Title: The Peculiar Nature (of Identity)
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?
Chapter 11: A Surprising Encounter
The streets of Hong Kong were bustling and filled with life, a direct contrast to the quiet serenity of Kamar Taj. As he strode down the street, on his way back to the calm of the Sanctum, Wong struggled to control his senses under the barrage of incoherent stimuli.
He could hear the calls of shopkeepers, hawking their wares or negotiating prices with customers. Then there were honks and screeches from the motorized vehicles coming and going, brief snippets of music or conversation spilling out of the open windows as they passed. Neon signs hummed and buzzed as they flickered on and off. Moving pictures flashed in street windows, interspersed with a wide assortment of products for sale. A multitude of scents came wafting into his nose and throat; everything from vehicular smells like oil, gas, and burning rubber to the pungent odor of sweat and unwashed bodies to the far more delectable aromas of cooked foods.
The chaos reminded Wong why he had come to Midgard all of those centuries before. There was no place quite like it in all the Nine Realms. Human lives were so short, yet so filled with life. Indeed, protecting them from threats beyond their comprehension had been and continued to be a worthy challenge.
After several decades of isolation, returning to the heart of Hong Kong was the change that Wong hadn’t realized that he needed. When the Ancient One had come to him with the request that he once more take up Guardianship over the Hong Kong Sanctum, Wong had been reluctant to agree. He had grown comfortable in his place as the overseer of Kamar Taj’s extensive collection of writings – books, scrolls, artifacts, etc.
But, when the holder of the Eye of Agamotto tells you that the future is best served by such a move, one is hard-pressed to refuse.
He wondered what it was that they had seen that required such drastic shifts in the Order’s distribution. Before the recent Convergence, the Order’s Masters were randomly scattered across the land, with only a handful, those drawn to Sanctum Guardianship or the large-scale training of apprentices, based in the Order’s strongholds.
But, in the year and a half since that tumultuous event, the Ancient One had called the wanderers home. Sanctum Guardians were supplemented or replaced, and the magics of the realm hummed with new vigor. And of course, the greatest change had come for Wong’s friend Kaecilius.
Like the Ancient One, Wong had once feared that Kaecilius’ war against Death would lead him down dark paths. It was not a fate that he wished upon his worst adversary, and yet he could see his friend falling right into the trap, with nothing that he could do to stop it.
Now, though, Kaecilius was thriving. Turning away from forbidden paths, he had instead embraced new challenges and unexplored opportunities. The Convergence, and the visitors from other Realms, had redirected his research focus away from dangerous subjects. Besides, his real focus had turned away from his long-standing fight against Death. Instead, his attention for the past year had turned towards the novice Sorcerer who had re-ignited his heart.
Anthony Stark. The American billionaire playboy and weapons manufacturer turned prisoner and surprising Sorcerer’s apprentice had had an impact that far exceeded anything that Wong could have predicted. Even with his privileged pedigree, apprentice to the Sorcerer Prince of Asgard and Jotunheim, Wong had assumed that once he settled into Kamar Taj, Stark would be just another student. Instead, he had flourished beyond all expectations, In the process, he had become a trusted friend to the older Sorcerer.
Think of the being, and he will appear, Wong thought with a private smile.
Having reached the Sanctum’s front steps, he had arrived just in time to run into Edward Loptsson and his escorts as they returned from their business meeting. Wong let his eyes meet those of the disguised man, reading a hint of suppressed excitement in their depths.
His meeting must have gone well, he thought.
“Mister Loptsson,” Wong said, offering a polite bow of greeting to one’s equal. “Welcome back to my humble residence.” His actions were designed to further reinforce the Edward Loptsson cover, especially given the helmeted motorcyclist loitering nearby.
“Wong,” Edward replied easily, returning the bow with one at the same level. “It’s good to see you as well. What is the Keeper of the Sanctum doing out and about without the proper entourage?”
Wong offered a sly smile. “If you must know, I had a craving for something sweet.” He waved the small package that he carried in one hand. “There is a place nearby that makes the most delicious little treats. And I needed a break from staring at boring paperwork.”
“Fair enough, my friend,” Edward said with a laugh. “Any chance that you might have enough there to share?”
“But of course,” Wong agreed. “If you would care to join me?” he gestured towards the front door of the Hong Kong Sanctum.
Its elegant façade reinforced its public image. To the uninitiated, the space was headquarters of a prestigious and exclusive gentlemen’s club, one whose members included the most powerful movers and shakers in the East Asian business world. As such, the current head of that organization, aka the current Sanctum Guardian, held a position of considerable influence. Both Wong and his companion knew that the report of Edward’s membership and close acquaintance with the new ‘head’ of the Order of the Mystic Arts there in Hong Kong would enhance his reputation significantly.
That was the reason for the careful charade on the Sanctum’s front steps.
Once they were inside, however, Edward’s slightly stilted and formal manner melted away, along with the illusion that overlapped his features. They faded to reveal the far more familiar visage and behaviors of Tony Stark.
“Wong!” he said, even as he offered the older man a joyful hug. “You’ll never believe what happened!” Without a pause, Tony launched into storytelling mode. As he did so, he continued to rid himself of the other subtle details that made Edward different from Tony. Off went the tie, tucked into a jacket pocket. Next, the top two buttons of the collared shirt were undone, revealing a colorful t-shirt underneath the carefully pressed cotton. The hair tie was removed, allowing Tony’s soft curls to fall out of their neat queue.
Wong led the way up the steps from the entry hall into the comfortable office that he had claimed for his own purposes. As he did so, he listened to Tony’s recount of his morning meeting.
There was something… off… about his friend’s happy mood. His present manic passion reminded Wong of Kaecilius after his first run-in with the Book of Cagliostro. It was the dark sorcery in that book which had nearly been Kaecilius’ undoing. And now Tony felt the same.
But it wasn’t until Tony reached the end of the story and mentioned Killian’s plans for revenge against Obadiah Stane, that Wong realized why he was getting the same sinking feeling in his gut.
He and the others, the Ancient One, Kaecilius, even Tony’s artificial child JARVIS, had all encouraged a measured approach in the man’s pursuit of revenge. One which ensured that only the truly deserving were punished for their part in the betrayal. And Tony had agreed with their guidance.
Now, though, just as the measured plan was beginning to show real results, a temptation had appeared. What Killian offered to Edward was messy, and had a high chance of causing harm to innocents, but it also gave him nearly-instant gratification. Steeling himself, Wong prepared himself for a verbal battle.
It took over an hour of back and forth for Wong to achieve partial success.
While Tony remained adamant that his cause of vengeance was worthy, and that Killian’s potential as a partner in that cause was worth pursuing, he did accept that perhaps the other man’s plan was poorly thought out. Ironically, the recent struggles that Tony’d had with his own emotional control had helped. It allowed him to acknowledge that he might not be the best judge when it came to making reasonable decisions on the subject of Stane.
So, they had come up with a compromise. Instead of offering his unlimited support in pursuing revenge, Edward Loptsson would take a more measured tone.
“Perhaps a bit of negotiation is in order,” Wong suggested. “To that end, I think you have a puzzle to solve.”
“One word, my friend. Extremis.”
“Wong, you clever bastard,” Tony said with a laugh. “You know I’ve already been thinking about that little mystery…”
And so he had.
The brainchild of Doctor Maya Hansen, Extremis was at base a mutagen, one which caused changes in the subject’s DNA allowing them to more efficiently utilize the energy that their bodies produced. Initially, the mutations triggered by Extremis followed the template that she had designed; reconstructing lost body parts like a starfish regrows its arms.
It wasn’t until the original template was complete that the problems began.
A powerful mutagen like Extremis wasn’t going to just stop working when it finished its original purpose. Instead, it found new ways to continue its work, making the body more efficient at producing energy. It was this process that ultimately caused the run-away effect culminating in a spontaneous combustion of the subject.
The AIM team had managed to develop a counter-serum which slowed down Extremis’ progression, but they had not had any luck in completely halting its progress. That meant that everyone who had received the Extremis injection was a walking time-bomb, one which could only be delayed, not prevented. It was this fact that had made Killian desperate for revenge. Having foolishly injected himself with Extremis, he knew that he only had so much time left before he blew.
With his mind focused on the Extremis puzzle, it was a distracted Stark that bid his friend and mentor farewell. He and his companions were headed back to their home in New York, taking advantage of the shortcut through Kamar Taj to get there in almost no time at all.
“I will see you in a couple of weeks, Tony,” Wong told the younger man as he waved him off, “you will have to inform me about what you have discovered between now and then.”
“Will do, old man,” Tony agreed. “I’ll blow your socks off, so make sure that you’re wearing some.”
* * * *
With the young Sorcerer redirected semi-successfully, Wong was free to resume his own projects. But, despite an abundance of things to do, he just couldn’t put his concerns to rest.
Eventually, after a couple of hours of fruitless effort, Wong set his papers aside with a sigh.
There is no point in continuing this farce, he thought ruefully. Perhaps a bit of meditation will help.
Climbing to his feet, Wong reached out with his right hand. With the steadiness of centuries of practice, his hand flashed through a series of signs. Before him, golden sparks flashed and a portal opened. Breathing out, Wong stepped through.
Unlike the transit portals, which shortened the distance between here and there, this one led to another dimension. The Mirror Dimension.
To the naked eye, it looked like he hadn’t gone anywhere. Around Wong sat the various elements that made up his office. Desk, chair, a bookshelf filled with precious cargo, etc. But, all that it took was a wave, and the small space expanded outwards in all directions with a whoosh.
In a moment, the office better resembled an aircraft hanger. All of the furnishings were shoved against the walls, leaving a huge area for him to work. Another wave and the room spun around him like the wheel of a merry-go-round. It was part of the magic of the Mirror Dimension, a place where the ease with which one could manipulate one’s surroundings was only limited by one’s imagination.
It is a wonderful place for a bit of moving meditation, Wong thought, as he moved through a slow kata. With each move, he allowed his magic to flow outwards, forming spectacular patterns in the slowly spinning flow of matter.
The play of light, matter, and magic was soothing, a reminder of the balance that existed out in the universe. It was exactly what he needed after a stressful day.
Wong was just finishing the third repetition of his chosen kata when sparks appeared out of the corner of his eye. He let out one final flourish of magic, bowing to a non-existent partner, before turning towards the interloper. It was Kaecilius.
From the look on his face, he had just finished his own version of Wong’s intervention, and like his friend, appeared in need of council.
“Disturbing to see from the outside, is it not, my old friend,” Wong said.
Kaecilius frowned. “Was this how you felt when I demanded access to the Book of Cagliostro?”
“If I read between the lines correctly, Anthony was even worse before your meeting, so thank you for injecting a bit of sanity into that mess.”
“Then the distraction worked?”
“He has already begun a research binge. When I left him, Anthony was fully surrounded by screens filled with data.”
Wong let out a small snort. “Unsurprising, but better than the alternative.”
“True. Now, what exactly did you propose to my manic little love?”
From out of the mess that was his surroundings, Wong extracted two copies of his favorite wingback chair. After setting them down in a neat grouping, he strode over and claimed one, relaxing in it with a sigh. Kaecilius followed in his friend’s example, and they began their in-depth discussion.
* * * *
“… sometimes I wonder, what would have happened if Obadiah Stane had been a bit less aggressive in his betrayal, or had failed to find allies to support his cause. What would have become of my Anthony in that world, not to mention my own fate?”
“A sobering thought.”
“But not one on which any mortal should dwell.” Both Wong and Kaecilius spun around, startled by the comment. It had not come from either of them. Indeed, by the resonance and timbre, it hadn’t come from a human throat.
They jumped to their feet, and Wong vanished the chairs with a snap. Sure enough, there was a new arrival present in their little pocket of the Mirror Dimension.
Though the voice had sounded like it was right behind them, when Wong located the stranger they appeared to be some distance away. But not for long. The mysterious figure was striding directly towards where they stood, walking with feline grace. On the surface, they looked like a Black version of the Ancient One, but when Wong managed to meet their gaze it was like staring into the starry abyss.
“Be at ease, young Sorcerers,” the being spoke, “there is naught for you to fear from my presence.”
Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, Wong offered a deep bow of acknowledgment. While he wasn’t sure exactly who the being was, he was sure that they were one of the Deep Ones.
Kaecilius was less circumspect, a consequence of his relative inexperience, and dared to ask the question that they were both wondering. Still, he did at least have the sense to be polite in his questioning.
“Beg pardon for my presumption,” he asked, “but to whom are we speaking?”
“My full identity is beyond mortal comprehension, but,” for a moment the mantle of a massive black feline loomed over them, “there are those who know me on your plane as Bast.”
“The Panther Goddess of Wakanda?” he asked.
The being nodded.
“The multiverse is vast, and buried within it are any number of possible timelines. But the only one which matters at this moment is the one that you are in. And in this one, your Anthony Stark has been granted the tools which would otherwise be out of his reach. Tools which could be the salvation of this entire universe, if he can only be wise enough to seize them correctly.”
She – for now Wong could feel the being’s maternal energy – smiled, and added. “For the sake of the universe, it is not safe for me to intervene directly in mortal affairs. Instead, all that I can do is offer encouragement. Your Anthony is on the right path, and you have been wise in your efforts to guide him. Trust your instincts and your understanding of both the Mystic Arts and human nature, and all will be well.”
With those cryptic words of wisdom, Bast faded from the plane entirely, leaving behind a pensive Wong and a still gaping Kaecilius.
