18. He Said the Thing
. . .
Stephen Strange came back from his disembodied sojourn strong with the spirit of Kamar-Taj, the light of the Vishanti coursing through his veins like fire, and he didn't know if that empowerment had come along with Loki's bargain or not. All he could focus on was what he was, the Vishanti's advocate and Supreme, and what needed to be done here. The cant of I Am, that first and final spell that held a sorcerer's soul in place, that named Gods against the darkness, had been on his lips as Loki awoke the Darkhold with his touch, waiting.
Hoggoth was with him now, and Agamotto, if silent and watchful now, and Oshtur, though a fragment of her was also holding Agatha Harkness aloft in power in France at the same time, and their power burst through his scars like a tempest. Montesi was at his feet, fading like a ghost - for in the between that's all he was, particularly now as Chthon cast him aside - and Strange whispered a spell to let the man's spirit pass freely towards his last moments at his daughter's feet.
Loki stood rigid, held in Chthon's grip, as the ink of the Darkhold coated his hands and dripped up his arms towards each elbow. Was he grinning? Strange came up next to him, arching an eyebrow as the face turned towards him, still entirely himself, and yes, grinning with hostile merriment. "Loki."
"Don't be fooled, this feels absolutely terrible. But the Vishanti are holding my mind free." The grin became a grimace. "You've got less than five minutes to do what you need, before I'm gone and it's just you and this worthless bastard of a primal trying to hollow me out. I've a final request, just in case, and it's not asking you to go throw yourself off a cliff for screwing up my plan in the final moments."
"Don't be dramatic, asshole, you calculated the odds yourself. They're pretty good." Strange narrowed his eyes. "What's the wish?"
"Say it." The grin came back, turning manic.
"Say what?" But he thought he knew. Loki read the same books, the old ones with spells from eras that were a little foolish and archaic now, spells that Loki had made jokes about that were, he had to admit, pretty damned funny.
"You know full well." The black ink continued to drown Loki's blue skin, and at the fingertips the first words began to appear. Strange made sure not to look at them and their exhortations to unholy chaos. Bad luck to invite the risk at this critical juncture. Chthon thought it had won.
But until it had fully claimed its new Keeper, with his intricate connection to the Darkhold, it was too soon to celebrate. The link could be broken. Nonetheless, some awful keening filled the between, a deathly song, like bones scraping against brass. A victor's cry.
Strange frowned, despite his need to hurry. "I don't want to."
"Humor me," said Loki, and the words started to gurgle in his throat as Chthon tried to take his voice for its own. His eyes were still bright ruby, alive and amused. "Come on, Sorcerer Steverino, don't be a poor sport."
Strange inhaled, tired and annoyed with the man, but also filled with a scrap of the old 'what the hell.' It would do for a way for focusing the work, in any case, and the Gods he was about to call on might at least appreciate it. He stepped back from Loki, now midway through his transformation into Chthon's latest Keeper, and lifted his glowing hands high. He pitched his voice, readying it for a roar, as if to command a battalion forward into war, and why not? He was.
"BY THE HOARY HOSTS OF HOGGOTH-"
And lo, the spirits that always crowded close around the beast-god's light began to surge, released onto chaos.
"-BY THE EYE OF AGAMOTTO-"
And lo, purple smoke began to fill the between, turning all those mirrors of probability into fables of Agamotto's make, changing the potential of reality around then into the worm-god's dream.
"-BY THE OMNIPOTENT OSHTUR-"
And lo, there was her light, the light, the light the Light The Light THE LIGHT THE LIGHT THE LIGHT
"-BY THE VISHANTI, CHAOS WILL BE BOUND!"
The powers of the Gods ripped through Strange, and he felt the holy three pass through him. He saw Hoggoth and his war-band forge their way up the small tendrils of chaos trying to burrow into Loki's skin, clawing up and up and growing as they approached the monstrous all-thing that was Chthon, and from there the battle passed from what was describable to what could only be sensed, the idea that order and chaos could never fully destroy one another, but when all was out of balance, the universe will fight to set itself on the true axis once more.
Strange inhaled that rich and sacred smoke, seeing Loki held still as the battle raged around him, within him, beyond him, and become part of him, and expected some continually annoyed and immortal piece of the small god was right there in the mix with the Vishanti, doing its best to personally kick Chthon in the jimmy.
It should be noted that the God of Chaos does not have a jimmy, nor was Victoria's birth exactly up to obstetric norms, but Strange figured Loki would figure out how to arrange the act out of sheer unstoppable spite. He'd earned it, Strange figured.
And hey, better Chthon than Strange.
. . .
Vittorio Montesi was still on his knees, his breath coming in shaky hyperventilations. His eyes were greyed out and unfocused, until they weren't. They cleared in time to see Aggie Harkness slump against the altar, the silver bowl cleansed and Oshtur's mission now focused elsewhere. Damien Hellstrom had gotten back up and was securing the not quite dead cultists nearby. Wong was watching him, with a hand on Victoria's shoulder. And she… his daughter was looking at him with revulsion and fear.
