17. Devil's Advocate

. . .

The church had once been the domain of Father Berenger Sauniere, and that name had become synonymous with conspiracy and embezzlement. In legend, he had been key in hiding the bloodline of Christ. In reality, he sold off his faith for gold and rebuilt the church to his lavish standards. His soul paid back for it, eventually, and the mortal man died penniless.

Varnae used to claim he'd left his mark on the territory long ago, and it was his corruption that had brought Sauniere to temptation and ruin. It might even be true - the holy water font was carved in the shape of a devil, and Varnae, back in the early days of their relationship, liked to show off how it smiled just like him.

Vittorio Montesi had claimed the old Tour Magdala as his lair when staying near the church, one of the failed priest's finest expenditures. It was a fine and private place for inner study, even if he preferred the Joyeuse castle estate for all other purposes. The ghost of the old vampire hung too heavily there for deep thought. Right now, he needed focus.

He sat crosslegged on an old rug trimmed with gold, and his head was hung low, as if protecting the page still embedded in his chest. Behind his closed and flickering eyelids, he studied each link in the chain that would destroy the New York Sanctum, and easily open the way to the Darkhold.

Oh, there were always other ways down that road, if it came to it. The page could not be kept from its book forever. If that damned dragon guardian couldn't be shunted aside, he would consider it. But that final method would cost, at a price more than even old Vittorio might choose to pay at first.

Chthon rewarded its servants well, but its wiser servants knew how to manage their investment. Vittorio was old and round and had even been called jolly before they saw how something frightening glinted in his eye, and he was no one's goddamn fool. He grunted as he thought, following a psychic line among all his 'children' and other allies, seeing where the scouts still remained in New York, seeing where others were on their way to the drowned city to see what that obnoxious malingerer god had done to it, the one the sorcerers had called to for help.

He knew Loki, if tangentially. He knew what Chthon knew, and the Darkhold, which had looked about inside the god's head and found him useful enough, and he thought the young looking figure wasn't much more than an annoyance. The god seemed gone from the field now, probably worn from his business in R'ylleh, and that fool, Strange, was still lost to his allies. Good.

In his dark meditation, Vittorio jerked slightly as he turned his attention closer to home. He grit his teeth, wondering what alerted him, what was off… and then he found the knot of chaos that was not of their make. A surprise attack in the church sanctum, some holy force wresting away and - now his mouth curled in a sneer at the heresy - draining and cleansing the blood they had intended for their rites. A setback, and a brutal one. The worst case scenarios Vittorio had planned to avoid just became that much more likely.

Around the attackers lay, unmoving and falling away from his astral contact, several of his Chthonic children. And at the head of the attack was the glittering aura of Victoria.

Vittorio opened his mouth in a feral howl fit to match any creature, coming out of his meditation as the castle bells began to rang to warn the rest of the battle raging in its heart.

. . .

Victoria dropped the chair leg and finished spitting the minor bludgeoning cant at the already prone cultist. A few others had already run for it, taking Wong's bellowed suggestion to desert while they still could with fearful seriousness. Behind Vic, Aggie was doing something to the ruined silver bowl of blood, her hands glowing that strange blue again. She now seemed clearly driven by some other force, and it was Wong that glanced at her occasionally, as if he suspected what it might be. There had been no time to ask, the counterattacks were coming too quickly.

Damien shot another bolt into the balcony rail, pinning the rope and its magical trap firmly into place. "That won't stop the smarter ones, but it'll slow everyone down a bit."

"I'm almost done," whispered Aggie, some unearthly harmony echoing under her voice. It was her, and it was not her. "Hold fast, the page is coming to see its story ended."