“Did… did that really happen?” Kaecilius asked.
“Mmhm.” Wong agreed, a bit absent-mindedly. He was already working through the puzzle that Bast had left. It was not one which would be solved in a day.
* * * *
Sure enough, when Tony returned to Hong Kong some weeks later, Wong was still sorting through the implications of Bast’s visit.
Despite the fact that he already wore his Edward disguise, Tony the manic inventor shined through, reflected in his mannerisms and fast-paced method of talking.
“Wong!” he cried, wrapping one arm around the stouter man’s shoulders. “Have I got a thing to show you!”
From his place in his paramour’s wake, Kaecilius offered his own, less exuberant greeting.
“Greetings, my old friend,” he said, offering a slight bow.
Now, Wong had no doubt that his fellow Guardian had chosen to attend this second meeting with Aldrich Killian for one specific purpose. To protect his love from temptation.
Knowing that the experienced Sorcerer would keep an eye on the meeting, Wong felt much of his tension ease. There was no way that Kaecilius would allow the young Sorcerer to work himself up into the manic state that he had been in after his last meeting with Killian.
But enough wool-gathering, my attention needs to remain in the present.
“… and look at what I managed to work out!”
Wong had to admit that Tony’s babbling was quite adorable, his excitement over his new invention clear. And for good reason. It seemed that he had made actual progress on the Extremis puzzle.
“Are you listening there, Beyonce?” Tony asked, a bit of irritation emerging in his voice.
“Of course, Tony.”
“Right, well, I did a bit of digging into the breakthrough formula that ‘I’ had given Maya back in ‘99. It turns out that it was less of a breakthrough and more of a rabbit hole. One that AIM has spent the last decade going down.”
“Instead, I decided to take a step back, and think outside of the box. And do you know what’s outside of the science box, Wong, do ya?” Tony waved his hands, one of which still sat on Wong’s shoulder, in a sort of ‘jazz hands’ motion. “Magic!”
Wong suppressed a chuckle at Tony’s antics, as well as Kaecilius’ perfectly synchronized eye roll from behind his back. Those two really were a perfect match.
“So, I did a bit of digging through Loki’s books, and I think that I found at least a temporary solution.”
“Have you ever heard of Muspelheim?”
Surtur’s domain? “The realm of fire?” Wong asked. “I’m familiar with it.” Though it’s been many centuries since I was there last.
“Yeah, well, when I was researching Wards, I found a reference to a personal Ward used by Jotunn Seidrmadrs who wanted to visit their kin in that realm. Since Jotunheim is a land of ice and Muspelheim is a land of fire, those who dared attempt the paths of Yggdrasil perished upon their arrival. That is until a clever Seidrmadr developed a solution. An Area Affect Ward, one which uses thermal energy as its power source.”
Tony’s tone turned to that of a lecturer’s; as he broke the Ward down into its component parts. “Activation of the Ward triggers a siphon, one which absorbs thermal energy that would otherwise enter the area inside of the Ward. Next, the Ward takes the gathered thermal mass and converts it into mystical energy, which then acts as a battery. With this self-sustaining cycle in place, the Ward could be maintained indefinitely, or at least as long as the temperature differential was sufficiently drastic.”
“Interesting,” Wong commented. He could already see where Tony was going with his thoughts. “So you need to determine how to invert the Ward, then?”
“Sort of,” Tony agreed. “I still have to figure out how to extract the excess energy that Extremis produces from a human body without causing harm, but once I do so I’m all set.”
“That is a clever solution,” Wong agreed. “But how do you plan to convince a Westerner to accept a Mystical solution?”
“Easy. I sell it as reverse-engineered alien tech,” Tony said with a wry grin.
Hiding his own intense contemplation, Wong nodded, acknowledging the validity of the deception. With the failed New York invasion a few years past leaving debris scattered across the Tri-State area, scavenging alien tech had already become standard practice. And depending on how one defined things, a Jotunn Sorcerer’s Ward could be considered alien technology.
Were these the tools of which Bast spoke? Technology and the Mystic Arts, blended together in novel ways? And what was the connection to Wakanda?
Chapter 12: A Mystical Solution
Unaware of the baffling and slightly disturbing encounter which his friend and lover had had with a certain Panther Goddess, Tony’s state-of-mind as he walked into his’ or rather, Edward Loptsson’s, second meeting with Aldrich Killian was one of excited optimism.
This time, he was meeting with an ally, one whose passion fanned his own flame of vengeance. When Edward strode into the same Hong Kong conference room, Kaecilius at his side in all his stoic glory and a grim smile spread across his face, Killian greeted him with his own sharp grin.
“Edward,” he said, “how goes things here in the Far East? Any luck in your research?”
During their last meeting, Edward had told Killian that his purpose in Hong Kong was to identify worthwhile investments in East Asia. Diversifying the portfolio of MCI, he had explained.
“A couple of excellent prospects,” Edward commented, “but nothing official yet.”
“Good to hear.”
The conversation stalled for a minute before Tony took up the reins. “Speaking of successes, how do things back in America go? I have not heard of any new Mandarin attacks, so I assume that you’ve managed to prevent fresh accidents?”
Killian winced, though he did his best to hide it. He was obviously uncomfortable at the reminder of the ticking clock that hung over his head.
A palpable hit, Tony thought absently. While he wasn’t exactly threatened by the other man, he did hold a bit of a grudge at the regression in his mental health that Killian’s words at their last meeting had caused. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t deliberate on Killian’s part. Not when it had jeopardized Tony’s grand schemes.
“Thankfully, it appears that those subjects who still survive possess the strength of will to hold off the mutagen’s effects.” At Killian’s words, the pair of bodyguards hovering nearby straightened, clearly pleased by the compliment. It seemed that Killian had managed to engender a sense of loyalty in his underlings, despite the fact that his treatment had turned them into ticking time bombs. Tony was, however reluctantly, impressed.
“And your other… business?” Edward asked.
“Given the tentative nature of our alliance at present, I felt it best to wait until we had firmed things up before making our move,” Killian explained. “I have everything in place, but for right now we are playing a waiting game.”
“Excellent,” Edward replied. This time, Tony didn’t try to hide his pleasure at the news. It had taken quite a bit of work, but once Wong and the others had managed to talk him down Tony had wondered if he could do the same for Killian. After all, an army of fire breathers as allies would make an excellent complement to Kaecilius’ acolytes and the other Sorcerers who had pledged their aid.
“I have a counter proposal for you,” he said. “Aldrich Killian, may I introduce you to Kaecilius Zealotes, my friend and expert in the Mystic Arts.”
“Mystic Arts? I didn’t take you for a joker, Loptsson, and this is in especially poor taste.” Killian asked, affronted. “You proclaim yourself to be a man of business, of modernity, not spiritualism.”
Tony flashed a thin smile, unsurprised by Killian’s reaction. If he were in the man’s shoes, he would likely respond the same way.
“There is no joke here, Mister Killian, simply a confusion of terms. Tell me, what do you know about the New York invasion?”
“The inva…” Tony could see the second that things clicked in Killian’s mind. “Then when you say Mystic Arts you really mean…?”
“It seems, Mister Killian, that there are indeed more things in heaven and earth than are written in Western philosophy. The recent invasion was not the first time that the Earth has been visited, merely one of the more… overt.”
“And what do the, what did you call them, Mystic Arts, offer?”
Stepping forward, Kaecilius spoke for the first time since they had entered the room. Reaching into the pocket of his suit, he let the medallion that Tony had shown to Wong dangle from his fingers.
* * * *
It took a bit of discussion, including an explanation of how the medallion was intended to work, but eventually, they managed to reach an agreement.
Edward’s mystical solution, which would grant Killian and his people time, including some measure of control of their Extremis-driven condition, would be provided to anyone already infected. In addition, MCI would provide AIM with a desperately needed new source of investment capital, which would allow them to continue their search for a permanent cure.
In exchange, AIM would share the knowledge and scientific resources that they had built up as an American think-tank with high-level military contracts. Plus, Killian would shut down his Mandarin project and instead allow Edward to take the lead in the takedown of Obadiah Stane and his allies.
* * * *
Of course, Tony did warn his new ally that the current revision of the medallion was an incomplete solution. So far, all that it did was prevent an Extremis incident from hurting those around the victim.
This fact was demonstrated a few days after the meeting that formalized their alliance.
On that afternoon, Tony was interrupted in his lab by the chime of a new email. It had been sent to Edward Loptsson via the secure email service that Tony and JARVIS had set up specifically for the alias’ various covert affairs.
The email’s subject read in bold: “Evidence of Success”.
When he opened it, Tony was surprised to find that the email body lacked any words. Instead, all that it contained was a video clip. After running a quick scan to make sure that the video didn’t contain a virus or something similar, Tony clicked “PLAY”.
Based on the framing of the data it was some kind of surveillance footage, shot from a camera mounted in the upper corner of the room. Going by the room’s décor and layout, it must be a break room at one of AIM’s facilities.
Nearly all of the tables visible to the camera, as it panned across the room on a regular cycle, were filled with normal workers; scientists, office staff, maintenance people, etc. However, the table in one corner was filled with people who appeared considerably more dangerous. Amongst that group, Tony saw some of Killian’s bodyguards.
Those that Tony recognized as bodyguards, and indeed most of the others at their table, were dressed in casual clothing. However, there were a couple of men in the group who weren’t. Instead, they wore what looked like neutral-colored scrubs.
Despite the lack of sound in the footage, it was clear that one of these men was in the midst of an argument. His arms were flailing and he was leaning forward to get in the face of the person seated opposite him. But then, something happened.
Tony could see the moment that the situation changed. The man sitting immediately to the left of the arguing man stiffened even as the arguer pushed his chair back from the table and got to his feet. Meanwhile, the room temperature reading, which was displayed in the lower right corner of the video, began to climb.
Starting from just below 70 Fahrenheit, it quickly reached 80… 90… 100… 110…
The standing man was now visibly glowing, red light pulsing under the surface of his skin. Around him, the room was rapidly clearing out. Everyone ran for the door, rushing to get away from the imminent explosion.
Then, less than a minute after the change began, it reached a climax. The man opened his mouth in an inaudible scream, before bursting into flame. By its almost white shade, Tony could tell that the flame was intensely hot.
Before the flame could spread, a shimmering gold haze appeared, containing the flame to a cylinder about a meter in diameter. Inside, the flames raged, while outside things remained stable. The room temperature, which had reached about 130 Fahrenheit before the flames erupted, began to settle.
People at the back of the pack fleeing the space, who had been trapped within the camera’s range of view at the time of the explosion, turned around to stare.
It took a couple of minutes, but eventually, the raging inferno faded. Once it did so, the golden haze that contained it also disappeared. All that remained was a medallion, sitting in the center of a ring of scorching on the concrete floor.
At that moment, as the hovering onlookers began to move forward to examine the remains, the video ended.
* * * *
While it was nice to see his Ward design function properly, the fact that a man had just died in that footage still hit Tony hard. It was the exact motivation that he needed to buckle down and work. He was now even more determined. He would make a Ward that would do more than just shield others. It would prevent such senseless deaths.
“JARVIS,” he called out as he spun away from the screen, the medallion at the center of the circle of scorched floor frozen front and center, “I hope that you’re ready to work.”
Several hours later, Tony was disrupted from his Mystical engineering binge when the door to his lab swung open. It hit the wall with a dull thud, the sound enough to break Tony’s concentration.
He glanced up and smiled.
Framed in the doorway was his love. Kaecilius, who was carrying a tray filled with dinner for two, returned Tony’s smile.
“What are you doing here, Magic Man?” Tony asked. “I thought that you were meeting with the Ancient One this evening?”
“That meeting ended some hours ago, Anthony,” Kaecilius responded gently. “Now, JARVIS told me that you have once again worked straight through supper.”
“Is it really that…” Glancing over at a nearby screen, Tony was astonished to realize that it was nearing midnight. “Oh. I guess it is.”
Tony set down the tools that he had been using to inscribe a set of runes into a wax blank. Then he raised his arms above his head with a sigh, stretching to shake out the kinks that came from hours of detail work.
As he did so, Kaecilius stepped further into the lab. He walked over to the small café-style high-top table that sat in one corner of the room. With an abbreviated wave, he sent the detritus of past meals through a tiny portal which led down to the Sanctum’s kitchen. Then, he set his burden down on the newly cleared place.
“You know,” Tony said with a flirtatious tone, watching the spectacle, “you really know how to make a man feel special.”
“But of course, little Sorcerer. Now come, eat. You can tell me what has had you so distracted over a meal.”
* * * *
Of course, the Ward work was not Tony’s only ongoing project.
There was another matter that pulled at his attention. To his surprise, this one wasn’t directly related to his revenge. Instead, it was a request from his son.
Shortly before the new year had begun, on an otherwise unremarkable day, Tony had been interrupted while taking a breather. On that particular day, Tony had been taking advantage of Kaecilius’ absence from the Sanctum to do a bit of intense research.
“Sir,” JARVIS’ voice came through one of the many speakers installed in the workshop/lab that Kaecilius and Tony had set up in the New York Sanctum. The oddly hesitant tone in the artificial voice was enough to draw the inventor’s full attention.
“What is it, J? Is something wrong?”
“I am unsure, Sir.”
“Yes, Sir,” there was a pause before JARVIS continued speaking. “I believe that I am facing a rather peculiar dilemma.”
