The Peculiar Nature (of Identity) – 2/3 – Startabby

Title: The Peculiar Nature (of Identity)
Author: Startabby
Fandom: Marvel Cinematic Universe
Genre: Action Adventure, Drama, Dystopian, Romance, Urban Fantasy
Relationship(s): Tony Stark & JARVIS, Tony Stark/Kaecilius
Content Rating: R
Warnings: Death-Minor Character, Discussion-Torture, Kidnapping, Violence-Canon-level, Hate Crimes/Hate Speech (referenced), Non-con/Dub-con (offscreen/referenced).
Author Notes: This is a direct sequel to my Quantum Bang from last year, The Insidious Growth (of Betrayal). Warning: Due to the fact that half of this story is based in the African nation of Wakanda, parts of it may reflect certain current events in our world today. This includes references to the Los Angeles, California race riots in the early 1990s as part of a character’s backstory. Such references may be triggering for some readers, so please read responsibly.
Word Count: 73,770
Summary: What truly defines a man, the scope of his tragedies, the strength of his convictions, or perhaps, the impact that he has on the lives of others? As Tony Stark faces life after an escape from unjust betrayal, he must find the answer to this question. Will his need for vengeance color everything in his life, or will new passions, new allies, and even new love help him grow into a better man?
Artist: SpencerTibbsLuvr



Chapter 6: A Growing Understanding

Tony crept through the stacks in bare feet, doing his best to avoid making any noise as he moved from row to row. He was certain that the text that he needed was somewhere in this maze, but he wasn’t having any luck in locating it.

Reaching out, he pulled a book off the shelf and opened it, wincing as the worn binding cracked audibly. He froze, listening for any indication that the sound had been heard. Nothing. He let out a single breath.

“What are you looking for?” The question, coming as it did from behind him, made Tony jump.

Startled, he spun towards the voice.

“Kae,” he hissed, “shh. He’ll hear you.”

Kaecilius smiled, obviously amused, but he played along with Tony’s request.

“And who is he?” he asked, lowering his voice.

“Wong.”

“Ah,” came Kaecilius’ easy reply, as if that one word explained everything. And Tony had to admit that it did. With a simple gesture, the older man led him away from the stacks and into one of the nearby private rooms where Kamar Taj’s visitors or permanent residents could meditate or conduct individual research.

It wasn’t until the door was firmly shut that Tony was able to breathe properly.

“So, what did you do this time?” Kaecilius asked, teasing. “Reprogram Wong’s iPod again?”

“Nothing like that, Mister Magoo” Tony scoffed, pretending like he hadn’t done such a thing only a couple of weeks before. “This time it’s not my fault.”

“And whose fault is it?”

“Yours.”

“Excuse me?” Kaecilius raised a single eyebrow, and Tony backed off his claim.

“Okay, fine, not yours… exactly, teacher-man. More like, your minion’s.”

Tony flounced his way over to the stack of floor cushions set against one wall of the room. Claiming one, covered in a silky blue fabric, he plopped down onto it. If he was going to have to ‘fess up’, he might as well be comfortable doing it.

“So you know how I’ve been showing some of your minions-“

“Acolytes.”

“Fine, fine, if you insist, Father Bossy. Acolytes,” Tony rolled his eyes at the correction. “The bits of elemental manipulation that Loki managed to shove into my brain before he-“

Before he fell into a coma.

The words caught in Tony’s throat. Thankfully, the grey-haired Sorcerer understood without the missing phrase. Rather than question his friend further, Kaecilius sighed. Then he followed Tony’s example, taking a cushion and claiming a seat at the younger man’s side.

Once he had settled in, Tony cleared his throat and continued his story. “Anyways, we happened to be in the library at the time, and, well, let’s just say that flame and ancient scrolls aren’t a good mix.”

Another sigh. “How you managed to make Wong like you is baffling.”

“He really likes me?” Tony couldn’t help but ask, skeptical. While he did consider the older man a friend, he was far too used to such bonds being one-sided. People usually tolerated him, at best.

Kaecilius offered an abbreviated nod. “Anyone else, and Wong would have demanded that you were to be banished from the stronghold, but even with all of your hijinks he still offers you support.”

Tony was further baffled; the librarian had that kind of power? But he wasn’t even a Master, he was just… Wong.

After catching his lover’s eye, Kaecilius patted his arm. Then he flashed that smug smile of his. “I forget how young and new to the Order you are, sometimes. Anthony, Wong is the second-highest ranked member of the Order, behind only the Ancient One in power. Some say that he’s even older than they are, but there are no records available that say for sure.”

“Wong,” the guy with a weird fondness for Beyonce, “are you sure that we are talking about the same guy here, Magic Man? Hefty Asian dude, likes to listen to pop music, that Wong?”

“Indeed.”

“Huh.” Tony paused for a moment to recalibrate his assessment of the librarian. “So why don’t people talk about him as Master Wong?”

“Ah,” Kae hesitated, embarrassed. “I fear that I may have misled you slightly regarding that title. Masters is not the highest ranking in the Order.”

Tony grinned, reading the subtext easily. “Wanted to make the best impression on your lover, ey?”

“I would not put it so crudely… but that is not inaccurate,” Kaecilius replied, his voice stiff. “Becoming a Master in the Mystic Arts is indeed a measure of one’s skill with Magic. And, in point of fact, most Masters are content to remain there. However, there is a final challenge that all Masters must face if they want to advance beyond that level. That is, to gain a true understanding of one’s self.”

“Those who succeed in such endeavors move beyond the title of Master, taking on a new – often singular – name. Of those currently in residence here in Kamar Taj, Wong and the Ancient One are the only ones who have achieved this degree of success, though there are a handful of others scattered across the globe.”

“Understanding one’s self; yes, that is quite the challenge,” Tony mused. With all of the changes that he’d experienced in recent years, he sometimes felt like he had only a passing acquaintance with his mind and heart, let alone a full understanding.

“Precisely,” Kaecilius agreed. “And one that I have struggled with for some decades. I had hit a wall in my studies, but recent events have finally given me the breakthrough that I needed.”

“Recent events?”

The sorcerer looked deep into the other’s eyes before offering him a fond smile. “Yes. But do not look so smug, dear one, it was not your presence alone that has made the difference. You were simply one part of a larger whole. Together, these events have led me to reach a certain conclusion. That the Mystic Arts are not the only pathway to greater Magic, and that Death is not a singular adversary.”

“I see?” Tony was confused. Death as an adversary? Isn’t it just the opposite of life?

“Ah, I see your confusion, love. It is a topic that has not yet come up in our time together. You see, the losses that I have suffered have made me view Death as my nemesis, one which I was determined to battle and overcome. But the Mystic Arts contain no true path to achieve such an ambitious goal, not without compromising one’s integrity. So I was growing increasingly tempted by aspects of the Arts which are less… savory.”

The tone of Kae’s voice hinted that Tony would be better off not asking, but he pushed through anyway. Knowledge was power, and he needed to understand. So he asked, “savory?”

“I do not know if your Master has told you of the Old Ones, the Eldritch entities who exist beyond our dimension?”

Tony reluctantly admitted that he had not.

“Do not be upset that he did not. I am quite certain that a Sorcerer of his age and skill is aware of their existence, and it was likely merely a lack of time and urgency that kept him from discussing such beings. At any rate, some of these beings are known to possess immense magical power. Further, a few are even willing to share some of that power with those who dare to bargain with them.”

Recognizing Tony’s look of curiosity, Kaecilius held up a hand before the younger man could interrupt. “I am not finished. However, it is also well known that bargains made with such beings often lead to great calamity, either for the petitioner or those around them. My ambitions were rapidly approaching the point where the benefits outweighed the potential consequences.”

“But now?”

“Recent events, including the Convergence and the visits from the Asgardians, as well as your rather charming need for more immediate vengeance, have granted me new avenues of research. They have also made me believe that perhaps I can achieve my grand ambitions without paying such a dire cost.”

Tony would have asked more, but they were distracted by the appearance of an irate Wong.

“Found you, Stark,” he said as he came through the door. “Now, I believe that you owe me something.”

* * * *

Fortunately for Tony, the damage from the incident wasn’t as bad as he had first assumed. Thanks to the library’s protective Wards, layered over all of the scrolls and books, as well as the fast reactions of both Tony and his friend, the only damage done was a bit of cosmetic scorching. Even then, it was only on the storage units which held the books and scrolls that filled the library.

As a result, it seemed that Wong was inclined to be lenient with the miscreants. His only demand was that Tony help with the clean-up. Since the work would include a closer look at the library’s Ward scheme, it was more of a privilege than a punishment.

Huh, maybe Kae was right and Beyonce does like me? Tony mused, even as he engaged his Mage Sight. The patchwork of glowing rune sequences and lines that came into view was almost overwhelming in its complexity. If he hadn’t cut his teeth on three-dimensional viewing using his holographic interfaces he would have been lost. But as it was, watching and helping Wong reinforce the Wards was a bit like reconstructing a three-dimensional puzzle.

Reaching out with his magic, Tony pushed a bit of his reserve into one of the worst faded and flickering runic sequences. The influx of fresh magic was enough to recharge it, as the sequence brightened to match the others. Tony was amused to notice that the recharged rune had a bit of color from his magic, giving it a bluish tint compared to the standard gold color.

Protection from excess heat by elemental conversion. He read. No wonder that sequence needed recharging, elemental flame gives off a lot of heat that would need to be removed from the environment.

And what is the chemical byproduct that the Ward produces? Tony squinted as he worked his way through the rest of the sequence. Oh, that’s clever…

* * * *

Aside from the whole no longer being imprisoned thing, one of the best things about Kamar Taj was the fact that Tony was able to explore the practical side of his magical studies. Besides his Mage Sight, and the visions he saw during the Convergence, Tony’s magical education had been purely theoretical. Both Loki and Tony were unwilling to risk the possibility of SHIELD discovering their shared secret, and besides, it was far too dangerous. Letting an apprentice do practical magic without the ability to intervene when things inevitably went awry would be stupid, and the Prince of Asgard was no dummy.

But now Tony had a whole Order of Sorcerers to act as peers, teachers, spotters, and the like.

The topics that he had most enjoyed during his studies with Loki were the linked arts of Runes and Warding, as their structure and detail reminded him of his former areas of study. Runes were kind of like the atoms or the periodic table, and Wards were constructed out of these building blocks much like an invention, code, or chemical reaction.

Despite this fact, however, many of Tony’s early experiments were not based on Runes. Instead, he focused on a less regimented branch of the Mystic Arts, the art of true illusion. Tony knew that if he wanted to have a front-row seat in the pursuit of his revenge, he would have to master this skill. It wasn’t like his targets wouldn’t recognize him otherwise. Uncle Obie had had a front-row seat as Tony had grown up, after all, and would thus be very difficult to fool without the help of magic.

It took months of practice, but Tony eventually managed to get good enough. While he still struggled with the initial construction stages and couldn’t build a disguise on the fly; once he had a character in place he was able to maintain it for quite some time, especially if he anchored it using a Ward stone.

But the physical appearance wasn’t enough. No, any persona that Tony created would have to have the complete package, a full identity. It took a fair amount of capital and a lot of help from JARVIS, but Tony did manage to build up some alternate personas, characters that he could play as needed.

The first, and primary, was the part of Edward Loptsson. A wealthy businessman, born into an upper-class Danish family and educated in Britain, Loptsson, the name in honor of his comatose mentor, would be the face that he showed to the world.

The illusion required a shift of his features in subtle ways, just enough to make Edward distinct from Tony. Those with only a passing acquaintance of both men wouldn’t notice, but to someone like Obie who knew the ‘dead’ Stark CEO, the resemblance would be uncanny. It was a deliberate choice. Tony hoped that the sense of familiarity would help keep Obie off-balance whenever they finally met.

One major change came in the structure of Edward’s voice. With a bit of help from Kae and memories of the original Edwin Jarvis as inspiration, Tony added an auditory component to the visual changes. The use of an external illusion meant that he didn’t have to try and remember to use an accent when he spoke. Instead, he could just speak normally, and the construction would automatically adjust his voice so that listeners would hear Loptsson’s accent instead.

The details of the accent were a careful match to Edward’s documented backstory, with elements borrowed from Danish combined with the crisp tones of an upper-class British education.

All in all, Edward Loptsson was meant the perfect bait to reel in men like Obie; wealthy, upper-class, a bit haughty, one of their kind, if you were.

Of course, besides Loptsson, there were a half-dozen or so secondary identities prepared for his use. These were designated for specific occasions, ones where Edward wouldn’t provide the right access.

One was a snobby character who bore the title of Lord Ambrose Wilmore. Wilmore was a boarding school adversary turned business rival of Edward Loptsson. As he was descended from minor British nobility, the character of Wilmore would make a perfect foil to spread disinformation about Tony’s primary persona. No one would suspect such bitter rivals to be in collusion, not with the back story that they had set.

Another key identity, and the only female one, was Catharine ‘Kitty’ Busconi. As a former drug-addict and current mistress of a mid-ranked member of the American Russian Mafia, Kitty had ‘been in rehab’ at the same facility where ‘Tony Stark’ had been held before his death. This identity was intended for use with those unaware of the betrayal, those who believed the cover story that Stane and the others had established. Since Stane had arranged for ‘Tony Stark’ to be declared dead, supposedly at the hands of HYDRA assassins, an opportunity had been placed. Kitty made for an excellent way to pass off ‘poor Tony’s last wishes’, as well as the chance to do a bit of dividing and conquering.

Based upon the worst of the gold-diggers that had flocked around a younger Tony Stark, Kitty was an overblown caricature of a brainless bimbo. She had overly-dyed brittle blonde hair, the almost neon glow of a fake tan, and the bouncy breasts of a low-quality plastic surgeon wrapped in poorly fitting and overtly sexual clothing, her appearance screamed cheap. To add to that, the illusion also raised the pitch of Tony’s voice and adjusted the speech patterns to make it match the quintessentially valley-girl character. Of course, whenever he adopted the illusion, Tony couldn’t help but enhance it with an over-the-top manner of speaking that he copied right out of the movies. It was just too much fun not to.

Clueless, anyone?

It was in character as Kitty that Tony made his next big push in his hunt for information. This would be the first time that he had gone out in one of his illusions and the first time that he had contact with a human out of his past. Specifically, Tony as Kitty was about to head out to a minimum-security prison in Upstate New York to visit an old adversary.

Tony’s old schoolfellow, Justin Hammer, was currently serving a five-year sentence for his part in the Stark Expo debacle of 2011. Now, Tony doubted that Hammer-time had anything to do with what happened, he knew Stane’s opinion of the sniveling weakling far too well for that. However, given Just-in-case’s tendency to snoop, he might have heard something of use. The only question was how to get that information out of him.

Greed was the key. Greed, and perhaps a bit of lust.

With that in mind, Tony layered on his disguise. First came the structured illusion; shifting the curves of his body, lowering his center of gravity. As a part of the development of the character, Tony had given Kitty all of the proportions of a playboy centerfold, except for her height. That would require more work to maintain than it was worth. Instead, Kitty matched his own, relatively modest height of 5’9”.

Once the illusion was in place, anchored to a Ward stone, Tony dressed Kitty in a carefully selected outfit. Like any good magician, Tony reinforced his illusion with physical components wherever possible. A word to one of Kaecilius’ female acolytes was all it took to track down everything that Tony needed for his disguise.