Damien shot a glance down at her and the last, fading drops of blood staining the bowl, then at Victoria, and she read the same questions there that she was asking herself. Vic shook her head. She didn't know, but she hoped whatever it was currently inside Harkness was benign enough to treat its host gently. Meanwhile, Vic looked around for another weapon and found Wong pressing a small silver-black athame into her hand. She looked at it, surprised. "I'm not… sanctified…"

"It's one of the Sanctum's living artifacts. Just hold on and trust in hope, and it'll guide your hand. It won't fight for long, but I'm sure it will be long enough." Wong pushed his sleeves up and nodded to Damien. "Silver bolts won't cut the skin of Chthon's own priest, not within his territory. What else do you have?"

Damien rooted around in his hidden quiver, coming up with a short but lethal looking gold-tipped bolt. "Pope kissed this one a few centuries ago and tried to pretend it cleared his debts with me." He looked up with a wink. "He was a shitty pope, okay, but the guy that actually handed it to me used to be a blacksmith. He knew what he was doing with Vatican gold and holy water."

"One shot, then. Wait for the right opening." Wong grimaced, snapping his wrists together to summon the golden seals of Kamar-Taj. "And don't miss."

. . .

Vittorio marched behind a small phalanx of five Chthonic cultists, including the rite-master whose hands were still stained with Vittorio's blood and the page's ink. It rankled him to have to risk this much firepower on a push against their attackers, but if they could not reclaim the sanctuary and the ritual bowl, their whole mission was in danger of entering a mystic imbalance. The blood could be regathered easily, at least. By draining their assaulters.

That would include Victoria. He grimaced, his lips pressing into a thin, almost invisible line. Sacrificing her might well be enough to appease her creator-God for their current mistakes. She had left the flock and then brought the wolves home. Punishments were now due, and she had no chances left to her.

Something twinged inside him at the thought, and he ignored it. It was a small and human emotion, and he had no time for it any longer. There was only Chthon's whisper behind his lips.

A bellow warned him that the first two cultists had found Damien's trap and were cutting it free from the balcony. If it had activated, they all might have been slowed down. He reached his senses ahead and found them - her - waiting. Waiting. Instinct told him to stop as the cultists readied their charge, the trap disarmed, and it was only him that went unaffected as Damien's real trap activated - a counterweight and rope that dumped magical essence on three of the charging men. They stumbled and began to scream as pure light began to eat at the darkness within them, driving them into exhausting hallucinations that would result in them passing out.

Vittorio snarled at the remaining pair at his side, uninterested in the young man with the raising crossbow. "Ignore them, they're useless now. Get those idiots," he shouted, and with a flick of his hand he pushed at Damien with a tendril of raw, unfocused power.

The man was thrust back into the altar, hard, the crossbow dropping from his hand. Vittorio allowed himself a flicker of pleasure at the pain that rippled across his face, losing it just as fast as the Sanctum's guardian flung back a controlled, oddly beautiful ripple of power that stripped away his two remaining guards - including his rite-master - with the simplicity of sea waves. "The Chicago Way," said the man, Wong, with mild but audibly clear distaste, his hand reaching down to support Damien. "Stand down, Montesi. You will not win today."

Something burned into life inside Vittorio. He would not be stopped that easily. Chthon's ascendancy would not be stopped so easily, not by some churchlike militant chiding him as if he were a little boy. He raised his hands and with a soundless howl he flung Chthon's raw power at Wong - and missed?

No. It dissipated harmlessly, leaving his target just as surprised.

A spark of blue patterned into the air, then vanished. And behind it, his daughter. There was a knife in her hand. An athame. Some gift from the Vittorio lifted his head, exposing his neck. "Et tu?"

"Don't," rasped Victoria. She dropped the athame onto the altar, staring at him, her eyes widening into a look of horror. "Don't do this."

Vittorio wondered about that with a growing sense of mild, confused distance, wondering why she seemed so concerned by him. Then he realized those hands of his, still glittering with Chthon's own raw and wild essence, were pawing at his neck, loosing the tunic there and revealing the Words. The power was rising within him, and far beyond his control. It allowed him a moment of transcendent clarity. And horror of the self.

"Don't!"

