1964-03-02 - Rage Against the Dying
Summary: The London Sanctum Master dispatches a warning to Strange when the wards go up in flames over the largest cemetery in Central Europe. So, naturally, the Sorcerer Supreme needs to discover what the hell is going on. Keyword: Hell.
Related: Burn At The Close of Day
Theme Song: None
wanda strange 


In the middle of the evening, a few hours past the point New Yorkers dine on supper, the doorway leading to an interdimensional corridor that links the arcane sancti starts to blur.

Then the wards go up, the emblem of the Vishanti emerging against the impermeable barriers and rotating upright. Rather than citrine, the light feeding in favours the buttery gold of sunbeams passing through leafy foliage. Jolts run through the defensive wards gathered around the sacred space, and the many symbols in the high mystic language forming together speak of urgency.

At the same time, Strange’s sense of the globe feels a piercing jab somewhere around the central right side of his chest. Did a bone stick on the way down? Wrong side. His intestines operate normally, but that eighth sense bequeathed by his mantle does provide a queasy sense.

Something just prodded the interdimensional barriers enveloping the Earth from the inside. The sensation is akin to someone tearing down old wallpaper in a strip, peeling the aged glue off plaster or another layer of paper, pulling away chunks of dormant protections. It creates a thin point that, together with the spells, surely has to make his back molars rattle.

The master of the London sanctum leaves the protective cocoon of his home, and emerges into the central hall. The door to Hong Kong remains stubbornly shut, and the doors to the building behind him glow brightly in a goldenrod haze. He carries a peculiar glass and wood rod, something distinctively Celtic in design.

“Master!” he shouts, his voice ringing off the stone. Swiveling puts him in front of the New York door, already shining with the warning given. “Doctor Strange, something has all my gems shattering and trembling.” Wardstones are particularly sympathetic to certain kinds of magic, after all, and a surge in a localised area can be a rather dangerous litmus test.

He points the stave up and speaks Words, the Celtic entanglement of Brythonic, preserved since the days of Merlin, bring up a globe in shimmering detail on the dome. It rapidly comes into focus as he controls the spell, bringing the Alps and the Pannonian plain into relief. Given the winter, snow caps the mountains and blankets the shining networks of lights that string out through southern Germany, western Hungary, and Austria straddling the Danube.

Orange sparks ring the city of Vienna, aflame with tiny concentric bands of sigils. While Sol Rama concentrates on the ground under his domain, the Master of the Mystic Arts begins to sweat, concentrating to attune himself to the protective barriers spilled across the Old World and Africa. Then he has it, throwing a spike of arcane power like a javelin into the southern suburbs. “There.” A gasp. If Strange has appeared or not, it does not matter. “There.”

This is his job.

*
Dinner has been had — mmm, nutritional slurry, his favorite…not judging by the face Strange made the entire time, curse a mortal body’s needs — and the man subjected to the chalky taste now tries to wash it away with a heavy, heady cup of dark tea. It’s thick tisane with some aspect of chai and others that come terribly close to coffee itself without trespassing into the realm of the ground bean.

He sprawls, as always when without company beyond the residents of the Sanctum proper, across one of the couches in the living room downstairs. Book in hand, tea in the other, the only thing he need another hand for is to pet the Malk kitten attempting to interpose herself between him and the lines of cryptic language upon the old pages.

“Aral — Aralune, honestly, you cat, STOP.” The Sorcerer’s mutters increase in volume until he has to set aside the tea or else spill it on himself or said feline and neither would appreciate the temperature. With a ‘prrrp’ of delight, she headbutts the freed-up palm of his hand until he gives in, with a sigh and roll of his eyes, to scritch behind her ears. It’s a sedate scene, rather homely in its odd Mystical way, and it lasts not long enough.

Hnnnssssht!” The sound that escapes Strange’s lips sends Aralune suddenly departing, mortally offended for having been startled, and he flashes teeth in a grimace for the sudden lancing of warning that converts from pure Mystical psyche-resonance to the body itself. Even as he sets the book aside, stomach churning for the realization that something is up, the wards themselves chime warning to all in the mansion.

Red alert, red alert! Ding-ding, boss, hop to it!

Lucky fate that he still wears the storm-blue clothing of his office even as the Sorcerer strides through the door leading to the gathering point of all three sancti, the dual panels of wood opening with purpose allowing him to catch the ending consonant of the first call of ‘Master’.

The Eye materializes about his neck even as he pauses at Godrich’s side and looks up to the globe hanging in thin air. “It’s making my teeth hurt, whatever it is,” Strange replies, glancing to the frazzled man and back again. The representation of the Earth before them tilts, shifts, hyper-focuses at the will of the London Sanctum’s Master and the Sorcerers both seem to come to the same conclusion within seconds of one another. A palm placed on the other man’s shoulder, complete with a rush of kindred power to take the Mystical metaphorical weight from his and onto that of the Sorcerer Supreme, means the cyclonic swirling of magic riffling the battle-leather’s loose points and the brightening of narrowed eyes.

“Guard your Sanctum, Godrich. I’ll deal with this.” His words are lower for the defensive note in them and across the delicate interwebbing of the Mystical dimensions, others might feel the minor vibration come in response. They poked the Guardian of Earth’s fate, he issues the counter-challenge with intent that might rattle bones right back to anyone sensitive enough to feel it.

«Rakshasi, if I may have your assistance in this matter.» It might be a projection needless for how the Witch is no less attuned to the New York Sanctum’s wards and the battle-call of the Sorcerer Supreme. She may even arrive on the heels — nay, hem — of the crimson Cloak that whisks through the opened doors leading back to the mansion. It settles upon his shoulders and he gives the other Master’s upper arm one last solid pat, silent reassurance that whatever scratches with nails-on-chalkboard at their wards will regret it.

The British gentleman’s words make for a silent snort of a laugh. “Keep an eye on those rogue bugbears while I work.”

A Gate drawn up with graceful circling of wrist opens upon the site of the disturbance and immediately Strange’s metaphorical hackles rise, a slow exhale leaving him as nearly a growl. Stepping through it brings him to…a sight.

*
Godrich grimaces under the weight of the strain suddenly lifted off him, and the ancient relic in his hand rings with brittle accord at the diminished draw upon it. He lowers his arm, giving a good shake, and peers up to the concentric rings focused on a great greenspace.

“We’re damn lucky that isn’t Berlin,” he mutters, the old chestnut of every unfortunate guardian over London. It’s always Berlin causing a fuss in this age, Moscow a distant second. “Mind how you walk there. Spies from all over, and the troubled history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its sorry neighbours is never far from the surface.”

The dimming glow of buttery gold radiance around the sanctum doorway to London speaks to a retreat of the warning spells, put back in their place by a silent bidding of the stiff-lipped Englishman, as if there are any other kind. “One day, I hope you care to come hunting. We can find you a decent coat and deerstalker, and never worry about guns. Our set never use them. Not sporting against the rogue bugbears on the dragon lines.”

With a smart salute of the raised staff, used like a gentleman’s walking cane, he retreats just as the red blur of the Cloak asserts its right to be there in all its grandiose volume. To be sure, even when it was a wee argyle dish rag, it likely took up a pillowcase’s volume.

*

True to form, Wanda needs little reason to go running. Call, and she may come, though the shrill noise of the wards is not nearly so off-putting to her as the Sorcerer Supreme. The alarm clock, on the other hand, probably is. She sits about waiting for trouble each day, no doubt, and thrills when the hour delivers.

Perhaps not, but a girl in leather boots emerges far too quick to be purely circumstantial, giving the Cloak a look of deep acknowledgment. Saint Cecilia favours the wayward children they represent within their purview, and Strange could well have consort and relic tripping over him before he actually sets forth to doing anything, like agreeing to a deerstalker hat.

“You have a very odd sense of travel,” she notes, probably looking for holiday and coming up with the wrong word. Especially given the architecture presenting itself in the maelstrom revealed.

Night-time Vienna tends to be gracious and lovely, complete with myriad floodlit Baroque facades from the days when it was a world power and one of the largest cities of all. For those golden days before the First World War, here the great minds of science, art, the emerging social sciences, and esoteric figures gathered. Never mind Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Josef Tito, Sigmund Freud, and Trotsky all dwelled in the same general two miles in the City Center. True, in 1913, they all crossed paths in the famed coffeehouses of the city.

And all, in their way, contribute to the modern age where the vast Central Cemetery’s sprawl. A good many of their victims lie interred here, and equally many more across the cemeteries and unmarked battlefields of Europe. One cannot escape history in Vienna, and Vienna never, never forgets, clinging to her memories like a grey dowager in her fading silks and exquisite golden baubles.

In Vienna by evening, though, it is dark. High stone walls enclose a park that dwarfs Central many times over. Many gates lead the way, and circuitous paved avenues allow for cars and, once, carriages to circulate among the testimonials to the dead wrought in marble, granite, and humbler local stones. But Strange’s gate opens on the grand central avenue leading eventually towards the jagged horseshoe of columbaria, where ashes are interned, and the copper-domed splendour of the Church of Charles Borromeo. Headstones, some weathered and others relatively fresh, are interspersed in orderly Teutonic fashion among the crypts for the grand and the wealthy, the curious and the humble. It rises in staggered, towering white splendour around the surrounding gardens, several sections front the wings curving around the church.