On his torso, a heavily padded and brightly colored push-up bra filled with silicone inserts was layered underneath a low-cut top, a bit of prosthetic skin covering the parts of the Arc Reactor that sat right where Kitty’s cleavage would show. The top, a confection of lace and floral, drew attention to the illusory breasts that looked like they were about to pop out of confinement. A pair of skinny jeans went on underneath, their shape tailored to enhance Kitty’s ample hips.

Next came the finishing touches. A heavy layer of makeup was applied to his face. Tony used skills that he had gained during his wild youth, including a multitude of outings with designers and models to create a look that fit Kitty’s character. He had already shaved off any hint of scruff, making it easier to complete. Then, an ornately styled blonde wig, flashy jewelry (including a bracelet that held the Ward stone anchoring the Kitty illusion), and a pair of glittery stiletto heels, were added. All of these accessories helped to sell the image of a ditzy blonde.

Grabbing the gaudy, rhinestone-encrusted handbag that he had chosen to match Kitty’s outfit, Tony loaded it with all of the ‘essentials’ that the persona would need. Lipstick, perfume, tissues, a compact, pens filled with glittery ink, even a couple of tampons were tossed inside of the bag. The only things in that monstrosity that didn’t match the rest were a couple of college-ruled notebooks.

Over the last few weeks, Tony had filled the notebooks with engineering scribbles, mostly for product innovations that he had never gotten around to passing off to the rest of Stark Industries’ R&D department before his second abduction. None of them were things that he was particularly passionate about, so he didn’t mind handing them off to others. Besides, that kind of data was the perfect bait for someone like the Ham-man.

Shrugging the full purse onto the crook of one arm, Tony squared his shoulders. Then, after taking a glance in the mirror to make sure that his illusion was still intact, he strutted out of his room. He took a bit of a stumble on the first step, as it had been years since the last time that he wore heels. But once he got the rhythm down, he – she – was ready for prime time.

* * * *

Kaecilius was waiting on the other side of the door, along with a couple of his minions. When Tony sashayed out in his disguise, all three men’s jaws dropped. Flashing his lover a grin, Tony spun in place, showing off all sides of his illusion.

Then he said in a faux sultry voice, “What’s the matter, baby? Cat got your tongue?”

After visibly gathering himself together, Kae returned Tony’s smirk. “Not at all, my darling, simply admiring the view.”

“Oh, you,” Tony did his best imitation of a girlish giggle. At the same time, he reached out, and ‘delicately’ slapped Kaecilius’ arm. “Like, you’re totally the best, Cade.”

“I must admit, I am almost sorry not to be joining you on your outing,” Kae said, before glancing over at the two men standing off to one side of the hall.

Unlike Kaecilius, who was dressed in his customary robes and tabards, Tony’s escorts for this expedition were dressed like the Mafia thugs that they would be portraying. They were wearing dark sport coats over polos and khakis, with belts that showed signs of use as gun harnesses. Their only concession to their special duty of guarding their boss’ mistress was the pastel colors of the polos, which had been color-coordinated to match Kitty’s outfit.

Each one of Kitty’s escorts also bore on one hand what looked to the uninitiated like a large signet ring. They were the stripped-down version of the Order’s standard sling ring, a powerful weapon in the right hands. While he didn’t want to admit it, having company on his field trip was necessary for his mental well being. His sense of calm was singularly low right now, between his mission, the destination, and the fact that this was the first real test of one of his illusions. But he held his composure. He would do this, even if he had to completely break down after it was done.

It was ironic, given Tony’s state of mind as they left his quarters, but the reality of journeying from Kamar Taj to the prison proved to be both straightforward and tedious. To avoid the risk of compromising the cover that he had set up, there had to be visible evidence of Kitty’s journey to the prison from the heart of New York City.

So, Kaecilius escorted Tony and his companions to the same hallway that they had once used to travel to Hong Kong. A wave over the control stone later, and a different door swung open. Instead of Hong Kong, this one led to the New York Sanctum, which was physically anchored near the center of Greenwich Village. It was here that Kaecilius left them. He had other matters to attend to while Tony was away.

Instead, Tony and the others stepped across the door’s threshold on their own. Just like in Kamar Taj and Hong Kong, the portal was located in a small chamber far from the Sanctum’s main exit. Fortunately, one of Kitty’s designated bodyguards was familiar with the Sanctum’s layout. As such, he guided the rest of the party down the halls to the atrium and from there out into the world.

As one of Kitty’s bodyguards opened the front door, a sweltering wave of heat came rushing inside. Although it was oppressive, the feel of summer in the City also carried a hit of nostalgia. Tony had spent much of his childhood in the City, staying at the family’s Manhattan mansion with his mother and the Jarvises. It was during that time that his father was away, whether on business, or off to the Arctic on another hunt for Captain America.

Just as it had been so many times in his memories, a black town car with a black-suited driver was waiting on the street for them to emerge. Just as in Tony’s childhood, the vehicle was parked right on the house’s front stoop. Unlike her husband, Maria Stark, nee Carbonell, was not interested in fancy automobiles. Instead, she had preferred the simplicity and understated luxury of an elegant town car, just like the one that was idling on the curb.

Pushing back the wave of nostalgia with a sigh, Tony – Kitty – tripped down the building’s front steps, taking a moment at the bottom to glance backward. From the outside, just like in Hong Kong, the New York Sanctum showed nothing of its true identity. Instead, it appeared to be just another brownstone, one that was almost indistinguishable from its neighbors on the tree-lined street.

As she paused to look back, one of the bodyguards stepped past. Reaching the waiting town car, he held the passenger door open. Despite Kitty’s high heels, Tony had no difficulties in climbing aboard. He settled into the leather-covered back seat with a sigh.

The whole thing almost had him telling the driver, another of Kae’s minions, to swing by the Stark Mansion on their way out of the city. But no, now wasn’t the time. He held off the impulse by sheer will. He couldn’t afford to be distracted. At least the moment of nostalgia had some value. It had helped to ease a bit of his stress, at least for a while anyway.

With practiced movement, the sleek black vehicle smoothly transitioned from the busyness of the New York streets to the less crowded but still well-occupied state and national highways.

It took a few hours to reach the facility that was their destination. Tony used the time wisely, reinforcing both the character of his current persona and the corresponding illusions. Meanwhile, he worked to build up an entire Rolodex of potential conversational gambits that would be in keeping with Kitty’s character, in preparation for whatever Hammer might throw at him.

Passing through the layers of security necessary to reach the interview rooms almost induced a panic attack by way of flashback. The similarities with the Sandbox detention center were disconcerting, to say the least, but he managed to hold it together. Having companions at his side at all times helped, especially when Tony’s eye caught the glint off their sling rings. The sight reminded him that there was no way that even the strictest Mundane prison could hold them, not without serious advanced planning and foreknowledge.

After making it through security, passing through a half-dozen barred doors along the way, Kitty and her escort finally reached the designated interview room. When they approached the meeting site, one of the escorts split off. He was bound for the prison’s monitoring station, where he could make sure that Kitty’s meeting remained private, her words unheard by the hovering prison guards. The other escort, in contrast, followed Kitty inside the interview room where Hammie had already been delivered and was waiting. This escort glanced around with the keen eyes of an on-duty bodyguard, playing his role to perfection before he took up a standing position at the room’s door and allowed his principal to enter.

As Kitty strutted into the space, from behind his disguise Tony assessed the man that he was here to meet. Without his flashy suits and sunglasses, Justin Hammer was a very different sight from the obnoxious brat that Tony remembered from Before. Dressed in prison drab, the former business mogul had come down in the world.

Tony felt a moment of snide glee at the sight before it turned into a pang of guilt. Juju had been more of an irritating pest than anything, a former boarding school rival who lacked the intelligence to properly compete with hyper-intelligent Stark heir. The fact that he was an idiot didn’t mean that he deserved the level of comeuppance that he’d received. Others were far more deserving of punishment.

But Tony couldn’t let his sympathies distract him from his mission. Hammer was a useful tool in advancing his revenge, that was all.

Having glanced up when Kitty walked into the room, Justin’s face very clearly showed his confusion. As expected, the man had absolutely no idea who she was. Of course, that didn’t stop the brat attempting to gain her attention. Reaching up, Hammie did his best to smooth his hair before flashing his most charming grin.

That smile makes him look constipated, Tony thought with a hidden smirk, even as he settled into an empty chair directly across the table from the former mogul. He leaned forward, blatantly showing off Kitty’s cleavage for a moment as he adjusted the chair’s position relative to the table. Then he dropped her purse onto the table’s surface with a thud.

Exactly as he had intended, the contents of the bag spilled across the surface; wallet, keys, lipstick, powder, tampons, pens with fluffy feathered tips, and of course, the all-important notebooks.

“Oh, look at me, I’m such a clutz,” Kitty said with a giggle, even as she leaned forward once more to re-fill the bag, flashing her cleavage as she did so. Unsurprisingly, Justin immediately moved to help, picking up one of the notebooks, which had slid across to his side of the surface.

Out of the corner of his eye, Tony watched as the man absently flipped it open. He could see the second that Hammer recognized the handwriting that filled the notebook. It didn’t take long. Justin had seen plenty of writing samples while trying to cheat off Tony’s work in boarding school, not to mention whatever his spies had managed to steal from SI more recently. His eyes went wide in shock for a second, before he snapped the notebook shut and handed it back with clear reluctance.

To all outside appearances, Kitty hadn’t noticed Justin’s slip. Instead, she was too busy muttering about her poor babies, even as she flipped through a small folio, one filled with photos of a pair of Chihuahuas wearing bright pink collars. She absently accepted the notebook back, shoving it into the bag with a casualness that made Hammer visibly wince.

It didn’t take long before Kitty had finished reloading the bag with everything that had been scattered across the table. Then, once everything was arranged to her satisfaction, she sat back with a bright smile.

“Hi there,” she said brightly, flashing a full-mouthed smile. “You must be Jay-Jay, Ton-Ton told me all about you.”

The look of complete and utter bafflement that flashed across Justin’s face was almost enough to make Tony burst out laughing. He held it in by sheer will.

“Ton-Ton?” Hammer finally asked.

“Oh, silly me, I forgot, I gave him that name. I meant dear Tony, of course.” She waited a moment, and then went on. “You know, Tony Stark, your friend?”

The words made Hammer look even blanker. If he were a computer, Tony knew that DOES NOT COMPUTE would be flashing across the monitor screen. Finally, he took pity on the man.

In character as Kitty, he continued babbling, commenting that, “like, Ton-Ton said you’d be surprised to hear from him, I know, but honey, you should always trust your friends.”

“How – you know Tony Stark?” Hammer finally managed to break through his confusion enough to ask.

“Oops, I forgot again,” she said with another giggle. “I’d forget my own head if it wasn’t attached, right Boris,” she added, glancing back at her guard. The disguised sorcerer did an excellent impersonation of a put-upon lackey.

“Yes, Miss Busconi.”

She pouted, “Boris, you know I’ve told you to call me Kitty.”

“Yes, Miss Kitty.”

“There you go. Now,” bouncing in her seat, she returned her attention to the now thoroughly confused Hammer.

“You see, dear Ton-Ton and I were rehab buddies, you know. I had a teeny problem after my surgery, getting the girls.” Reaching up, Kitty patted one of her silicone-enhanced breasts happily. “The doctor, he, like, gave me something to help with, you know, the pain, and… well… I’m afraid I got a smidge,” Kitty held up one hand, its fingers bedecked with long acrylic nails painted a bright pink to match her purse, and put the thumb and forefinger about a quarter of an inch apart. “-hooked on the way that it, like, made me feel.”

“Of course, when my darling Cade noticed, well, he simply had to make sure that I got the help that I, like, needed.”

Tony could practically see the thoughts racing through MC Hammer’s mind as did his best to follow the convoluted twists of Kitty’s ramble. So far, so good, he thought, let’s just lead the prey to water…

“Well, anyways, like, I totally didn’t think that I needed any help at first, but after a bit of talking with, you know, like, doctors and stuff, I figured out that they were right.”

“And how does this connect to Tony Stark,” Hammer asked, obviously still somewhat lost.

“Oh, well, you see, Tony – or Ton-ton, I call him – was another patient, you know, like, he was also getting help.”

The figurative anvil had dropped, as Justin leaned forward, “You stayed at the same facility as Tony Stark? When was this, recently?”

And… Gotcha!

“Of course, silly. It was just like,” here Kitty ostentatiously began counting her fingers… “five, six, eight… I don’t know, some number of months ago!”

“I believe that you were in residence at the Center in September of last year, Miss,” Tony’s straight man said, with a serious voice, “The master wished to ensure your health before the holidays.”

“Right you are, Boris!” Kitty said, apparently too oblivious to take offense at the interruption.

“And how was dear Tony when you were with him,” Justin asked, clearly having decided how he wanted to handle the bimbo. “It’s been such a long time since his terrible break-down. I have been so worried.”

“Oh… Then,” Kitty burst into tears rather abruptly, “… then you haven’t heard?!” She began sobbing hysterically. “It was so awful, my poor Ton-Ton…”

As she continued to cry, her escort stepped away from his position at the door. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a cloth handkerchief, which he handed to the hysterical woman. “There, there,” he said awkwardly, patting her shoulder.

“Thank you, Boris,” she responded, before beginning to calm down. As she regained control of herself, the man turned to Hammer. “I am afraid that Miss Busconi was a witness to the tragedy that was Mister Stark’s recent demise. It had a rather significant impact on her mind.”

“Dead?! I mean, what do you mean, DEAD?”

“Oh, you didn’t know?” Kitty asked, having gathered herself together enough to resume speaking. “I am so, so sorry to be the one to have to tell you. It was those nasty HYDRA people, you see.”

“I… HYDRA?”

“Uh huh, they murdered him!”

“That’s terrible,” Justin said, obviously faking a strong emotional response to the news, “but, why are you telling me this, shouldn’t you be talking to the police?”

“Oh, they already know about Ton-Ton,” Kitty said with a dismissive wave. “That’s not why I’m here. I’m here because I, like, made a promise. You know, to Ton-Ton, before he –“ she broke off before she could complete the sentence.

“I promised that I’d make sure that his best friends would get these.” Reaching into her purse, she pulled out the notebooks that Hammer had caught a glimpse of earlier. “He said that, like, his legacy should go to his best friends. That’s you! Oh, and a few more people.”

Tony notices Hammer’s hopeful look morph into something more thoughtful even as Kitty counts off names out loud. “There’s Pep, and Happy, oh, and the one with the funny road name – Rhodey! – then there’s his mentor guy, like, Obi-Wan, you know. He was so pretty in those star thingie movies.”

She giggled and then added. “Oh, he said something about his company, I think, what was it called?”

“Stark Industries?”

“Yeah, that one. He wanted to make sure that they get… something?”

Behind his Kitty mask, Tony was snickering. This character was far too fun to play.

He could see frustration and greed fully subsume the lust that had been Hammer-time’s initial reaction to Kitty. As it did so, the man allowed a sorrowful look to emerge.