"I," he managed to utter through the gasps. "I, I…"
"He's dying," said Wong, calm and plain.
Vittorio felt his face sag, as if from far away. He tried to reach for his daughter, his arm shaking, the scar burning, burning. Varnae wanted him even in death. Perhaps he had never died after all, that his spirit was alive with Chthon and that was why Vittorio had remained loyal all this time, even with his daughter so close. The pain of the bolt wound wasn't enough to keep him free, not here where the power of Chaos was still flickering. "Sorry," he fought for. "Victoria, I'm so sor…."
Her face didn't change much. Perhaps a knot between the brows. His eyes were glazing again. Everything felt far and wee. "Var…" His tongue failed him, going thick and numb. He had earned nothing but this fate, but gods, to at least die free. He realized he must look like he was gibbering, and thought his eyes were beginning to lose all focus, but no, he was starting to slump to one side.
"He was taken," said Harkness. "I was told." She stopped, looking confused. "They said Varnae always made his mark on the left arm, and that he's right. The spirit of something like him never dies. They… say that it's too late for redemptions, or even forgiveness, but that it's up to you if he dies free." She shook her head. "I don't…"
"Oshtur speaks plainly enough when She chooses." Wong picked up the athame from where Victoria had left it. "A vampire wound will usually respond to silver, but it will have no choice but to obey living silver."
Victoria was still looking at him, and from behind the growing haze, Vittorio could not read her expression. But he saw her take the blade from Wong, and he closed his eyes as she approached his sagging body and revealed the old scar on his arm. He heard her hiss a breath at the sight of it.
"It's bleeding," she said, sickened, and he reflexively tried to gag at that news. "Like it's fresh. God. God. Hold on. I'm sorry, this might hurt."
It did, massively, but it was also a cleansing sort of pain. The athame's tip pressed into the place between the two fangholes in his arm, and from the blade poured whitefire light. His entire arm tingled and for a moment he was back, entirely aware, seeing his daughter as if for the first time. "Victoria, I am sorry," he said, clearly this time, all in a rush while this golden moment lasted. "I pushed you away. I wish I could say it was a way of trying to save you, perhaps it even was, but that is no excuse for the pain I caused."
She touched his face, her expression confused and hurt.
"No excuse. Not for what I said to you. Not for what I did. But you're safe now. They're binding Chthon, out there in the grey. It will never claim your life, Vicky. The one you made for yourself. I promise you. I promise you…"
The pain began to surge back, but it didn't seem quite so awful anymore. There was a lightness to it that said it was almost over.
"Thank you, Victoria. I was always so proud of you, even when I said terrible things. I wish I hadn't." said Vittorio Montesi, and he died free.
. . .
In the beginning was the void, and from the void came the light. Between the two were born the elder gods, and of them, Oshtur and Chthon were the first. Both of them had the potential for all of light and dark between them, and Oshtur, wise and curious about the vastness of eternity spreading newly around her, chose to explore both. In time she mostly turned to order, as chaos seemed well populated by smaller things, in her estimation. Chthon alone chose to remain solely of the void, as other 'siblings' rose and entered the new universe. It is written in secret books that Oshtur utterly believes this made Chthon weakest of the elders, and oh, how It hates her for that judgment.
In time Oshtur found Hoggoth, another of these new siblings, and then Agamotto, whose creation is now both fact and lie, who was born immortal but, say old secrets or stories, once knew a mortal life. Regardless, as that first family of elder gods separated, it was these three that formed a family of their own. The Vishanti are, ostensibly, Gods of Order, if for no other reason that someone must be as Chthon holds the other side, and it was their Great Work that once formed the Darkhold's opposite - the Book of the Vishanti. Now that great tome floated above Oshtur's left hand, summoned to her by virtue of her word alone. Above the right was the Darkhold, whole and meek before one of the great powers of the universe.
Loki, doing his best to not make a face, was leaning on Doctor Strange. His body hurt like nothing he had ever experienced, pale again now, and paler than ever in his weakness. He suspected it was something like a human flu, where joints felt like glass and muscles knotted in agony as the virus attacked the whole body. He felt feverish and weak, and utterly, utterly drained. Had he known about Aggie's similar recent experience, he might have cracked a joke about something going around in the aetheric currents. Inside his mind, thousands of nightmares let free by Chthon were being trapped and taken away again, but for now his mind buzzed nauseatingly. At least his mind was still his. The idiotic gambit had worked.
"I hate you exquisitely," he said without any heat to Strange.
"Yeah, I know, but you just helped to save my ass, the Sanctum, Kamar-Taj, and probably a few other people, too. You'll get over it." Strange turned his attention to the Gods. At Oshtur's feet lay a puddle of darkness - the eternal void incarnate. The edges of it seemed to glitter, chained to witness Order at last. "My lady. My Gods. What would you have your servant do?"
"You will observe, champion of the Vishanti." Oshtur turned her golden eyes away from the books at her hands and looked at the pair. "Order was requested of us, to return balance to this universe. For a time. Scales are not fixed, and evolution requires change. Do you argue this, little god?"
