Their group, with accompanying dragons, teleported into the courtyard of Castle Shandling, disturbing the bustling castle workers and causing a few of them to curse and swear as they jumped out of the way.
Castle Shandling was more a mansion than a true castle. It had a tall center section, stonework ostentatious with statuary and stained glass, and four stories tall. Two wings curved off the main section, each half the height of the center, their curve making the central courtyard an almost enclosed area with only a wide drive keeping the two sides from touching.
The courtyard was all stone, with a fountain in the exact middle of the round space. Not a hint of grass, or tree, or shrub broke up the unrelieved gray of the stone, making the area feel depressing and bleak.
Phil had already decided to hate it, back the last time he’d been there, when he’d applied to adopt Daisy. And it wasn’t just because of the accompanying bad memories involved.
“Well,” Baron Tony drawled sarcastically, “isn’t this place cheery?”
“Nothing’s changed then,” Phil couldn’t help but comment.
“Oh yeah, you’ve been here before, when you adopted Mini Pepper. Glad you got her, I’d hate to have had her grow up around here.”
The Baron had a point. Barony Shandling hadn’t been all that cheerful before Loki; things had just gotten worse over the intervening years, if the Castle was any indication.
“This place really does suck,” Clint added. “I didn’t think anyplace would be worse than Buda-Pest, but this comes damned close.”
Phil had to agree, although it was at least without the miasma of sheer evil that had settled over King Wolfgang’s fortress.
They were a group of ten. The three Grand Masters, four Barons – Marcus, and Barons Tony, Alexander Waverly, and Henry Pym, who was still furious over the fact that Hydra had decided to settle first in his own Barony, and had disturbed a Void Point in the process. Clint was along, ostensibly as Marcus’ personal bodyguard…like Phil’s old friend needed someone to look after him, so he was only doing it for Phil’s benefit and the fact that he didn’t have an actual Knights’ Commander at this time to do the job. Sir Napoleon had come along with Baron Alexander, once again as a bodyguard; Baron Henry had brought along his daughter, who was also his Knights’ Commander, Sir Hope van Dyne. Rumor had it that she was the paramour of Baron Henry’s own Court Wizard, Master Scott Lang, a Great Wizard; however, there was no substantiation of that.
Baron Tony has eschewed having Sir Rhodey along, preferring to carry with him his own means of looking after himself. He was wearing a red and gold gauntlet that Phil was very interested in, considering it gave off hardly any magic at all and yet was obviously some sort of weapon, judging from the round aperture in the palm which glowed faintly. It was the same color blue as the magical stone in his chest, which was another oddity in the gauntlet’s appearance. The Baron should not have been able to do that sort of thing, adapting a magical Artifact to use, and yet he had. Phil was grudgingly impressed, despite himself.
None of the Wizards had a bodyguard, but then they weren’t expected to need one. They had their dragons, Lucky joining them, and that was enough. Each of them was at the pinnacle of their Order, and could protect themselves.
Although, no one was admitting that Clint was actually Phil’s bodyguard. Because it meant that Jack could have come along as that for Ianto, and the Cardinal Wizard had told his husband that wasn’t necessary. Phil had to wonder what Jack would have thought if he’d known Clint was along.
“Let’s get this shit over with,” Marcus declared. With a dramatic swirl of his long, black cloak, he was striding toward the steps that led into the Castle proper, the rest of them trailing along. The Barons went first; the plan was to let them bring the charges against Baron Jerald first, and then let the Wizards take over, demanding that Pierce be turned over to them. There were specific plans if Stern refused, but they were all counting on the Baron being weaselly enough to knuckle under to the smallest show of force and not wanting to face the consequences of not going along on what the Council of Barons wanted.
What Stern didn’t know, was that the Council was prepared to act despite how things turned out today. Baron Jerald had long been a thorn in the side of the Council of Barons, and he wasn’t exactly liked by his own people. The only reason anyone could come up with for his giving Pierce sanctuary was the chance of gaining more power for himself.
