Maya groaned as she pushed herself to her feet, staggering upright and she glanced back to see that the Sanctum was still breached - the Dark Dimension still had an entry point. And they couldn't hold time forever. Maya turned her attention back to the front where Kaecilius approached with his newly freed Zealots, just as Mordo and Wong clambered to their feet too.
"Get up, Strange." Mordo ordered as he struggled to his feet. "Get up and fight! We can finish this."
Kaecilius stepped closer, uncaring of them as his eyes lifted instead to the Dark Dimension that shimmered above them from where it was entering their world.
"Isn't it beautiful?" Kaecilius murmured. "A world beyond time. Beyond death..."
Maya started as Stephen somehow floated down from above behind Kaecilius. She glanced from the ground where he had been to where he stood now, looking a little worse for wear but not as incapacitated as he should have been from the explosion that had knocked them to the ground. More importantly, how had he gotten behind Kaecilius? He had been on the ground behind her… hadn't he?
Kaecilius meanwhile seemed to sense what had happened and he slowly turned to Stephen.
"What have you done?" He demanded darkly.
"I made a bargain." Stephen answered casually.
Kaecilius froze as he felt something odd on his fingertips. Like he couldn't feel them at all. Glancing down, he stared in horror as his hands began to disintegrate.
"What is this?" Kaecilius demanded, trying to keep calm as he looked back at Stephen. But he couldn't hide the terror that lingered deep in his eyes.
Maya's breath caught as she finally noticed what was happening to all the Zealots while Stephen explained nonchalantly, "Well, it's, uh, it's everything you ever wanted. Eternal life as part of the One."
Maya slowly stepped around the Zealots, Wong and Mordo following her as they watched the Zealots gingerly as they began to turn to ash much faster. Stephen stepped up to be beside Maya, his eyes also staying on the Zealots who were now panicking while Kaeciliius looked down at himself before looking back at Stephen murderously as Stephen added, "You're not going to like it."
Kaecilius gasped as his whole body started to turn to ash. He screamed and Maya turned her head, unable to watch as Kaecilius and his Zealots were sucked into the disappearing Dark Dimension while they turned into ashen skeletal figures that writhed and writhed without a sound as they lost their mouths.
There was a beat of silence as the other three watched the Zealots disappear from view, before Stephen finally remarked dryly, "You know, he really should have stolen the whole book because the warnings… the warnings come after the spells."
Maya slowly turned to stare at Stephen in disbelief; but Wong was the one who broke the silence first as he suddenly cracked up laughing. Stephen stared at the man incredulously, as did Maya and Mordo, but Wong didn't even seem to notice. He continued to chuckle, holding his side he was laughing so hard, before he pointed at Stephen.
"Oh, that's funny." Wong chortled.
Maya shook her head at him. "You two are hopeless."
She then turned to Stephen and gestured around them. "Ready to undo this yet?"
"Oh." He glanced around where time was still frozen. "Right."
Stephen braced himself before unleashing the time spell again. The last of the Sanctum slowly restored, and the Dark Dimension disappeared completely as the entry point was sealed. Stephen released the spell once everything was as it should have been and time began to flow normally. Everything around them moved, noise suddenly filled their ears as people resumed their way through the busy streets of Hong Kong, cars honked and street merchants yelled while food hissed as street vendors flipped the hot meals over well-controlled fires.
Few paid attention to the four weirdos standing in the middle of the street in strange robes; cosplayers weren't common but it wasn't like there was an alien invasion going on. No one felt the need to unglue from their phones or their current conversations to give the foursome more than a cursory odd glance. Maya sighed at the normality.
"We did it." She murmured, half unable to believe it.
Stephen glanced down at her, his gaze softening and filling with something new; something that spoke of both pain and relief. Maya wondered at it but before she could ask, she was interrupted by a haunted voice.
"Yes. Yes, we did it."
Maya glanced back at Mordo in concern as her friend paced away a little bit, before he turned back to face them.
"By also violating the natural laws."
Understanding his dilemma, Maya stepped forward. "Karl..."
"No." Mordo lifted a hand, stopping her as he looked only at Stephen who just sighed.
"Look around you." Stephen gestured around them, trying to make Mordo see the good. "It's over."
"You still think there will be no consequences, Strange?" Mordo asked, his brow puckering with anger… and fear.
"No price to pay? We broke our rules, just like her. The bill comes due. Always. A reckoning."
