Marvel 2000 Presents
Excalibur Vol.2 #20
Siege of Magic
The magic of First Contact
The story thus far: A city of magical beings of unknown origins and unknown intent has emerged on the fringes of the Gobi Desert and deployed their magical army. After an initial skirmish, they have accused earth of attacking their homeland.
Gobi Desert, aboard Excalibur's support craft The Resolute
Joey Chapman watched the giant image of a man bellow out fire and brimstone, and swallowed hard.
"Our magic stolen, and our lands run dry of life itself! Our greatest diviners have traced the blight to this realm, this land! And I, on behalf of my people, will have satisfaction!"
As a rule, magic never much disturbed Joey Chapman. His first adventure as Union Jack was against a dangerous and very real vampire, after all. Since his passion was art, tactics and abstract thought, magic actually appealed to the romantic part of his soul, even when that magic amounted to a werewolf trying to rip his throat out. Something that small, relatively, didn't bother him one bit. There was room enough in this world for armored scientists and unseen masters of the mystic arts.
But to see someone who could casually throw around magic without appearing to break a sweat, those people terrified Chapman. It wasn't just that they were extremely powerful; it was that they were powerful with few, if any, practical limits. Powerhouses like Magneto could only manipulate magnetism, Graviton was limited to gravity, but blokes like Loki and Dr. Strange could do damn near anything they wanted, from turning a man into ash with their pinky to turning him into a three headed goat to unleashing a plague that science couldn't hope to scratch.
Even worse, in Chapman's opinion, was their seeming ability to go anywhere. The Director of Excalibur had actually used magic in the past for eavesdropping, as a member of the Hellfire Club. It had been expensive as hell, but worth every penny. The applications of magic seemed damn near limitless and while Chapman did have a plan, it wasn't nearly as reliable as he liked.
"Delphi," Chapman turned to his LMD assistant, "recall all of Excalibur and enact protocol Mag DS, now."
The android nodded silently.
"Alright, we need to speak face to face now," Chapman all but shouted. The personal on the bridge gave Chapman some odd looks, but he just ignored them, "otherwise, we'll be here all day, nothing will be accomplished and none of us want that."
There was a burst of light, and suddenly Chapman found a man in gleaming golden armor standing before him. The Resolute had at least three different anti-teleportation mechanisms in it, and five different subsystems designed to prevent outside observation and yet this man likely hadn't even noticed them.
There were times, Chapman decided, that being right wasn't at all comforting.
"I see that you are not unfamiliar with magic. Might I know your name?"
Chapman appraised the man carefully. He was a large, broad shouldered man with a light skinned face and long blond hair that reached down to touch his shoulders. His armor shined unnaturally, and was virtually seamless. His chest bore a stylized depiction of a man battling a wizard, and Chapman guessed that it was the man's family chest.
"I am Director Chapman of Excalibur," replied Chapman, mindful to not reveal his first name. With magic, names had power, "and I take it that you, Lord Darkstorm, are the leader of that island nation I see floating outside my window?"
"I would have thought my declaration obvious," Lord Darkstorm regarded Chapman with thinly disguised curiosity, "yes, I am the proper lord of Faylin. Gather your vassals and fellow lords, we need immediate satisfaction."
"Well, that's just not how things are done in this reality," Chapman rested his hand on the gun that he kept attached to his hip. Darkstorm didn't even flinch or even take notice, Chapman observed, "would it be possible to arrange a truce? You have to understand that I'm not the ruler of this realm."
Lord Darkstorm raised a curious eye brow, "I suppose that is acceptable. Consult with your fellow rulers then. I promise a cease of hostilities for at least three days, but cannot promise any greater time. Our concerns are most dire, Director Chapman."
"I understand, and I assure you that I won't need half the time. But until we agree on formal talks, I'm afraid that I must leave some of my men here. While no aggression will be taken without my order, be aware that any attempts to breach the truce will be dealt with swiftly."
"I understand fully. Thank you, I do so hope we can handle this like civilized creatures," Lord Darkstorm bowed politely, and then disappeared.