Not that he would, of course. Phil was pretty sure any promises Pierce had given were all lies. The former Grand Master just didn’t have enough to bargain with anymore, now that his properties had been seized by the Guild and his titles stripped from him. There simply wasn’t anything that Pierce could offer Stern that would make the Baron protect him once they demanded his forfeiture, so they were thinking once that was pointed out Stern would simply cave into their demands.
They made an imposing entourage as they entered the Castle, people scurrying out of the way. Strangely, all three of the Wizards ended up in the middle of the group, surrounded by the Barons in the front, and the ostensible bodyguards to the rear. Despite not seeing him, Phil could practically sense Clint behind him, and was glad that he’d insisted on coming along.
The interior of the building wasn’t any less oppressive than the outside. The front hall was unadorned, cold stone walls blank and uninviting. There wasn’t even a single piece of furniture for the comfort of visitors to the Baronial Court, making anyone who did have business there feel even more unwelcome at Shandling than the façade of the building did.
“It’s no wonder we’ve been getting reports of dissatisfaction in the Barony,” Baron Alexander said. “Baron Jerald doesn’t like to have people come to him with their disputes, and this just goes to show to what ends he’s willing to go to, to make his people not want to approach him.”
Phil couldn’t disagree with Baron Alexander’s assessment. It had been the same when he’d been there eleven years ago, and he vividly could recall just how badly Daisy had been affected. She’d been so brave and ready to face whatever needed to be done to allow her to stay with him, but the very nature of the Castle and the Baron had bothered her almost to the point of tears. And the questioning…it hadn’t been at all like what Baron Alexander had done with Crystal; he’d been so solicitous of her very obvious fear and had done his best to put her at ease.
Baron Jerald had been the opposite of that. But then, he’d wanted to keep Daisy for his Barony, as a resource he could exploit. Luckily for them, Marcus hadn’t been about to let that happen, and had managed to rally the Council to the cause.
It had made Marcus a lot of friends on the Council. A Baron willing to do anything in the best interest of both a child and of a resident of Triskelia had gone a long way toward the goodwill he had today.
It hadn’t hurt that Baron Jerald was generally disliked. Even now, eleven years on, Phil could still hear Marcus bitching about the ‘self-centered fucking weasel who cared more about his personal wealth and power than the health and happiness of his own damned people’. That particular rant had been impressive, and for his old friend that was saying something.
There were two guards on the closed double doors to the Audience Chamber, wearing armor that wasn’t as well taken care of as it should have been. They watched the group warily as they all approached; Phil did a quick scan for wards, and found some fairly strong ones, yet not so old; they were tainted with Void, so he was willing to bet that Pierce himself had done the ward work himself.
With a single flick of his magic, Phil had the wards down in a matter of moments.
Both Ianto and Stephen glanced over at him; Ianto was giving him a sly, knowing smirk, while Stephen looked as if he was barely holding in his laughter. Phil simply shrugged; if Pierce had wanted to keep a Wizard of any significant power out, he should have tried harder.
“We’re here to see Baron Jerald Stern,” Marcus barked. “Council of Barons business.”
The pair of guards glanced at each other, not sure what to do. Certainly, they weren’t moving to let them in.
Marcus cocked his head, putting his hands on his hips. “Did I fucking stutter?”
Phil barely bit back a laugh as the two men became more and more intimidated. Which, really, if they were Baronial Knights, they should have had more backbone than this. Although, his friend could be downright terrifying, Phil could admit. As long as he’d known Marcus Johnson, and Nick Fury, the Wizard still sometimes had to take a step back from his friend when he got into a strop, and the man was Phil’s best friend.
The guard on the right straightened. “His Grace has asked not to be disturbed,” he managed to say despite betraying his obvious nerves.
“His Grace,” Baron Tony intoned, voice dripping disdain, “is about to be disturbed all to the hells.”
