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The Old Ones Wait

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The town looked like it belonged on a calendar. It ought to be the setting for the kind of BBC show that stars an uptight, out-of-place Londoner and includes a lot of jokes about everyone having the last name Jones. It seemed to be made up entirely of cute little houses with flowers in the yard, fields dotted with photogenic sheep, quaint bookshops, and gruffly skeptical farmers.

Stephen was almost relieved when he stepped in something unpleasant in the sheep pasture where he was currently examining the place's mystic energy. He banished it from his shoe immediately, of course, but at least it was a piece of evidence that this entire place wasn't some kind of hallucination or magical construct, even if it did have a murder rate that would put some war zones to shame, not to mention a deep and endemic weirdness to the energy surrounding it.

"Just to set your mind at ease," Wong said, stepping out of a whirling portal a few feet away, "there's no one in the phone book named Fletcher or Barnaby."

"Why should that set my mind at ease?"

"Am I the only person around here who watches television?"

"Yes," Stephen said. "Some of us are too busy maintaining the energy flow of the universe and whatnot."

"You mean you're a snob."

"Shut up," he snapped, and looked around to find that the tugging on his shoulders was not, as he'd assumed, the breeze, but rather the Cloak using one of its tails to pet a sheep. "Stop that."

"I have all twelve seasons of Murder, She Wrote on DVD."

"I'd rather be lost in the Dark Dimension until the implosion of the multiverse."

"Not impossible," Wong said. "In the meantime, we can begin with season two."




"Oh, you're the blokes from Section 5," the barmaid in the pub said. Stephen had spun himself a business suit out of raw energy; the Cloak was currently tucked away in a handy pocket of spacetime, as one does. Wong, in a jacket with no tie, had apparently gone for a "casual, wisecracking partner" role and looked like he was enjoying it.

It was Wong who felt that talking to the locals made any kind of sense, so Steven hung back and nursed a lukewarm pint and let Wong's conversation with the barmaid about the oddly high murder rate flow over him. He was focused on the network of energy flowing through and around the town ... or at least it should be, but mostly it was flowing into the town. Something here was -- he didn't like the metaphor, but all he could think was building a nest.

Wong dropped into the seat across from him and set a half-empty pint glass on the table. "It seems the person we need to talk to is Agnes Jones at the bookshop. She's the one who normally looks into murders the police can't solve, which is apparently most of them."

"Which bookshop?" Stephen asked. "The one by the quaint little thatched inn, or the one by the church with all the scenic gravestones?"

"Quaint inn."

Wong tossed a crumpled handful of cash on the table as they left. "Oi!" the barmaid called after them. "That's three quid you owe us, then!"

"There's at least that much on the table!" Wong called back. ".... in Nepalese rupees," he added under his breath.

"Do you even understand how capitalism works?"

"I didn't see you offering to pay for the drinks, Doctor."




No question this was where they needed to go. Stephen barely had to touch the pendant to catch vivid sight of a network of gleaming ropes of energy, tainted with darkness, snaking into the picturesque little bookshop: from the river, from the trees, from the ground itself.

The door had a little bell that tinkled, because of course it did; it was that kind of place, and also the kind of place with narrow aisles and shelves crowded with books, with dust motes floating in the air. As soon as they stepped inside, Wong murmured a soft cantrip and cords of magic, visible only to Stephen, sheathed his hands and arms.

And Stephen could see why. The place wasn't right. Oh, it looked like a rather idyllic little used bookshop, but the shelves blossomed outward, like a flower opening into eighteen dimensions at once. This place was much bigger on the inside than the outside. The shelves ran on and on, vanishing into shadows.

"Agnes!" Stephen called. The place swallowed his voice, leaving no echoes.

"Delightful," Wong murmured. The energy around his hands was glowing now. Stephen restored the Cloak with a sweep of his hand. (He'd been practicing that. It looked spectacular, but it only worked when the Cloak cooperated, which depended on keeping it in a good mood.)

They picked a direction at random and walked down an aisle into the endless shadows. The aisle gave the odd impression it was far too long and yet too narrow despite the vastness of the multidimensional space around them. When Stephen glanced at the book titles, they seemed oddly difficult to grasp, as if the words slid out of his mind as fast as he read them.

"Nice ambiance," Wong said quietly. His voice was swallowed by the space around them, sounding oddly muffled. "You should redecorate."

"Yes, a makeover in 'Early Eldritch Horror' is definitely what the Sanctum is lacking."

There was sudden movement, and an elderly woman in a cardigan stepped out from between two side shelves. "Gentlemen, I didn't hear you come in," she said with a smile.

She looked perfectly normal in three dimensions but she extended through five, eight, twelve. The vastness was necessary to contain the vastness of her, and from the corners of his eyes Stephen glimpsed nonshapes, dimensionally twisted, that were giving him a headache.

"You were saying about eldritch horrors?" Wong murmured, drawing his hands apart, glowing shapes framed by his graceful fingers.

Stephen echoed it clumsily, compensating where he couldn't manage the exact forms with his twisted, broken hands. "I'm still not watching Murder, She Wrote with you."




The darkness was huge and full of things, and Wong was nowhere to be found, perhaps not even still alive. That ... was a thing to be put aside for later.

"You are not allowed to hunt here," Stephen gasped. Blood dripped in his eyes, but still he tried to cage her, as she moved in ways his mind was not yet capable of following.

"Why?" she/it/they asked gently, caging him with a sense of its vast presence. "All the planes are my hunting ground. I like this place; it is fat and rich, and entertaining in its small way. What can you do, little sorcerer?"