It would be lovely and peaceful, if there were not at least five hundred candles floating along either side of the walk, and not a single one of them burning with a mortal flame. Saint Elmo’s fire, a weird green plasma, dances around the top of the dome, engulfing the crucifix, and bleeding around the twin pillars — plague columns, as is common to Vienna — in front. Processions from biblical stories wind up the columns, because Baroque means stupidly opulent to show we’re stupidly powerful and wealthy, and one of the angels stands on the stairs leading inside.

Weeping blood.

Weeping mana.

*
When artistic renditions of celestial beings begin to cry life-ichor and magic — bad juju is up.

Thus the ferocious glower on Strange’s face as he pauses before the grand architecture of the Church, with weathered green dome made more verdant still for the eerie lights. The aside is for Wanda and he murmurs,

“Do you ever get the impression that you’re expected when you show up to things like this?”

She probably has, having been subject to many supernatural events conducted by maestros of the other-Realms, heavenly and hellish alike. The sight alone of the state of the building is enough to give any mundane person enough of a discomfit to send them scampering away, assuredly. To the Sorcerer Supreme, it means something more. A fight. Probably a bloody one.

In that odd habit of his, he rolls up each sleeve two rotations even as the Gate falls closed behind them. As he fidgets in the sense of readying himself for a Mystical fist-fight, he weighs options and attempts to ascertain the flavor of Darkness he’s dealing with. Blinking the Sight over his eyes allows the briefest impressions to reach him, for how thick a nauseating miasma of repelling fog surrounds the chapel.

It doesn’t feel like he’s peering into a library’s worth of spells accessed. It’s rather narrow, most definitely of this Realm in humanly (cultists, perhaps, he wonders in a flicker-flash), and the sensate impressions are enough to make that proud nose wrinkle in disgust.

He’s felt this before, albeit laced with the touch of Fae. It’s the cloying stick of decay in the back of one’s throat, the moldering of funeral clothes redolent of pasty chalk and splashes of color on skin devoid of life, no inspirations audible from a form made limp and hauntingly empty — twisted cruelly by marionette strings of someone dabbling in that which they shouldn’t: necromancy. If might not be too off-base for both practitioners to wonder if it was the passing night wind glancing upon their temples or the kidskin glove of bony knuckles; not to startle, but rather an acknowledgment that he who defies Her, she who strides boldly at his side with proxied defiance, both will be doing Lady Death the favor of returning like to like — restoring a balance skewed even as they skew it themselves.

“Bet you a new teapot it’s necromancy,” Strange adds in black humor even as he begins striding for the steps that host myriad ghost-lights in green. Around his hands fisted down at his sides, motes of golden magic draw miniscule comets around their stellar masters, scarred as they are.

*
Death has no throne on Earth, common to all, but few places reverence it quite like the capital of Austria. The plague columns and churches glorify the triumph of life over death, raised in prayers to the Virgin and her host of saints by various grateful emperors through the years. And Zentralfriedhof serves as an epicentre for the cult of death and those with a happier relationship with the afterlife than most western countries. Viennese take their dead neighbours in stride, celebrating with picnics at the cemetery, adoring their Requiems like the adopted Salzburg son, Mozart.

Sickly witchlight and weeping angels smacks entirely of wrongness, a deep and abiding necromancy that sinks tendrils into the very fertile burial grounds like a tree taken from the desert into the rainforest. Nutrients needed by the lingering pallor of the spell, or ritual, or some other mystic purpose wait in abundance, wicked up greedily. Whatever concentrates itself in the proclaimed eldritch architecture very clearly empowers a hell of a battery, like using the Great Lakes to fuel a watery bit of sorcery.

Candles glow their eerie shades, veering from ultraviolet to a noxious green so pale it might be stony white. No heat comes from them, and the unwavering flames stand tall, at least two inches up, inverted from the normal pear shape one might expect. No scent emanates from them outside the Sight, which despite its name comes to all senses, and it very much reflects dust, dirt, and blood. Maybe a bit of wine if one were inclined to call the alcohol scent that.

Nothing corporeal greets Strange from the church. A pair of solid doors remain shut, padlock still intact on the anterior wrought iron gates, probably left by the priests or the groundskeeper after hours. Fell plasmoid flames clearly stem from within the building, for all they emerge out the crucifix and the twin freestanding columns. The verdigris dome makes an excellent focal point. Architecture and years of prayers do a little at least to resist the corruption seeping out. Corruption of death over life is an insult, especially given this is a place where the very bones of the city carry memories of war and ravages through poison, pestilence, and the other various horsemen.

Wanda pulls her coat around her tighter and frowns, drawing a knife from her boot without the least bit of consideration. She glares at the green flames dancing on the rooftop. “Someone will see this, soon,” may be an unnecessary comment given they can see mossy ephemeral tendrils passing like fungi from the candles, and the same growth all over the church in the Sight. It grows in wild abandon, how one might imagine a secret garden concealing some forgotten vestige of a lost kingdom in a children’s story.

Still, the answer to any jungle explorer tends to be ‘hack it to pieces’ when confronted by thick overgrowth. She lingers back; the Sorcerer Supreme knows his business better than her, and her magic taps into the chaos of life, not death. Still, she can’t help but look over her shoulder. Rank and file crypts surround them, the remnants of a life. One million entombed souls and more.

“I want nothing to wake up.” The city lives around this cemetery, around that, all Europe. Her mouth tightens but a little. First steps approach one of the weeping statues, bleeding mana, the accrued weight of faith under siege.

*
The Sorcerer pauses at the base of the steps as he hears her quiet musings. Backlit by the eerie scintillating color-shifting lights, he follows where Wanda’s head denotes attention: namely the graves. The huge number of graves.

If it was imperative that they nip this problem in the bud as soon as possible, it just became priority number one, underlined and highlighted to boot.

“Morgan Le Fay would have had a field day here.” He can say this without flinching simply because that particular problem was succinctly solved and time has healed all but the occasional nightmare where he’s too slow on the draw for deflecting one of the lancing flares of eldritch magic. “No magic from the Fae that I can sense here, but you’re right — we don’t need anything waking up.”

Sight-brightened eyes narrow back at the spreading fell-vines of corruption and as he mounts the first water-bruised stone step, his hands are upraised and at his lips, the whisper of a shielding spell should the St. Elmo’s Fire choose to do anything beyond hover and flicker in a creepy manner. It seems his travels up the stairs are safe. The doors, however, look thoroughly barred to the average eye.

A quick check of the padlock itself, along with accompanying chains, the metal framing of the gates themselves, and then even into the lintels of the doorway with the Sight proves them barred indeed simply to the average eye.

He takes one step back, hands forming specific counter-mudras, and he whispers a spell that sends seeking tendrils of gold-spun starlight into the padlock itself. It is assumed that it clicks open for the delicate maneuverings of incantation-turned-lock-pick; he did take into account electronics and summarily, any wiring is fried for its efforts. As a final boon of said Words, its intent leads the barring gates to swing open of their own volition.

No fingerprints. Bam. Does she know of how he spent some time ghosting around Kathmandu and tracking criminals simply for the moral fun of it?

“«Beloved», let’s not be separated. Stay close,” he projects via their singular connection, glancing back over his shoulder to her, if she’s some distance away. If she’s on his heels, the statement stands. No need to give away their presence any more than opening the wrought-iron barrier might have done.

*
Electronics aren’t present in the lock, only good old steel and a fat shaft meant to resist all but the most insistent bolt cutters. Following that philosophy that a good deterrent requires a fancy key, the doors rely on a solid chunk of chain slid through the ornate handles. When Strange’s fancy fingers break through the mundane barrier, he need only jiggle around the horseshoe-curve post to free it, and then he has roughly two pounds of weight in his palm to toss at something.

Doors, then, of a baroque size lead inwards. Each is more than sufficiently tall to admit a juvenile titan, and require a good shove to swing open upon a place normally light, as sweet a confectionary as buttercream or meringue. Traditional cruciform in design, the long aisle cuts towards the nave, intersected by shorter arms. Stars dot the artificial heavens impressed upon the dome’s interior, lapis blue backdrop ringed in a gold rondelle, with a starburst contained over the oculus. Pews advance in neat rows past the opulently decorated columns.

All this by dusk would be lovely to see, presumably illuminated by a bank of candles in glass votives, or mayhap an electric chandelier overhead left on its dimmest setting. But no illumination of man’s devising welcomes them. The crucifix upon the great altar in marble and gold-leaf is scarcely visible through the entanglement of black and drooping greenish tendrils of spell energy spilled over every surface. If a forest or marsh reclaimed the great church in the midst of the cemetery, it might appear so. Knots and tangled conjunctions of bent and rewoven spells drip off the aisle, coating the floor. Converging tangles thicker around than Strange’s torso gather in front of the altar, and seem to plunge down under the dome into the floor. More rises like Jack’s proverbial beanstalk towards the top of the cupola stuck on the church.