“Well,” he said, “I’m afraid that I must give you some disappointing news. Of the people that you mentioned, two pre-deceased him. There was a terrible accident shortly after Tony’s breakdown, one which took the lives of his assistant and his driver; or as Tony used to call them, Pepper and Happy. As for the other two; I know for a fact that Tony’s former mentor, Obadiah Stane, was not his friend. He actively schemed to take over Stark Industries from our friend. In fact, I believe that he was involved in poor Tony’s death.”

“Oh!” Kitty exclaimed, bursting into tears. “That’s horrible. Ton-Ton always did claim that someone was watching him, someone besides the Doctors. He said that some bad people had done things to him, things which made him be at the clinic. You know, I – I thought it was those snake people, but his Obie? That’s so, so, awful.”

“Yes, it is,” Justin agreed, before continuing. “And as for James Rhodes – the Rhodey that you mentioned? – well, he was pulled away from Tony’s side. I assume that you have heard of the Iron Soldier?”

Kitty nodded, before sniffling ostentatiously.

“Colonel Rhodes is the Iron Soldier. Since the suit that he wears was created by Stane and his company, what used to be Stark Industries, his loyalties have shifted. So, if he were to receive anything he would immediately pass it along. Besides,” Hammer said, his tone turned confidential, “I know for a fact that the US Military was also involved in things. I heard the Colonel’s superior, a General named Ross, scheming with Stane with my own two ears.”

“Like, really? That’s so terrible!” Ross? That is a new name.

“It is, isn’t it,” Justin said almost absently. “I couldn’t help but feel sorry for poor Tony, hearing them. I would have said something, but I was too afraid. After all, they already got me locked up in here. If I tried to go after them with what I know, it would be so much worse.”

“Then, I guess that you’re the last one left.”

“I… suppose that I am.”

“In that case, like, it’s a good thing I came here first!” Kitty said brightly, smiling through the remnants of her earlier tears. “Boris, darling, that means that we can go back to Cadey baby’s early!”

“If you say so, Miss Kitty.”

“I do,” she said definitively. “I don’t want to, like, do anything nice for people who hurt my Ton-ton. Okay, then.” Digging through her purse once more, Kitty pulled out the notebooks that Tony had deliberately revealed to Ju-Ju-Bees earlier. The greedy former mogul was practically drooling, staring at them like they held the secrets of the Universe.

If he only knew, Tony thought, disgusted at the idea of giving Hammer anything. Still, these were small potatoes, simple upgrades to some of his older ideas. They were hardly groundbreaking, just enough to get Hammer back on his feet should he choose to control his greed. But Tony knew better. He knew that the man would waste the opportunity that he’d been given, likely by overreaching.

Still, he’d got what he wanted out of the meeting. He had confirmation that Stane was involved in the original scheme and a new name for his investigations. Mentally shrugging, he, as Kitty, said farewell to the overcome Hammer. The man hardly glanced up from his obsessive examination of the notebooks long enough to see them leave.

Ross. Where have I heard that name before? Tony thought as he walked out of the prison and climbed into the waiting vehicle to return to New York and from there, Kamar Taj.

Chapter 7: A Changed Focus

While Anthony and his escort were off in New York for their interview, back in Kamar Taj, Kaecilius had business to do.

The first of his meetings was not one that had originally been on his schedule. No, this affair came up unexpectedly, just as Kaecilius was returning from dropping his lover off at the portal. He was walking down the hall, on his way back to the central courtyard of the compound, when he was intercepted.

It was Mordo.

Like Kaecilius, Karl Mordo was a former apprentice of the Ancient One, one who had also earned the title of Master Sorcerer. But despite their status as quasi-contemporaries and fellow students of the same teacher, Kaecilius and Mordo had never been particularly close. It didn’t help that they had such different responses to the tragedies in their past lives.

Mordo, who had been a child soldier in East Africa before he escaped to freedom in the West, had emerged from his experiences with a rigid definition of right and wrong. Actions that followed what he defined as the natural order were Right, while actions which violated that order in any way were Wrong. It didn’t matter if the violation was big or small, all violations were treated the same way. With disgust and a determination that the one who had committed the act was perverse and deserving of punishment.

Kaecilius, on the other hand, was an explorer. He didn’t care about what Mordo defined as the natural order. Instead, he had a passionate desire to Know everything. It was his way of coping with his past, the loss of family to illnesses which lacked a viable cure, as well as growing up with the great tragedy of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath in Northern Europe.

This difference in perspective often led to conflict between the pair. As Kaecilius ventured further into branches of the Mystic Arts which ran counter to Mordo’s definition of the natural order, his pursuit of that knowledge had Mordo labeling him and all of his students as villains. It was only their mutual respect for their teacher that kept the peace… For now.

So, when Mordo flagged him down, Kaecilius immediately went on alert. It didn’t help that Mordo was carrying his preferred weapon, a rune carved staff, and appeared to be ready for a fight.

Is it finally time? Kaecilius wondered. Has he finally decided that I have gone far enough? Is he about to attack? But that doesn’t make sense. I have been more focused on supporting young Anthony instead of pursuing new branches of the Arts, wouldn’t that ease his mind? Or perhaps that is the problem?

As Kaecilius’ thoughts whirled, trying to piece together the puzzle, Mordo reached his side. Thankfully, it seemed that the younger Master was not yet ready for a fight. Instead, he had simply come to deliver a message.

“The Ancient One is looking for you,” Mordo said with a frown, clearly irritated at being reduced to a messenger. Before Kaecilus could say a word, the militant man spun on his heel, striding off in the opposite direction.

Alright, then. Kaecilius thought, a touch wryly. What’s invaded his robes?

It was a bit ironic, but Mordo’s brusqueness was rather comforting. If Mordo had acted friendly, or worse, sympathetic, the older man would have been concerned. Instead, it seemed that the Ancient One’s reasons for meeting with him did not meet with Mordo’s approval, that was if he knew them. That could be either very good or, possibly, but less likely, very bad.

Seeing no reason to delay, Kaecilius made a decision. He would head straight to the source.

Reversing his previous path, the experienced sorcerer headed further into the compound’s main building. As he walked, he offered greetings to the various Apprentices, Journeymen, and Masters of the Order that he passed along the way.

The early evening hour had turned Kamar Taj into a hive of activity. Most of the members of the Order on-site in the fortress used the time following dinner for personal pursuits. So instead of being closeted away in their chambers or working areas, they were out visiting, enjoying the peace, or preparing to head out into the city.

It was a reminder to Kaecilius that there was so much more to the Order than just his small circle. He’d grown so focused on the affairs of his people, including the fascinating puzzle that was Anthony Stark, that he’d nearly forgotten all that the Order contained. Those who made up the Order were all HIS people, fellow guardians in the fight to protect the Earth from Mystical threats from within and without.

As he reached a small courtyard off down a wing of the main building, one of several such open spaces in Kamar Taj, Kaecilius paused in his walk. Taking a deep breath, he took a moment to ground himself in the heartbeat of the Earth. Kaecilius needed to be at the top of his game to match wits with a being like the Ancient One. For there was no way that this meeting with the Sorcerer Supreme would be simple. That was not how they were.

The space designated as the personal office of the Sorcerer Supreme opened directly onto the courtyard where he stood. So, once he had finished his moment of meditation, Kaecilius walked up the handful of wooden stairs and along the perimeter walkway until he reached the sliding door that led into the office.

It slid open easily, revealing a sparsely decorated space. This room was dominated by the massive, hovering globe that sat at its center. This globe, created by the Ancient One’s magic, took up half of the room. It displayed a current picture of the Earth’s surface, as well as the Mystical shield that surrounded it and protected it from external threats.

The Ancient One was standing to the left of the globe, examining a section of the shield. As he began to move in that direction, Kaecilius realized that their eyes were on North America, New York State, and in particular the New York Sanctum. It was this Sanctum, along with the others scattered across the globe, which anchored the Mystical shield surrounding the planet. Unsurprisingly, although they appeared focused on the view before them, it appeared that the Ancient One had immediately noticed his entry. Almost absently, they waved him over to their side.

“Mordo said that you were looking for me?” he asked as he stepped forward. Unlike Mordo, who persisted in calling the Ancient One a woman, he had no trouble in acknowledging their truly non-binary nature. While they had never said anything, he knew that they appreciated the thought inherent in the gesture.

“I was, yes,” they agreed with a serene smile. “You have been in residence here in Kamar Taj for some time, have you not?”

Without hesitation, Kaecilius nodded.

That was a bit of a non-sequitur, he thought, they are the one who controls the Wards on the compound and must approve any who desire to reside there.

“And in that time, you seem to have found in this place a home.”

Another nod, again acknowledging a statement that he felt was self-evident.

“But of late, things have changed.”

And here came the real point.

This time, the Ancient One’s comment made Kaecilius wince. He had grown distant from his long-time mentor in recent years, a fact that was driven by their refusal to grant him access to certain esoteric tomes found in their personal library. Still, he acknowledged the truth of their statement with a third nod.

“Indeed, changed multiple times,” they continued as if they hadn’t noticed his wince. “Your Master’s trial, you have faced, and it seems that, despite my fears, you have managed to succeed in facing great temptation.”

They smiled then, a tad enigmatically, and added, “if I were to offer you access to my library now, would you be inclined to experiment using the rituals found on those pages?”

Kaecilius shook his head. “There is far too much knowledge out there beyond these walls, and besides I have another purpose beyond my search for the means to defeat Death.”

“Then you have indeed grown wise, my son,” they said, their serene smile widening. “I believe that it is time.”

“Time?”

“Time for you to take up Guardianship of one of our great Sanctums.”

“Me?”

Kaecilius was surprised. Unlike some of his peers, he had never seen himself in the role of a Guardian. Kamar Taj had always held all of his attention, that and his research. Besides, the Ancient One had never before given any indication that they would entrust him with such a significant role.

“Quite. The New York Sanctum, I think.”

“But… I thought… Daniel?” Kaecilius asked, startled.

“Young Master Daniel is indeed well suited to be a Guardian and will be heading to London to gain further training under the current Guardian Master. However, you cannot deny having a base in New York City would not be beneficial to your secondary mission.”

Of course. Anthony and I have discussed his plans for revenge, plans which include a residence in that City. But I didn’t realize that the Ancient One was aware of our plans.

“That is fair,” he agreed, keeping his thoughts to himself. “But I would like to speak with Anthony before I accept the offer, as well as my people here.”

“I understand. Regardless of your decision, I would like to start the transition right away. There are several of the younger Masters in residence here in Kamar Taj who we both know are more than capable of taking on some of your chosen responsibilities. Many are even ready to take on Apprentices of their own.”

They glanced over at him with a mischievous look, “And I am certain that should you accept, many of your – what does young Tony call them, minions? – will be accompanying you to your new posting. Wong will be pleased. He has been hoping to experience fewer accidents around his precious books.”

At that, Kaecilius let out a brief chuckle, acknowledging the hit. While Anthony had been a trigger for that sort of behavior, he was hardly the only one. Dangerous Mystical experiments had been a common theme amongst his people from the beginning, a natural consequence of their pursuit of knowledge.

“He’ll be jumping for joy,” he said wryly. And they laughed together. It was a comfortable moment, a reminder of their decades as teacher and student and then colleagues.

So, with the matter of his future as a potential Guardian on hold, Kaecilius turned the conversation to other matters. He had intended to have this discussion with Wong first, but since he already had the Ancient One’s attention perhaps it would be best to start there.

“Perhaps you can help me with another matter, my teacher,” he said as he walked over to the tea service set on the desk. It was still hot, so he poured himself a cup.

“Of course,” they agreed. “What troubles you?”

“Not troubles, exactly,” he said as he sipped. “More… curious…”

“Oh?” The Ancient One claimed their cup and took a sip of the warm liquid.

“Can you tell me what history the Order has with the being known as Bast?”

The Ancient One raised a nearly non-existent brow. “The Panther Goddess of Wakanda?”

“The same. Anthony’s creation has had certain encounters with her people, and so I wondered, how does she compare to the Others?”

“To Dormammu, you mean,” that comment was dry.

“Yes. I know that deals with Eldritch beings are discouraged, but it seems that the Wakandans have greatly benefitted from just such a bargain, especially their ruling family.”

“The Heart-Shaped Herb.”

“Yes.”

The Ancient One’s expression turned absent as if they were recalling events from days long past.

“A question that I once asked my Master,” they said, lost in reminiscence. “I too wondered about the difference. What he told me was that the contract that was made between the Kings of Wakanda and their Panther Goddess was the work of a high-level member of the Order. A Wakandan, the woman would go on to become the first priestess of Bast. The power that was gifted to the Wakandans had very sharply defined limits and came with a distinct caveat. Those who bore the gift were charged with the protection of the shard of the Goddess that had landed upon the Earth. Any who fail to honor that charge will lose the Goddess’ blessing, and may suffer an even worse fate.”

They hesitated for a moment, and then added, “in essence, the people of Wakanda, and especially their leaders, hold a position similar to one of our Guardians. That is the role that they have chosen by accepting the contract with Bast.”

“Fascinating.”

“I quite agree,” they said, setting down their tea. “Now, if you do not mind, Kaecilius, I must return to my present work.”

“Of course,” Kaecilius agreed with a bow. Then he excused himself from the room. Moving with long strides, he headed straight for his quarters. A bit of meditation was needed to clear his mind. Then, he would resume his plans for the day, a review of the ongoing research projects which occupied his people’s time.

* * * *

When Anthony and the others returned from their trip to visit his old rival, Kaecilius was pleased to see that the younger Sorcerer was upbeat despite his clear exhaustion. Maintaining an illusion for that long was not easy, especially while dealing with strong emotions.

“Come,” Kaecilius said, greeting his love with a soft kiss, “let us get you cleaned up. I am certain that you are tired of being Kitty, after all.”

“You read my mind, babe,” Anthony said with a tired laugh. While he had already dropped the illusion, the non-magical layers that he wore had left him looking like a bedraggled drag queen. The only thing that he’d discarded on the way back to Kamar Taj were his heels, which he carried by their straps – furthering the similarity to a drag queen at the end of a set.

“Help me out, here, would you, Magic Man?” he asked, dumping his bag and heels into the arms of his paramour before he headed off towards his chambers. After a brief check-in with his students, the ones who had portrayed Kitty’s bodyguards, Kaecilius followed.

By the time that he caught up with Anthony, the man had already reached his suite and had disappeared into the bathing chamber. From the looks of the main chamber, it seemed that Anthony had been quite efficient in the removal of the layers of his disguise. There was a trail of discarded belongings that led from the room’s entrance to the door to the on-suite, all of them simply dropped onto the floor.

Kaecilius busied himself by picking up the various garments, setting those which would require laundering into the basket beside the wardrobe that was designated for such things. The rest were put away in their assigned storage locations, except for the pendant which anchored the Kitty illusion. That, Kaecilius placed on the desk, ready to be returned to the workroom to be recharged.

As he cleaned, Kaecilius called out to his lover, raising the pitch of his voice so that it could be heard through the sounds of the shower.

“So, how did it go,” he called.

“Just as we planned,” was Anthony’s easy response. “Hammer-time was far too focused on Kitty’s antics to realize that he was being interrogated.”

“And did you get anything useful out of him?”

“Well, he did confirm Stane’s involvement in my incarceration, which we did already know from the files. But he also gave us another important piece of information.”

“Oh?”

“A name. Some American General by the name of Ross.”

“And is this Ross a figure from your past?”

“Not that I can recall, but with my family’s connections to the military, you never know. I’ll put J on it.”

