Maya flung open the doors to the small bedroom, and Stephen looked around owlishly as his guide threw open the windows.
Maya spoke shortly, saying the first words since she'd let him into the building - actually, her first words to him at all. She too had a British accent, but Stephen couldn't help but note that she looked and sounded extremely unhappy. She was not looking at him even when she turned back around to face him; instead steadily looking at a point somewhere above Stephen's shoulder.
Stephen fidgeted uncertainly when another voice spoke up from behind.
"If you can, that is."
Stephen looked over to see a much friendlier Mordo standing in the doorway, looking as cheerful as Maya looked irate.
"The Ancient One will send for you." Mordo added, his eyes flickering over to Maya as he spoke to Stephen.
Mordo appeared highly entertained as he examined Maya, who was now glowering at him with such intensity that Stephen wondered that the dark-skinned man didn't burn under it.
Maya huffed at the clear amusement on her friend's face and she stalked out without another word to either man.
"Um, thank you!" Stephen called after her awkwardly.
Maya glared briefly at him before she left, her black robes and curiously yellow sash snapping behind her, and Mordo chuckled. Stephen didn't know whether it would be appropriate to make a joke or not, before he decided that he'd best prevent any further mishaps for the day by staying silent. Mordo seemed to sense this because his smile widened and he made a joke first.
"Maya seems quite taken with you already."
Stephen started and stared. Mordo laughed.
"Do not worry, Strange - she will come around. It is mostly her mother she is cross at." He reassured. Stephen blinked.
"Her… mother?" He asked and Mordo explained, "The Ancient One."
"Oh… wait, what?!" Stephen yelped, his eyes bulging in shock for the millionth time that day. "But, but… how… they're related?"
He pictured the Ancient One with her deathly pale skin, blue eyes, pointed nose, thin lips and he'd guess by her eyebrows that she was naturally blonde if she weren't bald. Maya on the other hand had golden skin, clearly a product of her mixed-looking heritage, a rounded nose, black wavy hair and light brown eyes that looked amber when the light struck them. The only shared feature they had was possibly the high cheek bones but that seemed a bit of a stretch. Mordo laughed.
"They are not related, Strange." He explained. "Maya is adopted, but she is the only one at Kamar-Taj who has been here since she was a baby and whom the Ancient One herself raised. Most others joined later in life; it is what gives her the privilege to call the Ancient One 'mother'."
Stephen was still having difficult wrapping his head around his bit of news when Mordo handed him a slip of paper with the word 'shamballa' written in elegant script. Stephen glanced down at it in confusion.
"Uh, what's this?" Stephen asked as Mordo started to leave. "My mantra?"
The other man gave him an odd look.
"The Wi-Fi password." Mordo answered, before raising a brow. "We're not savages."
With that, he left, closing the doors behind him and leaving Stephen to contemplate his first night at Kamar-Taj.
Stephen's training began immediately.
"The language of the mystic arts is as old as civilization."
Stephen listened intently and silently where he sat across from the Ancient One early the next morning. They were in her study once more, but this time it was he dressed in light, grey-toned robes while she was dressed in a dark maroons and yellow-brown tones as she sat with her legs crossed before him.
"The sorcerers of antiquity called the use of this language 'spells'. But if that word offends your modern sensibilities, you can call it a 'program'."
Stephen fought back the brief annoyance at her words; he had had a feeling his initial dismissal of the teachings at Kamar-Taj would not be forgotten quickly and it seemed he was right.
"The source code that shapes reality." The Ancient One continued before she lifted her hands.
"We harness energy," a bright orange light appeared between her hands as she drew them perpendicular to her body, and Stephen watched in awe as she continued while spinning her hands in a perfect circle.
"Drawn from other dimensions of the multiverse-"
The orange light followed her hand to crate two perfectly round concentric circles around the first straight line she had drawn, with additional markings appearing inside the smaller circle.
"To cast spells-"
The markings within expanded to reveal pyramidal or triangular shapes intertwined in an almost star-like pattern within the circle. At the same time, the Ancient One abruptly pulled her arms apart with her forearms raised straight and her palms facing her body. A square appeared around the outermost circle and the first line down the middle of the spell she had cast disappeared as she went on.
"To conjure shields-"
The Ancient One snapped her fingers, and what looked like a copy of her initial design clicked into view at a 90 degree angle from the first design. She twirled her hands in a circle before her body once more, creating further intricate designs all within the spell she was showing Stephen as she finished speaking.
"And weapons to make... magic."
She curled and then abruptly uncurled her fingers as she held them out before her, and Stephen watched in awe as the spell before him pulsed before it extended. The different layers of the design continued to pulse as if alive as they lifted away, creating a three-dimensional image of glowing orange light before him.
The Ancient One lowered her hands and the spell disappeared, leaving Stephen stunned for a moment as he stared, breathless, at where the spell had appeared and then disappeared before his eyes. However, reality caught up to him a few heartbeats later, and Stephen frowned.