"Delphi, get the Security Council on the line, I'll need to brief them immediately. Have Excalibur teleported back to Avalon," Chapman removed his eyes from where Darkstorm had just been moments before, as if to assure himself that the man wasn't still there. Magic was, almost by definition, deceptive, "I'm going to leave you in command here. Take no aggressive action without my permission and establish a strong parameter. They likely already have hostages, we don't need to give them anymore. I want an update sent to Avalon every ten minutes. If I don't get it, I'll assume something happened."
"Understood. I have already alerted the Security Council and they are insisting on an update before we take any further action."
"Of course they would," Chapman sighed, "I don't even know what I'm going to tell them yet. All I know is what I can't tell them…"
Faylin, Darkstorm's Tower
"…feel very strongly about this man. His title is odd, I'll grant you, but we shouldn't judge just on that. We can only begin to guess how the culture on his world developed…"
Lord Darkstorm watched his personal scrying glass, forged hundreds of years ago by his clansmen and watched Chapman's briefing with a smug grin a smug grin. He really had no idea that Chapman would be so easily fooled. How had such a weak and naïve little man assumed control of such a powerful army?
Lord Darkstorm turned his head and saw his personal vassal, known simply as the Red Knight, standing in the doorway. He had earned his name with no humor after slaying his hundredth wyldedragon, their collective blood forever staining the family armor. The family crest, chain mail forged in the hottest mystical flame, his ceremonial cape, everything he wore into battle was the color of blood.
But the vassal now known as Red Knight adopted the name with polite humor and stoic resolve. If he was ever troubled by the fact that his birth name had been subsumed by a title drenched in blood, Lord Darkstorm honestly couldn't say.
"The Council of Warlocks have reported that they are no closer to finding the sorcerer supreme of this world than when we first arrived, sire. Though none would say it, some are beginning to suspect that this plane may not even have one."
"They use magic," Lord Darkstorm insisted, "we saw it with our own eyes! The gem that dark one carried, and the shapeshifter!"
"No one disputes that, but it may be that they do not know the sources of their own abilities," countered Red Knight, "of hundreds of soldiers they sent against us, only two used arcane against against us, and then only barely. Our generals suspect that the inhabitants may be entirely ignorant of its existence."
Lord Darkstorm rubbed his chin and thought for a moment, trying to hide a smile from his personal enforcer, "That may well be."
"But that raises a deeper question. If they cannot use magic, how could they have ever stolen ours?"
"That is what we must find out," Lord Darkstorm noticed how the image on his scrying mirror began to waiver, "keep me abreast of any new developments."
"Understood, my Lord."
Red Knight marched off, never taking notice of Darkstorm's scrying mirror. When his vassal left the chambers, Lord Darkstorm turned to it and smiled. Things were moving along just as expected.
"… they were just testing us. I spoke to their leader personally, and though I'd like more time with him, this Lord Darkstorm does strike me as a man who can be reasoned with, fancy name aside."
The members of the Security Council nodded politely, and asked a few follow up questions. Though all were concerned about a new city that had suddenly appeared out of nowhere, they all saw it as someone else's problem. Even China, the closest nation was confident that they faced no risk. Chapman ideally wondered how the sudden appearance of a magical city had become so…mundane to world leaders.
Though at the moment, it worked in Chapman's favor. Because they didn't truly appreciate the enormity of what was happening, it gave him the wide operational latitude he needed to deal with this emergency. No one was standing over his shoulder second guessing him, or sending in their own forces 'just in case'. For once, political ignorance worked in his favor. The last thing the Director of Excalibur wanted was to explain his war plans to people with no experience in magic and all kinds of experience in nit picking.
Chapman made his way into the briefing room, where everyone minus Shiva was waiting patiently for him.
"How did the Security Council react?" asked Scarab.
"Exactly how I expected," answered Chapman, "completely indifferent, and by default confident that we can handle this new threat. I suppose earth can only be invaded so many times before it starts to lose its charm. Has our specialist arrived yet?