“No need to ask, Sir,” the now-familiar voice of his lover’s artificial offspring spoke, interrupting their conversation.

“Oh, you’re there too, huh, Baby Boy?”

“Indeed. I am afraid that I will be unable to devote my full processing capacity to the problem until later today, as the Princess and I are running a critical simulation, but once that project is complete I will re-task my servers.”

“Thanks, J. You’re the best!”

“As self-congratulatory as that comment may be, I do appreciate the sentiment, Sir.”

“All the Sass, J. Who you got that from, I will never know.”

The shower shut off and within moments Anthony emerged from the bathroom, a towel wrapped about his waist. He was rubbing a second towel through his hair in an attempt to absorb all of the moisture that had gathered on their strands.

“Remind me again, Kae, why I decided to keep this long,” he said. “It’s so much more work than my old do.”

Kaecilius didn’t bother to respond. They both knew the answer to Anthony’s comment disguised as a query. The shoulder-length curls were both a nod to his absent mentor and an extra layer to his Loptsson disguise. Billionaire Heir and Tech Genius Tony Stark had never been one to let his hair grow long, even in his youth. Anthony just liked to whine about the extra hassle, drama queen that he was.

When the younger man reached Kaecilius’ side, he raised the hand unoccupied with his hair and pulled his lover’s face down to meet his own. With the habitual comfort that came from their months together, they exchanged a casual kiss, one that quickly morphed into something a bit more… passionate.

From there, the contact proceeded into its inevitable conclusion.

* * * *

It was later, when their interlude was complete, that Kaecilius returned their minds to more serious matters. In a few words, he spoke of the offer that the Ancient One had made.

“As much as I would love to have you around when I head stateside more permanently, my Silver Fox, I don’t want you to leave your home just for me. I am perfectly capable of managing things on my own.”

“And I do not doubt that fact,” Kaecilius rebutted. “The Ancient One’s offer is tempting for its own sake. Honestly, I have been feeling a bit constrained here in Kamar Taj of late, and taking on this role would allow me that freedom. It’s not as if the journey between the two sites is particularly rigorous, after all.”

Anthony snorted. “That’s a fair point,” he agreed, obviously remembering his trips through the portal. “Magic certainly makes such travel easier. And speaking of travel, while J is busy doing research I have another field trip that I need to do. This one, I think that you’ll want to go with me, as my own personal Indiana Jones.”

“But of course, dear one,” Kaecilius agreed, curious. Where could Anthony want to go?

Since Anthony was still recovering from the workout playing Kitty had been, the decision was made to wait a couple of days before they headed out. It also gave Kaecilius the chance to discuss the Ancient One’s offer with others beyond his lover.

Wong was the first on the list.

“New York,” he said when Kaecilius finished speaking. “Not where I once saw you, but not surprising either, given recent events.”

“Oh?”

“Kaecilius,” the older man said kindly, “you were always destined to be one of the Guardians. That was, if you could pass your Mastery trial. It is a requirement for one to guard one of the Sanctums.”

Kaecilius grunted, confused. Really?

Wong gave a soft laugh, correctly interpreting Kaecilius’ look. “Sanctum Guardians generally choose not to be recognized as such, but the trial is a requirement for the position. Once, many centuries ago, before they took their place as the Sorcerer Supreme, the Ancient One was just such a Guardian. Their charge was the Sanctum in London before they established the New York one when that city gained in prominence as its current country was founded.”

The Ancient One established the New York Sanctum? And they want me to be its new Guardian?

 Kaecilius was both astounded and honored.

“Yes, such Sanctums come and go, along with their respective civilizations. New York, London, Hong Kong; these are the current centers. But there were numerous other sites in the past and will be others in the future. Alexandria in Egypt once held a Sanctum, as did Istanbul, Machu Picchu, Samarkand, Kyoto, and innumerable others. There are always at least three Sanctums, the minimum required to maintain the shield, but there can be many more.”

“And each one requires a Guardian?”

“Indeed. You are not the only one whom the Ancient One has asked to take up the duty in the coming days. It seems that the Hong Kong Sanctum is also in need of a new Guardian.”

“Oh?”

Wong smiled. “I, myself will be returning to that position I have served as such once before, during the time of the Ancient One’s predecessor as Sorcerer Supreme. Meanwhile, one of my assistants here will be stepping in as the overseer of the Kamar Taj archives. I will remain the Order’s Archivist, but will be handing over my day-to-day responsibilities here.”

Kaecilius was astonished. He knew of Wong’s previous posting as a Sanctum Guardian but had assumed that the older sorcerer would not willingly leave his present position. Wong had been based out of Kamar Taj for centuries, since before Kaecilius’ birth.

“A time of change, indeed,” he said quietly.

* * * *

The day after Kaecilius’ chat with his older comrade, Anthony reached the point where he had recovered enough for their field trip. So, once again, he led Kaeclius and several of his disciples through the halls of Kamar Taj to the portal room. This time, they journeyed through the portal into the London Sanctum.

Unlike on Anthony’s previous trips to one of the Sanctums, they did not head directly out into the city once they arrived. Instead, the young Sorcerer pulled a pendant, shaped like a lodestone or compass, from one of his pockets. Next, he allowed it to hover over his palm for a moment, spinning, until it settled in a direction, pointing roughly north-east.

“This will be our guide,” he said with confidence. “But we will have to travel some distance before we reach our final destination. I have reason to believe that the site I seek is hidden somewhere in the wilds of Scandinavia.”

From there, instead of walking or a form of mundane transportation, they took advantage of certain Mystical shortcuts. Anthony, Kaecilius, and their companions began a sequence of leapfrogging portals. Each sorcerer in the group would take turns opening a portal that led in the direction indicated by the lodestone, after which all of them would pass through. Then, after a pause to recalibrate, another sorcerer would step forward to repeat the process, bringing them ever closer to their target.

They jumped from London to the eastern edge of Britain, and then across the North Sea to the Netherlands and Germany, before turning North. From there, they followed the coast from Denmark and then across the sea again into Sweden, bypassing Copenhagen and Stockholm on their way North. By the time that they crossed the Arctic Circle and reached Swedish Lappland everyone was exhausted.

“Perhaps we should stop for a break,” Anthony suggested, leaning against Kaecilius’ side. “I didn’t realize how exhausting opening so many portals would be.”

Kaecilius agreed. While, as the most experienced member of the team, he was still in pretty good shape, not everyone was.

“It is growing late, perhaps we should look for a place to stay the night,” he suggested.

“Oh, that sounds like a wonderful idea, you brilliant man,” Anthony agreed easily, “I would kill for a hot meal right about now.”

Fortunately, there was a small town not too far from their current location. Having learned Swedish in his childhood, enough to get by, Kaecilius was able to communicate with the locals. It took a bit of convincing to get the villagers to buy their story, that of a group of backpackers who had wanted a break from the wilderness, but Kaecilius persisted in the attempt. They were lucky in that it was the end of the season, with winter rapidly approaching that far to the North, so there were plenty of rooms available in the local inn.

Kaecilius knew that the owner of the inn at least had her doubts about their story; they were not exactly dressed for an extended wilderness trip and had arrived without baggage. However, once she saw their money, she was willing to let it go.

After a good meal courtesy of the restaurant attached to the inn, they all retired to sleep. In this case, exhaustion and the confusion of ‘jet lag’ from changing so many time zones made it easy for Anthony to drop into slumber right away.

Unlike his paramour, though, Kaecilius remained awake for some time.

So much change in such a short time, he mused as he looked over at Anthony. The man shifted in his sleep, mumbling a little, and Kaecilius couldn’t help but smile. But I find that I cannot regret any of it.

The next morning, they headed off bright and early, hiking briskly into the forest until they were far enough from the village for the flash of a portal to go unnoticed by their hosts.

“Direct us, love,” Kaecilius said, as he volunteered to make the first gate of the day.

“You got it, my silver fox,” Anthony said, “one portal pointer coming right up.”

It only took a handful more portals before Anthony’s lodestone indicated that they had arrived at their destination.

“Are you certain that you prepared the stone correctly, Stark,” one of the others asked, looking around, “there’s nothing here.”

To the naked eye, there was nothing that made this particular rocky outcropping different from any of the others that they could see. Even when he engaged his Mage Sight, the location appeared unremarkable.

But Anthony only laughed, “and what is my Master famous for?” he asked easily. It was a rhetorical question, of course. Loki, also known as Silvertongue, was a master of illusion.

“When he wanted something hidden, my good Ravenclaw, it remained so,” Anthony explained easily.

Kaecilius’ breath caught in his throat. A site hidden by the Master Seidrmadr of Asgard and Jotunheim, what treasures were buried within? Oh, Anthony, my love, you do surprise me.

Hidden in the heart of this rocky wilderness was the cavern where Loki had established his Midgardian lair. Centuries before, the Asgardian Seidrmadr had, like the dragons of legend, excavated a large hollow deep within the mountains. Inaccessible by Mundane means, the cavern could only be reached via a portal. Even then, one had to have the Ward key to be able to portal inside.

Without a map to the location, and the key, the treasure hidden inside would have remained nothing more than a legend. But with those two items at his disposal, along with the telltale signs of his Apprenticeship to the older Sorcerer, Anthony alone was able to venture inside the locked vault.

“I’m afraid that the rest of you will have to wait here,” Anthony said, his voice impish. “Even you, intrepid explorer that you are. I may have the key to access things, but even as Loki’s Apprentice I cannot grant access to others.”

As Kaecilius and his followers waited outside for their guide to return, he felt a chill run down his spine. The feeling wasn’t from cold temperatures, the weather was pretty mild for the time of year, but rather the strength of the Master Sorcerer’s Warding scheme. Beyond the physical lock, it also emanated a sense of dread, one designed to encourage potential looters to run away.

He glanced around, seeing the others in a similar state. In that mode, the evergreen trees and rocks took on a sinister aspect. It made the time that they waited feel exponentially longer. Had he been asked during that time, Kaecilius would have said that they had been there for hours, standing and shivering in the cold. In actuality, Anthony re-emerged from Loki’s hidden vault less than a half-hour after he had entered. And he did not come out empty-handed.

The dread feeling from the Ward was forgotten as Kaecilius and the rest rushed forward to help Anthony shift the floating barge, piled high with treasure, that followed him out of the golden portal. As he examined the haul, Kaecilius could see that the treasure was far more than just gold and jewels, though there were plenty of those. Instead, what grabbed Kaecilius’ attention was a collection of tomes, most obviously hand-written and likely one-of-a-kind.

Knowledge. The true path to Kaecilius’ heart.

Ignoring the sounds around him, his companions’ exclamations and cheers, as well as Anthony’s crowing over his mentor’s gifts, he picked up one, then another tome, reading the inscriptions as he went.

‘Secrets of Yggdrasil’, ‘Finding Godhood’, ‘Mastery of the Mind Arts’, each one sounded more captivating than the last.

While Kaecilius was distracted, marveling at the sight, his lover had approached, coming around the barge to greet him. “I thought that these would grab your attention, you old hoarder of knowledge,” he said with a smile, patting Kaecilius on the arm and pulling him out of his distracted state. “And there’s an entire library more down there.”

“You really do know how to tempt me, my darling Anthony,” Kaecilius replied, leaning over and giving his lover a passionate kiss. “I would do almost anything for full access to this collection.”

“And just think, all you had to do was befriend little old me.”

“Indeed. And glad I am that I took the risk.”

“Aw, Kae, baby, you say the nicest things.”

Chapter 8: An Emotional Breakthrough

“Hey Kae, check this out,” Tony said, even as he used his hands to manipulate an illusory schematic. It glowed in the low light, with runes shining the gold that characterized the Mystic Arts interspersed with others in emerald green, rust, bronze, and even Tony’s personal bright blue. From the wrong angle, the Ward looked like a chaotic mess, but when one adjusted their position its secrets began to be revealed.

Layered atop one another were the sequences intended for physical protection: against impact, fire, extreme cold, oxidization, corrosion, and rust. Closely linked were the schemes which focused on more human dangers – direct attack, sabotage, or even neglect. There was even a schema designed to protect against more esoteric dangers such as eldritch beings or hostile sorcerers.

The flip side of the Ward focused on observation. By tapping into those sequences in the Ward, its master would be able to view anything happening in and around its borders. And said viewing privileges weren’t just in real-time. With a bit of work, the Ward-Master could access mystical recordings of events that had occurred in the past.

In point of fact, this layered Ward was the mystical equivalent of a high-end mundane security system.

“Not bad for a relative neophyte, huh, Magic Man?” Tony added, even as his lover came over. Kaecilius’ dark eyes were focused, flashing back and forth as he parsed the various layers of the Ward schema.

God, he looks gorgeous like that. Tony thought, smug. And he’s all mine…

“Indeed,” Kaecilius agreed, having completed his careful examination of the Ward. “But what is your intended target for the installation? After all, the Sanctum’s Wards already contain many of the schemas that you have laid out, not to mention the fact that at least one of the current layers would be in direct conflict with this Ward.”

“Hmm,” Tony murmured, still distracted by his earlier thought. “Oh. I mean, no, not the Sanctum. This baby is for the MCI office.”

Originally established as part of JARVIS’ efforts in creating Edward Loptsson, MCI, or Monte Cristo Investments was intended to reinforce the reality of Loptsson’s wealth and influence. He had started with a base portfolio, set to match the character that Tony had laid out for Edward. At that point, JARVIS had used some of Tony Stark’s actual accounts, ones which his creator had turned over to his management before his disappearance, to provide the start-up capital needed to launch the business.

While the firm’s initial forays into the various markets were relatively small, it didn’t stay that way for long. Once he pulled treasure out of Loki’s lair, Tony quickly realized that the firm offered a valuable way to deal with the excess of physical wealth. He could use MCI to convert a significant fraction of the material treasure in his hands into a usable form.

It took a bit of work, and help from the Order, to convert the mineral resources into cash, but once that was done Tony was ready to move on to the next stage of his plan. He parlayed JARVIS’ near-instantaneous knowledge of business affairs worldwide, as well as Tony’s own decades of experience as the CEO of a Fortune 500 Company, to adjust MCI’s portfolio to one that should see tremendous short term gains.

Sure enough, before too long their strategy paid off, granting MCI tremendous returns far in excess of their original investments. Now he had a real business. And of course, a real business needed a real, physical office.

Here, once again, JARVIS came to his aid, with a bit of help from Kaecilius’ acolytes as physical proxies. Working together, they rented out a couple of floors of office space in a Manhattan skyscraper not far from both the Sanctum’s Greenwich Village location and the financial hub that was Wall Street. Then, they moved in.

“Of course,” Kaecilius said in reply to Tony’s earlier comment. “The fact that it is for an office that must incorporate a space that is open to the public would explain some of the secondary schemas. I had wondered why there was such a sharp delineation between sections within the Ward, but that would allow you to associate varying levels of protection by area.”

“Correct, my Lithuanian stud-muffin,” Tony agreed. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some carving to do.”

The stone that Tony had chosen to use as a base for the Ward was actually a block of gold-titanium alloy. It was the same material that he had once used to build the Mark II, the second generation of the armor that had helped him to escape the Ten Rings. While the Iron Soldier was Stane’s corrupted version of the Mark I, the Mark II still remained in storage at Tony’s mothballed Malibu mansion, along with his hibernating bots. The callback to Tony’s former life as an inventor felt oddly appropriate. Armor was a defensive measure that could also be used for offense, just like a Ward.