In short, the necromantic spell conducts power from ground to sky, fitting through the three realms. As above, so below is a terrifying prospect dealing with inverted energies filtering upwards rather than the other way around.

Bits of graffiti painted on stone by thick applications of coloured oil possibly add a magical element, but they have little importance. The scribbles in German mean something, but not much if the Sorcerer Supreme lacks knowledge of the language. Where stations of the Cross might be marked, instead there’s only that thick eldritch ‘moss’ visible only to the Sight.

Wanda follows behind the swishing red Cloak, and pray that relic does not seek to bar her entrance for protecting her tender sensibilities. She frowns at what she sees, the oppressive atmosphere already inducing a headache bound to last a few hours, at the very least. Her shoulders twitch under her coat and she lifts her boot from the sucking morass on the ground. No helping it; they walk in here, they’re going to do be doing it on a spongy surface, wholly unpleasant, leaching at their aura the way cold steals away body heat.

Telling her to split off would be madness. It’s not going to happen, though she draws a semi-circle and slashes a line through it, telekinetically elevating herself over the ground. It may not be perfection, but she isn’t endowed with a Cloak of Levitation and going through a swampy path is not her idea of fun.

*
In a show of concert that should be amply apparent to any nearby spy or prospective enemy and additionally disquiet them (for what seasoned warrior doesn’t recognize the inherent danger?), the crimson Cloak allows for a rise from squidgey ground to the same plane of height. As if the relic would disobey its master — at least, not happily and certainly not in an instance like this, where a lack of agreement might threaten the Sorcerer’s safety.

Indeed, Strange can feel the beginnings of a tension headache growing at his temples and his dislike for this bunch increases exponentially. Migraines are no joke; that inflicting one upon anyone who happened onto this mess of tangling parasitic conjurations earns them negative points.

He can recognize that the foreign language, German, has meaning in where the placements of the graffiti occurs. For the translation, he turns to the Witch at his side. It seems prudent to keep to that exquisitely-private means of communication between them, link in amaranthine spun diamond-fine that glints between scalpel-like mind and six gemstones.

“What can you get from the writing?” Even as the silence stretches, interrupted only for the pounding of blood at his scalp, the Sorcerer in slowly-undulating crimson Cloak raises his hands. It’s a spell attempt to burn out the immediate area around him of the strangling ropes of Dark Arts; he’ll pick and choose his Words for what is reported back to him. What visible spectra of light, environmental reaction to the calling of the Mystic Arts to his whim, will shift depending on what knowledge he receives.

*

Ruby light glows under Wanda’s feet, supporting her as she wills herself above the polluted ground. To any Viennese parishioner, the church might look normal inside but leave an uncomfortable sensation running up their spine. A priest might be horrified to feel his faith besieged, a wrongness about the place, but find it difficult to measure why.

Not so with the Sight, for the thick spindle of spell tendrils converge on the floor and the dome in that chubby stalk, twisted like wires, and fed by necromantic power. Flakes of spreading ‘fungi’ merely reflect the patina of power creeping over the interior architecture. That thin layer can be scraped away by Mystic Art as the proverbial fingernail, revealing a tarnished stain on the marble from the foul resonance seeping through the place. Sorcerer Supreme powers do work fine as a spiritual power washer! It stinks when he blows it away, and the effect sends pulverised flakes of magic into the air.

The Witch summons a flaring ball of light, nothing larger than a golf ball rotating around her head. Smeared paint in a messy scrawl is perfectly legible to her. She repeats in English, “After man was born he walked upon the face of earth dumb and naked. The Stone Ones from the stars brought us the knowledge we required, that which we did not know.”

Her expression turns mildly puzzled, and she looks over at another of the graffiti scrawls, forcing her to head closer to read the details. “Come, the Unfathomable, seek out the our beloved Mother-Sister as she sleeps in her stone chambers.” Her brows angle downwards, and she sinks down into a crouch, measuring the spilled ink and paint on the wall. “He wove a mighty enchantment and banished her to the outer darkness. Her progeny can only speak to the fallen wisdom when called, in dusty voices, while they await the time of her eventual return from the void."

Fingers comb through her dark hair, forcing it back, though her headband forever keeps her bangs off her face. Polishing off the statement, she pushes her thoughts back through the pendant around her throat. “«This is nothing I would think to see in a church. They read like quotes from a book. Pieces of words.»”

No sign of activity in the church proper, but that’s not to say the vestry or other portions are absent of activity. Fortunately for Strange, a church in Vienna is not much different from a church in America, save the German-speaking world loves to leave helpful little informational plaques just about everywhere. He might even find directions nailed at important points, which way to the church offices, the crypt, the columbaria park, the restrooms.

*
It helps to be a master over interdimensional troubles, well read in such disturbing topics as ‘how does my tentacle fit into a spatial rift’ and ‘the thousand ways the plurifold Arqenti Yaggorath tried to invade Gabon.’

Strange might not recognise the passages verbatim, exactly, but cults dealing with interdimensional horrors, if any, have a tendency to use similar syntax. Which pretty much nails down the familiarity to the Celaeno Fragments or the Black Book of Eibon, or the Shuma-Gorath Codex. Maybe the similarity is because the human mind repeats inventions every so often, or cracks around cosmic language from a vast inhuman sentience. The phrases’ rhythm feels very much in line with collected grimoires in his archives, English and American both, manuscripts lodged in libraries from occultists who ventured a little too deep into peering into the stars or dark corners of the world for power. Thanks to the likes of Alistair Crowley and the craze for Egyptotology, plenty of thinkers and minor mystics started writing weirdly. And he’s seen their like over and over.

The common point? They aren’t out to summon demons, they’re out to draw in powers from outside. Outside the dimension. Outside the realm of power. Calling to the void requires a hell of a lot of power, and necromancy fueled by a giant graveyard probably constitutes an appropriate energy well. The question for what they are summoning, on the other hand, isn’t immediately clear beyond what is explicitly stated: something banished by a powerful enchantment. Presumably it’s been here before…

A plus for a librarian who likes to research. A negative for someone responsible for kicking Dormammu and various other chthonic horrors out of his planet.

*
Banishment it is. This has the taste of the void, of something already tossed once before rudely to the curb for how it intruded into his Realm in the first place. The spell weaving about his hands in a nebulous cloud shifts towards the purple end of the spectrum, nearing an eggplant backlit by a violent shade of sangria, the refraction of light through a thick glass of wine.

Side note that you can’t un-read how tentacles fit into a spatial rift. Even the passing thought is cause enough to give a disgusted shudder on his part.

Strange whispers his incantation, the Words in Tibetan echoing weirdly throughout the space of the chapel visible — this too is magic unusual within its confines, though more a kissing cousin in rejoicing of life rather than death — and la voila: it blooms out from him in that same brilliant coruscation like the sudden expansion of concentrated hot air. The plaque of destructive rot-spell is summarily removed from the immediate area, its shavings also collected up and eaten away in a mirroring of precisely what the Sanctum’s wards might do to unwelcome intruders.

It seems like it might take a bit more pepper to remove the larger portions of the rot, with their thick trunks of growth spreading upwards far enough that it takes a tilt of his head to see where they break through the domed ceiling. It is a bitter, ugly shame that those golden stars are muted for those storm of darkness. Anyone sensitive to energies might sense the aural flare, like a sun spot, of the slow spring breezes about him reacting to the surge of pure affront.

How dare they, these warmongers who play so heavy-handedly with that which should not be touched?

Wanda has an excellent point; his black expression lessens for glancing at her. “It does, doesn’t it? Like a grimoire written by someone looking to inspire fear in their followers. Cultists. It has the feel of…the Monks of Medmenham, but darker still. The…cadence of it is familiar, but I can’t put my finger on it. Nor do I want to,” he adds, referencing the sharply-uncomfortable sensation they both felt earlier, the painful frostbite and pins-and-needles through booted feet as it went after their life-forces.

The Sorcerer winces for the first active reminder of the growing pain vicing in upon his skull and growls out a sigh. “Let’s track these bastards down and get this over with. I dislike headaches and don’t want reason to hide under a pillow in a dark room.”

With a flutter incarnadine, he flits up the aisle and pauses halfway, cautious despite the massive amount of defensive power waiting on the tip of his tongue. To the Sight, he’s not quite quasar-bright, but it’s clear the gods are but a breath away, the amount of will needed to draw of their might akin to that of popping a bubble. Indeed, brass placards indicate directions. But where to head? In fact…where are the crypts…?

“I’m surprised that we haven’t flushed anything out. Normally groups like cultists leave a watchdog.” The Witch would know all too well.

*
Wanda’s Sight flashes the same amaranthine shade as their aura when the divine grace of the Vishanti manifests through Strange’s incantation to banish the lesser blights encrusted fungi thick on the church’s interior. Those thick strands linking sky to earth are another matter entirely, considering an enterprising astral teen could climb twenty feet in the air up there, along with all his friends.

Throwing himself into hacking that down will take Strange considerably more effort, and possibly the Axe of Angarruumus to boot. Given the enormous tree-like stalk of pure energy feasts gleefully upon a particularly potent source of resonance, it shall not be felled by a single blow, or possibly several. Nor is the eldritch incarnation likely to take it sitting down, supposing it doesn’t have a pile of hidden minions prepared to defend their mighty ally.

