they fit remarkably well with her logical and scientific mindset," Strange said. "A little open-mindedness can reveal their true potential, of course, but they should suit her rather nicely." He smiled slightly. "All in all, fate seems to have chosen more appropriately than I have."
"Whether it's you, or fate, it's chosen a hard life for her," Wanda said. "The last life I wanted."
"That life is not so hard as you may think, Wanda," Dumbledore said. "Hermione will not be unsupported."
"Thank you, Albus," Wanda said, before shooting a sharp look at Strange as something just occurred to her. "Stephen, what kind of 'other reasons' might she have?"
Strange was silent for a long time.
"Her powers are a doorway," he said eventually. "And an unsecured doorway may be walked through in either direction."
Elsewhere, other doorways had been walked through. Ones that, it was best hoped, were still secure where it mattered.
"The history is... well, it's a bit arcane," Daniel Jackson said.
For an archaeologist who'd experienced such an upturn in fortunes, he was surprisingly pensive. After all, he'd gone being from so much of an outcast in his field that no institution (bar the crackpots and conspiracy theorists) would even consider employing him, literally laughed out of academia, to the toast of the academic world after the finds at Akkaba. Akkaba, once the name of a theory that was nothing more than an academic joke, was now a site proving to be perhaps the greatest archaeological discovery since Knossos, Pompeii, Troy, or Angkor Wat, an insight minimally on par with the Rosetta Stone, perhaps even surpassing them all.
"How do you mean, Doctor?" Fury asked. "And what history is this, exactly?"
Normally, archaeological discoveries were not his area of interest, unless they turned up an 084 or they'd been enchanted with some horrible defence that the various curse-breakers couldn't deal with. And even then, he had people for that. This one, though, was different. Yes, it was only one of the many things that had been unveiled or turned upside down following the Battle of New Orleans (and frankly, there was still a massive backlog from the aftermath of the Battle of London, let alone the Twelve Day Empire). But the short summary he'd been sent had rung some very unpleasant and ominous bells.
"Well, Akkaba wasn't abandoned, so much as it was buried," Jackson said. "What could be destroyed, was. What couldn't be destroyed, was locked away - an entire city, sealed up. This was like a prehistoric Chernobyl, no one wanted anything to do with it. Some of those defences are, somehow, technological and quite formidable, even after thousands of years. According to the various witches and wizards who I absolutely do not know about, have never met, etcetera, there's the remains of some incredibly powerful defences, most of which are based on making people stay away, or making them think it's cursed. Mostly because, apparently, it was." He looked up. "The point is, Director, no one wanted it dug up. As for why... well, that's where it gets a bit arcane."
"This, from the man who proposed the Akkaba theory in the first place," Fury said sceptically.
"When I proposed the theory, I was imagining something like a very powerful state at the heart of a cultural dissemination of relatively advanced technology and ideas," Jackson said pointedly. "At most, a sphere of cultural influence equivalent to Ancient Greece following the conquests of Alexander and the adoption of it by Rome, or the cultural spheres occupied by ancient China and India - which are still massive. Likewise, by 'relatively', I mean 'middle Iron Age', which when the world was still about three thousand years away from the start of the Bronze Age, is still both earth-shatteringly incredible and utterly outlandish. This is something else entirely."
"I am aware, Doctor Jackson," Fury said evenly. "That's why I'm here."
"Well, I was expecting something that would write new chapters of history and prompt reconsideration of later history in light of it. I did not expect to find something that burned down history as we knew it and left us to rewrite it, upside down, by the light of millennia of burning knowledge. This… rewrites everything."
He shook his head, looking lost for a moment.
"I knew that there were large sections of history missing from public knowledge," he said. "Entire communities, even species, edited from the record, hidden in the shadows. The history of Wakanda, for instance, is completely different to what we believed it to be. I stayed out of academia, but I never stopped looking. The last few years left evidence everywhere, and more people willing to talk - both about it, and to me. But the general framework of events was consistent with what we knew, we were just missing the details. This? It may not be on the same earthshaking scale as the theological revelation that, 'hey, pretty much every mythical deity is real', but it's..." He sighed. "I suppose it's more personal."
