Someone was approaching the Keep.
The Void magic was evident to his senses, poking for his attention. Phillip Coulson, Master Void Wizard, had started sensing the approaching Wizard about three minutes ago, and he’d immediately left his casting chamber and headed up into the living areas of Shield Keep, his home, knowing that he hadn’t been expecting anyone that day and curious to know who was coming to visit.
He didn’t bother to change his clothing. After all, anyone who was coming unannounced deserved to get him in his ‘work’ garb: a black tunic and trousers, the ceremonial Wizard dagger in its sheath on his belt, and his wand in its holster near his dominant hand. He’d been working with potions that day, and the scent of lavender and sandalwood – and other scents that were a little less savory – clung to his clothes like some sort of bizarre cologne.
Well, whoever it was deserved what they got for interrupting him with their very presence, especially when he’d been in the middle of a very delicate tincture that didn’t survive the distraction.
He supposed it could have been worse, in a way. His unknown visitor could have been either a Cardinal Wizard – his direct opposite on the magical spectrum, and could make his magic itch in the right circumstances – or a Great Wizard, who were usually pretty full of themselves even though they were slightly less powerful than either the Cardinals or the Voids. Their position as the balance between the darkness and the light had gone to their heads, he was certain, and they were pretty insufferable about it, even going to the extreme of condemning both sides.
By the time he’d reached the front hall, his dragon, Lola, had joined him. She hated it when he worked with potions; taking just one sniff as he was scratching her head had Lola sneezing and the dissatisfaction at his not smelling like he usually did was evident through their empathic bond. When Phil did his potions work, Lola usually kept herself occupied elsewhere.
Still, she leaned a little against him, enjoying the scritches. Lola was medium-sized for a dragon, her head reaching his waist, her brilliant red scales filigreed in black. She was quite striking, and Phil could still remember the day when she’d appeared to him, on the very day he’d turned eleven. His parents had been thrilled to bits that their only son had shown signs of being a Wizard, back when he’d been seven…although that pleasure had dimmed considerably when he’d Tested as a Void Wizard. Voids, being on the dark end of the Wizard family tree, weren’t exactly looked down upon; after all, there needed to be a balance in all things. But his mother and father had been hoping for him to be a Great Wizard. They’d never let him forget it, either, in ways that had affected him for the rest of his life.
The Cardinals and the Voids were just a different breed entirely, and not at all understood by non-magical folk, condemned at times for being the way they were.
His steward, Melinda May, also entered the front hall, giving Phil a single raised eyebrow what was quite eloquent in its movement. She’d been a friend of his for years, dating back to his mercenary days, and had settled into Shield Keep easily after Phil had offered her the position. She’d been sent along by Marcus, who’d explained to her that Phil himself wasn’t really dead after that run-in with Loki of Asgard, and he’d be forever grateful to his good friend for breaking the news in such a way that had Melinda not breaking Phil’s nose for lying about being alive.
“It’s a Void Wizard,” he answered her unspoken question. “A fairly powerful one, judging from the amount of magic he’s putting out. And, before you ask…no, I wasn’t expecting anyone today, or else I’d never have started that Transfiguration potion that I’ve only been putting off for months.” Those sorts of potions took a lot of work and concentration, and the spells over the cauldron had been ruined the moment that Phil had sensed the encroaching Wizard, not to mention the very expensive spell components he’d been using.
Melinda flinched slightly which, for her, was a full-body wince in anyone else. While she wasn’t Wizard stock herself, she was well aware of just how much went into the potions that Phil was so very good at concocting. “I would have been more than happy to toss whoever it is out.”
“And you would have enjoyed it.” She didn’t deny his accusation. “No, it’s not often we get visitors like that, so it’s most likely important.” He didn’t mention that, whoever it was, had to have known exactly where to look in order to find the Keep. He didn’t have to.
“Besides,” she smiled slightly, “getting rid of them now would only mean they’d try to come back later and bother us again until they actually spoke to you.”
Also, the closer the Wizard got, the more Phil was positive he recognized the person’s magical signature. He was certain he’d met this visitor before, but he just couldn’t place them.