Strange’s poor command of German and excellent understanding of English will leave no doubt what ‘Krypten’ are, even if he’s left puzzling over ‘Gruftkapellen’, although kapel is chapel, and the arrow there points out to a doorway near one of the corner towers that ring in the building.
A run down the flight of stairs and breaking through another locked door might get them there, if he’s not comfortable digging through the marble floor.

The native German speaker, the witch, deals with the pain the way she does everything, forcibly shoving it aside and bulling on right to the point when she can’t. Leaving the defiled altar behind, her fingers curl tighter around the knife yet to find a fleshy target. “The green light burns on the dome. Below the floor, then?” Underground, that’s the word she wants, but a headache isn’t allowing her to respond with perfect mental acuity. She starts for the doorway, another slap of graffiti warranting a translation as she goes: “«What has fallen will rise again to answer the call.»”

A faint shake of her head throws drops of bloody fire around her dark hair, the headband illuminated. “Why is no one watching? They must have some way to see?” It’s not like Strange is invisible.

*
To the crypts it is! It seems logical to head downwards, for what fell energies take their origins from the skies above? Very few indeed.

Besides, nothing like a hasty retreat to leave one’s blood singing if it turns out that they need to be heading upwards, towards the rounded vault of the ceiling with its decor in lurid hues.

“If I were a cultist dealing in necromancy, the closer to the graves, the better,” Strange murmurs across their connection. “Generally, that means below the earth. Well, below the floor, at least.” There are exceptions, but not here, in one of the largest graveyards in Europe under siege. “It’s difficult for most practitioners to reverse the trappings of death on the bodies. Unless you’re well-practiced or basically touching the body, you’re not likely to succeed. The less space, the better.” The good Doctor doesn’t like knowing this, but…all knowledge is worth having, for in this explanation lies the key to countering such an effect.

Safe above the numbing suck of the spells crisscrossing the chapel’s floor in a gruesome mesh, the two practitioners flit to the door indicated per the ‘Krypten’ directional plates. A little bit of lock-picking on the external tower door, and another wrought-iron gate (again with that useful spell in the cat’s-cradle of celestial hues) and down the main staircase they go. It’s a mostly circular room that attempts to mirror the architecture of the chapel above it. Arms of hallways that were built to reflect a cross contain chapels, small inwards arcs with enough space to serve as home for a tomb proper and even more at times. Strange isn’t any more comfortable down here than he was upstairs. While the builders intended the skylights to let in ambient warm glow, such a feature dedicated in evidence for the tomb of Karl Lueger, the grates are choked with the crawling vine-spells. It turns the place to dismal shadows; even the artwork in various styles take on the doldrums of transformation towards less than beatifically reverent.

“I wonder if they haven’t noticed us because we’ve been using the Bond?”

It might be difficult to continue down the corridor of the crypt, especially for how they shift per their wills upon the respective driving forces that allow their weightless state. Hanging creepers lusting for their auras could dangle to tangle like some demented jellyfish. Strange stays where he is for the moment, hanging in mid-air at the juncture of the cruciform meeting of four ways, looking warily in all directions, attempting to sense if there’s a central node for the dissonance radiating around the site.

The best way to take out a stubborn old behemoth of a tree? Burn out the roots.

“Either that or we’re walking into a trap. I hate ambushes.” Old news, that, proven time and time again by a certain Malk kitten.

*
Normally a place rendered light and surprisingly unoppressive by natural illumination percolating through the ceiling, the subterranean crypts have nothing in common with dingy, darkness-shrouded subterranean tunnels filled by moldering alcoves filled by yellowing skulls and cracked bones. Never in Vienna, a place as refined as a dowager aunt too prim to say anything rude to someone’s face. Behind the fan is another matter, but manners and appearances count for something.

Viennese standards of disarray are strange even to an American eye. Things may not even appear disordered at first except for the full circle of black candles burning in the central chamber at the bottom of the staircase. It corresponds to the domed church upstairs, the smaller space placed at the heart of the cruciform layout. More candles burn their cheerless light in ultraviolet shades at the entrances to horseshoe niches serving as crypt chapels, none more so than the great oblong depression occupied by Mayor Lueger’s. By respect of its position directly beneath the high altar, perhaps the most attention has been laid there.

Steps leading up to the glass-fronted crypts feature neat double tracks, black candles barely shifting even when movement introduces a breeze. Offerings left by past visitors lend their cloying scent, the aged flower chaplets featuring a fair bit of edelweiss, the white alpine flower beloved by Swiss, Austrians, and Bavarians. His tomb somehow holds several objects it should not, strung together by brass-linked chains.

Among them, an eagle clutching laurels in his talons lies over the chest. At the head of the sarcophagus is another chaplet of flowers, sickly blooms speckled by moldering dots as noxious a green as the exterior candlelight and the plasma dancing on the copper dome. Blood-red cloth lies over the midsection and again by the feet, connected to the chained book resting at the center of the circular chamber. The links go through the glass wall, somehow.

To the Sight, deathly energies race along those brass links and the book is practically a black hole for the necromantic resonance around it. Little emotion rests about the grimoire. As far as books go, this grimoire lacks for much visual impact, the dog-eared leather covers and brittle pages wrapped up by criss-crossing links. It sits upon a simple wooden music stand on the floor, the wooden wedge no more than a foot tall.

Trishul,” Wanda thinks, giving him leave to hear her. “No one here. No one living. I cannot see or hear them.” Coming up in Strange’s wake, her floating presence barely disrupts the least bit of dust, and her gaze focuses away from the man burning too brightly for her to look upon without her eyes watering. The cadaverous stillness leaves a bitter chill to the air, sharpening every noise and enhancing every motion. Strained senses might imagine sensations passing down the side corridors, hints of movement that don’t really exist.

None must dwell here but the dead. She frowns at the thick nest of dangling arcane roots, fed upon the mighty and important entombed here, some artists, some bureaucrats, other patrons to the city and its people.

This is foul. We should not stay long.

*
The ambience of the scene below his pausing point, complete with the candles and oh — OH, a grimoire, still makes his molars tingle. Surely Wanda senses on some level if not outright notes how his intensity narrows to the book itself.

Strange hears her, crystal clear, and glances to the Witch, then beyond. All around, once more, and chews on the inside of his cheek. “You’re not wrong. I don’t sense another living thing; if they’re here, it’s a masterful illusion woven about them.” That worries him a great deal. Again, not a huge fan of surprises. “I bet they designated the book as the anchor. Once set, the spell would avalanche until it reaches its peak point and tah-dah: walking dead.”

The brush of the Cloak’s collar against his jaw causes him to look to the relic and then off down one of the hallways. To the Sight, the energies are all shaded in noxious rotten green, oozing black, but still — was that the echo of the past, prodded to wakening in offended ire? His lips thin further.

“I don’t want to linger any longer than necessary either, Rakshasi, but the book. That does not belong in the hands of anyone. It belongs under lock and key.” A scarred hand rests upon her shoulder before sliding fingertips down her arm to take up interlocking within her own. A squeeze, reassuring, understanding, asking for forgiveness just in case what he’s about to do springs said trap. “Guard my back.”

Barring a pause, he cautiously flits towards the tomb, with its uncomfortable collection of occult objects and that tantalizing book in brass-linked chains. His approach will take him slowly towards the candles, with their flames in cool hues, and he will hesitate at the edge of their symbol inscribed, if simply to See any trip-wires should they exist.

*
The grimoire most certainly does not belong in the crypts, as much as the battered wooden stand implies. No sensible church caretaker leaves an important book sitting at knee-height where trudging tourists would knock it over. Neither would a priest happily truck with black candles casting no mundane light upon their hallowed grounds at the cemetery church, but that’s beside the point.

“«Wait»,” she whispers, which implies only a moment of delay.

Wanda runs her fingers down the billowing scarlet cloak and then veers to interpose herself at the eastern axial arm of the corridor. Nineteen irregularly placed niches confront her, another row of candles running down either side of the hall. Eerie shadows stand frozen at the mouth to each minor chapel. Floating above the ground, she snaps free a ceramic token slung on her belt, and balances the brittle curves against her thumb and forefinger. The inherent spell spun into the charm starts to rise to her touch, the trigger the mere act of breakage.

Swinging her hand back over her shoulder, she uses her bodily momentum to propel its release by an inverted fling. The ball smacks off the floor and rebounds to the wall, looping off a bit of baroque curlicue moulding to hit the ceiling, and improbably cracking off a corner. Up to the ceiling, down to the floor, the impossible is realized by minute tweaks. Then it cracks finally about three-quarters of the wall down the hall, and the net of glittering dust finally reaches the floor.

Blooming auras take shape behind the necrotic spell, weaker ones merely augmented. Parts of the web go sickly grey and others turn inert in the curtains, and a few of patches clump in reddish-brown glows.

«Dead,»” she announces through the link, and forsakes the knife in her boot for another one drawn from behind her back. The stylized silver blade won’t do much, the perfectly serviceable combat-grade steel idea. “«These odds I can handle. You deal with your office. I will put the dead to sleep.»”