Fury stared at him for a long moment. "Believe it or not, I do understand what you're saying, Doctor Jackson," he said. "When I found out about what the world was really like, the kinds of beings and power players that are out there, I thought I was going crazy. Some people do. Others go into denial. It's that big, and that bad. And that's before they even begin to get where you did; into the wider ramifications. If you want to freak out, I won't blame you. But right now, I need you to focus. Even the short version of what you found got my attention. I need all of it."
Jackson took a deep breath. "Right," he said, gathering his composure and his notes. "Well, okay. First of all, let's set the scene: 8000 years ago, we've got what is known as the African Humid Period, and what we know as the Green Sahara. Which, actually, is making something of a comeback. No one's quite sure why, though one of the guesses is that Red Sky Day had something to do with it. Anyway, the short version is that the Sahara wasn't entirely desert. In fact, there were only pockets of 'true' desert. The same applied to Egypt, which was mostly savannah style grassland. Don't think modern Egypt, think Kenya's Maasai Mara. It's a close enough approximation. Like the Mara, it's also very suitable for hunter-gatherers and pastoralists - nomadic herders - alike. Things are richer and more forested closer to the Nile, but also pretty swampy and marshy. And yes, this is relevant. For one thing, it explains how a city like this -"
He gestured out the tent at Akkaba.
"- could be built and supported here. It also explains part of why it went missing for so long: when everything dried up again, it was buried, and no one thought to look out this far from the Nile."
"Among others, yes," Jackson said. "Anyway, Akkaba was, thanks to a groundwater reservoir, fed by floods from the Nile, particularly fertile. It was consequently both a valued trading spot, and contested by a number of tribes. One of those tribes was small, but feared for their ferocity in battle. They're where our narrative begins – literally, in fact, it's inscribed… well, in a lot of places. They really didn't want it forgotten."
"My history isn't what it might be, Doctor Jackson, but if this is so old, then surely it predates any known language," Fury said.
"It does," Jackson said. "Though one was constructed, and it's present in a lot of stuff, so we're working on that. It's also under a lot of paintings and drawings, so we're making some pretty good progress on parsing the meaning. However, whoever designed the warnings came prepared for eventual linguistic drift – which makes a certain sense considering what happened – and wanted an immediate warning to steer clear. So they made what I can only describe as memory walls, which the magical staff compare to something called 'Pensives'."
"I'm familiar with the term."
"Good, because I'm not. Anyway, you touch them, even get close to them, and it's like you're in the memory, sounds, smells, sights, and all. It doesn't give you exact wording, but it does give you an impression, intent, that your brain essentially translates into wording. That means it'll come out slightly different for everyone, but…"
He trailed off as Fury looked stonily at him.
"Look, I'm dealing with an impossible city that looks like concept art for a sci-fi Babylon, including stuff that's half fantasy, half science-fiction. I am quite literally making this up as I go along," he said. "Traditional archaeology only gets you so far in the post-New York era."
"You're not the only one whose job has become more complicated since then, Doctor Jackson," Fury said. "I understand and I accept your limitations. Anything you can give me is appreciated – except for excuses."
"Right," Jackson said. "Well, anyway, small, fearsome tribe around a fertile spot. Farther to the north, meanwhile, a powerful kingdom, an empire, was forming. It was led by a God-King, a Pharaoh. The first Pharaoh, in fact. He was supposedly called Rama-Tut - which, I suspect, is the garbled remnants of the original name, because this was nearly three thousand years before the development of Old Egyptian..."
"Doctor Jackson, on topic, please."
"Right. Sorry. Well, basically, Rama-Tut was supposed by many to be a god, with extraordinary powers and knowledge, and a peerless warrior even without those powers when he 'lowered himself to walk among mortal men'," Jackson said. "It was said that his will could make an old man young, a child blossom into adulthood, or make it as if a thousand years had passed, leaving only dust behind. He, for his part, never aged, though he reigned for a hundred years. His servants and elite warriors were similarly mighty, though to a lesser degree. It was said that he had armies of metal men, unstoppable demons, and that he fought with other gods who came to challenge him, enslaving them, banishing them, or striking them down. He then began rapidly conquering every tribe around him, recruiting them into his service and outfitting them with mighty weaponry, expanding in every direction, building cities as he went."