"He cannot help it," said a voice rising from behind the altar. Vittorio hissed in Chthon's sibilant tongue as the woman straightened up. He didn't know who the human was, maybe one of Strange's, maybe one of that idiot would-be God's sycophants. But he recognized the face peering out from behind her eyes well enough. The goddess stared back, those eternal white eyes flickering alive behind the human ones. "Chthon will not be denied its one last chance for power in this era. It will try to win, even if it must tear this small body apart to do so."

Victoria heaved a breath as Vittorio stared at the woman, stared at that Oshtur creature hiding just underneath the human skin, like Chthon did under his own, and he didn't see his daughter pick up Damien's fallen crossbow. "Vittorio," she said, her voice cracking. And then she fired its loaded, golden, holy bolt into the place where the Darkhold's page and a crucial artery overlapped, close to his heart.

Vittorio gasped, reaching for the bolt, his hand suddenly only his again, and his breath turning into a terrible, draining rasp. The pain was the world, and above the world was his daughter's face, staring at him in open horror at what she'd done. For a single second he was a raw creature held aloft on a bubble of blood in his lunges and the world of his regrets. Then his hand wrenched out of his control once more and gripped not the bolt, but the top of the page. He felt his fingernails scrape against his skin, and he couldn't breathe, couldn't breathe, couldn't tell why he was sinking into the world, why he was on his knees.

And then the page whispered to him as it peeled free, sibilant dead words of promise, all the things he'd heard before, and with it went the pain. He didn't know what to feel within that emptiness. All was confusion.

Chthon itself said "Come with me," and Vittorio continued to sink through the world and into the black, the scraps of his soul tearing apart like paper, as the Darkhold's page seemed to turn into the only real flesh left in the world.

. . .

"He's on his way," said Loki, feeling the Darkhold begin to stir, the leather cover of the book rippling like a lizard waking under an arid sun. He felt it like it was his own flesh, and gods, but he loathed the sensation.

THE PAGE IS ALREADY FREED, said Hoggoth inside his mind, each word striking like lightning. CHTHON CLAIMS THE MAN, SAYS HOLY OSHTUR, BUT SHE ALSO SAYS TO ME THAT THE VESSEL IS WEAK. THIS WAS NOT THE PATH THE MAN CHOSE, BUT IT IS THE ONE OUR FALLEN SIBLING WILL NOW FOLLOW.

"Not to divert from the message, because that is important and useful news, great Hoggoth," said Loki, his eyes now screwed shut as the headache began to settle in. "But, ah, do you have something like a whisper?"

The lightning cracked in a storm of high and happy laughter. "NO," said Hoggoth, delighted with itself, and then those mighty fangs gripped Loki's still-tethered spirit with care, tore it the rest of the way from his body, and dove down into Chthon's primordial realm along the metaphysical 'path' Loki had created with the Darkhold through his own soul. The hunt, for mighty Hoggoth, was now on.

. . .

The primordial void is exactly that. It is a space of pure, mind breaking nothingness. Possibilities may randomly spark into being and then attempt to wrest free from the void into reality, but most of the reasons for this occurrence are not designed for mortal minds. There are no landscapes, no compass directions, no sense of up and down or right or wrong. It is not like being blind. It is like being adrift in nothing, and it is terrifyingly easy to become lost there for whatever 'eternity' means to the void.

The between borders it, that alien liminal space between worlds where Loki has walked before, but the void is not part of the multiverse. It is nothing, and it is the soul of Chthon. The paradox means that Chthon sleeps between every atom in every universe, and that it cannot be destroyed.

Fortunately for all existence, this is not the goal of the Vishanti, and Loki is smart enough not to hope for it. He'd love it, of course, but he'll take what he can get. The Darkhold's lost page is the first shot of their proxy war here, and Hoggoth is charging on a path through the void that Loki is forcing the book to reveal. Loki is clutched within the God's grasp, a nest of teeth and fangs and the roiling Host, and he knows the game he's about to play is going to be the worst plan he's come up with in his life. So far, anyway. It is the culmination of a dozen different things he's never wanted to do, and because he is bitter about it, he spends part of the journey thinking about how he'd kill Stephen Strange. Which he won't, not today and likely not ever, but he's in a mood.

