A/N: Please stop with the OC's and non-canon romances.
Beckoning from Beyond the Mirror
Part 3: The World Beyond the Mirror
This was, by far, the strangest Halloween Scott has ever had.
Okay, it might not be Halloween anymore, but the last two days were such a hodgepodge that it might as well be one day. Through all the emotional stress and lack of much sleep, Scott really couldn't find the line between the two. So, as far as he was concerned, it was still Halloween. A very strange Halloween.
The requested ten-second wait came to an end and it was Scott's turn to follow Strange into his daughter's mirror. He stretched in preparation. "I can do this, I can do this." He let out several breaths before climbing onto Cassie's vanity and touching the glass surface. Though he saw it give way under Strange's hand, he still wasn't prepared for it to do the same thing for his own. He took a deep breath and threw himself in.
There was the sensation of falling for two seconds before he felt strong hands grasp his forearms and pull him forward. In the speed of a blink, Scott was now floating next to Strange in a sphere composed of detailed orange glyphs that glowed at the touch. Outside the sphere was what only could be described as pitch darkness. The only light was illuminated from the sphere they were in, the shining mirror portal behind them, and Cassie's strand of light.
"The Sphere of Seraphim," explained Strange as he gestured to the orange glyphs gleaming around them. "It will protect us."
"Protect us from what?"
Strange pointed downward and Scott followed his finger. Approximately thirty yards below Scott could see a white, jagged ground. Scott had to squint his eyes to get a better look before he saw that the ground was made entirely of skulls and various bones. Scott gasped as he saw something black and very large slithering through the countless bones. "What is that?"
"That is an Abthalavuun."
"A what? Abathal—what?"
"Abthalavuun, a creature made from old magic. A small, tentacled soul devourer. It favors human flesh."
"What? What? What?"
"Don't worry," assured Strange. "While we're in this protective sphere it won't sense us."
"What about Cassie? And the other kids?" Scott was on the verge of hysteria. "It lured them in here to eat them?"
"No, no, no." Strange pointed up to Cassie's thread of light and how it disappeared in the dark distance. "Cassie was able to pass by without harm," he guaranteed. "She's outside of her body."
Scott could see the thread, but his gut was still twisting with worry. "But you said it's a soul devourer!"
"It only devours souls after it eats the body. Because she's not in her body she didn't draw the attention of the Abthalavuun. She went by completely unnoticed. I promise you."
Scott reigned in his erratic emotions and nodded. "I believe you," he said. "So, if that didn't lure Cassie here, then what did?"
"I assume, without a doubt, that Cassie and the others were bewitched by whoever is singing this song."
"What song?" asked Scott. As soon as the question left his mouth, he heard it: a soft, lulling voice drifting in the air around them.
Come, little children, I'll take thee away into a land of enchantment.
Come, little children, the time's come to play here in my garden of shadows.
Follow, sweet children, I'll show thee the way through all the pain and the sorrows.
Weep not, poor children, for life is this way; murdering beauty and passion.
Hush now, dear children, it must be this way; too weary of life and deceptions.
Rest now, my children, for soon we'll away into the calm and the quiet.
Come, little children, I'll take thee away into a land of enchantment.
Come, little children, the time's come to play here in my garden of shadows.
"What is that?" asked Scott. Despite the soft, enchanting tone, the lyrics sent a chill down his spine.
"I heard that song in Cassie's mind," said Strange. "It's no wonder the children were ensnared by such a strong enchantment."
"So, what, we just follow the music until we find them?"
"I was thinking we'd follow an easier trail," said Strange, again pointing to Cassie's dwindling thread.
As the two traveled through the darkness in their protective bubble, Scott couldn't help but notice as Strange continued to idly massage his hands. Scott's gaze lingered at the puffy scars erected on the skin's surface. Realization suddenly dawned on him. "You were a doctor!"
Strange raised a brow as he looked at Scott. There was some hint of hurt in his aged eyes. "I still am a doctor," he said, a bit clipped. "I may not practice medicine anymore but my PhD is still valid, thank you very much."
"Sorry." Scott backtracked a little. "I always thought the title was an honorary designation in magic or something. I never realized you were an actual medical doctor." In hindsight, it was pretty obvious. "Were you a neurosurgeon?"
"How's it obvious?" asked Strange in apprehension.
"It's not," said Scott. "Dr. Vitani told me about a Doctor Strange. I just thought she was talking about someone else but it's you, isn't it?"
"She's the professional looking over the kids. She said you two interned together. Do you remember her? I think she liked you."
Strange's face shadowed and he looked away. While he was practicing medicine he had purposefully forgotten so many people. If they didn't benefit him in any way, then they weren't worth remembering. Strange hated the faults of his past. He hated how he used to think of people. He hated that he couldn't remember, despite his photographic memory. "I don't remember her," he confessed in a hoarse voice.
Scott could see the obvious discomfort and shuffled uncomfortably next to Strange. He felt bad for bringing it up. He tried to think of a different topic to transition the conversation towards, but he was struggling. "Can I ask a question?"
Strange turned his full attention back to Scott and answered in a kind voice, "Of course."
Scott was stunned by Strange's sudden change of demeanor. It was obvious that Strange was just pained by something, yet he was now completely devoid of it, showing nothing but compassion and patience. He had pushed away his own pain to give Scott a sense of enough comfort to freely ask a question. Scott was so reeled that he forgot his original question. "Why are you helping me?" he asked instead.
Strange was taken aback by the question. "I wasn't aware it was something that needed consideration."
"You're putting yourself in danger for me," Scott clarified. "I can't say a lot of people have done that. And, honestly, I haven't done much for other people, until recently. You're doing a lot for a doctor."
"I'm no regular doctor," said Strange with a smirk. Upon seeing the expectant look on Scott's face, he answered with a light sigh, "I suppose there are several reasons. You could say it's because you helped me first back when I needed it. You could say it's because I'm honor-bound as the Master of the New York Sanctum. Or," Strange locked his steely eyes on Scott's hazel ones, "you could say it's because I want to."
Scott didn't know what to say. "Thanks."
Strange smiled then shifted his attention to the distance. "There's no need to thank me."
Scott disagreed but didn't put up an argument.
Several minutes passed in silence until the two of them finally drifted towards solid matter. What started out as evanescent shadows solidified into fully blossomed trees. The ground grew green with grass and bushes and a bright blue sky materialized above them. Once they were completely surrounded by a solid setting, Strange dismissed the Sphere of Seraphim and used the cloak to gently levitate them down onto the ground.
Scott could feel the earth under his boots, smell the dirt and brush around them, hear the cicadas chirping in the trees. "Where are we?"
Strange was caressing his hand across the grey bark of one of the Elm trees. "It seems we're in the heart of this realm."
"It seems so real," said Scott as he crouched down. He could see ants crawling through the grass. Using his earpiece, he sent electromagnetic waves to stimulate the ants' olfactory senses and manipulate them to form a circle.
"Of course," said Strange as he rubbed his thumb across a leaf hanging from an overextended branch. "It is real."
"I mean, it looks normal. I expected something more, I don't know, alien. Something like those ink creatures from—when was it—six months ago."
"That's ridiculous," said Strange as he crouched down in front of Scott, looking at the ants as well as their circle gradually got bigger. "We're not dealing with an interdimensional creature. We're dealing with someone American."
"American," repeated Strange as he gestured to the trees.
Scott couldn't believe it, but then he got a closer look at the different breeds of ants at his feet. He wasn't nearly as knowledge about ants as Hope or Hank, but he did recognize four of them by name. Though they existed in different regions outside the United States, all of them were common American residents. "Oh. I think I might know where we are."
Strange raised a brow expectant. "Really?"
"We can just as the ants."
Both brows were now lifted. "Ask...the ants?"
A year ago he would he would have been just as skeptical. He would have killed an ant if it crawled in his path. Now, he was on a personal level with the ants; had familiarity with them.