"No," said Loki, not feeling up to being cute.
"You asked the Darkhold to be dealt with, that it may disrupt your lives no further."
"Not in so many words, but basically, yes. Fervently."
Oshtur nodded. "Then this is the cause and the cost of that desire." Abruptly, both books vanished.
Strange jerked forward, almost throwing Loki to the ground. "Hey!" he started, and then caught himself.
Hoggoth gave him a wry side-eye, chuffing out an amused sound.
"This is balance, then. Both must be removed from the chess table. Both must rest." Oshtur's hands came together before her in a gentle clasp. "It will be a season of peace, my supreme, where the balance is held by free will and choice alone. Those who would do evil with our great powers must choose to, and seek to forge their own way into chaos. Those who would seek to act in wisdom…" She let that trail off, then smiled. "Well. There will be those like you to watch for them, and guide their way. Yes?"
Strange nodded, stunned. There had been no era where Kamar-Taj had lost touch with the Book of the Vishanti, not only a simple tome but a conduit to their great powers. This outcome had not crossed his mind, and he realized there was going to be a certain amount of fear among other sorcerers of Earth when they realized that connection was gone.
Next to him, Loki snorted softly. "The books are just a crutch, you idiot. A tool, just like you. You won't need them if you're dedicated enough to what you need. They're references, like any other. I had to learn that about the Darkhold the hard way, so consider this a gentler lesson. And your Gods have gotten an earful about remembering to listen, so you won't be lost in the shuffle for a while. Thanks to me."
Oshtur's face seemed to loom all around them. "Are you certain you wish these acts to be marked as your contribution, small god, that we and We remember this?"
"Yeah," he said brusquely. He cocked a look at the Goddess, wry and tired and knowing all at once. "Come on. The mortal world is more fun to knock around in, anyway."
She studied him as Hoggoth chuffed once more. "You are a bold and sometimes crude child," she told Loki.
"It's been said."
Oshtur frowned. "Even a child can teach a lesson, we suppose." She flicked a hand. "Very well. And now your small bargain will now be resolved, the debt paid. A fair coin, considering what it has bought your world."
Loki inclined his head, all nobility now. "Thank you, Holy Oshtur."
. . .
Rennes-les-Chateau had a lovely view of the sky. Bucolic countryside, with the sun turning the clouds into peach colored cotton, and a dozy village who had known nothing of the war at its tourist trap of a church. Aggie Harkness froze next to an exhausted, cried-out Victoria as the strange sensation that first hit her in the curio shop's warehouse began to crystallize around her again, then realized it wasn't inside her head this time. "What-"
Oshtur stepped onto the small stone lane that wended around the side of the country inn, where Wong was inside to arrange safe travels for those that had freely abandoned Chthon. She looked almost ordinarily human for a moment, save for the pulsating aura. A beautiful woman with obsidian skin and warm, golden eyes, who seemed to emit pure light and thought, and she wore a simple white kitenge-style wrap over a blue patterned dress. "There was once a sorceress named Thorn, and the day came that this one slew Our chosen daughter. In revenge, at her final call for aid, We struck out and marked Thorn well for this insult. We took her life and bound her mortal, and We cursed her blood and her children's blood, for the acts she took against Us."
Aggie stared at the goddess, helpless and silent.
"It has been suggested to Us that the child of the blood might not forever bear the curse of the ancestor, and that the punishment, harsh but fair, now casts a shadow upon those who choose freely to punish their ancestor's decisions in their own way." Oshtur lifted her chin to study Agatha Harkness. "We agree with this assessment. The line of Harkness bears no more curse, yet the gift the blood carries remains. You and your family - sons and daughters both, now - will continue to bear the potential for great power. But it will be in your hands what fate that brings you to. Do you understand, free child?"
"I-I do. I think."
Oshtur nodded, and then she looked at Victoria. "The being that cast you into life… The lesson to Us was writ twice. You as well chose to live freely, though your blood was the blood of our cursed kin."
"I… didn't know," whispered Victoria.
"Whether you had known or no, the point remains. You did not follow your father into chains, though now you hold regret and pain at his fate." Oshtur tilted her head, considering. "We will not take this from you. It is yours to contemplate and learn from. But We will tell you this. He regretted to his last second the acts he took in Chthon's name, bound by that vampiric spirit, and our Sister who took him through the threshold treated him kindly as he walked on."
Victoria shot a look at Agatha, as if she thought there might be an answer there. Oddly enough, Aggie looked as if she understood. Death was known to those around Loki, and it was often that this shape of Death could be gentle - so long as there was at least an honest attempt to earn that gift. "I… thank you, holy Oshtur. It will help."
"Then our debts are paid and the bargain unwound."
"Bargain?" Aggie raised her hand. "I don't understand."
Oshtur ignored her, as was the right of Gods, and she vanished a second later.
"Okay," said Aggie, completely blown out at this point, and, well, at least everything was going to be okay. At last.