Hoggoth roars to illuminate the void despite its insistence on being nothing, and because Hoggoth is a God, something crackles into being to help guide Loki the rest of the way. As the Darkhold awakens, it is trying to shake him free on instinct. He feels the nausea begin, knows his hand has reached out to touch the unnaturally warm skin of the book, and instead attempts to focus himself on the dreamlike existence of the God all around him. Even here, Hoggoth smells like clean tiger fur on a summer day, the fangs like the bitter copper and heady meat of freshly caught prey, and the Host sing to keep the light all around them growing. There is still nothing, of course, out there all around them, but it is warm and Loki can at least see Hoggoth, and it is oddly comforting.

And then they discover something else in the void. It is a piece of the coalescing presence of Chthon itself, and it is using its human tether and the page clutched in his hands to draw itself towards where Loki's physical body is currently transfixed. Hoggoth speeds up to match the growing pressure within the void, and its thundering snarls become a joyful song as the God targets the falling figure of Vittorio Montesi. The man is bleeding from the chest, and the way one hand clutches at it, Loki can already see that in addition to the wound from a golden bolt still pinned in his ribs, he is now having a heart attack.

In the other hand is the page of the Darkhold that's been the cause of all this trouble lately.

The timing of this is going to to be close. Loki is tempted to close his eyes and rely on instinct, but that's a fool's game. Instead, he concentrates all of his will and agility on this stunt he's about to pull.

Hoggoth's goal isn't to broadside Chthon or knock the human free, at least at first. But it shocks the pulsating nothing of Chthon when Hoggoth breezes by Vittorio Montesi.

And Loki reaches out a hand to grip the living, breathing page of the Darkhold tight.

Hoggoth howls, pleased, and lets Loki fall from its grasp. Together, trapped by the page, Loki and Vittorio Montesi fall through Loki's soultrap - and find themselves in that very same between where Loki started this goddamn mess so long ago.

. . .

Vittorio jerked around with wide eyes, a hand flung to his chest to find himself apparently whole, and further, draped in a priest's white surplice. Then he realized he was not alone. He whirled and saw the god standing by an empty lectern. Not the one he'd been serving, the one who he now realized had forced him into a world of lies. The one that he, in Chthon's thrall, assumed was an enemy. He didn't know what Loki was now.

No, the lectern wasn't empty. The page lay upon it, fluttering like breathing. "Loki," he breathed, staring at that page. "What have you done to us?"

The god stared back at him. Whatever he felt, it was hidden behind a bone white face and a tiny, unreadable smirk. "What was done to me, once. An irony writ large, the ouroboros of my fate. I've brought us here so we may stand in the between, Vittorio Montesi, the crux of time and space, where countless doors surround us." Loki gestured to illustrate the blackened mirrors that surrounded the space they stood in. Montesi had thought it more void, that familiar nothing, but no. Probability lay behind each one, waiting like a snake. "You poor, unbalanced thing. You placed yourself on the path to become the incarnation of what you serve, and you don't know the first thing about the risks of Godhood."

Loki lifted his and said, toneless and yet filled with some unknown power, "I Am," and the page began to flutter again in response. Still the god seemed blank otherwise, but somehow his presence seemed more solid and real.

There was nothing here for Montesi to understand. He shook his head instead. "I don't want your games. I'm dying and I'm exhausted. I haven't been free in decades. I don't fully understand what's going on. What are we doing here?"

That got him a genuine expression, a careful, probing study in Loki's changing eyes. "Your daughter made that suggestion, briefly. I didn't consider it. That you thought what was your free will to choose your path was instead Chaos's joke." His lips pursed. "Not that that alone changes your outcome. I can tell you from experience."