"Stop you."

He reached for the pendant, but the thing with a woman's face stopped him, curling a hundred not-hands around his shattered fingers, and twisting them in subtly diverse ways. "Time?" it said, cocking its old-woman's head to the side, while the movement echoed through the dimensions. "Only a dimension. I move in that direction as well. I'm sorry, did you expect it to be otherwise?"

"I did hope," he said with a bloody smile. Well, for all his flaws, he'd never been accused of giving in easily. That was the thing he had going for him as Sorcerer Supreme, maybe the reason why he had the job in the first place: he just didn't give up.

And then there was motion in only three dimensions and a woman's voice said, "Well, it appears that I've found the culprit this time. Shall we have a word about your murder methods, dear?"

"What," the eldritch entity said.

"Human imagination," Jessica Fletcher said -- or a construct of her, strolling out of the multidimensional dark. "That's what you used to anchor yourself here ... wasn't it? And don't you know all murder mysteries end with the unmasking and punishment of the killer?"

"I make my own rules," the entity snarled.

"Not here," and this was a different voice, a lazy drawl, and okay, fine, being rescued by Han Solo and Jessica Fletcher wasn't even the weirdest thing that had happened to Stephen lately.

But things got really interesting when the entire A-Team showed up.




"What the actual fuck," Stephen gasped, clinging to Wong as they made their escape from the rapidly collapsing dimensional nexus.

"It's a net built of human imagination," Wong said, and half-smiled. "That was the thing it used to bind itself to this world, and that was its weakness. I'm just going to go out on a limb and say that inventing that spell on the fly is one of my greater achievements as a sorcerer, if only for the novelty, even if it did involve incinerating a large number of DVDs. I suppose you don't have to worry about watching Murder She Wrote in the Sanctum anytime soon."

"Small favors," Strange panted, his shaking fingers knotted in the back of Wong's collar. Wong was solid and stable, as the world spun around him and they stumbled out into strangely bright sunshine. "You know ... I've actually seen some of it. As a child. I had almost forgotten until she showed up in ... there."

"Really? Perhaps we might see if it's streaming on Hulu ..." And Wong trailed off, and folded up, and slid gently to the cobbled street of a now slightly less picturesque English village, smaller and dingier, with a small weed-grown vacant lot where a quaint bookshop once stood.




By the time Wong eventually woke up, Stephen had had time to clean himself up, wash the blood out of his hair and his beard, and channel a restorative flood of energy that helped wash some of the ache out of his limbs. He tried channeling some of it into Wong, but wasn't exactly sure what it was doing, and decided to quit while he was ahead. Beyond that, Wong's vitals were strong, and Stephen let him alone to recover energy the natural way.

Wong stirred and threw an arm over his eyes. Stephen could relate to that; energy-burnout headache was a hell of a thing. "Where," Wong muttered after a moment. "Wait. New York?"

"No, we're still in England," Stephen said, and Wong rolled his head to the side. "Look, in the shape we both were in, portaling anywhere didn't seem like a good idea. But there was this quaint little inn."

"Nngh," was Wong's response, but he let himself be helped to sit up. Stephen passed him a glass of water (not even spilling any of it) and Wong took it with a nod. Stephen carefully took away the hand on Wong's back that he'd been, without really thinking about it, using to support him.

Unfamiliar, all of it. With his patients, his interest had begun and ended with the mechanics of their bodies. Magic was, in its own way, the same -- a meticulous form of engineering, its larger-scale human effects a thing to be considered in the abstract but never with emotional intensity.

But then again, no one in his life had ever walked into a dungeon dimension to rescue him using classic TV shows.

"Are you all right?" Stephen asked.

"I will be," Wong said, and winced, rolling his neck. "Odd question," he added, "coming from you."

"I'm not a complete dick."

"Yes," Wong said. "You are."

"Okay, yes, I am."

He smiled a little, and Wong did too, and wobbled off to use the bathroom.




Without the entity distorting spacetime around the village, it rained constantly, the sheep were more smelly than picturesque, and the barmaid seemed to think they'd stiffed her and ostentatiously served other customers first.

Stephen rather enjoyed it. He hadn't been on an actual vacation since ... well, before grad school, probably. He texted pictures of cobblestones and sheep to Christine. Wong -- er -- was probably doing the same thing. Perhaps.

"Do you have family?" Stephen asked, feeling vaguely guilty he actually hadn't even wondered about it.

"Yes," Wong said, and ventured no details, so Stephen decided not to ask. Maybe the next time they saved each other's lives would be a better time.

That was the other thing that was different about being a sorcerer rather than a surgeon. Very few surgeons were killed by their patients. It wasn't a particularly life-threatening occupation.

And perhaps that was why he'd never really enjoyed the water-cooler camaraderie. Never cared, really. Perhaps it was true that he was merely a dick. But maybe it was that he needed that extra kick of technicolor danger to make the world come alive, to make every connection around him flash into living color.

"You look like you're having deep thoughts," Wong said, and reached into the basket of fish and chips.

"Do I?" He shrugged. "I guess I'm thinking that you have fish grease on your nose."

Wong swept it off with a handwave and gave him an exasperated look. "And you're laughing."

"I am," Stephen said, grinning, because that look was part of what said home to him these days. "Want to get out of here?"

"Oh, I suppose so, I'm sure everything has fallen apart in New York in your absence."

"It generally does," Stephen said, and looked around to make sure the waitress was looking in another direction, and spun a hand in the air, taking them away, taking them home.