"Sounds like a regular Alexander," Fury commented.
"That's a pretty fitting comparison, given what else the accounts say about him," Jackson said. "Anyway, the Green Sahara facilitated his conquests, likewise the knock-on effects in the Middle East. He also seems to have had aircraft - 'chariots which rained fire from the sky, and turned green fields into choking dust'. He was expanding into Asia and Europe, but his main focus was consolidation - which is probably why most of his foundations haven't yet been found, given that they're probably under about eight millennia worth of sand - and a drive southward along the Nile."
He looked up at Fury.
"As far as I can tell, he was going for what is now Wakanda. Three guesses why."
Fury nodded grimly.
"Anyway, his forces reached down towards Akkaba, and were doing their usual conquer and recruit routine," Jackson said. "When they met a tribal confederation. It was led by the tribe I mentioned earlier, who had a new leader, one who had slain his predecessor. However, the one of interest was his son. As an infant, the child had been cast out and left to die for his unnatural grey skin and strange markings, but his adoptive father saw the potential for greatness in him. He drove his son hard, training him to believe that weakness - of body or of mind - was an unacceptable burden to the tribe, and to humanity as a whole. It must be purged at all costs. Strength, meanwhile, should be rewarded in the only way that strength could be - by taking all that it could. Those who were fit to survive would. Those who were not, would not. Essentially, it's what most people would call Social Darwinism."
He shuffled his notes, picking up the thread again.
"He always pushed his son harder than anyone else, because only by showing his greater strength would he be fit to lead. Then, one day, a traveller came to the tribe's camp, and asked to speak to the boy. When asked to prove that he was worthy of such an honour in a trial of strength, he showed that he was a great warrior, wielding a weapon that had never been seen before." He looked up. "I'm pretty sure from the descriptions that they meant some kind of longsword, which raises all sorts of questions, but anyway..."
He dropped his gaze.
"With that weapon, he slew three of the tribe's greatest warriors in as many beats of a man's heart. He then spoke words of power and brought the entire tribe to their knees. And when he spoke again, he said that he was no longer asking. The boy somehow managed to escape the spell, and charged towards the stranger with his father's spear. Needless to say, he was swatted aside, but the stranger was pleased. 'A great evil has arisen in the north', he said. 'It destroys what is meant to be. It comes for you now: for your lands, your bodies, and your destinies.'"
"Destinies?" Fury asked sharply.
"Fates, futures, destinies... it can be translated a lot of ways, but that's more or less it," Jackson said. "It's pretty specific."
Fury nodded slowly.
"The stranger said, 'I was not mistaken, as I feared: you have the strength to challenge this evil. More importantly, you have the courage to do so, for all that it has power beyond your imagining'," Jackson continued. "When asked by the boy what he desired, the stranger said, 'you.' And it was clear that he could not be stopped, for even the strongest of the tribe were as infants before his might. The boy was brave and asked why. 'If you desire it, you will be my student, and I will teach you all I know', the stranger said. 'You will master many of my powers and all of your own. And when you return, few will be able to challenge you.' When the boy asked why he would not master all of the stranger's powers, the stranger laughed at his insolence. 'Some of my powers are mine alone, as some of yours are only yours. We will walk the same path, but we can only walk together so far. Will you accept my offer?' And the boy did, asking only that his father and tribe be spared. This also pleased the stranger, who then instructed the tribe to join with the conquerors, but to swear a secret oath of loyalty to their chief's son: when he returned, they would serve him, or suffer a most fearful consequence. Only the chieftain was exempted, and he turned his face away from his son in shame as he left."
Jackson changed pages, then skipped over some.