The two men stared at each other, engaged in a battle of wills that Stephen was less inclined to engage in. Mordo seemed to sense this as he stiffened before speaking again more harshly.
"I will follow this path no longer."
Karl turned, ready to leave - but he paused when he felt no movement beside him. He turned to his oldest friend.
"Maya?" He asked, although he seemed to expect her answer. And indeed when Maya hesitated, he wasn't surprised. That didn't mean it didn't hurt… both him and her.
"You will stay?" He asked, although it was more a statement.
Maya tensed at the disappointment, the disgust in his voice while Stephen bristled. Mordo paid him no heed now, however, as he locked eyes only with his old friend, demanding answers from her she couldn't quite form.
"How? How can you stand there and say you will stay, after seeing the proof of the Ancient One's lies, seeing exactly what happens to those who dabble with the natural laws?"
"Karl-" Maya began but he cut her off sharply.
"You cannot say you trust him!" He thundered in disbelief. Maya's gaze flickered to Stephen and Mordo stared at her.
"Garthe?" He asked, his tone giving him away. He already knew her answer.
But still Maya answered as she faced her old friend with straightened shoulders, her expression slightly apologetic… but firm.
"Yes. Yes, I trust him."
Mordo's eyes narrowed but Maya stepped forward, reaching out a hand toward her friend.
"We were wrong, Karl. Order and rules are good, of course, but so is creativity and pushing the limit. You see today a battle won because Stephen thought of things we could never have with our rigid way of thinking. Perhaps there will be consequences but at least we are able to fight another day because of it."
But Mordo wasn't listening to her anymore. He'd started shaking his head the moment she started speaking and he finally cut her off in a cold voice.
"I hope you are able to face yourself after your choice today, Garthe."
He stared at her, his tone and gaze warning.
"Before you are forced to face the consequences."
Maya faltered and she wilted slightly as Mordo turned and walked away. Again, she had lost someone. Again, someone was walking away from her. But then she felt a hand on hers and another heavier one on her shoulder.
She turned to see Stephen watching her a little uncertainly although his hand squeezed hers in comfort. Wong was a little bit more sympathetic in his gaze and wiser in his hand as he spoke in a tone as heavy as the hand on her shoulder.
"He will come around, one day."
Maya exhaled deeply but she nodded. Wong let go, before gesturing toward the Sanctum.
"Come. And perhaps, Strange, you can explain to us what happened."
The sun was rising over the city of Kathmandu by the time they were ready to be done for the day. Stephen disappeared for a brief respite after finishing his tale and Wong had debriefed Maya on what had happened during the Sanctum attack before Stephen undid it. Once Stephen was gone, Wong asked about the Ancient One and Mordo's sudden turmoil. Briefly, Maya explained what had transpired.
"I know that the other masters have a right to know the truth." Maya finished grimly. "But I must confess, I do not wish for word of what Ama did to go further than between us. Her choices were… perhaps questionable. But I cannot think it wise to undo everything good she did based on a mistake she made."
"You think it was a mistake?" Wong questioned. Maya eyed her fellow master curiously.
"You do not?"
"I don't know." Wong leant back in his seat contemplatively. "I do not think what she did was right… but I do not think it was wrong. It was something she felt was a necessity. Perhaps as a result, she stopped another powerful sorcerer from succeeding her, someone who might have done better than she did. But that is a hypothetical. What I do know is that she has protected our worlds for many generations and that she has on too many occasions been all that stood between innocents and evil forces. If she needed to rely on some aide from the Dark Dimension… well, we will have to see if there are any consequences still to come."
"A very wise way of looking at things, Master Wong." Maya murmured, the troubled stirring in her own heart easing at the other master's words. Mordo's departure had shaken her more than she cared to let on, had brought back the doubts she had worked through after the Ancient One's passing; but she suspected Wong had known that.
"And if she had not been here, we might not have had Strange to save this day." Wong looked directly at her, his gaze calm and wise. "I do not forget that, aside from Mordo, she was the only one willing to take Strange in despite her first misgivings."
"I don't think Ama ever really intended to keep Stephen out." Maya revealed, causing a look of surprise to cross Wong's face. "A few years ago, Ama said something strange. At the time, I assumed it was just the attack on New York affecting her but for the first time I heard her mention her own death."
This time, the look of surprise stayed on Wong's face.
"It was only in passing, but she talked of a storm she could not see past. I guessed she suspected it was her death she'd seen, although I didn't ask. I have… come to believe she meant a literal storm that showered New York when she passed on."