Given the nature of the material that he was using, Tony had decided that the best way to do his carving was to use the latest in modern technology. And, of course, Tony’s personal lab at the New York Sanctum had such toys already installed. The lab was a homecoming present from his lover, as they transitioned from the heights of Kamar Taj back into the heart of Western civilization. His servers were left behind in the ancient fortress, as its unique location outside of normal space was an extra firewall that prevented any attempts at hacking them. These servers would continue to be used for information gathering and processing, as well as long-term data storage.

This lab, on the other hand, was for experimentation. At his core, Tony would always be an innovator, an inventor, it was just the nature of his projects which had changed.

With the comfort of long practice, Tony pushed the expanded schematic of the planned Ward off to one side of the workspace. Then, he wrestled the blank Wardstone into position. It was set on a flat platform at the center of the lab. It was this rotating platform, together with a low-power laser on a robotic armature, which he would use to perform the task of carving his Ward. Getting the programming for the system just right was only part of the puzzle. Tony also had to push just the right amount of magical power into the runes as they were scribed in order to make the Ward work. It was delicate work and required his full attention.

But, after a couple of days of nearly non-stop effort, it was ready.

“I wish you could See this, baby J,” Tony said even as he completed the final rune and hit the kill switch on the laser, releasing his grip on his Magical core at the same time. “It is so beautiful with the Sight.”

“If I may, Sir, the project appears to be quite aesthetically pleasing to my sensors, even without access to your special talents.”

“You say the nicest things, darling boy,” Tony said with a grin. With the laser disengaged, Tony could remove the safety goggles that he had been wearing. Once the protective glasses were off, Tony blinked and disengaged his Mage Sight. He wanted to see what JARVIS saw.

Sure enough, to the naked eye, the Wardstone looked like an incredible piece of modern art. Its overall shape was roughly cylindrical, with precisely one hundred and twenty identical rectangle facets creating the curved surface. A run sequence ran vertically along the horizontal centerline of each facet, its details difficult to see due to the nature of the carving. By design, the material etched away by the beam was mere millimeters in depth and the carving also caused little to no discoloration of the alloy.

It was only when a bright light was shined at an angle to a particular facet that the rune sequence at its center became fully visible. Under those conditions, the shadows created by the difference in material height revealed the runes hidden on the various facets of the Wardstone. All in all, it was absolutely breathtaking, unsurprising given the amount of effort that it had taken.

Between the design and manufacture, that single stone represented about a month of Tony’s time all told.

“You know, I think you might be right,” the proud creator said with a grin. “I’m thinking that we can use it as a base for a table in the office’s reception area. Hiding in plain sight, as it were.” Then he yawned. “But first, first daddy needs a little beauty sleep.”

Stumbling over to the couch that sat in one corner of the workshop, he collapsed onto it with a sigh. Less than a minute later, he was fast asleep.

Tony was so tired that, when Kaecilius stopped by an hour later to check on him, he didn’t even stir. Instead, he slept on. Kaecilius took a minute to examine the completed Wardstone. Then, he pulled the blanket off the side of the couch and lay it over Tony’s body before turning to leave him alone once more.

Though he was still deeply asleep, Tony’s body shifted a bit of its own accord, wrapping itself further into the warmth that the blanket supplied.

“Thanks, mama bear,” Tony slurred as he turned over in his sleep, causing Kaecilius’ mouth to turn upwards at the corners.

“Sleep well, my Anthony,” he said quietly, before leaving the room. The computer-connected lights dimmed at JARVIS’ command, and the door locked behind him with a distinct clunk. JARVIS would make sure that his Sir got a proper rest after his hard labor.

* * * *

Given the amount of mental, physical, and magical effort that the project had required, it was hardly a surprise when Tony’s nap morphed into something far more substantial. In the end, he slept for nearly a whole day before the grumbling of his stomach finally woke him from his slumber.

Rubbing his eyes to clear the crustiness, Tony sat up from the couch where he had slept with a hearty groan. Regardless of the quality of the bed, that long of a rest was bound to lead to stiffness. Not to mention the workout that his muscles had experienced during the construction of his Wardstone. He had been forced to contort his body into all kinds of awkward positions in order to achieve the perfect carving angle for each facet of the stone.

As he followed up his first motion with a series of seated stretches, working out the kinks in his arms and back, Tony was delighted to realize that he was not alone.

Kaecilius was already there, seated in the wingback chair that stood at an angle to the couch where Tony had slept. Going by the mug of still steaming tea resting on its side table and the closed book which he held in his lap, a single finger bookmarking his place, he had been there for some time.

“Good morning,” Kaecilius said, offering his still waking lover a serene smile. “It is good to see you awake, Anthony.”

Then he waved towards the coffee table that sat before Tony’s couch. Resting on its surface was a substantial meal, including an insulated carafe that Tony knew was full of delicious coffee.

He surged forward eagerly and poured himself a brimming cup of that glorious brown nectar.

“Ah,” he sighed, letting the steam and scent wash over his face for a moment before he took his first, deep sip. “Excellent, as always. I love you so much, beloved.”

“Are you speaking to me or to the coffee?” Despite the sarcastic bent of his words, Kaecilius’ tone was fond.

“Well, oh wise master, what do you think?”

“I would not dare to venture a guess. But you cannot subsist on coffee alone, no matter how wonderful you find it. Please. Eat something as well.”

“Fine, be that way, Mrs. Weasley,” Tony said, flashing a put-upon look, one that he didn’t really mean. He was honestly starving and had no real objection to eating his fill. As long as the waters of life accompanied the meal he was a happy man. So, with a will, he dived into the hot dishes. A full English breakfast, eggs, sausage, bacon, porridge, fried tomatoes, etc. All of it went down his gullet in short order, along with the entire carafe of hot coffee.

A quiet snort distracted him from his single-minded agenda just as he washed the last bite of sausage down with a final swallow of coffee. Looking up, Tony is unsurprised to see Kaecilius still watching him with that same serene smile.

“What, I was hungry.”

“Indeed you were, dear heart, and understandably so. That working of yours is quite impressive to see now that it is complete.”

“Really?” While Tony liked to pretend to be uncaring of other people’s opinions, he still couldn’t help but perk up at the compliment.

“Would I lie to you?”

Yes, Tony’s damning subconscious and low sense of self-worth proclaimed. But, “I suppose not,” was what he said.

“Then trust me when I say that your work is on par with what I have seen from those with decades of experience in the Mystic Arts, let alone your bare handful of years.”

Kaecilius’ words made Tony smile. “It’s not quite finished yet I still need to get it installed in its permanent home.”

“True. And transport is ready and waiting for you to say the word.”

With a grin, Tony climbed to his feet, pushing the blanket that had been covering him off to the side as he did so.

“Then let’s have at it, Magic Man.”

Due to the nature of the Wardstone, it could not be transported by portal without compromising the magics contained within its heart. Instead, it was carefully packaged in a traveling crate, carried manually down the hall and out the door of the Sanctum, and then loaded onto the bed of a small truck. Wanting to accompany his newest baby on its maiden journey, Tony climbed into the truck’s passenger seat just as its driver started the ignition.

The drive through the streets of Manhattan was both long and short, as they made their way through the crowds that filled the roads and sidewalks alike. With his natural magical resources in the process of replenishing themselves after the recent working, Tony had decided to forgo cloaking himself in an illusion. Instead, he was relying on the comfortable hoodie that he had pulled on before leaving the Sanctum and a pair of sunglasses, as well as the fact that Tony Stark was ‘dead’, to keep himself from being recognized.

When they pulled up to the loading dock of the building that housed MCI’s headquarters, Tony was unsurprised to be greeted by Kaecilius and his companions. Without the travel restriction that had forced Tony to travel by truck, the others could portal themselves across the city in an instant.

Manhandling the bulky and heavy crate in the tight quarters of the loading dock was a bit finicky, but they did eventually manage to get it loaded into the freight elevator. From there, all that they had to do was to push UP.

After a short ride, the elevator opened up into the heart of the new MCI office space. From his position at the side of the Wardstone’s crate, Tony could see bare drywall and open doorways everywhere that he looked. At this point in the construction, there was still a straight path from the utility room, where the elevator doors stood, to the space that had been designated as the reception area. It was here that the Wardstone would find its permanent home.

As he worked to open the crate and maneuver his faceted cylinder of gold-titanium alloy into position, Tony took occasional breaks. He couldn’t help but glance out the nearby floor-to-ceiling windows, especially as they looked out onto the heart of the City below. It was a sight that filled him with a sense of fond nostalgia, a reminder of childhood visits to the old Stark Industries offices in Midtown Manhattan.

Once the crate was cracked open, it didn’t take long before the Wardstone was in place, directly in front of the doors that led to the office’s main entrance and the bank of passenger elevators that served all of the building’s various offices. When the messy part of the construction was complete, a circular glass tabletop would be placed atop the carved plinth to disguise it, but for now, it stood on its own, a solid plinth that glowed in the morning light. Now, Tony just needed to activate the Ward.

Nervous, Tony couldn’t help but glance over towards Kaecilius. The experienced sorcerer was hovering nearby, ready to step in if needed. Then, he took in a deep breath. He could do this.

Reaching deep into the core of the Wardstone, he found the tiny lock that he had set at its heart. The key: a twist of Tony’s magic, its unique signature the only possible candidate for Ward activation or modification. Fortunately, the extended rest that he’d gotten along with the meal that Kaecilius had encouraged him to eat, had managed to restore enough of Tony’s reserves. Pulling out the smallest strand of his still mostly drained magical strength, Tony inserted it into the lock, and with the flick of a wrist, turned it.

The Ward opened up like a flower blooming in fast-forward, unfurling its layers one at a time until the full grandeur of the working was in place. With his Mage Sight active, Tony could see the same colors that had filled his illusory schematic, more vibrant and powerful than any illusion could create.

“Beautiful,” he breathed.

“Yes. It is,” Kaecilius agreed. Walking up to Tony’s side, he placed a single large hand on his lover’s shoulder in a show of admiration. As Tony leaned into the warm physical contact, he took the moment to just bask. All around them, he could hear the other Order members who had helped with the installation. They were discussing the Mystically visible parts of the Ward, their tones similarly admiring.

Through the windows to the outside, Tony could see flakes of an early snow begin to fall. Yes, today was a good day.

* * * *

Some weeks later, standing in the same exact spot, Tony’s mood was quite the reverse.

It wasn’t his surroundings.

No, MCI’s new office space had only grown more spectacular as the various contractors finished their work and the workplace transitioned into full-time use. Where there had once been a straight shot from the freight elevator, now a curved mahogany desk with a high counter stood. The floor had been covered in luxuriously plush carpeting and paint and framed art filled the walls. And of course, at the center of the room was the Wardstone, now covered with the planned glass tabletop that allowed it to serve as a reception table. A floral centerpiece and a number of colorful but tasteful brochures were scattered across the transparent surface.

It wasn’t even the business.

Just like the space where it was housed, Edward Loptsson’s investment firm had grown in leaps and bounds. The careful portfolio that Tony and JARVIS had created had indeed seen tremendous success. With that success came further investors. While some of these investors were part of the scheme, either fictional clients created on JARVIS’ servers as a way to funnel wealth into the company or members of the Order who had chosen to support his mission with their own personal wealth, others were strangers.

As the company grew and gained a real presence, it had attracted an increasing amount of genuine investors. People with no connection to Tony Stark, the Order, or anyone else of significance saw the success of the firm and jumped onboard. Soon, Monte Cristo Investments was the talk of Wall-Street.

Of course, Wall-Street notoriety had led New York’s High Society to desperate measures, as they clamored to meet the mysterious mogul who had taken their world by storm. Swarms of holiday invitations were hand-delivered to the brand new office, even as the end of the year approached.

At first, Tony pushed the various invites aside with ease. He was not yet ready to make an official public appearance as Loptsson. Instead, he responded to nearly every invitation with the same polite, but impersonal, rejection letter:

Thank you for the invitation to attend —-(insert event here)— . Unfortunately, Mister Loptsson will not be in residence in the City on the date indicated.

For those invitations which were purely social, a small token accompanied the response, a beautifully hand-carved paperweight whose shape exactly matched the topography of the isle of Monte Cristo.

That isle, located in the Mediterranean Sea not far from the site of Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile, Elba, was a rocky edifice less than five miles in diameter and wholly-owned, as tracked through an easily followed trail of shell companies, by Loptsson. It was this site that the investment firm had been named in honor of.

Meanwhile, those invitations which were associated with a worthwhile philanthropic cause received an additional response. Their letters were accompanied by rather generous donations to the designated charity, each one commensurate with the appropriate need. All told, the amount that MCI donated towards the various causes totaled well over a million dollars.

Of course, that was peanuts compared to the vast wealth that Tony had at his fingertips. In his mind, the large donations were a good investment. They helped to drive interest in both Loptsson as a person, and MCI as a company, to new heights. People were positively frantic to meet him and gain access to his wealth and success.

However, as time went on, not every invitation that came into the office could be so easily dismissed as the early offers.

On this particular afternoon, Tony had taken a break from his research back at the Sanctum to check on things in the office. He had portalled over to pick up the latest batch of invitations and was flipping through them to see if any caught his eye.

Unfortunately, the one that did, did not do so for good reasons. Instead, it came from Obie, or rather, according to the signature on the invitation, “Obadiah Stane, CEO and Founder of SI Global”.

Just reading the titles that the older man claimed had Tony practically frothing at the mouth in rage. His hands shook as he struggled to find a bit of control. Meanwhile, all around him, the knick-knacks that supported the reception area’s ambiance had begun to vibrate and the office Ward had begun to spark.

How Dare He!

Tony’s mind was a wash of fury, lacking any hint of control. Through the haze of his rage, he could see the receptionist that stood behind the desk frantically calling someone for help, but he had no idea who that would be. Not until the elevator doors chimed, and a familiar face came through the office’s open doors.

“Easy, love,” Kaecilius said, as he pulled Tony into a tight embrace.

Tony knew that the older Sorcerer must have portalled into the elevator. No doubt, the welcome arrival was a result of the receptionist’s call. But however Kaecilius had gotten there, Tony was grateful for his presence. He leaned back into the other man’s arms, focusing on the soothing words as he struggled to regain control.

“You are here, with me, in New York City. Not locked up in that dungeon. The richly deserved comeuppance which you will rain down upon that man is nearly at hand. Just be patient, my love, and all will happen as you have planned.”

“Indeed, Sir, I find that I quite agree with your companion. We must not let your predilection for, as they say, ‘going off half-cocked’, get the best of our grand plans. Besides, may I remind you that many of those in attendance at Stane’s soiree are innocents?” JARVIS’ voice came out of the speakers of the computer system that Tony had installed in the MCI offices for his artificial child’s use.

“Fine,” Tony grumbled, half-heartedly. He knew that both of them were right. Around him, he could see the previous, rage driven, motion of the knick-knacks begin to calm. “I hate it when you conspire against me, babe, J.”

“No conspiracy necessary, dear one,” Kaecilius protested, glancing over at the wide-eyed receptionist. While she was a willing ally, Tony’s little outbreak was her first exposure to the Mystic Arts. She swallowed visibly before turning to head out of the room. Tony could tell that she didn’t want to get involved with their personal business.

