Crossing The Abyss

October 30, 2017:

John's efforts to convince one of his 'colleagues' to lend him an artifact necessary to his ongoing investigations fail, and said colleague demands a favor for the exchange instead. Fulfilling a promise made offhandedly months ago, he brings Zatanna along to meet said colleague — none other than the infamous occultist, Aleister Crowley, who wants a tyet, otherwise known as a Knot of Isis. Preliminary digging by John and Zee turns up a wealth of possible leads involving wild pieces of American history, including such characters as Jack Parsons, co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; L. Ron Hubbard, the inventor of Scientology; and a woman named Marjorie Cameron, an artist and actress romantically involved with Jack Parsons and a woman rumored to be a Scarlet Woman — the name bestowed on certain of Crowley's female companions whom he believed to be avatars of Babalon.

…But it's not until they decide to view some of Cameron's films, one of which is rumored to be 'dangerous,' that things get really weird.

Zatanna disappears into a dream within a dream to do what few magicians can ever claim they've done by crossing the Abyss of her own soul, while a paranoid John Constantine dangles Crowley over a chute into the hell that so desperately wants to claim him, waiting for her return.

They meant to retrieve the tyet in exchange for something called the Keshanti Key, an object that might have let them peer into the memories of Emily Montrose in her strange stasis…but what Zatanna comes back with could be a key to something else altogether.

All that's certain is that Zee may never be the same again.

London, California, the Abyss, Loch Ness

N/A

Characters

NPCs: Chas Chandler, Aleister Crowley, Antonia Stefanacci, various Scarlet Women

Mentions: Red Robin, Dr. Jane Foster, Giovanni Zatara

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

London.

Whatever John may say about the United Kingdom's lack of familiarity with sunshine, in the summer England is sweltering much like anywhere else along its latitude, fogging up cool only in the evenings. London is no longer the city of Jack the Ripper infamy, noxious fogs prowling the streets, turned loose by industrial growth rapidly outpacing the region's ability to remain sanitary in tandem. They say you can swim in the Thames now, too.

Not that John would.

Unsurprisingly, he furnished the pair of them with plane tickets rather than opting for any kind of swifter, more magical mode of travel. It's a long trip, but first class seats and a few glasses of wine make it practically civilized, and when they arrived on the evening prior and stepped out onto the walk to acquire transportation, there was Chas in his yellow cab, waiting at the curbside. Smiling, as ever, ready with a hug for the young Mistress of Magic and barbs to trade with John, which amounts to the same thing in the Englishman's case.

It's an old cab with plush leather seats that contain bouncy springs, and John fairly well sprawled himself across half of the back as they pulled away from Heathrow and into traffic en route to the M4. "Ray stocked up your fridge for you yesterday. Put fresh sheets on the bed. I sent him a bottle of wine, said it was from you."

John had snorted, the corner of his mouth twitching upward. "He'll never believe that." Which means thanks.

"I know," said Chas, which meant exactly that.

John's London flat is, by comparison with the bolthole in the Brooklyn underground, a much more ascetic-looking affair. Walls white where they're not exposed brick and floor just as blank and pale, it's minimally appointed and its most striking feature, aside from the sheer amount of space for a London flat, can be found in the two-storey windows, glass paned into squares. It was once part of an old factory, and it shows: semi-industrial, converted into a somewhat spartan loft. Spartan, of course, because everything in it that he cares about is contained within the vault that houses a library and collection of objects best kept out of the hands of — well.

Everyone.

That's where she'll find him in the morning, after a much-needed rest: in the vault, the heavy door swung wide open. It's a comfortable and inviting place, visually, which offsets to some extent the feeling one endures when they're inside of it, which is anything but comfortable. The concentration of dark energy hanging about some of the things in that vault — even warded, even half-phased out of reality — is enough to put most people off of their feed.

The library at Shadowcrest is bigger, reflecting the much longer career of its master. Giovanni has had many more years to curate his collection. But John's amassed a library that will match and may even exceed it, given time — and there are things on his shelves that Giovanni would never have anything to do with, if he could help it. Certainly not things he would want brought into his home.

Of course, that had been just part of the reason he'd enlisted John as Zatanna's tutor, John having truck with all manner of thing Giovanni kept his upstanding distance from, and one would be fair in asking whether keeping John out of his home would have been worth a few concessions in the other department.

Too late to wonder now.

There's coffee on the kitchen counter, but no food or drink in the library (less to protect the contents of the vault than to protect the food and drink). It's tepid now, so he's been awake for hours; his hair isn't even damp, though he's clean. A largely sleepless night, then.

—-

Having arrived at John's flat the evening before, Zatanna is unable to keep from experiencing a sudden wave of nostalgia. While several fine details have faded over time, she remembers, precisely, the last time she had been here, a day or two before their sudden break over last summer; memories filled with empty bottles of beer and boxes of chinese takeout. It feels like another lifetime ago.

But unlike John, she has opted to sleep off the jet lag, no matter how comfortable the first class cabin had been - international flights were always that, in her experience, though she had expected him to join her at some point in the night after he was done doing whatever it was that he had wanted to do upon arrival. Ever since part-timing with the Titans, she has needed more sleep, yet another reason why she is slowly becoming convinced that Tim Drake was some manner of metahuman in disguise, when he can function without rest for long, endless hours.

The fact that John's side of the bed is untouched and cold suggests otherwise, and upon waking, she can't help but furrow her brows at his pillow, wondering just what the hell he had been up to all these hours.

A bit of curiosity that she intends to sate in a few moments.

Clad in a pair of shorts and a longsleeved shirt, she doesn't head for the library yet, though she did peek in for a few seconds to ascertain his location in the flat; not like she needs to, physically, the tether often tells her what she needs to know regarding his safety and health, but there is something much more reassuring with seeing rather than sensing, and once satisfied, she ventures into the kitchen to pour herself a cup of coffee and nurse it. It feels like an age since she's been to London, and while perched on his counter, she keeps her eyes on the window, taking in the sights and sounds. The city has always been rife with magic and she takes the time to re-familiarize herself with the way London feels.

Empty cup situated in the sink, she finally moves into the Library.

This is familiar, too. Fingers move lightly over the spines of old tomes as she passes them before dropping the moment she gets close to him. There's a lean, a dip from her waist, her warm mouth brushing over the top of his head before she, in turn, drops on a seat beside him.

"Put me in, coach," she tells him with a grin; sleep faintly fogs the clarity of those ice-blue eyes, but she is slowly waking up in full, raven hair tousled and tangled still from sleep.

—-

By John's estimation, it's almost a year since he's been home.

'Home.'

There are not many more words loaded with complicated meaning for John than that one, and it's probably no surprise he's been determinedly neutral on the subject of London, and this return. The advantage of the tether is likely to let her know that below the surface there are stirring currents of — things, but whatever those things are, he keeps them on a very tight leash.

Less concealed: the pulse of warmth that emanates from the interior of the vault when she's briefly visible in his peripheral vision. A metaphysical 'good morning.'

"You may come to regret that request before we're finished here," he says as she settles onto the cushions beside his, but his tone traces out the boundary between humor and exasperation rather than walking into any more sinister territory. "I already do. Bloody hell, 'tanna. Less than twelve hours in London and I've had six voicemails already."

Phone calls, he means — that he sent to voicemail, because he has no interest in taking any of them. "I thought flying the friendly skies would give us a grace period, but apparently not. Ray must have been running his mouth. I ought to send him to talk to Ally and hear what's what." The book in his lap is markless on the cover or spine, but the handwriting in it — she'll have time for a look as he flips it closed and tosses it irreverently aside — is no doubt familiar. It's one of Crowley's countless personal journals.

"I've a bad feeling he's about to send us off chasing geese, luv. One of the downsides of being dead and disliking it: he's stuck where he is. There are worse ways to pay a debt than running errands for the prophet of Thelema, but not many."

—-

You may come to regret that request before we're finished here.

"I know," Zatanna tells him easily. "Because I tend to whenever we run around your circles here, John, but as you are fond of saying - needs must. Besides, Red's pretty anxious to crack the case of the non-decaying corpse in your flat. He's tremendously curious."

The mention of his six voicemails has her lifting the corners of her mouth into a smile. Her body shifts on the couch, pulling her legs up and letting her toes curl into the cushions; typical, given her penchant to not sit properly when she is a place in which she's comfortable. "Would be something he would deserve though, though at least you know you're as popular as ever. Goes to show that no matter how long you've been gone, you can still count on a few people to annoy the shit out of you especially when you're busy. I think it's one of the irrefutable laws of the universe, by now."

There's a glance at the tome in his hands, inching closer so she could peer at Crowley's handwriting. "That's not the book I snagged for you from under Studio 54, is it?" she wonders. After everything that's happened, she hasn't had a chance to crack it open and read it, nevermind that John had indicated that both of them should. Not that either of them could be blamed, considering they had been shunted off to Hell soon after she had brought it into her possession.

If it's not, they'd probably have to read it soon before she faced the consequences of the archives' terrifying librarians.

"Any idea what he would want us to do in exchange for the Key?"

—-

For just one brilliant moment, John cracks a grin, brimming with a dark humor. "Oh, popular, is it? You think those are all invitations to tea? Maybe so."

There's no way they're invitations to tea.

Rather than draw out the joke, though, he's gesturing loosely at the volume beside them with one hand and rubbing his eyes with the other. "The very same. Thought it might have been — well, you know how things are with me, 'tanna. Sometimes one thing plays into another, all coincidences lining up like dominos. I don't see anything in there that might tell us what he's up to. Doesn't mean it's not there. I just don't sodding see it." He blinks several times to clear his vision, tilts his head to the side as he feels her slide nearer to look at the book, and indulges himself in some handful of heartbeats studying the profile of her face, more interesting to him by far than whatever mad ramblings Crowley penned down in his journal.

"He's a real bastard, you know. Not 'evil' the way they all thought he was. Evil in other ways, yeah? Just so you know what to expect when we get there." Canting back, he raises his arms over his head, elbows pushed back in a long, bone-popping stretch that ends with the momentum of his falling arms carrying him forward into a more upright position, leaned forward, elbow braced on a knee. He turns his head hard to the side and watches her across the cut of his shoulder. "You sleep alright?"

—-

She laughs and nudges him with one shoulder. "Don't think so," she tells him. "But let's face it, like hell would you accept an invitation to tea, either. You're as British as they come, love, but you're young enough that you'd be bored as hell."

The confirmation that this is the esoteric Crowley journal that she had checked out for him from underneath Studio 54 has those eyes returning to the handwritten pages with renewed interest, scooting closer so she could outright read over his shoulder, familiarizing herself further with the man's penmanship and taking stock of the subject matter. For all of his very infamous eccentricities, it doesn't change the fact that this was the brainchild of Aleister Crowley sitting with them now, and she is perpetually hungry for anything and everything that would further her knowledge base of all things mysterious and arcane - one of the very few, but significant commonalities she shares with John and Giovanni Zatara.

So much so that she doesn't appear to notice the way he angles his head and inspects her profile. "My philosophy professor was fond of saying that the root of all men's desires always starts with a question," she tells him. "So what's this journal's thesis?" She taps lightly on the page before them.

All said as she leans in and presses her lips against his cheek; indicative that she did observe the way he studies her, after all, though her stare is still directed on the notebook in his hand.

"So what are you trying to say? Your kind of evil?" she wonders; it's a tease and done with all overt good-humor. A woman, after all, can both love John Constantine and recognize the fact that he is a magnificent bastard. "But yeah, I figured. There's something about magic that brings it out of others. Daddy's not an exception to the rule." And in many ways, he exemplifies it.

You sleep alright?

"Well, I had to do it without you there," she sniffs, though this is a playful thing, made all the more obvious with the way she gives him an exaggerated side-eye. "I did," she answers more honestly. "Much needed, I think. You know, when Red asked me to join the Titans, I thought it'd be a lot of what he does when he's in Gotham. Skulking around dark alleys and ambushing psychos in ridiculous costumes and armed with even more ridiculous agendas. Not…you know. Giant exploding fish, French gorillas, and people who think erection slangs make for catchy supervillain names. It's exhausting though. The training alone."

—-

The handwriting in the journal is script and the line weights suggest Crowley used a fountain pen — because of course he did — but it has the tendency to look hurried, and isn't especially conducive to being read at a glance. Still, a word here and a word there stand out, suggesting the portion of the book John had been reading concerned itself with a ritual of Crowley's own devise.

She comes at her question sideways, through the conduit of something said by one of her professors, and John cocks a brow. His attention is readily gotten with oblique angles — even if, after all is said and done, his reaction is to laugh. "Did he?" His arched brow knits with its opposite, leaving him with a skeptical expression that doesn't come down fully on the side of dismissal, for all that he seems inclined to brush the premise off as nonsense. Instead, he flicks a look at the journal. "I suppose the question is 'is it possible for me to find new ways to become the most self-involved prat ever to walk god's green earth?' And lo, his life was the answer, and the answer was 'yes, Ally, you can.'"

Your kind of evil? His eyes tighten enough to mark out with the faintest suggestion of crow's feet, and he tchs at her, but he has the good sense not to deny it. He would with anyone else — with her, too, if he could, but he can't. Not because he respects her too much, but because she's seen the inside of him, and it's a thing he can't walk back.

She only chastises him for leaving her alone in bed as a jest, but the look he gives her contains within it a mote of something sincerely sorry. Beneath the placid solidity of his exterior mood, those currents twist and shift again. She isn't the only one with memories of the two of them in this space, and it seems John's have crowded around, too, most of them with something to say. All of his ghosts, perpetually busy. They had been something else when they were here last. Even before the split, before the hex; something simultaneously more and less complicated. Something furtive.

"I'll make it up to you tonight. …Assuming we're not chin deep in some sort of antiquated nightmare." That's a promise, signed and sealed by the palm he sets on her knee — a more tender gesture than the sharp humor that replaces his contrition.

"These people wear capes voluntarily, 'tanna. It was ridiculous from the word go. If 'The Boner' is the silliest thing you ever hear now that you've taken up jetting about with the tights, I'll be very surprised."

Then again, they'd taken a few of the capes on an adventure that had led to Switzerland via the rectal cavity of an enormous, skinless demon girl, so maybe he ought to minimize his criticism in that department.

"At least it pays dividends. Looking well fit, you are." With a wink, he reaches up and thumbs the point of her chin playfully, then pushes himself to his feet. "He'll notice that, as well. I can't make you put on baggy clothing before we see Ally, but…"

—-

….and lo, his life was the answer, and the answer was 'yes, Ally, you can.'

Zatanna can't help it; a crystal peal of laughter escapes her suddenly, head throwing back. For a moment, Crowley's journal is forgotten completely, and while she had expected a smart remark after what she had just said out of youth and schoolgirl naivete, she wasn't expecting it to sound so…Britishy. It was really the only term she can use to describe it.

The tightened look in his eyes has her throwing him one of her own, though her smile remains and an inquisitive brow arches slightly higher over her right eye, but when he leaves it, the grin returns. It softens in the corners, however, at his apologetic features - it's largely a jest, somewhat taken aback by how seriously he takes it. It is a moment that she ends up hoarding jealously, however; genuine affection bleeds through their tether, and she responds by dropping her face, leaning her cheek into the hard curve of his shoulder.

Her hand drops over his draped on her knee, fingertips drifting absently in the spaces between his knuckles.

At least it pays dividends…

"This has to be the longest stretch of time in which I wasn't worrying about how I fit into my jeans every day," she confides with another laugh, looking up at him. "Does that mean you— "

She doesn't have a chance to finish the question; lashes lower when he thumbs her chin, a spark of sensation there, crackling through her nerve-endings like static electricity. For a moment, she does nothing but sit there, once again marveling over how a single touch from him manages to affect her….still affect her, after six months situated in this new understanding and whatever it is that they are.

"…well, it's as hot as Satan's armpits outside," she tells him. "So extra fabric is definitely out of the question, but I'll dress as conservatively as someone with my fashion sense can allow." She stands at that, moving towards the entryway of the library. "This does mean, however, that I get to use the shower first because it'll take longer for me to decide what to wear."

Not that she's out to impress a dead man, but one of the best things about being her is that if she can't find anything suitable in her luggage, she can transform one to suit her needs.

—-

"Yes, it means I." John scoops the journal up off of the cushions and makes his way further into the shelf-strewn interior of the vault to put it away. It doesn't matter how she'd planned to end the sentence; he's prepared to confirm the lot. "But later, after we've put an afterword on this sordid chapter of things. Which means yes, you also get to go first," he tacks on, grandiose tone of voice having dropped down to a murmur — and a slow exhale. Doubling up would only lead to a total collapse in productivity.

Business first.

When she's out, he's in, disappearing for the requisite time to clean up and dress — never long, with John, unless he's soaking aches and bruises, and it has been a mercifully long time since that's been necessary. Even in Berlin, having taken a bit of a beating, they'd been so roughed up on the inside that when she'd begun to patch him up with magic he hadn't had it in him to protest, preferring to focus on that delicate last evening on assuaging other wounds instead.