He glanced upward toward the stairs that led to the upper levels of the Keep, to see his daughter, Daisy, standing there, her smaller dragon, Skye, draped over her shoulders. She wasn’t dressed for visitors either, wearing a loose sleeveless dress that showed off the magical gauntlets that had been a necessary evil in aiding to control her rather powerful magic. Her dark hair was piled on top of her head and resembling a bees’ nest, and a stylus was tucked behind her ear, which meant she’d been working on her lessons.
“I take it you sensed our visitor as well,” he commented.
Daisy rolled her eyes. “It’s like he’s not even trying to be subtle.”
His daughter was studying to be a Cardinal Wizard and would, perhaps one day, be even more powerful than Phil was. Of course, their magicks were completely different, but that didn’t matter. He was incredibly proud of her, and had fought to adopt her after he’d discovered her, eleven years ago, a dirty and half-starved orphan who’d tun away from the children’s’ home she’d been placed in and right into a war zone. She hadn’t had Skye until about four months later, when the dragon had come to her one night not long after Phil had quit being a much-feared dark Wizard and had devoted himself to her care.
Finding her had been the catalyst for him claiming Shield Keep when Marcus offered it and leaving behind the life that he’d known since he’d been seventeen, a little older than his daughter was, now, and it would be another four years before she was fully accredited as a Wizard.
He smirked. “Some Wizards don’t know the meaning of the word ‘subtle’.”
Daisy didn’t argue with him about that. She spent much more time around other Wizards than he did, mainly because Phil actually liked being a bit of a hermit. Daisy, however, had friends who were fond of dropping in on her at any time, especially once they all learned about Teleport spells. Phil had come to expect that sort of behavior from the younger generation, and always welcomed them into their home, even if he tried to make himself scarce when his daughter had company.
It wasn’t the sort of thing he’d expect from an obviously accomplished Wizard, like the one that was now just outside the door.
“Or just have bad manners,” Melinda pointed out as she made her way to the door. She pulled it open before the person on the other side actually had a chance to knock, and the man standing there with his fist raised managed to hide his surprise under a façade of bonhomie.
No wonder Phil had thought he’d recognized that magical signature.
“Can you tell Phil that John Garrett’s here to see him?” the visitor requested, his voice chipper.
Phil knew John Garrett. They’d gone to the Wizard School together and, while they’d been acquainted they hadn’t been friends, and Phil had moved on from that particular circle once he’d met Marcus. They’d gotten caught up a little once Phil – although Garrett didn’t know who he really was – had settled down, and had become a member in fairly good standing of the Wizard’s Guild once more, but they hadn’t really seen each other that much over the years outside of gatherings of their Order. Hells, the last time he’d seen Garrett had been about a year ago, at the last Quorum.
Melinda hadn’t moved, and her blank expression made it very clear that she didn’t appreciate unannounced visitors. “Hey, Phil!” Garrett called out. “Can you tell your attack harpy to let me in?”
To Melinda’s credit, she didn’t kill Garrett for that insult. It wasn’t as if there weren’t a lot of places in the area that she could lose the body, after all. She was good at that sort of thing.
From where he was standing, Phil knew that Garrett couldn’t see him, so that demand had to have been thrown out there on the chance that he was around and close by. Phil held in the eye roll, knowing that no one would see it and therefore it wasn’t worth performing it – at this time – and moved forward enough for Garrett to notice him.
“Melinda,” he requested quietly.
“Phil!’ Garrett exclaimed, sounding happy to see him. Melinda moved a little bit out of the way, letting Garrett and his dragon, Buddy, into the hall. “You son of a bitch, how have you been? It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?”
He approached, and would have stepped right into Phil’s personal space, but Lola hissed at him, her wings mantling at what she perceived as some sort of insult to her Wizard, if the indignation that was flooding the empathic link between her and Phil was any indication.
“Whoa there.” Garrett took a hasty step back, even as the other Wizard’s dragon returned the hiss. Buddy was slightly larger than Lola, in shades of black and brown, and took a protective stance between Lola and Garrett. “Call her off, Phil.”
Barely hiding a smile, Phil sent an all clear through their bond, and Lola calmed down slightly. She was an extremely good judge of character, and it was apparent she didn’t care for Garrett one little bit. It was a little surprising, since Lola hadn’t had an issue with him before. Although, to be honest, she’d totally ignored the man at their other meetings, and there hadn’t been all that many really.