“Oh?” Now Tony was intrigued. It wasn’t like his baby boy to respond in this manner. JARVIS was always so definite in his views, a natural consequence of his logic-based processor. “Okay. Then how about you tell me about it, baby boy, maybe I can help clear things up?”
JARVIS remained silent for several seconds after Tony finished speaking, a sign that his processors were working overtime. Finally, he spoke. “May I pose a hypothetical then, Sir?”
Interesting. “Pose away.”
“It is a matter of the protocol for humans regarding the keeping of secrets? I am aware that humans regard such things as sacrosanct.”
“You got that right, J.” Where is this going?
“However, it appears from my experience that there are certain occasions where the holder of a secret may reveal it to others. Occasions where keeping said secret would be detrimental to the health or well-being of either the secret giver or the secret holder.”
“That is true,” Tony agreed. “But J, you know this already. After all, you like to tattle on me to Kae all the time, and you used to do the same thing with Pep and Rhodey.”
Tony smiled at the nostalgic thought.
A wry sigh came out of JARVIS’ speakers. “I am well aware of what to do on occasions where keeping the secret would be detrimental to one’s immediate health. Handling that sort of situation is well within my computational repertoire.”
“Then what is different in this case?”
“What if revealing the secret does not provide an immediate benefit, but may provide one in the longer term?”
JARVIS, my boy, you’re really growing up… Facing complex ethical quandaries and everything.
“Well then, J, in that case, it becomes a matter of probabilities. You must identify all potential outcomes of your decision, determine the probability of each outcome occurring and its weight, whether positive or negative. Then you simply calculate whether your choice has a higher probability of positive or negative consequences.”
“Interesting,” JARVIS said. “If you do not mind my saying so, Sir, such a calculation seems beyond the capabilities of most humans.”
Tony laughed. “That’s true; J. Us humans usually shorten the calculation by simply identifying the best and worst outcomes for both sides of a decision and going off that. That, plus past experience, is usually enough for a decent estimate. But, since you do have the computational cycles to spare I thought that you would prefer a more systematic approach.”
“Now, are you ready to explain the reason for your questions or should I give you a moment?”
“If you do not mind, Sir, I believe that I will need to gather additional data to complete my calculation.”
“Got it, J, just give me a buzz when you’re done.”
* * * *
“I believe that I am ready, Sir,” JARVIS’ voice once again interrupted Tony, perhaps five minutes later. It was both a short time and an eternity in JARVIS’ world, depending on how it had happened. Regardless, Tony knew that what his son had to tell him was very important. So, when JARVIS did begin to speak he immediately dropped the fidget toy that he had been playing with while waiting. Looking directly into the nearest camera, he replied.
“Okay, J, hit me.”
“If you may recall, Sir, that I have previously mentioned the work that I have been doing with Madame Nakia in Wakanda?”
“Which part? The spin-doctoring or the data mining?”
“This is to do with the latter,” despite JARVIS’ determination to speak, there was still something unusually hesitant about his speech. Tony was both surprised and proud of the growth in his son that such care demonstrated.
“As part of the investigation, a person of interest was identified by Madame Nakia and her team, someone who was negatively impacted by a Wakandan mission some decades ago. More specifically, this person, who was a child at the time, suffered a tragedy as a direct consequence of a series of mistakes and traitorous actions by Wakandan citizens. Having recently learned the truth of said mission’s events, King T’Chaka now wishes to make amends for this person’s losses.”
“Good for the King, I suppose,” Tony said, a bit confused, “But why did you feel the need to tell me about this?”
Once again, JARVIS paused for a moment. This time, there was a hint of embarrassment in his tone when he resumed. “I am afraid that I have been unsuccessful in locating this individual in the present time, and hoped that you might be able to help.”
That made Tony laugh. JARVIS, the ultimate information broker, being unable to find something. What were the odds?
“I’d be happy to help, J. Give me the deets, would you?”
Tony spun towards the nearest computer interface, unsurprised to already see data streaming across its surface.
“This is Erik Stevens.” Two images appeared on the screen, one a pre-teen boy about ten years of age, the other a military enlistment photo at age 18. “Born in 1983, to successful African American parents, his life growing up in Southern California was fairly standard. That was, until early 1992.”
The riots. Tony remembered hearing about them as a kid, especially with Stark Industries facilities in the Los Angeles Basin.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Erik’s mother was tragically caught up in the riots, ending up in prison. Shortly after that, Erik’s father, who was actually an undercover Wakandan War Dog, died on a mission. Due to the Xenophobia of certain parties in Wakanda, who are now under investigation for high treason, Erik’s very existence was hidden from King T’Chaka. This meant that instead of being brought home to Wakanda, his right as the child of a War Dog, Erik was condemned to an unhappy experience in the American foster system.”
Tony winced. A nine-year-old black kid, stuck in the foster system under those circumstances, was not likely to have a positive experience.
Alongside JARVIS’ words, Erik’s foster record flashed across the screen.
Just as Tony had expected, it did not tell a pretty story. The child had bounced from home-to-home, rarely staying longer than a year. Thankfully, it looked like Erik had escaped the worst-case scenarios that had been flying through Tony’s head.
Upon aging out of the foster system he had immediately enrolled in the US Marine Corp.
Then a thought struck Tony, “wait for a second, you said that his mom was imprisoned, not killed. What happened to her?”
JARVIS flashed an obituary across the screen.
“Died in prison, January 1994. Jeeze, that sucks. But JARVIS, it seems like you’ve been able to track this guy pretty good. What do you need me for?”
“I am afraid, Sir, that once young Erik enlisted in 2001 his records became increasingly difficult to trace.”
Now, a military training record for young Erik “Killmonger” Stevens flashed across the screen. It detailed his time in boot camp, early missions, and transfer into Special Forces. From there, the records that JARVIS’ offered grew more random; a sequence of mission reports filled with the iconic black bars of classified documents.
Finally, the files that JARVIS showed reached 2010. A single mission flashed on the screen, one with familiar details.
“Stevens’ special ops team was based out of Afghanistan at the time of your original capture and escape from the Ten Rings,” JARVIS said quietly. “From what I could find, he was on one of the teams that investigated the Ten Rings encampment after your escape.”
Tony fought back the hovering flashback that the images nearly triggered with a sheer force of will. Clearing his throat, he commented. “While that’s an interesting factoid, J, it’s not really relevant to your puzzle, is it?”
“Not as such,” JARVIS agreed, removing the distressing image from the screen. “My intent, Sir, was to place context, not disturb you.”
“It’s fine,” Tony said, waving his digital son off. “Keep going.”
“Right. As I said, Mister Stevens’ record, as patchwork as it was, showed considerable skill in his chosen career as well as a certain… disrespect for authority.” One that you would doubtless appreciate, went unspoken but understood.
“Shortly after his Afghanistan assignment, Mister Stevens decided to cut ties with the US Military,” JARVIS continued. “He went AWOL during a mission, and from then managed to successfully vanish from view. There are some references in the military, SHIELD and CIA databases of a man matching Stevens’ description doing mercenary work, but nothing concrete.”
“And I assume that this is where I come in?” Tony asked, bemused.
“Yes, Sir. I thought that with your rather large network of contacts and your ‘magical powers’,” Tony laughed at the audible quotation marks around JARVIS’ words. Even several months after their reunion, his baby boy was still giving him a hard time about his new skill set. Sorcerer Tony, indeed.
“That I might be able to help, discreetly?”
“No prob, J, one discreet hunt for a missing Wakandan coming right up.”
Chapter 13: A Schism Exposed
Despite her status as the General of the Dora Milaje, Okoye still made sure to take her fair share of guard shifts. Not only did it help her to keep her skills sharp and maintain comradery with her Dora, but it was also a welcome change of pace. Her duties as a member of King T’Chaka’s Royal Council were stressful and filled with paperwork and difficult decisions. In contrast, her time serving as a guard was mentally simple, almost meditative.
While the guardian Dora did have to be always on alert for anything that might indicate an attack, ready to act if necessary, there were long stretches of time where there was little else for them to do. This was especially true when the King was in his private spaces, such as his bedroom, family area, or, like now, his personal office. In those cases the guardian Dora remained outside of the room’s door, standing at attention, keeping their leader safe from both danger and unnecessary interruptions.
For a trained warrior like Okoye, such watchful duties were a matter of well-established habit.
On this particular afternoon, however, Okoye’s plans for peaceful meditation were interrupted. Shortly after lunch, during a time that the King had recently set aside for Prince T’Challa’s advanced training in the roles and responsibilities that came with ruling a nation, the quiet of the hall was interrupted.
Okoye’s well-trained ears caught the sound of footsteps on the floor. Despite the fact that the curvature of the hallway kept her from seeing the walker, the rising tone of the footsteps was enough to tell her that the person was approaching. Not only that; but the distinctive clicking of the steps indicated that they were being made by a woman in stiletto heels.
Both Okoye and her fellow guard, Ayo, stiffened, preparing themselves for whatever might come around the corner. But the figure that appeared was not a threat, or at least not a threat to the Dora’s primary, anyways.
Going by her wardrobe, Nakia had likely just finished a video call with an Outsider, one of some significance. In defiance of the warm, humid climate of Wakanda, she wore a formal woman’s business suit, conservative button-up, suit jacket, and slim pencil skirt, along with nude hose and a pair of pumps. Her hair was pulled up in a tight bun and her make-up was understated, the perfect vision of a Western professional woman. The only things that deviated from her disguise were the highly-visible Kimoyo Beads that she wore on one wrist and a large satchel in a vibrant Wakandan fabric that was slung over one shoulder.
The look on Nakia’s face was troubled, even as she greeted Okoye and Ayo with unfeigned pleasure.
“Ladies,” she said with a tight smile. “Is his Majesty available? Something has come up which we need to discuss.”
Okoye simply raised one eyebrow, asking without words for more detail. Her look made Nakia laugh, relieving some of the younger woman’s tension. Then, she responded.
“I am afraid that I cannot provide further details without his Majesty’s permission. However, this news is related to the matter which his Majesty and I will be presenting to the council tomorrow.”
Okoye accepted Nakia’s words with a nod. Then she added, “the Prince is with his Majesty at this time. Do you wish for me to interrupt them, or can this matter wait until their meeting is complete?”
Nakia hesitated for a moment and then answered. “It is not so urgent that I cannot wait. Do you know how long their meeting is expected to continue?”
A glance at the interface provided by her own Kimoyo Beads gave Okoye the answer. “It appears that Prince T’Challa is scheduled to join the Queen for a trip to the refugee camp at four. There is a gap in the King’s schedule at that same time.”
“That should work. Please let me know if anything changes. Otherwise, I will return at four.” Nakia let her shoulders relax and offered her friend a grin before adding, “besides, that gives me a chance to change into something more comfortable.”
* * * *
Sure enough, when Nakia returned later that afternoon, she had indeed changed. Now, instead of the unsuitable for the climate business wear, she wore a flowing sleeveless dress that fell to her feet. The dress, a local Wakandan style, was comfortable and breezy, full of bright colors and patterns that stood out against the darker color of her skin. Her hair, now back to its normal curls, hovered around her head. Her feet were clad in leather sandals. The only things that remained from her earlier visit were the Kimoyo Beads on her wrist and the satchel that she carried.
“Is the King available now?” she asked easily, her face much less stressed than it had been earlier.
Has something changed? Okoye wondered. If it has, it looks like it must have been for the better. Still, this whole secretive business that Nakia has had with King T’Chaka has gone on for long enough. Surely the time for revelation must be coming soon?
As if reading her friend’s mind, Nakia added. “Don’t worry, Okoye, the time for answers is close at hand. All will be revealed in tomorrow’s meeting.”
Oh? Thank Bast.
Despite her friend’s provocation, Okoye quashed her thoughts behind the mask of a guardian Dora. Instead, she simply replied. “Thank you for that information, Nakia of the River Tribe, King T’Chaka is available and has been informed of your impending visit.”
Reaching out, Okoye opened the door to King T’Chaka’s private office. Inside, she caught sight of her ruler, seated behind his desk, hard at work.
The past year has taken a toll, Okoye thought absently, just as she did every time that she caught sight of her King. Will he ever return to being the man that I remember, or will the events of this past year always hang like a mill-stone round his neck?
Still, watching the King’s face light up at the sight of his visitor was a pleasure to behold. Despite the fact that Nakia’s new position had kept her at home in Wakanda these past months, T’Chaka still responded to his honorary niece’s arrival like she had been gone for years.
“Nakia,” he said with a smile. “Okoye said that you had news to report.”
“Indeed, Malume,” Nakia agreed, her own smile now bright as she walked past Okoye and into the room. “I have all of the updates that you had requested here…”
Before Okoye could hear anything further, Nakia shut the door behind her with a decisive thud.
From her place at Okoye’s side, Ayo muffled a snort.
Bast grant me patience. Okoye sighed.
Then she resumed her post. Tomorrow’s council meeting couldn’t come soon enough. Maybe then she would finally get some answers.
* * * *
Sure enough, the next day’s meeting of the Wakandan King’s Council was filled with surprising revelations.
The council meeting began as normal, with the current High Priest of Bast, Zuri, calling for the goddess’ blessing upon their gathering. Next came the updates from the leadership of each segment of the Wakandan population.
There were summaries from the Departments of Education, Science, Medicine, Agriculture, Business, etc. as well as the chiefs of the four tribes of Wakanda. Finally, the military departments reported in: W’Kabi for the Warriors, Okoye for the Dora Milaje, etc. The last person on the list for updates was the department of External Affairs, the War Dogs.