It helps that he does not have to spend any time trying to decide what to wear. Though from time to time he indulges in the anonymity afforded him by jeans and even t-shirts, The Uniform has its uses, and the coat is indispensable. He's able to get more mileage out of his reputation here, in his own stomping grounds, than anywhere else on earth, and putting it on is as good a signal as any that he's expecting trouble.

Not least because, as she says, it's bloody hot.

"We'll take the tube," he announces when he reappears.

West Kensington is where they go. History and scholarship will serve her well here, because once they pop into a cab and pull up out front of a cafe — 'George's Cafe,' to be specific — it may seem as though John's having a laugh. It's a mundane little stretch of street, businesses on the ground level and flats above. But the street name is the same now that it was in the year 1900 — Blythe Road — and once upon a time, this was the site of the London temple of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

"The owner's not one of us, exactly," he says as he pops open the door of the cab for her, then swings it shut behind, "But he'll take a fiver to let a few strange old birds pop into the ten feet of 'yard' behind the joint. Smells of piss it does, but it's one way to 'ave a chat with Ally. I think it's his idea of a joke. Having one over on the cultists who refused to rank him up, once upon a time. You know he tried to stage a coup on the temple, as well? Police came and everything. It went to court afterward. He lost. And now he's able to pop in anytime he likes, and nobody can do a thing about it. Crafty geezer."

—-

She knows; there's a clear intent there to crack a joke about locking the door to make sure he behaves, but getting around such things, magical or mundane, has never been a problem for their lot. It wouldn't be much of a credible threat, as far as John Constantine is concerned.

But they make it out of his flat with their objectives intact, though Zatanna eyes the coat with some hint of trepidation if not just because of the weather. "You know, I can probably fix that," she tells him, though considering how it was its own Fort Knox of sorcery, it is an offer that he can take or leave. If the thing protects him, on top of everything else, she isn't going to touch it unless he deems it necessary.

The young woman herself has opted to go with a long, but light skirt and a sleeveless top, her hair pulled in that typical, but fetching halfhearted fashion. She follows Constantine to the tube, and that is full of nostalgia, too; the crush of traffic where high-powered financiers and barristers mingle with football enthusiasts, middle-aged school teachers and punks of all sizes and colors, how colors bleed together when trains zip past the stops and the ever-present din of a thousand conversations happening all at once. Similar, really, to New York, but different.

Getting out of the cab, the street sign is familiar, something remembered tingling at the back of her head, but their current mission puts things in lightning-fast perspective. The raven-haired witch casually hands John a folded bill, presumably to bribe the owner with, as ice-blue eyes wander over the cafe's front. But no matter how split her attention clearly is, as she never goes anywhere without stopping to take a breath and drink it in, no matter where she is, she is listening. There's a tilt of her head and an angled look in his direction.

"Are you sure the two of you aren't related?" she wonders, before taking a step to his side to follow him towards the cafe. "I'm ready to assume you are as far removed from looks as it comes, but the way of thinking…" At least, as far as the act is concerned, of convincing others to look one way while the real game is in the other; something she can't help but appreciate. Misdirection is always important to a magician.

But clearly a jest. There's a broad grin, before they venture inside.

"So save for me, you introduce Ally to anyone else?" she wonders.

—-

Questions of blood relation between John and Aleister earn from John the flattest, dryest of all possible looks, angled sidelong at her out of the corners of his eyes. "Heaven bloody forfend." Not, it should be said, that his actual roster of ancestors is much better than Crowley, in the end; most of them had ill-starred lives, only lacking publicity or celebrity enough to put them down in history alongside the Scottish occultist. "Surely you remember what he looks like? A more Alfred Hitchcockian suite of chins the world has rarely ever seen."

Pulling the door to the cafe open, a rush of cool air and the smell of tea and sandwiches rushes out, lacking the distinctive acridity of coffee: a truly dedicated English venue. They've barely had time to cross the threshold when they're noticed, and the look John is shot from the service door leading into the kitchen, where the host — owner? — is standing is the kind of look he often gets when he turns up somewhere that he's recognized: resignation, mostly.

"Me? Nah. The last thing he needs is company. Rather: the last thing the world needs for him to have, is company. He's got retainers, though, which is part of what makes this so sodding mysterious. And ominous. Whatever he wants, they must not be able to get it for him."

The aproned man — older, stoop-shouldered, hair like hammered pewter — weaves through the tables and extends a hand, into which John deposits the note Zatanna gave him, his expression all cheer. "The usual, mate."

Wordlessly — and following a long study of Zatanna, then John, then Zatanna, judgement written all over his lined face — the man gestures for them to follow him toward the door that leads into the kitchen. The few current patrons pay them no mind, even when they disappear through the door and into a cramped kitchen, where they'll need to sidestep employees en route to the door on the far side.

It empties out into an absolutely underwhelming space. Cracked pavement, crumbling brick walls. It was probably once part of a service alley behind the buildings facing the street, where trucks could deliver things to the businesses therein…but somewhere in the not-so-recent past someone elected to build walls behind each property. These are moss-grown and stained brown along the lower halves, likely from winters of unshoveled snow. A small, cheap white table topped with an ashtray is situated off to one side, paired with two matching, bad chairs. All of the above are filthy, and probably only ever used by the employees.

"Now listen," says the owner, frowning at them from the back door even as John coasts past him, hands on hips and studying the space, "No funny business, and you get fifteen minutes. Alright? Last time I had someone through here, there were dead cats. I'll not be having dead cats about, it's unsanitary."

John's brows quirk. He turns his head, pivots where he's standing, to fix their host with a look. "Also a bit sad, innit?"

The man shrugs. Thunderclouds remain in his expression.

"Right," says John. "No cats."

"Or dead ones."

"Or dead ones."

With another suspicious, highly judgmental look between the two of them, he takes his leave. The screen door bangs shut behind him, and the actual door closes moments afterward.

"Cats." John's expression wanders its way between poles of thoughtfulness and disdain. "Well. At any rate." Patting at the various pockets of his coat. "We'll not be needing cats. Just chalk."

—-

In all of the years she has known him - and admittedly that isn't all too many - if there was anything constant about John Constantine it was this: following him eventually leads you to some very interesting places, and at your own peril. Always at your own peril.

There are many things about this sojourn that reminds her of those past adventures; the crypt underneath the Colosseum, the gateway to sidhe housing a few blocks away from the Louvre in Paris, and the Caligula Club (where she lost her taste for meat) to name a few. Days when she followed him wide-eyed and fascinated, wondering just who this man was and more importantly just how he secured her father's trust - enough, at least, to oversee some formative elements of her education. Most of these similar emotional impressions, lured by memory, resurface from the dustier corners of her mental attic, her sandals shadowing his footsteps as they enter the cafe.

A tea joint, the scents make it obvious. Her nose picks up citrusy bergamot and milder chamomile, pastries and jam. She has had nothing but coffee this morning and the sight of the counterspace ahead of them causes her stomach to gurgle, but one she ignores when an older man approaches them. The note exchanged, a slender raven brow arches imperiously at the judgmental look cast their way. "If it helps," she tells him, ready to offend whatever British sensibilities there are. "I'm older than I look."

A lie, but a convincing one, nevermind whatever assumptions the man is actually harboring.

As they walk through the kitchen, she lowers her voice, pitched for John's ears only; easy to hide amidst the metallic clamor and cacophony of the kitchen, orders barked here and there and chefs acknowledging the head of the troops. "Human retainers?" she wonders, because it bears asking - Crowley wouldn't be the first magician to look outside of the species to exact his will on earth; fae, thralls, the undead…golems made flesh, all can occupy the broad spectrum of enslavement to the whims of anyone powerful enough, or reckless enough to pay the price.

"Might be harder than I thought, this favor. It's not as if the man isn't resourceful - like you said, he's a clever bastard." Her brow furrows faintly. "Unless he's being gleeful over being able to pull your strings."

She manages to dodge a rushing line cook before another door swings open and leads them into an empty space. A quizzical look shot at John, Zatanna takes several steps inside, letting her ice-blue eyes roam over the single white table and the dirty chairs, the signs of biological growth in the corners. The smell carries, nearly drowned out by those emanating from the kitchen's proper, but not completely.

At the mention of dead cats, the witch turns to regard the proprietor curiously. It's only when he leaves that an amused expression flits over her pale mien. "Cats, huh?" she says, her hands slipping into the pockets of her skirt to produce a small pencil case; wrought of metal, the symbols etched upon the lid are almost invisible, viewable only by a trained eye - much like Shadowcrest, the series is only discernable by those who know what they're looking for. After flicking open the lid, she presents John with an array of chalk. There are a few of varying colors, but most are white and ground from a mixture of ingredients Zatanna has devised herself.

"So what are we drawing?" she wonders. "Or is it a super secret configuration shared only by Crowley to his inner circle?"

—-

John gives up the search for his own chalk, and leans, plucks one at seeming random from amongst those in the offing within her silver case. "Mostly human," he says, cocking a brow and giving her a quick study. Most people wouldn't think to ask — or they'd ask for the salaciousness of the possible answers. Crowley, The Beast, with all of his hosts of demons, etcetera. "But constructs are longer-lived, usually, and there's less risk of them getting funny ideas about holding a man hostage for better pay, I expect."

His shoes echo on the pavement as he turns to lean and begin scrawling a wide circle, though not wide enough to contain he and Zatanna, as it happens. Her last question wins a sharp blade of a smile. "Oh, yeah. Very super secret. Mystical configurations the likes of which few mortal magicians can comprehend, an' all." Which outs the whole process as something John considers ridiculous, likely before he's even had time to say half of that. The circle is as basic as circles can be, the runes that ring the circle's interior are half-assed but sufficient: they're goetic. But they ought to be outside of the circle, not inside. The way it's drawn is reverse to the usual. Not something to summon a demon into and keep it there. Something to keep everything else out.

John dips his free hand into his pocket, slides out a flask-sized bottle of Glenfiddich, and sets it down inside the circle with a softly ringing glass-on-cement sound.

"OI, ALLY." Shouting at nothing, really. John extends his hand, holding out the chalk for her to retrieve. "LES' HAVVA CHAT, OLD SON."

—-

Is he surprised that she thought to ask? Zatanna quirks her brows at him when he gives her a glance. "They are," she affirms; one such construct lives in her father's sprawling, space-defying manor. Kasim has been the manifestation of the house's will for as long as she can remember, well before she was even old enough to realize that certain things didn't make a lick of sense walking down its mysterious halls. But John's explanation afterward makes sense.

"Well, whenever I decide to reach for some semblance of immortality, I'll have to keep that in mind," she tells the Englishman, flashing him a broad grin. With the chalk relieved from the case, she claps it shut and stows it away in her pockets. And once he gets to work, she watches attentively, eager to learn…

…except this is nothing like the elaborate, mongrel intricacy of what they devised together to assist Azalea with her god problem. No brute-forcing of runes and weaving them with symbols from other disciplines to get magic to work exactly as they want it, no safe space for herself or him. From what she gathers, the circle is meant to contain Crowley and only Crowley; since she is unaccustomed to working summoning circles without one for protection, she wonders whether she ought to say something. She elects not to, in the end - how many rows have they had because she didn't trust his experience enough?

It's only when the circle is closed and the last runes are scribbled down that she realizes the purpose of the configuration. "Oh….I see," she murmurs.

Amusement returns when John calls out for Crowley to greet his guests. Fingers lift to take the chalk from his hand, and it disappears in between them.

After a pause:

"Oh god, I'm suddenly hoping he shows up in a spinning telephone booth."

—-

Someone of Zatanna's sensitivity to magic could not possibly fail to notice the way a tingle of the stuff swirls in the middle of that circle in the moment just before Aleister Crowley himself steps through it. And John, for his part, is still chuckling about phone booths and timey-wimey-whatnots — he still isn't much for television, but there's no escaping the Doctor — when it all happens, creating a moment of asymmetrical emotion: his amusement, and Aleister Crowley's apoplectic rage.

"FIVE YEARS. FIVE. YEARS. YE GREAT, DOATY, JAKEY — "

"Steady on, now, Ally," John says with a tch, sliding his hands into his pockets. "I've brought company."

" — NUMPTY! Tongue ma fart-box, ya fuckin' walloper!" The greatest occultist the world has ever known — if you believe that kind of thing, anyway — puffs a breath, red-faced and furious, and then stoops down to snap up the glass bottle. He certainly has perfected the art of the Evil Look, a dangerous glint in the narrowed eyes within that puffy face. Eyes that remain, for the duration of a double-bubble's worth of pull from the bottle, on John. Only after he winces and lowers it does he notice Zatanna, and everything about him goes momentarily still.

His gift for magic is not merely the stuff of rumor, whatever else about the man might owe itself to myth and hyperbole. The expenditure of it, sending out feelers in her direction, is obvious. He's examining her. Not her body, though, the way John seemed to worry he might.

Her soul.

"Oi," John puts in. Still cheer, though it has an undercurrent of something else in it. "Hands to yourself, mate. Anyway, you know how t'is. You mean to pop back in when you said you would, but then you've got a lush job teaching a bird all about how not to use magic, things go a bit sideways, next thing you know you're in Louisiana up to your knees in alligators, having mind-numbingly slow arguments with a clump of sentient lichen…anyway, you're, eh, looking well."

"No am no'. Don't ye wag on yer fannywipe wi'me."

"Could you not have just gotten all of this out of your system three weeks ago? You knew I was coming."

"An' miss oot on the barry joy of batterin yer bawbag? Ye been gantin fer it. Oo's the lassie?"

Wearily exasperated, although not without some lingering amusement, John finally glances at Zee, extends his hand in a sweeping gesture of presentation: "Zatanna Zatara, Aleister Crowley. Himself."

"Zatara!" Crowley's eyes widen, then narrow. "John, ye jammy min." His study of Zatanna changes in quality, but something about the last name makes him look less curious, as though it had explained whatever he sensed in her. "I knew've your da."

"Bollocks," John says, both brows up.

"Aye an' did anaw. What would ye know aboot it, wank?"

"He's not much for mixing it up with gobshites is what I know."

Crowley grates out a sound that must be a laugh. "An' yer talkin' pish. Knows you he does, clearly."

"Touche. Can we please talk about what it is you actually want? We've only got ten minutes, old son."

—-

The doorway opens and out comes Aleister Crowley. Honestly, she has absolutely no idea what to expect - someone grim, perhaps, with an egregiously bloated sense of self-importance that would make the best of Felix Faust's rants look like kindergarten tantrums in comparison. What she gets instead is a very angry centuries-old occultist that comes through the portal, the very first thing on his lips some offense that John Constantine had made him suffer. Five years, he says.

Well, par for the course, really. Almost everyone has slammed the door to Constantine's face, only to let him back in a second later after he says something that convinces them that he is worth hearing out.

Zatanna finds a similar dynamic here, though she observes all of this with no small measure of mirth; it is more evident around the eyes. There may have been a slight temptation, there, to babble about how much she has studied him and his work, but the thick Scottish accent and the abrasive way he talks to John tempers the urge and she's left holding back a grin that desperately wants to come out, leaving those ice-blue irises dancing with it. Unfortunately, this dies nearly immediately when she feels it. The Scrutiny. The pause that almost always happens when a more experienced magician meets her for the first time.

To her credit, she manages to prevent herself from taking a step back, ephemeral threads poking and prodding at her like a science experiment butterflied on a dissection tray. Her lips part to say something, but John levies a warning enough before formal introductions are made. And as she can't step forward to shake the man's hand, she remains where she is, and lifts her fingers instead in a wave.

"Hi."

She groans inwardly. Here she is, in the presence of the greatest occultist the world has ever known, and the first thing she says to him is 'hi.'

After a pause, she continues and gestures loosely to John. "Don't blame him for….whatever happened five years ago, if he meant to see you then. I kept him busy. Really busy." She falls silent, before pink suddenly blossoms over her cheeks, both hands coming up now to wave away. "I mean— not like that! Not for a couple more ye— I mean, I was a stubborn student and he had to wrangle me a lot— er…I mean that as in I was a little cavalier with the risks and I was more liable to blow his head off than anything and— !"

….and right when he tells her that he knew her father.

"…oh Jesus Christ, you did? …how? I mean…do the two of you talk a lot these days?"

Silence.

"So…." The grin manifests at last, sheepish in quality. "….what happened five years ago?"

A story that might have to wait, considering John had just reminded them that they only had ten minutes. Despite her embarrassment, she turns a curious look at John. There was a time limit?

—-

It's not an unreasonable expectation to have — gravitas, or something like it. The man's reputation outsizes John's by no small margin. And contrary to popular belief, he's still kicking around in some form or other, the nature of which remains unclear — he doesn't LOOK dead, but he also doesn't look his age — so it isn't as though he can be ignorant of his own legacy.

And yet.

And yet, one is forced, upon meeting him, to remember: Aleister Crowley is a Scot.