Scott puffed out his chest. It was his turn to educate Strange. "This," he said, pointing to the darker ants, "is Camponotus, your basic carpenter ant. And this is the Crematogaster—the acrobat ant. These guys don't tell us much. Now, this guy," said Scott as he lowered his hand onto the ground, palm up. One ant crawled from the top of a blade of grass onto his finger. "He's a Dolichoderus," he said, pointing to the ant on his index finger. "In America, the only place you'll find an armored odorous ant is on the eastern coast of the States. And this ol' girl" he said, pointing to the ant anxiously pacing his palm, "she says a lot. She's a rare find. You'll typically only find her on the east coast, too. So, with these two together, I believe we're somewhere east."
Strange struggled with staying awake. When Scott was done with his lesson, he shook his head in an attempt to make himself more alert. "Wow. You really know how to make boring things...more boring."
Scott deflated with a scowl on his face. "That's not all," he added. He dismissed all the ants except for the impatiently waiting winged one. "Tetramoriums are also known as pavement ants. They bury themselves under establishments. They gave the Europeans hell when they first immigrated here. Basically, her being here means there's civilization nearby."
"Hm." Strange stood and flexed his hands. "I suppose having a Master's degree does prove some intelligence. Even if it is useless."
Scott also stood and let the ant on his palm fly away. "Electrical engineering isn't useless."
"Isn't very useful out here, is it?" He turned from Scott and continued leading their trek through the grassy terrain.
Scott also stood. "I don't see your doctorate coming into play." When Strange said nothing as a rebuttal and merely kept walking, Scott reluctantly followed. "Oh, look at me," mocked Scott. "I'm a smart doctor who can put together a brain and walk through mirrors. But I can't hold onto an accent."
"Hey," snapped Strange over his shoulder. "When you've been around as many cultured persons as I have, it's easy to pick up on an accent. I can understand how someone of your, ahem, background might not comprehend that."
"Hey, I'm—okay, I'm not cultured."
Just as Scott said, some form of civilization had been nearby. The two of them stumbled across a small gathering of colonial homes centered around a large farming plot. The homes were of simple, wooden design and the plot was surrounded by a short, dilapidated fence. Neglected plants were withering in the sun and sheep were braying in a distant pen. Everything seemed normal, except for the lack of people. Strange bee-lined for the closest house and peered through the glassless window.
"These houses," started Scott as he observed them from a distance. "They're old."
"Of course they're old. Of everything here, these make the most sense."
"How do these make sense?" Scott knew he was jumping into the rabbit whole with the question, but he was getting real sick of being in the dark.
Strange sighed but did not turn his attention from the window. "You've actually seen the mirror, right?"
"Yeah, I've seen the mirror."
Scott huffed. Feeling the need to defend himself and his apparent stupidity, Scott said, "So? It could have been possessed recently."
Strange sighed again and drooped his head. "You watch too many movies." He finally turned to look Scott face-to-face. "And the mirror isn't possessed. It's a doorway to a different—" he interrupted himself with, "do you really think this is a possession? You know what? Nevermind." He waved his hands dismissively. "You saw that the mirror is old. I told you that whatever is in here is old. You saw the Abthalavuun, a creature made from magic that is old. That means, whoever is in here made this state of suspended reality years ago. These," he gestured to the houses behind him, "are modern to the host of this fabricated realm.
"History may not be my strongest subject, but looking at these buildings alone I figure we're maybe in the 16th or 17th century..." Strange trailed off, his eyes suddenly wide with realization.
Scott didn't like the way Strange's expression turned grave. "What? What is it?"
"I think I know what we're dealing with."
"What are we dealing with?"
"Do you know what happened in the thirteen colonies in the 17th century?"
Scott rattled his brain. History wasn't his strongest subject either. "Um...mass slaughter of native inhabitants?"
"No. Well, yes, that too."
"Oh my God, are we on an Indian burial ground?" Scott asked, mostly joking.
"This isn't a movie," said Strange with the roll of his eyes. "I'm talking about witch hunting."
"Like, the Salem witch trials?
"Exactly like the Salem witch trials."
"You think there's a witch in here?"
"A very strong witch with access to very old arcane magic." Strange moved to massage his hands but stopped when he realized what he was doing under a watchful eye and hid his hands behind his cloak. "My guess: when the hunting started, she hid herself in here."
"What makes you think it's a she?" The question came out before Scott gave it much thought. It was obvious they were dealing with a female once they heard the singing.
"She's a witch. Witches are shes."
"You're a witch."
"I'm a sorcerer," said Strange, clipped. "Very different."
"Then couldn't it be a sorcerer in here?"
"No, I don't think so."
Scott scoffed. "You don't know."
"Hm. Come on." He turned away from the houses and led the way towards the thick trees. "We're running out of time."
"Sure, avoid the conversation," taunted Scott as he followed.
"I'm not avoiding anything. Well, other than a pointless, unproductive conversation. Look!" Strange pointed to the sky. Scott assumed he was just pointing towards some random distraction, but he humored the thought and looked anyway. There, just above the tree line, was smoke of an irregular color. Strange was already quickening his pace. "We need to run."
Scott didn't hesitate as the two of them made a break for the trees. As they raced through the woods, Scott became gradually aware of more than one spiritual thread strung through the trees. Of all of them, Cassie's was the hardest to see, like it was seemingly getting dimmer and dimmer with each passing second. Scott forced his legs to run faster.
When they broke the tree line, both of them froze at the sight. They stood in a wide open field that stretched out in a large circle with a thin stream running down the middle. Tall grass reached out from beyond the trees and met the doorstep of a large, cottage home. It was decorated and fanciful in comparison to the farmhouses they had previously seen. It was fully developed with two floors plus an established attic. Glass windows were decorated with dozens of lit candles and intricate ornaments. The house was completed with a watermill built into the side for the creek and an established chimney where purple smoke billowed out. The song that had been intoning since their arrival inside the mirror was no longer a silenced hum but a resonating melody. Dancing to that melody were ghostly figures that took Scott one second too long to realize were the sick children.
Scott's eyes immediately started scanning for Cassie's soul in the transparent crowd. He took a step forward but halted when he felt Strange grab his arm. It was hard to tell through the Ant-Man suit, but he was positive he could feel the tremors in Strange's hand.
"Wait," he said, face pensive. "I don't think she's aware of our presence yet. I'm going to use this opportunity to try and release the children. It will be a slow process."
Scott nodded, eager to get the job done and get Cassie out of danger. "How can I help?"
Strange's expression darkened. "I need you to go in there and see what exactly we're dealing with."
"I can do that," said Scott. His thumb was twitching closer to the button on his glove.
"Please be discreet," Strange warned. "We don't know how powerful she is or what she's willing to do. Our top priority is getting the children out undetected."
"You have a bad habit of underestimating the intelligence of the people around you."
"If I underestimate others, then I'm never disappointed by their ineptitude."
"Gee, thanks." Scott caught notice of Strange's fingers as they twitched. He assumed it was the cause of another tremor but then he noticed that Strange was mumbling something under his breath. "What are you doing?"
Strange's fingers grew still as he raised both of his hands. He pressed his right pinky to his own temple while pressing his left pinky to Scott's temple. His mumbling came to a conclusion as he said, "By the Calls of Cyttorak."
Scott obediently stood still as he felt Strange press at his temple. He expected some form of sensation, a cold touch or sharp pain, but nothing came. When Strange pulled his hand away and looked at him expectantly, Scott shrugged. "What did that do?"
Can you hear me?
Scott jumped. He definitely heard Strange ask him a question, but he didn't see the sorcerer's lips move. "What?"
I'll take that as a yes. Strange was smirking. Tell me something without speaking.
"Like what?" Strange's eyes narrowed with impatience. Scott tried again. Like what?
That'll do. Strange tapped his own temple. "It's a simple spell. It's so we can communicate with each other."
Scott rubbed his forehead. "This is weird."
"'Weird' is a relevant term. This is normal for me." Strange checked to see that Scott's ward of protection was still in place. Satisfied, he went on to say, "Be careful in there."