Her fingers flex and she adopts a defensive stance. It’s weird doing this a few inches off the ground, but that hardly matters.

*

No tripwires threaten Strange. He merely has to cross over the circle of candles to approach the book placed in front of the glassed in tomb. The chains somehow pass through a glass viewing wall into the mayor’s crypt, chains slipping up over the sarcophagus graced by the iron eagle. He’ll run into the glass if he attempts to pass through the solid surface. Picking up the grimoire, still chained by those links, is not difficult and he might even flitter through the pages if he decides to. The contents in staccato ink on fairly crisp, regular pages speak to very odd contents.

There’s bog-standard summons, breaching the veil of reality by necromantic powers, and like the earlier graffiti implied, the Mother-Sister returning from her imprisonment in the beyond as they lend their voices to call for her to be returned to the Vessel, and resume her holy form. That’s not anything to be worried about.

*
With the dead revealed and a nod of affirmation to the knife-bearing Witch, he’s off to gather up this errant book. Untouched by the briskness of his passing, for all that he may have to weave around errant hanging stalks of necro-flora, the candles’ fires are passed without reaction. Doesn’t mean he’s not jumpy as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Any minute now…with how the very air seems to encourage the sensation of many a stare boring through the back of his skull, the march of goosebumps up his spine…it feels like something wants to disagree with his approach to said book.

It is carefully touched with gloves of protective magic about his scarred hands — no need for more scars — and lifted. It’s not oddly heavy or off-balanced. Seems fairly clean, well-kept for whomever was its last owner, for all the bats in the belfry they had between their ears. Opening it reveals precisely as stated: expounding upon a belief in a being from another void that is due for some body-time here in this realm plus the incantations and rituals to boot.

Well. Not if Strangehas anything to say about it.

Ftaghu mnahn’hai, r’luh y-wgah’n.

Boundary now worthless, hidden secrets to my control, he intones in a fell, fell language that few know and fewer still should know. It vibrates weirdly in the air, even as quietly as it leaves his lips, nose wrinkled for the off-taste it leaves in this mouth. Mmm. Tentacle slime. One can never forget the flavor.

Kissing cousin to the language likely used earlier to set this cascading necromantic spell in motion, the brass chains stand no chance against a similar tongue and the willpower behind it. With sharp snapping sounds, the links in various places fracture, the force of the actions sparking in venom-green, and it leaves him to float back from the glass-walled tomb, tome tucked beneath his armpit.

“«Beloved», I have the book. I’m coming back to you.” With that, he aims his flight towards the steps that first led them down into the crypts, towards the eastern arm of the corridor.

*

The oily snap of the chains mark the end of their bondage to the tomb of Karl Lueger, Vienna’s native son and favourite antisemitic leader. Mournful rattles and clanks mark the end of their decorative purpose. Holding tight to the grimoire gives Strange no real difficulty, considering the book cumulatively weighs less than a pound. Never have such great troubles rested in so small a package…

…minus the atomic bomb fission material. Or Helen of Troy’s wedding vows. Okay, fine, plenty of trouble.

For all that, his clutch of the book causes Strange very little trouble, and the atmosphere barely ripples with action. Nothing more than a few hushed sighs from the ventilation system, the dark spells feeding on the very source of power around them. Clearly the ritual site wasn’t the focused upon the grimoire itself.

Here is the church, and here is the steeple,
Open all the doors, where’re all the people?

Wanda is still focused on poking at one of the ephemeral spell-filaments, slicing at the core of the necromantic energy in an unfriendly attempt to shear it away. The spell won’t be banished so easily, and it responds to the jab by reaching for the animated life source on the other side of the cold blade. Tendrils bleed along the cutting edge, the wounded spill of power dripping out into the atmosphere.

Not enough to stop it from latching onto her wrist, though, where she reacts predictably with a sharp slash and a warning snarl, defying its grip by dragging back. That may be enough to snap one tendril but not the web pulled her way, the whole root coming down. It turns a darker shade of coal in contact with her.

*
Now that the source of knowledge has been removed as to avoid the future’s repetition of such an event (because this book is going someplace very well-secured), it’s time to deal with the present troubles — which include the unfortunate backlash of necro-flora content to feast upon whatever life-force it can sample.

Across their connection, the discomfort in the Witch’s body reverberates in weaker reflections across his own body and even as Strange fumbles for the book in arms gone reactive to a searing cold not presently felt, he’s racing for that hallway. He pulls up short at the open space of the juncture to four halls simply because he can’t fathom anything causing his Beloved discomfort. The sight before him should not be.

How dare it?!

His aura coruscates around him electrified. The Words resonate in the chambers around them, perhaps even causing the artwork on the walls to shiver in reflection of reality’s shudder to its Guardian’s intense displeasure, as he points a bladed mudra of a hand towards the cirrhus:

CUTANTIRAM TEYVIKA!

Freedom divine: so doth the Sorcerer Supreme decree and with no small pinch of the Vishanti’s triad tonals interwoven within his own. Plasmal-flames of magic in citrine and gold splash upon whatever tendrils seek to further entwine the Witch.

If anyone’s watching from a distance…he’s gunning for them next.

*
The flames tear into the body of the root wrapped around her, kudzu-like energy siphoned under golden skin in a black lattice. It tries to jerk back, as would any animal singed by an open flame, and Wanda jerks back, tearing it free. Streamers of her garnet flecked aura spotted pink rise from the pinprick wounds, and she crosses her arms in front of herself protectively while hurling herself back. One good telekinetic burst is all it takes for her to catapult past Strange at speed, the raw energy hurled away from her. That she might end up tumbling into a heap at the stairs doesn’t matter. Evacuation to give him a clear shot allows for sudden shifts.

While the citrine flames devour the sickly strands of necromantic energy with a ferocity imbued by divine rage, other entangled cables of pure negative force start to bestir themselves. One’s had a taste, they’ve all had a taste, and found it to their liking. Or that was apparently the trap, keyed to search for something.

A few spindled tendrils quest after Strange, lured to him by proximity and potent aura, and they don’t seem to respond to the little black book he’s clutching. The grimoire truly is inert, compared to other factors.

Scratching might not be heard from behind the crypt niches, but one of the black candles starts burning pale, colourless white. The punches of closed fists imply those dead, interred, or absent are not so absent after all. Especially given the muffled call from behind plaster: “Our Mother-Sister returns from her exile! Make ready the way for her. She is coming, and she will purify the world of its pains and suffering. The Mother-Sister comes!”

Scaffolding roots try to entangle the Sorcerer Supreme, plunging through the ground. They’re totally intangible, like the ones above, except to practitioners of the art. Entangling him or bursting out from the walls in the eagerness to find… something. It’s not water, if this were a normal tree instead of a nasty spell leaching strongly on the energy source given to it: the dead.

Another voice joins the first in its repetitive cries: “The Mother-Sister comes… “

*
One last parting shot, the whip snapping in the face of the rushing beast, and Strange then drops to the marble floor. He’s quick to reach Wanda’s side, quicker still to do a quick once-over (alive, that’s what’s most important), and then he raises a palm up. Inscribing upon reality itself with pen in electrical-tangerine, the mandala expands to form a half-dome overtop them (and beneath them, for all the other half can’t be seen beneath the ground) even as the spell-vines seek for them and the dead begin to cry out.

In defiance, Strange snaps, “Through the deity’s might, let the Shields of Seraphim alight!” Orange fizzles through to violet and whatever attempts to break through it gets a solid Mystical tastering; the more solid thumps of contact send ripples across its surface, but it is stalwart, courtesy of its master’s will.

“«Beloved», are you okay?” The tome is set to one side on the floor in the case it takes two hands to help her to sitting upright, at least. “Take a moment.” They have a few moments at hand for the Shields and the protection granted them. Moments passing might mean the progression of the spell further, but there’s no point in fighting half-dead or slowly bleeding out from aural wounds pricked deeper than originally Seen.

Strange observes what he can beyond the translucent surface of the defensive spell. His voice is low, deadly-serious. “We need more space. Upstairs, we need to get upstairs. If you can be fast, I can blow the spell outwards like a grenade and give us both time. Don’t stop for anything.” He looks to her, lips thinned in silent worry.

The voices still rise.

*
Wanda is fully conscious, if a bit stunned for the landing, and operating far more off adrenaline than she might like. Her wrist is smooth, skin unbroken, her trusty jacket serving its purpose to shield her from the rain, keep her warm, and prevent random thorns and spells from latching on physically. Shielded against an ephemeral threat, it might give better protection; this is something to consider for another day.

Still, on the steps gives her a chance to peer up towards their salvation, the doorway dripping charcoal smut from the open lattice painted there. Green flames dance on the pillar barely within view at her current angle.

Plaster starts to crumble and a pretty mosaic cracks down the center as the occupants decide this, too, is the time to come out and greet the visitors in a way never intended by the city staff or the Catholic Church. A louder cry drone cuts through as the ghoul repeats, “Make ready the way for Her…”

Citrine light boiling around Strange’s hands may be overkill for the ghouls, but not their sustaining spell that crumbles into nothing as it mindlessly seeks to obtain what lies on the other side. Got to go over it, around it, under it, past it, if the tendrils can’t get through it. The Witch and the Sorcerer are almost irrelevant to the mindless, focused purpose and the very presence behind them creeps down in hopes of catching a limb, drinking deep.