Really busy, Zee says, and John opens his mouth, lifts a hand. She cuts him off with a clarification that has him closing his mouth again, only to stumble headlong into another thicket of suggestive remarks, and eventually all he can do is stand there and watch her fluster — not without some private enjoyment. First, because it's so rare to see Zatanna thrown by anything quite so thoroughly, and second because the avenues of memory down which she's walking, even obliquely, are brimming with pleasant things to remember.

Even Crowley, whose ability to bull his way through any and every conversation kverges upon the legendary, is momentarily rendered silent. He does eventually shoot John an arch-browed look, and John shrugs his shoulders, looking elsewhere, his expression impenetrable. He intervenes only when she asks about Crowley's relationship with her father. "By reputation I should think and we really don't have time for that story, though I'm sure he'd love to regale you with it at l-"

"Oan yer trolley, ye fucking weapon," Crowley interjects, waving John off with a large hand and thick fingers. "Said he would be right back, dint he nae? 'Be right back, Ally.' More the dafty dobber me, fer believin' that fib."

John's sigh fills the small courtyard, his eyes rolled upward and then closed. He reaches up to pinch them, and then, after a beat of thought, pivots on his heel and starts back toward the door.

"Now houl' an," Aleister says, stiffening. "Dinnae git yer breeks in a twist, John, ye great bairn."

The look John angles over his shoulder is arch-browed. "Can we please get down to business."

"Ach." Scowling, but conceding. Crowley throws Zee a look of comiseration. "Got tae stroke 'is paps or he'll nae simmer. Alright Johnny. Ye're gaun ta bring me a tyet."

John's shoes scrape on the pavement as he turns, his look of arch challenge yielding. It takes a turn for more complex territory. Pensive. Suspicious, the way he usually is when he can't see someone's angle. "What. That's it? A knot of Isis?"

"Nae just any oul' knot."

"Right. Which one."

"Ye remember Jack."

"Jack. Gonna have to give me more than that to go on, Ally."

"Jackie Parsons, John, ye daft mink."

Both of John's brows shoot up. He slants a look at Zee, briefly. "The rocket scientist?"

"Aye. T'very same."

"What of him?"

"T'was a tyet o'his am needin'."

"He's been dead since the bloody fifties, Ally."

"Hackit job it was, anaw."

"Mmhm. So they say. So where is it?"

Crowley looks incredulous. "Am no sure, am I? Else ad nae be askin' ye?"

—-

Well, that's something to take to the grave; she's managed to babble hard and fast enough that she's managed to render Aleister Crowley silent. Zatanna would will the earth to open up and swallow her whole, except that if she does it, it might actually happen, and so all she does is stand there while she detects emanations of John's own amusement bleeding through the link they share. It takes everything within her not to bury her face in her hands until her heightened color fades away.

At John's threat and Aleister's concession, she lifts her hands up again in a helpless gesture, more than happy to stay out of the row between the two men, however entertaining it is. It's only when the demand tumbles out that the rub is revealed, though getting there isn't without its share of surprises. Mention of the tyet is just as interesting as it is perplexing - there are hundreds of those lurking around occult shops, chances are some authentic ones can be bought on Amazon and shipped the very same day. It's also not that difficult to pop into one of the shops her father had brought her to in Cairo to procure one, just to be sure.

But that is deceptive, too. A tyet comes in many forms, can mean many things. From what she remembers, it doesn't necessarily mean a literal knot - he could also mean the blood of Isis, which, really, would be a harder thing to find…

When Crowley mentions the name, however, she meets John's glance with her own startled own. Not just because they're being sent to retrieve the tyet of a rocket scientist, but because the name establishes a connection immediately. While she can't profess to be a historian, occult history is a subject she is deeply interested in, for obvious reasons, and what she remembers of Jack Parsons was that he was Thelemite occultist - a structure that Aleister Crowley himself had devised over a century ago.

"What do you need it for?" she wonders, because she can't help herself.

There's a sidelong glance to John at that; he knows her well enough that she has more to say, judging by the look in her eyes before she turns her face forward again. Whatever she intends to communicate will have to wait. John isn't the only one who has been rendered suspicious, and she wouldn't be her if she didn't ask Crowley point blank why he is so interested in the tyet of one of his followers - however many decades separate them.

—-

It's the million dollar question, and John has no intention of keeping Zatanna from asking it — or anything else, it seems, because he doesn't even spare her a look when she jumps in with both feet. Just chimes in, as he folds his arms loosely, settling all of his weight into one leg: "Yeah, Ally. What for?"

Crowley regards them both, heavy lids lowering over his eyes, absolutely unperturbed. "Nan o'yers, either'a ye. Ye find it or nae. My opinion? That Hubbard dunderheed's pure suspect, an' ad 'ave a gander at him first."

"You have got to be kidding me." John's brows dip dangerously.

"Am no. When did magi git sae fash aboot the details? Questions, questions — ballacks tae it. Ye want the Key or nae?"

—-

They do need the Key.

Zatanna exhales a breath, refraining from rolling her eyes skyward. Magicians, the cryptic lot of them. She has half a mind to ask John to shoot her if she ever devolves to speaking in riddles.

"Alright," she says, pulling out her smartphone and taking a look at it. She would press, but given the last remark, something tells her that whatever probing, prying questions she can think of would simply be stonewalled the same way. There's a glance to John, to see if he has anything else before they got a move on to the next task.

—-

In John's expression, as he meets her pale-eyed glance, is a kind of answering exasperation, not just with Aleister Crowley but the whole of magical society — such as it is. Not just exasperation, though. There's a distaste in him that doesn't read in his expression, but she'll feel it echo across astral space. That, and a deep dislike of feeling he's underneath someone else's thumb, because he wants something they have and he isn't sure how to get around that.

"Fine," he says, finally, the word itself a reshaping of a sigh. "This is not a small favor."

Equanimous in his victory, all Aleister Crowley can do is shrug. Shrug, and take another pull from the flask he was brought, and smile for Zatanna. It's not a good look for him. "Gaun then, hen. Meck sure'e comes back this time." He winks.

"Yes, well. Ta. Always good to see you," John says, through a lingering frown. While Zatanna begins to do — something, with her phone, John places a hand low at the small of her back to usher her toward the door, and halfway there he brightens in a way that means nothing good to anyone. "A big 'hello' to Nessie for me; the two've you must be getting to know one another very well…"

The screen door closes behind them only just in time to intercept the hurled bottle of Glenfiddich, and the door to the cafe kitchen shuts behind them just after the muttered word, laced with regret, follows them out: "Shite."

John waits until they've escaped the cafe proper — with a brief intermission to buy something; pastries, milked tea — before he turns his full focus on his companion. "And there you have it! Charming bloke, Ally. Stuck in the weeds out by the water in Loch Ness, he is. Can't leave. It rubs his knob-end raw that he's stuck there and the rest of us are freely roaming about, doing things with magic without his by-your-leave, but it's his own fault." He pauses for a cautious sip from his to-go cup, and eventually the faint shadow of a grimace suggests itself over angular features. "He's up to something, obviously. I'm not sure I want to know what it is."

—-

There's a bit of a smile at Aleister's wink, before Zatanna's attention falls on her smartphone again - it allows her to hide the threat of another grin when John ribs Aleister about the Loch Ness monster. She barely looks up when John's fingers find the small of her back to usher her towards the door, and in fact depends on his guidance to move through the kitchen blindly. She registers the noise - familiar, by now, but she continues to read what she has pulled up on her handy internet search engine as they step back out into the cafe's proper. That, finally, has her looking up, the scent of tea and fresh-baked pastries catching her nose and reminding her again of the hunger pangs that she has elected to ignore in order to mentally prepare herself for the meeting.

She loves milk tea, so it isn't surprising that she has her own in a plastic cup filled with ice; it's simply too hot outside to have anything else, and cherry red lips remain curled around her straw as she follows him out of the building and back into the street. It has been a while since she has been to London and there's an appreciative visual sweep of her surroundings, reminding herself as to where they are. She remembers their favorite haunts - the various pubs, the libraries, all the cemeteries….and the townhouse that her father bought, in which he and her lived for several years.

"So what's the story behind that?" she wonders, finally. "I figured it was probably rude to ask him directly, so he's stuck in Loch Ness….why, exactly? Don't tell me he made a deal with the denizens down below and this was the only way he could protect himself."

Because she can only think of a few things that would be worse than being trapped in one place unable to leave it, and after her visit during Valentines Day, Hell counts for one of them.

She reaches into the paper bag he carries, prying out a piece of pastry to nibble on while they wait on the street corner, taking in the local color. While she senses the knot of conflict that remains within him every time he thinks of London, she doesn't ask. Instead, she transfers her cup to her other hand once she has some food in her and shows him Jack Parsons' Wikipedia entry.

"It's pretty in-depth," she tells him. "But it says here that after he died blowing himself up, conspiracy theories aside, he was cremated and his ashes scattered into the four winds. Later on, his wife tried to commune with him astrally." She furrows her brows. "Doesn't say if she was successful but Google's probably not the best source of that anyway. My question, in the end, and chances are Crowley won't answer it, is why didn't he ask Jack himself? I mean….if he can keep retainers and show up in the back of London cafes, I'm assuming channeling himself astrally to the great beyond to talk to a disciple who died around fifty years after he developed the Thelema isn't beyond him. There's a few reasons I can think of as to why he wouldn't want to talk to Jack, but the one that stands out to me is that maybe he doesn't want Jack to know he's after his tyet."

She sighs. "So yes, I mean, that goes without saying but it's slightly more alarming when he's sending us in while all the signs point to him not being on the level. Which means if I'm right, I don't know if we can project ourselves astrally and talk to Jack also unless you can find some way to convince him to tell us where his tyet is without tipping him off that Crowley wants it. We're accustomed to making enemies, doesn't mean I prefer it if we can help it."

Zatanna takes another sip of her milk tea. "And we really need the Key. I mean…what we're dealing with back in New York is slightly more urgent than possibly giving Crowley something he might use for nefarious purposes. Right?"

—-

The knot remains, though standing on a sunlit sidewalk with the myriad accents of his countrymen-and-women in his ears keeps that recursive bundle of mixed feelings well-cushioned within a pillow of nostalgia, among other things. He's been all over the world, John has — though she probably has him beaten there; trailing after her father that way, en route to destinations unknown, for most of her childhood — but it's London that's in his bones, when all is said and done.

Which explains to some extent the way his tension eases while they stand there on the street corner, and he directs his attention down to the luminous rectangle of her smartphone screen, finger lifted to flick through the text while she offers him a neat summary.

"Ally's not dead," he says, with a shrug to her first question, eyes like the cloudless sky overhead lifting from her phone. "He got a little clever with some infernal bureaucracy or something, so now he's stuck in a very cozy little patch of marshland. He was strong enough to ward himself against the solicitors when they came calling, but now he's stuck. It's possible that those protections don't work on the other side of reality. Maybe they've got hounds at the gates."

When the light changes, he steps off of the curb with her, falling in with unhurried pedestrian traffic. "But I wouldn't rule out your other guesses, luv. Ally and Jack famously had a falling-out over — " He stops short, and then sighs, tilting his head back a moment. "Christ. This is unbelievable, really. You heard him mention Hubbard. That would be Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, better known as L. Ron Hubbard, inventor of the Church of Scientology. Parsons and Hubbard got quite friendly back in the days when Parsons was still at the top of his game, co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and helping the United States do fiddly things with German expats who had shady histories and a strong working knowledge of rocket science. Crowley didn't approve of Hubbard hanging 'round the OTO. Said he was a charlatan — good on him, that — and ultimately if I remember correctly, Hubbard walked off with a load of Parsons' money and his wife, as well. Sounds to me like Crowley thinks he may've walked off with more than that, but why he'd assume Hubbard gave a single lick of a shit about a tyet, I can't say."

Holding the to-go cup aloft, he presses his teeth lightly into the bumper of the lid, squinting into the pale wash of light glaring up off of the street. "I'm inclined to believe the conspiracy theories about Parsons' death. I think somebody had it in for the sorry sod. I just don't know if it was the government, or, eh…" Pause. Sidelong glance, pale eyes trickled over her profile. "Well. He had some occult friends, obviously. And he and Hubbard supposedly completed some arse-backward ritual he called the Babalon Working to summon some sort of…elemental called a Moonchild." His expression slowly opens into a sly smile, anticipating her reaction to what follows: "The archetypal divine feminine! The sacred whore. Summoned by a pair of nerds. Doubtless she was so eager to answer a summons like that one, so she might bask in their masculinity and begin, oh, fulfilling her duties to that end, very mysterious I'm sure."

His amusement wanes, is supplanted by seriousness. "We really need the key," he confirms, repeating her own words.

—-

An incredulous expression seeps over her face. "Huh. Wow. I was halfway right," Zatanna replies, on the subject of Crowley. Mulling it over, she exhales a quiet breath, shaking her head once. "Daddy was emphatic that I shouldn't deal directly with demons unless I absolutely have to, but it's really just the last few months that I've really seen what comes about with those kind of…connections. Still, this isn't the first time I've heard of someone get trapped by his own cleverness." There's a look towards him at that, but a smile eases over her lips as she gives his side a slight nudge with her elbow, stepping off the curb with him as they cross the street.

She has read some of what John depicts to her in the Wikipedia entry she had just mentioned, but she listens attentively if not just to hear his take on it. Mention of the Church of Scientology earns him the sound of a stifled groan, drowned out by a mouthful of milk tea as they continue on through one of London's thoroughfares, easily slipping through throngs of bodies, surrounded by the sound of traffic and the din of thousands of conversations crowding the open air. The pieces of history he offers up for her perusal have her wrinkling her nose. "I don't understand," she says, finally, once he's given her a brief overview on the relationship between Parsons and Hubbard. "A tyet is purely arcane, it's not…you know. Alien. Why would Hubbard be interested in it?"

Or a better question: why does Crowley think Hubbard has it? It can't just be because he ran off with his wife and money, can it?

His thoughts on the conspiracy theories surrounding the man's death has her heaving another sigh. "You know, I'm starting to think maybe someone was in the know when they filmed Men in Black. That the real news is in the tabloids," she tells him, though a healthy amount of good humor underscores her voice and features as she tilts her head to look up at him. "So basically what you're telling me is that the Babalon Working is essentially the magician's equivalent of Weird Science. Gotcha."

The raven-haired witch purses her lips in thought. "I mean, in the end, it's not a bad trail to follow," she muses. "Not like I can scry for it either, without knowing what it looks like and the last place it was handled. I wonder what that would entail, though." A silvery peal of laughter suddenly escapes her, flashing that broad, pearly grin John's way as she hops up on the waiting sidewalk before them. "That'd be ridiculous, wouldn't it? If we had to…I don't know. Break in the super-headquarters of the Church of Scientology looking for the thing. Just dangle from wires in the ceiling." She pantomimes the look, arms out, expressive mouth shaped in an 'Oh' in near-perfect imitation of the now-famous footage of Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible.

"Wonder if we'll run into Will Smith," she continues.

Reminder of the Keshanti Key and the reasons they need it has her sighing. "Well, if it's not advisable to talk to Jack, maybe we can talk to Hubbard," she says, returning to the subject - and the task - at hand, a dainty toe absently kicking a small pebble out of her way. "Better than scouring for clues in Whispering Winds, all hundred-something acres of it."

—-

Probably wisely, John elects not to answer that quip of hers about people being entrapped by their own excess of cleverness. Instead: "Hubbard was a real snake-oil peddler. His whole 'official' history is the highest order of bullshit. A lot of aggrandizement of his character and contradictory claims of importance. It's all nonsense, of course, not even remotely believable, but it does act as a layer of smokescreen, whether intentionally or no. It's hard to say what he might want with something like that. Doubly hard since, and I'd bet my bollocks on it, this isn't going to be any run of the mill tyet we're looking for."

His chuckle is too quiet to rise above the ambient sound of the city, a low rumble in his chest. The sharp smile that comes along with it lingers, turns wry when she mentions Weird Science. "'You know, there's going to be sex, drugs, rock-n-roll… chips, dips, chains, whips…your basic high school orgy type of thing. I'm not talking candlewax on the nipples or witchcraft or anything like that, no, just a couple of hundred kids running around in their underwear, acting like animals.'" It's not a perfect recall of one of Lisa's lines, but it's awfully close for a man who doesn't spend much time consuming media. And then, dry, lifting his cup and one brow: "Basically exactly like that, yes."

He ought to still be amused when she does her spot-on impression of the iconic scene from MI, and he is, but it's dampened by the realities of what that would entail. "I mix it up with some truly despicable organizations, 'tanna, but Scientologists?" He pulls a face. "That's a bit grim, innit? Maybe if we have no other choice. You mentioned a surviving relative of Parsons? Christ knows, there's no shortage of strange characters we could try to trace the threads backward from." He dips his free hand into his pocket and retrieves his phone, tilting his attention down onto the screen as he thumbs his way through things. "Don't suppose your da was much for keeping records about occultists of this stripe, hm? Nothing in Shadowcrest, likely?"

—-

"The word itself means different things," Zatanna murmurs. "But you're right that it's a safe bet that if Crowley wants it, it's not an ordinary knot. Which could explain why his retainers haven't been able to find it." Her expression flattens. "If it's invisible, I might have to jump off a building."

