2. Here We Go Again

. . .

Showy, sparking portals were for human sorcerers that wanted to show off how neat it was for people who lived about eighty years on average to cast basic spells. Loki, able to forge the forbidden paths between and betwixt for a hell of a lot longer than that, stepped through the door of his room hidden deep within the SHIELD facility and glided out of an alley near the Bleecker Street mansion with all the fanfare of a panther's fart. He had the look on his face of a man who'd been awoken in the dead of night and demanded either a corpse or an apocalypse as an explanation for that sin, and taking a few long, ranging steps towards the Sanctum, he got exactly that.

The building looked perfectly fine from the outside, of course. A handful of drunk people staggering away from last call were on the sidewalks, and they didn't notice the old landmark, didn't look up at the purple, full-dark sky high above that strange and mystic window set upon the mansion's roof. Nor did the late-shift employees, or the bohemians that kept strange hours. And none of them looked at Loki, who stared with wide eyes (and one shocked third one, in a manner of speaking) at the Sanctum, seeing something entirely else.

Strange had not exaggerated the issue. If anything, he'd been dangerously glib. Underneath the visible layer of physical reality, the astral planes where magic lived surged and roiled in chaotic disarray. Like an infection burrowing fever-hot under the skin, the mansion was still under constant attack by some invisible, deadly force. Loki could see where the mystic protections were nearly burned through, scars in a perfectly ordered latticework of magic. The shields held, but only due to the life forces propping up that lattice from inside.

His steps turned hurried, stashing pretense and even his usual sardonic attitude, until Loki saw Wong waiting for him at the opened door with the tightest, harshest expression the man had ever worn. Then he sprinted neatly up the short few steps and into the mansion, feeling the protections slam shut around them.

. . .

"The athame isn't metal, actually," said Wong, leading Loki past a knot of distracted sorcerers focusing on the unseen assault and on towards the central staircase. He turned his head, sensing Loki's disbelief. "It's bone. I've never seen the likes of it before. The blade is a tooth, I believe. The rest of the tool, I don't know for certain. Leathers and bone, similarly unknown source. No one here recognizes any part of it."

"A tooth of what possible creature?" Loki scoffed as he followed Wong up, hiding his surprise with fake dismissal. No, he believed Wong, but that belief also required a work of imagination he didn't want to try. Not until he had to. "Not even Surtur's wyrms have teeth like that, and I've got a blade of my own for comparison."

"You saw Strange's vision. You'll see it for yourself in a moment." Wong waved at the door to Strange's private chamber, steadying himself with a hand on a balcony rail as the Sanctum creaked under another invisible assault. "Damn them."

Loki glanced up with a frown, sensing the arcing energy of the assault and its lack of any sensible pattern. Raw chaos given purpose, then, sundering against the roof of the mansion like black and cursed rain. He felt the old nausea return. "Any sign of who's leading the assault? Any idea yet how they got to Strange?"

"No. None." Wong sounded frustrated. "They couldn't have physically manifested inside the Sanctum for more than a second, but it was enough." He turned to Loki, his expression still harsh. "But the safe money says they're Chthonics. Darkholder fanatics, crawling out into the light."

Loki glanced at the door to Strange's room, knowing he wasn't hiding his unhappiness with any of this. "I'd very much hoped mad cultists were going to be a one-off thing when we sealed away that eldritch monstrosity in Scotland." He inclined his head, looking wry. "For the sake of my leg, if nothing else."

"Shuma-Gorath's children have faded into shadows, yes. But it seems these fanatics have become emboldened since." Wong pushed the door open. "And we, unfortunately, know little of Chthon's remaining servants. Only that they are well-organized. This is no mere cult we are dealing with, I think."

. . .

Loki knew it was going to be bad. This was worse.

The impossible knife looked as if it were balanced perfectly atop Strange's breast, the tip of it piercing through the Chinese-style tunic Strange had been sleeping in and tracing like a feather against the skin itself. Indeed, forcing himself closer for a pained study, the blade of it wasn't pitted, blackened metal at all, but some sort of tar-like bone wrapped with old leathers. That jutting, threatening pommel was not only shown to be some other scrap of marrow, but cradled inside it and passing for ornamentation was a hard, preserved organ he couldn't identify.

Undulating, sickly energy poured from that tip, ensnaring Strange's body in a grotesquerie of honeycombed cells. The power of it thrummed against Loki's skin like the heartbeat of a mad god, screaming in a cacophony of forbidden language, all of it ringing familiar in his ears. The lost names of an imprisoned master, a dead yet eternal thing that had once glimpsed freedom through Loki's own eyes, chanting unceasingly, that old blood music surging with awful vitality, looking for another host to hollow out.