But Kaecilius was not finished with his speech. He added, “now come, I believe that a bit of a break from your business here is needed. I have been meaning to show you one of the most interesting features of the New York Sanctum. The ‘Windows onto the World’.”

Spinning them both around with firm but gentle motions, he led Tony into the elevator and then, through a quickly formed portal, back to the New York Sanctum. They emerged at the base of the grand staircase in the entrance hall. The bright sunlight streamed in behind them, filtered through the stained glass that stood over the building’s front door.

As they made their way up the stairs and through the formerly empty halls, Kaecilius and Tony passed a number of people hard at work. While the previous Guardian of the Sanctum had been a private man, one who preferred to work alone, Kaecilius was quite the opposite. He was, above all else, a teacher.

Thus, he had opened up the Magically expanded structure hidden inside of the modest confines of a single New York brownstone, if a large one, to all those who wished to serve the Order at his side. Curiously, many of those who had accepted the invitation were originally from America and other so-called Western countries and were delighted to be based in more familiar surroundings than could be found in the depths of the Himalayas.

As Tony and Kaecilius passed those familiar faces, they were greeted fondly by everyone that they saw. A couple, more gregarious or at least more comfortable, even made lewd comments about their destination.

“So, was there any truth there?” Tony asked, smirking despite his flushed face. “You trying to seduce me, Magic Man?”

“Not at this time, Anthony. You are in need of something a bit more… adventurous.”

“Ooh, kinky.”

Kae scoffed at Tony’s comment. “I certainly hope not, but you do surprise me sometimes, dear one.”

Once upstairs, they headed down a wood-lined hallway that Tony hadn’t really explored yet, quickly reaching a closed door at the far end of the corridor. Behind the door was a room filled with what looked to first glance like door-sized landscape photos. But a second glance told Tony otherwise. Not only did the pictures gleam with magic to those with the Sight, but the images held within the frames were not stationary.

He could see the wind blowing across the sand in one, rain falling on green leaves of a jungle canopy in another and a rhino grazing on the brush in a third.

“What’s this?” he asked, turning to his companion, even as Kae closed the door behind him. “The mystical equivalent of a live video feed?”

“Not quite,” his man of mystery said, smiling like a Bond villain as he revealed his grand scheme. “I said that these are ‘The Windows onto the World’, and like any window, they open.”

Kae gestured towards the jungle window, even as he fetched a bag hanging from a peg on the back of the door.

“I was about to head into the Amazon jungle to replenish some of my potions supplies, and thought that you might want to accompany me.”

“Well, when you suggest a distraction, you certainly go big, don’t you. Giving me a rainforest to explore, huh,” Tony purred. Tucking his arm around Kaecilius’ he smirked. “Well then, take me on an adventure, darling.”

The excursion was exactly what Tony had needed to distract him from the reminders of Obadiah Stane’s villainy. When he and Kaecilius stumbled back through the portal a couple of hours later; filthy, drenched, and bearing no few scratches from encounters with the local flora and fauna, he was in a much better mood.

“Now that we’ve had our adventure, lovely, what do you say we withdraw to our suite? We can get cleaned up, and then you can take me to bed.”

“It would be my distinct pleasure to do so, Anthony.”

“My Prince Charming, as always,” Tony said fondly, and with a surprising amount of sincerity. For that moment, he forgot his revenge. Just for that afternoon, he was going to enjoy the pleasures that his new life had brought him.

Chapter 9: A Troubling Revelation

Even as Tony and his allies in New York City built up their financial empire, halfway across the globe the leader of an empire of a different sort found himself in the midst of a personal crisis.

It had now been eight months since the SHIELD leaks went public. In that time, the secretive African nation of Wakanda had faced a period of severe turmoil. The spotlight of critical international attention had been placed on them, and the initial consequences were not pleasant. But now, Bast be praised, it seemed that the worst of that disfavor had passed.

The upswing had begun a couple of months after the initial exposure. It was then that the actions of Nakia and her team as they reoriented the work of the War Dogs in this new, post-leak, world began to take effect. T’Chaka had to admit that watching his beloved ‘daughter of the heart’ as she put in long hours and pushed herself to new heights in the service of her nation was an inspiration.

As the spring turned to summer, the global perception of Wakanda continued to change and evolve, finding a new equilibrium. At the same time, the fickle nature and short attention span of the public in the Colonizer nations, as well as the growing heat and humidity that came with the change of seasons, had led to the former crowds of protestors fleeing in droves.

With their departure, all that remained at the Wakandan border was the still expanding refugee camp and the armed encampments scattered within its midst. But soon, even that changed.

It was early in the month of July, the night of the first new moon after the summer equinox. On that particular night, the air was hot and heavy with growing moisture, and storm clouds hid the stars from view. Having retired to his bedchamber early that evening with his beloved wife and Queen Ramonda, T’Chaka was in deep repose. But then, in the middle of the night, his sleep was interrupted by a brusque knock on the chamber’s door.

The King’s immediate reaction upon awakening was one of concern. He knew that the guards would not allow anyone to disturb their charges unless it was truly necessary. From her place by his side, Ramonda also stirred, awakened by the knock.

“Go back to sleep, my Queen,” he told her as he climbed out of the bed. “If you need to be up, I will fetch you myself.”

Suppressing a yawn, he walked over to the door, opening it just enough to slip out. Once outside, he took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the change in illumination, but soon he was able to see his visitor. There, bracketed by his guardian Dora, stood a fully armed and armored Okoye. Her face was stoic, giving away nothing.

“General,” T’Chaka said, nodding his head as he mentally pushed off any remnants of sleep. “What is it?”

“A disturbance at the border, my King,” she replied.

“Of course,” he said with a sigh. It was to be expected that, without the buffer of the Westerners, new conflicts would erupt. Many of the warlords whose encampments were embedded in the refugee camp were rivals at best, and deadly enemies at worst.

After accepting a formal robe and shoes from a hovering attendant, who had appeared as he was speaking with the general, they headed out. The King followed his loyal subordinate through the halls of the palace until they reached the primary landing platform. It was there that the Royal Talon stood, waiting for their arrival.

Without hesitation, T’Chaka strode aboard, accompanied by Okoye and a full complement of armored Dora. As the jet soared through the pitch-black night, over the expanse of the jungle that stretched between the capitol and river flatlands where the various invaders had laid their encampments, Okoye continued with her briefing.

To his surprise, it wasn’t an attack, or at least not one on the Wakandans.

Instead, it seemed that the armed encampments scattered across the river valley were being menaced by a third party, someone from outside the border shield. According to Okoye, the first attack had begun shortly after full dark had fallen. It had started with a smattering of gunfire; as if someone in the camp furthest to the north had spooked and fired indiscriminately. But it didn’t stop there. There was a second burst near the first, and then a third, way on the other side of the valley.

Soon, the entire encampment was engulfed in fighting. Yells and screaming mixed with the sporadic bursts of guns on full auto. Then someone tipped over one of the flame barrels that the hostile soldiers had been using to provide heat and light. The flames quickly spread from one tent to another, carried by running individuals and flying debris alike.

From the beginning of the fighting, those on duty in the Wakanda camp had been keeping an eye on the situation. While the night and the smoke and flames made it difficult to make out many details with the naked eye, the warriors did have another resource. Those on duty in the evening hours carried with them hand-held binoculars which were equipped with night vision and heat sensors.

Despite the interference, with the aid of their equipment, they were able to glimpse snippets of physical fights, as gun-toting troops were taken out efficiently by apparently unarmed figures. The attackers were aggressive in their movements, as they passed between encampments without signs of slowing down. According to Okoye, those amongst the Wakandan troops who had spotted them spoke highly of what could be seen of their skills.

Given that fact, it was no surprise when the fights spread, expanding beyond the original encampment to encompass the entire collection of invaders.

Okoye had just finished speaking when T’Chaka, glancing out the front windshield of the Royal Talon, noticed a glow appearing on the horizon before them. At first, he assumed that it was caused by the shield being activated, but as they drew closer they realized that it was the result of the now-raging fires that had spread with the fighting.

Moving swiftly, the jet soon crossed the threshold of the Wakandan shield, sending ripples along its surface. Given the circumstances, the thought of a spy catching sight of anything during the disruption seemed irrelevant. Now was not the time to worry about such things.

Once the Talon had settled on the ground near the warriors’ main headquarters, Okoye, T’Chaka, and the other Dora trooped out first. As they strode forward towards the waiting commander, T’Chaka could hear the reinforcements who had hitched a ride on Talon as they streamed out of the plane and into the camp. No doubt they already had their assignments and were headed for pre-arranged duty stations.

In the stark illumination provided by the jet’s running lights, T’Chaka could see the gathered delegation. W’Kabi, the warrior in charge of the Wakandan troops on-site, was waiting patiently, his hands crossed behind his back, along with a handful of subordinates.

“Sire,” he said with a slight bow. “I apologize for disturbing your night, but given the circumstances, I felt that it was necessary.” Then he offered Okoye a brief smile, before continuing. “I am certain that the General has already given you an overview of the situation. If you would like to follow me, I can give you a first-hand look.”

“Please,” T’Chaka agreed. And with that, they headed out, making for the forward edge of the camp.

As he looked across the bare earth of the demilitarized zone to see the utter chaos that was the combined refugee and armed camps, all that T’Chaka could feel was grief. There was no doubt in his mind that a multitude of lives would be lost in that mess, including a number of innocents. But he knew that sending his people in would not help. If anything, they would only make matters worse. So all that he and the others could do was to hold a vigil and wait.

By the time that dawn spread its rosy fingers across the sky, the sounds of battle had almost entirely disappeared. The worst of the fires had been quenched or faded to embers, and haze of smoke hung over the valley, hiding the embattled camps from view. Now, all that could be heard echoing across the open plain were cries: ones of pain, grief, mourning, or all three at the same time.

T’Chaka, who had been joined in the overnight vigil by his wife, son, and several Councilors, finally gave the signal. It was time for the Wakandans to move in.

Of course, as the reigning monarch, it was not his place to be a part of the first wave of investigators. Instead, he remained behind, letting W’Kabi and his warriors take the lead. Squads moved in, crossing the barren ground of the demilitarized zone cautiously. They kept their personal shields forward, ready in case of an attack. But none occurred. Not when they reached the halfway point, not when they reached the edge of the closest camps, not even as they made their way through the wreckage.

As T’Chaka and his companions stood, waiting, the reports began to pour in. One at a time, the squads called back with their findings.

For those who found themselves within one of the former militia encampments, the scene that they encountered was one of total devastation. There were dead bodies everywhere, victims of friendly fire, or covered in wounds from bladed weapons. The only survivors to be found in those camps were a handful of weeping women. Some were huddled over fallen bodies openly mourning, while others sat almost stoic in the wreckage of their former residences.

Those investigating the refugee camps found more variation within their depths. While there were some areas that looked like the militia ruins except with fewer dead bodies, others were surprisingly intact. In them, family groups were huddled together, scared and covered in soot but otherwise unharmed. They instantly surrendered to the investigating Wakandans, begging them for help with broken voices.

It was one of these groups that finally gave some real insight into the night’s excitement.

Each of the warrior squads had been accompanied by at least one War Dog, fully equipped to carry out an investigation. This included their field commander, Nakia. She had her Kimoyo Beads actively recording and transmitting back to headquarters and the King’s company. Her squad had been one of those who had infiltrated a refugee camp, one which had a decent number of surviving family groups.

Once her squad was sure that it was safe for her to do so, she stopped to talk to one young family sitting together in the midst of the devastation. They had survived the night’s excitement with minimal injuries – minor burns, a few scrapes – though most of their belongings had been burned. The wife, while begging for food to feed her starving children, had made an aside to her husband.

“We would have been better off if you weren’t around,” she had hissed. “Then the monkey men might have offered us the same thing as they did Mariya and her children.”

“Monkey men?” Nakia asked.

The husband replied, bitterly, “those who attacked in the night. They were dressed like the ancients, and hid their faces behind masks in the shape of the great ape.”

Like all Wakandans, Nakia and her listeners knew exactly what that meant.

Jabari.

That secretive tribe lived deep in the mountains of Wakanda. Unlike the rest of the nation, the Jabari chose to keep the traditions of their ancestors instead of adapting to the technological advances that came with access to Vibranium. They also served the gorilla god Hanuman instead of the panther goddess Bast, which explained the masks that they wore.

“And what exactly did they say?” she asked.

“They made an offer to some of the women and children, those without men or boys over a certain age. Sanctuary and a life free from starvation or hardship in exchange for giving up all contact with their former lives.”

“But you wouldn’t let us go with them,” the wife interrupted. “We could be safe now, if not for you,” she sobbed, hugging her baby to her.

Without a word, Nakia waved one of the hovering warriors over. Then, with a few whispered words, she sent them off to fetch provisions for the helpful couple. In the meantime, she continued to extract further information about the Jabari warriors who they had seen.

All across the camps, similar stories were being passed along.

In one fell sweep, the Jabari had turned the external military threat into nothing. And they did so without implicating their advanced brethren. It was a surprisingly generous act and one that T’Chaka knew that he would be unable to publicly acknowledge. Instead, they would have to encourage the narrative that the warlords’ internal conflicts had caused the encampments to implode.

In the meantime, there were still a large number of innocent refugees that remained, now worse off than they had been before. With the numbers down to such low levels, there was plenty of room in the camps that the Wakandan warriors and War Dogs had been using on the far side of the valley to host all of the survivors.

These camps, while still outside of the Wakandan shield, hid comfort and modernity under their rural façade. As such, they were a blessing for the refugees that had chosen to stay behind in the wreckage following the attack rather than going with the Jabari or fleeing into the jungle.

And it was here that T’Chaka’s wife, Queen Ramonda, found her opportunity to shine. Now that the camps were no longer mixed with hostile troops, she was able to mobilize her network made up of the wives and mothers of Wakanda. These women lacked the training of a War Dog or warrior. Instead, they found a different way to support the fight. With the experience of raising families, they were able to identify a complete list of all that the refugee families would need to survive. Everything from food to clothes, to toiletries and other necessities, were collected in huge batches and delivered to the camps. There were even a collection of toys and other such luxuries, many of them a result of donation drives at the Wakandan public schools.

Meanwhile, a couple of the neighboring warlords who had been responsible for the earlier armed camps, having not learned their lesson, sent new troops out in a fresh attempt to invade. But without the cover of the refugees and protestors, the Wakandans were able to rout the invaders with ease. By the time that the rainy season came to a close, the Wakandan border was calm once again.

The question of what to do with the refugees that continued to trickle into the border camps in the long term had yet to be determined.

Wakanda did not want to turn away those in need. After all, a large percentage of the War Dogs’ work had always been oriented around relief efforts for their Black brothers and sisters, and now that they could provide support openly almost the entire country had embraced the charge. However, Wakanda was not large enough to handle mass emigration, nor did they have the infrastructure to handle the sheer volume of the refugees in the long term.

In the meantime, between the volunteers led by the queen and her network and the guardian warriors, the refugees were in better shape than many had ever been before. So, T’Chaka and his council had time to find a good solution. Or rather, Prince T’Challa did.