"And you think she saw Strange in that vision, before he arrived." Wong murmured. Maya nodded.
"It was always… odd to me, the day Ama took Stephen in. She had seemed so decided against it and yet when Mordo challenged her, she looked to me to argue against it. It was like she wanted me to see the holes in an argument against Stephen being here."
Maya paused before she admitted for the first time what she had suspected for months and what had been cemented since her mother's death.
"I think she knew I would be the difficult one, that I would oppose Stephen's presence the most, but she also knew we would need him. She knew he was made for more than even he thought."
Wong stayed silent for a while before he shrugged.
"Well," he stated as he got to his feet. "Don't let Strange hear you say that. Otherwise his overinflated ego may not make it through the doorway to the Sanctums."
Maya laughed at that as she too stood and joined Wong in walking out of the room and down the hallway. She was tired, exhausted really, and was looking forward to her bed. But before that, there was something else she needed to do and so she strode in comfortable silence with Wong toward the Seeing Room. Upon arriving, they found Stephen already there and replacing the Eye of Agamotto on its stand.
He seemed to be contemplating his own decision so Wong spoke up, "Wise choice."
Stephen glanced over in surprise at their arrival, but he didn't seem against their joining him as the pair strolled over while Wong continued sagely.
"You'll wear the eye of Agamotto once you've mastered its powers. Until then, best not to walk the streets wearing an Infinity Stone."
"A what?" Stephen asked blankly.
Wong turned to Stephen in disbelief while Maya hid another laugh; Stephen saw it however and he all but pouted at her. She was going to get questions, she could feel it already. But for now, she was content to dodge them from behind Wong as the older master shook his head and sighed.
"You have a gift for the Mystic Arts," Wong bemoaned, "but you still have much to learn."
Stephen was further put out by those words but Wong had already moved on as he looked up at the glimpses into the multiverse that spanned the ceiling of the room.
"Word of the Ancient One's death will spread through the multiverse." He murmured worriedly and Maya straightened. "And Earth has no Sorcerer Supreme to defend it."
He glanced at Maya.
"Maya-" Wong began but Maya shook her head.
"I am no Sorcerer Supreme." She said before Wong could continue, before her amber eyes moved to land on Stephen meaningfully.
He straightened now, shocked by what she was implying. Wong seemed to contemplate Stephen and he said slowly, "We'll need to be ready then."
"We'll be ready." Maya answered confidently.
It unnerved Stephen a little to have her believe in him so wholeheartedly; after all, she had almost fired him less than twenty-four hours earlier. Wong however was satisfied and he strolled out with a nod of farewell to his fellows. Maya watched him leave while Stephen watched her; while grateful, he couldn't help but wonder at the change in her attitude which seemed even more bewildering than Mordo's.
Maya waited until Wong was fully out of sight before she turned to Stephen. She clearly saw the question in his eyes but she asked her own instead.
"How are you feeling?"
He blinked a little stupidly in response so she elaborated.
"You said you died over and over; you couldn't even say how many times." Maya reminded him, her eyes remaining steadily on his. "There will be no visible scars but I don't doubt that there are non-visible ones. How you managed to withstand such a thing..."
Stephen wondered if this was the answer he sought; was she impressed by his resilience in the face of torture? Feeling a bit disconcerted, Stephen answered with an uncomfortable shrug, "Well, it was either that or lose everything. The choice was simple."
"Hm." Maya surveyed him before she let the subject drop. Instead, she turned to one of the newly reinstated doors.
"The New York Sanctum is ready for you when you are. My Ama chose its new guardian well."
Maya glanced back at him.
"Wong and I will keep watch over Kamar-Taj until you've completed your training. Or a better guardian comes along."
Stephen's eyes narrowed at her teasing. Back in familiar territory, he tossed back, "Then Kamar-Taj is likely doomed to never have me return."
"Ah, humble as always." Maya smirked. At that Stephen sighed.
She caught the change in his tone and her expression turned impassive and impossible to read. It didn't help his trepidation.
"What you… suggested, about the Sorcerer Supreme-"
"You want to know why I have chosen to have confidence in you." Maya noted in a monotone that was unnervingly similar to her mother's.
Maya tilted her head at him questioningly. "You don't believe you are worthy of training for the title?"