"There's a bit of stuff about what he learned, the trials they faced together, but the gist is that the boy grew into a man under the stranger's guardianship, and learned much, including many secrets that were never told to another soul. He learned much about the stranger, too, who he loved as a father. He had powers much like the Eternal King, whose rule now extended far into the lands where the sun set and where the sun rose, whose cities were the glory of the world, and whose armies were its terror, and only gods could slow their advance. The stranger was often hard to understand, speaking in riddles and keeping many secrets. However, he was very clear that for all they were eternal, he and the King were but men. 'Our power, and our knowledge, do not make us gods'. This lesson he repeated time and time again. When asked what he was, he named himself as nothing more than 'an Exile' or, if pressed, 'a Priest of Destiny'."
"Those are new," Fury muttered. "Cut to the chase, Jackson. I can read the full version later."
"Okay," Jackson said, drawing the word out, frowning. "He taught the boy how to master sorcery and the terrible strength of his body, given him by a twist in his birth, a cruel jest of his birth, as well as the devices of the Eternal King. And the boy became a man, and the man became mightier than any who had walked the earth, his head full of the stranger's secrets. At the stranger's side, he battled many foes, honing his strength, and they gathered an army of resistance. Eventually, the stranger told him, 'my first task is done, for you are the First One. Now, you are ready. The empire must fall, for destiny demands it.' He instructed his student to take care, for their enemy had grown greater and more terrible, and that other tasks would follow, enemies greater still. Then, he sent his student through secret ways to his tribe, now part of the Pharaoh's Elite, to claim their allegiance as his teacher prepared their army under loyal generals. Compelled by their oath, and in awe of their First One's might, the tribe obeyed. The two forces struck, just as the Eternal King had overextended his forces in new conquests."
"They were successful?"
"Eventually – the Eternal King hadn't just steamrollered all his opponents through superior firepower, he really knew how to fight," Jackson said. "But he was on the backfoot and he stayed there. A war ensued, a bitter, brutal war, and after many great battles, they forced the Pharaoh to flee. The First One was victorious, acclaimed as a great hero. His master was proud and congratulated him as his own son. He said that now, the Empire was to be dissolved and that they must go. They had eons to walk together, other tasks awaiting them on the roads of Destiny. But the First One was discontented. He was not daunted by the tasks, for love of battle had settled deep within him. However, with this love of battle had come a love of conquest, of adulation, and he knew his master's ways were often secret ways. He was unhappy, yet accepting, when his master bade him go, to the face the other battles that existed along the path of destiny and he had instruction yet to give."
He smiled wryly. "This is where it goes off the rails," he said. "The First One's father still lived and was bitter, speaking to him, 'my son, have you forgotten what I taught you? Are you my son? Or are you merely a wizard's child? Are you boy who, in strength, challenged a mighty warrior? Or are you the child who, in weakness, begged for my life?' The First One was dismayed and angered. 'Father, my victories speak for themselves. Am I not strong? Have I not laid low a god among men? Have I not claimed an empire on which the sun does not set? Did I not ask for your life for love of you?' But his father was not pleased. 'Had I died without your pleading, I would have done so knowing that you were strong. That you were my son. Have you claimed an empire? I see not a conqueror before me, but a wizard's dog, slinking away at his master's heel, awaiting his next command'. And the First One was enraged, and in his rage, he struck his father down. But his father died with a smile, for he knew that his son still lived."
Jackson looked up.
"I think you can guess what happened next," he said. "The First One refused to dissolve the Empire and claimed the throne, turning on his former master, who now stood alone, saying that he was no one's dog, and no one's tool. He was the Strongest There Was, the Fittest To Survive, and he would be the one who decided the course of destiny, as a ruler rather than a whisperer in the shadows. He named himself Apocalypse - the divine revelation and the bringer of endings. The two fought a great battle, and Apocalypse was the mightier."
"He won?" Fury interrupted, sharp and incredulous.
"Well, not entirely," Jackson said. "His master was the more skilled, and despite his relative weakness and surprise, was temporarily victorious, enough to assure his escape. Before he retreated, in grief and rage he laid upon his student a terrible curse: 'I taught you much, but you understand less now than you did as a boy. The destiny you have chosen will be your downfall. The story you write will be unwritten. The works you build will be claimed by time. Everything you have, I shall take from you. Everything you are, I shall strip from you. You shall become but a wailing ghost, haunting lost ruins, mourning your fleeting glory. I made you, and so I shall destroy you.'"