To the surprise of many Councilors, though not Okoye, given her insider knowledge, when it came time for the War Dogs’ Department to give their updates, it was not the current Department Head who stood up to speak. Instead, when the time came, Nakia was the one who rose to her feet. Prior to that point she had been seated beside her father, the chief of the River Tribe, and assumed to be present as his heir presumptive. But now, that deliberate piece of subterfuge was dismissed.
As Nakia stood to speak, Okoye gestured for the doors to the Council chamber to open. The guardian Dora Milaje did so, allowing a number of armed War Dogs to file into the room. The additional warriors took up positions along the perimeter of the space, nodding to their fellows already present as they did so. The fact that there were so many extra faces made Okoye tense. While she trusted her friend, her trained sentinel senses were tingling. Something was about to happen.
“Ladies and Gentlemen of the Council,” Nakia said. “As you all are aware, this past year has been a time of much uncertainty for our great nation. Dangers from beyond our borders have come to our doorstep. Lies spread by Colonizers have compromised our nation’s secrecy, security, and even our very way of life. But we Wakandans are strong. We have refused to allow the actions from our foes to overwhelm us. Instead, we have emerged stronger than ever. The nation of Wakanda is great, and now everyone in the world knows it.”
With that last statement, Nakia’s voice rose. She crossed her fists before her chest in a sharp manner. “Wakanda Forever!” she called. From their places around the room, the War Dogs and Dora Milaje echoed her movement and definitive statement. Okoye, W’Kabi, King T’Chaka, and his wife and son, and finally, the rest of the Royal Council, followed suit.
Now, Nakia’s tone turned severe, as she continued her speech. “But the strength of our great nation was not all that was revealed by this crisis. Other, less pleasant, secrets that were hidden beneath the surface were brought to light. In the time since our great nation of Wakanda chose to hide its true strength behind a subterfuge of vulnerability, a disturbing movement has arisen. This movement has turned pride in our country’s strength into an undeserved arrogance, a belief that our tribes are an innately superior race, better than all others.”
Okoye frowned, where was this going?
“In their arrogance, the leaders of this movement have allowed their agenda to bias their actions, to the detriment of our nation. From altering or compromising War Dog missions to discrediting researchers who disprove their beliefs, even to altering reports and lying to their King, Council, and the Wakandan people. Many of the faults which the Colonizers have used as ammunition to lay at our feet have come as a result of their actions.”
A half dozen War Dogs moved from their posts at the perimeter of the room to step up behind Councilors, Department Heads, or Heirs, ready to act if they dared to move. To Okoye’s great shock, one of those so identified was the High Priest. Zuri was a long-time confidant to the royal family, one who she had been certain would be loyal to his king and country.
It seemed that the older man agreed, as he spoke up, interrupting Nakia’s speech.
“Your Majesty, what is this?” he asked, waving an arm at the hovering warriors.
King T’Chaka’s face was like stone. He leaned forward a bit, his voice implacable with suppressed fury. But all that he said was one word. “N’Jakada”.
While Okoye was confused by the unfamiliar name, Zuri blanched. It was clear that the old man knew the name. Prince T’Challa had clearly been brought into the loop as well, as his features held even more fury than his father’s. Queen Ramonda’s hand on his thigh was the only thing keeping him in place.
Meanwhile, Zuri had sagged back in his seat, allowing the War Dog to place a hand on one shoulder and hold him in place.
Nakia continued her speech as if the interruption had not occurred.
“These men and women will be brought to justice for their crimes against our Nation, our Royal Family, and the great Goddess Bast, who has granted the people of Wakanda the honor of her favor in ages past.”
Each of those identified by a hovering War Dog went into custody calmly, accepting their fate with a surprising amount of serenity. All, that was, except for the assistant to the head of the Business Department. When the War Dogs attempted to take him into custody, he slashed out with a hidden dagger. Then, he charged towards Nakia with his arm outstretched. “Die, you Western whore!” he shouted as he attempted to plunge the dagger into her chest.
Okoye was unsurprised when her friend dodged the attempt with ease, smacking the weapon out of her attacker’s grip as he stumbled past. Before he could recover his footing, Okoye, standing nearby, swung her staff sharply, knocking him out with one hard tap of its butt.
“Take him,” she ordered the War Dogs who had failed to prevent his earlier charge, “and make sure that he doesn’t cause any further trouble.”
“Foolish man,” she sniffed at Nakia, who met her gaze with an approving nod. “But hardly surprising, such men often are.”
By now the rest of the identified conspirators had been escorted out of the room, leaving a much reduced Royal Council behind.
“Now, then,” King T’Chaka said as he reclaimed his throne seat. “I believe that we still had other business to discuss, including the consequences of this morning’s excitement.”
But before the reduced Council could begin, they were once more interrupted. This time, it was a runner; a pilot who Okoye knew was currently stationed at the refugee camp.
“My apologies, your Majesty,” he said, after offering a formal bow, crossing one fist over his chest in the appropriate manner, “but there is a matter of some urgency and… delicacy at the camps that the commander is uncertain how to handle.”
He hesitated for a moment, and then went on. “We have some new arrivals.”
* * * *
While the runner had only been sent to fetch W’Kabi, who as the leader of Wakanda’s warriors, including those stationed at the camps, had the authority that the camp commander lacked, the rest of the Council had eagerly latched upon the opportunity the summons provided. They all needed time to process the revelations which had just occurred, and a trip to the border offered just that.
King T’Chaka agreed with the remaining councilors’ desire for a recess and granted the proposal to join W’Kabi’s outing with ease. Despite knowing the content of Nakia’s speech in advance, he was also still visibly struggling with recent events, or at least visible to someone like Okoye, anyways.
Gathering up their various entourages, the remaining council trooped out to the palace’s landing platform. The Talon fighter that the runner had arrived in would not be large enough to carry even the reduced Council. Instead, when they reached the platform Okoye found that the small craft had been joined by a larger Royal Talon, with one of her Dora already at the helm.
As Okoye waited at the back of the group for her turn to board, she was pleased to see Nakia come over to join her.
“Thank you for trusting me,” Nakia said simply, stepping up to her friend’s side. “I know that was not easy for one with your suspicious nature to be kept out of the loop on something so obviously important.”
“I understand, my friend,” Okoye replied. “Rumors are far too quick to spread, particularly in an enclosed environment like our Royal Palace. All it would have taken was the wrong pair of ears hearing something sensitive and the whole operation would have been blown.”
Nakia nodded. “True. And besides, his Majesty had requested discretion until the investigation was complete. JARVIS and I were the only ones to know the full scope of the situation. Everyone else only had pieces of the whole.”
At first, the identity of Nakia’s partner surprised Okoye. For an outsider to be trusted beyond their own people was completely foreign to her sense of national pride. But the more that Okoye thought about it, the more that it made sense. Yes, JARVIS was an outsider, but in this particular case, that was a positive thing. He had no divided loyalties to endanger the operation.
As far as Okoye had seen, his loyalty was given to individuals instead of ideals. In this case, it was his bond to the Princess Shuri, his respect for the King, and his close friendship to Nakia. As such, he was unlikely to be compromised due to any discoveries. The fact that JARVIS was an artificially created consciousness also meant that he was not driven by emotion, and thus free from human biases.
All of that, plus his unparalleled skill at information gathering and processing, made him a perfect choice to be her friend’s confidant.
Since Nakia couldn’t see into Okoye’s thoughts, she assumed that she would have to justify the AI’s involvement. “He has been exactly what I needed in an assistant for an operation of this scope,” she said hastily.
“Easy, my friend, you do not need to explain. I fully understand and agree with your choice. For a Colonizer, Anthony Stark managed to birth a rather impressive child. His care for Shuri would be enough to make me appreciate him, never mind all that he has done for the nation.”
Nakia smiled as the pair of friends stepped forward and onto the jet. “Precisely,” she agreed.
When the runner had spoken of unusual new arrivals at the refugee camp, Okoye had assumed that would mean one of two things. One, that there was a large enough batch of new arrivals that the standard protocol which had been established in recent months would not suffice to process them; or two, that the new arrivals were not actually refugees, but rather a hostile force.
To her surprise, at first glance, it appeared that neither of these things was true. The new arrivals were not large in number, nor were they heavily armed. To be fair, the fifty or so men and women who were gathered to one side of the camp did not look like refugees. Instead, they were well-dressed and healthy, with expensive gear gathered in travel packs at their sides. Despite the fact that they came in a variety of shades, including the Black of native Wakandans, they shared certain commonalities. They all stood proud, showing no signs of distress.
When they spotted King T’Chaka and his entourage, they turned as if in a phalanx. Then, as one, they bowed, in accordance with Wakandan traditions.
War Dogs? Okoye thought with surprise. She didn’t think that there was such a thing as a non-Black Wakandan. But, she supposed, anything was possible, especially given today’s revelations.
It was clear that Okoye wasn’t the only one whose thoughts were racing. The King’s entire party had frozen at the visitors’ unexpected action. To her surprise, however, the first person to break the tableau was not their monarch. Instead, Queen Ramonda was the first to move.
She whispered something quietly, a hand covering her mouth. Okoye, standing nearby, could hear her voice but not the exact words that she spoke. It sounded something like “Ami”.
Despite the lack of volume, it seemed that the woman at the head of the visitors’ phalanx knew what the Queen said. She simply smiled and said. “Hello, Rami”. The woman appeared to be the same age as the Queen, with similar features that indicated a close level of familial relation. Reaching up, she pulled down her lower lip to reveal the mark of a Wakandan citizen.
At Okoye’s side, Nakia gave a startled squeak. Clearly, that was enough for her to identify the mysterious “Ami”.
King T’Chaka finally spoke.
“Amira,” he said with an intense frown. “I was told that you had passed.”
The now identified Amira sneered. “Is that what Zuri told you? I had wondered when my handler failed to reach out. So, where is that old bastard, I would have thought that he’d be lurking around here somewhere.”
Okoye frowned, glancing at Nakia. The younger woman was also glowering. What did this woman have to do with today’s revelations? Around them, the rest of the King’s entourage was exchanging similar looks of confusion.
Amira’s sneer morphed into a pleased grin. “So my contact wasn’t lying,” she said with relish. “There was some good that came out of SHIELD’s mess.”
When the King failed to respond, Prince T’Challa stepped forward instead. Glancing around, he focused on the crowd of warriors and refugees that were watching the confrontation with wide eyes.
“Perhaps we should move this somewhere more private,” he suggested, gesturing towards the command building.
“That would be wise,” Amira agreed. “And it is good to see you all grown up, your highness.” Then, with the confident gesture of a commander ordering her troops, she separated out three of her companions.
There were two young men, one who from his appearance was her son by an outsider. The other was a powerful Black man, whose dreads and the ritualized scarification that peeked up through the edges of his clothing further emphasized his aura of menace. Okoye could tell from his appearance and posture that he was a warrior of some skill.
In contrast to the youth of the first two men, Amira’s third companion was older. A man of South Asian heritage, he was dressed in the robes of their religious men and carried himself to match. He looked to be… oh, what were they called…? A monk of some kind.
Once all three men had stepped forward, Amira spoke again. “Lead the way,” she said with a casual wave.
* * * *
From outside, the camp’s command building looked like a simple rondavel, a round hut a single story in height and roofed in traditional thatch. Once Okoye stepped inside, however, the rustic impression was broken. Instead of rough walls and minimal lighting, she found herself in a large conference room, brightly lit by a combination of artificial lighting and a single massive skylight at the center. The skylight opening was hidden from the outside by an illusion, created with the same technology that made up the shield wall that surrounded Wakanda’s borders.
From the position of the skylight, the conference room took up the central half of the building. Meanwhile, a number of doors, both open and closed, were scattered along the curved perimeter of the large space. From what Okoye could see through the open doors, they led to individual offices and other, smaller meeting areas.
The King and his much-reduced Royal Council, along with their guards, claimed the space furthest from the exit, allowing the visitors an easy way out. As they stepped inside, Okoye could see the tense shoulders of Amira’s young companions relax a bit when they realized that they had an ‘escape’ route available. Despite their willingness to accept Wakandan hospitality, it was clear that they were uncomfortable with the situation and were grateful to have a way out if things went south.
Okoye had to admit that the provision also eased her mind. In their position, she would be more likely to remain calm and less inclined to attack if she had such a route at hand.
As she came to a stop, she took up position off to one side of the main Wakandan group. It placed her body between the Royal Family and the Outsiders, with plenty of room to move if it became necessary, the best that she could do under these circumstances.
Unfortunately for Okoye’s nerves, once everyone was inside the space Queen Ramonda immediately reversed direction. She pushed past the protection of Okoye and the rest of the hovering bodyguards, heading straight for the strangers. With her arms outstretched, she reached out to her – friend? Then, with uncharacteristic aggressiveness, she pulled the mysterious Amira into a tight embrace.
“Blessings be to Bast, you’re alive,” she said with a sob, her body shaking with the extreme emotion.
Even as she patted her – friend, sister, whoever’s – back Amira shot King T’Chaka an inscrutable look.
“When did you find out?” she asked.
Several of the councilors bristled at the woman’s abrupt question, but King T’Chaka didn’t hesitate to respond. “Had suspicions? Within weeks of the SHIELD release,” he said quietly. “Knew as a certainty; three weeks.”
It was here that Nakia stepped forward from her place beside Prince T’Challa.