"Well, you have trained longer." Stephen answered lamely; Maya raised her brow a fraction in response. "Okay, fine, I think I could do it with time. But why-"
"Why would I not step up myself? Or why would I have confidence in you after nearly kicking you to the curb yesterday?" Maya suggested, her brow now fully raised.
"Uh… both." Stephen answered, momentarily thrown off by Maya's unusual use of colloquialism. The way her eyes glinted suggested she had done it one purpose.
"The first is simple: I am not and have never trained to be the Sorcerer Supreme."
Maya hesitated only a fraction before admitting to Stephen something only the Ancient one's most trusted masters had been privy to.
"Ama never stated it explicitly and she never gave a reason why… but it was always understood that that was not the path I was destined to walk."
Stephe started at the admission and Maya answered his question before he could even ask it.
"I do not know what she saw, exactly. I wondered of course, and in my youth I resented her for deciding my fate for me. After some time, I understood. My destiny was elsewhere - it was neither better nor worse, it just was. Just like my Ama's fate was hers."
Here she averted her gaze briefly.
"When Kaecilius joined us, I wondered if it was he that was meant to walk the path. I was certain of it at one stage, until his true nature was revealed. After that… I believed it would be no one who would or could ever follow in Ama's footsteps."
Maya turned her amber eyes back on Stephen, her gaze clear. "Then you came along. And I was certain you'd quit three days in."
Stephen snorted; he remembered the harshness of her training then. Oddly enough, he recalled those days with some fondness now.
"You persevered, but still I was not convinced. My heart was closed to the idea, my mind even more so. Even after I began to suspect you were the one my Ama had foreseen," Stephen jolted at that but Maya pretended not to notice, "I refused to believe it. I began to think she must have been wrong from the beginning."
Maya stopped talking; Stephen was frowning at little, now a bit hurt (although he would drop dead before he admitted it) by her admission.
"So, then why change that now?"
"Because I had more to do while sitting by my Ama's body than grieve. Because I couldn't stop thinking. Because you said something back in the New York Sanctum. Something I have never heard before." Her eyes narrowed and Stephen recognized the playfulness in them. "Would you like to take a guess?"
He didn't but he was not one to back down from a challenge. He barely remembered what had been said at the Sanctum, there had been many bitter words, words spoken out of anger and fear that day and he couldn't think what might have changed Maya's opinion of him. Especially as he distinctly remembered her being furious with him for more than half of the conversation.
"I said I… became a doctor to save lives, not take them?" Stephen finally answered, more a question. Maya snorted gracelessly.
"That may have been one motivation but it was certainly not the reason you became a celebrity neurosurgeon." She answered and Stephen almost grimaced.
He also almost shot back at her for that quip but Maya was suddenly right in front of him - when had she walked over? - and Stephen was suddenly very focused on her proximity to him. Not that it was all he was focused on; but even his massive intellect could only do so much at once.
"Then what was it?" He asked, his voice lower than he'd intended.
Maya didn't appear to notice as she stepped even closer, getting in his personal space. He didn't care although he definitely noticed.
"You told Karl he lacked imagination, implied that we all did. And then you proved us right. And I knew that kind of idiotic, reckless, selfless genius is exactly why you are worthy."
Stephen's breath caught at her blunt sincerity. It was the only reason, he would later argue, that he allowed his honest fear slip out in a soft whisper.
"And what if you're wrong?"
"I know I'm not, priya. You have an almost unparalleled gift with the Mystic Arts, it is true. But the kind of self-sacrifice you came up with? That is not something that can be taught."
Maya looked up at him, amber eyes soft and full of understanding and trust.
"I know not my own path, but I am certain of yours if you would only take it."
Stephen stared back at her. He remembered what the Ancient One had told him moments before she had died. You'd think after all this time I'd be ready. She, most likely the most powerful being on Earth, hadn't been ready to let go as she should. But she had taken the plunge, because she knew there was someone who trusted her to do the right thing.
"I can't do it alone." Stephen murmured, raising one trembling hand to place against her cheek. She leant into the touch, giving him some confidence. "Will you take it with me?"
Maya's lips tilted up into a light, teasing smile.
"I already said I would train you."
Annoyance and impatience flared in him. "Maya-"
Stephen never finished voicing his complaint. As soon as he said her name, the joking air vanished and Maya suddenly grabbed him by his lapels. Pulling him down to her height, she pressed her lips against his. At once, his eyes slid closed and lifting trembling hands lifted to cup her head, Stephen answered her softly as they kissed in the dim light of the Seeing Room.