"I've actually been here since this morning. From the moment your people engaged Darkstorm's people."
Chapman looked across the room to his empty chair, and saw one Dr. Strange, master of the mystic arts and sorcerer supreme of this reality, sitting comfortably. He noted, with some annoyance, that he was the only one surprised to see Dr. Strange sitting there.
"Please forgive this intrusion," Dr. Strange stood up and began to stroll towards Chapman, "I needed to ward this island against magical intrusion, and it's most easily done when the people you are trying to protect are in the room as well."
"Actually, that would have been the first thing I asked you to do," Chapman nodded to the Doctor, and took his seat, "So tell me, Dr. Strange, what can you tell me about these gits?"
"Actually, I'd like to hear your impression first."
Chapman nodded his head, "This Lord Darkstorm is ninety percent politician and ten percent madman. He fielded piss poor soldiers against us, and didn't even bother to ask for his general back. We've done him no wrong and he's either scape-goating us or making another play that we don't know about."
Dr. Strange raised an eyebrow, "That's not at all what you told the Security Council."
"You weren't the only one listening to my report with a magical mirror," Chapman smiled, "your turn, Doc. Am I right, did anyone from our world attack or damage theirs?"
"Most certainly not," Dr. Strange answered, "as a matter of fact, in the small amount of time they have been here, they have already done considerable damage to this reality."
"By crudely tearing a hole in the fabric of our reality," Dr. Strange explained, "the magic they used to enter our reality was wielded with all the grace of a surgeon using a rusty chainsaw as a scalpel. And they used said chainsaw on the fabric of reality itself."
"That…that sounds deeply disturbing," observed Scarlet Scarab.
"It was meant to be," Dr. Strange said, "especially when you take into account the fact that there are ancient path ways and imperfections in reality, flaws that can be effortlessly opened that allow easy passage between realms. They are easy to find and with the right time and preparation, can be used without great risk."
"In other words, they took the hard road even though it was more dangerous," Union Jack summarized, "could it have been intentional?"
"I would very much doubt it, given the risks involved," Dr. Strange replied, "they could have easily been invaded by an army of demons, or be trapped in a subrealm for generations. Honestly, they were lucky to reach our reality unscathed. Elder demon gods enter our reality with more grace."
"They had to move an entire island, plus God only knows how many people and weapons," Sabra stated, "might the greater mass be why they were so clumsy with their transportation?"
"Highly unlikely. With the amount of sorcerers and sheer power at their disposal, the greater mass wouldn't matter, it would simply require greater effort and coordination on their part. And patience and ceremony are the hallmarks of perfected magic," Dr. Strange explained evenly, "I'll be honest, what I've seen thus far is baffling. They obviously have magic at their disposal, their entire society is based upon it yet they have little to no grasp of the nuance, the depth required of magic. I find it all deeply disturbing."
"Disturbing in what way?" Guishen asked.
"Dangerous in the 'children playing with gamma bombs'," Dr. Strange replied in all seriousness, "if that pathway into our reality is any indication of their real skill with magic, our entire reality may be at risk."
"So why haven't you dealt with them?" Union Jack asked.
"Because they have too much power and at least seem to wield it too carelessly," Dr. Strange answered, "if I confronted them, even with other magical allies, it would be impossible to predict the damage that would follow. When you fight fire with fire, everyone gets burned. I prefer water in situations like this."
"Which means you can help, but we have to do the heavy lifting," Chapman stated.
Dr. Strange rolled his eyes and sighed, "Despite what you may want to believe, I simply cannot solve every problem with a mere wave of my hand. And unless we want our reality to unravel, I need your help as much as you need mine."
"Of course, my apologies Doctor," Chapman rubbed his chin and reflected on the situation for a moment.
"Unless we have proper intelligence, we're just feeling around in the dark," Chapman began, "but I also want to be ready for an assault. So here's how it's going to be. Dr. Strange? Can you trace these people back to their home?"
"Effortlessly. To be honest, given two years I could teach anyone here to do the same."