His demonstration of what rare movie knowledge he has does earn him a grin, the young witch inclining her head at him before popping the straw back into her mouth to take a more contemplative sip of her rapidly disappearing milk tea. "Well, I'm assuming accounts as to what happened when they summoned the Moonchild are hazy and conflicting at best, but whatever the elemental was, I hope she made them pay for it. So I take it I shouldn't be using magic to summon the man of my dreams." The last is followed by a grin that's a little too wide for its own good.

Mention of Parsons' bloodline has her lips pursing. "From what I managed to skim, he got married a second time to a Marjorie Cameron," she begins. "Another familiar name, not just because she was also a Thelemite occultist, but she was also an artist and a poet. Plus all the word about her - how she went insane after Jack died, for instance, all those rituals to try and bring him back, kinda sticks with you after you've read just a little bit. I don't know if pursuing that end is going to be any better than Scientologists, mind - you know how I feel about Necromancy." It's gross, for starters. "But at least we won't have to deal with celebrities and aliens. I deal with enough of that being part of the Titans."

After a pause: "Well, I think Bart is an alien, anyway. Nobody that eats that much and stays that skinny can be human."

She turns to a tree-lined street, expression adopting a more contemplative bent. "I'm not sure - he might," she tells him. "He was part of a hero team also way back in the day and I knew he kept casefiles from at least that time. And that would be around the time Parsons was alive, also, so chances are high that we'd find something from whatever he's kept while he was still part of the All-Stars. We can take a shortcut through the house."

Besides, while hot, the sun is out and bright, the skies are clear and she wasn't all that eager to leave London so soon.

Given John's history with the family, he would know what she means by house; number 276 amidst a row of pristine white buildings in Holland Park, purchased sometime at the height of Giovanni's stage career. A cab takes them there eventually, and much like Shadowcrest, there are magical measures in place preventing trespassers from intruding, nevermind that the property itself has been unoccupied for quite a few years. An ornate arch frames the heavy oak door, which opens into the entryway where a flight of stairs is immediately visible, followed by a yawning space that functioned as the older magician's sitting room and where he often entertained guests and those who came to him for a consultation. Most of the rooms of interest are upstairs - bedrooms, Giovanni's study and the library, where John was first introduced to Zatanna three years ago.

For a place left unattended, it is devoid of dust, or any scent of telltale abandonment. It feels as if the house is still occupied, nevermind that the family who owns it has not stepped foot in it for a few years. The magical roombas enslaved to the place must be working overtime.

"I feel like I haven't been here forever," she says, giving John a glance and knowing that his final memories of the place haven't really been pleasant. She turns to head up the stairs towards the library.

—-

"You know what would happen if you tried," John says, arch, brows skewed. "It would be the man out of some sodding post-shabby-Chinese-takeout dream, like the product of some sort of mishap at the limb factory, or something. Summoning anything from dreams: bad practice, generally speaking."

"Cameron. You know, I remember hearing something about a very strange filmography, as well. Popular subject for horror writers, isn't it? The 'dangerous movie,' an experimental film that has bizarre properties, usually fatal to the viewer, etcetera." John tosses this off casually, with no more interest than the usual, then drains his tea and tosses the empty cup into a bin as they pass.

We can take a shortcut through the house. It's the way he doesn't look at her that gives the lie, in all probability. He takes that in stride, but he can't possibly be immune to the weight of recent history. Not when they're already steeped in the familiar sounds and scents of London, heady and nostalgic for John even when he hasn't been off globe-trotting and elbow-deep in the greasy undercarriage of American politics, among other unfortunate pursuits. He's quieter than usual when they're en route, looking through the cab window and taking in the fleet sights of English city blocks that ribbon past, and the first time he speaks up is to suggest, delicately, that she be very sure her father didn't tell the house to, say, vaporize him, should he cross the threshold.

Having ensured that unfortunate event won't come to pass, he steps through the front door and waits to see what's going to fill up the empty spaces in him. Regret, perhaps? Smug victory over the man who banished him from these rooms?

Neither, in the end. Her words encapsulate the strangeness of it, though he doubts they meant to. "Mmhm. Like a lifetime ago, honestly." Nothing rushes in save a strange feeling of dissociation from the man he was when he was here last — and from the relationship they had when he roamed the halls of the place, so different a thing from what they have now. Stepping into Shadowcrest had been like taking a fist to the stomach, hard enough to punch him backward through time to the youth he was a decade prior, but this? Too much time, and not enough, all at once.

He's still puzzling over that with interest as he ascends behind her, one hand skating the bannister.

—-

The library, when they finally reach it, is nothing like Shadowcrest's vast collection; like most abodes in London, space is at a premium and the owner has taken great pains to maximize the space without the use of magic; an array of mounted shelves and some in different shapes give character to an otherwise spartan room, where the apparent focus is the books - literature from all over find its place amidst tomes on magic and science, arranged around a stone fireplace flanked with light fixtures set with crystal-clear bulbs. It's one of these that Zatanna fiddles with, not unlike what she discovered in Wayne Manor, really, when a cavernous sound echoes through the room as a switch is disengaged and the fireplace sinks against the wall, expands and elongates until they are dropped in a familiar hallway made of stone.

He has been in this tunnel before, when Zatanna showed him the Sub-Rosa for the first time.

The fireplace returns to its usual place when the two of them are through, passing through veils of pitch black, leaving their skin tingling passing through the barriers that turn malleable because of the witch's presence, a whiff of Sindella's magic clinging to their clothes when they finally emerge in Giovanni's secret study, and where he keeps most of his most personal possessions. It looks the same as when the last time they had been there, with Zatanna's mother's portrait hanging in its hallowed place on a wall where nothing else hangs, just above a decorative desk where other items are arranged. Giovanni's desk lies past the strange crystal-sculpture and beyond that lies a hazy painting of a distant paradise surrounded by endless fields of snow: Nanda Parbat.

Aside from the case that Giovanni has locked himself with special protections, there are file cabinets present as well, though they do not appear touched for quite some time. None of them are locked, and each embossed plate on the front of each drawer includes a span of dates. A black-lacquered fingernail touches each handle on the way down until she finds what she knows is the era in which her father had been an active part of the All-Star Squadron; from the fifties and through the seventies.

"Good place to start as any," she tells John as she pulls out the drawer and starts looking through the folders.

—-

It's not until the library that John is able to connect with the events of last summer. That — this — is where it all began, ultimately. Not just meeting Zatanna for the first time, years prior, but all of the reckless advances and even more reckless yielding to temptation that struck a spark and lit it to the fuse on the day she turned eighteen. It may as well still be a thousand years ago, by any distance the heart is able to measure, but for those few moments, standing and waiting for her to casually violate the laws of time and space, there's a little splinter of something else in blue eyes as they watch her back. Another kind of spark that recalls the first, a bit wry, a lot louche.

And from that brief heartbeat of side-eye interest, he's plunged into the very depths of everything that is her father, and whatever was there is summarily snuffed out. Not that anything to do with Giovanni would have stopped him a year ago — nothing did, hence the whole upending of the order of things to begin with — but the novelty of sneaking around behind his back is long since a thing of the past, relegated to the sidelines by a man with little continuing interest in sneaking around at all.

…about this, at any rate.

Still. Buzzkill. He heaves a sigh as they close in on the file cabinets, and visibly girds himself, taking a lean into the cabinet beside the one she's rifling through, his eyes trained down on the work of her fingers across the file tops. "Have you ever seen a photo of the All-Star Squadron? I mean, a group thing? It's absolutely crackers. There was someone in it named 'Stripsey.' Seriously. And he wore — shocking, right — stripes. You can't make this stuff up. And that name. I think you got lucky, with 'Titans.' It's still awfully grand, but it's not 'All-Star Squadron.' All-Star? Really? Squadron? Not every last one of them could fly. That's an outrageous abuse of language."

—-

In the end, the Work is the greatest buzzkill of all, as what typically happens when one plunges herself in the realms of the macabre and grotesque. The detour is a convenient one, and while the urge to reminisce a little is there, she also can't help but remember that the house is yet another site in which John and Giovanni have had one of their biggest disagreements. She was almost certain that he didn't want to remain for too long, especially with what had happened the last time he had seen the man. Not that their current location is much better, but it was really the only way to find the files they need - if they were there at all.

John's quips about the All-Star Squadron has her smiling, though it's an absent expression as she pulls out a handful of folders and starts looking through them. "Daddy could fly. He just couldn't pilot," she tells him. "And what did you expect, John, it was formed during the forties and Daddy was barely an adult when he signed up. Maybe it's just the culture - it's not like the names got any better over the years. Titans, Justice League… League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, one of yours, I think." The United Kingdom's, from what she remembers. "Even their counterparts are terrible. I mean, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants?"

She sighs, flipping through the third file on the pile. "Well, there isn't much. Like I said, Daddy joined during the fifties and that was well past the days of Parsons' work with the JPL and even the Babalon Working. What he did get involved in that was relevant was when Parsons got investigated for espionage - the Squadron was originally a government-sanctioned group, so I'm not surprised that they were called in. I suspect they requested Daddy's assistance because of his experience with the occult - his background in magic is cross-referenced with the rest of the investigation."

Zatanna lifts a flap, and frowns when she pulls out a thick sheaf of papers. "Jesus Christ," she says after a quick skim. "Did he try everything from Crowley's playbook? Says here he attempted to cross the Abyss." A reference she remembers, scrawled in her father's familiar hand, if not just because it had been part of John's Valentines Day scavenger hunt just before the two of them got sent to Hell by Papa Midnite.

She hands him the stack and rifles through the other pockets of the portfolio. "Here…a list of family members, known associates. Looks like Marjorie Cameron never had any children with him, but she had a daughter when she married again after Parsons died. According to Daddy's notes, her second husband was jealous because 'Parsons continued to demonstrate significant influence in his widow's life even after his death'." There's a glance at John. "Haunting, maybe? Anyway, apparently he was so jealous he tried to destroy as many of Parsons' possessions that remained with Cameron as he could…uh oh."

Then again, if the tyet was important, wouldn't Marjorie have safeguarded it?

"At least we know that at least some of his belongings were passed to her."

—-

The 'oof' from John as she hands him a stack of files is overdone, and so is the sigh that follows. He shifts the folios around to brace them against his ribs in the crook of one arm, flipping the folders open and paging through the contents carefully. Pale eyes tick over each document in quick, sharp slashes, efficient in their scrutiny. All this while he listens to what she pulls out of the files she's holding, glancing up at the last with a mild frown, gaze pensive as it rests on her for some silent moments. "Nah," he decides in the end. "It's still out there somewhere. Ally wouldn't burn a favor like this from me if he weren't sure."

Shifting his weight out into one leg, he turns on an angle to the wall and settles his shoulder in, braced while he peruses fragments of magical history. Only his lingering irritation with Crowley could possibly explain the dearth of relish in him for the opportunity. "I'm getting the feeling this is something to do with women's business. The Moonchild, this 'avatar of women' thing…the Isis connection." He doesn't sound thrilled. "And I don't know about you, but if I were the essence of womanhood-" Perish the thought. "-and I were summoned into existence by jokers like Parsons and Hubbard, I'd be put off. That's the kind of bad morning you don't just have a cuppa to sort out, innit? She's probably still sore about it. If she exists."

With a long breath, John tilts the pile of folders in his arms closed again, letting his head angle into resting against the wall, hoooded eyes trained on her. "So, alright. We can keep digging here, but it sounds like we've got a few likely places we could start to look. We could go poking about to see if there's a haunting, we could try to track down Cameron's daughter…we could root around Hubbard's estate, or go poking our heads in at…" The face he makes is illustrative of his opinion of this option: "Some Scientology vault or other, christ only knows what we'd find. And there's that film Marjorie was rumored to have been in, with the occult properties, or so they say. The kind of movie it's dangerous to watch. But that could be, for all I know, a myth — and I'm not that well-connected in Hollywood, am I?"

There's a beat of a pause, and then he reaches with his free hand to rub at his sternum, brows knit. "Sort of odd, when you think about it. Hollywood's as arse-backward a place as any I've ever been."

—-

Ally wouldn't burn a favor like this from me if he weren't sure.

"I'm still curious as to why someone like Crowley would need you to look for it," she points out, frowning once. "Either it's really well out of his reach, or he knows where it is and it's too damn risky for him to go after it himself." He may be a celebrity in their circle, but as affable as she is, she doesn't tend to trust other magicians so easily. The older Zatara has taught her many things about their world, but some of the first and foremost of them have been keyed towards tempering her wonder with caution - it is often dangerous to be reckless, handling what they do.

Admittedly, that hardly ever stops the witch when it suits her.

The point regarding the feminine connection has her dark brows winging upwards. "Why, you think Ally's trying to shift careers from occultist to astral gigolo?" Zatanna wonders, looking up from her own file and observing John quietly as he peruses the thick portfolio she has just handed him. Traces of Giovanni Zatara's magic lingers on the leather binding, as familiar to him as the young woman's, clinging stubbornly on pale hairline fissures webbing over it. The possibility is an intriguing one, a small smile quirking upwards on the corner of her mouth. Palm flattening over the cabinet, she shuts the drawer, leaning against it on one shoulder, arms crossing loosely over her torso.

She doesn't appear to be all too enthusiastic about digging in her father's files without his permission, he would sense the touch of guilt vibrating in a dull thrum over their astral bond. Teeth worry on her bottom lip, turning her thoughts to John's enumerated list of ways to approach the present problem. In the end, it is the last option around which her contemplations circle - each poses its own set of dangers, but the last one especially moreso. Not to say that she always gravitates to the most perilous avenue towards adventure, but…

"It's the closest path to the source we could venture in, outside of calling up old Jack's spirit and we already decided that was probably a bad idea," she tells him. "Besides, when was the last time we watched an old reel together? It could be fun."

Right?

Right.

—-

"Mmhm. Me too." The network of peculiar relationships surrounding the tyet, Crowley's connection with the individuals involved — rather contentious, at least toward the end, and certainly where Hubbard is concerned — and the seeming simplicity of the errand coupled with the caliber of magician Crowley's recruiting to find it for him? All of those things fail to add up.

"But he's got us in a corner. If we find that tyet and it's something he shouldn't have, though…" The crease between John's brows suggests there may be more complications on the road ahead, even if they locate the knot — but it's an eventuality he doesn't linger on thoughts of. Chances are very good that whatever they're looking for, Crowley shouldn't have it. It's a bridge they'll have to cross, or burn, when they get to it.

In spite of it all, from his suspicions and irritation to his reservations and wariness, he can't help the little quirk to one side of his mouth as she reaches for the most theatrical of their options. "Every now and then I remember you're a bloody stage magician." Lidded blue eyes glitter with subdued amusement. "Swear to god, Zee, if this ends with us chatting up the hairy girl from that Japanese movie about the well, I'm never letting you hear the end of it."

But for all the grief he seems prepared to give her, it would be difficult to miss the gleam of interest in him: myths and legends are incomparable lures on him, forever the man who feels compelled to draw back the curtain and see what's on the other side, no matter how high the cost to himself. Chasing a legendary film rumored to be 'deadly' is mad even by John's standards, and that is, perhaps, precisely why it appeals.

"We'll want a film archive then. Something associated with Cameron. We could go the occult route as well. Drop in to chat with Wong, or Cienzo Basile? That's going to mean more favors, though."

—-

Everything could be a trap, but sometimes the only way to detect one is to just outright spring it.

"I thought of that," Zatanna says, her voice lowering into a tone that is slightly more subdued than its usual cadence. "The possibility that whatever this is might be something we don't want to give him. But trade-offs are perennial in our business, aren't they? I mean, what can you really weigh against the end of all existence?" Her voice trails off at that. "It is probably just signing ourselves to more headaches in the future, but I don't know what else we could pursue."

As they agreed just a few moments earlier: They really need the Key.

There's a hint of a smile, inclining her head at him. "Besides," she begins, her ice-blue eyes twinkling and he would know just by looking at her expression what she intends to say. The thing she always says whenever she feels particularly cheeky towards Destiny.

What is telling, however, is that she doesn't say it this time; incontrovertible evidence, rare but existent, that there are moments in her life in which she deems it unnecessary to tempt the universe's most fickle mistress. And really, the odds were stacked enough against them as it is.

His remark about her stage career has her lifting her shoulders in a light shrug. "I can't blame you, I feel like it's been ages since I put on a show. I'm due," she says, retrieving her obelisk and tracing the air before them. "Anyway, we've officially tackled worse things than a Japanese movie ghost, I don't think I have to remind you that we've literally been through hell and back. Besides, nothing is stopping me from exerting some existence-erasing magic of my own." She flashes him a wink. "It'll be fine. I think. I hope."

Ephemeral strains of magic ultimately solidify into a door before them, decorated with a single star in the middle, like what one would expect from dressing rooms behind the world's biggest stages. It opens up on its own accord, the space beyond taken up by a familiar tableau of rushing cars, wide avenues flanked by towering palm trees and a crush of foot traffic. In the distance, the famous Hollywood sign beckons the eye, situated against bald desert hills…all blanketed by a thin film of smog.