Loki wrenched himself away from Strange's body with a gasp, horrified anew.

"Yeah, it's pretty awful. I couldn't even begin to come up with how to warn you, so I just sort of hoped for the best and figured you'd do your usual stoic bullshit to get through. Not your first rodeo, etcetera. I should have been more clear. I'm sorry about that." Strange's astral presence stepped into being next to him, sounding quiet. Even genuine. "I promise it's not revenge for wrecking this place that one time."

"That one time that's suddenly, terribly relevant again?" There wasn't any heat in the accusation. Loki was too busy making sure last night's meal was staying where it was, both arms pressed against his abdomen like a child.

"Tea?" said Wong from by the door. "I've got an excellent ginger that was sent over last week."

"Please," said Loki, giving up on any pretense of faking his way through this. He waited for Wong to leave, and he also didn't turn back to Strange's body. "Why is the assault continuing?"

"To wear us down, to keep distracting us, to make sure I can't get a grip on anything." Strange gestured around his translucent self. "It's a really good question, but that's the usual guess. My actual theory is that they're trying to breach the prison, to get at the book itself. I knew it would happen someday, but less than a decade? They must have had an expensive reservation they can't cancel and thought this would be easier."

"And its servants?" Five ancient sorceresses who had tried to awaken the Darkhold's greatest potential and their dreadful maker, sealed away in that same oubliette.

"They're still asleep. I think they're tired of conflict, and it's going to be too much of a hassle to get them out, too." Strange shrugged. "So, funny thing, I have good news."

Loki looked around until he spotted a chair pulled out next to a small desk, dropping himself into it like a bag falling into a dumpster. "When is there ever good news around this beshitted grimoire? When?"

"They accidentally bought us a good chunk of time by pulling this stunt. I don't think they guessed I had it in me. Literally." Strange pointed at his body. "So hey, get this? The metaphorical lock on their prison is a very specific kind of enchantment. One I think you're gonna find pretty familiar."

Loki put his face in his hands, already taking a guess. "You didn't."

"It's not a full soul-tether, I'm not that stupid. We had some works on old artifact binding, things translated from Old Aesir that we got from a site out in Tonsberg, Germany, like a thousand years ago."

"You didn't."

"And it had this neat diagram of how you guys made the royal spear. That Gungnir thingy."

Loki gave up on words and settled for groaning through his hands with as much pained drama as he could imbue the sound with.

"So the prison is tied both to a physical key-artifact that we think they're trying to get at, and to my lifeforce."

Loki didn't react when Wong returned and put the mug of tea on the desk next to him. He'd quit. Full blue-screen.

"They either have to get the key and enter the Sanctum physically, which still has a shit-ton of protections on it and is going to be one hell of a fight, not to mention that where the key is isn't exactly a Party City, or they have to completely drain my lifeforce and wedge their way in through astral planar travel. Which isn't going to go well, since we've got like thirty more sorcerers on site to keep the shields up." Strange was grinning when Loki dropped his hands to glower at him. "And that athame can't kill me unless I screw up. It's very specifically designed to make sure I survive what it's doing to my body, so they completely blocked off that entrance to themselves."

"For now. Until they realize their mistake."

"Well, yeah."

Loki picked up the mug of tea, caught in a small double-take when he realized the mug was a ceramic, badly painted head of the Hulk, and gave Wong a look that said you knew what you were doing.

Wong looked back, straight-faced.

Loki drank the tea anyway and immediately started to feel a little better. "All right. You're certain the physical key you made is safe?"

"Certain enough."

Loki stared at Strange's projection over the rim of Hulk's ceramic, hollowed out skull. "When it comes to 'not my first rodeo,' Strange, the ultimate thing I had to learn was to make no assumptions about my safety nor of any protections when it comes to that godsdamned hell-grimoire. It has a way of destroying every pretense you have. I can't believe I have to explain that to you."

"Loki, the thing's been locked in a pit-slash-soul jar for a couple of years, almost totally drained of its energy. It's lost every matchup it's had with us. It's inert right now." Strange rolled his eyes. "This isn't about the book, so long as we can keep these idiots from breaking in. It's about that last page of it that got away. The final sorceress from Centralia took it, that Fade. She's dead, by the way. Her last physical anchor died days after we lit the place up."

"Oh, that's much better." Loki's voice was acid. "Just one page on the loose for years, torn free and presumably changing hands among its loyalists since, no, that's fine, wars are never won or lost on the results of one critical loss."

