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Prelude To A Dragon

The sound of shattering glass filled the Sanctum Sanctorum. The Bell of Ikonn’s mournful tolling followed it. Wong awoke, leaping to his feet with a start; he could sense every part of the Sanctum, and nothing physical had been damaged.

Yet.

"Doctor, the wards," he said, though Wong was alone in his room.

"I know," Strange's voice whispered. "I will deal with the sorcery."

Wong nodded and raced downstairs, clothes materializing around him. The front door shook with the force of a hundred battering rams pounding it. "Shades of the Seraphim," he breathed, grabbing a small cane from where it rested against a bookshelf.

The door shattered at last, wood and wizardry alike overwhelmed. Through the door came a living abomination – the man once known as SHIELD Agent Emil Bronsky, and still called the Ravager. "We're in!" he exulted, roaring like the beast he'd become. "See, Fenton? We didn’t need axe boy."

"Don’t celebrate yet," a rough, low voice shot back from outside. It followed Ravager into the brownstone, revealing a werewolf in full beastman form. The man-thing was twisted in ways only the Many-Angled Ones could produce. Oddly, it was clothed, wearing black combat pants and tank-top with white crossed bones on it. "Even the butler's supposed to be dangerous."

"I am not a butler," Wong insisted, stepping forward and leaning casually on the cane. "I am Wong, aide and bodyguard to the Sorcerer Supreme, and you are trespassing."

Ravager laughed. "Good for you!" He glared at the cane with undisguised contempt. "What are you gonna do, rap my knuckles?"

Wong strode calmly to the titanic monstrosity. "I had something else in mind." He spun and swung the cane up into Ravager's chest. The gamma-powered monster exploded through the ceiling, screaming in impotent fury as he flew into the sky.

"Yeah," the crossbones-wolf rumbled, "he had that coming." Drawing a massive klaive of black-tarnished silver, Fenton stalked carefully towards Wong. He is skilled, the aide noted carefully, but undisciplined. All rage...by the Vishanti, such rage...

A wave of mist rolled into the Sanctum. Wong fought to breathe, bringing to bear all his training and control, but the mist did not trouble Crossbones – nor the gargoyle-like dragon-man that followed him in. They tackled Wong from both sides, and while a single blow from the cane shattered the werewolf's arm, it healed in seconds. Wong fought the dragon-man with seething frustration as more villains walked casually into the sacred domain: Amora the Enchantress, Skurge the Executioner, and Esteban de Ablo, a traitor to magic itself. "We’re in!" de Ablo exulted, preening in triumph. "You see? Sterns' monster was easily beaten, while mine triumphs!"

"Yes, yes," Amora replied impatiently. "Now hurry, before Strange conjures more obstacles for us."

For the first time in over ten years, Wong feared for the Sorcerer Supreme...

- - -

Stephen Strange, the universe's Sorcerer Supreme, exhaled in frustration. Always just before I contact Clea. Why do you hate me, Vishanti? He began to gesture with artistic precision, weaving all three Arts of the Three-Fold Path of Agamotto into a single counterstroke.

It was all undone when Amora and de Ablo teleported into his personal chambers, a wave of anti-magic knocking him back. He blinked in surprise, until he saw the strange staff de Ablo held. It contained a phial at its peak, bubbling with one of the alchemist's corrupt concoctions, but it also bore the distinct workings of wonder-science. A flicker of Awareness gave Doctor Strange a vision of a spindly man with green skin and a tower of a forehead, just before de Ablo fired a blast from the staff that knocked Strange across his four-poster bed and into a stack of books he'd been meaning to get to. "How I’ve looked forward to this, Strange!" the alchemist cackled.

"Less gloating, more capturing!" the Enchantress demanded, matching spellwork to words as she called on the Crimson Bands of Cytorrak.

Strange unleashed a wave of raw sorcerous might, snuffing out both mages' spellcraft. "Wise words, given your folly in coming here, Asgardian." Strange floated up past the bed, taking a ready stance both magical and martial. "My apprentice bested you. True, she is my greatest pupil, but did you really believe that you would fare any better against the Sorcerer Supreme?"

"That depends on who’s with her, doesn’t it?" The Inhuman sorceress Llyra appeared, and all three turned their powers on the great wizard. Is the Sanctum Sanctorum now an inn, through which anyone may pass? Strange thought irritably, finding himself sorely pressed by three formidable mages.

"Enough!" he roared, calling on the full might of the Eye of Agamotto. His assailants recoiled. "Now let the rising tide of power / From birth of stars to final doom / Reveal the place, the form, the hour / Where light's salvation forth may bloom / Where seen and unseen twine and blend -- / And darkness end!"

Night vanished. Morning came in an eyeblink. The dark magics of his foes wavered, and Strange's roared to full strength once more. He suppressed all their powers in an instant, and prepared his own Crimson Bands of Cytorrak to end their invasion. "Executioner, I need you!" Amora cried, and the Bloodaxe tore open a hole in space. Strange was forced to turn his powers on the mighty Skurge, holding back the new Asgardian while rebuilding his call to Cytorrak's power.

"Enough," a new voice intoned, and Strange’s blood froze. That is not possible! Even he could not have survived the Montesi Formula! Yet as Strange contained his four opponents, a fifth entered the room. He had traded short black hair for long white, and his black suit for crimson armor with a gray cape. He bore a sword of terrible power in one hand – and the Darkhold in the other. And his pearlescent skin and crimson eyes betrayed the invader's inhuman nature.

Dracula had come, seen, and conquered.

Strange cast one last pulse at the quartet of enemies, then threw all he had left at the once and future King of the Night. Shades flew open, pouring in daylight. Magic summoned solar flame. Divine majesty suffused the Sanctum Sanctorum, creating a Seal of the Vishanti as formidable as a cross from the Vatican.

Dracula smiled and held out his hand. He made a fist, and all the Sorcerer Supreme's magic was doused like a smothered candle. A dark portal opened beside the Prince of Darkness, and tendrils of shadow snared Doctor Strange and dragged him before it. "I have kept my oath, Stephen," the Dragon’s Son intoned with a smile. "For all of Captain Rogers' days, I stayed my hand. Remained in Europa. Plied my schemes there. Even distracted Baron von Doom – though how the Roma scientist found a true Nail of the Cross is beyond me."

"And now you want revenge," Strange rasped, strength flowing out of him through the tightening shadow bands, "for the end of your kind, is that it?"

Vlad Draculea blinked at his captive, then laughed. Diablo grimaced, clutching his staff in impotent rage. "Revenge? My dear Doctor, I would not dream of such a thing! You have protected the universe from our mutual enemies for a time long enough for even my notice." He waved a hand over the dark portal, and it revealed the Dark Dimension. Stephen stared, what resistance remained to him vanishing, as he saw its Sorceress Supreme looking forlorn and exhausted. Clea, was all he could think, her grace, wisdom, and beauty all as heart-wrenching as ever. "However, your apprentice is ready, the age of Marvels is upon us, and I live once more." The tendrils pulled Doctor Strange toward the portal with the power of inevitability itself. "You have earned retirement – indeed, peace. Avoiding the Dark Dimension, and your true love, to shelter this fragile realm?" Dracula shook his head. "No more. I will carry your burden, alongside your formidable successor. And you will go to the one with whom you belong. I sentence you, Doctor, not to death, but to a life of union and fulfillment."

And Strange could resist no more.

One last spell, he thought, willing what gifts he had left to pass to Kata Karkainen, and then the Earth disappeared forever.