"It's been a while since I've been to Los Angeles," she tells him. "I know you're not all that well-known in Hollywood, John, but my father's another story."

And with that, she steps through the door.

*

As it happens, there is a Magic Museum in Los Angeles, a to-be-opened institution next to the Magic Palace Nightclub in an effort to put stage magic professionals and enthusiasts in one place. It probably is not surprising to learn that the Zataras are acquainted with its would-be curator, a woman in her mid-thirties with blonde hair and a pair of fashionable glasses, who greets them enthusiastically at the door. With introductions underway, John later finds out that the woman's name is Antonia Stefanacci - distinctly Italian, and as expected, a huge fan of Giovanni Zatara.

"You must thank your father for me when you see him next," Antonia tells the two of them as she shows them into the room where most of the would-be exhibits are kept. "He has kindly donated some of his personal effects. Opening won't be in a couple of years yet, some hiccup with the architect as to the final design of the building, but you're more than welcome to borrow….which film?"

Zatanna blinks. "Which?"

"Well, Marjorie Cameron appeared in three films," Antonia supplies, leading them both into the shelves where several old film canisters are piled. "The Wormwood Star, the Night Tide and the Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. The first two were by Curtis Harrington, the last by Kenneth Anger. There are others, of course, but the first three I mentioned are the major ones."

The young woman glances at John at that. Meanwhile, the curator makes a note of it in her tablet. "I'll have a viewing room prepared," she tells the two. "The canisters are here. Let me know if you need anything else."

"Thanks, Antonia," she says with a smile. "We'll take good care of it, I promise."

"I'll hold you to that. Mr. Constantine." There's a bob of the pale-tressed head before the woman steps away.

—-

If John were alone on this latest crusade, he'd still exhaust every avenue available regardless of the risk involved…but it's undeniably true that working alongside Zatanna adds a layer of defense against the unexpected that would be difficult to improve upon. I think, she says. I hope. All John can do is smile, then shrug. "Sounds like we're going to find out."

The Magic Castle is one of the few locations in Hollywood that John is a known entity, though that's the club itself, and predictably he's not especially fond of its pomp and circumstance. He's been known to mock the 'castle' part at great length, hailing as he does from a country with real, actual castles in it…and really, given his fractious relationship with most of his peers and colleagues, most of the club's members are just as happy that he keeps his distance as he is to keep it in the first place. The moment they're in the vicinity the weight of it all seems to press down on him, as though all of the accumulated fustiness of 'proper' magical tradition has a resonance that lingers here and is attempting to compress him.

On the other hand, he can think of few people more suited to it than Giovanni Zatara, for countless reasons. Hands in his pockets, he wisely decides to let Zatanna do the talking, unusually silent as he trails she and the unfamiliar blonde, listening to trace evidence of The Great Zatara's comings, goings, and impressions left behind. Few human beings can say they've left footprints in the mystical spheres as large as Giovanni's, and the sensations that pop and crackle through the astral link are many and varied, contradictory. John is still rankled, sore about their last interactions, but under that remains an unwithered loyalty that still finds the means to be proud of Giovanni, even if only grudgingly.

This is the internal landscape he's jostled out of by the sound of his name. Antonia gets a distracted nod as she brushes past, and then all of John's focus lands on Zatanna, something in his expression unconvinced. "This film's supposed to be lethal. 'Urban legend' levels of crackers. She didn't seem reluctant to lend us any of these. Seems weird, dunnit?"

—-

There had been glances back at him, now and then, those intent pale eyes taking in how he traces her father's magical signatures around the mostly-bare and in-construction space. Eventually, he and her father will have to speak again, but Zatanna, in a rare show of consideration and perhaps foresight regarding all things that have to do with the most important men in her life, has elected to leave it well enough alone, content to leave their conflict unremarked upon. If nothing else, she is holding onto the hope that they'll resolve their latest quarrel themselves.

With Antonia gone and left alone with the collection, the young woman pivots on her sandaled feet, an apologetic look cast his way; there hadn't been a lot of time to tell him what she's about to. "Antonia's a mundane," she tells him. "A civilian. She thinks all of this is just stage play. She doesn't know….you know." She wiggles her fingers in emphasis. "As far as she knows, Daddy's just a very talented entertainer. The collection is largely about the lore and history behind the artifacts, but she doesn't actually think Daddy and his lot on stage can actually perform magic."

A rare bird, in the end, in a world that is gradually becoming filled up by beings who can't be matched.

"Can't say I blame her, why would actual magicians become entertainers when they can go out there and…I don't know. Try to take over the world?" This was, precisely, Giovanni's mindset when his career took off a few decades ago. Hiding in plain sight in a time when 'superpowers' were things the masses still largely considered fiction.

With that, she hands John the canister.

"Shall we?"

—-

"Why would they? I still wonder that myself," says the man who relieves her of the burden of the film cannister, knowing and wry. He arches a brow at her and tucks the cannister beneath his arm, then offers her the other one. He has no idea where in this peripheral building a viewing room might be, but it can't be that sprawling. "I'm for magicians having hobbies, mind. Especially if it means they leave off the 'taking over the world' bit."

Rounding a corner in the direction Antonia disappeared in and finding themselves in a door-lined corridor, he tilts his head her way and pitches his voice low. "Still. If one of these is what we're looking for, maybe we ought to put a padlock on it before we go. That's all anyone needs is the staff to fancy a late-night viewing of old-timey classics, only to find they've signed up for weeks of after-hours fun with a man who looks like roadkill and desperately needs a manicure." He stops at the first door and leans to look inside: nothing. Literally.

"Things like this, assuming it really exists, they want to be found. Hence the vault in the London flat. I make enough bad decisions already without having that collection working on my thoughts all the bloody time." Second door: still nothing, though 'nothing' consists of piles of cardboard boxes draped in painters' cloth.

"Ally's convinced this is down to Hubbard, but I don't know if that's his grudge or some sort of inside information talking. And of course he's not going to do us the courtesy of being informative-" Third door. "Ah." His crooked elbow slackens, the better to push the door aside for her to enter. "Anyway, my point is, we might be hurling ourselves into harm's way for no reason. We've been at this for three years now, 'tanna. You sure you haven't had your fill of unforseen awfulness yet?

—-

With another film canister handed to her, Zatanna takes it easily enough, tucking it under her arm and heaving a quiet sigh. "I suppose it could be worse," she agrees, once they start heading out of the room. Stepping into Antonia's wake, she follows John through the clean, straight corridors of the would-be museum, the smell of fresh paint and new construction clinging to her nose, their shadows brushing over pristine white walls like living ink. "But I agree about installing some security measures before we decide to watch any of these. The last thing I want is to cause any trouble for Antonia." Wrecking her father's relationships with her contacts in his absence is definitely not in the cards for the young woman. She would rather avoid it however possible.

They step in the third room - not as empty as the others they've come across, but there is a screen and a projector set up as well as a few scattered chairs. No popcorn machine, unfortunately, but considering who he is with, if they elect to turn this into a legitimate movie night, he can be assured that the raven-haired witch will at least oblige him with some snacks. The room has no windows; just as well, especially if they're expecting something weird to come out of the film, or something weird to pull them in.

The door closed securely behind them, she leaves John to set up the first film while she handles 'padlocking' the door, which is a little more involved than using an actual device to secure it. The obelisk out, glowing white-blue sigils trace over the outline the doorway makes on the wall; the better to preserve the integrity of the architect's work, already anticipating just how the curator would act if she finds arcane sigils etched over the new construction with indelible markers. She would rather not burn that bridge.

We might be hurling ourselves into harm's way for no reason.

"Sure there's a reason," she tells him. "We don't really have any answers and we definitely need the Key. The shortest route to getting there is to do what Ally wants, yeah? So…I mean…" She gestures loosely with a hand while the other secures her magic in place, pulling the space from the present dimension and setting up a barrier not unlike what he had seen her formulate the night they came across the angel coated in Primordial Darkness. It is invisible, her magic quiet and soundless, but the feel of it is palpable, a distant thunder flitting through magical senses and sealing them in the space - and whatever they have chosen to trap along with them.

You sure you haven't had your fill of unforeseen awfulness yet?

"Well." She turns around and smiles ruefully at John. "It's not as if it's going to stop, is it? Curse of the trade, John. Besides, what doesn't kill us makes us stronger."

Moving towards the center of the room, she taps a finger on the projector.

"So, dealer's choice as to what we watch first."

—-

While this is hardly the first time John's been tapped to look into something involving old films, it's safe to say that this equipment is not on the list of things he's intimately familiar with the workings of. Half of the time she takes setting up her wards and reponding to what he's said, he's getting acquainted with the projector.

"No," he admits, sotto, before slanting his gaze at her approaching silhouette. "It's not going to stop. Not least while you're hanging around with a bad crowd." He winks as he holds out to her the cannister he's chosen, so much heavier than it seems it ought to be for such a small thing. Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.

"This is her big occult film. Crowley's peripherally involved, and Isis is one of the characters. But loads of people have seen this, so if it's sinister it's something hidden." A beat, a shrug, a glitter in pale eyes that arises alongside a sharp internal spike of satisfaction. "If it's a dead end at least we'll have spent the duration watching something absolutely barking, and when we get back to Crowley you can give him a hard time about it." After a brief silence his expression flattens into apology. "You'd…better set it up, if you know how. I'll just wind up jamming the bloody thing in backward or melting it on the light. Just…try not to touch it much. You know. Just in case."

—-

His companion makes a face at the title. "There better be something porny in there," she jests. "To warrant being called that. If it doesn't pleasure my dome, I'll be extremely disappointed."

John's point about past audiences earns him a more thoughtful look. "Might be that there's some kind of trigger, if there's anything mystical about it. It doesn't feel like it," Zatanna remarks, taking the canister and weighing it with her hands. "If there is something, though, it could manifest if you have certain predilections or traits. From what I managed to read about Marjorie, she was heavily into this stuff. Not above the usual elitism our lot tends to fall prey into." The apologetic look taken in stride, she turns her head to plant her lips on his cheek before moving to set up the projector.

And without a single crack as to how hopeless he is with technology.

Deft fingers move to spool the reel through the old machine; while cleaned for this purpose, a few specks of dust remain against its tighter corners. She heeds her former teacher's warnings, at least, holding the film gingerly by its corners as she fits it into the mechanisms - it isn't long until she finally finishes. At the very least nobody could ever claim that her choice in major is utterly worthless in the grand scheme, not when she has had to take a few film classes to supplement it.

Nobody dies. At least, not yet. The witch inspects her fingers, squinting at them with narrowed blue eyes - so far, no trace of anything untoward has wicked into her skin and aura.

"Alright, I think I did it right," she announces, finally, once the job is done. "Sure you don't want any popcorn for this? What about some sno-caps? Milk duds?" She eases into a seat, a hand reaching for the side of the projector, though she doesn't flick it on yet. She waits until he's ready.

And once he is, she flicks the switch.

—-

"Right? Probably not, though. That lot broke out in fits of orgy constantly, but if they made a film I've got a feeling it's going to be some tragic attempt at high-brow occult exclusivity, laden with heavy secrets and that sort of wank." His voice travels through registers describing humor, sharp criticism, and then dejected resignation in turn through those words, but it lands on humor again at the end — shot through with something warmer than that. Something that pairs well with the fingertips that skate over the shape of her hip as he slides past her and toward the available seating. "Good thing you locked the door. I can't stand to see a lady disappointed."

All idle threat, though, given the way he slants himself into a chair, shrugged down and canted on a hard angle into the cushion. He can and has run on fumes when he's working on something, but either the present company or the prospect of watching a number of films in a dim room — probably a little of both — have blunted some of his sharpest edges. With hooded eyes he watches her thread the film, though whether that's to learn something about how it's done or because it's an excuse to watch her isn't clear, and probably doesn't matter. She'll look around at him again when she's finished, and he answers her with a short, sharp nod, wryness simmering up around the edges of his expression. "You Americans and your love affair with sugar," he manages to say in the moments before the opening trumpets begin to play.

What follows is almost forty minutes of virtually incomprehensible cinema: adults, costumed on a budget, doing bizarre, unexplained things. There is no dialogue, only music — all by a single composer, John says, checking his phone partway through ("Really it's just impressive that one man could produce so much garbage on his own") — and so nothing at all is explained. Transparently laid over the top of many of these scenes are Thelemic symbols and alchemical references that are almost enough to give the two of them some insight into what Anger was attempting to achieve.

Almost.

It's not even two thirds of the way through when John's visibly had enough. His arms eventually find their way to folded, his brows set flat and taut over eyes that remain grudgingly on the screen, brimming with cold coals of disdain. It's a sullen, spiteful look that would portend a very bad day for someone if it were a 'someone' on the receiving end. It isn't. It's a film that doesn't seem to care what anyone thinks of it, much less John Constantine specifically, and it is relentlessly impenetrable.

"Fuck's sake," he grouses, and pushes himself to his feet, starting for the door. "I'm going to use the khazi. Keep a close eye on it; you wouldn't want to miss any meaningless, masturbatory drivel to fill me in about when I get back."

—-

After the first ten minutes, she is almost convinced that there is nothing noteworthy about the film, though deep inside her own mind, she wonders if she only thinks that because she wants it to be over.

Her pale mien runs the entire gamut of human expression keyed around the concepts of confusion and boredom, swinging like a pendulum between the two and ticking every state in the midst of them. She has shifted in her seat at least once every ten minutes; already perpetually restless, she is all the moreso when she believes that she has better things to do with her time and while she has a broad appreciation for art, Anger's work is clearly pushing the term, as far as her opinion is concerned. Every new bizarre action one of the characters take earns a tilt of her head, a furrow of her brow, and all the while she ca taste John's impatience through their link.

Really, she can't blame him. What is this?

When occult symbols actually do show up, she sits up straighter, but the configuration and the way they are incorporated in the film itself leave her with more questions than answers. She has attempted to draw each by chronological sequence on a notepad she has brought, in hopes of divining the solution to whatever mystical anagram had been present in those brief glimpses, but to no avail - what is left is a hopeless, jumbled mess to match the plot.

If there was a plot at all.

It is John's movement that has Zatanna loooking up, finally, from her scribbles, what he thinks of it written plainly on his hard features. "Alright, but if you find me gone, inevitably swallowed by the maw of Hollywood's attempts at occultic arthouse….whatever the hell this is, you've only got yourself to blame," she teases, lifting her fingers in a light wave. Despite her words, she doesn't appear all too concerned.

When he vanishes to visit the loo, the young woman stretches her hands over her head, feeling the popping of each vertebra as she stands up, moving towards the projector. Maybe they'll have better luck with the second film, she thinks, glancing towards the screen and squinting at it.

"Can't even say I want to try what Anger was on," she mutters to herself. "If this is what's gonna come out."

—-

"If that rubbish-" He jabs a pointing finger at the screen, "-swallows you up, I'm not comin' in after you. I've got limits." And with that, John closes the door behind him, leaving her alone with the cumulative cinematic accomplishments of Marjorie Cameron.

By now one would think John and Zee would know better than to tempt fate the way they do. She made a valiant effort at avoiding that earlier, sidestepping the usual remark that is, in John's estimation, the equivalent of waving a red cloth at the raging bull of destiny. All for naught; her teasing remark and his vow are still practially hanging in the air when that air begins to change, and it happens the moment he closes the door behind him. In hindsight he'll kick himself for not theorizing sooner about the nature of what they're doing. He came close, mentioning once that his instincts tell him this is women's business.

Not close enough to realize that his presence might interfere with whatever alchemy the films may contain. Not close enough to realize that such a qualifying factor might explain how it retained popularity as a film viewed by audiences across the country without a spate of tragedies arising in the wake: after all, what are the odds that it would have been viewed by a solitary woman before now? At least, one who didn't already know that she could act as a key to unlock what lay within?

The lights begin to dim, or maybe it's the air that begins to darken. Either way it's a slow and even gentle process, nothing like her sudden descent into the darkness that deposited her in limbo. She has time to react as the momentum gathers; she could stop it from happening, if she wanted to.

—-

In truth, given how flippant the comment had been, spoken while they were assessing their options, the idea that it was women's business had slipped her mind especially when she had been so engrossed poring over her father's files and speaking with his contacts, eventually bringing them here to Los Angeles. But the moment the door shuts and she is alone with the film, the air thickens with the Happening, and the fingers reaching for the projector pause before she can touch the switch to shut it off.

Ice-blue eyes flicker upwards as the world starts to grow dark, knowing it for what it is. This is when realization nearly drowns her in a sudden rush, now that John's presence had been extricated out of the room. What did John say earlier, that Isis was one of the characters in the film?

The stygian veil continues to fold over her, drawing her into its bosom - a gentle, ephemeral embrace that leaves her for the moment entranced as she turns once more to the sigils flashing in pale blue over the screen, super imposed over the deities immortalized by their flawed and underpowered counterparts. Marjorie Cameron, herself, flits across the screen, the Scarlet Woman, a prominent and complex symbol in Aleister Crowley's works. He had named a few of his female followers that, titles of significance that would hardly register to anyone outside of their world. She was quite certain that most film students who had watched this even knew.