"'I'm always careful," said Scott with a cocky smile. He closed the faceplate of his helmet and pressed the button on his right glove. The Pym Particles flowed through the interlaced tubes of the leather suit and Scott felt himself begin to shrink. In his descent, he called out for a Tetramorium to meet him on the ground. As the winged ant flew close, Scott jumped up and rode on its back towards the cottage.
Scott weaved through the now colossal-sized grass and weeds until he made his way to one of the first floor windows. Scott dismounted and pet the red skin. "Thanks, girl. Think you could get a few friends of yours? I might need your help."
The Tetramorium did something akin to a nod before flying off. Scott waved as she went. A single bite from her might not hurt too bad, but a hundred bites from her and her sisters may be enough to momentarily distract an opponent. Scott wanted to be prepared.
Without another second to waste, Scott slipped through a nook in the window where the window met the sill. Inside, the living space was littered with burning candles and more arcane ornaments. Several hanging containers were dangling from scaffolds or banisters, their contents ranging from rotten foods to unfamiliar herbs to assorted bones. The second floor was a basic loft that used a ladder. On the loft were various linens piled in what was obviously a sleeping area. The bottom floor was mostly barren, containing little for living conditions. The space was cleared way with the exception of a large fire pit glowing in the center. Above the fire was a massive black cauldron with wisps of smoke flooding out and around. The main attraction that had drawn Scott's attention were two child-sized birdcages hanging from the ceiling. Their bars were thick and made of metal, their doors locked with a key. Inside one of the cages was a young boy that Scott remembered seeing in the pediatrics' wing. Inside the other, to his horror, was Cassie. Her eyes were closed and her body was sagging heavily against the bars. She was so transparent that Scott could almost barely recognize her.
"Cassie," Scott said in a terrified gasp. He watched in dismay as her soul flickered with light only to dim again. "I'll get you out of here."
Standing in front of the hanging cages, her back to the window, was a hooded figure wearing an emerald velvet cloak. She was standing before the boy and waving her hands in a beckoning motion as she chanted,
"Give me strength and give me youth,
I steal this child with no ruth.
Darkest forces I plea to thee,
To give this child's life to me."
As she finished her chant, she sucked in a deep breath. Scott watched with widened eyes as the boy's light was stripped away from him and funneled into her inhaling breath. The light of the boy's soul dulled and he became less opaque. He sagged further against his cage and let out a weak cry. It took everything in Scott's will to not jump in and intervene. The only thing that stopped him was his not knowing how to get the souls out.
Scott clenched his fists at his sides and growled into his helmet. She's eating them! She's eating Cassie's soul!
Strange had squinted his eyes so he could see Scott's shrunken body fly through the tall grass. That done, he wasted no time before turning his attention to the closest band of children. Four children of varying ages and different sexes were hand-in-hand and dancing in a circle. They were laughing as they danced, but they showed no indication that they were aware of Strange's presence as he stepped up behind them. He smiled bitterly at their ignorant bliss. Despite their trance, they weren't suffering any nightmarish terror. It was very possible the children would wake up and have no trauma from the ordeal.
He stretched out his hand and cast a large seal of Silence with an ingrained protective veil. A white glyph appeared in the middle of the children's circle, it's glow enveloping all four of them and deafening their ears. No longer able to hear the enchanted song, the children instantly slowed to a stop. They looked about themselves in confused fear.
Strange kneeled down on one knee to address them eye-to-eye. He put each hand on the back of the two nearest children and he smiled at the group. "Don't be afraid," he said to them, soothing. "You just got a little lost while playing your game. To get back home is simple: close your eyes and think of your home and your parents. It's okay, here, I'll close my eyes too." Just as he said, Strange closed his eyes. In less than a second, his hands no longer felt the presence of the children's backs. Their souls instinctively followed their spiritual thread back through the mirror and to their bodies. When Strange opened his eyes again, all four children were gone.
He was in the process of standing when Scott's voice pierced his mind, the frantic emotion like a hot knife. Strange winced and pressed his fingers to his brow. As severe as the sharp pain was, it wasn't nearly as painful as the news Scott told him. He made his response as calm as he could. What exactly do you see?
She's casting some spell and then— Scott's voice faltered and Strange could feel the distress radiating through their mental link. Then she's sucking the life out of them! Strange she—she has Cassie!
Strange wasn't going to tell him to calm down, that would have been cruel of him. Don't let her know you're there, he calmly reminded. But do everything you can to stop her.
How do I stop a witch? His words were desperate.
A witch is not excluded from physical distractions.
There was a pause before Scott said, I hear you loud and clear.
Strange furrowed his brow. If Scott kept himself undetected and acted smartly, then Strange wouldn't have to worry about him. And if he was detected, the ward of protection should save him from many mystic attacks. Strange pushed his concern to the back of his mind. Scott was Ant-Man, a hero worthy of Captain America's trust and an intelligent man in his own right. If push comes to shove, Strange was confident that Scott would be able to take care of himself, at least long enough for Strange to finish his job and help.
Be careful, was all he settled on saying before addressing the next gathering of dancing children.
"Aaaaah." The witch let out a pleasant sigh. "Feel that, sisters? The strength flowing through our veins. With this many souls, we'll finally be able to leave this accursed mirror." She turned away from the children in their cages and now stood over the boiling cauldron.
Scott jumped down from the window and ran across the wooded floor, passing by female Dasymutilla ants hiding between the floorboards. He made sure to give them a wide birth as he focused more on getting a closer look at the witches face. Once he was close enough, he leapt up the sides of the hot cauldron until he landed on the up-reached handle hanging from a chain. The witch didn't seem to notice as she focused her attention on the contents of the cauldron.
To Scott's surprise, the witch was young and beautiful. She had strong cheekbones with full rosy lips and blue, almond eyes. She pulled back her hood and revealed curly hair of a lush red color. She was breathtaking and her voice was sweet as she spoke into the cauldron. "Soon we'll be free, sisters."
Inside the cauldron, the surface reflected not her face, but the face of two other beautiful women, one with long blonde hair and the other with curly black. "I'm so excited," said the blonde as she ran her elegant fingers through her fair hair. "We're so beautiful!"
"My nose has never been so strong, Winnie," said the dark-haired one. "I'll be able to smell children from miles away."
"And we'll be so powerful," said the witch, Winnie, "no hunter will be able to string us up again."
The three exchanged a laugh and Scott felt sick. He couldn't believe that these women were willing to kill children for youth and power. They were willing to kill Cassie for vanity! The very thought made him pissed. He wanted to hit her, to hold her head under the boiling water and rip the life out of her and give it back to Cassie.
"Ow! OW!" Winnie began to stomp her foot and lift her skirts. "Curse you beast!"
Scott hadn't realized that his anger had been broadcasting through his earpiece. The Dasymutilla had answered to his call and were now biting at her ankles. Scott was blown away. Though Dasymutilla were called ants, they were in the wasp family. He had never commanded a wasp before.
Scott used his moment of distraction to take action. If he knew anything from movies, it was that a witch's cauldron was of great importance. He leapt from the handle and put all his weight on his landing on the brim. The weight caused the cauldron to tip and its contends were splattered on the ground. Scott was barely able to leap out of the way before he was carried away in the current. It wasn't enough to empty the cauldron, but it was enough to spill half of it.
"No!" Winnie stumbled as the liquid spreading across the floor caused her to lose her footing. "What sorcery is this?!" She leveled the cauldron and scanned around her.
Scott was already on the move, hopping to one side of the cottage to knock ornaments off the wall before hopping to another side and pushing over a candlelight stand. He continued his torment by flipping containers and knocking over furniture. As the witch whirled in confusion, trying to keep up with the chaos, Scott leapt to Cassie's cage and examined the padlock. It was old and rusty. A swift punch would be enough to break it, but what would he do then? He didn't have time for further questions.
"I know you're in here and I'll find you," threatened Winnie. She waved her hand left and right, her hands twitching with energy as she chanted,
"In this rooted time we stand,
This forever witching hour,
I call upon the darkest power.