He wondered what Lola had sensed that had her changing her opinion. Phil would have to keep a wary eye out. Not that he wouldn’t do that, as matter of course, but it was always good to have a second opinion.
“I take it there’s a good reason for you to just show up like this?” he asked as Garrett got his own dragon to back down from his equally protective stance.
“What? I can’t just drop in on an old friend?”
Phil would have bought that, if it wasn’t for the fact that the innocence was such a thin veneer on Garrett’s face that the slyness came shining through. Besides, he didn’t really consider Garrett a friend… more of an acquaintance that he was prone to running into every once in a while.
Phil crossed his arms, waiting.
“Oh, alright. Yes, I do have an ulterior motive. Think we can go somewhere private?”
“Sounds great. Lead the way.”
Instead, Phil gestured Garrett forward. He caught Melinda’s eye, nodding slightly, and she returned it, acknowledging the implied order to keep a watch out for any other surprises.
He also gave Daisy an encouraging nod. She hadn’t moved from her place on the stairs, observing the situation, which spoke more of Melinda’s teachings than anything she was learning at the Wizard School. His steward had taken it upon herself to give Daisy lessons in such things as self-defense, and his daughter had taken to them easily. Phil was very confident that she could take care of herself, with or without her magic.
Garrett gave her the once-over as they passed on the stairs. Daisy didn’t back down, and Skye gave her own hiss at the man, who simply laughed. Phil had to hold onto his control, to keep from punching the man; it was only because Daisy could stand on her own two feet that stayed Phil’s hand and his magic.
However, he’d hear what Garrett would have to say, and then kick him out on his ass. Or he’d have Melinda do it, because she needed something other than her duties to enjoy.
Phil’s personal study was up a level in the Keep, and was quite possibly his favorite room. It had an awe-inspiring view of the valley below the mountain that Shield Keep stood upon, old trees falling below the level of the window, and the thin ribbon of river at the bottom of the valley. On cloudy days, the mist would hang over the trees, giving them an ethereal aspect, one that Phil never got tired of seeing.
The carpet was thick and plush, a silvery gray color that complimented the curtains that were always open. Bookshelves were along one wall, stocked with all sorts of tomes, both magical and non-magical, interspersed with knickknacks that the Wizard had picked up in his travels. Along the opposite wall was a massive fireplace, more objects displayed on the mantel, along with an ancient chronometer that he had on good authority had once been owned by one of the Kings of Genosha.
Framed art was displayed on the third wall, the one with the study’s door. One was a piece of propaganda from the Century War, an armored Sir Steven Rogers on it, extolling the virtues of volunteering for duty. Not that Phil would ever admit it, but he was a great fan of the good Paladin, even though he hadn’t exactly done right in his life by the man’s morals and beliefs.
The desk took up pride of place before the large window. A leather couch was sat catty-cornered of the fireplace, along with an overstuffed chair that Daisy had adopted, whenever she would study her lessons as he worked at his desk. A cherry wood end table was placed between the couch and chair, an abandoned mug left there from the last time his daughter had inhabited the space.
He’d have to remember to let Daisy know once again that it wasn’t alright to leave her dishes behind. It meant more work for Andrew, Melinda’s husband.
Phil waved Garrett to the seating area. “Wine?” he offered, making his way toward the small credenza behind the desk.
“Sounds great. That road up to your place is a real pain in the ass to navigate.”
Phil didn’t comment that he liked it that way, and was one of the main reasons he’d decided to reclaim the Keep from nature, which had been well on its way to consuming it when Marcus had offered it to him.
“And did you really need to make this castle unPlotable? It would’ve been a lot easier if I’d been able to actually teleport here.”
Phil didn’t answer that complaint. He liked his privacy. It should have been obvious that casual, unannounced, visitors were unwelcome. It wasn’t his problem that Garrett had chosen to ignore that unspoken fact.
Opening the credenza, he took down two wineglasses and poured them both a measure of the brilliant red wine that Marcus had sent him on his last birthday. As a rule, the Wizard didn’t drink all that much, but he had the impression that he was going to need it.
He handed the wine to Garret, who’d taken a seat on the couch. Phil settled himself in the chair, content to wait for the other man to sip his drink and to explain the reason for his visit.
He didn’t have long to wait.
“Damn,” Garrett exclaimed, “this is good stuff! May I ask where you got it?”