"But…" He began morosely, looking down at his permanently shaking hands. "Even if my fingers could do that, my hands would just be waving in the air. I mean, how do I get from here to there?"
He gestured from his lacking self to her, his eyes beseeching as they looked at her once more. The Ancient One raised her brows before she turned the question back at him.
"How did you get to reattach severed nerves, and put a human spine back together bone by bone?"
"Study and practice." Stephen answered slowly. "Years of it."
The Ancient One smiled and Stephen lowered his head thoughtfully. The Ancient One then turned her head slightly, looking to the side of the room where another figure had been watching in silence from the corner of the study.
"Maya." The Ancient One called.
Stephen looked up and over, surprised by the Ancient One's call, while Maya shot them an incredulous look from where she had been sitting in the corner since the sunrise at her mother's request.
"No." She protested shortly. She'd had an unhappy feeling on what her sitting in on Stephen's introduction lesson would mean and she was not pleased to find her prediction was coming true. "I'm not teaching this bevakupha."
Her vehemence caused the Ancient One to raise an eyebrow while Stephen frowned.
"What does be-bek-bev- er that mean?" He asked, sensing it wasn't a pleasant term although he had no idea what language it was let alone what it meant.
The Ancient One was giving Maya a reproachful look that made her groan, but she said grudgingly, "Never you mind."
"Maya will now show you to the courtyard where you will begin your first training." The Ancient One told Stephen serenely. He wondered briefly if she was all right in the head giving him to an instructor who clearly loathed him although he wasn't quite sure what he'd done wrong. The Ancient One appeared to have forgiven his initial disrespectful attitude and Mordo had apparently never been offended to start with. Was Maya perhaps more difficult? Somehow he had the sense that it ran deeper than that… but what it was he had no idea.
"You're sure that's… wise?" Stephen asked the Ancient One delicately as Maya walked up. She scoffed as she came up beside him.
"You will not question the Ancient One's decisions." Maya said severely, her tone leaving no room for arguments. Though Stephen was still tempted to point out to her that she didn't seem to want to follow her own advice as she motioned unhappily for him to follow her. "Lesson One. She is much wiser than you could ever hope to be, Strange."
"It's Stephen." Stephen muttered although he followed Maya out as she left the study, trailing behind the woman who was dressed in the same dark maroon robes as the Ancient One.
"Good luck, Stephen." The Ancient One called quite cheerfully after him, and he felt a sudden sense of terrible foreboding.
"So, what does be-bek-thing mean?" Stephen asked in a low voice as he followed Maya down a series of corridors he hoped he would later remember, they all looked alarmingly identical.
She glanced at him from out of the corner of her eye before she looked away again as she muttered, "... It means newcomer."
"Right." Stephen said skeptically as they reached a wide, open courtyard.
The stoned pavement was smooth and well-cared for while the pillars holding up the archways and covered walkways all around were intricately carved. Planted all around the courtyard in a hexagonal shape were trees whose leaves were just starting to come to life as another bitter winter finally showed signs of ending, and Stephen briefly admired one as they passed in silence. There were a few people milling about, some students practicing in different areas of the courtyard while older students and masters stood in small groups, talking,
"Okay, so what spell are we working on today?" Stephen asked with forced lightness as Maya led him to an empty corner at the far back.
She shot him a faintly amused and condescending look as she stopped to turn to him so abruptly that Stephen was forced to pause mid-step in a hasty attempt not to crash into her. He had no doubt she'd intended to unhinge his balance, and he scowled a little at the way her smile widened.
"You are not even at the stage to even try to use a sling ring." Maya informed Stephen coolly before she tapped his shoulder, elbow, and knee joints as though testing them. "You are stiff, unagile and your body would break under the physical exertion even if your mind survived the ordeal the first time."
"Now wait just a minute." Stephen protested, annoyed at her tone and bristling at the way she had casually touched him even if it had been almost clinical she was so detached. "I was in an accident that I've spent months barely recovering from, but I always worked out before and it will come back-"
"I would have thought that Master Mordo told you to forget everything you thought you knew before you entered Kamar-Taj." Maya mused casually, cutting him off completely as she observed him. "Given that I trust him more than I do you, I'll just take this to mean that you are either usually forgetful or thought that the comment was beneath you, shall I?"
Stephen glared but he kept his mouth shut this time; she wasn't going to listen to him, he realized, at least until he proved himself to her in some way. Maya reminded him of a snarkier and less willing version of the Ancient One: she seemed intent on testing him before she would approve of him. The only trouble was, like with the Ancient One, he had no idea what she was testing him for and so he had no idea how he was to pass whatever examination she was holding him to.
At least she seemed to approve of his silence as she nodded.
"Very good - now, let us begin at the basics. Do exactly as I do and don't talk back unless you have a very valid question."