Three together stand alone,
Command the unseen to be shown.
In malevolence we see through your guise,
Enchanted are our new found eyes."
"Uh oh," was all Scott was able to say before the witch pointed a finger at him.
"Found you!" She was already chanting again as she whirled her hands together, lightning sparking in her grip.
"Let thee oppugnant swine but scream,
As I rip thee apart at the seem.
Vanquish we three witches cry,
One final shock and then you die!"
Scott couldn't move fast enough. He leapt from Cassie's lock but before he could find new ground, his body was stuck with lightning. He was vaguely aware of his body glowing white before the lightning struck, sending his whole body into convulsions. Next he knew, he was burrowed in the wall from the blast, his body still twitching from the shock.
"That...was not fun," he groaned as he tried to regain control over his muscles. The blast was definitely impacting, but it surprisingly didn't hurt. Once he was able to compose his spasmodic limbs, he pried himself bit by bit out of the wooden wall. He stood on a protruding nail as he shook the dust of wood off his suit. Activating the speaker in his helmet, his voice carried like he was speaking in a normal size, "You evil hag!"
The corner of Winnie's lip curled up in a snarl. "Still alive, you vile cullion?" She stepped closer as she glowered at him. "What kind of sorcerer are you?"
"A vengeful one!" He called out to the horde of Tetramorium that had gathered on the windowsill. They easily slipped through the cranny and hundreds of winged ants took flight, swarming the room.
Winnie was instantly surrounded, the creatures landing on her face and arms, biting at any exposed flesh. She screamed and swatted and spun in place as she tried to get the ants away from her. On the floor, the male Tetramorium and the female Dasymutilla were crawling up her legs and biting at her. "Get off me, get off me, get off me!"
"How does it feel?" asked Scott, growling, "To feel the life slowly being eaten out of you?"
The witch let out an angry cry as she swung her arm towards Scott, lighting striking from her fingertip to the wall. Scott was able to dodge it with a timed jump. He leapt back up to Cassie's cage while the witch was distracted and punched out the lock. It fell to the floor in a heavy lump. As much as he wanted to get Cassie out of there, he couldn't ignore the boy. He leapt to the other cage and did the same to the second lock.
"Pests that have traveled here,
I rid of you in this sphere.
Elements, hear my call,
Remove these creatures,
One and all!"
A sphere of purple and red encompassed the witch, flashes of lightning and sparks of fire fried every single insect that was unfortunate enough to be within its reach. Scott and the children were just barely out of its range. "You," she said, pointing a finger in Scott's direction. A spark shot from her finger and struck Scott before he could avoid it. "There!" She pointed the same finger to the opposite wall.
Just like before, Scott's body glowed white before the strike and the electricity did not hurt. But, unlike before, it did not electrocute him. Instead, as she pointed to the wall, he felt his body being pulled as if by a magnet. He was projected and slammed into the far wall. "I'm sick of this already," he said as he began to dig himself out of the wood.
"Thy's ward of protection may protect thee from simple spells," she said as the witch walked to a pedestal off to the side of the room. "But I have powers much stronger." On the pedestal sat a thick book, bound in something similar to patched leather. On the cover was a single eye that looked about the room in a lazy fashion. Winnie pet the cover and said to the book in a loving voice, "My dear Book, can thee provide for me a spell to remove this vile smell-feast?"
The book opened of its own accord and the pages turned without being touched. When the book became still, Winnie read the page with a wicked smirk. "I knew I could count on you," she said as she continued to stroke it.
Scott was finally out of the wall when she turned back to face him. She pulled a long stray string off the sleeve of her dress and began to tie one end. Scott didn't want to wait and see what she was planning next. He jumped forward and scurried across the floor, looking for any allied critters to help.
"With this knot I seal this hex,
In your death you will not rest.
Knots of anger, knots of hate,
Discord brings your cursed fate.
I tie this second knot makes two,
Bringing darkness over you,
Slander, discord, evil too,
Destruction falling onto you.
With this third knot, I do bind,
Weaving agony in your mind.
Hex of anger, hex of hate,
Kill him now, I will not wait!"
Scott was jumping up, his fist pulled back. His body began to glow white again just as he landed a punch to the witch's pointed cheek. She was sent reeling back and he could hear a noise like shattering glass in the back of his mind. He initially thought that he might have shattered her cheekbone, only realizing too late that it was the ward of protection breaking.
A searing pain exploded in Scott's mind. He gripped at his head as he fell hard on the ground. His world was darkening at the edges and red spots bubbled in his vision. He let out a cry of pain as he writhed. His brain felt like it was on fire, his spine felt like every nerve was being fried. Tears were leaking out of his clenched eyes. His nails burrowed into his helmet, trying to break through the metal to penetrate his skull. "Strange," he cried out. Strange!
Strange was panting with sweat beading on his brow. A single Silence spell and simple protective veil weren't hard to perform—Strange probably could do them in his sleep on a good day—but doing them over and over in a short period of time was straining his already depleted energy. Almost all the children were free. Only three remained and he was grateful. He was finally starting to understand why Wong kept telling him not to push himself. If Strange had not overexerted his energy over the last two days, he would have been able to complete the task at hand without fear of fainting.
Taking a few deep breaths, Strange started the last seal of Silence. It was sloppy and lacked the precautionary protection, but he didn't have a choice. He needed to finish the job and get out. He knew Cassie was still in the cottage and he had a witch to handle. Scott may be a hero, but he wouldn't be able to completely render a witch defenseless.
The seal was almost complete when Scott's cry echoed in his brain. It was desperate and full of pain, causing Strange to stumble. Strange shook his head to gain his bearings before replying, Scott, what's wrong? What's happening?
She's killing me...!
Strange dug his fingers into his head as Scott's pain carried through the mental link. I'm coming—hang in there! He was out of time. Delicacies were thrown out the window as he bypassed any more Silence seals. He instead overpowered the trance with the Winds of Watoomb, forcing the souls back to their bodies. It wasn't going to be a pleasant waking for them, but it wasn't life-threatening. That was good enough for Strange.
With all the children gone, Strange rushed to the cottage. As he flew across the field, he clapped his hands together before pulling them apart. Orange tendrils of light formed in his grasp in the shape of a whip. He used the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak to break open the door before he charged in.
He did not immediately find Scott, but instead saw a young witch wielding lightning at her fingertips. She looked like she was about to strike at something on the ground when Strange caught her attention. It was then that he saw Scott's small form tossing back and forth on the ground. Strange's steely gaze hardened as he whipped at the witch, the burning tendrils tearing at her clothes but missing flesh as she stepped back.
She growled in anger. "What pile of dung did you spring from?"
Strange whipped at her again and again, sending her further back in the room as he moved to stand over Scott. He dismissed his Crimson Band and summoned the Sphere of Seraphim to surround him and Scott. He got down on one knee and carefully picked Scott up to rest him in his palm. Scott either didn't have a chance to show Strange that he was aware of his presence or was in too much pain to notice. Far from him on the floor, he could see a worn thread knotted in three places. The knotted thread could signify one of five options, but Strange was quick to measure which was the most possible.
He clenched his teeth and carefully examined Scott's aura. It was erratic and spiked with pain but there, right at the edges of it, was the black hue of a hex. Strange focused on it. He used his other hand to hover over Scott as he cast an Annulment spell. Like water on a fire, the black magic slowly doused until it was a light grey then disappearing entirely. Scott stopped writhing in his grip. Strange fell on his end and clamped his mouth shut as a wave of nausea hit him like a hurricane.
Thanks... Scott's voice was weak and his breath ragged.
"No problem," said Strange between his own deep breaths.
Meanwhile, the witch had not been waiting idly. She had retrieved her book from the pedestal and now held it in her hands, skimming through the pages. "I will not allow thee to interfere!"
Strange scoffed at her indignant tone. "We already have."
Realization dawned on her face and she looked out her broken door. One hand clasped the book to her chest while the other rung at her hair. "My children! What have you done?!"