“A friend of mine. It’s from the highlands of Francos, where they’ve taken winemaking to an artform.”
“Can’t argue with that.” He cradled the glass to his chest, his dark eyes on Phil. Any sort of good humor that had been in them had faded. “I know you’re curious as to why I’m here.”
“I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment.”
Garrett looked solemn which, from what Phil knew about the other Wizard, was an unusual thing. John Garrett was always full of slyness and pleased superiority, so this was a definite change. Phil didn’t like it in the least.
There was a hissing sound from behind them, and Phil didn’t need to look to know that Lola was being bothered by Buddy, and was warning him off. He sent calmness down their connection, feeling the dragon back down a little, but then she was suddenly next to him, curling up at his feet, her whirling blue eyes watching events warily.
Garrett let out an amused chuckle, although it was obvious he wasn’t, not really. “She a feisty one.” Buddy had come around the side of the couch, sitting himself down almost on Garrett’s foot.
Phil took a sip of his own wine. “You were telling me to what I owe the honor of your visit.” It wasn’t an honor, and he could tell that his ‘guest’ had noticed that fact.
But, to Garrett’s credit, he didn’t react to the near-silent contempt. “Tell me, Phil…what do you think about the Guild?”
The Void Wizard couldn’t help the eyebrow that rose at that question. When the first Wizards had reappeared back on the scene a little over a hundred years ago after them being extinct for nearly a thousand years, there had almost been a war started over the couple of them that had first shown up, until the then-King and Queen of the United Kingdom – where it had occurred – had proclaimed that Wizards were their own people, that any previous employment contracts would not apply to them, and that they would all need to register with the newly-formed Wizard’s Guild. It had been an excellent idea at the time, Phil thought, and put them on the same level as the rest of the Guilds that had already existed.
When Wizards began cropping up everywhere, most other countries had adopted the Guild structure that had already been put in place, since it made the most sense to keep using what was working. Now, there were three Grand Master Wizards, who oversaw the entirety of the Guild, with six Heads of each Order for the various countries of the world. The Quorum Hall was still in Gateway, where the Wizard School had been established, but there were Guild halls now in every city, handing everything from finding and Testing new Wizards, to settling disputes, and to making certain that employment agreements were fair and aboveboard.
It also meant there was jostling for position and downright corruption as well, but that was the way of any Guild. On the whole, he thought the Grand Masters were doing a good enough job at running things.
“I don’t have any personal issues with the Guild,” he answered, “although I do believe there’s way too much politics going on within it. I tend to keep myself out of such things.” He’d leave all that shit to the Heads of the various Orders and the Grand Masters.
“It’s been noticed.”
That wasn’t surprising. Phil hadn’t made it any secret of his dislike for all of the power playing behind the scenes.
“However,” Garrett continued, sly grin breaking over his blunt face, “you can imagine the surprise some of us had when we realized that the Dark One was playing nice.”
Phil had a very hard time not reacting to that, but he managed. The Dark One. He hadn’t heard that title in over ten years.
It had been back during his mercenary days, when he and Marcus Johnson had done their best to burn the world down out of sheer, misplaced anger. They’d met at the Wizard’s School in Gateway: Phil had been a student Void Wizard, a year from being chosen as a Novice, his parent’s disappointment in his magical Testing a festering wound in his psyche; and Marcus, the completely unmagical son of one of the teachers there, who’d carried the largest chip on his shoulder over the fact that he was surrounded by Wizards yet wasn’t one. The two boys had become fast friends, brothers in every way but in blood, and they’d gone on a tear across the Western Lands in an attempt to fix something that had been broken in both of them. Phil had lived up to every single horror story about Void Wizards, not letting his conscience get in his way…not until Loki, and then not long after his ‘death’ he’d found a young girl, hiding in an alley, an orphan who had run away from the fourth orphanage she’d been placed in and who’d been trapped in a war that should never have occurred, and he’d adopted her as his own.
Phil had finally realized just how ashamed he was over his part in a lot of suffering, and had buried the persona of the Dark One down deep, not wanting to let it out to wreak havoc ever again.
He thought he’d succeeded in divorcing Master Wizard Phillip Coulson from the mercenary called the Dark One...a highly pretentious nickname but well deserved. It appeared he hadn’t been as good about it as he’d thought, even with faking his death.