Zatanna glances towards the door, shut as it is.

"John's going to be so mad at me," she whispers to herself.

But she makes no move to stop whatever is happening. As always, her recklessness asserts itself when it is time to do something, just as much of a slave to the workings of Magic and Circumstance in the way her father is - perhaps even worse, as she has yet to really taste the extent and consequences of the Addiction, no matter how many times she has been warned from it. No matter how hard Giovanni has tried to caution her.

Everything it takes; they need the Key. There are people in her life that will inevitably prevent her from going to such extremes, but she is constantly, perpetually, driven to do her part.

So as costumed, enigmatic figures dance across the screen, as the world darkens around her, she takes several steps forward, her face silhouetted by light pouring from the projection behind her, shattered fragments of it dancing over the side of her face as her shadow elongates and cuts through the image of Katy Kadell as she appears - Isis in her robes. Her hand extends, watches the shades of her fingers elongate and bleed over the technicolor surface….and continue the closer she gets.

Taking a deep breath, she plants a foot forward, stepping through her own shadow and lets herself inside. The world goes black.

Outside of the screen, the lights turn on, giving way to deafening silence save for the flap-flap-flap of the film's last square, bringing an end to a bizarre forty minutes.

—-

The peril of choosing not to press forward on pain of John's displeasure is evident almost immediately. Even whispering to herself, the words cause some of the weaving strains of magic to tremble and falter, as though the mere thought of making concessions to him — or any other man, probably — could be enough to lock her out of whatever secrets the film might contain.

But she chooses not to be inhibited by any such thing, and in turn the magic threaded through the film gathers momentum. The closer she gets to the screen, the more intense the sensations, until all at once she steps through, and is gone.

On the other side, for some heartstoppingly long moments, there is nothing. Cold, and dark. Extending her senses outward, she might tell that she's in a vast space, though not an unbounded one.

Then a light cuts on. It's brilliantly bright, like sunlight passed through a focused lens. It razors down onto her like a blade, slicing through the inky black, and this, at least, will be a very familiar feeling for one Zatanna Zatarra: it's a spotlight, and she's standing on an undressed stage. What little is visible through the intense glare of the light suggests there's no one in any of the rows of seats that ramp upward and backward into the darkness again, but there's nevertheless an intense sensation of being watched.

She isn't left in silence for long. The voice seems to emanate from everywhere at once, gentle and welcoming, warm and amused, but somehow dangerous all at the same time.

Welcome, sister. It's been a very long time since a woman last stood where you stand now.

—-

It's like going blind; cold permeates through her skin, like stepping into a freezer naked. Despite the temperature change, she can feel the beginnings of sweat travel down the shallow canal tracing her backbone, tickling the small of it until it pools there. Her heart stops, but now that she realizes she might be stuck in utter darkness for whatever long, it hammers against her ribcage like a frantic, frenetic thing, liable to crush her bones, leap out and escape. Her breath shortens, as if she has run a mile and her fingers start to tremble.

Zatanna starts to reach for it, for the strains of magic within her - to unleash and fill the void with light. But she manages to restrain herself and instead, she shifts and plants one foot ahead of another. Slowly. Carefully.

The walk seems endless, but her patience yields some unexpected fruit in the end. Light suddenly explodes above her head, forced to blink; her eyes tear in the corners as a hand lifts reflexively, to press fingertips against her lids and rub the sudden soreness and sting away. The stage is not unlike others that she has stood on before, but the silhouettes of seemingly empty chairs, hinted at by the single spot of illumination burning above her, are largely disconcerting.

An empty theater can be a disconcerting thing. She remembers goosebumps crawling up her flesh whenever she looks up and realizes she's the only one left, in the aftermath of evening classes in Gotham. The atmosphere is similar….and even more dangerous.

Welcome, sister.

"I take it you don't receive many visitors," she tells the voice, feeling her stomach twist. Apprehension and no small measure of excitement, always when she's about to tackle the unknown, to pry open yet another mystery in the world that her father introduced her to so many years ago.

"What is this place?" she asks, boldly venturing forward. She doesn't step off the stage, but she asks her questions as if this is an every day occurrence, determined not to let whoever this is see her sweat. "Who are you?"

—-

No. Not many.

There's no restriction on her ability to move around the stage at will, though the spotlight remains affixed to her, following her as it would on any stage, though with a precision that seems eerily inhuman.

Your questions tell us a great deal about you. Most who manage to find the door to this place know well what they intend by passing through it.

In the brief silence that follows, there's a quiet din that rises through the seemingly empty auditorium, as though every seat were occupied and every member of the audience suddenly whispering to their neighbor. It ends quickly.

This is a place of initiation. To conceal its existence was necessary, but to place it within a film concerning Thelema… Bubbles of laughter percolate the space. That was a joke. An unkind one, but the circumstances which gave rise to these rites were in their own turn unkind.

The air rustles. She is joined on the stage by a woman in a glittering red gown, the color of fresh blood. Not Cameron, though she has the same kind of purity of face. "Who I am matters less for your purposes now than who you are…and why you're here."

—-

"A place of initiation?" Zatanna wonders, taking a step down from her elevated spot on the stage, to a lower one. "Does this mean I'll need to pass your challenges in order to obtain membership? I'm game, but I'll need to know what I'm signing up for, specifically."

Not to say that would be much of a deterrent - when something needs doing, she can be reckless when the situation calls for it.

"Well, not gonna lie - I couldn't follow the film at all, but I guess that's part of the joke too, huh?"

Sliding her hands in the pockets of her jacket, she chews on her bottom lip. She doesn't have the same penchant for playing games as the British Magus, and so she doesn't bother to try and parse what he might do in this situation. She's an entirely different creature and considering what has just played out, it might prove to be an advantage…

…or a detriment, if she gets too reckless.

When joined by the woman in the red dress, she turns around to look at her. After a pause, she extends a hand. "You're the Scarlet Woman," she identifies, venturing a quick guess. "I'm Zee. As for why I'm here…I'm seeking Isis' knot. I did some research and I thought maybe the film can help me understand where I could find it. If I asked for it, would you be able to assist? Either in obtaining it or telling me where I could do so?"

—-

The figure on the stage smiles as Zatanna hazards a guess as to her identity, but that smile freezes in place upon the continuation. Slowly, she folds her arms across her ribs, one satin-gloved hand lifted, the tip of her index finger touched gracefully to her chin in an attitude of contemplation.

The atmosphere in the theater changes perceptibly, the way one can feel the threat of a sudden snapping in a harpstring tuned up past the point of all reason. Exaggeratedly long lashes fall to shade the penetrating gaze of her opposite. "Indeed? There are many knots of Isis, so I must assume you seek one in specific." Slowly, her head tilts to the side. "For what purpose do you strive to obtain this object of power?"

—-

The brief tic in her expression has Zatanna pursing her lips. "I think you already know which specific one I am talking about, judging by your earlier reaction," she points out. It's a guess, but she follows through anyway, pressing at switches that she manages to find in an effort to ellicit more telling reactions.

For what purpose do you strive to obtain this object of power?

"It's crucial to my— " She elects to cut John out of this equation entirely, just in case. "— efforts to beat back the attempts of an ancient cult to inflict potentially irreparable harm to my city. They've already started, leaving damage and bodies behind. You might've heard of it…the Brujeria."

—-

"Yes, there is a knot of Isis here," she admits readily, once more refolding her hands in an elegant clasp in front of herself. "But it's not a thing for anyone to possess. It's a ritual instrument pivotal to the nature of the space you've so boldly trespassed into." Again, the corners of her raid-painted lips turn upward. "Your boldness isn't a flaw in our eyes, mind. If anything, it makes you a more promising candidate for the rite than we've seen in a very long time. And it may be, sister, that in completing the rite you find you have what you need to stand against whatever forces besiege your city."

Her head tilts just enough to suggest awareness of some sound beyond the edge of hearing. "We aren't familiar with this 'Brujeria.'"

—-

She is absolutely not interested in obtaining more power - she is perennially afraid of what she already has that she can't help but balk inwardly at the idea of it. But it might not necessarily be that; she could mean knowledge, too. She recalls that in the Egyptian pantheon, Isis was the goddess of magic and often the ancient equivalent of the High Priestess in the Tarot; the card that symbolizes secrets - of mystery and intuition.

"That's probably for the best, then," Zatanna says, fingers toying with the inner lining of her pockets. "What do I have to do for the rite? I apologize if I seem like I'm in a tremendous hurry….but I am, in a way. The people I intend to foil are extremely dangerous."

—-

"I think you'll find that you cannot rush the rite, though the swiftness with which you succeed or fail depends wholly on you." As the figure on stage rotates, light glitters and winks blindingly off of the sequins that make up her gown. She faces the rear of the stage, and the plush, red velvet curtains that flank the apron of the stage begin to soundlessly glide apart, revealing an impossible landscape, hallucinatory in presentation: one moment little more than a painted backdrop, the next a window, a door, a hole in the world into which it seems inevitable she will eventually fall.

In the foreground is visible a vast expanse of silvery sand, perfectly flat, illuminated by moonlight. A scarab clutches the sun in its jaws, and rolls it onward, toward the place where two figures out of Egyptian myth tower on either side of what looks like a place to descend into a nighted valley.

"They were so self-righteous in their certainty that the essence of womanhood hinged upon the counter-existence of a male principle."

To the opposite side of the stage, another woman in a red gown begins to speak. She is as dark as the first woman is pale. "In the Liber AL vel Legis, the so-called Book of Law, the Beastly Charlatan wrote: 'Let the Scarlet Woman beware! If pity and compassion and tenderness visit her heart; if she leave my work to toy with old sweetnesses; then shall my vengeance be known. I will slay me her child: I will alienate her heart: I will cast her out from men: as a shrinking and despised harlot shall she crawl through dusk wet streets, and die cold and an-hungered.'" This recitation stirs the whispering voices into a veritable frenzy of dissent, still quiet, but hissing, brimming with venom. She continues to repeat the words from Crowley's most famous work: "'But let her raise herself in pride! Let her follow me in my way! Let her work the work of wickedness! Let her kill her heart! Let her be loud and adulterous! Let her be covered with jewels, and rich garments, and let her be shameless before all men! Then will I lift her to pinnacles of power: then will I breed from her a child mightier than all the kings of the earth. I will fill her with joy: with my force shall she see and strike at the worship of Nu: she shall achieve Hadit.'" By this time the invisible audience is in full rebellion, and the whispers seem to be owed to distance rather than silence, as though any moment they might become full, bloody shrieks of fury.

Silence descends like a leaden hammer the moment the pale woman lifts her hand. "Such arrogance. It would never have occurred to him to believe that a Scarlet Woman might be all of those things as she chose, for any cause other than his benefit; that any woman who could kill her heart and be shameless before men might reject his pathetic overtures to breed."

The dark woman smiles, her dark eyes coals. "But there is a difference, sweet sister, between having full command of one's own power, and aggression flowing into the need to dominate and control."

"Silence," says the pale woman, "Is engendered by nothing so successfully as experience."

"Mastery," says the dark woman, "Never needs prove itself to anyone."

"However noble your quest may be, do not undertake the rite without first accepting that you will not complete it as the person you are now. You will be changed. The difficulty in confronting what waits for you in crossing the Abyss-" She sweeps a hand outward to indicate the landscape, "-pales in comparison with the challenges you will face in reintegrating with the world as your transcended self. There are those in your life who have expectations of who you are and what role you inhabit, what purpose you serve, whose expectations will be forever denied them."

"Those who believe they have some measure of control over you," says the dark woman, clasping her hands in front of her. "Will be sorely disappointed. You, too, will struggle with your new eyes. Things you once held dear may crumble into meaningless dust, and many things you once enjoyed the taste of may turn to ash on your tongue."

"But these are small costs," says the pale woman, "In the pursuit of knowing yourself as fully as any mortal soul can. To be free of the burden of fear — not merely fear of the world, but fear of the power that lies within you."

Curiously, there's no sense that either woman understands the nature of that fear as it pertains to Zatanna specifically; neither has probed the fabric of the witch's soul. She would have known.

"To become who we are, we must destroy who we believe we are, who we wish we were, who we're afraid to become. In crossing the Abyss you will sacrifice your ego and confront those things which have held you back. You'll be forced to acknowledge the way you have traded your power for comfort — yours, or that of any other."

"It is possible to fail," the dark woman says. "Sometimes, those who have experienced deep traumas in the physical world cross the Abyss, never realizing, but they view that dissociation from themselves as a tragedy. They remain victims. Others stretch beyond the razing of the self to touch the divinity that resides on the other side."

"Here, those are annointed as Scarlet Women, and partake of the blood of Isis."

—-

As Zatanna quietly listens to the citations presented to her, she can't help but feel a certain sense of disquiet, a faint wrinkling of her nose evident by the idea of being bred out once she's somehow managed to cast off whatever trappings patriarchal society expects of her. The idea of being able to overcome her fear, of being able to tap into what's inside of herself without shaking, is one that she can't help but shy away from also; in that regard, she has always considered her fear to be something healthy, to ensure that she wouldn't give into the temptation to unleash to the point of no return.

The idea of the change, also. What kind of changes are these?

Her insides continue to twist; no cost is small. Not in their world. One of the first lessons she has ever learned is that Magic takes, remembering the dust-laden phonograph in her father's sub rosa, the chair that he no longer sits on because there had been no reason to anymore. Music had been one of the few joys he allowed himself, a refuge from the very real ugliness of his work and now…

But then she remembers a church's rooftop in Berlin and John's very real willingness to throw away what they are for something more important. The links that represented the precious seconds of Tim Drake's potential tattooed around his wrist. The thing on Jane's arm, sucking out her life at every use. There are people in her life who do not hesitate to give up what matters for the sake of what has to be done. How could she contemplate running now and doing less? Isn't she here, now, because she wants to find a way for all of them to at the very least keep existing?

She closes her eyes and forces herself to relax her grip, from where she's busily strangling the inner lining of her pockets.

I have to try.

Determination hardens the pale lines of her face. She takes several steps forward until her sandals sink into soft, silvery sand.

She takes another breath.

She doesn't look back to the women clad in red, when she makes her brisk, resolute ingress into the valley before her, cutting a straight path towards the figures she sees at the distance, illuminated by the moon and its scarab guardian. She has already been warned that this will not be quick and while she feels the familiar bite of impatience, she forces herself to accept the possibility that she might have to remain here for a while.

Silence and Mastery.

For once since embarking on this new adventure, she doesn't mentally ask for anyone to forgive her.

—-

Had she looked back she would have seen nothing but endless sand anyway, stretching off into the infinite night of her soul.

That's what this is, ultimately. John would be the first to say that there's no single definition to describe what a soul is, or looks like, or does. It's beyond comprehension in so many ways. For Zatanna the image most often invoked is of the magical vault door her father installed in her to keep the vast reservoir of her power out of her care until such time as she's ready, but that doesn't have to be true. It can be a soiled, threadbare, bloodstained pennant of war with a single sequin stitched into the fabric of itself; it can be a crack in the world, through which all the many varied machinations of Fate work on existence through the power of Synchronicity. It can be a crystal dolphin, improbably enough.

Here and now it's an endless night brimming with the known and the unknown…but while Zatanna is well-equipped to do battle with the unknown on the mortal plane, here every unknown is a piece of her Self. These are problems that cannot be solved with magic. If anything, the existence and use of magic could only ever complicate anything found in these deep, dark shadows of the self, where questions of morality, identity, destiny and self-worth loom largest.

It probably comes as no surprise that her forward movement appears to bring her no closer to her destination. Her progress will not be measured in the steps she takes across the sand but instead the depths to which she delves inward, the layers of herself that she peels back to expose whatever raw nerves and open veins branch endlessly beneath.

The very first thing she must do is relinquish any control over what's happening to her. There can be no anticipation of what might come, no planning, no preparation. No expectations, no grasping at stability or knowledge. In its way, it's the process of dying: fitting, given the figures overlooking the landscape in the distance, with their potent ties to the underworld, the afterlife, and the process of rebirth.

—-

She's not getting anywhere.

It isn't unlike those first few days in Hell, where the spires beckoned at her from the distance, the silhouette of a damaged, post-apocalyptic New York taunting her with the answers that she needs to be able to return to the land of the living. Silver sand continues to cascade around her feet and recalling that experience forces her to stop, to stare at the two figures and the scarab guardian, well out of reach. The battlefield of the self is an entirely different animal, she finds, inspecting her landscape once more, now that she remembers and recalls it. It cannot be more different than swamp she drowned in, when she was introduced to a lifetime of regrets in John's psyche. Here, it is more placid, more peaceful….beautiful, even, with the way moonlight glints over sand, carving a diamond-studded path for her to tread.

More elusive, too. She isn't quite sure as to what to do here.

Zatanna recalls the words of the Scarlet Women earlier, when they tried to explain it to her. Something about how she must destroy what she thinks she is in order to transcend, to transform. But how? Should she set herself on fire where she stands?