Strange scowled. "I've set them free." He pushed himself onto wobbly legs, making sure to keep his hand steady so Scott wouldn't get tousled.
"You'll pay for this!"
"No," said Strange, voice hard. "You kidnapped these children and you hurt my friend. You will pay for that." Strange's eyes widened as he spied the book in the witch's hands. "The Spell Book of Chernabog?"
"If you know my Book then you know my power. Thou hath no chance." She stopped on a page and began to chant the print.
Strange refocused his efforts on his protective sphere. To his dismay, his hands began to tremble at the effort but he dismissed it. He didn't want to be unprepared for whatever incantation would come from that book.
Get prepared for anything, he warned Scott.
Wish you said that earlier, Scott replied. What is that book?
The Spell Book of Chernabog. The vilest book of sins, seconded only to the Darkhold. It supposedly contains the recipes for the most powerful and evil spells. I never believed the rumor about it being bound in human flesh until now.
Wait, wait, wait! It's made out of human skin? That's disgusting!
Really? Of everything I just said, that's the part you focus on?
"On this fated autumn's day,
I will end this child's play.
I cast unto thee this black flame,
Thy skin will burn, body maim.
Nothing will hold back my might,
I will make thy soul ignite."
From her extended hand, a black inferno erupted, shooting straight for Strange's shield. The impact was strong and hot. Strange pulled his hands to his chest and turned his back on the attack, using any means necessary to make sure Scott was safe in case the sphere did not hold. The light of the glyphs flickered in threat of collapse. Strange made a snap decision and pressed his open hand to the sphere. Using his voice as a crutch, he did a quick enchantment of his own. The Deflection spell activated quickly, firing the black flame back to its source.
The witch stopped her attack and quickly chanted,
"Time for amends and victim's revenge,
Cloning power now turned sour.
The power to change hath turned strange,
I'm rejectin' your deflection."
The fire vanished, instead replaced with a harmless plume of smoke that filled the entire room. Strange covered his mouth to try and prevent the smoke from entering his lungs. In his other hand, he could feel Scott moving.
I think I can move now. I need to get Cassie out of here.
I can't break their trance and fight her at the same time. Before we can save Cassie, I need you to get that book away from her.
I can do that, was the last thing Scott said before jumping from Strange's hand.
Strange focused on the battle at hand. His protective sphere was shattered and the witch was already reading through the book for another incantation. Strange's world was teetering. He wouldn't be able to keep the offense up for long. He had to make his own distraction—stall until the next attack.
"How's a mere wench get her hands on the Spell Book of Chernabog?"
Her face flared an angry red. "'Mere wench'?! I am the strongest witch in this world. The devil himself gave me my Book!"
"The devil himself?" asked Strange, incredulous. "Please! That's ridiculous."
"You dare question me?"
"Everyone knows that book was written by—" Strange paused as realization struck him. "You're Winifred Sanderson. History had it that you and your sisters disappeared. So this is where you've been hiding."
"I've been strengthening my powers for years," she said with a snarl. "Don't you dare underestimate me, you fopdoodle."
Had it been any other situation, Strange would have laughed at the dated insult. "You disappeared 300 years ago. How could you have survived all this time?" His gaze lingered on the shifting colors of her aura.
"I'll do whatever it takes to survive," said Winifred, unaware of Scott climbing the wall behind her. "Steal children, kill people—it matters not to me."
"Even kill your own sisters?" asked Strange in genuine surprise.
"You think me a fool? I would never sacrifice mine own life for my sister's. Only one of us could survive—the rest needed sacrificed."
A burning rage flared within Strange as he thought of his own late sister. "Ant-Man, stay out of the way!" He swept his hand in front of him, a red line of mystic energy forming in front of him as he summoned the Daggers of Daveroth. The red energy shifted until it took the shape of fiery knives, flying straight for the Sanderson sister.
The spell was too quick for her to cast a deflection. She instead flailed her arm and rained lighting to try and stop the attack. Most of the blades were destroyed but two were able to hit their target: one piercing her shoulder, the other planting into her arm.
"I've got it!" Scott hopped from an ornament on the wall onto Winifred's shoulder then onto her hand. He grabbed the book and jumped away, taking the book with it.
Winifred screamed. "My Book!"
Before she could follow or further react, Strange summoned the Shackles of Sheol. Magenta bands erected from the ground and wrapped the witch from her ankles up to her shoulders, sending her toppling over with a scream. Strange barely finished the spell before his own body toppled and he fell. Both his and her body almost hitting the floor at the same time.
"Strange!" Scott released the Pym Particles and reverted back to his normal size before racing to Strange's side. Strange was blinking up at him and shaking himself awake.
"I'm all right," he was quick to dismiss. He looked over to Winifred to make sure the spell was still holding. Though still contained, the witch was smiling. "Get that book out of here."
Scott hesitated but nodded before racing out the destroyed door, book in hand.
Strange pushed himself onto his knees and caught his breath. His head was spinning and his head was churning but he didn't have time for that right now. He just focused his effort on glaring at the woman in front of her. "Something funny?" he asked.
Her smile widened. "Hush, Strange."
The effect was instantaneous. Strange felt a coldness wash over him. His body became stiff and it became difficult to breathe. He tried to speak but his voice was gone. Even the Cloak of Levitation was struck still.
"By Demons and Beasts,
By all living and deceased,
I curse thee Strange, thy life shall cease.
Heaven cannot be your place,
Thou flesh and blood now be erased.
Hell for thee from its inner core,
Thou soul is damned forevermore
This black curse, this black power,
This shall be thy final hour.
To thee who hath brought harm to me,
My revenge shall manifest physically.
Blood, pain, from a fiery place,
Befall thee now, in Hell's embrace."
Beneath Strange, the floorboards began to shudder and creak as a red light leaked through. He frantically watched, helpless to do anything as he felt a heat radiating through the floor. The light brightened and its very contact singed his skin. Strange could not speak an incantation nor wave a spell. He was stuck and slowly burning from the outside in.
Scott barely made it fifty yards before he stopped. He had no idea where to go or what to do with the book. He considered burying it, drowning it in the creek, or even shredding it. However, when he tried to rip out a page, it didn't even crinkle under his grip. He may not know anything about magic, but certainly an evil, magic book needed more than to be buried and he doubted the water would damage it. He looked down at the book in his hands and cringed as the eye stared up at him.
"You're so gross," he said, remembering that the cover was made of flesh. "I'd rather hold a maggot than you."
It was hard to tell, but he was certain the book was showcasing how unamused it was with the statement. Then an idea struck him. A magical book wouldn't be of much use if it couldn't be read, right? All he had to do was shrink it to the size only an ant could read. As far as he was aware, not even the great Doctor Strange knew any shrinking magic.
He reached into a pocket on his belt and pulled out a red disc. He dropped the book unceremoniously then threw the disc at the grounded novel. In less than a second, it was shrunk to the size of a household ant. Scott picked it up with his thumb and index, peering at it with a smirk. "Bet you didn't like that, huh?" He shoved the book into one of his sipper compartments then ran back towards the cottage.
He stumbled over his own feet several times in his run. From the effects of the lightning shocks and the mental torture he suffered, his body wasn't wanting to cooperate with him. He could still feel a burning in his skull, lingering like a persistent dream. In all honesty, if Cassie's soul wasn't on the line, Scott was pretty confident that he wouldn't even be able to stand. It was adrenaline and determination alone that kept him pushing his muscles to follow his commands.
He was breathless by the time he returned to the cottage and had to lean on his knees to catch his breath. He watched with furrowed brows as a bright red light glowed through the broken doorway. He had no idea what was going on inside and a part of him was telling him not to enter in fear of interrupting something important. But another, bigger part of himself screamed at him to get in there.
A sudden but recently familiar pressure formulated in the forefront in his mind. Strange was trying to speak to him, his deep voice saying, I may need your help...
