A SHIELD Codex Halloween: The Ritual of Chud
1. Devil's Night
. . .
177A Bleecker Street. The evening of Oct 30.
Outside the door of the old manor sat a cheap card table covered with that unmistakeable ugly green felt. On it, a plastic pumpkin spilled over with mini bags of M&Ms, a green plate with a happy ghost said Boo! and offered up its gifts of peanut butter cups, and a silver platter etched with indescribable runes that seemed to shift before the children's eyes was stacked high with a dented pyramid of neatly saran-wrapped rice krispie treats. Some had chocolate chips. A few had delicately swirled PB streaks on them. All were labelled safely for kids with allergies. Wong made them personally in the days before. The Sacred Plate of Satori-Fong, an iffily historied 'ancient' artifact that was actually probably made in the 40's by a con artist witch still holed up in Brooklyn today, did a pretty good job at keeping the marshmallow cool and cohesive, and it had the bonus of adding a little real flavor to tomorrow's holiday.
A sign pinned to the door read 'Happy Halloween!' and 'Please take tonight and celebrate tomorrow!' in Wong's neat script. Pushed to the edge of the table was a plastic crate of free, if colorful, toothbrushes, the sole concession he'd made to Stephen Strange, who had to be forced away from the idea of adding in little red and black boxes of dental floss that were embossed with the name of his regular dentist.
"Do you want us to get egged, Stephen?" Wong had shouted at him from across the manor three days prior, his hands sticky with cooking spray and marshmallow gibs, without a trace of humor. "Because that is absolutely why we will have to explain to Kamar-Taj how we let the New York Sanctum get egged!"
Wong didn't like to fight, actually. But when he did, he went in to win.
The display would refill itself periodically, as the invisible magic eye monitored the card table situation. Wong had, on Stephen's recovering funds, bought pallets of snacks, and ingredients to make enough marshmallow treats to choke a kid brought up on Popeye's biscuits. The table would stay up through the holiday, just as full as when he'd set it up. Because he'd had to raise his voice over it.
None of this conflict was in his voice as he opened the door with a big, broad smile. "Miss Maximoff!"
"Please. Wanda." Wanda's hands fidgeted together for a moment until one came up to pull a lock of red hair away from her face. Her already soft accent made her "Am I early?"
"You are precisely on time. The other two are already here. They were too early." He gestured to the table. "Feel free. I've got plenty more inside."
Wanda gave him a small laugh, then snatched up a krispie with the quick flash of her hands, old street-brat moves, having no idea that her first choice of a treat immediately endeared her to him. "These look great, Wong."
"I made them myself," he said, no longer hiding his pride.
She beamed at him, holding the krispie in two hands and following him inside.
. . .
SHIELD Agent Aggie Harkness piled the cards in front of her and set them to shuffling with a snap of her fingers. They slapped against the old oak of the round table, dancing with satisfying verve along its glasslike finished surface, rustling a five-stack of marshmallow bats. She looked up at Wanda with a nod, her hair a little greyer than the last time Wanda saw her at a joint Avengers and SHIELD meeting. "Hey, Wanda. We were just playing solitaire until you arrived."
"Solitaire usually… means only one?" Wanda looked at the other woman at the table, assuming she'd misunderstood. The woman looked early thirtyish with an open, inquisitive face. Dark brown eyes that watched everything and seemed amused by it all. Tight braids going back along the scalp, beaded here and there with wood and what was either ivory or bone.
"Yeah, but Aggie is bad at the game and keeps cheating. I gotta keep these people honest." She got up, stretching a long, light brown hand across the table towards Wanda. Wanda could see the detail of one of her tattoo sleeves now, an intricate web of black and white symbols, many of which she barely recognized. Some seemed to be from the Goetia, which she did know a little about. "Pandora Peters. I'm the new girl."
"Oh! I did read about you in a briefing report. Welcome to SHIELD." Wanda took Pandora's hand and found it warm but strong. "I'm Wanda Maximoff."
"I'm up on you." Pandora snapped a wink, then waved her to a seat next to her at the table. "Now we got a game."
"Poker night on the eve before Halloween?" Wanda took the seat, watching the glass that had been waiting for her to arrive fill with sparkling water.
"When I was a kid, we were right at the end of still calling it Devil's Night. Big city push to change that." Pandora took the cards away from Aggie and started shuffling them manually. "Guess I still call it the old way sometimes. Anyway, this is Wong's show, we're just here to have fun."
"A card game is fine for now," said Wong, taking his own place at the table. A set of candles followed him, adding a touch of goofily spooky ambience to the room. "The point is that we are gathered here tonight. Together."
Aggie shook her head. "Not that I understand why. I was told that we were going to help the guys with an important ritual. I'm not seeing how a card game with marshmallow bats as currency is going to do much."
Wong chuckled. "Don't worry about it. Our part is easy. Eat snacks, enjoy the company, tell tales, listen to kids outside take as many candies as they can stuff into their coats. Things like that."
Wanda peeled open the plastic wrap on the krispie treat and delicately tore a corner off. She offered it to the new lady, Pandora, with a gesture, who waved it off with a grin. "No thanks. I ate three of those things already." She jutted her thumb at the silver bowls of goodies around them.
"If anyone would like something else besides candy, I'll either summon it, or the kitchen is down the main hall there, take a right. Don't take the stairs up tonight, I'll have to come rescue you. The relics get antsy on nights like this one. Too much energy crackling in the night."