With that, he stepped between the two guards, slapping the palm of the hand wearing the gauntlet onto the solid wood of the left-side door, the sharp contact making the impact sound like someone had somehow summoned a door knocker and had given it a good, solid drop onto the door.
The guards – and the few others in the hall, who’d stopped to stare at the visitors – jumped at the loud noise. Baron Tony looked pleased by the racket, which Phil thought was a fine attitude to have. Tony Stark could be an asshole, but it worked for him. He was just so good at it. The Wizard couldn’t help but be impressed again by the man.
Not that he would admit that aloud. The Baron’s ego was already big enough without Phil’s adding to it.
Baron Tony gave a shit-eating grin, striking the door once more. This time, the wood actually splintered a little, and Phil had to wonder just what that gauntlet was made of, if it could damage such a sturdy door like that.
“Damn,” he heard Clint whisper behind him, “that is awesome.”
Phil couldn’t argue with that.
“Show off,” Marcus muttered. “You could try to just open the damned door.”
“It’s more fun this way,” Baron Tony quipped. “I like making a lot of noise.”
The expression he got from Marcus for that admission was grudgingly respectful. “I have noticed that about you, Stark.”
Not bothering to stifle his sigh, Marcus went to push the door open. The two guards, seemingly shaken out of their surprise, crossed their pikes across the entrance, blocking the way. “We cannot let you pass,” the one with the most guts said.
Phil had to admit, it was certainly brave of him. If not just a bit silly.
“Son,” Marcus was using his you are an idiot but I’m putting up with it instead of killing you voice, “don’t make me go through you. Better yet,” he motioned toward the three Grand Masters, “don’t make the powerful-ass Wizards go through you. Because they won’t leave anything but a couple of greasy smears on the boring stone pavers that, let’s be honest, could use a lot more color. A dash of red would work wonders for the place.”
Phil had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. Lola wasn’t so sanguine, the sound of dragon chuckles echoing around the bare walls. Myfanwy had joined her, as had Lucky, and Agamotto’s hissing laughter was a pleasant counterpoint from where he was coiled about Stephen’s shoulders.
Apparently, dragons laughing was a lot scarier than Phil and his fellow Wizards were, because both guards blanched, and one actually took a step away. That was the opening Marcus was waiting for, because he slipped past both men and had the door thrown open before they could react.
Following the rather intimidating figure of his oldest friend, Phil and the others strode into the audience chamber. It was the direct opposite of the parts of the castle they’d seen so far; sumptuous tapestries decorated the walls, depicting various hunting and battle scenes in bold bright threads. A carpet, the exact shade of blood, ran up the center of the room toward the dais where the Baronial throne sat, piled high with pillows and furs, almost completely hiding the dark wooden seat. Curtains that matched the carpet hung from the windows behind the throne, blocking out much of the sunlight and the view outside.
It was ugly. And very familiar to Phil…although some of the tapestries had changed since the last time he’d been there.
Baron Jerald Stern was standing on the dais, and he didn’t look surprised to see them; but then, Baron Tony had made a lot of noise. Baron Jerald looked well and truly pissed, his hands on his hips belligerently, glaring down at them as they all approached. “I hope you have a good reason for bursting in like this,” he demanded. It would have been intimidating if it weren’t for the fact that his voice was pitched just a little too high to have that effect on any of them.
It seemed the Barons had nominated Alexander Waverly as their spokesperson, although Phil could see that not lasting all that long, just because he knew both Marcus and Tony Stark too well to figure they’d remain quietly on the sidelines; he wasn’t at all familiar with Baron Henry, but the last of the Barons present certainly had enough provocation to step in whenever he felt like it.
The elder Baron stepped forward, his back perfectly straight, and he stared up at Baron Jerald until the man began to look just a tad shifty.
Phil wished he could see Baron Alexander’s face. He had the feeling it was magnificent in its disdain.