I'm coming! Scott was running again, charging through the front door. He stopped on the threshold, staring in surprise at the fiery sight he saw before him. The floorboards were shaking and splintering and breaking. A lazing heat was pouring through and shrouding the whole cottage in the Hellish light. To his left, the witch was still lying with the chains keeping her still, but she was cackling. To his right, Strange just sat there, staring at him with a red face and smoking clothes.
Grab the cages, said Strange, get the children out of here!
Scott didn't understand. Why would Strange speak only through their mental link when he was standing right in front of him? Why was the witch laughing? Why wasn't Strange moving? Meanwhile, the floor continued to break away, full holes forming in the floor. What's going on? asked Scott as he hurried across the room. He could feel the heat through his boots and couldn't imagine how Strange could continue to sit still like that.
Don't worry about it. Get the children and get out!
Scott was standing in front of Cassie's cage, but hesitated, not sure how he was going to carry it. He looked over his shoulder at Strange's prone form. What are you doing?
Don't worry about me—just go.
Scott didn't like the way that sounded at all. Meanwhile, the witch noticed what he was doing.
"Back away from my child, swine!"
"Your child? This is my daughter, you bitch!" He was tempted to kick her face in but Strange's voice again rang in his head.
Scott, we're on a time limit!
Scott whirled on Strange, his anger for the witch now directed towards him. Then why aren't you leaving?
I can't! There was a frustrated sigh. She's put a spell on me.
You're just going to sit there and die?! Scott couldn't believe it. What, be the self-sacrificing martyr?
Unless you know any unbinding spells, then yes, said Strange in obvious irritation.
For someone so smart, you're the dumbest man I know! Scott brought up his wrist which contained his suit's interface. His finger slid across the touchscreen as he quickly altered the settings. You're the one that said that witchcraft isn't excluded to physical interaction. Settings in place, Scott pressed his thumb to the button on his left glove. The enlarging Pym Particles spread throughout the suit's system, their limitations momentarily uncapped.
Scott's body began to stretch and grow. His pained muscles cried in objection as their inflamed nerves extended past discomfort. He groaned and fought the temptation to release the button. His back pressed against the ceiling, the wood creaked behind him until it gave way. Chunks of wood and banister rained from the ceiling. Scott made sure to hover over the two children so they weren't fallen by the debris.
"My house! My charms!" The witch continued to yell and whine but Scott ignored her. He held both cages in one hand and used his other to scoop up Strange off the floor. The floor itself split apart, revealing a blazing pit below. The witch was mere inches from the gaping hole, unfazed by the threat. She glared up at Scott's massive form in pure loathing as she began to chant,
"With the power inside I curse thee.
May you feel the hurt of three.
I curse you here, I curse you now—"
Scott did not stay to hear the rest. He pulled both hands close to his chest and he walked away, his large gait covering tens of yards in a single step. "I don't know where I'm going, Doc," said Scott as he continued to walk, tearing down trees as he went. He looked over his shoulder and saw the house erupt in a blaze.
"Just follow Cassie's thread back to her body," said Strange from his position in Scott's hand. He was finally able to regain movement and he was gripping Scott's fingers for stability. "Once we get to the edge, I'll figure something out." He paused. "I didn't know you could get big. I feel like that's something you should have told me."
"How was I supposed to know you didn't know? So far you've known everything."
"Well, obviously I didn't. Maybe next time you should share all your capabilities. You haven't been able to fly this whole time, have you?"
"Don't act like you don't have secrets—you've been doing things I didn't even know was a thing. How about when you tell me all you can do then I'll tell you all I can do?"
"How many free hours do you have?" Scott huffed out a laugh. There was a pause before Strange asked, "You wouldn't happen to have another cheeseburger on you, would you?"
"Sorry, man, you ate my last one."
In a matter of minutes, Scott was standing at the edge of the forest, staring out into the black abyss. "What now, Doc?"
"Put us down," he said, weary. "I have an idea."
Scott gingerly set the cages down on the ground and allowed Strange to step off his palm. Once they were safely set, Scott corrected the settings on his interface then shrunk himself to normal size. He fell back on his end, using his arms to prop himself up. His body felt thin, strung out. He released the clasp on his helmet and opened the faceplate. He breathed in the unfiltered air with a giant breath. His head was light and his thoughts fleeting. He was on the verge of passing out but he fought the temptation.
As Scott regained his bearings, Strange was at the cages, opening the doors and helping the souls out of them. He was tending to the boy first, helping him stand. Scott couldn't hear what the good doctor was saying to the boy, but he could tell that Strange's smile was genuine. As he spoke, he made dramatic gestures with his hands, all while wearing the calmly rational expression of a surgeon.
The boy's soul glowed bright and then he disappeared in the blink of an eye.
"What did you do?" asked Scott, standing. He lumbered over to where Cassie was lying on the grass. He sat down next to her and pulled her into his lap. She didn't respond at all to the jostling.
"I just helped him find his way home. He'll feel a little uncomfortable in his own skin for a few days but he'll be fine."
"What about Cassie?" asked Scott, fully concerned. Her spirit hardly had any light left to it. As he stroked her hair, sometimes his fingers couldn't find solid contact, instead slipping through her ghostly body.
"We need to talk about her," said Strange, his brow wrinkled in worry.
Scott's gut twisted. "What about her?"
"We need to get out of here first. Once we're out, we'll talk. I can carry you both, but you'll need to shrink down for me. Can you do that?"
Scott was reluctant in letting go of Cassie. He wanted to ask Strange why he couldn't just do another flying bubble, but he felt he already knew the answer. Instead, he nodded. Strange crouched and carefully took Cassie into his arms while Scott shrunk down to his ant size. It was harder than he expected, his body quickly reminding him of its strain. He definitely wouldn't be able to shrink any more for the rest of the day. With great effort, he leapt up and landed on Strange's shoulder.
"Ready?" Strange asked more out of courtesy than curiosity. His cloak began to flutter and then they were lifted off the ground. They soared through the darkness in silence straight until they reached Cassie's mirror, it's light a shimmering beacon in the darkness.
"Thank God," Scott found himself saying, only to be interrupted by an inky tentacle reaching upwards towards them like a cracking whip. Scott screamed and almost fell from Strange's shoulder. "The Abba thong!"
"Abthalavuun," Strange corrected in a hiss as he veered his path to avoid the creature's reach. He flew back sharply, then went left and right in a zigzag motion. "Hang on tight."
"A little late for that one!" Scott clung desperately to the collar of Strange's cloak. His muscles were screaming and weak. He couldn't hold on. His grip was slipping. "Strange!"
There was a rush of words—whispered and hoarse—before there was a blinding pink light. Scott lost his grip and fell, plummeting into hard ground.
To his surprise, he found himself rolling across plush carpet. When the world around him stilled, he looked up to see the familiar string of lights decorating the high walls of Cassie's bedroom. He groaned loudly as he reverted himself back to his original size.
"Stay in the protective seal," Strange said.
Yeah, like I'm going anywhere, Scott retorted from his spot on the floor. His vision was bleary but he was able to identify Strange as the crouched over him, Cassie's soul still in his arms.
Remembering that they were on a time limit, Scott forced himself to stand, stumbling back down more than once, and took Cassie from Strange's offered arms. Once Cassie was safe in his hands, the sorcerer waved his hands, encasing all three of them in a purifying white light. The lingering pain in Scott's skull completely faded. Even Cassie's soul seemed to burn brighter.
"Thanks," Scott said as he looked up to Strange's eyes. He gawked when he saw blood running down the older man's noise and ears. "Whoa! Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Strange dismissed in a heavy breath and pushed him off the seal. As soon as their feet left the circle, blue tendrils reached up and encased the mirror, completely covering its now solid glass surface. "The portal is closed and sealed. I'll send someone to gather this later." He took a second to catch his breath and use his sleeve to wipe the blood off his face. "It will be safer stored in my Sanctum."
Scott had no argument there. And as much as he wanted to press the issue of Strange's condition, there was a more pressing matter that needed addressed first. He clutched Cassie close to him and fell more than sat on her bed. "How about Cassie? Do we take her back to her body?"