Despite his age and education, including a bachelor’s degree and an MBA from Oxford University, he had little direct experience with problem-solving on this scale. So, his father and the rest of the ruling council all agreed that finding a solution for the refugee issue would be an excellent learning experience for a future king. Besides, with accomplished friends like W’Kabi, Nakia, and Okoye on his side, T’Challa already had the start of his own future Royal Council.

* * * *

Of course, with his wife and son leading efforts to address the remaining external threats left from the SHIELD leaks, T’Chaka finally had a bit of open time in his schedule. Now, he could pull the exposed thread, revealed by the leaks, which had been troubling him.

It had started when Nakia, in the process of taking over management of the War Dogs, had almost immediately uncovered a handful of missions where small details outlined in the official reports didn’t agree with her first-hand knowledge. Initially, he had been disappointed but unsurprised. His War Dogs were human, after all, and mistakes were easy to make in recounting often stressful experiences.

However, as she continued her investigation, she quickly realized and reported that it wasn’t just a handful of discrepancies, but rather a systematic alteration of mission reports. This raised a red flag.

At the time, Nakia and her team were far too busy putting out immediate fires to follow up on her discoveries. However, she did recommend a couple of older former operatives as excellent resources who would be able to dig through the archives. They, with help from a team of data mining experts and the computational powerhouse of JARVIS, combed through all of Wakanda’s databases.

Their assignment: to compare the official records of Wakanda’s espionage departments with what actually occurred. To accomplish this, they started with the latest reports, the ones filed by still active agents. For each report, they asked the War Dog who had written the original report to look through the file and compare it to the mission as they remembered it. Ostensibly, the War Dogs were looking for SHIELD involvement, but in reality, they were checking for discrepancies.

Across the board, the task force found that while the missions themselves went as the reports described it was not uncommon for the mission’s emphasis, especially in the briefing stage, to have a very different intent than the one outlined in the final report. From the reports delivered, it appeared that the briefings had left many War Dogs certain that Wakanda’s leadership didn’t care about the suffering of their Black Brothers and Sisters.

While it was disturbing for T’Chaka to realize that so many of his people thought him unfeeling about tragedies beyond their borders, again it was possible the distorted views could simply be a result of personal bias on either side of the briefing table.

Once the missions with surviving agents were done, they turned their attention to those where the War Dogs didn’t come back alive. It was here that the task force first found signs of deliberate informational sabotage. When they compared the reports compiled by the former War Dog leadership with other sources of data: local reports, the leaked SHIELD database, etc. they found clear points of divergence. Even taking into account the bias inherent in the alternate sources, it was clear that T’Chaka and his council had not received accurate reports of those missions.

In most cases, the discrepancies were small, but as the investigation progressed they built up a disturbing picture. There was a conspiracy, one which included many of the higher-ranked members of the War Dogs’ organization. What exactly their intention might be was unclear at this stage. What was evident was that they’d actively conspired to direct Wakanda’s interactions with the outside world in accordance with their agenda.

Given that many of the potential suspects in the conspiracy were well-respected Wakandan elders, including T’Chaka’s close friend and advisor Zuri, the King kept the investigation close to his chest. Besides the task force, the only ones aware of the scope of the investigation were Nakia and T’Chaka himself. Everyone else was given the impression that the review of the War Dogs’ files was a part of the recovery efforts in the aftermath of the SHIELD affair. It made a perfect cover, one which even T’Chaka’s beloved wife and son believed.

* * * *

Now, as the dry season went into full swing and the country rejoiced over an apparent end to the recent bout of troubles, T’Chaka received a call. Nakia wanted a meeting, and from the tone of her voice, she did not have good news. So, that evening, after a family dinner that brought all four of the royals together, T’Chaka headed back to his office. He knew that Nakia had already arranged to meet him there, so, when he reached the door, T’Chaka dismissed the hovering Dora with an offhanded wave.

“I am not to be disturbed for anything other than an absolute necessity,” he commanded as he swung the door shut. With the ease of long habit, he clicked the lock that made it practically impossible to open from the outside. Then he made his way along the circumference of the room, activating the various anti-surveillance devices embedded into the walls and furniture as he walked. When he was certain that there was no way for anyone, even one with preternaturally enhanced senses, to overhear, he walked over to the couch where Nakia already sat, waiting.

“You said that you had sensitive news,” he stated quietly.

“I did,” she agreed, the smile that she used to greet her Malume fading. “The team has made a new, and particularly troubling, discovery.”

“There have been any number of troubling revelations of late, Nakia, what makes this one so special?” he asked, dreading the answer.

“Because it has to do with a member of your family,” she replied.

“T’Challa? Ramonda? Not my baby girl?” he asked, growing even more disturbed as she shook her head to each name.

“No, Malume, not a royal member of the Golden Tribe currently living in Wakanda,” she finally said.

T’Chaka wracked his brain. As far as he knew there were no living relatives that met that criterion. His only brother was long deceased, and none of his aunts, uncles, or extended cousins had chosen to live outside of Wakanda.

Who could Nakia mean?

Then it hit him. She didn’t say that the family member was living.

N’Jobu.

His brother may be long deceased, but he was a War Dog before his death. Did this have to do with one of his missions?

As T’Chaka mentioned his brother’s name, Nakia raised an eyebrow, as if surprised. But then, a bit reluctantly, she nodded.

Did, did she uncover the truth about his death?

As far as T’Chaka knew the only people aware of the details of N’Jobu’s death were those present on that night: T’Chaka himself, the two Dora, and… his breath caught… Zuri. Now, T’Chaka knew that Zuri was one of the people that the investigative team was targeting but until now he had not suspected that N’Jobu’s missions would be part of that investigation.

“What… what did you find?” he asked, his voice taut with tension. He wasn’t sure that he wanted to know. But that was part of the burden of being King. Not avoiding the difficult news.

“Tell me, Sire, what do you know about your brother’s last mission?” Nakia’s tone was firm, with no hint of its usual affection.

What had she learned?

Digging through the recesses of his memory, T’Chaka cast his mind back almost two decades.

It was a time of transition. While his father, King Azzuri, had passed him the mantle of Black Panther many years before, it was less than a year since he had officially stepped down as King. T’Chaka knew that his father had waited until all of his sons were old enough to make an informed decision about pursuing the position before he stepped down.

Indeed, despite being over a decade younger than his brother N’Jobu could have easily tried for the throne. The traditions of Wakanda stated that any member of the royal clan could challenge if they felt that they could do a better job than the last King’s chosen successor.

Though he believed himself to be the right man for the job, T’Chaka had to admit that he had been relieved not to face such a challenge on the day of his ascendance. Following in his father’s footsteps would be hard enough. After all, the older man had successfully guided the nation through the tumultuous decades following the World Wars, even as the Colonizers’ influence on the continent changed and morphed into its current form.

But N’Jobu showed no interest in becoming King. Instead, he had declared his intention of working as a War Dog. Just before T’Chaka’s ascension to the throne, he had graduated from Howard University, in America. It was there that he had become fascinated by the American Civil Rights movement and the change that was happening in that influential nation.

Thus, when he was assigned a long-term position in that country, T’Chaka had been unsurprised. It was a good fit for his passionate younger brother.

At first, things in America appeared well. N’Jobu’s reports all spoke of the good work that he was doing, both in terms of helping their Black Brothers and Sisters and in safeguarding Wakandan interests on the Western coast of America. He did occasionally rage about the injustice that he witnessed, but it was always tinged with hope.

But then, in early 1992, something changed. N’Jobu, or rather Nathan Stevens as his American identification named him, was living in Los Angeles when a shocking video led to a series of violent race riots that spread across the city. While T’Chaka’s knowledge of that tragedy was limited, he knew that his brother had found himself in the heart of the chaos and had seen the losses that it caused first hand.

When he was summoned back to Wakanda to report on what he had witnessed in person, N’Jobu had been a mess. He had spoken passionately to T’Chaka and the council on the struggles that African Americans faced in their fight for equality within their nation. He had also begged them to provide support for their embattled brethren. N’Jobu felt that it was time for Wakanda to emerge from the shadows and enter global politics on a grander scale.

Perhaps, he argued, the evidence that a Black nation could be something other than an impoverished state would inspire real change. And if not, then there was always the stick. As the sole owners of the world’s supply of Vibranium, Wakanda had the ultimate bargaining tool.

But T’Chaka and his newly-appointed council had disagreed. They felt that the time was not right for full exposure. Instead, they proposed a subtler approach. N’Jobu would return to America, where he would funnel resources into the communities with the greatest need.

While not entirely happy, N’Jobu appeared to accept the compromise. So, after bidding his brother and sister-in-law and their young son, his nephew, farewell, he returned to his home/mission in the United States. Upon advice from the, at the time, head of the War Dogs, T’Chaka had dispatched young Zuri, son of Badu, a young operative about his brother’s age, to act as a fail-safe. His mission was to support N’Jobu as an American ally while monitoring the passionate man for any signs that he might betray their home country.

It was Zuri who had alerted the King that his brother had gone off the rails, providing Ulysses Klaue with the information that the arms dealer needed to hijack a Vibranium shipment in exchange for a massive collection of weapons. According to Zuri, N’Jobu was planning a prison break, one which would free those jailed for actions taken during the riots earlier in the year.

A betrayed T’Chaka had gone to confront his brother, a visit which had ended up costing N’Jobu his life. Given the circumstances, he had decided to keep the details of N’Jobu’s last mission a secret. As far as the Wakandan people knew, Prince N’Jobu had died on the mission, still loyal to his country. At the time, a grieving T’Chaka had left the clean-up of N’Jobu’s last mission to Zuri, who had remained behind while his King had returned to Wakanda in secret. It was he who had sent formal notice of N’Jobu’s death back to Wakanda, before returning himself a few months later.

In the aftermath of N’Jobu’s death, King T’Chaka had seized upon Zuri as his new confidant. The man knew his darkest secret, T’Chaka had reasoned. And besides, his very life had been saved by T’Chaka, in exchange for N’Jobu’s. It was thanks to this bond that Zuri had risen to such a high position, high priest, member of the Council, and a surrogate uncle for his children. But now… Now T’Chaka feared that what Nakia had to tell him would change everything.

* * * *

At his surrogate daughter’s insistence, T’Chaka recounted the full story of N’Jobu’s fall from grace. By the time that he had finished, tears were streaming down his face.

“Malume,” Nakia said quietly, placing her hand on his, “is that everything that you know about your brother’s life during that time?”

“What do you mean?” he asked, distracted from his grief by a distinct sense of confusion.

“Your brother was a fine-looking man, was he not, my King? One would wonder if, given the length of his mission, he might find romance during that time.”

“No,” T’Chaka shook his head. “He never mentioned anything serious, not since before he went undercover. I suppose he must have had his flings, but if he did he never told me.” Here T’Chaka sighed. “We were a bit too far apart in age to be very close. I had already gone off to England for school by the time that he was born. Why, what did you find?”

“Your Majesty,” Nakia’s tone grew formal. “I am afraid that your knowledge of your brother’s business was incomplete. When Prince N’Jobu died, it seems that he left behind a nine-year-old son.”

What?!

King T’Chaka’s brain stalled.

A nephew? He had a nephew!

But wait, nine-years-old in 1992. That would mean…

“His mother?” he asked, his voice strangled

“American. One of the prisoners that N’Jobu was preparing to break-out at the time of his death.”

Nakia’s words were like knives in T’Chaka’s heart. He had a nephew, one who had been abandoned after his father had been murdered by his own brother.

What could his fate have been?

T’Chaka turned to face Nakia, looking deep into her sympathetic eyes.

“Tell me everything,” he demanded.

“Yes, my King.”

Chapter 10: A Fiery Alliance

While the ruler of Wakanda prepared himself to face some hard truths, back at the New York Sanctum in Greenwich Village, Tony Stark was still reeling from the emotional outburst that the invitation from Obadiah Stane had caused.

He had thought that he was done with such extreme losses of control, especially when he had managed to avoid an outburst on his visit to Justin Hammer. Instead, it seemed that his past success had come from the specific circumstances; the distraction of playing Kitty, the excitement of manipulating Hammer-time, and the stress of being in a prison environment. It did not bode well for his plans for revenge.

Tony knew that if a letter from Stane set him off, being in the man’s very presence and interacting with him would be even worse. Clearly, he needed a bit more time to work on his control before he faced his betrayer. With that in mind, Tony and his advisors decided that the best response to Stane’s invitation would be to treat it like the rest of the correspondence that had been sent to MCI. In other words, Obadiah Stane simply received a polite rejection and a commemorative figure.

Thankfully, Tony soon had something else to distract him from his reaction to Stane. For still more letters continued to pour into the office, all of which had to be sorted into categories for the appropriate response.

As he flipped through the invitations absently, one caught Tony’s eye.

It wasn’t the note itself. No, that was fairly generic. Written in formal boilerplate, it was a request for a meeting to discuss potential investment opportunities with a self-defined ‘wildly-successful’ scientific think-tank.

Rather, it was the author of the letter.

Aldrich Killian was the CEO of an organization called Advanced Ideas Mechanics, or AIM for short. During Tony and JARVIS’ digging through the SI and SHIELD files, they had run across several references to that organization. It seemed that the think tank had managed to woo a fair percentage of former SI R&D employees over onto their team.

Since most of these employees had left SI after Tony’s supposed breakdown, including several who he considered his personal friends, Tony had done a bit of digging. He wanted to make sure that HIS people were being well treated. What he found was generally positive. It seemed that AIM’s Director of Research, Dr. Maya Hansen, had a good reputation in the research community.

The other thing that had grabbed Tony’s attention was the fact that the organization was working on several projects in conjunction with the US Army Research Group, overseen by General Thaddeus Ross. While they were still digging into the details of Ross’ affairs, including his involvement in Tony’s imprisonment, what they had found so far had definitely made anything related to the man a topic of interest.

“Seems like this is one invitation that we might want to accept, huh J?” Tony said absently, rubbing his sternum as he read through the letter.

“Indeed it does, Sir,” JARVIS agreed easily. “But might I suggest an alternate venue beyond the City, given your normal response to such invites.”

“Fair point, baby boy,” Tony said with a nod. “Well, then, where shall we go. Hong Kong would be easy, as would London, for obvious reasons. The West Coast is also a possibility; our research indicates that Killian maintains an office in Los Angeles. I haven’t been back there in years, after all.”

Not since my kidnapping.

“I would recommend anywhere in the States, Sir,” was JARVIS’ reply, causing Tony to subtly sigh in relief. Los Angeles had far too many bad associations in his mind, between the kidnapping and the deaths of his friends. He’d rather not go there if there wasn’t a need, not until he was ready to reclaim the Malibu mansion and his beloved bots. It certainly wouldn’t help with his control, either.

Instead of saying this out loud, Tony simply cleared his throat. “As you say, J. Hong Kong, then? It might lead Killian to believe that Edward has ties to the Far East.”

“Which you do,” JARVIS reminded him.

“So I do, J, so I do.”

The Order’s reach was extensive, after all, as was JARVIS’ network.

“Well then, let us make the suggestion.”

It took several weeks, and numerous back-and-forth communiques between Edward’s assistant aka JARVIS, and Killian’s PA, but eventually a meeting was set. It would be held in Hong Kong, during the third week of January.

* * * *

When the day of the meeting arrived, Tony’s first task was to get into character as Edward Loptsson. This would be the first time that he adopted the full persona and brought him out into a public setting.