She rolls onto her knees and catches her foot on the bottom riser, staring behind her with eyes wide and impossibly dark, the flecked red impressions of rubies and blood drops sustained in their pupils. One curt nod, and she runs, still adrift in a bruised ache.

The thrumming melody in her head is not to be trusted. “«I am not yours, I am not yours, I am not yours,»” sings on her tongue in a low murmur, a mantra, slicing through Transian and round again. The thickening overgrowth in the doorway is unpleasant, but nothing she’s afraid to touch. Throwing herself through it to land in the clear courtyard is the least of her worries.

One million entombed dead? Well…

*
A nod for a nod and the Shields of Seraphim detonate in a sphere of humming Mystical power around them. Entangling necro-flora shear away and evaporate in its wake, succumbing to a wash of indigo-threaded-citrine.

For a handful of panting breaths, their pathway remains clear. Wanda runs, the Cloak deigns that its master flies, and both approach the doorway in question. The creepers are volatile, far too well-fed and interested in the two star-like sources of aural power, and by the time they’re passing through the growing wall of vines, it’s of no use shielding. Might as well conserve energy, bully beyond instead.

Passing through them is like rushing through a wall of sentient nettles to Strange. They gouge and insert themselves into every inch of him they can reach; an audible snarl of enraged pain passes through bared teeth even as momentum carries him beyond their reach and he joins his Consort in the courtyard. Book still tucked beneath his armpit, the Sorcerer Supreme winces at what he can feel in his aura as he hangs in mid-air. It’s nauseating, like a sunburn and pins-and-needles from lack of blood combined, violation like unwarranted approach. The Cloak’s collar patpats at his cheek and it might be noted that there’s not a hint of recrimination in his mein when this occurs.

“Godsdammit…!!!” The man hisses, rotating on the spot in a flare of the crimson relic as he realizes the spell has reached a critical plateau in its build. If the dead inside are attempting to rise, it means that the spread of it is soon to reach beyond the confines of the Church proper and out into the myriad graves. “Containment, containment,” he whispers, bobbling the grimoire a bit in how he shoves it along the flat of his torso, tucked tightly between tunic and belts yanked tighter another notch still. That book is going nowhere and now his hands are freed up. “«Beloved, I’m going to — ” That eighth sense of his perks as he lays eyes upon her. They narrow in concern. “Are you…okay?”

Even as he asks it, the tipping point for atmospheric reactions to his aura is reached and the cyclonic outburst of the critical level surrounds him, the surface of the water reacting to fluctuations in the deep. It’s clear that the intervention of the triad gods will be needed and Strange is well on his way to aligning himself to Conduit.

*

The green fire burning on the verdigris roof of Karl Borromeo Kirche, that cemetery chapel in all its Baroque splendour, throws eerie Shadows in green, not black, along the contoured dome. Saint Elmo’s fire doesn’t rightly consume the beaten and hammered copper, but sets fire to the sky and the usually peaceful Zentralfriedhof around it. War paint streaks up all four towers, and worse?

Worse, there’s a beam strobing like a lighthouse, except that the revolutions stop after centering on the cyclone. From that graceful pillar where corruptive spell power leaps in joyous tongues, the distance to the top of the tower is another thirty feet easily. The beam slices through Strange and Wanda, leaving the Sorcerer Supreme outlined.

Like the spell wants to find the Sorcerer Supreme.

He’s been in the eyes of terrible creatures. He’s stood in the proverbial sights of a big gun. Does it ever get easier?

Wanda dare not call on the chaotic birthright sluggishly entangled in every breath she has drawn since her birth, no more than she tugs unconsciously on the spindle axis to her twin. She releases the pent up oxygen in her lungs, her palms touching the stones scored smooth by countless pairs of feet since 1910 or thereabouts. Hallowed ground, sanctified, and it means nothing. Her faith has always been strange, and she frowns. “Sore. I will live.”

One cannot tell the Beloved Sorcerer to stop worrying, any more than the Consort can simply fly away from danger and leave him to it. It’s not who she is, not what she is. But she can back away slightly and give him room, standing closer to the center of the squared courtyard and turn herself down the alley of black candles heading along the southern procession avenue through numerous numbered graves. Anything rising that way is bound to encounter some difficulty.

A quarter turn, and her fingers move through uneasy motions, even as the fever rush of magic pushes inwards on her Sight. It hurts. But the unfolding amaranth tinged wall of blinding poppy light unfolds like a blossom around her, a smaller and far less frightening shield than his.

That is one avenue blocked off easily. Just every other direction up to him to deal with. Strange might be the only one to note the beam moves when she takes no more than ten paces left.

*
Strange hears her, but through what seems like the distance of a hollow tunnel. He’s engaged in a staredown with the ray of lichen-green, jaw grinding for the silent battle of willpower, horns metaphorically locked with whatever voidly presence drives the beam’s search. The crimson Cloak spreads wide behind him in reaction to its master’s gritted teeth. The light seems to attempt to slide its way beneath his clothing, kiss and cajole with venomous promises of gratifying desires steeped in every droplet of inky darkness within the human soul, with a touch searching out sensitivities and weaknesses in purpose of driving a sharp talon into them.

But then…oh then, he’s definitely the one to note that the focal point shifts in lieu of Wanda reorienting herself.

“You will not!” The Sorcerer snarls. The Witch might be surprised for the speed of his departure, kicking up what dust lies in the courtyard. He stops short before the source and the relic mantles, catching what it can of the beam emitting from the top of the tower. On the off-chance that this sentience is interested in his Consort, he’s going to be vicious in sealing it away.

The night air pulls in flush to his skin as lurid green is countered by the ringing click of the Eye sliding open. Citrine static dances visibly across the battle-leathers, along the hem of the relic at his shoulders, arcs between his fingers that he uses as polar ends to entrap the burgeoning spell between. Flat palm faces its mirror and two counter-rotating mandalas erupting to life in brilliant verdance serve to focus the energy further still even as the amaranthine hues in his eyes bleed towards the color of the Vishanti’s wrath. The growing ball of Mystically-charged ions backlights him brighter still than the original beam.

From the ground, it would seem that he’s glowing incandescent, surrounded by comets trailing dust in chartreuse; the impact upon reality around him may be that the power he’s conducting casts its own shadows in defiance to the existence of that which not be here.

“By my will Supreme, Vishanti’s might -
By Agamotto’s baleful gaze,
By Hoggoth’s rage and Osthur’s light -
Banish henceforth this darkly haze.”

Even thirty plus feet down, the atmosphere shifts with the sheer wind of an incoming thunderstorm. It wouldn’t be a hallucination if it seems harder to breathe for lack of air.

“Impart mine spell down tendril-grim,
From ichored root to deathly limb -
St. Elmo’s fire, henceforth douse
Its ghastly light from void-queen’s house.”

Deeply entrenched into the grounds of the Chapel, the necrotic spells likely squirm in displeasure for the hanging guillotine’s edge held aloft by this reality’s Guardian.

“Through the godhead triumvirate,
Let encroachment cease, thus seal the gate!”

The blade of the axe falls, chopping deep into the heart of what contrives as a soul for the cascade of black-and-green spells.

*
Midnight is some hours yet away in the waning grip of winter. At this latitude, Vienna lies under deepening indigo skies, painted by spattered stars in faint constellations impossible to see through the lime-green witchfire dancing wildly upon the dome and the two baroque pillars fronting the quiet church. Not a sound erupts from plasma on any wavelength humanity can hear, violence captured on visual tones alone. Tortured flares writhe along the light wreathing those opulent, clean structures from an age that revelled in the purity of form and embellishment with an eye to the dramatic.

Black candles burn in defiance of those distant cosmic lanterns, lending their uniformly white glow that speaks otherworldly rites and a fell ritual seasoned on sacrifice. Blood fuels the strongest of spells, after all, human emotion a distant second at times. They leap and dance while the Doctor earns his keep, pulling from himself the words necessary to incant the greater Mystic Arts, those rare few kept to the purview of the Sorcerers Supreme and some of their trusted aides-de-camp, assistants, and students.

Filaments tremble down through the very sky itself, taking the place of the moon-pale shafts so often tenderly stroking the marble in delicate, silvery relief. Angels weep copiously from the open wounds in their very essence, mana pouring down from blind eye sockets and dripping off widely spread hands, caught in liminal wounds between marble flesh and frozen, heavy Greco-Roman draperies. What God they seek to petition for relief does not answer.

‘Tis another kind of Trinity pitting itself against the might of the wrong done here, the scale of which the Sorcerer Supreme may never realize until taking to his warded library and cracking open the anonymous, forgettable grimoire. Taking a deep look within those writings speak to more than bats in the belfry, but a collusion between European ideas and modern American sensibilities indeed rooted in late Victorian occultism, steeped in a far older tradition searching for a connection to renew an ancient power banished from Earth. The very stuff written on those pages leaves a shudder of unease coiling in the bellies of wiser practitioners, for heresy against the sanctity of life and the world’s sovereignty follows every penned line.