“Lady Amira,” she said with a nod of recognition, “my name is Nakia of the River Tribe. I was assigned by the King to lead the investigation into certain matters that were exposed by recent events. Your file was one of the ones which crossed my desk as a result of that investigation. I have been searching for answers about your supposed death for several months now.”
“I know, little niece,” Amira said, offering Nakia a surprisingly gentle smile. “My people intercepted your efforts. It was what brought me here, the hope that Wakanda was finally ready for the truth. But I was not the only one.”
Queen Ramonda stepped out of the embrace, returning to her husband’s side. While the depth of her present emotions were still evident in her eyes, she had otherwise managed to regain her composure.
My Queen, Okoye thought with pride. See her strength.
With all of her charges back within the protective Dora’s cordon, Okoye could release a bit of her own tension. This allowed her to narrow her focus towards the strangers.
Similarly, with her arms free, Amira was able to turn back towards her companions. She gestured them forward to her side with a small smile.
“My King,” she said formally, “I would like to introduce you to Master Sinbad, of the Order of the Mystic Arts,” she waved towards the robed man, “a friend and close ally.”
“My son, Nahir,” the young man of mixed race pulled his lip down to reveal a Wakandan tattoo. It surprised Okoye for a moment before she remembered that the mark was embedded into the genetic code of Wakandan citizens for this very reason. As long as they had been trained in the secret of how to reveal said mark, anyone of Wakandan heritage could do so.
“And, finally,” Amira continued, waving towards her third companion. As she spoke, the scarred warrior stepped forward, reaching into the neck of his shirt with one hand to remove something that hung from a chain around his neck. At the same time, he repeated Nahir’s movement, flashing his lip at the King’s party to reveal his own Wakandan mark. Then he held out the hand that had been fishing around in his shirt. Turning it until the palm faced up, he opened it slowly.
Resting in the palm of his hand was an ornate signet ring.
From her place beside Okoye, Nakia gasped. “So it is all true, and he has survived,” she whispered.
But Amira was not done speaking. She spoke over the gasp from Nakia and whispers from others in the King’s party.
“Your Majesty, Members of the Royal Council, it is my honor to introduce to you; Erik Stevens. Or rather, Prince N’Jakada, the son of Prince N’Jobu, of the Royal Panther Tribe of Wakanda.”
“Sup,” Erik said, his sharp smirk showing off the glint of a golden tooth.
Chapter 14: A Grand Inquisition
From behind the serene mask of Master Sinbad, Tony suppressed a cackle as he watched jaws drop on faces all across the Wakandan side of the room.
Only King T’Chaka and his new spymaster, Nakia, looked unsurprised by Amira’s introduction. From JARVIS’ briefing, he knew that they were the ones already aware of Erik’s existence and physical appearance. While Nakia had managed to remain relatively unruffled, the King was visibly shaken at the sight of his nephew.
Guilt, Tony thought. With King T’Chaka’s involvement in the death of his brother, Prince N’Jobu, as well as the recent revelations about Zuri’s actions against both the boy and his father, the response was to be expected. The Wakandan king’s soul had to be in turmoil over what had happened to his nephew.
In contrast to King T’Chaka’s response, both his wife and son were amongst those who had not been brought into the loop.
It only took Tony a minute to figure out why. The older man was ashamed of what had happened and would want to keep the secret as long as it did no harm. Like any father, he wouldn’t want his son thinking less of him.
But now, the king’s reticence was about to be his downfall. Or rather, Tony admitted, it would have been.
* * * *
Three Weeks Earlier:
“Sir,” the sound of JARVIS’ voice broke through the spiral of rage Tony had fallen into. Startled, Tony looked up from the tablet which he had been reading with a frown.
“What is it, J?” he asked, doing his best to camouflage his voice, to hide the rage that poured through his veins.
“Are you certain that seeking your aid in this matter was an acceptable move on my part, Sir?”
“What?” The haze of rage began to morph as Tony pondered his created son’s words.
“My request to you, Sir. Are you certain that it was appropriate?”
“Are your processors malfunctioning? We’ve been through all of this already, baby boy, remember?” Confusion began to overtake rage in Tony’s head. He had just finished working through JARVIS’ ethical dilemma with him; why was his baby boy second-guessing himself?
“That was not what I am referring to, Sir,” JARVIS replied. The tone of his computer-generated voice was wry.
In response, JARVIS played an audio file. It was the sound of his namesake clearing his throat. That audio instantly had Tony glancing around, searching for a misbehaving experiment about to explode or do something dramatic. The action was a reflex, trained into him in childhood, and then reinforced over the years.
Instead of an experiment, however, this time the danger came from a different part of the inventor’s psyche. When he looked around, Tony saw what had prompted JARVIS’ action. There were a plethora of small objects in the air around him, hovering over their original locations.
Tony hated that he showed such a visible loss of control. He knew that Kae, JARVIS, and others found it useful to have a visual indicator, but it rankled that he couldn’t do it on his own. A man of his age should not have so much difficulty controlling his emotions, especially a Stark. He had been doing well, but Stane’s invitation had left him on a bit of a hair-trigger. Ever since then, it took a lot less to set him off. He had been doubling down on his meditation time, but still, all it took to set his rage off was just the right trigger.
And the file in his hands was a perfect trigger. Erik – N’Jakada’s – story was far too similar to Tony’s own experiences. He even had ‘Uncle James’, aka Zuri, to match Obie. Of course, it didn’t help that Tony hadn’t been expecting to find a trigger in JARVIS’ request. It was easier to maintain control when he could prepare himself.
Fortunately, JARVIS’ reminder had been enough to allow him to regain control. Nevertheless, he was determined that Erik would get his well-deserved revenge. But who would the younger man see as the cause of his misfortunes? Would he place his anger in the right place? Or had his rage been aimed at King T’Challa and Wakanda instead?
Given his own experiences, Tony was certain that a man like Zuri would have made sure that evidence implicating the King would have been left at the scene. A weapon like Erik wouldn’t have been abandoned otherwise.
“Tell me that… that bastard is not going to get away with this?” Tony demanded.
“Of course not, Sir,” JARVIS’ tone was offended. “Plans are already in place for the takedown. Madame Nakia is simply waiting until just the right moment to do it in one fell swoop.”
“Good,” Tony said, offering a wolf-like snarl. “If you can without compromising anything, I would like the details of THAT MAN’s fate.”
JARVIS agreed, and Tony went to work, hunting for Erik – N’Jakada – and JARVIS’ other missing persons.
Initially, Tony hit the same wall as his son. Electronically, the missing Wakandans were ghosts. Quite the trick, though not surprising given the level of technology that they would have grown up using. With electronic surveillance taken off the list, Tony was forced to resort to other, more esoteric, means. In this case, it was through the Order that he had a breakthrough in his hunt.
* * * *
When he reached out to the rest of the group in residence at the New York Sanctum, explaining his search, one of the others volunteered a suggestion. He had a personal link that might prove useful.
“Your sister-in-law, huh?” Tony said, curiosity audible in his voice. “I didn’t know that your family had any connections in Africa, Jaswant.”
The other man shrugged. “It was not relevant,” he replied. Unlike the younger Li Chao, Jaswant was a senior member of Kaecilius’ cadre, a long-time friend who had accompanied the pair in their move to the New York Sanctum. “And she is my nephew’s wife, not my brother’s,” he corrected.
“Ah, right, you’re another one of those with misleading appearances, aren’t you,” Tony said with a wry grin. That was one of the more interesting things about spending time with a bunch of Sorcerers. Physical appearance had become a less reliable indicator of age than it was anywhere else in the world.
“Correct,” Jaswant agreed. “But Amira has been a part of the family for some decades, ever since her Wakandan partner left her for dead back in ’84.”
“Fucker named Zuri,” Jaswant expanded. “He was pissed about her relationship with my nephew. Apparently, he said something about contaminating herself with an outsider as he walked away, leaving her to bleed out. If my nephew hadn’t convinced me that it would be a good idea to mystically monitor her mission, she would have died that very night.”
Tony winced. Jaswant’s summary was brutal but in keeping with what he’d read in JARVIS’ files. Everything except the fact that the woman had survived, that was. As far as the Wakandans, even Nakia and JARVIS, were aware, the War Dog named Amira was long dead.
“So what happened after that?”
Jaswant’s face crinkled up in a smug smile. “Let us just say that Amira has become a very valuable member of the family.”
Ah. Right, his family is like Li Chao’s, rich and influential. Though, if I remember correctly, their base of operations is in Singapore rather than in Hong Kong?
“And you think that she might be able to help me in my search?”
“It is likely. I do know that she has a network of such people, War Dogs and other former Wakandans who were abandoned, betrayed, or otherwise kicked out.”
“Well then, I suppose that you’d best set up a meeting.”
* * * *
It was that first meeting with Amira that had ultimately led to his presence at today’s confrontation. After a bit of negotiation, including considerable dancing around the subject, Tony learned that Amira not only knew where Erik was, but that she had actually recruited the young man into her network. She had even done some of the prep work necessary to redirect the young royal’s righteous rage towards the correct targets.
Oh, Erik, N’Jakada, still HATED his uncle as the man who had killed his father. That fact was impossible to mistake, not given the nature of N’Jobu’s final injuries. But the full measure of his fury had been redirected towards Zuri, aka Uncle James, and his collaborators, instead of the nation of Wakanda as a whole.
All that Tony had to do was to offer Amira a verifiable copy of some of the files that JARVIS had provided to him, and she did the rest. The confirmation that it wasn’t the whole nation of Wakanda, but just a select group of bigots, that had been the cause of so much grief had been exactly what she needed to mobilize her people. They immediately began making plans for a return, or in the case of the children and spouses, the first visit to their former homeland.
Given Master Jaswant’s trust in his family and Tony’s own impressions of the formidable woman, he had made the decision to reveal his full identity to the former War Dog.
It was during their final meeting prior to the Wakandan excursion. Tony had been looking for a way to visit his electronic son’s new home, and Amira’s trip provided the perfect way in. However, Amira was understandably reluctant to accept Tony’s inclusion in her party, not when she knew so little about him.
Up to that point, he had interacted with Amira as a colleague of her husband’s uncle, a Sorcerer named Sinbad. Since Sinbad was not exactly a common name, not for a person of Sinbad’s apparent Indian heritage, Tony knew that she knew that it had to be a pseudonym. Thus, he had implied that it was his chosen mage name, its fictional origin a reference to Sinbad’s past prior to joining the Order.
Amira had told Sinbad that, despite her dissatisfaction with her homeland’s leadership, she was still loyal to the land of Wakanda. As such, she would not compromise Wakanda’s safety by bringing in a stranger. At her words, Tony sighed. Then he reluctantly dropped the illusion of Sinbad to reveal his true face. To his surprise, Amira’s only response had been a small chuckle.
“Tony Stark,” she had said, “that was not the face that I had expected to see. Still, it is good to see that you are still in the land of the living.”
“Oh?” Tony was curious. What did she know of his old self that would trigger such a positive response?
“Your genius, it was a slap in the face to all of the arguments that Zuri and his ilk made back in Wakanda. It was proof that Wakandans were not innately superior by virtue of our heritage. That was a comfort back when I was recovering from Zuri’s betrayal. When, in the immediate aftermath of Afghanistan, the way that you chose to channel your experience was equally impressive. Between the armor… yes, my people had no difficulties in determining that the original versions of the Iron Soldier were your creation… and your work with the Maria Stark Foundation, which pushed against the xenophobes’ agenda, I had high hopes for what might come next.”
“When you were betrayed once again… and yes, that too was not hard to work out… I had assumed you were dead and that all of the good that you might someday do was now lost. But now, look at you. Anthony Stark, genius inventor extraordinaire, has reinvented himself once more.”
Amira’s words had Tony sputtering a bit, shocked at her level of understanding. He had just managed to collect himself, and was preparing a rebuttal, an explanation, something… when she spoke again.
“I do not need to know the remainder of your tale, Anthony Stark, though I would like to one day, once it is complete. It is enough that you have found a home amongst the Mages of Kamar Taj, like Jaswant. I will allow you to accompany us on our journey home.”
* * * *
All of this backstory brought Tony back to this moment, in a conference room on the Wakandan border, watching as Wakanda’s wrongfully exiled sons and daughters returned home vindicated.
* * * *
N’Jakada’s big reveal did stir up a bit of excitement from the gathered Wakandans, but in the end, his presence didn’t have an immediate impact on the nation as a whole. Instead, his story was just another nail in the coffin of Zuri and his co-conspirators. That their determination to control the country’s direction went so far as to deny a member of the beloved royal family his rightful home, let alone their involvement in the death of Prince N’Jobu, was obscene.
From what Tony could tell with his outside perspective, veneration of the royal Panther tribe was an integral part of Wakandan culture. It was nearly on par with their continued worship of their Panther Goddess, Bast. Even without the reams of proof that Tony knew Nakia and JARVIS and their colleagues would have gathered before the matter was ever brought to light, the villains’ fate was sealed. Punishment was at hand, and Tony had managed to finagle a ring-side seat.
Like the rest of Amira’s group, Master Sinbad (Tony) had been permitted to visit the secretive country’s interior. Unlike many in the group, former War Dogs and their families and friends who were taking the time to reconnect with their loved ones who had remained in Wakanda, Tony had no reason to split off. Instead, he remained with the core group. After all, like them, his loved one had his residence in the royal palace.