Jackson flipped through his notes again.
"There's a lot about Apocalypse's rule over the following decades, as he expanded his rule across much of Eurasia and Africa, exploring still further. It talks about the things he discovered, etcetera, etcetera. All the while, though, he searched for his master. For though it was death to question the might of Apocalypse, it was well known that the Exile was the one man Apocalypse feared," Jackson said.
"If 'the Exile' is who I think he is, he had good reason," Fury said. "He also wouldn't have been able to find the bastard."
"Indeed not," Jackson said. "His master bided his time and masterminded his revenge. It goes about the war that eventually followed, and the allies that both sides brought together. Apocalypse, for instance, found others with powers like his own, the four greatest of whom he made into his elite and personal guard. He also took many wives and had many offspring, which might be of potential interest, given that he was almost certainly a mutant," he added.
Fury's poker face was excellent, but Jackson had been watching for the slight dilation of the eye.
"I've seen enough weird things, and gone into enough strange places, that Xavier's Mutation theory makes as much sense to me as anything else," he said. "Anyway, as I said, Apocalypse expanded his predecessor's conquests, and ravaged the people he had with wars and plagues and famine and death. I'm not sure whether those are phenomena, or names, the grammar is unclear. He was sifting through them for those with might like his - again, why the reproduction thing might be relevant. Anyway, his master found allies. There's a whole list, but the highlights..."
He flicked over a page.
"One was a fellow master sorcerer, a great priest with a golden helm who, like the Exile, spoke of fate. Another was a former slave and son of slaves, slaves of both Rama-Tut and Apocalypse, one who made little distinction between one and the other and hungered for vengeance, and was made a mighty champion by the gods of the land where it had all begun, his power descending from the heavens on lightning. Another was also a champion of the Heavens, but of the ancient Moon God, Khonshu, alone. There was a woman from the Steppes to the north, the Bone Rider who travelled like a bolt of lightning, her body and steed burning with the flames of vengeance. Another woman, from the mountains of the East, who fought armed only with fists of iron and flame. Finally, there was a Queen of a tribe to the south who also claimed the power of a god, and whose people wielded weapons of a metal that sang."
"A Black Panther," Fury said quietly. "I didn't know they went that far back."
"Well, apparently they do, because that 'singing metal' is almost certainly Vibranium," Jackson said. "I haven't got some of the weapons' finds authenticated yet, but I'm pretty sure we've got a few Vibranium fragments on our hands – the last battle was in Akkaba itself."
He shook his head.
"Anyway, that was just the tip of the iceberg – or perhaps the spear," he said. "There were others, many others, from gods enraged at being so insulted, to mortals sick of generations of oppression. Apocalypse fought them all, singlehandedly slaying armies, even gods and goddesses, Queens of Winter and Summer, whose deaths caused droughts and floods and plagues beyond count. He and his warriors, his children among them, did mighty and terrible deeds. But he faced an enemy guided by a mind that saw further than his. His empire shrank. His lands withered. In his desperation and rage, his desire to prove the Fittest and his rightness, he plunged into greater darkness still. He recruited beings of all kinds to his banner, teaching them the blackest of arts and empowering them beyond imagining, twisting all he was taught. He experimented upon the living, the dead, and... 'those who are both living and dead'. As his power grew beyond his body's ability to contain, he even learned to transfer his essence from body to body, claiming whatever powers were possessed by that body and reshaping it to his desires. He was obsessed with becoming stronger and the idea of making all, even his enemies, stronger too. He saw war and suffering as necessary crucibles to forge a mightier people, a greater world. He spoke of greater enemies, that his master had spoken of, that he had seen signs of too. He claimed it was his destiny to lead humanity in the True War. But no matter what he did, he was losing."