For the future, ill tidings. For the present, wrath.

Great scarlet folds open against the floodlit Baroque facade, eclipsing the dome to a fickle green hemisphere strobed by the equally sickly beam following Wanda by minute adjustments. Shadows flung behind the voluminous relic have the wholesome tone of proper grey on the cemented courtyard and the central memorial circle, a block of stone the focal point for the avenue running behind through the cemetery. Here Strange makes his stand in silhouetted relief, larger than life as he stretches a good fifteen feet and more. Attenuated limbs bend at weird angles relative to the disproportionately full body painted in a wide crescent.

The witch holds the shield forth like a wall to all trouble coming from the south, but the chaos builds in staggered legions behind her, come to collect upon the inescapable magnetism surging to his beck and call. Its seething pendulum arc strikes through stone and pretty plasterwork, biting deep, one fell blow creating an atonal groan going deep into the soil.

Collectively countless throats open to create that sound, protest warranted. In the spaces between sound, the Eye magnifies the knife-pure, keening shriek to at least audible resonance, captured in the perfect acoustic cup above Karl Lueger’s crypt. Up and up the seething amber light races through burning byways, converging in on the mystic heartwood.

Strange can feel the pressure coming at him from all sides, the beam struggling atop a tower eldritch aflame, serving its purpose right until the very bitter end. Massive convulsions hurl whole branches upwards to capture a renewed purchase, and the very walls offer no purchase. Another jagged burst blows through the central conduit and the spell energy rages unchecked where blown away from its source, black necromancy of the darkest sort forming creating coronal bursts that plunge over groomed graves and glowing sepulchres.

When the last violent burst erupts, it might be enough to knock Strange flat on his floating posterior if he’s not prepared to take the shock wave. Wanda’s given some warning by the sibilant wail raking over her Sight, one that drives her to her knees.

*
In the same manner of wiring glowing for the capacity to channel at its highest capability, so Strange is a-fire with a vibrancy akin to magnesium to the Sight. This is power not of this plane, this Earth, and it begins to warp reality around the leading edges of his person: the loose hairs blur together like writing brushes dipped in starlight, the collars and hem of the Cloak to melt like poppy petals gone liquid, loose lengths of tunic to bead away in droplets that cling close to their origin — not a semblance of frosted-violet remains in eyes blanked entirely by searing chartreuse light. He is beyond the rictus of human agony for the nerves in perfect harmony with the Vishanti’s might. The expression is alien, lacking all semblance of subtle movement that imbues a face with personality and life.

This is Guardian, Shepherd, Conduit, puppet of the gods when called upon and when the invitation is open to receive them in turn.

Let the necromantic spell shriek. Let it writhe in its death throes even as it completes its terrible task at hand. Let it detonate with the backsplash of raw voidal fury and a last attempt to swat with dreadful claws.

He will not move.

Scarred hands form the mudras akash and abhaya and there’s an uptilt to his chin even as his eyes half-lid. Confident bastard, even when literally out of his mind.

The final flare expands out from the church in a paroxysm of rage and he endures. It washes over him, around him, tendrils and venomous smoke and charred bits of crystallized fury approaching and passing. The Vishanti take careful care of their Conduit when needful.

Next on his bucket list: the cause of the resounding moan he made note of even while radiating cosmic power. Very quick addendum: the Beloved, she needs to be safe. On some level he’ll forget about once the triad gods leave him, he acknowledges that it’s critical she remain unsullied as the diamond in the rough, the Nexus of reality.

He directs his flight path back down to her, still writhing with enough energy to cause a literal wavering of reality around him, as if the man were mirage in the desert rather than made flesh.

*
Angels cease their weeping of mana in the torrents witnessed earlier, compliant to the will of the Vishanti or one set even above them. Exhausted of the blight upon them, the petitioning celestials leave frozen eyes trained upon the darkening skies.

No green light strobes from the uppermost windows of the high tower set directly above the chapel crypts, that dreadful beam quenched in its restless search over the asphalt and lawns. Headstones shudder to the trembling low notes that fade for lack of a powerful source emanating sepulchral music. By the grace of holy fire and tumult set back to order, the Central Cemetery once more falls back into eldritch quiescence.

Yet the graffiti remains inside the church, accursed verses. Strange carries the leaves of a blasphemous tome tucked against his tunic, its words still humming off into ether, somehow.

Somehow, the city might fail to put any faith in the murmured news from Simmering district in the morning. What might they expect to find, if the tales of weird lights in the sky were true?

Wanda is getting slowly, carefully to her feet. Echoes in her skull from the last gasp of the spell will need more than a cup of tea to alleviate, though she can still walk and see, which constitutes as good enough. Foxfire lights dancing over everything in the weird afterglow is not good, but time heals all wounds.

Strange is sight for sore eyes enough, and she approaches him cautiously, perhaps half expecting the Eye to peer mercilessly upon her.

“You have done it then?” Her own welfare is not considered. “Or are they going to rise and run through here?”

*
Caution is due, for which of the quartet of ‘you’ present does she address? She’ll recognize that eerily-graceful walk once he lands, the poise and refinement of control normally only present in dramatic presentations of interpretive dance or in the Elf-kin of Tolkien’s realms.

The verdant light emitting from the Eye about his neck has not dimmed or increased its intensity; it remains, withholding judgment for the moment. The human gaze that rests upon Wanda has palpable weight for all its airy, summer-sunshine blanking brightness.

“Scion of Chaos. The Void Mother sung for you. What did She say?” Strange’s voice interweaves within the three-fold basso-alto-tenor of his deific patrons. From a distance, an errant moan, complaint from a tongue not used for many many years reaches them. The shift in attention to the minor threat (at least, according to scale of the gods present) perhaps lifts the heavy static of the air around them both.

The Sorcerer’s baritone lies beneath a brisk tenor for his murmur of, “Let us not pass more time than necessary.” A nod to — himself? The others present? — and neon-emerald mandalas fizzle into being, counter-rotating in a paired set at his left hand.

A sudden splay of fingers and palm towards the ground imprints the self-same pattern, Mystical script written nowhere but in a single tome known to very few incised into the stone and filled with molten chartreuse to encompass both Strange and Wanda. It lifts up, rotating as it passes through them both and…time within the vertically-cylindrical space designated…slows…and…….stops.

A near-perfect harmony in baritone and alto follows the breathtaking silence and stillness that pervades the space.

“Allow me. You frighten the Scion.” A slow blink and the Sorcerer looks upon her with eyes of indeterminate hues. The glow is lessened, but there is no mistaking that one of the Vishanti three still masters his person. Colors shift with each unhurried shuttering of lashes, all in shades of nature’s glory known to the Witch Road. “My son prohibits this reality’s further actions, have no fear of those who should sleep. They will be dealt with in due time.” The kind smile on the Sorcerer’s lips has the whisper of amusement. Was that actually a Vishanti pun? “Answer us truly. What did the Void Mother sing to you? The Conduit will not remember. We guard his memories even now.”

*

Time creeps down to the suspended fall of a grain of sand through the hourglass’ proverbial neck.

Brushes with the divine have shaped every aspect of her life from its inception. For good or ill, they know of her, and facing down the mystic trinity or even a single aspect for but a moment requires far more mettle than she will ever credit herself with. Wanda does not go to her knees, but unconsciously touches her fingers to the pendant hidden beneath the black neckline of her shirt. Its creation is reminder he serves Them, and thus far They show no ill will regarding her continued existence, though clearly completely aware of her existence.

Fear? Not entirely. Caution, absolute and ironclad, settles upon her narrow shoulders and draws her up to her fullest height, neglecting varied pains threaded across limb and flesh.

Gods ride their chosen hard, and the consequential concern for his wellbeing sits at the back of her skull while the frozen thoughts crack and tumble downstream in a vigorous torrent. Given no name, merely title, holds some power for the ice pick wielded against her brain. Still, Wanda is not fool enough to act with the pluck and bravado so common to young people, but nor does she go to her knees, debasing herself in prostrated awe. Truth told, she probably doesn’t know how.

It’s in the old tongue, Tibetan, that she gives them title: “«My lady, my lords.»” For the rest, the linguistic milieu shifts between German for necessity to Transian, where she can best express herself with any sort of facility. Her tongue comes unloosed a smidgen easier in those, though meeting those evershifting eyes keeps setting the rhythm of her pulse off. What does he dream, when unmoored from creation? Is it like floating in the cosmos or does he ponder the weight of the world?

“The Mother-Sister comes. Her exile is at an end. Make ready the way for her.”

Ashen syllables fall in a repetitive pulse, German given a particular meter akin to meditative koans or monastic hymns. They are meant to be repeated in a steady drone, freeing the mind for higher contemplation or prayer. Wanda gives considerably more animation, but the gravity wants to pull them down into a less lively bound over lips and tongue.

“You will make ready the way for her.” The indictment she wreaths with a bitter taste in her mouth. “I most certainly will not.”

*
Wanda is granted the merest tilt of a nod from the Sorcerer-become-Conduit in acknowledgment of the greeting offered in the human language most familiar to the Vishanti. She could speak any tongue known to any dimension and be perfectly understood, but the gravitas of the choice is not lost, nor is the implicit respect.