Stephen's eyes narrowed; but after half an hour he grudgingly had to give it to Maya. She had been right - his body could not follow what she did as she extended her hands and twisted them at angles his elbows didn't seem capable of doing; she lifted her legs in absurdly straight perpendicular lines as she kicked her foot up quickly before stilling in the air and lowering it slowly and gracefully in a way that made his own calf muscles burn with the strain. There was no hope for him to copy her roundhouse kicks or the kicks she shot up off both legs to do in mid air.
By the end of four hours, his sweat was soaking right through his grey tunic and pants, and his muscles ached so much he wasn't even capable of copying Maya as she stood in a mid- lunge with her arms extended as she turned them around her body in the simplest move he had been shown yet. In hindsight, he realized that he should have known just how physical the Mystic Arts had to be even if they had looked like fancy handwork this morning. Maya's body was lithe and thin but strong, as were most everyone's here at the temple. Others like Mordo with his bulging muscles were more obviously powerful in their physique, and not one person was unfit.
Maya finally straightened from the last exercise and she observed his exhausted expression as Stephen pulled himself upright as well with a grimace he couldn't contain.
"We are done for this morning." Maya announced, watching with faint amusement at the way Stephen almost sagged in relief. "We will continue again tomorrow - for the rest of the afternoon, Ama and Master Mordo will begin your training in the theoretical elements to the Mystic Arts."
"Ama?" Stephen asked, feeling a little dazed from the sheer physical exhaustion. Maya's lips twitched like she was about to smile.
"The Ancient One." She clarified and then she nodded to where the other students were starting to gather and leave in the same direction. "Now go with your fellow students. Unless you wish to miss lunch."
Stephen nodded and gave a muttered thanks for his training. Maya ignored it as she walked off and he had the distinct feeling that while he had not failed to meet whatever expectation she had had of his first training session, she had started out with an extremely low bar and did not expect him to really last too long. That, or she was hoping he wouldn't.
And Stephen swore to himself as he hobbled down to join the other students at lunch, that he would master everything he could learn of the Mystic Arts. He would prove Maya wrong if it was the last thing he ever did.
"Well?" Mordo asked as Maya stalked into the study where the Masters usually dined. "What do you think of him?"
"I think he's in way over his head." Maya muttered as she poked at her food, and Mordo chuckled.
"No, that's what you want him to be." Mordo corrected and Maya demanded, "Why are you defending him? Why are you so sure he won't turn on us once he has learnt the Mystic Arts?"
"Because he is not the man you think he is." Mordo replied calmly. "I followed him closely before revealing myself to him, Maya. I am not a careless person as I am sure you would remember if you weren't so cross. And I saw him helping a wounded dog that no-one else would go near for fear of being bitten."
"So he has a heart." Maya rolled her eyes. "He is still a doctor, he swore to save lives so of course he would-"
"And that is exactly why he is different from Kaecilius." Mordo insisted, cutting her off.
Maya realized what she had said and she pursed her lips. Mordo continued, "He is a man who, despite what you may think, understands the importance and value of life. He would not have discriminated on saving a man's life if that man had been a good samaritan or a thieving criminal. And I can already see you are planning to make his training unbearable and make him want to give up, simply because you cannot bear to see another Kaecilius being born."
"And is that so wrong?" Maya demanded as she turned to face her friend, ignoring the food on her plate.
"Is it wrong to not want to teach another man who is obviously going to become another problem we will have to deal with - a serious problem? You are wrong, Strange is arrogant enough that he will believe himself above the Arts, he will think he can abuse them for his idea of a greater good. You know how powerful the Mystic Arts are, in the wrong hands they are disastrous."
Maya's amber eyes were fixed on Mordo's dark one, her gaze becoming haunted as she spoke.
"Ama took a chance with Kaecilius, she saw his incurable pain and his arrogance but she chose to give him the opportunity to redeem himself. He did not, and I will not see her hurt because of another exactly like him."
"I think it is you, you are afraid will become hurt." Mordo answered quietly, but his voice was firm as he observed the youngest Master at the temple. Youngest but one of the oldest in terms of experience.
Maya's eyes flickered with anger but Mordo continued before she could bite back.
"Your own disappointment in Kaecilius is clouding your vision. Don't you see? This is the chance to get it right. The Ancient One did not lead Kaecilius down the wrong path, he betrayed the natural law of his own free will despite your and the Ancient One's attempts to lead him away from the darkness. The way you both led me away from the same darkness."
Maya lowered her gaze, playing with the food on her plate once more. Mordo nudged her gently.
"Give him a chance." Mordo suggested. Maya exhaled heavily and she shook her head.
"Fine." She said wearily. "If he is able to show that he does indeed have these positive qualities you seem to believe he possesses, then, and only then, will I give him a chance."
"If you take the time to look at him without prejudice," Mordo replied confidently. "Then I am certain you will see the truth that I speak."
Maya scoffed as she turned back to her food. She highly doubted Mordo was right but she was a woman of her word: one chance would she give Strange. One chance but it would be a fair one. And then they would see who was right.