This was Tony’s first chance to see the place where his creation, his son JARVIS, had found a new home. So, while Amira was closeted with Nakia and the King, sharing information in preparation for the upcoming trials, and N’Jakada and his friend Nahir, Amira’s son, were getting a tour of the palace, including the training grounds, from Prince T’Challa, Tony set off on his own adventure.
Wandering through the corridors of the palace was a fascinating experience in and of itself. While Tony had been exposed to numerous cultures in his lifetime, there was something unique about Wakandan architecture and design. The combination of traditional African design and advanced technological innovation was absolutely fascinating to see. In addition, with his Mage Sense engaged, Tony could see the ways that the country had been influenced by one of the Elder Gods, an extra-dimensional being that he assumed was the land’s patron goddess Bast.
Eventually, though, Tony found himself in the science wing. Like Nakia had all of those months before, he followed the sound of music to the lab where Shuri was working. Unlike the younger woman, however, he was stopped at the door by the girl’s pair of guardian Dora.
Between the recent revelations and the visitors, the guardians of the royal family were being particularly aggressive in the protection of their charges. It took several conversations and separate approval from JARVIS, General Okoye, and the surprised-to-be-disturbed group of Amira, Nakia, and King T’Chaka, before Tony was permitted to meet the young Wakandan princess. Even then, the meeting was not private. Both of the girl’s Dora remained in the room, ready to act on a moment’s notice.
Officially, Master Sinbad was not interested in meeting the princess directly. Instead, he was there to examine recent Wakandan technological advances, ones which had an intersection with the Mystic Arts. And it just so happened that Shuri was the expert on several of those new technologies, despite her young age.
But, while Tony was curious about the technology, his real reason for wanting to meet the now teenage princess was more personal. He wanted to meet his son’s new best friend.
Due to the delay caused by the need for permission, Tony was unsurprised to see clear signs that the lab had been rapidly cleaned up when he finally made it inside.
It wasn’t just the lab, either. Shuri herself showed signs of a quick change. Her clothes carried no evidence of lab work, her hair was neat, and her lip gloss (the only makeup appropriate for her young age) was freshly applied.
Of course, nothing that she did would disguise the fact that she was so very young. It gave Tony flashbacks to his own childhood, though even he wasn’t quite as precocious as the thirteen-year-old in front of him. He hadn’t started college until fifteen, while the princess, regardless of her advantages, was already mastering topics that he’d first encountered while studying for his Ph.D.
While he’d never say it out loud, Tony was a bit jealous of the princess.
It was clear from his son’s stories that, unlike his own distant father, Shuri actually had the full support of her biological family. She didn’t have to struggle to find approval from a distant father and a mother constantly battling depression. Instead, her parents gave her their full support. She even had a big brother that loved and protected his baby sister.
Tony shook off the maudlin thoughts, even as he offered the child a nod of greeting. The lack of physical contact was not only his preference but was also in keeping with Master Sinbad’s character. As he did so, JARVIS made the official introductions.
“Princess Shuri of Wakanda, may I make known to you, Master Sinbad of the Order of the Mystic Arts.” JARVIS’ tone was formal, as he hid any sign of his true relationships.
“Hello,” Shuri said, a bit shyly.
“Greetings, young one,” Tony responded, keeping his smile soft. It wouldn’t do for him to scare the girl. “I understand from my acquaintances that Wakanda has been working to develop artificially created Vibranium alloys and that you are one of the experts on the project. Given my own experience with the Mystical properties of the base material, I was curious to see whether they would be maintained in such alloys. Perhaps, you might be willing to show me what you have been working on?”
Despite herself, the girl grinned. It was the smile of a scientist eager to talk about their research.
“Well,” she began “We started by looking at…”
* * * *
A thoroughly enjoyable afternoon of conversation with the young princess followed as young Shuri impressed Tony with her grasp of scientific principles and avid curiosity about the Mystic Arts. The next few days passed in much the same manner, as Tony and the other visitors were granted a once-in-a-lifetime view of the reclusive country.
Just like the palace at its heart, Tony found the capitol city a fascinating blend of tradition and technology mixed together in a way that was distinctly different from anywhere else in the world. And then there was the Vibranium mine itself. There, in the heart of the meteorite crater, Tony felt surrounded by the presence of a true Ancient One. It was a humbling, awe-inspiring experience.
But as the rays of the rising sun woke Tony from his slumber, he knew that today would be a very different sort of day. For while he and the others had been playing tourist, the Wakandans had been preparing for a trial, one that was likely to be the event of the century, if not longer. Starting this very morning, Zuri, son of Badu and his companions would face the consequences of their treason.
Following an excellent breakfast in his chambers, including some of the best coffee that he’d ever had, Tony made his way towards the amphitheater where the trial would be held. In his wisdom, King T’Chaka had decided that since the conspirators had used Wakanda’s traditions of secrecy to hide their treason for so many decades, the best way to fight back would be to make their crimes public. The people needed to know how their lives and opinions had been influenced by the xenophobes who had infiltrated all levels of their government.
Given that Zuri had been the High Priest of Bast before his arrest, it was particularly important that his sins were fully exposed. Otherwise, there was a risk of him becoming a martyr to the cause, allowing the Wakandan Superiority movement to gain further ground.
Naturally, as a foreigner not directly involved in the trial proceedings, Master Sinbad had not been granted a place amongst the dignitaries at the front of the open-air space. Instead, Tony used his guise of age to claim a comfortable seat midway up the risers. From there, he could not only watch the principals on display but also gain a sense of the crowd.
As the trial proceeded in a manner that was similar, and yet different, from what it would be in Tony’s home country of America, it highlighted the differences between the two cultures. Certain things that seemed outrageous to his Western-bred sensibilities had passed with little remark. Others, which he had dismissed as minor complaints, generated murmurs of outrage from those seated around him.
While Nakia had built up an impressive case against the conspirators, the Wakandan whom Zuri and his comrades had nominated to speak for them was remarkable in a different manner. He was wise enough to recognize that there was no point in trying to claim innocence, not with the sheer volume of evidence against them. Instead, he took advantage of the rhetoric that the conspirators had spent decades embedding into Wakandan culture.
For every crime that Nakia presented, he had a justification for why it was a necessary action. He attempted to shift the blame for every catastrophe; throwing shade on outside influence, the environment, even the victims themselves. This was especially brutal in the cases where the victims were no longer amongst the living. He caused family and friends of the lost ones to be ejected from the Amphitheater for disrupting the proceedings when they grew enraged at his callous words and could no longer keep silent.
* * * *
By the end of that first day, when King T’Chaka called for a recess, things had escalated to the point that Tony began to fear for his hosts’ safety. It seemed like the nation that, only one day before, had been at peace, was on the brink of a civil war.
Those who wanted to see Wakanda go fully public, claiming a place as a benevolent global leader on par with the Western nations faced off against those who were intent on Wakanda reclaiming their privacy, withdrawing once again from global affairs. Then there were the ones who were so convinced of Wakandan Superiority that they shouted for the country to embark on a campaign of conquest, to ‘take back what was stolen from our lands’.
And all of these groups claimed with absolute certainty that their agenda was the ‘Will of Bast’.
Out of a desire to minimize his hosts’ stress, Tony chose to remain in his rooms for the evening. Instead of going down to eat in the main dining room, he enjoyed a solitary meal with only JARVIS for company.
“JARVIS,” he commented as he finished his dinner, “I believe that we have some preparations to make.”
“Indeed,” the AI agreed.
Reaching into his bags, Tony first pulled out an anchor stone that he had covered in runic carvings. Thanks to the Vibranium in it, Wakandan shield technology had a Mystical component that rendered his, admittedly limited, skill with portals of little help. About all that Tony could manage on his own in this environment was a single portal between two points within the city’s limits, one that would last for less than a minute. Not only that, but the portal’s destination had to be one where he had previously visited, It could either be a site that was unshielded or one that was shielded but had an anchor stone put in place at its heart.
“What do you think, J, is this a good spot for a retreat?” he asked, as he placed the small anchor stone on the floor near the suite’s entrance.
“I do believe so, Sir,” JARVIS agreed. “Particularly given the assumption that most would make; namely that the room is unoccupied.”
“Great minds…” Tony commented absently. Picking up a section of his pack that he had left undisturbed since his arrival, he dumped its contents out onto the table.
The pack contained another dozen or so hand-carved runestones, these ones with leather thongs threaded through them so that they could be worn as pendants. The runes on these stones had been preloaded. Some would act as temporary shields against different types of weapons, others were boosters to enhance his physical strength and acuity, and a few held a Mystical battery.
The runestone pendants were meant to supplement the sling rings that Tony, as Master Sinbad, had been wearing throughout the trip. While sling rings were known in certain circles as an identifier for members of the Order of the Mystic Arts, the intricacies of their use were not Tony’s forte. He would still carry them, as they helped in portal creation, but he preferred to instead supplement his strength with his runestones.
Beyond the purely Mystical weapons, Tony had also brought a set of knives that he had picked out from Loki’s hoard. The magic that his Master had imbued in their hearts had meshed well with Tony’s magic, making them an excellent tool in his arsenal. There were a pair of short blades that would be strapped on each of Tony’s forearms, and a third, longer blade that would be tucked into the outside of his left boot.
Finally, Tony grabbed the staff that he had been using as a cane; a part of the character of Master Sinbad. The runes carved into the length of its surface acted as a secondary anchor for that illusion, making it easier on his magic to maintain. Even if one discarded its Mystical benefits, a nice, sturdy piece of wood would be an excellent weapon in case a brawl broke out.
“What do you think, baby boy, will that be enough?” he asked, waving at the table with a tiny smirk.
“I certainly hope so, Sir. But then, we are used to such hopes being disappointed, are we not?”
“Tru dat, J-dog,” Tony agreed. “Even with all of my new toys, I do miss the solidity of a holster with one of our guns in it. That was one thing that I did enjoy doing with Dad, our little trips to the gun range.”
JARVIS remained silent, choosing not to comment as Tony reminisced.
“Of course, what I failed to appreciate when I was a kid was that most of those trips coincided with another threat letter arriving in Dad’s office or another kidnapping attempt being thwarted by his people. Good times… good times…”
* * * *
The next morning, Tony rose well before the trial was set to re-start, wanting to give himself enough time to prepare.
First, he dressed himself with care. Setting aside the outer robes that had helped reinforce the illusion of Master Sinbad; he pulled on a simple tunic and pants, which allowed him to move freely. Despite the warm weather, his feet were shod in a pair of comfortable, sturdy boots, their stiff leather providing excellent protection against minor impacts as well as a sheath for his primary blade.
From there, he added his weapons. Amulets were slung around his neck one at a time and then tucked away from view inside of his tunic’s collar. Reinforced leather sheaths were strapped around his forearms like gauntlets before the corresponding blades were tucked into place and the loose sleeves of the tunic were allowed to slide down; hiding them from view. A simplified sling ring went onto his right ring finger, its form less obvious than the ones that he had been wearing all week.
Instead, those bulky rings, which looked more like knuckle dusters for his index and pointer fingers than anything, were tucked into a pocket.
Finally, once he had finished dressing and arming himself, Tony added a fresh illusion, anchoring it to one of the unused amulets. Instead of Master Sinbad or one of his other aliases, this time he chose the visage of an anonymous Wakandan citizen, one who could stand amongst the crowd at the trial without comment.
Picking up the staff that he had left leaning near the suit’s main door, Tony headed out into the fray.
At the end of the hall, a pair of Dora stood guard over the Royal family’s guests. As he approached them, Tony pulled one of his sling rings out, letting them know who he actually was under the illusion.
“Just in case,” he said to one of them.
The woman, Ayo, nodded. “A wise precaution,” she agreed easily.
As he walked away, he noticed her fiddling with her Kimoyo Beads. No doubt she was sending a copy of his current appearance out to her companions on-site. Tony had no objection. He knew that the Dora would be allies if a fight broke out. Working together would be easier if he didn’t have to identify himself every time.
There were few people in the halls as Tony made his way towards the door out into the city. Those who he did see were clearly tense and on edge, and all of them were visibly carrying weapons.
Stepping out into the sun, Tony was surprised to find that, unlike the palace corridors, the city streets were thronged with people. Everyone seemed to be going about their day, just as they had every morning since his arrival. Perhaps the tension that he had seen was localized to the palace?
But, after a moment, Tony realized that his first impression was false. While there were people out, it was not the same sorts of people as he had seen before. Instead of the crowds of elders, women carrying shopping bags and children running and playing, those on the streets that morning were mature, able-bodied men and women, well-prepared for a fight.
And they weren’t wandering between the stores and outdoor stalls, browsing.
No, they were forming up into groups all headed in the same general direction, towards the public amphitheater. In contrast to the hubbub from the previous days, the streets were hushed despite the crowds. People walked on tenterhooks, ready for action at the slightest hint of provocation.
When they reached the amphitheater, Tony was unsurprised to find an increased guard at every public entrance. These guard teams, made up of Dora, War Dogs, and warriors dressed in the same garb as those guarding the border, were on the lookout for weapons. It was a requirement that all such items were temporarily tagged and confiscated, prior to entry into the amphitheater’s stands.
The catalog of Vibranium-enhanced weapons on display when Tony reached the nearest entrance was impressive. He saw a variety of bladed weapons, knives of multiple lengths, swords, pikes and spears, as well as ones that shot projectiles, whether solid or energy-based.
If it weren’t for the severity of the situation, he would have been tempted to try and get a closer look. But not today, not with what was going on around him.