Strange listens to the Witch as she answers the question put forth. A shift of his expression from patient compassion to keen suspicion indicates the switch even before the brisk tenor takes over for alto.

There’s the sense of looking down his nose even as a curious micro-canting of his head occurs. “Truth, despite the Scion’s bloodlines. She resists.”

“It offends her, to be enticed so. The edict remains.” Back again, the alto.

“The Keystone is unsullied. The Vigilant of the Endpoint will have no need to fret.” That such a basso tone is possible would shake most everyone who knows the Sorcerer Supreme, lower enough to nearly be leonine; the Cheshire Cat grin to follow in its wake isn’t unkind, simply primally content to bear teeth.

The toothy smile fades to a thin-lipped line. “It contents us to continue the Conduit’s guard upon your self.” The tenor seems the least pleased of all, but does not dissent at the time. “Your actions as to last the Conduit subjected himself to near-termination are accounted for.”

A slow blink and the mossy-green melts to glacial-depths to fox-brown and through.

“The scales are balanced for the distraction.” Warm now his posture, echoed in the fondness of the alto harmonied. “Remain stalwart, Scion. He will not stop Us should you succumb.” Figures that it should be Her Lady delivering the message, reminding all of reality that motherly visage sheathes the talons of the lioness. “We have passed enough time, I think.”

Tenor. “Indeed, the Conduit struggles. There are Sleepers to lay to rest.”

A slow, rolling basso rumble of a laugh is all the last and not least of the three contributes to the conversation — save for another snarly smile.

As easy as pushing someone from a ledge, the sands of time begin to fall once more. But for the sudden evaporation of the verdant mandala etched into rock below, it’s a gradual thing to notice: how the air blows past and how that distant moan, initially cut off in mid-ululation, finishes out its duration. The sounds of the surrounding city filter back in along with the remaining sick swirls of rotten spells dispersed.

As easy as flicking off a light switch, Conduit becomes Sorcerer once more and thank all three gods that they thought to set him flat-footed upon the courtyard’s stones. The luminescence beneath his skin and around him vanishes as do the strings keeping seared nerves from registering. Eyes blanked for deific light return to normal, not even lambent with the Sight, and lazy-lidded confusion is jerked aside for wide-eyed realization.

His first reaction is a sharp croaking inhale, as if he’d taken a direct sock to the gut, and Strange drops to one knee. A palm flat on the ground keeps him from complete collapse as the other goes to his throat, run ragged for its borrowing. A hard swallow, drawing up of shoulders against zinging dislike for any action of movement currently, and he lifts his head up to look to her.

“Are you alright?” His voice is as normal as it can be…if he’d had a case of chronic laryngitis.

*
The great cat, the man, and the mother all test their wills against the resolution for the witch to remain wordless, and who would ever expect to maintain her sanctified, enduring silence in such a fashion? Her gaze might flit betwixt threefold manifestations were they separate, though one with such intense sensitivity via the Sight actually might gather hints of the spaces between a dominant figure’s nimbus for the other stars slipping in and out of eclipse behind the primary body.

That such should make only the faintest perturbations requires her utmost attention to measure for the merest wobble in the background, bending light of the stars to announce the subtle shifts as much as their changing pupils and irises, timbre, and posture do. One learns of their erstwhile companions, even while under interdict of self-destruction the moment her true father’s presence chooses to announce itself within the poisoned bloodline and perfected vessel.

No pressure or anything.

Wanda’s breath steals into the temporally halted column, exerting no more volume than absolutely necessary to convey her meaning and words upon the recipients a brief distance away, wearing the flesh of the one other human — aside from her twin — she would destroy, call to the very stars, and bring down kingdoms or uplift civilisations to defend. Cautious tread, now, as light as a cat stealthily creeping along the icy crust of a winter’s fresh snow.

“I will continue to safeguard him and cherish him as I have,” she enunciates every syllable in her native Transian, flowing across her tongue, none of the harshness implicit in Teutonic languages, but maybe memories of the original Indo-European tongue best preserved in Sanskrit and Dravidian inheritors from those long-ago steppe peoples.

As if to make abundantly clear, the moment their presence fades, she closes within the circle of his orbit, and slips down to one knee in mirror of Strange collapsing similarly. Her arms encircle his shoulders without a care for the fact fading divine power scalds her, leaving a sunburn against golden skin that may take a few hours or a day to fade, nor that the sting hurts something deep within her left arm where the spell sank a tendril in, much like hydrogen peroxide or iodine on an open cut.

Pulling him into a loose embrace that does not restrict his movement or tilt him overmuch matters so much more.

“I ask the same for you,” she murmurs in English, not having her command over the tongue. “A good bath. Some proper coffee here, the best in the world, the only time I would drink. Or tea.” Amends, lovely coffee-heaven. “A melange. Come, I know the very place to go. We can be human after this mess.”

*
A hot drink of anything sounds good about now. That and sinking into a steaming bath and never retreating from beneath its surface. And a nap. His kingdom for a nap.

Strange squints for the act of swallowing and nods. He remains kneeling within the encircling of her arms, content to remain there for how the world is still…rather hazy and sparkling with citrine in his peripheral vision. She might notice the candle-glow of the remaining deific power still sluicing through his blood in the depths of his pupils and it does influence how he jerks his face towards the sound of approaching moaning.

Crap, the zombies stayed awake.

“Excuse me, «Beloved». Coffee after this.” A quick kiss — so very sorry if it stings for the divine power remaining within his aura — and he stumbles to his feet with not much more grace than the corpses that approach in their tattered get-ups of tuxedos and ballgowns alike.

Murder at a ball, perhaps? Who knows. He’s not asking them.

Whatever passes between the Sorcerer who approaches and stops a dozen feet from the awakened dead is spoken in a raspy whisper, very angry-sounding, and he points resolutely at them with a single finger.

Long story short: back to bed, zombies. RIGHT NOW. Wanda likely sees the last of the Vishanti’s dregs go into the wave of willpower flung at the shambling corpses like a bucket of cold water.

They do an abrupt about-face and begin to travel back the way they came, double-time for that slack-limbed shuffle, back to their tombs and graves and coffins and a few even have the wherewithal to lock the doors behind them before thumping back into deathly state.

All that process occurs after Strange turns back to face Wanda, slump-shouldered and looking as if he’d been rode hard and put up wet.

“Now…coffee. Lead the way, «Beloved.»”

*

On the positive side, Wanda needs no lipstick for that desired pinkness to full lips. She simply has the spell-burn to achieve the same stylish look, and lo! No maintenance required. Her habit for pressing her mouth together in thought will require considerable conscious effort not to perform, though the sting shooting through her mouth gives very good incentive to learn fast.

She’s never lacked for that talent. Sighing, though, forcing herself back up to her feet as he gets up to deal with the ghouls shuffling around at no master’s beck and call, chanting their profane German mantra over and over: “Make ready the way. Make ready the way.”

It’s rather like the subway system. Exit on the left! Exit on the left!

Asking her to pluck some spell from her repertoire and hurl it upon the remaining necromancy-sustained ghouls may be unfair, but Wanda looks in far better condition than Strange, at least visually. The measure, of course, is treacherous given his capacity to access batteries outside her reach and nigh all the mystical pool of the Earth to suck clean if he has to. That would be rather like slamming a gnat with Mjolnir, but still sufficient.

Behold, then, the triumphant return of the man tottering on weary legs, moving purely by automated recall than actual purpose. She is just beginning the lengthy chant to interweave icy winter’s touch among the dessicated flesh, reliant on the most accessible elemental forces, when he renders it unnecessary. Heavy hands drop to her sides. Right now, just practicing, and that is that.

“Coffee,” she says. “It will matter. Do you want a place of great style, or somewhere dark and bookish? The city has more coffee houses than tree types in Central Park. Tell what is best to your heart. I will take you there.”

*
The probability is high, given her knowledge of the Sorcerer and her supernatural foresight within such a realm, that she already knows the answer before it passes his lips, modulated with hoarseness as it is:

“Dark and bookish. Let me…” The sigh is from his gut and yet, Strange pulls back his shoulders and scrunches his lips for a fleeting second. “Let me get back into mundane clothing.”

A simple gesture, a whispered Word, and the spell takes a second to kick in, like an engine that won’t turn over with the first crank of a key. While a Mystical shift from daywear to battle-leathers entails a sizzling rush of embers eating away cloth, this opposition entails, well, the opposite. A fluid rush of silvery liquid seems to pour down from his shoulders and tah-dah: dress slacks, white dress shirt, and as will would have it, even the black Belstaff. With a mind-bending manipulation of volume and shape, the crimson Cloak flutters down as the scarf and quick, swishy-wrap, about his neck.

He looks dapper, if not bedraggled, as if he had chosen to attempt to vault over every single gravestone in the place — which would have taken him some time and most definitely silvered his temples darker as they currently shine.

“Lead the way,” he rasps, holding out a hand for her to take. Not a lick of divine might remains about him. It’ll be a safe, scarred grasp in which to intertwine her fingers.

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