"Bathroom?" asked Pandora with the fearlessness of someone who knows full well everyone needs one sooner or later and wasn't going to be shamed about it.
"There's a small red door on the way to the kitchen."
"Relics?" asked Wanda. "I'm sorry, I've never been to any of the Sanctums."
"Relics," said Wong. "The Sanctums are a little like museums, Wanda, a dedicated, well-guarded protectorate of magic from around our world. With a bit less colonialism inherent to the system. A bit." He frowned, a delicate but emotionally rich look that suggested he had a few issues left with the program but didn't want to get into them right now. "The relics are of varying types and each Sanctum tends to specialize somewhat. Books, for example, tend to remain in Kamar-Taj itself, which has a very well updated library system including electrical climate controls. In addition, we've modernized its classification and sorting systems, using both computerized and ensorcelled techniques in tandem. It's not unusual to see both ancient chained codexes and an up to date computer on the same aisle."
The pride was clear in his lecturer's voice.
"Now, the New York Sanctum specializes in storing dimensional weave curios and certain other unique artifacts, some of which have demonstrated practical usage during their creation and recovery, and many of which have at least a pearl of unique self-awareness. The Doctor's cloak is one of these artifacts, and it goes to show the best case scenario regarding what can happen when the relics become unbound." Now he sounded almost chiding.
"If a relic has created its own identity, isn't it worth looking into what the… item itself wants?" Wanda's brow was furrowed.
"You mean rather like how we must always acknowledge Vision's autonomy." Wong smiled.
Her brow smoothed, startled at how clearly her undertone had come through.
"It's absolutely something we consider within each artifact's context. They may not be dismissed as mere objects. The cloak, as an example, had been perfectly content to lie dormant for many, many years. However, such artifacts often come alive when the right person approaches it at the right time. My own feeling, which is particular to myself, is that the situation where the cloak and Strange bonded was unhelpfully chaotic. This is not what I think is preferable, as a guardian and as a, well, museum caretaker, so to speak. But it wasn't up to me. So yes, I sound displeased by their bond for reasons of that circumstance. But the cloak is apparently quite pleased with its choice, and I'm not going to be the one to break up the band."
Pandora continued to cut the cards, then drafted out a basic opening hand to each person at the table. Aggie was leaning back. Her cards drifted up of their own volition for her to study, then they flitted down again. "Show-off," said Pandora.
"You'll get the hang of it."
"When I'm sixty." She felt Wanda's look. "My magical talents are pretty narrow. The boss monster likes to call it 'specialized.' I think it's just his once in a century way of being nice."
Aggie snorted. "She's an instinctive aether tracker and she's good with magical constructs. Runes, fetch bags, hell, she worked up a fully empowered athame within a couple of hours as one of her introduction tests and I watched Loki get this lemony pinched look on his face that means he was incredibly impressed but would rather die than show it."
"He gets that look all the time." Pandora sounded dismissive.
"You've got something you're good at, and you built up your skills by yourself." Aggie leaned in towards Wanda. "She's also pretty good at blackmail, so keep an eye on your cards."
"Bitch," said Pandora, cheerfully.
"Now, now," said Wong, putting up a hand.
"It's okay, she's being affectionate. I like to tease her about how she got this job in the first place." Aggie rolled her eyes over to him. "Unlike how I got recruited, when I had to camp in a demon-infested forest for the better part of a week, courtesy of my old, undead evil-bonded family."
"You can just call them Republicans, Aggie, you don't have to toe around your whitebread heritage with me."
Aggie froze, but couldn't help but break out into laughter a second later. "I just mentally materialized in a world where a bunch of ancient demon women lined up to vote like a bunch of turn of the century suffragettes."
"Be about how it would go down, too." Pandora tapped at the stack of remaining cards, fussy about making sure they were even with each other.
"How were you recruited, Miss Peters?" Wanda looked at her cards. Crappy hand. She put two down to be re-dealt.
"Girl, no. Pandora only. I don't do titles. I won't even call the boss monster 'Mr.'"
"You called him Your Highness once." Aggie looked at her cards again, then pushed a single marshmallow bat into the center of the table. Wong did the same.
"Just to see if he'd shit. And he did."
Aggie smiled as Wanda folded her cards and set them down away from her, tapping out of this round. Two marshmallow bats were hers, this hand. "That's on principle. He likes it when people are fearless enough to have a go at him, Pan. You know that's the other half of how you got the job." She jutted her chin at Wanda. "It's a good story, but it doesn't fit in a two sentence synopsis."
"Perfect," said Wong, breaking in. "Why don't you tell the tale, Aggie? Get our evening started off right."
"Oh, you going down a bat on the first hand doesn't count?" Aggie picked up one of her wins, nearly ate it, then looked at it, put it back down, and swiveled around to pick through a giant silver bowl of candy instead. She came up with a tiny box of dark chocolate nonpareils. "So. Scary stories in the dark, and a high-stakes poker game."
"Sure," said Wong, agreeably.
Aggie shrugged. "I don't know what kind of ritual this all is, but all right. Buckle in, folks, cluster in, and listen to my story. Me, Pandora, and the cat eating menace of the lower city."
"The what?" Wanda reared back in her seat, horrified. "Oh no. I love cats."
"So did this guy, in a manner of speaking. It has a happy ending, I promise." Aggie winked at her. "But I understand. That's why I took on the case in the first place…"