"That may not be as easy as it sounds," said Strange.
"Why not?" Scott bit the inside of his cheek. "The other kids did, right? Went back to their bodies?"
Strange crouched down on the floor in front of the bed, not wanting to loom. "Scott," he said slowly, voice severe, "she's lost most of her soul."
The words were like a weight in Scott's stomach. Tears immediately welled in his eyes. "Is...is she going to die?"
"No," Strange assured. "But, her soul, it..." He massaged his hands as he stumbled for the right words. "It won't feel comfortable in her body anymore. It will be like a child trying to wear her mother's shoes."
"I don't understand," said Scott, his grip on Cassie tightening.
Strange spoke slowly, calculatingly. "Her soul may very well slip out of her body. It may be able to come back, it may not. It could happen any time or any place."
"What—?" Scott shook his head. He couldn't understand. How does one's soul just leave? "What can I do? How can I help?"
"There is one thing you can do." Despite Strange assurance, his expression was dark. "But I need to ask, what are you willing to do?"
"Anything," Scott said before Strange finished the question. "Anything and everything. What can I do?"
Strange gestured towards Cassie. "She and you, your souls are practically identical. This is rare, even for a parent and child."
"What does that mean?"
"That means, I can tether her soul to yours."
Scott blinked in confusion. "What, like, two souls in one body?"
"No, no. It will be more like tying a boat to a dock. The boat may move on the waves, but it can never leave. If her spirit slips from her body, it will be drawn to you. You can then help her find her way back. As she gets older and her soul gets more comfortable in her body, she'll no longer need the tether." Strange chose not to mention that the latter statement was just in theory.
Scott weighed the option. "Will it hurt her?"
"No, it won't. She'll feel lost, but all of it will come naturally, like one forgetting a memory then remembering it again." Strange put his scarred hand on Scott's shoulder. It did not tremble. "I promise you, Scott, she'll be fine. It will require some getting used to, but, if she's anything like you, I'm 100 percent certain that she will be fine. And this," he motioned between his and Scott's foreheads, referring to their mental link, "will remain open. You can contact me immediately if anything happens or if you have questions."
Scott couldn't measure or put into words how very grateful he was to Strange. He could feel tears prickle his eyes and had to look away before Strange could notice. "Thanks," he said in a shaky breath.
Strange pulled his hand back and he frowned. "It's the least I can do."
"I need to change," said Scott absently. He couldn't walk into the hospital as Ant-Man.
"You can set Cassie down," said Strange, motioning to the bed on which Scott was currently sitting. "The portal is closed and the house is purified. She'll be safe."
Scott hesitated, but he believed in Strange. He set Cassie down carefully, petting her hair once before going to change. As he passed Strange, he noticed the doctor subtly leaning against one of the supports for the bed's canopy. "You're free to raid the fridge downstairs," Scott said. It wasn't exactly his house to offer, but he didn't really care what Paxton would say about it.
Strange considered it before saying, "I'll do just that."
Scott groaned as he bent down for his bag. His body had never been so sore—not even during his initial training with Hank. When he straightened back up, his head spun and a wave of nausea almost knocked him off his feet. "Whoa..." He took a moment to regain himself, shaking his head. As he looked down at his clothes in his bag, he grimaced. "This is not going to be easy."
Several long minutes passed before Scott wearily pulled on his shoes, finishing his attire. He didn't remember his sneakers being so heavy. He let out a sigh as he leaned against Cassie's bed. He was originally standing when he started dressing himself but somehow he ended up sitting on the floor with his back up against Cassie's mattress. He opened his eyes, not remembering closing them.
"Shit," he said as he pushed himself back into a stand, using the bed's banisters as a crutch. Strange wasn't in the room.
"Cassie," he said as he stroked his daughter's cheek, "I'll be right back, peanut."
He stumbled his way down the stairs and made his way into the kitchen. There, he saw Strange using his elbow to lean on the island in the middle of the room. There were several wrappers scattered on the surface and the floor and an apple was in Strange's trembling hand.
Scott laughed out his nose. "Were you hungry?"
Strange looked up like he just realized Scott was there. He finished chewing his bite of apple before saying, "What gives you that impression?" He glanced around himself, eying all the wrappers to energy bars and granola bars and snack cakes alike. "These were already here."
"Right," said Scott, amused. "I'll be sure to tell Maggie that. Feeling better?"
"I feel great," he said, standing straight. His steely eyes looked Scott up and down.
Scott squirmed under the doctor's gaze. "What is it?"
"You're not looking too good," said Strange as he pushed off the island and moved back towards the upstairs bedroom. "There's a few activities I can recommend, a new change in diet—"
"I'm not cutting burgers," interrupted Scott as he followed Strange up the stairs.
"I suggest you get some multivitamins; focus on Vitamin C. When was your last physical?"
"Hey, man, I feel great. Don't need to go all 'doctor' on me."
"I am a doctor," said Strange pointedly. He stopped at the top of the stairs and had a bowl in his hand filled with blueberries. He offered Scott the bowl then entered Cassie's bedroom.
"Right, right," said Scott as he accepted the fruit. He stared at the blueberries in scrutiny. He didn't see Strange holding anything other than an apple earlier. "Where did you get these?" When did Strange get rid of the apple?
Strange didn't answer the question as he made his way to Cassie's bed. He gingerly pressed his hand to Cassie's forehead, an orange glow emitting from his hand. Her spirit brightened. Strange looked over at Scott. "Are you ready?"
Scott shoved a handful of blueberries in his mouth and nodded, setting the bowl on Cassie's drawer. "What do I do?" he asked after swallowing.
Strange gestured for him to get closer, his hand not leaving Cassie's brow. "First and foremost, stay calm. I want you to close your eyes and think of your love for Cassie. Try and throw all your love at her."
Scott nodded and stood next to Strange. "I can do that." He let out a heavy breath and closed his eyes. He thought of Cassie, thinking of how he felt the day she was born. He mentally put himself back in the hospital next to Maggie's bed, holding his newborn baby girl as she cooed in his arms. He thought back to her first birthday when she sat in front of her cake, laughing at the single candle with icing already on her face. He recalled seeing her for the first time since he had gone to prison, her smile when she saw him and how adorable she looked in her birthday dress.
Scott's loving nostalgia was suddenly wrapped with a childish wonder. It was so unexpected and wonderful that Scott felt tears falling down his cheeks. His eyes opened. Though he was surprised by what he saw, he was not alarmed.
Strange was crouched on the ground, one hand tenderly holding Cassie's spiritual thread. The other was holding a string of light pulled from Scott's chest. Strange's face was hard with concentration, his gaze unmoving and his hands purposeful, like a surgeon sewing sutures. Only, this time, he was tying together two souls. Strange had threaded Scott's string around Cassie's like a beautiful braid. Strange then grasped the intertwined strings in a strong grip. Pink light shined through his fingers for a brief second before Strange let go. The two threads were now one, as if that was how it was always meant to be.
Strange was swirling his finger over the conjoined threads, a small pink glyph hovering over them. His gaze flicked up to Scott before hastily returning back to his work. "How do you feel?"
Scott took a second to internally evaluate his body and all the sensations it was currently feeling. He felt youthful, almost rejuvenated with his own body's aches falling on the back burner. Everything felt so subtle it was easily ignored. The only blatant difference was a slight weight on his shoulders. It wasn't burdensome, but definitely noticeable. "I feel heavier. But it's, I don't know, natural?"
Strange smiled. "You're burdened with the weight of two souls now. Don't worry, it will make you stronger in the end."
"What, like, super strong?"
"It's not a physical strength," said Strange with a hearty scoff. He finished his handiwork and stood. "It's done. Let's get her back to her body, shall we?" He was already circling his hand to open a portal.
Scott was moving to pick up Cassie. "You're gonna be fine, baby," he said to her.
"Wait," said Strange. "They won't see Cassie in your arms—you'll just look weird. Let me carry her."