“Baron Jerald Stern,” he intoned, sounding like someone’s disappointed grandfather, “we have heard some honestly bothersome rumors about you giving disgraced Wizard Alexander Pierce sanctuary here in Barony Shandling.”
In that moment, Phil knew that Baron Jerald was going to try to bluff his way out of the charge. “I don’t know where you got that from, but I can assure you, you’re wrong.”
Baron Alexander sighed wearily. “We have it on good authority. So good, in fact, that the Council has voted to bring you up on charges of harboring a convicted criminal, the aforementioned disgraced Wizard, Alexander Pierce. Fifteen of our number have signed the warrant.”
From what Marcus had said, they’d only needed thirteen signatures; however, they’d gotten lucky when visiting Barony Florana…apparently, the sitting Baroness was having a rather torrid affair with both the Baron Santana and the Baroness Long River. At the same time. And both Baronesses were expecting Baron Santana’s children.
That was going to be a very thorny problem for the succession for all three Baronies that the Council would have to deal with, once the children became of age.
Baron Jerald went a little pale at that, and he began sputtering something that had Baron Tony snorting and then retorting, “You’re not gonna be able to back out of this, Stern. I don’t have any idea what Pierce promised you, but it’s not like he can deliver.”
“This is true,” Phil found himself speaking up. “All of his properties have been forfeited to the Guild, and he’s been stripped of his titles and awards. And if it’s magical help…the wards he put up outside were pitiful at best. It took me a single heartbeat to take them all down.” Well, it was just a little longer than that, but he wasn’t above inflating things if it got the message across.
“He’s got nothing he can offer you any longer,” Stephen confirmed. “You may as well give him up to Wizard justice, and take your own punishment for protecting him.”
“If you’re lucky,” Baron Henry put in, “we’ll let you choose your own successor.”
“And, if not,” Baron Alexander added, his voice serene, “we’ll choose one for you. You’ve misused your position for the last time, Jerald. You may as well give in gracefully and keep some of your remaining dignity intact.”
Jerald Stern’s face was becoming redder and redder, and Phil was honestly beginning to become concerned that he might have a stroke. “How dare you come into my Barony and make demands!”
“I don’t think you know what’s going on here,” Marcus pointed out. “You’re deluding yourself if you think keeping Pierce a secret is gonna work. The Barons are in majority here, and the only reason we don’t have a full docket of signatures is because we hadn’t needed to chase down anymore once we had the required number. If you really believe that you giving Pierce sanctuary is the only thing we have against you, then you’re more deluded than is generally considered. You’re not nearly as smart as you think, and this isn’t the first time you’ve tried some shit and it’s come back to bite you in the ass.”
Stern’s eyes darted toward Phil. It wasn’t like he’d done anything to hide; it had been a forgone conclusion that he’d recognize Phil as the Wizard who’d adopted the child Stern had wanted to keep as a resource for his Barony. The majority of the Barons who’d voted against him had had Daisy’s best interests at heart, and they’d all figured out fairly quickly that Stern had been more concerned for himself than for his own people.
While he didn’t know what else Stern had been up to in the intervening years, Phil knew it all had to have been bad for fifteen out of the twenty Barons – of, course, Stern was included in that twenty, and he wouldn’t sign the warrant against himself – had put their signatures on the edict against the man just on the evidence that Sir Napoleon had dug up. It must have been the last straw, knowing that Stern had been sheltering a criminal. And, as Marcus had pointed out, they would have most likely had all nineteen if they’d taken the time to get them.
At Stern’s glare at him, Phil simply raised an unimpressed eyebrow.
Just as Marcus had been gearing up to harangue Stern once more, Phil felt something prickle at his heart and mind, the Void that accompanied the presence that had announced itself through his magical senses getting stronger and stronger as it approached.