"At this point, it talks of some kind of weapon that he found, the 'Eye of Ages', that he tried to use in a last ditch attempt to shape the world to his will and reverse his losses," he said. "By 'last-ditch', I mean 'his enemies were slaughtering his last army at his doorstep'. Finally, his master found him, and sabotaged his weapon, killing his body, and trapping his soul in the ravaged flesh. And then he spoke. 'I saw you and I had great hope, for I thought you were the one I was looking for, the student I sought,' he said. 'I was wrong. I taught you so much, but in the end, you understood so little. You think compassion is weakness. You think that patience is cowardice. You think that your might gives you every right. You are an arrogant, cruel, greedy boy. You are not my student, much less my son – you are my failure. You are my lesson, about the risks of arrogance and shortsightedness. Consider it heeded. Now let your fate be my warning to all: look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.'"
After they left Dumbledore's office, in light of a similarly ominous conversation, Strange turned to Wanda.
"Over the years, you've probably noticed that I have a hard time seeing you," he said. "With my foresight, I mean."
"You've mentioned it," Wanda said guardedly. "It's because of my chaos magic, isn't it?"
Strange nodded. "Divining possibilities is a matter of sorting through that which is possible," he said. "Chaos magic, in its truest sense, is a matter of ensuring that which is not. But."
"But what?" Wanda asked.
"There was a prophecy," Strange said. "Long, long ago. It spoke of a wielder of chaos magic, a woman, far beyond the normal run of such mages, of any mages. A woman marked by Chthon, whose coming was foretold, an entire chapter dedicated to her in the Darkhold. A woman gifted with the power to surpass even the Sorcerer Supreme, to make the gods themselves cower, and to tear down the Outer Gates." He met Wanda's gaze. "That woman would be known by many names: The Herald of Chthon. The Cataclysm Engine. The Scarlet Witch."
He raised a finger.
"But I am not telling you anything you did not already know," he said. "The prophecy was accompanied by one in the Book of the Vishanti, speaking of the same being. It warned that it was the solemn duty of the Sorcerer Supreme to eliminate her before she could come into her full power. Or, failing that, to prevent her from having offspring, for at least one of them would inevitably share her terrible and unearthly power."
Wanda frowned, part of her realising that she was probably less perturbed than she should be.
"Given that I'm still alive, at more or less the height of my powers, and Sorceress Supreme too, I'm going to assume that you decided not to follow through," she said neutrally. "I'm also going to assume that it's not widely known."
"If it had been, the White Council would not have engaged in a stand-off with your father, and Messrs Dumbledore, Xavier, and Stark. Instead, they would have had the Blackstaff start by re-enacting Tunguska," Strange said flatly. "I edited the Book of the Vishanti, destroyed every copy of both prophecies that I could find – barring the Darkhold, the Book of Sins itself, since the blasted thing is indestructible – and took the position of Sorcerer Supreme. And when the time came, I trained you myself."
"The Vishanti themselves didn't object?" Wanda asked, surprised. She'd met the primary Elder patrons of the position of Sorcerer Supreme, and they were... uncompromising.
"Oh, they did," Strange said, and smiled like a shark. "But let us just say that the Tesseract is not the first Infinity Stone I have stolen."
"You... of course you did," Wanda sighed. "I take it that I'll now have to worry about them holding a grudge?"
"No, actually," Strange said. "The Vishanti are many things, but one of them is logical. And as I put it to them, my course of action was entirely rational."
He raised one finger.
"Firstly, by destroying all copies that I could find of both prophecies, I was preventing all but higher beings, especially those few with Intellectus and the awareness to search for it or true omniscience, from knowing about it. Darkhold excepted, this prevented potentially catastrophic mortal interference. After all, Chthon's ability to communicate with such followers as he has is mostly limited to that blasted book."
He raised a second finger.
"Secondly, as Sorcerer Supreme, I would be uniquely placed to manage the situation, and my abilities meant that I would have an unrivalled ability to build my skills and experience. As a result, when I took you in, I would be able to monitor your development. In their eyes, I would also be perfectly placed to execute you if you stepped out of line."
"Would you have done?" Wanda asked. "No smart remarks, Stephen, no clever evasions, no bravado. I want an honest answer. Would you have killed me?"
Strange closed his eyes, then, eventually, nodded.