"Good, that means you can take some escorts. Union Jack, Cybermancer, Commando, Darkstar, you'll accompany Strange back to these bloke's home reality," Chapman ordered, "I'm not expecting a complete history, but a general overview would be nice. Try to be low profile if possible and for God's sake don't get captured."
"I think I should accompany them," Sabra offered, "I have some experience in intelligence gathering that may be useful."
"That's actually why I need you with me," Chapman answered, "You, Scarab, Silverclaw and Kamau are going to join me when we attempt to parlay with Darkstorm. I don't expect to be successful, but I have to try."
"Are you sure you want me along as you parlay?" Kamau asked. He frowned, and the scars that adorned his mouth made him look like an ominous skull, "I haven't much experience with being…diplomatic. Just direct."
"Then just be quiet and look menacing," Chapman ordered, "I want to see how these blokes deal with a wolf in their midst. According to footage, you have the highest amount of personal kills…"
"This time," Commando interrupted.
"…and your powers might strike them as magic while being anything but. Just look dangerous, leave the talking to me and we'll be fine."
"I should join you," Hellios said quickly, "I'm the most powerful member of Excalibur, I think they'll be a little more agreeable when they see me!"
"You're also amazingly vulnerable to magic," Chapman countered, "last thing I need is my biggest cannon benched before the whistle blows. No, you're my back-up plan if we actually need to send them packing. So you're going to get some special equipment, and then play janitor."
"Janitor?!" Hellios' shout literally rocked the room, "I'm the strongest one here, I…"
"Was piss drunk when I needed you for action!" Chapman's shout wasn't as loud by half, but it carried twice the weight, "and even better, you showed in the middle of a fight wasted! So you shut up and do what I tell you, or I'll make you an actual janitor just for the sake of irony!"
Hellios seethed inwardly, but he just looked aside, not meeting Chapman's eyes.
"And my squad?" asked Junta, "what will we be doing?"
"What you do best, what I brought you on board for," Chapman answered, "with a little help from an asset we were kind enough to leave them."
In the streets of Faylin
Young Vaarsuvius Starshine considered herself especially gifted for an elf child. When her parents were…removed and their estate taken by the state while she was just left, ignored and forgotten on a street corner.
Vaarsuvius took to her new life with equal parts pain and skill. She plucked money from loose pockets easily, and food venders never suspected a high born elf like herself to be a shoplifter (the young child congratulated herself on mastering the art of illusion at such a young age. It took her peers ten years to do what she could in five).
Unfortunately, even the finest mind couldn't predict everything. Like the fact that she wasn't the only orphan child in this district, or that some had formed mutual protection pacts, or gangs if one wanted to be crass. And that these gangs would take issue with her thefts in their declared territory.
One gang, after a terrible chase, had her cornered in a back alley. A gang of two human boys, one Tauren and three Halflings.
"This street is ours, pointy ears!" growled the Tauren boy.
"I do believe only Nobles own streets," Vaarsuvius answered matter of factly. She had a habit of spouting mildly relevent facts when nervous. Surprisingly, this didn't help her situation at all.
"Think you're smart, huh?" The lead boy, the Tauren, stepped forward and cracked his knuckles. While still a boy by his own racial definition, the combination of man and bull still equaled an ungodly amount of muscle mass, "see how smart you are when your brains are outside of your head!"
Young Vaarsuvius gulped, and deep down, readied herself to meet her forbearers.
"Children, that is quiet enough."
The group of youngsters turned, and saw an older woman, dressed in rags and cast offs, standing at the mouth of the alley, hands on her hip and looking at them all with unquestionable authority.
"It would be wise for all of you to step away from that child and head home now," advised the old woman.
"This doesn't involve you," growled the lead boy. Even at five years old, the Tauren stood at nearly six feet, "leave, before I decide it does."
Without saying a word, the old woman leapt forward, and brought her leg straight up. When it came down again, it landed squarely on the boy's head with a –krunch!-. The boy fell over unconscious, and the others instantly cowed.