At Phil’s announcement, Ianto and Stephen stepped away…as did the Barons and the various bodyguards. Clint didn’t look like he wanted to go anywhere, but Phil nodded slightly, letting his lover know that he’d be fine, that this was his battle to fight. Clint’s expression hardened, his eyes going from the swirl of pale colors the Wizard was familiar with, to a sharp, steel gray that would have pierced anyone to their very souls.
Phil wasn’t just anyone, though, and he knew that glare wasn’t meant for him.
Clint moved back, joining the others, leaving Phil alone in the center of the audience chamber. Lola would have joined her Wizard, but Phil sent her to stand with Clint and Lucky, knowing she would only be under foot if things escalated. He could feel the mental pout, and sent back a promise to make it up to her when this was all over.
Lola agreed, but he could tell that she would be keeping an eye on Pierce, and on his dragon, ready to step in if needed.
He certainly hoped one of the others was keeping an eye on Stern. He’d hate for the man to rabbit.
The Wizard turned his back on the dais, knowing without seeing the man that Pierce would be coming in through the main double doors.
As if summoned by Phil’s thoughts, Alexander Pierce and his dragon, Insight, pushed through the doors, facing him haughtily, looking down his nose at Phil contemptuously.
“Well,” he drawled, “you’re not exactly what was I expecting.”
Phil gave him a bland smile. “I’m glad I could surprise you.”
Pierce made a slight gesture, and Insight stayed in place as the disgraced Void Wizard strolled toward Phil as if he didn’t have a care in the world. “You seem to have quite a lot of support. I wonder how they’d feel if they knew the truth about you.”
That answered a question that Phil had had for a while now: if any of the disparate members of Hydra were in touch with each other. “If you’d kept up with your spies within the Quorum, you would have known that any secrets I may have had are now out in the open. So, you wouldn’t be saying anything these people don’t already know.”
Except for Barons Henry and Alexander – and he wasn’t about to bet that the Baron of Uncelas knew exactly who Phil had once been, and was just keeping quiet about it – but neither man seemed at all surprised at Pierce’s threats. Both had to have been prepared for something like this, even if either had had no notion that Grand Master Phil Coulson had once been the infamous Dark One.
It was a slight stumble, and not a lot of people would have noticed, but Phil had, and he couldn’t help the small smile at Pierce’s discomfiture. He obviously hadn’t counted on his blackmail material to now be invalid, and it had thrown him off his game a little.
Good. Phil would take any advantage he could.
May as well throw him off some more.
Drawing himself up, Phil announced, “Alexander Pierce, you have been found guilty of breaking the laws of the Wizard’s Guild. As Grand Master of Void Order, it is my duty to pass sentence. Do you submit to the will of the Quorum?”
Pierce’s jaw would have dropped if he hadn’t had any less control over himself. Then, he barked a laugh in sheer disbelief. “They made you Grand Master of Voids?”
“Thanks to Hydra, I was the only one they could trust with the position.” Phil let a tiny smirk twist his lips upward. “There really wasn’t any choice. “
“I bet you just loved that.”
That comment showed just how little Pierce knew the Dark One. It had never been about power, not in that way; it had been about pain, and having the power to make the rest of the world feel the same pain Phil had. He’d never done anything to accrue the sort of power that Pierce assumed he’d wanted.
“Actually, no.” Phil shrugged. “But I’m getting used to the idea. Now, shall we get back to business? Will you submit to the will of the Quorum?”
Pierce gave away his next move. It would have been obvious even to someone completely headblind to magic.
Extending his left arm, Phil had his shield up and blocking the Stun spell that Pierce had thrown at him, the vivid yellow of the magic splashing against the blue of the shield and making it hiss and crackle. Still, there’d really been nothing to worry about; it hadn’t been that powerful, Pierce going more for surprise than to overpower. It had Phil thinking that the Void had truly disavowed Pierce, since there was so little of it in the spell he’d just cast.
Phil himself could feel the Void thrumming through his veins. It came easily to his call, eager to take justice for what Pierce had done to it: tainting the Void Point in the name of his quest to create a new Deathless. The Void demanded its due, and it was going to use Phil to get it.