"If there had been no other option," he said. "Then yes. I would have." He swallowed. "Even though it would have broken my heart."
Wanda nodded. "Thank you," she said.
Strange returned the nod, and raised a third finger. "Thirdly, I also pointed out that the ability to handle and wield dark magic, and chaos magic, to turn the weapons of the enemy against them, was a crucial part of the armoury of a Sorcerer or Sorceress Supreme. Why should this be any different?"
He raised a fourth finger.
"Fourthly, and finally," he said. "I reminded them of just who and what I really was. I am living evidence, fundamental proof, that fate can be defied, and inevitability is nothing of the kind. I am the Lord of Time, the editor of the Book of Souls, and there has not been a prophecy made that can bind me." His eyes blazed. "In the very simplest possible terms: destiny is not the boss of me."
He closed his eyes and sighed, the fire going out of him.
"Of course, it is quite possible that pieces of the prophecy will emerge, after I am gone," he said. "There are beings that know, and some of them only hold their tongues for fear of me. Truthfully, you'd be a much worse enemy, but I have built a reputation that casts a long shadow, and you know how beings like that are. You will need to be wary, for yourself and for Hermione. It is why I refused to help you, why I left you to turn to Lily; to hide her, to keep her safe, until she had developed friends, allies, and powers of her own. Until you were able to protect her in your own right." He turned away. "This is my final lesson, Wanda."
Wanda sighed, massaging her temples. "Once again, it's all perfectly logical," she said. "Stephen, do you have any idea how infuriating you are?"
"Approximately twice as much as I need to be, and not a tenth as much as I could be," Strange said over his shoulder.
Wanda let out a disgusted noise. "Fine," she said. "Then before you vanish dramatically, at least tell me why. Was it pride? Did you want to demonstrate how you could hijack even the prophecies and puppets of an Elder God? Was it part of your obscenely complicated long term plan?" She hesitated, and swallowed. "Or... or was it compassion?"
Strange was silent for a long time. When he spoke, his words were soft and measured. "I have never had any shortage of pride," he said. "And I have always enjoyed proving myself cleverer than my enemies. Moreover, ever since Camlann, I have had a violent objection to anyone directing my fate but me."
He laughed bitterly.
"It took me quite a few centuries before I realised that ultimately, that was exactly what the Time Stone had done. A great chessmaster I may be, but I did not find out until it was too late what kind of game I had been pressed into playing."
He turned and slowly walked back to stand in front of her, feet drumming a slow, rhythmic cadence.
"You are, and always have been, part of my plans," he said. "Your power, your wits, and most importantly, your heart, all make you indispensable. There have been many, many possible successors to my mantle as Sorcerer Supreme, but you are indisputably the best. I put much thought into it, many, many years. I knew the risks of a misjudgement of your character, the devastation even an ordinary Fallen Apprentice could cause, from personal experience. The Vishanti were partly persuaded by the fact that I had learned from my mistakes – they considered your predecessors to be… trial runs, shall we say. They were more than that, but it matters not, not to them. They felt that I had learned greater caution, so that when I chose, I would do so carefully, and well. And I did."
He smiled a slight, sad smile.
"As for compassion... long before I was Stephen Strange, before even I was Taliesin of Camelot, I was Gwion Bach of the Druid-folk," he said. "I was born with magic, in a time and a place where that was a capital crime. Later, I was chosen to be an attendant on the Prince who would become the Once and Future King. Later still, I was marked for a terrible fate by a power that could tear apart reality itself. All of those things, and more, would have had me smothered in my crib. They nearly did, several times over." He reached up slowly and cupped her cheek. "The true question is not 'was I motivated by compassion', Wanda. It is 'how could I not be'?"
And hear endeth the little teaser. Well, little-ish. By my standards. It's a lot of lore, for the most part, but there's a few character moments too. I hope you enjoyed it.
Also, somewhere around chapter 70, I'm planning to split Ghosts into a second book, one rounding off this year (and by 'rounding off', I mean 'galloping through the remaining arcs). Why? Because it's nearly a million words all by itself, it's getting kind of unwieldy. The current working title is 'The Phoenix and the Serpent'.