I don't think they meant it that literally, Zee.

Exhaling a quiet breath, she closes her eyes. Not to think, but to unwind the tension within herself. Back in Hell, she had abandoned the idea of finding John in favor doing what she could do, and that was to find information that was vital to finding the main gate leading back to their world. She ought to do the same here, she decides - to focus on something she can do, and at the moment that was….

…nothing.

She doesn't like it, but she forces herself to stand still, to abandon all thought and action in favor of letting the landscape take her. If the red-clad women were right, and if everything here is part of her, she will let this world decide what happens next. It feels like an eternity, before something finally happens. She doesn't see it, but she feels it, her body shifting, the ground underneath her moving, sands parting as she slowly sinks into them. Her heart lurches into her throat, pounds wildly against her ribs. Her eyes fly open when she finds herself half-swallowed by the near-endless rush of silver grain, and unable to help herself, she parts her lips to scream.

Her mouth fills with it. It pours down her throat, constricts her gullet. Each glinting shard weighs her down like a boulder, and the more she's forced to swallow, the quicker she sinks.

A breath, she thinks, hands reaching up in an attempt to claw herself out of the trap to no avail. I can't breathe— !

The sand closes above her head. It scratches her eyes, forcing them to close.

….she drops on her knees, wretching air, stomach convulsing as she shakes and takes deep, desperate gulps in lungs suddenly clear of whatever obstructions she had swallowed and breathed in just moments ago. Eyes brimming with stress-induced moisture tilt upwards, following the path of lights and the constructs looming above her head. Here, the space is different, not unlike mirror mazes she has seen in the carnivals and circuses of her past, their shimmering surfaces bent and twisted, distorted in various angles.

The mirrors are everywhere; embedded on the ground, on the floor, hanging suspended in the air with no tangible support, defying the demands of everyday Physics. Warily, she moves to stand, a sinking feeling tugging in the darkest depths of her bowels. Somehow, she should have expected this. Of course the battlefield of the self will involve reflection.

Thousands of them, in fact.

Taking a shuddering inhale, she takes her first steps into the labyrinth, her figure slipping past each surface. They change at every turn, and she looks at every single one as she passes. They do nothing but look back, her own eyes following her traverse into the maze's twisted heart.

She doesn't notice when they start not showing her reflection anymore. Her heart leaps to her throat in an attempt to escape when a high-pitched laugh lances through her ears. She turns around sharply in the direction she thinks it's coming from, only to stare into a large mirror and the image of herself staring back at her…Zatanna Zatara, if transformed into a marionette, strings holding her limbs aloft, and all of her puppet friends rising from all of the other adjacent mirrors.

A very real and suffocating fear threatens to choke her where she stands. Her face grows ashen. No. NO!

Anything but this!

The sight of it drives all other thoughts out of her head, not even how everyone else would react to the most horrifying depiction of her own pupaphobia. They'd probably laugh, and make fun of her for it, but to her, this is no laughing matter. Blood turns into jagged shards of ice within her veins, deadly points threatening to push through and sever them. As her shadow lengthens across the floor, she turns once again to look directly across from her; darkness splashes into the unseen wall, forming the unmistakable shade of a tall, imposing man - tall enough to make her feel small, and vulnerable, and young.

He's going to kill her, and she's going to die.

Zatanna turns, forcing frozen legs to move. With an incoherent cry, she runs deeper into the maze.

—-

So much of what the ego does is defend us from those things that wound us most deeply. Armor, of a kind. Bandages and camouflage to keep the world from being able to reach into us, curl a clawed hand around the heart of our suffering, and squeeze.

To arrive here she had to sacrifice all of that. No defenses left, what fills her is the urge to flee, of course, but that instinct has no place here, and this place has no safe quarter to offer. Turn as she might into the warren of silver and glass, however fleet she may feel her retreat is, she has nowhere to go but where she is: the depths of her are everything and everywhere. No matter which way she turns there are mirrors, and all of them show her with merciless, razor-sharp clarity the thing she least wants to see. Worse, the more effort she pours into recoiling away, the worse the images become, feeding on her fear the way that terrors do in the dark: strings seem to drizzle down out of the limitless heavens, grazing her limbs with a stickiness that suggests they would like nothing more than to burrow into her limbs and head. Jointed fingers squeak against the interior face of every mirror, seeking a means to reach through.

—-

Hands lift to swat at the endless webs that drip at her from above, waiting to ensnare her and make her a part of it; transformed into nothing but a doll, pulled to action whenever someone feels the need, or to be shaped by those who grasp her reins. Eyes lift higher and higher, catching familiar figures rising high and above her head - watching her run around and around in her mirror maze. Like a dollhouse, or some kind of experiment. The faces are stony, but scrutinizing, witnessing her progress; a set of gloved hands, another pair, drizzled with ink and chalk. Faces that she loves. Faces that maintain a tremendous influence over her life.

Giovanni Zatara and John Constantine.

Their strings chase her through the narrow corridors of her mirror maze and each towering surface reflect glimpses of her years of guidance and tutelage under each, glowing with the warmth and affection of the emotions that she attaches to each memory. But she has no time to dwell on them when the webs continue to chase her, knowing that if she stops, if she lingers too long on each, she'll be wrapped up and bound, any chance of finding her way out of here lost.

And the chase feels like forever. One minute, she feels as if she's progressing, and in the next, she feels like she's running in circles. Finally, she pushes through another corner, finds herself in the middle - a crossroads with twisting avenues extending away from the maze's center and as she stumbles into it, there's nowhere else to go. There's more of them now, curling around the mirrors' frames, blocking each exit - white-blue strings, reminiscent of her own colors, from her father. Gold, bright and searing, from John.

There's no choice but to choose. To be swallowed by the sun or the moon.

But the memory of seeing herself as a puppet rises up at the back of her mind and she recoils. She drops on her knees, and as each nest rises up with every intent to engulf her, both hands lift to clutch the sides of her head, eyes wide and unseeing.

Choose.

She has to choose.

Her lips part to scream and it's frustrated in its pitch. Mystical tumblers disengage inside her and the torrent of magical might rising up from the crucible of her soul surges outward without warning. The nests burn, reducing to ashes in a scentless conflagration; mirrors shatter, not unlike what happened in the Box, that not-quite-real adventure in Hong Kong in which circumstances have led her and John into a shrine of hoarded good fortune. Fragments fly like javelins, cutting through the air, burrowing into her skin.

Flaying her alive.

The pain is indescribable and she's left on her hands and knees, rivulets of crimson welling from her skin and bleeding through her tattered clothes. Ice blue eyes stare at the cracked ground underneath her - it's a mirror, too, but she doesn't see her face.

The chasm burns like a supernova, liable to sear her eyeballs out of her head. It circles around, the rest of the star dying at the wake of a nuclear reaction, the remains of the red giant peeling away, consumed by itself, leaving nothing but the white-hot heart of it - the rebirth of something new and embracing the same color and intensity of something that she has seen before. Something inside of herself, hidden away…

It rises up as the ground continues to crack underneath her, cutting more furrows into her palms. She waits for it, the urge to run, but it never comes and she's left staring at the growing mass transfixed until it presses into the other side of the mirror-floor. The rest of it crumbles soon afterwards.

She is blind again when it breaks through and consumes her….

"Zee?"

Groaning, her raven-haired head lifts from an open textbook. The familiar smell of forgotten back stacks and the distant drone of hushed conversations reach her ears. As fingers reach up to rub her eyes, she recognizes their study room in Gotham University - an exact facsimile, meant to fool her into thinking it is all a dream, but the tingling on her skin remains and she knows it's not.

She knew the moment she stepped into the strange moonlit landscape that there was a distinct possibility that her past will rise up and try to introduce her to some difficult truths, if not to outright destroy her with them. That meant people she knows, embodying the usual things - sorrow and pain and old regrets. Remembered fury. She was certain that John would figure into her interior landscape more than he presently has…

…but the fact that he isn't suggests that she is wrong in her assumptions. Why would he be, when he's forced her to confront so many things about him already? About the both of them?

Instead…

"Tim," she murmurs hoarsely.

The dark-haired youth smiles. No matter how genuine, however, the expression is laced with melancholy.

"You know why you're here, don't you?"

—-

CALIFORNIA:

Chas Chandler sits in a largely empty room. At the center stands a film projector, untouched since the moment the reel ended. The screen is blank. Everything is silent. He's sitting in a chair that not long ago was occupied by an entirely different man, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, hands in a prayer position loosely held in front of his lips. He's not praying, he's just waiting. Occasional glances at the clock tell him that he's been there for two and a half hours. He's had to use the restroom for almost half of that amount of time; the tea he accepted from the girl when he arrived — what was her name again? — was definitely a mistake. Pretty soon it's going to be miserable, but there's no way in hell he's leaving the room. On the table beside his seat is his cellphone, plugged in and waiting. She comes back, you call me straight off. There had been no question from Chas as to what John was off to do in the meantime. He's seen that look often enough to know that he probably doesn't want to know.

SCOTLAND:

Loch Ness is still a lovely, pastoral sight. This time of year everything is grey and misted over — more than the usual, that is — and at the site of Boleskine house, former residence of Aleister Crowley, things are even darker than elsewhere. Much of the property was destroyed in a fire two years ago, but enough remains to influence the surrounding geography and weather. This is the for-now-final resting place of Aleister Crowley, premier occultist of his era. But not the house — oh no. That would be far too convenient.

Down by the shores of the Loch the cattails are thick as curtains. Within one such copse of chattering reeds, arcane circles hae been inscribed on the earth, somehow pristine in spite of decades of poor weather. Within these, trapped on an island of muck, 'lives' whatever shade remains of the man himself.

It's usually quiet. Quiet enough to drive him half-mad, and he was half-mad to begin with if the rumors are to be believed. One of the chief discomforts of his continuing existence is that it's extremely boring. From this place he can peer in on more interesting locales, but do little enough to influence them without the involvement of his retainers — all of whom are another long, equally strange story.

He's pining for that quiet now, for a certainty. His only comfort is the knowledge that, having stepped across the wards that are all that keep Crowley from being consumed by the denizens of Hell for an unpaid debt, John is now theoretically at their mercy, too, should he break the circles — as he's threatening to do.

The Englishman's hand is bleeding, the cut on his thumb deliberate. That thumb is pressed to Crowley's forehead, right between his eyes. Crimson threads drizzle down the sides of his nose, over his flabby cheeks.

Neither man is speaking. They've done their talking: John accusing Crowley of setting this whole thing up to entrap Zatanna to begin with, Crowley insisting he had no such designs and in fact didn't even know John and Zatanna were acquainted — etcetera.

Now, there's only the lingering silence of wind over the moors, the quiet rattle of the cattails, the soft lapping of the lakewater, and the long stretch of emptiness where the phone call that will save Crowley's immortal soul ought to be.

—-

She does know.

Zatanna flinches uncomfortably on her seat, looking away from the carbon copy of her best friend, to look out the narrow windows that give her a glimpse of the sprawling grounds of the university. It's daylight. Sunbeams push insistently through the gaps of poorly-maintained Venetian blinds, highlighting the swirls of dust that rise every time movement or breath stirs through the room, winking into visibility like discarded confetti.

The warmth of his bigger hand engulfs her own and it forces her to look down at their intertwined fingers, and then up at Tim's face, and eyes the color darker than her own; if John's reminded her of the sky, his reminded her of the sea, specifically the portions where light has to struggle to reach. Her fingers slowly tighten over his.

"You still feel guilty, don't you?"

"Yeah," she replies quietly. "I did what I could so I wouldn't have to, you know? I gave you the choice, but I wonder sometimes whether that's enough. Because I know you….I know how badly you're willing to suffer just so you wouldn't lose anybody again. Maybe I should have made the choice for you, but the truth is…"

Her fingers tighten their grasp. Tim's own responds in kind.

"…the truth is, I'm the same." Heat pricks underneath her lashes. "I don't think I'd have been able to let you go, either."

Her dark-haired head lowers. Guilt, sorrow and shame fountain up from within the confines of her chest.

"Zee," Tim murmurs; it's not the real him, but even here, tucked away in the Elsewhere, he is supportive and endlessly generous. "If you don't say it, you're never going to get out of here."

He's right, she knows. She closes her eyes.

"Sometimes, when it gets really hard and when it hurts too much…" Her chest seizes up. "And I can never tell you how hard it is or how much it hurts whenever it happens. But when it does, right at the point when I don't think I can't get any lower, I wonder what life would be like for me, if I tried just a little bit harder to move on."

Tears slip down her cheeks. The former Boy Wonder leans in, pressing his mouth against her forehead.

She wakes up with a start, the fog of sleep rudely torn asunder when she sneezes sharply. Her father's chair creaks in protest at the instinctive convulsion and she blinks her eyes repeatedly to take stock as to where she is. Under warm, golden light burning from the lamp on a familiar desk, she finds the familiar outlines of her father's things, deep in the vault her mother constructed for him.

They are faded, the colors she associated with the sub rosa muted; like an old photograph, the tableau sprawls before her in different gradients of cream and sepia. The geography of the not-memory makes it easy for her stare to draw towards the only vibrant piece of the room - the strange, crystal-embedded rock sculpture standing in front of the painting of Nanda Parbat.

She remembers it; how even while she was young, something encouraged her to steer clear from it. That the whispers she sometimes hears from it sound disconcertingly close and far away at the same time. They know her name. They beckon her to come closer. They plead with her to embark on The Journey, but her stomach curdles at the idea of it, shying away before she hears anymore.

Zatanna rises from her chair, brushing away stray tears. It is well within her father's line of sight, every time he sits on the cushions and listens to his phonograph. She wonders if he stares at it every time he sits on it, and if he does, she wonders why.

The whispers come. She girds herself, because the inexplicable fear she associates with it rises at every pulse her heart makes against her ribs. The urge to run locks her limbs, prevents her from coming closer. She struggles even as the feeling on her legs suddenly disappear, collapsing on the floor in a loud crash. The pain rattles her bones, her lower half like cement. Ice-blue eyes lift towards the sculpture, and it suddenly looks so far away.

She drags herself across the floor, like an invalid, like a cripple. The numbness slowly spreads like poison, reaching along her torso and making her all the more leaden with every inch of progress she manages to make. It starts to spiderweb over the fingers of her right hand, climbing up her forearm and rendering it useless. It pours into the juncture where her shoulder meets the joint, where it attaches to the rest of her body. She bites back a panicked, desperate cry.

She looks behind her, eyes growing wide, seeing the pieces of her body that she has left behind, turned to stone and crumbling away at each stubborn movement. Veins of hard mineral spread over her chest, encircling her breasts, rendering it difficult to breathe - like she's drowning in sand all over again.

Gritting her teeth, she levers her one functioning arm against the floor, fingers curling into the carpet. Every pull makes the furniture shake, items of power toppling off their pedestals as she makes her increasingly difficult traverse over just a few feet of cold floor. Her lungs slowly solidify with every breath, and by the time she reaches the foot of it, she cannot breathe. The rock formation and its crystals swim before her eyes, lightheaded and delirious.

But her fingers stretch up and up and up…her index shakes as it strains to touch the lowest point of the thing she can reach. And the moment she does…

…pain burns at the base of her skull, something spherical and glowing pulsing outward. It feels like it's trying to burst out of her, when it is actually burrowing deeper. Her eyes snap open as the world unfolds and the voices pour into her head, draining the color from her irises as lips part to cry out in astonishment…and relief.

Because she knows them.

These voices are known to her.

And once every ounce of strength is spent, the rest of her falls and shatters onto the floor.

—-

There are philosophers who have said that consciousness — sentience, self-awareness — was a mistake, a freak accident that has ever since been the chief cruelty of existence. Dragging herself through the busy phantoms of her own interior life, no doubt that perspective gains fresh meaning. All souls contain tableaus such as these; no life well-lived is a tidy, organized procession of events that resolve themselves perfectly, leaving no lingering regrets or unaddressed questions. All that differs is what kind of questions remain. What size the regrets, and how sharp their teeth.

Manipulated endlessly by the men in her life who might arguably love her most, forced into the unkind position of being made to choose, she balks, and chooses. What she chooses is neither: certainly a choice. Her anguish and frustration burn all of it to cinders.

For as quiet and gentle as the next encounter is, it carries a weight wholly different from the previous one, and is perhaps the heavier of the two. What if? is the cruelest question of them all. And how could she not wonder…? On one side of her, a young man with a brilliant mind and a compassionate heart in spite of the many ghosts that wander the labyrinthine corridors of his memory. He has never failed to be there for her. He's never broken her heart, he's never forced her to doubt herself or driven her away from him, no matter his own sufferings. And he loves her. Unequivocally.

On the other? John Constantine. John may have his own peculiar kind of genius, but it's a twisted thing with sharp edges, meant to cut. There is compassion there, but its applications are so select, convoluted and counterintuitive that it's altogether too easy to believe otherwise. He's done all of those things to her, and probably worse into the bargain. She knows him well enough now to know that he's a mess even at the best of times: beyond the lone-wolf habits and the sly, sharp swagger, beyond the mystique he's deliberately cultivated through his work, he is a wounded, broken person. Most people, getting to know even a fraction of that truth, lose interest. When the mystery is gone, so is the appeal. But he loves her too, in the ways that he's able.