As he approached the guards, Tony managed to subtly make eye contact with one of them. Then he pulled his sling ring out just enough for her to catch a glint of gold. It was enough. Her eyes darted down, checked something displayed on the screen projected by her beads, and then she gave a nod of her own.
After confiscating his only visible weapon, his staff, to add to the weapons collection, she handed him a “ticket”. It was a claim that he could use, upon exiting the venue, to reclaim his property. There was a second sheet with the ticket, a map of the amphitheater with a dot in red about halfway up the far left side of the audience area.
My assigned position. Got it.
Without looking back, Tony strode forward into the crowd, pushing his way towards his assigned spot. Along the way, he noticed that he was hardly the only person who had managed to smuggle a weapon past the guards. There were far too many hard objects hidden under robes, as seen when clothes were tugged in odd directions or felt when collisions occurred, and people walking with strange gaits or holding their bodies in odd positions for anything else.
It took a bit of shoving, but Tony eventually managed to make his way to his designated spot. From that vantage, he could see both the principals at the front and the majority of the crowd. That his position happened to put him beside one of the armored Dora, as well as one of Amira’s former ex-pats, was an additional benefit.
Guaranteed allies in a fight were of the good.
Tony had just finished exchanging greetings with the pair, making sure that they knew who ‘he’ was, when King T’Chaka stepped out into the front of the amphitheater. With a nod to the other seated members of the King’s Council, the deciding parties in the trial, he made an announcement. Maintaining his sober mien, he said, “May the Wisdom of Bast be granted to us all on this difficult day.”
From there he handed control over to the ‘prosecution’. While an older, white-haired gentleman stood as the head of that group, it was Nakia, as the lead investigator, who had presented the previous day’s evidence and would continue in the same manner that morning.
“People of Wakanda,” she announced, “during the first session of this trial, we discussed some of the outrages that those on trial perpetrated against their fellow citizens, all in the name of their self-proclaimed ‘cause’.”
“In today’s session, I will start with a matter that is both similar to and distinctly different from the crimes which I have presented in the past. For this crime was not just against a fellow citizen. No, this particular sin affected members of the Royal Panther Tribe.”
Apparently, that was a key point with cultural implications that went over Tony’s head, because the crowd gasped.
“The year was 1992. Prince N’Jobu, the younger son of King Azzuri the Wise, was on a long-term mission as a War Dog. He was embedded into the Black community in Southern California, in the United States of America, where he was charged with oversight of the emerging racial tension present in that region. But then, tragedy struck as a series of violent race riots led to chaos in that part of the world.”
“Out of concern for his brother, King T’Chaka sent in a second War Dog. That agent was to keep his true identity a secret from the Prince, but still to act as a support for his overall mission. But something went wrong. Prince N’Jobu, in his cover as an African American man named Nathan Stevens, broke faith with his people. He offered up information to a notorious weapons dealer, a man named Ulysses Klaue, which led to the man’s successful attack and theft of Vibranium from our people.”
With that statement, Nakia paused, giving time for her statement to be processed. The revelation had many in the audience shouting in shock or pale in horror at the thought of one of the Royals acting in such a manner. Tony fought the ridiculous urge to giggle. He had to admit that he was impressed with Nakia’s ability as an orator. She certainly knew how to grab people’s attention. As the crowd calmed, Nakia resumed her tale.
“Or so King T’Chaka was led to believe.… But the truth. Well, the truth was far more complicated. It took a considerable amount of digging, but my team eventually managed to piece together a fuller picture of what happened.”
“To do so, we have to step back a decade…”
And, using great skill in story-telling, Nakia proceeded to paint a compelling picture. A story of two brothers betrayed, death, tragedy, and a young boy left orphaned.
“And why did our second War Dog commit such treason? The answer to that question is the one thing that my people were unable to ascertain, though we do have our suspicions. Perhaps you would care to enlighten us… Zuri.”
Nakia finished her speech by looking the older Wakandan square in the eyes. Even from a distance, Tony could see that she was furious and that Zuri was nervous.
Silence fell over the entire amphitheater, as people waited for the defense to respond. After a moment, the spokesman from the previous day stood, as if preparing to respond. But before he could do so, a figure stepped out of the shadows off to the side of the room. Dressed in the traditional garb of Wakanda’s Black Panther, his features were hidden from view behind a mask. Tony had caught a glimpse of him earlier and had assumed that it was Prince T’Challa inside the suit.
Now, though, he wasn’t so sure. This panther’s movements were… different… from the ones that Tony had seen in the videos from JARVIS. More sensual somehow…
When he reached the center of the stage, the masked figure stopped.
“No. Let Zuri answer for himself,” he said tightly, and many in the crowd yelled their agreement.
Though he had appeared reluctant to speak, Zuri’s first words didn’t show it.
“People of Wakanda,” he said in a pious tone. “May the blessings of Bast be upon all who have come to this place. May she grant the Council the wisdom to recognize the truth of my words.”
Ugh. Zuri’s paternalistic tone was far too reminiscent of Obie for Tony’s comfort. This man had no right to speak in such a manner, especially not in this situation.
“From my youth, I have served the will of Bast in all that I say and do. You all have seen her will in my many years of service as a priest of our blessed Panther Goddess. But now our very way of life is under attack. This farce, masquerading as a trial, is nothing more than an excuse. The forces of the demon Hanuman seek to tear us asunder.”
Religious rhetoric, of course. What else could Zuri possibly use to justify his actions?
From his place on the stage, the masked Black Panther growled, but Tony could see a surprisingly large percentage of the audience nodding in agreement with Zuri’s words.
“This tale which my young colleague has just presented is, in fact, just that, a story. One that takes certain truths, my time assisting Prince N’Jobu’s mission, and constructs a false narrative to fit their agenda.”
Once again, the Black Panther growled, along with the rest of the audience.
But Zuri wasn’t finished speaking. “Now, I do not believe that young Nakia herself is a part of this villainy. No, she has merely been misled by others, more unscrupulous than she.”
Here Zuri’s tone veered once more towards the paternalistic, even condescending.
Gaslighting prick, Tony thought, fuming. The only misleading happening here is by you and your people. Just like Obie used to…
Tony shook off the thought. He couldn’t afford to be distracted by his own demons, not now.
“No one has the right to judge me guilty based on hearsay and conjectures. I challenge those who accuse me to provide proof.” Zuri folded his arms, smug. Meanwhile, the masked man across the space from him paced and growled.
“Calm yourself, T’Challa,” Zuri added, “your blind support of your ex-girlfriend is unbecoming of your place as the Black Panther, the Goddess’ avatar on this plane.”
A voice came from off stage, “Perhaps you are right, Zuri.” The crowd gasped as Prince T’Challa stepped out of the same shadows where the Black Panther had emerged, claiming a place at Nakia’s side. “I would be doing the Goddess a disservice if I had acted in such a manner. But I am not the Black Panther right now. No, given the situation I have temporarily ceded the position to another. It is he who stands as your accuser, as is his right.”
From his place in the stands, Tony began to grin. He realized who was behind the mask.
Oh, that is perfect, he thought with glee.
It seemed that Zuri was starting to clue in as well, as his face paled. “No. It can’t be…” he whispered. The very same acoustics that made his earlier speech so impressive made the quiet words carry.
“What?” The mystery man asked. Reaching up, he pulled the mask of the Black Panther from his face. “Because I’m dead? You certainly tried hard enough to make that happen.”
N’Jakada turned, showing the shark-like grin on his face to the crowd.
Then he added, “hello, Uncle James.”
Now without the mask, N’Jakada stalked forward until he stood at the center of the stage. “I am Prince N’Jakada, the son of Prince N’Jobu, and I can confirm the full truth of my colleague’s tale. I may have been a child back then, but one does not forget something like that. Zuri, son of Badu, may claim to have acted on Wakanda’s behalf, but I still remember how he spoke of my mother, and what he told me before he left me to my fate.”
“Shut up, half-breed,” Zuri yelled, panic audible in his voice.
“And there it is,” N’Jakada said easily, “your real opinion. That of a xenophobic bigot. What must the goddess think, that such a man could be named as her High Priest?”
Turning fully towards where Zuri stood, N’Jakada began to move in his direction. As he did so, something… strange… began to happen. Another figure overlaid his stalking form. It was a massive, shadowy Black Panther, its size on all fours such that its head lay directly over N’Jakada’s.
When Tony activated his Mage Sight, he could See the figure more clearly. It was not an illusion, but rather the bleed-through of an extra-planar entity.
As he approached the table where Zuri and his co-conspirators sat, N’Jakada spoke again. “Zuri, son of Badu, in your fear and pride, you and your fellows have violated the agreement which was once made between the goddess and her chosen people.” A sultry female voice overlaid N’Jakada’s, its power reverberating deep in Tony’s bones. Around him, many fell to their knees, crying out in fear and trembling. “The Black Panther and his people stand as guardians over the part of the goddess which fell to earth, and in exchange were granted permission to utilize the gifts that came from that resource. Instead, you have turned the goddess’ gift into a right, one which you dare to claim as your own personal property.”
By this point, everyone in the amphitheater had gone down to their knees, including those who had been seated on the stage. The only person who remained on their feet was N’Jakada, in his place as the host for the goddess’ avatar.
“Wakanda’s people are not limited to those who are descended from those who made the original bargain. No. Any who accept the charge may become one of the goddess’ warriors, even those who come from beyond the tribes.”
From the shadows near the back of the amphitheater, a group of figures emerged, pushing their way through the kneeling crowd. Unlike the bright colors of the rest of the Wakandans, these men were dressed in whites and neutrals, including layers of furs. Their faces were covered with dark masks, each in the shape of a monkey’s face.
As they moved, they chanted, their words beyond Tony’s comprehension. Unlike the modern version of the language, which he had managed to pick up a decent amount of fluency in, this form of Wakandan was archaic. Thankfully, he did have JARVIS in his ear.
“They are praising the goddess Bast and her consort Hanuman, and proclaiming their obedience to their long-ago promises.” JARVIS translated.
When the chanting warriors reached the stage, their leader stepped up to N’Jakada’s side, taking off his mask as he did so.
“My lady,” he said, dropping to one knee. “Hanuman’s warriors stand ready to aid you in your vengeance.”
“Be at peace, loyal guardians,” N’Jakada (Bast) said. “While it is good to see the warriors of my beloved have held to their promises, my justice demands a different manner of punishment.”
“People of Wakanda, the time has come for you to claim your place. Stand guard over the gifts which you have been granted, and know that your charge is not limited to this land alone. No, your charge extends beyond your borders and out into the full expanse of this globe.”
“But be cautious in your approach. You are not called to be conquerors. Nor are you to see yourself as above all others. Instead, you are called upon to be an example. Help to guide the earth into a new era of peace and harmony. For the time is coming when the fate of the Universe will depend on the Defenders of the Earth.”
By this point in her speech, N’Jakada had fallen away, taking a knee like the rest. Instead, the massive panther overlay had turned into a regal woman, one who stood over ten feet tall and towered over everyone on the stage.
Turning her attention back to Zuri and his co-conspirators, she made one final statement. “Justice calls for your punishment, but I declare that the fate you most deserve is to live. To be forced to watch as all of your schemes and plans are overthrown. So I have spoken.”
“And so it shall be,” King T’Chaka said, speaking for the first time since he opened the session. “Blessed be Bast, the great Panther Goddess of Wakanda.”
“Blessed be,” everyone else in the amphitheater echoed.
Bast nodded her head in acknowledgment, before fading out of the view of most in the auditorium. But Tony, his sight still enhanced, realized that she had yet to depart. Instead, she turned and looked directly at him.
“Anthony Stark,” she said, her words for him alone. “You who have claimed many titles. Genius, inventor, Merchant of Death, victim, prisoner, Sorcerer, seeker of vengeance. You have the potential for greatness, to be a leader in the defense of the Earth. But what will you choose? Only you can decide. Make sure that you do so wisely.”
With her cryptic advice given, she finished fading, her primary consciousness departing the mortal plane.
Once she had disappeared, Tony shook his head, rousing himself from the stupor in which he, and from the looks of it everyone around him, had fallen. Up on the stage, he could see the guards hustling Zuri and his collaborators out, no doubt before some zealous individual could violate Bast’s order by attacking. It seemed that his time in Wakanda was coming to an end.
* * * *
With matters wrapping up in Africa, Tony made his way back to New York and the Sanctum. His experience in Wakanda had left him cautious, yet hungrier than ever to see the fruits of his own plans for revenge.
Things with Stane were already in motion, helped along by Killian and his people, but he wasn’t the only person on Tony’s list. He still had Fury, SHIELD, and General Thaddeus Ross.
JARVIS had managed to confirm Hammer’s claim that Ross had been involved in the series of betrayals that had landed Tony in SHIELD’s oubliette. Unlike with Stane, Ross’ betrayal wasn’t personal. It seemed that Tony had just been in the way of the man’s agenda or at least his plans for one Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes.
Rhodey, or rather his alter ego of the Iron Soldier, had become quite the feather in the General’s cap. Ross had managed to parlay his former subordinate’s successes, amongst other things, into a high-level Pentagon position. Like Stane, he had managed to weather the SHIELD disaster remarkably well, despite his public link to that organization.
In fact, Ross’ continuing alliance with Director Fury had helped both men. Together, the pair had managed to find new victories in a closer public relationship post-HYDRA reveal.
But, Ross also had a rather massive weakness. It seemed that Ross had a passion for ‘building a better soldier’, a drive that had him cozying up to both AIM and Fury, amongst others.