“I think you might have me confused with someone else,” he denied, proud of the fact that his voice had remained its calm, placid tone.
Garrett shook his head, amused. “Oh, come on, Phil…it was obvious once a little research had been done. You…the Dark One. I have to admit, I was flabbergasted. You really don’t strike me as a cold-blooded killer.”
Nothing Phil had done as the Dark One had been cold-blooded. It had been just the opposite. Every single one of his crimes had been accompanied by hot blood and pain and terror and a need to prove that he was as evil as his parents had thought he was.
Some of his actions still gave him nightmares.
He knew he should continue to deny what Garrett had assumed.
Instead, he said nothing, taking another drink of Marcus’ excellent wine. Only now, it tasted of ashes. Ashes and death.
“So,” Garrett went on, seemingly content with Phil’s non-committal to being the Dark One, “it’s not common knowledge…yet. But you have to know you’re still wanted in a lot of places, and there are Cardinals and Greats who would be more than happy to turn you in, as well as quite a few Voids, too. It won’t even matter that you’re living under the protection of the Baron Triskelia, although how you worked that out is a mystery.”
And that, right there, told Phil that Garrett didn’t have a clue that His Grace, Nicholas Fury, Baron Triskelia, was actually Marcus Johnson, the man who’d committed just as many atrocities as Phil had and was wanted in just as many cities as Phil, himself, was. Because, honestly, at this moment it didn’t matter that Garrett knew about himself, he was just concerned for his friend. Marcus was doing too much good in Triskelia to risk him being discovered and arrested for they’d done together.
One of the things he’d always known was that he would gladly sacrifice himself for Marcus Johnson, his brother.
“Is this some sort of blackmail?” Phil inquired calmly.
“Not at all! Please, Phil…we want you on our side, not working against us! We know exactly how powerful you are, after all. You could easily kick Master Malick out of his place as Head of Void Order if you wanted to.” He got even more comfortable. “The thing is, it doesn’t matter why you’ve been hiding out here in this dusty old Keep – “
It was a good thing Melinda hadn’t just heard that…she took her duties as Steward very seriously, and if she had she wouldn’t have hesitated in breaking Garrett’s neck for the insult against Andrew, who managed the cleaning and was very good at it.
“And why you’re raising a Cardinal kid…although, the rumors say you’re grooming her for some sort of power grab later on, because having the Cardinals under your thumb just sounds awesome – “
That comment nearly had Phil coming up out of his chair. Daisy was his daughter, and it didn’t matter to him what sort of power she’d been given. She could have been a null and he would have been perfectly happy. He loved her just the way she was, and wouldn’t change her for anything.
Still, he held onto his control with both hands. He had the feeling Garrett was finally getting to the point.
“But there’s a cabal of Voids who don’t care for the status quo and would like to get a bigger piece of the pie, as it were. And we think you’ll fit right in, what with your history and all.” Garrett leered. “I, personally, never get tired of hearing about the razing of Buda-Pest. That story never gets old.”
Phil recalled that mess vividly. He and Marcus had had help with that mission, and it made him wonder where the Hawk and the Widow were. He hadn’t seen them ever since his ‘retirement’, but then he hadn’t actually made any sort of announcement about surviving Loki. In fact, he’d thought he’d done an excellent job in faking his death.
There were a great many things he regretted in his life. Buda-Pest wasn’t one of them.
Not being honest with Clint about his being alive was, however, one of the bigger regrets. But still, it had been over ten years ago. It was too late to contact him and Natasha now.
However, what Garrett was suggesting…
Every magical student was taught that there was a balance to all things. The Cardinals and the Voids balanced each other, as the Great Wizards toed that balance between them, keeping things from tipping too far one way or the other. When the first Void Wizard in a thousand years, Harold Saxon, had been born, a Cardinal, Ianto Jones, was also conceived in order to balance the powers.
The Void, or the Deathforce, would always need to be balanced by the Deep Ways, the Lifeforce. One could never be more powerful than the other. The Deep Ways couldn’t exist without the Void, and vice versa.
“What do you mean by that?” Phil asked, keeping the wariness out of his voice by sheer will power.
The smile Garrett gave him was darkly pleased. “I’m so glad you asked me that. Why…immortality, of course. Our group – Hydra – is after the secret of the Deathless.”