Well, not use…not really. Phil was perfectly willing to go along with it. He wanted his own justice, for the kidnapping of his elder daughter and for the Void itself.
He was Void Champion.
Pierce just didn’t know that yet.
Phil stood there, under Pierce’s assault, the display of the other Wizard’s power not budging him from where he’d planted his feet…the Void might have mostly abandoned him, but Pierce was still quite powerful in his own right.
A Word of Power that would have flayed the skin from Phil’s bones.
Bone Breaker Curse.
And more, so many that Phil didn’t bother to keep track after the first few, his magic protecting the bystanders from getting caught in the backlash.
“Phil,” Baron Tony called out after about ten minutes, laughter in his voice, “are you finished showing off yet? You’re just making him look really bad.”
“Shut up, Stark,” Clint catcalled. “This is damned sexy.”
“Ew,” Baron Ferrous groaned. “I did not need to hear that.”
The heckling from the sidelines seemed to make Pierce even madder than before. He had to have noticed that Phil was just shrugging off his attacks, and that had to have started worrying him.
Pierce just hadn’t accepted yet that he wasn’t getting out of this room under his own power.
If he got out of it at all.
The Void was whispering to Phil, a soft susurrus of sound that spoke to him of its plans for Pierce. It wasn’t using words; the Void communicated through intent and flashes of insight and vision that no one but Phil would have made out. It wanted what Phil wanted: justice. And it was showing him how that would be attained.
Tony Stark was correct: Phil was done showing off.
Taking a step forward, Phil waved a single hand, cancelling out every single spell Pierce had in his arsenal. “Stop,” he commanded, the Void in his voice, making it echo and sing throughout the chamber.
Pierce, a sudden look of fear in his pale eyes, went back on one foot, as if he wanted to escape but was rooted to the spot.
“I am Grand Master,” Phil intoned, “but, above that, I am Void’s Champion. And the Void’s justice outweighs the Guild’s.”
He raised his hands, and the Void came to his call, cladding him in the armor of the Void, filling him with its purpose. Phil welcomed it almost as eagerly as he’d welcomed Clint to his life, his heart, and his bed, accepting his place as its Chosen, knowing that it would always be a part of him, just as he would always be a part of it. He was able to see so much more than ever before, how the Void and the Deep Ways and the Elemental Magic all waxed and waned about each other, entwined in an eternal dance that made him want to weep with the sheer beauty of it.
This time, when he gestured toward Pierce, it was with both hands.
His fingers grasped the Veil Between, and Phil Coulson, Void Champion, tore it apart easily, like ripping a piece of paper in two.
The Void was waiting.
“Alexander Pierce, you have been found wanting by the Void itself,” he spoke calmly, serenely, not at all like a man who’d just created a Void Point out of thin air. “You came from the Void; to the Void you go back.”
“Wait!” Pierce cried out. “I only wanted to make the Void into something to be respected and feared!”
“That was your mistake. You wanted to make the Void. No one can make the Void do anything. You took the power that the Void entrusted to you, and warped it into something unnatural. For that, you will pay and the Void will see it done.”
“Amen,” he heard both Stephen and Ianto murmur.
Phil pulled the tear open a little farther, calling to the Void to take Pierce into itself, as it told him it wanted to do. Pierce tried to run, but the Void was too powerful for him to escape its justice.
Black tendrils extended out of the Void Point, grasping the disgraced Wizard in their unbreakable grip. Pierce fought, but it wasn’t enough. It would never be enough to escape, as he was dragged into the Void that glittered like space, like cool darkness, through the rip that Phil had created.
Once Pierce was pulled inside, he began to close the opening.
At the last minute, a terrible, keening cry sounded, and Pierce’s dragon jumped into the Void after his Wizard.
With dexterous fingers, Phil Coulson knitted the tear back together, sealing the Void Point once more.
Alexander Pierce and Insight were gone, never to return.