Who wouldn't wonder? But the open vulnerability of her heart, driven to do all things wholly and completely, tortures her with this duplicitous array of feelings. She doesn't have to set fire to anything to escape it: just confess the deepest reaches of her own uncertainty, a small pearl formed around the hurt of her inexplicable circumstances, choosing to clasp tightest a thing that cuts her for the trouble.

The rest is a battle that few people on earth could possibly understand the nature of. Such a rare thing to have; such a unique fight to fight. No one living in the sphere of her life could help her move beyond this — not even her father, really, because for all that Giovanni is a legend in his sphere, he remains human. And Zatanna…

Zatanna's something a little bit more than that, isn't she…?

Her form explodes into pieces of jagged stone, and these into dust, and the dust is carried on sudden nighted winds bitterly cold into a vacuum that once more empties her lungs. This time, though, there's no sensation of choking. No need to breathe, in fact: just silence. It is the raw, razed silence of a womb, a darkness that holds no more horrors. It will again, of course: she's young and alive, and lives a dangerous life. No closet can remain forever empty of skeletons. For now, though, those bones have been ground to dust.

All around her, the darkness begins to warm, and change hue. The color is red, and it is everywhere. Beyond her, inside of her, saturating all things. In this formless space a single point of light gives her something on which to focus, and it resolves slowly, but she'll know it for what it is long before its outlines are clear. It is a tyet. The tyet. Crafted of glass so ancient as to verge upon the impossible, it contains something redder still. Thick, molten, impossibly powerful: the blood of Isis.

There is one word and one word only.

Drink.

—-

In the moments before her reformation, sometime in between after her shattering and this point, Zatanna finds the most complete, most profound peace that she has ever known.

She is almost disappointed when she opens her eyes and finds herself whole again, the heavy realization that it is not over weighing her down like stone. Pushing herself up to rest on her knees, her rear on her heels, she rubs her eyes and squints. For a moment, she thinks her vision is failing, or that this change is permanent, to forever see the world in gradients of red, forms and shapes and figures swathed with blood. She hopes not; the part of her that revels in how artistic she truly is would not abide by a world without color, nevermind that she dresses as if she doesn't know of any other shade than black.

It's a phase.

She'll probably grow out of it.

Weak knees tremble, muscles behind them reduced to the viscocity of jelly as she rises on her feet. She stumbles forward; the ground underneath her is steady, but it doesn't feel that way, lurching this way and that as she steps forward towards the pedestal and the thing on top of it. She knows before she even touches it that it is the thing she came here for, so ancient and so powerful that she can't help but hesitate. She always does, when she comes across something so old and so powerful.

She can't help it. Something that is like it resides in the seat of her soul. She has long been taught to be cautious of it, to recognize the dangers it presents.

She doesn't move even when the single world pulses all around her, to seize this part of her destiny by her very fingers and partake.

Drink.

The young woman moves, closing her fingers over it. Lifting it up, she looks down at the deep, complete scarlet housed within.

"I don't do this because of power," she tells it quietly. "I don't want more of it."

I don't even know what to do with what I -do- have.

She tips the glass receptacle to her lips.

Hopefully I'll find out, one day.

She swallows it, the rush of warmth and the taste of copper. It burns down her throat like liquor, threatening to set her insides on fire and consume her from the inside out. The urge to wretch is real, but she steels herself and keeps gulping down the goddess elixir until every single drop has found her tongue. And when she is finished…

…influence is what it is, when she curls her lips around the glass container…

…and swallows that too.

—-

Safely hidden away in a dream within a dream within a film that no one wants to watch, part of a ritual that only the willing would ever undertake, there could have been no better hiding spot for the tyet containing the blood of Isis. No one in their right mind would ever try to steal such a holy object, and even had they wanted to, they would have been found out immediately upon returning to the stage, and who knows what the Scarlet Women might do?

But Zatanna Zatara has been the willing pupil, then partner, then lover of someone who is by his own admission not even remotely in his right mind — and it works for him, all the time. To do this job, he would say, you've got to be a little bit crazy.

Whatever the true power of the blood of Isis, it isn't immediately apparent. It surges through her, but its power remains contained within itself, waiting for — what? Who can say? By comparison, swallowing the glass shell is almost easier.

She manages just in time. The fuzzy, indistinct redness of this luminous world resolves gradually into a swirling of red velvet curtains, closing over the window into the Abyss that she stepped through who-can-say how long ago. The spotlight remains on her, but the women on the stage are nowhere to be seen. The voice is again merely an emanation from the environment itself, everywhere and nowhere, and now also within her, resonant with the blood she consumed.

The path you've chosen is not an easy one, but no easy path would have led you to us. We have faith in you, sister. On this day you are reborn. The hesmen Isis flows in you. Your inheritance is the legacy of a life-bringer and resurrectionist. As Isis wept for the yearly death and resurrection of Osiris, so will you weep, but always in your footsteps will arise the possibility of rebirth. This is the power of the Scarlet Woman: to generate life after all, as the blasphemer foresaw — but with no need of the crude involvement of Man, and for no purpose as base. It is a divine restoration of the world. With this strength and wisdom you shall shake the very firmament and remake it new and better, and none shall stay your hand. All Isis has ever done, she has done with the love of a mother, and there is no force greater.

She'll sense it then — the unweaving of the spell. Her return to reality is imminent.

—-

Nothing happens.

Well, that's an exaggeration and she knows it. Something happened, but its very nature and purpose is presently unknown to her. Whatever she has taken within herself, the blood of Isis and all that it portends, she feels it settle within the seat of her soul, soaking through and sinking in the endless well of power which she finds herself custodian. There, it lies, much like the sleeping leviathan they encountered in Russia, rendered placid by the presence of so much water.

After a blink, she returns to where she has started. The women are gone, but the presence remains. She found the place disconcerting and eerie before, the way old auditoriums are at the dead of night, a place so silent nothing keeps you company but the occasional creak of your surroundings and the sound of your own breath. But now, it is familiar….and almost comfortable.

The path you've chosen is not an easy one.

"….it was already hard before," she tells the voice. "I suppose it's just my luck that it's only gonna get harder, huh?"

But she takes it in stride; she is, as always, willing to bull through the impossible to get to where she needs to be. A small smile tugs up the corners of her mouth, despite herself.

The world warps around her, like a spinning reel on its last length of film, the finer details of the theatre are lost and she finds herself plunging back into the dark, the single spotlight growing more and more distant as the seconds pass….

When she arrives, the screen spits her out, sprawling on her side and rendered insensate by everything she has experienced. Reality reasserts itself, and while poor Chas would only be left confused, she can feel the toils of her hours-long journey prick at her flesh and weigh down her bones. Nausea assails her more conscious senses, sluggishly trying to pick herself up off the floor, only to drop back down with her eyes fixing towards the ceiling. For a brief moment, she's able to see beyond it, rafters and plaster peeling away, to afford her a fathomless view of distant worlds…

She knows she has to get up. She isn't done yet. She has to deliver the tyet to Aleister Crowley.

…or does she…?

Lashes tug low and heavy over her icy stare, her body unheeding of the protests of her mind. Sleep swiftly takes her; a much needed respite, earned from the grueling tribulations of the soul that she has just endured.

—-

Zatanna Zatara scares the ever-living shit out of Chas.

One moment he's fighting the urge to nod off — it's quiet, it's warm, he's sitting down, nothing has happened for hours — and the next there's a smell he can't identify and a tingle of magic that prickles at his flesh in a way he's never known magic to do before, as though hostile in some way to his very essence…

And there's Zatanna. Physically whole, at least, even if he has no way of knowing whether the rest of her has survived intact.

This being Chas, he's on his feet in an instant, and reaching to pick her up, those massive hands so careful and ginger in their handling of her. When he's reassured himself that she's still breathing, only unconscious, only then does he reach for the phone on the side table, thumbing the call button on the contact the screen has been set to since he arrived.

"She's back!"

Across the speaker, someone says something indistinct. It sounds like Crowley's voice.

"Shut the fuck up," is what John says first — to Crowley, of course — and then into the phone: "Tell me."

"I don't know, she's out cold, but she doesn't seem hurt…"

Whatever happens on the other end of the line, what comes through the speaker is a yelp and a scuffling sort of sound, backed by a low and deeply ominous non-noise. Chas winces.

"Noo jist haud on! Keep the heid ye scunner! Gonnae no' dae that!"

"Can and will, Ally."

"Hell slap it intae ye! Am no!"

"My fault? This was your bloody circus, mate!"

Something creaks, and the sound that comes out of Crowley's throat is deeply undignified. "Screwball Sassenach! Whit ye ken aboot hens kippin? Give 'er a slap!"

"Chas-" Warning.

"Christ John, I'm not going to slap Zatanna," Chas finally puts in, turning his eyes ceilingward in search of his mythic patience. "Could you maybe, I don't know, come back and have a look?"

"Finally," Crowley says in the background. "A man wi gumption-" There's a strangled awk sort of sound.

"For a man inches away from being eternally flayed alive you're a mouthy bastard. And no, I can't, Chas. Hands are a little full presently." In time with the word 'full,' another squawk from Crowley. "But you can bring her here."

Reality splits into ragged edges, forming a conduit between the room Chas is in, and the muddy banks of the Loch Ness. It's not an elegant portal. This is an outrageous expenditure of magic for John, but of course he was being literal when he said his hands were full. They're full of the lapels of a very generously-figured Crowley, and the sigils beneath the two of them — because John is straddling them with the toes of his boots right up to the curvature of the outermost edge, his bloodied hand and its opposite all that are keeping Crowley from making contact with whatever it is that's happening to the ground there — phasing in and out, swirling and sulfrous. There are unpleasant faces lingering on the other side of that softening of the mortal plane. Hungry. Waiting, impatiently, to collect what belongs to them.

—-

It must be quite a sight, for Chas.

When he arrives in Scotland (and really, just how many cities and countries have they hopped through this adventure, now?), the raven-haired magician dangles in his arms, cradled as gently and as protectively as a man with a wife and young daughter could. Her head is rolled against one thick shoulder, legs dangling limp on his other arm. Her sleep isn't fitful, and as the man has diagnosed already, she doesn't seem hurt - just physically, mentally and spiritually exhausted. It is the kind of journey that no one with John's demons could ever survive, but that doesn't mean that it had been easy. It isn't meant to be. It's supposed to try whoever it is that finds the beginning of the path in the first place.

It's possible that Zatanna would have kept sleeping. God knows she needs it, but the sulfurous threads of the foul, wicked and infernal punishments waiting for Crowley should John decide to feed him into the hellmouth has her cracking her eyes open. She doesn't lift her head, but those irises shift towards where the British Magus is busily holding the greatest occultist the world has ever known in the one place he doesn't want to go - so much so that he would rather spend an eternity in this boring patch of the loch than whatever excitements (and excrutiating agony) are waiting for him in the Below.

Her lashes tug shut again.

"Would it make me a bad person if I let Ally sweat just a little while longer?" she murmurs drowsily. "I'm really tired."

She sinks further into Chas' arms.

"I got the tyet," she continues, while she remembers, eyes flicking open again. "But it's….a thing."

Her eyes drift back shut.

"I ate it. Kind of. Shut up." A groggy finger gestures at John. "It's a long story, but I have it."

The question, though, is whether to give it to Crowley. Honestly, she was hoping she could sleep on it.

—-

Chas blinks at the sound of her voice, lowering his head, and his eyes. He studies her face, then — without lifting his head — looks up beneath his brows at the tense arrangement between Englishman and Scotsman. Two beats later he drops his eyes onto her again. "No," he says, honestly. As in: no, it would make her a bad person. "But I think John might not be able to hold him like that for very long."

But she spares him the necessity of remaining silent about her return to consciousness, and declares that she has what they came for. Crowley, for his part, is silent. There's something in the quality of his gaze on her that says plenty, though; he knew the moment she came through with Chas that she had what he wanted, and he's looking at her the way John looks at particularly difficult puzzles, when he's trying to work out the answer.

John turns his head to look, as well. He must be angry to threaten Crowley this way, but he doesn't look it. The indifference in his expression is compromised only by the subtle note of concern as blue eyes sweep over her drained form. "Two questions, 'tanna, and then you can sleep it off: are you alright, and was Ally involved in causing whatever bollixed-up shite that was?"

—-

Are you alright?

Zatanna hesitates, her tired stare moving to find John where he stands, keeping his grip on Crowley as he is. It shifts, to move towards the glimpse of red threaded over his knuckles, realizes just why that the two men are locked that way. The color has taken up much of her attention in the last few hours, she feels it rushing through her veins, burning in the crucible of power inside her. It isn't a surprise, if he knew what she had just been through, that she is immediately sensitive to it, immediately divines the reason behind it. There's a slight twitch to her lips, but it's difficult to determine whether she intended to smile or frown.

Was Ally involved…?

"I don't think so," she murmurs. "I think if he was, the women I met would have talked to me very differently." They viewed the gender that meant to consign them into specific roles - to free themselves, but only to - with some derision. Really, after getting a crash course in their point of view, she couldn't blame them.

After a pause, she shifts her eyes towards Crowley.

"I have what you want," she tells him, and despite her following words, there's no apology. "But I can't give it to you."

She continues: "Whatever you want with it, I don't think it'll agree with you. Even if I wanted to hand it over." Which she doesn't. "I think it'd just slap you around and reject you. It had to be earned….and you don't have boobs."

—-

This declaration from the young woman with the dark hair and fair skin seems to stun everyone in the clearing. She has it, but she can't give it to him. Whatever she went through, she chose to bring back what they wanted, only to refuse to use it for the purpose she sought it in the first place. All of them put those pieces together swiftly, but only Crowley has any grasp of why that might be, knowing as he does the nature of what it is he sent John and Zatanna on this errand for in the first place.

She doesn't answer John's question directly as to whether or not she's alright, but this defiance reads to him as stability, and through the tether he picks up nothing lacking, no immense holes in the fabric of who she is — just a weariness so deep that he can't fathom how it sprang into existence in less than the span of a day. It's a story he's going to want, but it's not a story he's going to force her to tell. He said two questions, and he meant that.

"Looks like it's a stay of execution for you, old friend," he murmurs, stepping backward and heaving the burden of Ally's weight back into the unmarked patch of ground centered within all of those circular wards. The ground firms again, the subterrene faces occluded from view, though there's a distant howling of frustration that pulls fantails of goosebumps up along John's arms.

The look on Crowley's face is dark and dangerous, but he says nothing, and makes no attempt to stand. "We'll be in touch," is all John says, stepping across the hated lines in the mud and out into the world again. He draws up beside Chas and the young woman in his arms, and while everything in him pulls toward the familiar in her, there's something new that he can't quantify. It's enough to induce in him a bizarre hesitation, the first he's felt in years, when he raises one hand to touch her — a thing he's done countless times in the last three years, rarely ever with any kind of thought, sheerly on impulse. He does overcome that moment of almost superstitious pause — she'll feel a careful hand at her crown — but only through deliberate application of will.

"Off to London, then."

—-

She doesn't answer John's question directly because it's a more complicated query than her addled self is ready to handle. The truth of the matter is, she doesn't know whether she is alright. It feeds into the tether that strings them together, and whether he senses something new in her, whatever change it is, there's no flicker of sadness at his overt hesitation to touch her. It's not out of exhaustion, and more out of the endless capacity to understand him and his meaning. Unlike before, there is no second-guessing on her part, as to whether she has done something to warrant it.

Despite her exhaustion, however, a portal suddenly springs up when John decides it's time to go back to London, white, blue, and strange sparks of red, glittering now and then in the ephemeral constructs like elusive stars, quick to wink out before anyone can absorb what it is they are seeing, wreathed around the opening between one point to another. The old Zatara townhouse beckons them with its familiar surroundings, halls and walls leading out of the library and into the main landing where it splits into different rooms.

The young witch relies on Chas to move her about, but not without another glance at Crowley. Her expression remains languid, all sorts of exhausted and rendered achingly gentle by it, but steel underscores the look in her eyes.

The portal shuts once all three of them are through.

Zatanna shifts, her stare wandering over the well-loved decor. Now that they're gone, away from the chill of the loch and back into the temperature-controlled space of her family's British abode, she doesn't know whether to sleep or consume an unhealthy amount of takeout. She doesn't know whether she's craving Thai, Japanese, Indian or Mexican….or she doesn't know what she would want to eat first.

This is the power of the Scarlet Woman: to generate life after all, the whisper slips through her tired mind, unbidden. — as the blasphemer foresaw — but with no need of the crude involvement of Man, and for no purpose as base. It is a divine restoration of the world.

There's a drowsy roll of her head towards the Englishman. "John…" Her voice is soft. "…I don't think we need the Key anymore."

She turns a pale hand over, watching the lines that crease her palm.

"I think I can make her talk."

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