"Loki."

"No, no, you're right. Just one page from a book that attempted, and damned near succeeded, to eat my soul whole after barely fiddling with it for a couple of days, a book written in the language of pure and ultimate darkness, no problem. It's just one page, probably a spellcaster's equivalent of dirty limericks about demon genitals, of course, it's no trouble." Loki was aware his voice was rising and didn't give a damn. "Of course a scrap of semi-sentient boiling evil wouldn't be so desperate to reconnect with its whole that it couldn't possibly become an even bigger problem!"

Strange crossed his arms. "You done?"

Loki stood up, bellowing now. "Not in the fucking least am I done! You wake my arse up in the middle of the night, invading my dreams, short-selling the amount of trouble you're in, all to find out you're standing there acting like the prince of the ball when a fucking fanatic demon horde is standing on your porch asking if you've been touched by dark gods, and they've got one Hel of pamphlet to share with you!"

Strange blinked, thrown by the agitated assault. "Look-"

"He's right," said Wong.

Loki sat back down, stunned into renewed calm. "I'm what?"

Strange turned to Wong, his head cocked in disbelief. "Excuse me, whose body is currently pinned down by an eldritch attack? I'm not underestimating anything."

"Stephen. I don't believe you are. But I do think, under the circumstances, that Loki's experience with the book is more pertinent." Wong pressed his hands together. "We have been guardians and protectors and chosen of the Vishanti. But the Darkhold was lost to us for a long time. It is easy to misunderstand what we've forgotten, easier so when we have not ourselves seen the worst results of such mistakes. I think we must take extra care here."

"Thank you." Loki ignored Strange whirling on him. He didn't ignore the look he got, though, which then slipped past him towards something else. The look turned irritated. "What?"

"Did you honestly bring your cat with you?"

Loki opened his mouth as if to say no, but then realized what must have happened. Instead, he looked up at the ceiling, knowing this was going to be a pointless conversation. "Frej, I told you stay home. You're not old enough to be traipsing around like you think you want."

"Mrp!" It sounded perky and not a little defiant. The little orange and black cat pip-popped out of the shadows to sit next to Loki's shoe, staring up at Strange's astral spirit.

Strange looked down at the cat with dim recognition. The animal that had jumped onto Loki's bed. "Didn't take you for the type to arrange for a grimalkin. Fussy things, most familiars."

"Stephen, you didn't listen when I tried to tell you." Wong glanced at Loki, looking tired. "That's a flerken. Not a familiar."

"A what?"

Wong shook his head. "We adopted a few in Hong Kong a couple of months ago when Nick Fury presided over a litter of the creatures. Fine mousers. Very good watchmen."

"What's a flerken? Why am I having to ask about this in the middle of a metaphysical assault?" Nobody answered him.

Loki looked down at Frej, then at Strange's physical form, then at Wong. Wong blinked back, getting it instantly. Loki felt himself begin to grin, sharklike and delighted. "I have an extremely good idea."

Strange narrowed his eyes at Loki. "About what?"

"We need to secure your body, while also making sure you can get access to it, all while we figure out how to deal with your guests. Can it be moved safely?"

"My body is perfectly secure here."

"Really isn't, Stephen. That this happened proves it. And yes, it can, if we're cautious. The blade is acting like it's embedded and won't move easily." Oh, Wong was all in. Loki had a sneaking suspicion he was going to enjoy getting one over on Strange tonight more than he was. It was understandable. At least Loki didn't have to live with the man. "Is she agreeable?"

Loki looked down at his small, furry companion. It wasn't quite right to call her a pet, nor was he any sort of master to her. They were friends, perhaps, with her as an adopted sort of fuzzy child. Honestly, it occurred to him, calling her a familiar is actually closer to the right relationship, if yet complicated. He inclined his head politely. "Frej, instead of my being annoyed that you disobeyed me, would you prefer I asked you to assist?"

"Mewp!" The young flerken sounded pleased by her partner's formal tone.

"Excellent."

"What is going on?" Strange, unable to do anything on the physical plane, nonetheless put his hands out in horror as Frej popped up onto the bed next to his body and did her thing. "What is she- OH MY GOD!"

Frej delicately began to wash her paw, having neatly retracted all her mouth-deployed tentacles - and Strange's magically impaled body - back into one of the pocket dimensions that lived within her. She didn't bother to look at Strange's astral shape, but there was a distinct sense that she was enjoying his reaction.

Loki, meanwhile, would gleefully swear in a court of law that his entire astral presence had turned a delightful shade of sickly green.