The gang, with equal parts fear and awe, dragged their leader away while averting their eyes from the older woman. Though she hardly seemed excessively violent, none of them wanted to risk her wraith.
Choosing to ignore them as well, the old woman stepped forward and offered her hand to the young elf.
"Why don't we take a walk?"
Vaarsuvius took the woman's hand, and she lead her out of the alley and into the (relative) safety of the street.
"So why is a smart young elf like yourself doing out here?" asked the older woman.
"Surviving," the young elf said curtly.
"Without one's elders, this can be a dangerous world," remarked the older woman, "where are yours?"
"Where everyone else is who speaks the truth," the child pointed at an immaculate crystal spire in the distance.
"Surely they wouldn't be in jail unless they were criminals," said the older woman, deliberately unconvincing.
"Foolish old hag!" spat the young elf, the rage of having watched her parents dragged from their simple sanctum boiling over, "surely age has given you enough wisdom to see through the lies of the high lord!"
"I don't understand what you mean…"
"Typically ignorant peasant," spat the young elf, "when his noble house asked the fates for a name and were answered with Darkstorm, they should have had the common sense to smother him in his sleep. But his family pretended as though he would merely lead us through a terrible storm, and not cause it. The fates themselves decreed him a destroy, but because he's noble born, they act as if he's a savor!"
"The fates do love a sense of irony."
"Were he a true savor, he would not lock away everyone who speaks out against him!" Vaarsuvius shouted, tears running down her cheeks.
She looked at the older woman, but in the blink of an eye saw that she'd vanished. She felt something atop her head, and reached up, plunking it from her head. It was an apple, and inscribed in it's red skin, in a language Vaarsuvius didn't understand, said 'thank you.'
Union Jack, Commando, Darkstar and Cybermancer sat in a pentagram locus style, while Dr. Strange hovered above them, his eyes closed in concentration and chanted in a language none of them knew. An unnatural wind blew through the empty room and the candles that provided illumination seemed to dim of their own free will.
"Are we supposed to hum in Latin or somethin'?" Commando asked.
"If the Doctor required something of us, I am certain he would inform us," Sabra said bluntly.
"Just askin'…" shrugged Commando.
"Ready yourselves," Dr. Strange said softly.
"How…" Cybermancer's voice drifted off as she began herself beginning float, all the while still being able to feel herself still sitting. There was a sudden jerk, like a rollercoaster suddenly starting that Suzi felt only in her mind, a flash of colors Suzi never knew existed and then Cybermancer felt the steel floor underneath her replaced with rock.
"That certainly wasn't like the HERMES system," Union Jack remarked as he shook his head.
He glanced around, and saw that Dr. Strange had teleported them high atop a mountain. He glanced east, and saw a vast collection of tents, mud huts and other dwelling constructed from anything else the residents could get their hands on. People were gathered around giant bonfires, while he could see a long line of hungry, downtrodden people waiting in line in front of one of the few wooden structures, dented and banged up bowls in hand.
They might have stepped across a reality or two, but Union Jack recognized a refugee camp when he saw one.
"So what's our first move, Doctor?" Union Jack looked towards the master of the mystic arts, and took an involuntary step back by what he saw.
Dr. Strange, master of the mystic, champion of magic that fought beings of unimaginable horror and wielded more power in two fingers than Union Jack, looked completely, utterly terrified. His face was pale, drained of blood and his mouth gaped like a fish.
Union Jack followed the doctor's eyes, and saw, in the distance, a giant indigo cloud. Red and orange lightning cracked on the edges. There were random flashes of light and it seemed to repel the very air around it.
"What is that?" asked Sabra.
"That," Dr. Strange regained his composure instantly, "is an abomination. Something that if handled improperly, will cause a terrible, terrible bang."
"What, just a bang?" shrugged Commando.
"Excuse me, I misspoke. I meant it could cause a creation event. Or in laymen's terms, a big bang."
Next issue: Chapman enters Darkstorm's crystal city with a diplomatic mission