Montesi opened his mouth, wanting to argue, but the years seemed vague. "Varnae," he said, realizing. "He…" His voice trailed off as he rolled up the sleeve of his surplice, looking at the old scar at the crux of his elbow. "Oh, god," he said, and his voice began to shake. "Oh, god, oh god, I was forsaken and I forsook myself, oh god, oh god." The ground, made of something not like marble but close enough, drew close to his face to bump his nose as he slumped down to it. "Oh my God, oh Jesus Christ, my sins."

A hand reached out and gripped his arm, pulling it out to examine. "What is this?"

"A scar." Montesi's voice cracked. "Just-"

"It's a bite wound. Very old. The lacerations are deepest where the incisors on a human would generally be." Loki let his arm go, and then hunkered down to study the man, face to face. Montesi couldn't bear the close examination and turned away. The god's eyes had gone red. Unearthly, but not unkind. The pity in them, that was the worst. "You were forced. You reached a point of weakness, a place where your faith failed you, and Varnae forced you the rest of the way." A soft noise. "Forced himself on you, as some vampires are wont to do."

Montesi's breath was a choked sob.

"Well. That will make this easier, I suppose." Loki straightened up and turned away from him, regarding the black marble lectern and its lonely page of that cursed book.

"You will finish killing me?" Montesi gurgled something that wasn't a laugh. "When I rejoin my own body, I will die anyway. My heart is failing, and the bolt hit an artery. My daughter always… always had a steady hand." His memories started to drift, dragging him backwards to when she had been a little girl. Those memories were still fairly clear, those moments with her, until the song and the Word began to pull him deeper and deeper away from what he considered his own consciousness. "I am sure I deserve it, but the energy-"

"I won't kill you. But between you and me, Montesi, since we're now apparently speaking on plain and amicable terms, I am about to do the dumbest godsdamn thing I've ever had the misfortune to get backed into doing." The god flicked a glance over his shoulder, and now the skin of his face was blue. Montesi stared back as the lapis skin and darker sapphire lips crinkled in a wry and unhappy grin. "I'm going to tell the Darkhold I'll do what it wants. It needs a Keeper, Montesi. Always, but especially when it is whole. The sisters of Chthon are held fast, and you have been prepared for the role. But I make a better offering, don't I? I thought I was going to have to fight you for the role, but you've no fight left in you at all. And no wonder, I realize now. It was always that bit of Varnae, alive in you, forging a conduit between you and Chaos's master."

"Don't," said Vittorio, weakly. "Don't, you can't imagine what it's like in Chthon's mind, I dreamed of killing gods, of killing dragons, I-"

"Oh, I've been there before, Montesi, but your concern is noted. Appreciated, even, considering that I might well have casually torn your head off a little while ago, given a need." The face turned back to the page. "But it's over, I think. The Darkhold must win. Balance must then find its way after." A soft inhale. "In the void, we are still falling. Your body is failing you, and so your chained spirit will fail Chthon. My hands are both on the page and the book itself as we speak. It is an offering, a simple one. I am giving Chthon everything it has ever wanted."

Loki turned back to Vittorio Montesi, and, true to his word, now the page and the book lay in his hands. He was smiling, still that small, wry smile as the page slithered across his hand to rejoin the book of its own accord, no longer needing or wanting the unholy ritual that had been so carefully readied for it in the dark heart of France, and Montesi thought there might be a secret behind those teeth. "All Chthon has to do is reach for it."

And Chthon, impossible, unreal, the shape of the neverending dark, stretched down for Loki through countless realities and unrealities, pulling itself through every atom of existence, and a tendril of the impossible, lunatic void began to snake around Loki's waist, ready to claim him.

In the heart of the universe, a howl of victory began to scream, the waveform chaos of a black hole, the song of madness incarnate. Chthon continued to curl, to reach, to sing, to clasp itself around its prize of a willing God, and a book making itself whole again in those long, lapis hands.

. . .

Beside the dissipating Vittorio Montesi on one plane, and beside the rigid figure of Loki on another, Stephen Strange stepped out of hiding. He said, absurdly, "Boop," and the world suddenly turned into blazing, brilliant light.