Scott's extended hands clenched into fists and he pulled away from her. "Okay."
The portal was finished, but it was far from perfect. It didn't land on even ground and the sparks seemed to fluctuate unsteadily. Strange quickly massaged away a headache then gingerly picked up Cassie in his long arms. "Lead the way."
As the two made their way into the hospital, they had to step up into the portal. They arrived in a hallway in the pediatric wing, just outside the large room in which Cassie resided. Their sudden appearance scared a poor night orderly who dropped his bedpans in his fright.
"Sorry," said Scott to the young man. He stepped aside and let Strange follow after him.
The two made their way into Cassie's room and they were met with a cacophony of voices and laughter. All the children were awake, playing with one another or bonding with their parents. Nurses and a couple of doctors were running about, checking on all of them and keeping them together. Only two children were still in bed, one was the boy who had been in the cage next to Cassie, and Cassie. The boy was at least awake and smiling up at his parents, undoubtedly telling them what he could remember from his dream. Cassie, on the other hand, was still sleeping.
Maggie was next to Cassie's bed, looking like a complete wreck with Paxton too lost in his own suffering now to be able to offer comfort. Dr. Vitani was on the opposite side of Cassie, looking over the screens and checking her charts. She was saying something that Scott couldn't hear, but he could tell from his position that she was troubled. Probably by the fact that Cassie was the only one who had not yet woken up.
Maggie's tired eyes caught sight of Scott and Strange walking towards them. She slapped Paxton on the leg and he also glanced at them. Dr. Vitani followed their gaze and turned just as Scott and Strange walked up to the foot of the bed.
"Mr. Lang," the doctor greeted with a nod. Then her dark eyes landed on Strange and they lingered. "Strange?"
Strange looked back at her, realization slowly dawning on his face. "Vitani."
Her brows furrowed as she looked at his attire. "What are you wearing?"
"Why is that always the first thing people ask?" He turned his steely gaze down to Cassie's physical form. "We'll catch up later. Cassie comes first."
"What are you going to do?" asked Maggie, her voice a mixture of desperation and disbelief.
"You guys have been gone for hours," said Paxton, sounding more angry than anything else. "What have you been doing?"
Scott said nothing, vaguely gesturing to the woken children around them. "We've been busy." Though he was finding it hard to believe they were gone for hours. Maybe one hour, but several?
Dr. Vitani was listing off everything she had tested and all the results she found (or couldn't find). Strange nodded as he listened, but he was obviously distracted.
"Don't worry," he said to her. "I know exactly what to do."
Scott watched as Strange gently laid Cassie's soul into her body. There was a strange overlap as Cassie's spirit got re-acclimated to its host. Then, in a second, Scott could no longer see it. Cassie's soul was finally safe in her body.
Instantly, Cassie's pallid eyes fluttered and she stretched as if waking from a long sleep.
"Cassie!" Maggie was standing and immediately hugging her daughter, Paxton awkwardly hovering over as he waited to get his own hug. "Cassie, oh my God!"
"Mommy?" asked Cassie, confused.
Dr. Vitani couldn't believe what she saw. After all, to her and everyone else, it looked like Strange just dropped nothing but a load of air on top of Cassie. "What did you do?"
Strange looked at her with a cocky smile. "Just performing miracles. It's what I do. I'm a miracle-maker."
"No, seriously, what did you do?" she asked, not entertained by his jokes.
Strange gestured for the door. "Let's find somewhere quiet and I'll explain."
Before the two doctors left, Strange put his hand on Scott's shoulder. "Let me know if anything happens."
Scott offered a thumbs-up. "Have fun." That was definitely a conversation of which he did not want to be a part.
At least half an hour passed with tearful exchanges and long hugs. Just as Strange said, Cassie seemed very lost and confused. She didn't know where she was, she struggled to remember simple facts and how to move her limbs. Maggie did her best to explain what happened to Cassie, at least the parts that she witnessed. Cassie didn't seem to remember any of it.
"I had this weird dream," she had said, groggy. "Daddy was there." She smiled a toothy grin at Scott who was sitting at the foot of her bed. "He saved me."
"Sounds like a good dream," said Scott, hopeful.
Cassie frowned. "It was scary at first, but when Daddy came it got better."
Paxton reached and patted her on the shoulder. "It's good to know your daddy's always there for you, kiddo."
"Yeah," she said in a yawn.
Maggie was staring at Scott. She lowered her voice just above a whisper and asked, "What did you do? Did you do your—" she did a shrinking motion with her fingers, "thing?"
"It was mostly Strange," admitted Scott. "I'll explain everything after we get Cassie home."
Maggie understood Scott's wanting to make it a private conversation and dropped it. Scott was grateful. He wasn't ready to tell Maggie about the witch and Cassie's damaged soul. The nurses had checked her vitals and everything else that had earlier been haywire, but there was no sign of any physical abnormalities or damages.
"It's a miracle," said one of the nurses. "A medical miracle."
"Thanks, man, for everything," said Scott as he shook Strange's hand.
It was well into the morning of November second and all of the children who had suffered the Halloween Havoc, as the news had called it, were free to go home. Scott was standing outside the UCSF entrance with Cassie at his hip. Ever since she regained her bearings enough to walk, she hadn't left his side. He assumed it was their newfound spiritual link. Maggie was obviously bothered by it, something he couldn't blame her for, but she didn't say anything.
Strange had concluded his long conversation with Dr. Vitani and looked dead on his feet. He shook Scott's hand lazily in return. "I only wish I could have done more."
"Don't say that," said Maggie. "I may not know what happened," she gave Scott a momentary, pointed look, "but I know you had a huge hand in saving Cassie. Thank you."
Strange seemed bothered by Maggie's display of gratitude. "You're welcome." He crouched down so he could speak to Cassie on her level. "How are you feeling, Cassie?"
She shuffled shyly but she smiled. "Good."
"Good," said Strange, smiling. "Can you do me a favor?" She nodded. "Can you take care of your daddy for me? He's a good man but he's lousy at eating right."
Scott groaned and Cassie laughed. "Yeah!"
"Good. And take care of your mommy, too, okay? She loves you a lot."
Cassie looked at Maggie. "I love Mommy." Maggie beamed and smiled back at her daughter.
"Good. Take care, Cassie." He stood and straightened his robes.
"Heading back to New York?" asked Scott.
"Yes. I'm sure Wong's come up with a long laundry list for me to do."
"I remember Wong. How's he doing?"
"He's, well, Wong," was Strange's response. "Will you need a ride back to your apartment?"
Scott shook his head. "No, I've got a ride." He gestured to the parking lot just as Hope was driving up in her car. "She's been calling me all night. I figure I'll fill her in on the ride home."
"Daddy's coming over today!" said Cassie's as she pulled on his hand.
"Yes, sweetie," said Maggie. "Daddy's going to come over and then fill us in on what happened."
Scott squirmed. "Yep. It's going to be a fun day."
Strange breathed out a laugh. "I don't envy you." He brought up his hands and opened one last portal that led straight to his bedroom back in his Sanctum Santorum. "Take care." Then he disappeared as the portal closed around him.
"Wow!" Cassie was pointing and laughing. "Was that magic? I want to see it again! Daddy, can I see it again?"
"Maybe another day, sweetheart." Scott ruffled her hair. "For now, let's all just go home."
A/N: Well, it's finished. In the spirit of the holiday, my third chapter decided it was going to corrupt itself, leaving me to have to write it all over again. Sorry for the wait and for the poor quality that is this very long chapter.
To those who don't know, our guest star antagonist is from Disney's Hocus Pocus. In the film, the Sanderson sisters use a spell book given to them by the devil but it is unnamed, referred solely as Book. Since the spell books in MCU's Doctor Strange all have names, I gave Book a name.
Chernabog is featured in Disney's Fantasia as Disney's version of the devil, the very representation of pure evil. Since Disney produced/created Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, and Hocus Pocus, I figured it logical to continue to use Disney references.
Thank you for reading!