One month earlier…
Stephen Strange sits in his bed, naked apart from the sheet covering him, deep blue, African looking, almost phosphorous woman curled into his side. Around the bed are seven fire stands, holding white coals. Curling up from each one is a smoke figure. An essence. The embodiment of someone’s instinct, what causes a gut feeling in a person, without them knowing why. They are of Danny Rand, Spider Woman, the Beast, Hawkeye, Wolverine, Luke Cage, Spiderman.
“I don’t get it, man?” Luke Cage’s image says.
“What’s that, Luke?” replies Strange.
“Why did you call on us? To talk?”
“Because I always call on you.”
“Always?” says the Beast.
“I suspect you, most of you, are the ones who kill me.”
“Us? Don’t you exist on several levels now?” asks Wolverine.
“He what?” says the Beast.
“We kill you? No Thor, no Namor, Stark, Mr Fantastic. We’re missing some pretty big hitters,” says Danny Rand.
“I still don’t get it? What happens?” asks Spider Woman.
“I don’t know. The Orb gives me inklings, Death teases with vague dates, but I can’t see the future. Each time we chat, though, I feel I know a bit more. Not so much about when, or how, but, maybe, about who.”
“You serious with this, Doc?” asks Peter Parker.
Strange notices the nymph and Spider Woman are staring at each other.
“You have lives to live. Your selves will be missing you. Go,” he says. “None of you will remember this. Again. Not even your actualities, not even in instinct. I’m sorry.”
“Whatever,” grumbles Wolverine’s image, already dissipating as it walks out the door.
“Except you, Daniel,” he says to the smoky figment of Iron Fist. “Stay, if you don’t mind.”
“Doc?” Danny says.
“I can feel the chi of the Immortal Dragon burning in you, even in this essence form, guarding all aspects of the Iron Fist. You remember, don’t you? Your actuality knows.”
Danny looks hard at Dr Strange.
“Yes,” he says.
“Why has he - that is, you - not told anyone?”
“I don’t know.”
‘Why do they all underestimate him?”
“Can I ask a few questions, Doc? Real ones.”
“I don’t understand. Why ask that?”
“You said I could.”
Strange looks at him.
“When I first learnt of magic I was not worthy, looking for angles. Power. My mentor knew this, putting me to work in the paddy fields to grind such vanities out of me. Study all night, break my back all day. I just thought it was the price, took in nothing. Then, one day, both working and resenting work, already of power, I felt all these drops on my skin - my cheeks, eyelids. Everything was so hot and humid, I had been covered in leeches all day, was exhausted, I needed the rain. But this thing landing on my flesh, it was a nest of the smallest spiders hatching, setting out tiny threads of silk to be lifted and carried by the winds. A soft breeze, so gentle I did not know it was there. Dozens of the smallest creatures, hundreds! Tiny, tiny little, striving things, beautiful beyond words. Their webs covered my face, catching the white sun which was fighting through a hazy, patchwork grey sky. In that moment everything became bleached light and the thinnest rainbow strips. This sweet, little life-and-death dance.
“It saved me.
“In that moment I was ready for magic. In the moment I was the child again, and, beneath the warrior, always would be. The romantic, the fool. My awe of the universe, that most lose with puberty, had returned. In that moment I had always loved.”
Iron Fist notices that as Strange is talking he is looking at the embers that housed Spider Woman.
“If you know several of us are going to kill you, why don’t you just stop?”
“Stop what, Daniel?”
“This. Everything. If we have to band together, that’s a conscious act. No accident. You probably do bad.”
“But I die. And in the meantime, I do so much good.”
The blue woman curls into Strange more, purring, hungry for sex.
“I don’t get it. What’s with her?” the Iron Fist spirit asks. “You act like she’s your muse, but she’s just some simple elemental nymph. She can’t even speak. It’s degrading.”
“Oh, Daniel, you are so wrong. She is primal,” he watches her face as she, in turn, smiles, watching Iron Fist. “The purity of her emotions, desire, jealousy, wonder, anger, are so simple, so strong, they make a mockery of me. Humble me. She puts all I am to shame. The way she feels overwhelms me with jealousy, It speaks and consumes. I am not worthy of her.”
“But she’s a nymph. Tomorrow or next week she’ll be gone.”
“When you have survived forever you live in the moment, Daniel. Take what’s there.”
“Can I be honest?”
“My friend, I know you are honest, I would never impose a thought to the contrary.”
“I think you’ve moved beyond good and evil.”
Strange stares, from his bed, long and hard at Iron First.
“Maybe,” he ponders. ‘Or maybe, in seeking truths, I’ve discovered greys.”
“Tell me,” Iron Fists says.
Strange stays silent.
“If we’re such friends,” Iron Fist insists. “Tell me.”
‘Tell you what?”
“Learning, Danny, is addictive. I never set out to do more than that. I was an arrogant bore, but learned, and still learn. Aspects of me, my astral self, spread out, every second, of every day, into dimensions that don’t recognise our sense of time, and I live them all, so that when my death comes, and the learning stops, I shall have been older than all humanity. The one true tool of any great sorcerer is also his curse. Unbreakable patience. Our one true weapon is awe. I don’t know, but I suspect, by the time you kill me, I might be… tired.”
“Then why? Explain to me, Stephen. The ego. Why be Dr Strange?”
“The power my life has given me to save and shape lives, to save and shape worlds, to be worshipped and despised and admired, is a by-product. All I ever wanted is to learn. With each ballet, with each battle royal, with each quest, or bedding, I learnt. I learn still. Knowledge leads to knowledge, Danny. Wonder consumes my world.”
“I see,” Iron Fist says.
Doctor Strange holds his hand out to shake, sheet wrapped around his waist. Iron Fist hugs him, but being made of smoke, starts to fade.
“Hm?” Strange mumbles.
“I hope it’s me. That’s it’s done right,” Iron Fist says, still embraced.
Strange looks at him fondly.
“I have just battled then bargained with the Immortal Dragon, Danny, in the timeless astral regions that run parallel to Shangrila. One second ago. You will not remember this conversation, your actuality will not feel it in his bones.”
“I suspected you might.”
“I am sorry.”
Iron Fist’s image is dissipating into smoke, there is not much left of it, now.
“One more thing, Stephen… Why Spider Woman? Why Jessica Drew?”
“What do you mean?”
“I see the way you watch her. The Living Dragon in me feels it.”
“I do not watch Spider Woman.”
“Yes and no. You’re too smart for that. The room does for you. Not even Hawkeye sees it.”
“You’ve slept with so many, and she watches you. Why not her?”
“Or something more.”
“Why? I mean, of all people?”
“She is both weak and strong, has seen horrors, but remains often plain in her thinking, without magic and sometimes petty. Mortal. Yet there she is. In my mind. Desire, love, is base. It often has no logic, no meaning. I have no idea.”
Danny watches Stephen Strange, room full of magics, almost imprisoning him, nymph waiting. Others nymphs start appearing from the walls. The light plays tricks. It almost looks like there are the thinnest, web-like rainbow strips across his face.
“You look alone,” Iron Fist says, as he rises, becoming a rippling circle of smoke on the ceiling.
Dr Strange, surrounded by nymphs, is still looking up, where Danny Rand’s essence was.
“But for you I am,” he replies.