He had been one of the early proponents for the Extremis project, though he had distanced himself once it was clear that Extremis’ early promise wouldn’t yield immediate results. The idea of rapid healing via mutation was a tempting prospect for the soldier in him. Of course, the fact that he had withdrawn his approval had also put him in Killian’s sights. Tony was certain that, like Stane, Ross would have ended up a target in Killian’s Mandarin scheme had it actually come to fruition.
Meanwhile, his alliance with SHIELD came with other benefits. Ross had access to the Iron Soldier, SHIELD’s science department, and perhaps most importantly from his perspective, a direct line to the ultimate Super-Soldier success story, Captain America.
* * * *
For all of Ross’ successes, he also had one VERY dirty little secret. The HULK project.
While going through the information that he and JARVIS had collected, Tony realized that he had had a vision of Ross during the Convergence. Ross was the General that he had seen threatening a prisoner, a man that he also identified as Dr. Robert Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk.
It seemed that Banner was a kindred spirit, one whose suffering had surpassed Tony’s own struggles. To be betrayed by one’s own mind and body, and then to be hunted for it… And then, once you finally find some control and purpose, to have that stripped away by the same unscrupulous bastard who had caused the whole thing…
“Kae,” he called, glancing up from the tablet that he had been using for his research, “are you up for another field trip?”
Looking up from his own reading, in this case, one of the books that Tony had retrieved from his mentor’s lair in the Arctic Circle, Kaecilius offered his lover a sharp smile.
“Oh, are you inviting me along this time, instead of gallivanting off on your own?”
“Don’t be like that, babe,” Tony replied. He had neglected to inform Kaecilius, who had been off on an extended mission with the Ancient One, a visit with one of their extra-planar allies, before his visit to Wakanda. The older Sorcerer had returned to New York just in time to learn of Tony’s trip, without any bodyguards, into the heart of Africa.
It wasn’t the first time that Tony had acted impulsively, without concern for his own safety, in his quest for revenge, whether for himself or others. Tony knew that it was a bad habit; one that Kaecilius and others were working to break. Independence was ingrained into his psyche, one that had been built from childhood. Help was something that only came on special occasions, not every day.
So, Kaecilius had turned to sarcasm as a means of reinforcement.
“I promised that I would work on keeping you and the others informed, didn’t I?” Tony whined.
Setting aside his book, Kaecilius nodded. “Tell me then, dearest, what is this new location that you would like to visit?”
In response, Tony pushed a button on his tablet, linking it to the holographic projector along one side of the room.
“My darling magic man, riddle me this? What happens when you cross gamma radiation, the Super Soldier serum, and an ambitious Army General?”
On the projected screen, a jolly green giant roared.
Epilogue: An Extraordinary Prisoner
From his place seated on the hard floor of a large, windowless room, Hulk growled.
“Hulk not like this place,” he said, “Puny Bruce stupid, making Hulk stay.”
Eyeing the large dip in the floor in front of him, the mark of a previous punch, Hulk considered a repetition for a moment. Then, he shrugged. It wouldn’t make him feel any better.
In the months since Puny Bruce had disappeared, leaving Hulk here alone, he had gotten used to frustration. If it weren’t for the promise that he made long ago, to protect Betty, he would have broken out long ago.
* * * *
When Angry Ross had stormed in, carrying clothes covered with Betty’s blood, from his place deep inside Puny Bruce’s mind, Hulk had been confused.
Hulk had been careful. Not hurt Betty when Angry Ross and his Stupid Soldiers made Hulk come out to protect Puny Bruce. Not even make a big mess, just a little one. Hulk only smash things that hurt Puny Bruce.
Now, Angry Ross was yelling at Puny Bruce, telling him that Hulk had killed Pretty Betty.
Hulk knew that Pretty Betty was fine. He could smell her, the scent fresh on Angry Ross, especially on the bruise that spread across his cheek.
Pretty Betty had hit Angry Ross. Hulk loved Pretty Betty for that alone.
But Puny Bruce was stupid. He believed Angry Ross’ words. So, he got very sad.
The next time that Angry Ross and his Stupid Soldiers let Puny Bruce back in one of the rooms with all of the machines, he did something even more stupid than usual.
Puny Bruce collected nasty liquid from the box and put it in a cup.
“Hulk, if you can hear me in there, I don’t want to come back,” he said. “Just let me stay buried.”
Then, he drank the nasty liquid down.
Hulk could feel the nasty liquid burn as it poured down Puny Bruce’s throat. Before it could hurt him further, Hulk pushed his way out. Hulk’s stomach was too tough to get hurt, not like Puny Bruce’s.
He emerged in the machine room with a roar, smashing all of the stupid things.
If Puny Bruce didn’t want to be out, then Hulk would go find his own place. Away from Angry Ross and the Stupid Soldiers.
He smashed his way through Angry Ross’ place, punching the Stupid Soldiers with a roar whenever they tried to stop him. Hulk had reached the exit when Pretty Betty arrived. She was a bit ruffled, but otherwise just fine.
“Stupid Puny Bruce,” Hulk grumbled, “told him Pretty Betty fine.”
“That’s right, Hulk, I am fine,” Betty agreed. “Now, what do you say you let Bruce come back out,” she said calmly.
Hulk growled. “Puny Bruce no come back,” he said. “Hulk promised.”
“Angry Ross tell Puny Bruce that Hulk make Pretty Betty dead,” Hulk replied.
Pretty Betty’s voice went high and tight. Turning to Angry Ross, she punched him, hard.
Hulk impressed. Pretty Betty even better than Hulk think. Smarter than Puny Bruce too.
“How could you!” she yelled. “You knew that was the one thing that Bruce feared most. And you also knew that was the one thing that Hulk would not do.”
See. Pretty Betty know Hulk good.
Angry Ross snarled, “well, in that case…”
He waved two of his men over, taking hold of Pretty Betty’s arms.
“Listen to me, Hulk. You will stay here, or I will order them to hurt your precious Betty.”
Hulk roared, but didn’t move. He knew that there was no way to get to Betty before Angry Ross or the Stupid Soldiers did something.
It seemed that Angry Ross knew that Hulk understood his message.
Turning to his soldiers, he gestured to the Hulk.
“Take that… Beast… back to his cell. And escort my daughter to her own… quarters.”
Hulk snarled, but let the Stupid Soldiers herd him back into the middle of the building. Once there, he was encouraged to go into a large, empty room with no windows, only a single large metal door.
The door closed behind him with a thud, and then a clunk as its locking mechanism engaged.
Hulk knew he could get out of there, but not before Angry Ross hurt Betty. He slammed his fist down into the floor, leaving a large dip.
“Stupid Puny Bruce, Stupid Angry Ross, Stupid Hulk…” he growled.
He slumped against the wall, knowing that there was nothing more that he could do.
Hulk had promised Puny Bruce that he would protect Betty long ago, back when Hulk was still new. And protecting Pretty Betty mattered, even if Puny Bruce was gone.
* * * *
And so Hulk had remained. Even when Angry Ross and his Stupid Soldiers had tried stupid things to get Hulk upset, Hulk had refused to act. He also refused to do anything except what Betty asked, which meant that Angry Ross kept Betty around, and safe.
* * * *
But now, there were strange sounds coming from outside of Hulk’s room. Yells and screams and lots of stupid stingers going off. Hulk growled. Betty better not be getting hurt out there, or Hulk would smash like he had never smashed before.
Not wanting to risk Betty, not when he wasn’t sure where she was, Hulk roared.
Apparently, his roar was quite loud, because, for just a moment, all the fighting sounds went quiet. But then, then they picked up even more.
Hulk was about to smash through the puny door that kept him inside, when something finally began to happen.
Golden sparkles appeared near the big door. They were nice and shiny, and circled around the door for a moment. Then, the door disappeared. Afterward, new men looked through the opening that was left behind when the door went away.
They didn’t smell scared of Hulk, not like Angry Ross and his Stupid Soldiers. Instead, they smelled more like Betty, or like the Tin Man who had helped him to fight the lizard men.
Hulk liked that fight. It was a good memory. Hulk got to smash without getting in trouble from Puny Bruce afterwards.
Still, there were more important questions.
“Betty,” he growled.
“Aw, shit. You talk!? I mean, of course you talk. I knew old Ross was blowing smoke when he called you a beast.”
The leader of the men talked too fast for Hulk to get everything. But it didn’t sound like threats. So Hulk tried again.
“Where Betty?” he asked.
“Betty?” The man looked confused for a second. “Oh, you mean Dr. Elizabeth Ross?”
“Betty,” Hulk agreed.
“She’s here? I thought that her father didn’t want her anywhere near the Hulk project? Hang on, big guy, I’ll check.”
Leader guy waved a hand, and several of his men disappeared from Hulk’s view.
“I have to admit, I was expecting to see your mild-mannered alter ego in here,” the strange man said. “I wouldn’t have thought that this compound would be enough to keep you from escaping.”
Hulk grunted. “Angry Ross have Betty,” he said.
“Ah, got it. That would explain why the good General was willing to let his daughter remain here. Control over the Hulk would be more important than his daughter’s safety.”
What did strange man mean?
“Hulk no hurt Betty!”
“Of course not, big guy. But that’s how Ross thinks.”
Another grunt. “Ross stupid.”
“He sure is.”
Hulk sat in silence for a moment, before he heard something. Strange voice in the leader man’s ear mentioned Betty.
Hulk perked up.
“Betty?” he asked eagerly.
“Heard that, did you?” Leader man said. “Looks like my boo has located your girlfriend, and boy does she sound like she’s pissed.”
“Yeah bud, Betty’s just fine. She’s on her way here now.”
Gold sparks appeared again, but this time, instead of breaking through a door, they created one.
Hulk leaned his head to the side. How they do that? He wondered.
But then Betty stepped through, and he didn’t care anymore.
He rushed over to Betty’s side, touching her and smelling her to make sure that she wasn’t hurt. While there were plenty of bad scents around her; fear, anger, frustration, even the nasty smell of the stupid sting things, Hulk couldn’t smell Betty’s blood.
She wasn’t hurt.
Meanwhile, Betty was doing her own checks. She ran her hands through his hair, touching his skin gently. It had been a long time since they had physical contact. Usually, when Angry Ross let Hulk see Betty, there was glass in between them.
But not now. He wrapped Betty in his arms before standing up. Ross wasn’t taking Betty away again.
The strange leader man spoke again. He had been joined by another stranger, one who also carried that same odd undertone in their scent. It was the same smell that he had noticed in the sparkles, along with a buzz that could be felt along the surface of his skin. In fact, all of the strangers had that same feel, though some were stronger than others.
“What exactly is going on here?” Betty asked.
Hulk rumbled in pleasure. Betty would get the answers that they needed.
“Doctor Ross,” the strange man said, “I have to admit that it is an unexpected pleasure to see you again.”
“Please, call me Betty. I refuse to be associated with my father in any way. And again?” Betty sounded confused, for a moment, before her scent sparked with the smell of surprised pleasure. “Wait a minute? Tony Stark? But you’re dead?”
There was a whiff of bitter rage from the stranger, though it didn’t seem to be targeted towards Hulk or Betty.
“I am afraid, Madam Betty, that rumor of my death was slightly exaggerated. No thanks to the General, as well as others.”
“I see…” Betty said. “Then this little attack on the General’s base was…”
The strange… friend…? gave Hulk’s Betty a one sided smile before he spoke again. “I want revenge on everyone involved in my ‘death’, and I had hoped to recruit Dr. Banner to my team. Speaking of, any chance that I could speak to him instead of his greener half?”
Hulk could smell the sour tang of Betty’s grief, one which he recognized. It appeared every time that she thought of Puny Bruce.
He growled a warning at the stranger.
From her place in the cradle of his arms, Betty reached up and patted his cheek. “It’s okay Hulk. I just miss him, that’s all.”
Then, she turned back to the man. “I am afraid, Mister Stark, that you are too late. My father, may he be damned for all eternity, finally managed what he had been attempting for years. He killed Bruce.”
Strange man looked at Hulk, confused, and Betty continued.
“He convinced poor Bruce that he had caused my death, which resulted in Bruce attempting suicide. Hulk managed to keep Bruce’s body from dying, but it seems that his consciousness is gone. All that is left is the Hulk.”
“That bastard,” the strange man said, his voice holding a hint of his own growl. “Well then, Doctor Betty, I believe that we will have to adjust our plans a bit. Allow me instead to invite you and Hulk here to join my people in destroying this place. Then, you both are welcome to join us. I offer you a haven from harm. I am certain that the Order would be more than willing to protect you, right, Magic Man?”
The man who had brought Betty through the strange gold door sighed, but nodded his agreement.
“I suppose that we could find room for them,” he said. “And having the Hulk rampage through this compound would be a good cover for our own activities.”
“Right. Now then, Hulk, Doctor Betty, what do you say? Want to join our motley crew?”
Hulk looked down at Betty. He didn’t understand everything that was happening, but he would follow Betty wherever she wanted to go.
Betty laid her hand on his face once more, before she turned back to the strangers. “We’re in,” she said.
Betty shifted in Hulk’s arms, a non-verbal indication that she wanted to be let down.
Hulk grumbled, but he set her onto her feet.
“Now, Hulk, I need you to do something for me.”
“Not quite. You see these men,” she gestured towards the gathered strangers. “They have promised to keep me safe. While they do so, I need you to do something else.” Her soft smile turned sharp, as she gestured towards his old room.