Tony started with the mystical modification of his physical appearance. It started with the subtle illusion that he and Kaecilius had designed; a bit of narrowing on the eyes, reshaping of the jawline, some restructuring of the ears. Like with Kitty, he anchored Edward’s illusion onto a rune pendant. But this time, he didn’t have the pendant on display openly. Instead, it was hidden beneath the layers of Edward’s wardrobe, laying right up against the silicon cover that he used to mask the glow from the Arc Reactor.

Tailored by a shop on the high street near the London Sanctum, Edward’s suit practically screamed wealth. With its neutral colors and traditional cut, it was also worlds away from anything that infamous playboy Tony Stark would wear.

Taking advantage of the fact that his hair, having gone uncut during his time in the Oubliette, was now quite long, Tony pulled it back into a small queue at the base of his neck. Not only was the style a far cry from anything that he’d ever done, but it also served to accentuate the illusory differences in his face.

Tony added one final touch, a bit of cologne, borrowed from Kae, which perfectly fit the persona. Then, with a glance in a mirror to check his work, he stepped out of the suite’s bathroom.

Since it was the middle of the night in New York City, Kae was already in bed. However, just as when Tony had his Kitty outing, the Guardian of the New York Sanctum had made arrangements for others to protect his love. As a result, Edward had a pair of bodyguards accompanying him to the meeting with Killian like Kitty had while visiting Hammer. The same pair of bodyguards, not that it mattered beyond the fact that the two men were particularly skilled at physical defense and could easily slip into the appropriate characters.

The trio passed through the portal to Kamar Taj, and from there to Hong Kong with little difficulty, giving a brief greeting to Wong along the way. The older Sorcerer was impressed with the robustness of the Edward disguise, especially when Tony showed off the accent that he’d decided to use.

“You have become quite skilled in the art of illusion, my young friend,” Wong said. “It reminds me of another Sorcerer of my acquaintance.”

“Oh?” Tony was curious. Kaecilius had never mentioned any illusionists among the Order.

“Indeed. A young Jotunn on his grand tour of the Nine Realms some centuries ago. His skill at adopting the face and speech of his hosts was unparalleled.”

Loki.

The thought of his absent mentor caught Tony off guard. With everything that he was doing and all of the education that he’d received from Kae and his disciples, he had almost forgotten that the base of his skills had been fostered at the hands of his Master.

“Thank you for the reminder, Wong,” he breathed. “I didn’t know that I needed that, but it is good to hear.”

“But of course,” Wong agreed. “Now, you should be getting to your meeting. The crowds in the city this time of day can be a challenge to navigate. But if you feel like indulging this old man, you should stop by after you are finished with your meeting and before you return to the other side of the world. It has been some time since we have had a chance to catch up. I have some new music to show you.”

“You got it, Beyonce,” Tony said easily. He had missed his visits with the sardonic keeper of the Order’s archives, which had dwindled with the divide and Wong’s new responsibilities.

* * * *

Thus, it was with his confidence bolstered that Tony entered the space where the meeting with Killian had been arranged to occur. Li Chao, the Order member who had been Tony’s guide on his first visit to Hong Kong, was also a member of one of the city’s most wealthy dynasties. Because of that connection, he had easily identified and reserved the perfect site.

It was a private suite in one of his family’s Hong Kong properties, a skyscraper which happened to be a top location for international business meetings. Since his arrival in Kamar Taj, Tony had learned that the Order’s role in protecting the world from Mystical threats was openly broadcast in the East. Indeed, membership within the Order was a highly coveted position amongst those in power in those nations. Thus, the rest of the Li family was honored to be of service to their favored son and his companions within the Order of the Mystic Arts.

With these influences in mind, Edward was unsurprised when he and his guards had been greeted upon their arrival by the facility’s head honcho himself. The man was positively tripping over himself in an effort to impress as he escorted them over to the Executive elevator, and then up to the penthouse suite. After leading them to the entry, the manager opened the door, bowing profusely. At that moment, the manager was only a step away from groveling on the floor.

And this was the first sight that Aldrich Killian and his party, who had arrived earlier, had of the reclusive Edward Loptsson. A man whose wealth and influence were so extensive that even men like their host, who was accustomed to hosting CEOs and Heads of State, was overwhelmed by his very presence.

Killian, who had been lounging on one of the sofas set against the massive wall of windows that made up one side of the suite’s main room, climbed to his feet with alacrity. Striding forward, he offered a hand for the other man to shake.

“Mister Loptsson, I presume,” he said more than asked.

Killian had a certain oily charm that reminded Tony a bit of Justin, as he had been at the peak of his success, or – perish the thought – of Stane. He was dressed in high-end business gear, a suit with a satiny sheen, and loafers without socks. His hair, like Edward’s, was longer than normal for a Caucasian male, but instead of pulling it into a queue, Killian had it slicked back. It looked to Tony, raised in the high society of the ‘80s, like the high-class version of a mullet that was common back then.

“Indeed,” Edward responded, accepting the hand and giving it a brisk shake. He was surprised to notice the heat radiating from the other man’s skin. Either the man was extremely ill, or his resting body temperature was far above the norm. Since he showed none of the other physical signs of a high fever, glassy eyes, involuntary shivering, etc.; the first option seemed unlikely.

Hmm, something to consider. Has Killian used himself as a test subject for his company’s research? Tony thought, even as he allowed the man to lead him over to a seat. Behind him, he could hear one of Edward’s bodyguards dismissing the hovering manager with a request for refreshments.

With the snap of his fingers, Killian had one of his own minions, a muscular young woman whose posture read more like a bodyguard than a secretary, offer Edward a formally printed prospectus.

As Edward glanced through it, taking in the glossy photos, charts, and sundry items contained within, the businessman launched into the verbal portion of his spiel. He spoke of the purpose of AIM: an international think tank promoting innovative cross-disciplinary work, with an emphasis on human advancement. Then he expanded into a description of the organization’s successes, including improvements on skin regeneration, advanced prosthetics, even some enhanced musculature, and mental optimization projects.

Much of AIM’s research was focused on tools of war, a consequence of their funding from the US Military. Still, it was an impressive portfolio, especially given the fact that the organization had only been around for a handful of years. If Tony hadn’t already known the truth, he would never have suspected that there was more to the story.

Using the skills learned over decades in the public eye, Tony kept Edward’s face blank. The only response he made was a few approving hums when Killian referenced his most ambitious selling points.

The presentation took about an hour, wrapping up just as the refreshments that Edward’s bodyguard had requested arrived.

There was a pot of the tea blend that Tony had become accustomed to drinking during his time in Kamar Taj. It was an Assam Masala Chai, one that carried the high caffeine content that he had formerly ingested solely through coffee, as well as a complex spice profile that hit the back of Tony’s throat like a hit of high-quality spiced rum.

Besides the tea, there were several serving platters piled with easy serving foods, small dumplings, nuts, spring rolls, even a platter of fresh sushi.

Tony, who had grown up in International business circles, had already been competent with chopsticks when he arrived in Kamar Taj. The year in a society dominated by men and women of ethnically and culturally Asian descent had only served to reinforce those skills. Since his cover of Edward was similarly linked to the local oligarchs, he could show off his comfort with that method of eating.

Killian and his entourage, on the other hand, were less comfortable with the sticks. While they weren’t complete neophytes, their skill with the utensils was grudging at best. Still, Tony was impressed that they did make an attempt to follow the local custom instead of demanding Western-style utensils.

As they ate, the group set aside business in favor of small talk.

Topics ranged from the local sights and delicacies to the recent holidays and how they differed around the world. With the Chinese New Year fast approaching, anyone out and about in Hong Kong could see the invasion of red and gold that positively overwhelmed all other colors this time of year. Tony appreciated the chance to gather his wits in preparation for the upcoming discussion, even as he led the more casual conversation with ease.

Eventually, though, the small talk grew stale.

So, Edward took one final sip of his cooling tea and then set it down on the glass-topped table with a decisive clink.

Killian read his intentions perfectly, and, setting his own cup down, asked, “Mister Loptsson, tell me, now that you’ve heard the pitch, do you have any questions about AIM?”

Edward offered a polite smile. “Mister Killian,” he began.

“Aldrich, please.”

“As you say. I must say that you are a very impressive speaker, and your pitch was quite the masterpiece of marketing savvy. One can certainly see how you have managed to grow your organization to its current size in such a short period of time if this is an accurate sampling of your people’s work.”

Killian beamed, and the rest of his entourage showed their appreciation with more subtle grunts.

Edward held up a hand.

“However…” he continued, as Killian’s face dropped its beaming smile. “I am not your average investor. One does not accumulate the level of wealth and power that I have managed without doing my due diligence in investigating potential assets in advance of any pitch meeting.”

“As such, I only have one question. Did you really think that you could get away with it, covering up a failed experiment that way?”

At first, Killian attempted to bluster his way through. But Edward was relentless. He dropped one detail after another, from the temperature profile of the so-called bombings to the links between the apparent suicide bombers and the soldiers in the Extremis program, and even Trevor Slattery, the so-called Mandarin.

Finally, just as Killian and his people were about to blow – both figuratively and literally, given the increase of the room’s temperature – the other man collapsed and gave in.

“Fine,” he said, sagging back into his seat on the couch. A bit of steam puffed out as his bare skin hit the leather, a clear sign of the heat running through his veins. “It seems that you’ve figured it all out. So what are you planning to do with that information? I assume that since you arranged this meeting you aren’t going to just turn me in.”

“I have not yet made a decision,” Edward said, his tone serious. “My team and I felt that it was important to hear your side of the story before we took action.” He gestured towards the mobile phone, which he had quite ostentatiously placed upon the table at the beginning of the meeting.

“They have been on the call with us the entire time, just in case you are considering the possibility of eliminating the threat that I pose.”

From their positions behind Killian, the now obvious bodyguards frowned. They had taken up stances on either side of the seated CEO, their arms outstretched at their sides. Given Tony’s research, he knew that they were prepared to literally throw flame. From out of the corner of his eye, he could see his Order bodyguard taking up their own protective stances.

“Please inform us, in your own words, the sequence of events that led you to pursue such drastic measures to hide a failed experiment.”

In response to Edward’s demands, Killian let the tale spill out.

He spoke of how the project started with the inspired research of Dr. Hansen. How it saw initial success before the experimental subjects began to combust from within when exposed to emotional stressors. How they repeatedly tried to find ways to mitigate the side effects, with no real success. How it became necessary to cover up certain explosive failures, which had snowballed into their fake terrorist scheme.

“If it weren’t for that damn Stane,” Killian complained bitterly, as he reached the end of his tale.

From beneath his stony façade, Tony’s ears perked up.

“Please explain,” he said.

Killian elaborated. “At one point in my life, I viewed Tony Stark as my nemesis. It was his arrogant dismissal of my proposal back in ’99 which had been a driving factor in the launch of AIM. In addition, my director of research, Maya Hansen, also received inspiration from the man. His genius helped to advance the Extremis project, as his advice led her to solve a flawed equation the same night.”

This time Tony could hardly hold in his smirk. After a bit of work, JARVIS had managed to dig up the first snippet, but the second was a surprise. He didn’t recall ever working with Dr. Hansen, though he did vaguely remember the hook-up. He must have been doing drunk science, a not uncommon practice at the time.

“Whatever I thought of the man, however, no one deserved what happened to him next,” Killian continued. “First he was kidnapped by terrorists. I did quite a bit of research in creating the character of the Mandarin and I now know how those organizations operate. Stark almost certainly underwent significant torture in the months that he was held prisoner. Still, at least he got his revenge there. My contacts within the US military were quite complimentary about the amount of damage that Stark managed to achieve in the process of escaping from his captors.”

“If that was all the grief that Stark had suffered, I would have felt justified in maintaining my dislike of the man. What happened next, though, was beyond the pale. Stane may claim that Stark had a nervous breakdown, but given how fast that bastard reclaimed control over the Stark family business after the younger man went ‘into seclusion’ it was obvious that he had put him there. When he then proceeded to dismantle all of the changes that Stark had begun, even ones that had been in place for years, it became increasingly clear that the younger man’s absence was meant to be permanent.”

“I’m not ashamed to admit that while my sympathies had been engaged, Stark’s fate was still academic at that point. But then, when things with Extremis turned sour, it turned personal. Maya was certain that if she could just get ahold of Stark he would be able to solve the problem that she just couldn’t push past. So I went hunting, only to find that Stark had vanished off the face of the Earth. Not only was there no sign of him anywhere, but I could find no record of him ever being admitted into a facility of any kind.”

Behind Edward’s bland façade, Tony’s mind was racing. Were there others like Killian, who knew even a piece of the truth?

“What happened next? Did you ever find Stark?” he asked, curious.

“I spent months searching, but I had no luck. It was like Stane had hired an entire company’s worth of hackers to keep the secret. So I went for a more passive-aggressive form of revenge. I started actively recruiting any and all SI researchers that I could woo away to work for AIM instead. It turned out that some of them had noticed the same things that I did.”

“Working together, we made still more progress, not necessarily with finding Stark, but with other matters. I thought that I was a ruthless CEO, but I at least have some altruistic motivation in my pursuit of greater scientific knowledge. That bastard, on the other hand, he has absolutely no limits. All that he cares about is increasing his own personal wealth, power, and influence. Nothing and nobody else matters.”

Tony was unsurprised by this assessment. It meshed well with what he and JARVIS had found. To his surprise, his control had yet to be tempted by Killian’s references to his betrayer. I suppose that it’s because he agrees with my hatred, he thought, absently. Still in character as Edward, he gestured for Killian to finish his story.

“Right, well, to make a long story short, the records that we did manage to scrounge up hinted that Stark’s breakdown was actually a cover for his murder. Not only that, but Stane also made a habit of murdering anyone who started asking questions about his former protege’s disappearance. Stark’s former driver and personal assistant, for example, died in a very suspicious car accident within a month of his disappearance. Miss Potts was an old college friend of mine, so seeing her name on the list of victims was like salt to an open wound. Last year, when Stark’s death was made public, supposedly at the hands of HYDRA, well, that was the final straw.”

Buried in the depths of Killian’s eyes, Tony could see a hint of flames. “Since that day, AIM’s secondary mission is to find vengeance against Obadiah Stane, SI Global, and everyone involved in that organization. In fact, I was just preparing to make a move against him when I was distracted by this meeting.”

Despite the tense situation, Killian managed a rather sharp grin. “Did you know that one of the Vice President of the United States’ granddaughters has a rather severe physical handicap, one which makes her a perfect candidate for Extremis?”

 


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startabby

Prolific lifetime reader in my 30s with a fondness for science fiction and fantasy, I fell down the rabbit hole of fan fiction a few years back. More recently, this has led me to write fiction of my own. Rough Trade and the Quantum Bang have given me a wonderful outlet to explore this hobby and its value as an escape from the challenges that we all face IRL.

4 Comments:

  1. One of my cousins lived in LA at that time. She lived far enough away from the riots that they didn’t see any violence, but I was still scared, and very heartbroken.

    • Yeah. I’m a SoCal girl originally, myself, though I’m a bit too young to remember the riots directly. Definitely hit hard to have my story intersect with the present a bit more than I had anticipated even a month ago.

  2. Killian as an ally is a great twist! I really have to say how impressed I am with Tony’s restraint and planning. I don’t think in his situation I could have held off from just going after Stane with guns a blazing.

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