That We Be Made Worthy

BY : pronker
Category: DC Verse Comics > Justice League
Dragon prints: 59
Disclaimer: I make no profit from this fanfiction set in DC's franchise Justice League Dark and I do not own the franchise or DC.

Title: That We Be Made Worthy

Author: pronker

Fandom: Justice League Dark

Summary: "That's another fine mess you've gotten me into, Magic," says John Constantine to no one in particular.

Setting: TBD.

A/N: Loosely affiliated with "Ipso Psycho."


Hands. Human? Demon? No, human. Hands held his long hair back, pulled every stitch of clothing from him while he relaxed and let them do it. Wait --- why wasn't he fighting? Wasn't he always fighting something? 

"Milord! Stay at rest --- we are in your service! We are aiding you!"

He'd heard that one before. He Reached for a spell of protection and came up empty. Now his breathing tightened even more. He gasped out his most basic need. "Oi! Where's me cigs?"

Hands again. A different, quieter, voice of control and command owned these hands as they slipped a linen tunic over his head. The neckline snagged his beard until he himself lifted shaking fingers to pull it free. "Stand fast, milord Emperor," said the voice of calm. "We will fight with you till the bitter end." Now a third set of hands pulled up a pair of linen drawers and tied its waist strings as the hands' owner muttered Emperor of naught.

Emperor? John Constantine sniffed the stale air to gauge the era. Past, far past, not dinosaur past, but bloody far past. Springtime on Planet Earth, Middle East, someplace near a sea. Mediterranean? Black? Arabian? Red? Dead? He didn't know. The immediate surroundings proved easier. Deep within a hiding place of thick stone which ought to hold out against any weapon  this time could throw at them. He sniffed again. Fear sickened these three to their very hearts, yet their bodies screamed with strength as potent as their body odor. 

His sight improved and he saw why the three owned casual strength that in his era would justify his pickup line Where do you work out, luv? Four swords leaned against the far wall where a slitted window allowed enough light to show dust motes wafting to and fro. Two swords curved slightly and he thought he saw only one edge to these; the others pointed true and straight with double edges showing a great many nicks and stains. These were not swords for parades or cosplaying. These meant business and hefting them in battle required abs, delts and forearms of steel.

"Me cigs?" he asked, desperately craving tobacco so he could think of which demon, demigod, superhero or so called "friend" to blame for landing him here in an unknown battle. From outside the chamber came sounds of running feet, screams of distressed females and the measured tread of invaders. Somehow he knew he was not one of those.

"Your cigs? We removed the sigils of your rank, milord. You protested, but at the last realized the wisdom of it."

John looked around as the hands tended to him. This was a tailor shop? Haberdashery? Mercery? Was that a tailor's dummy tossed aside in the far corner? Where were the merchants? Gone to ground like hunted foxes, if they were smart.

Now Firsthand shuffled him into heavy knee stockings and drew stiff felt trousers onto his legs. These had no fly, quite inconvenient when Nature called. You'd have to pull everything down like a toddler learning to wee-wee by himself. Next came a canvas skirt, and there followed a smashing long-sleeved shirt that ended mid-thigh and then Firsthand held out the most mingin armor any sod ever designed as proudly as if it were made of chrome steel. Fabric formed ten percent of it, tough fabric but there you go, it was fabric. Any of those swords standing over there could rice, slice and dice it like Anthony Sullivan cut through jicama.

"If you please --- " Firsthand asked politely as he rolled up the garment with brass plates the size and shape of the old sovereign coin. Some industrious soul had sewn these in rows onto the fabric. They covered the garment from belly button upward to throat and short sleeves and then downward to the all important crotch and nethers. Firsthand fit the neckline over John's head and then unrolled the armor over his chest and back, straightening the sleeves that protruded beyond the armor as if they would do any good in protecting. The shirt, skirt, trousers, and stockings seemed useless except for modesty's sake and when had John ever cared about that? Firsthand gave a final pat and nodded to Secondhand as Thirdhand poked through a pile of metal on the floor. This outermost garment was his whole armor? It couldn't be.

And it wasn't. Secondhand accepted the last metal bits from the pile that Thirdhand offered. Then Secondhand --- a squire, wasn't that the term? --- knelt before John as he buckled greaves onto shins and placed leather shoes upon feet. He sagged his head onto his breast. John Reached for a spell of encouragement fruitlessly and then gave in to the urge to clasp the man's shoulder. Their shared world may shatter in minutes, but a mate's a mate, righto?

"Steady on," John said. 

The lifted face held sorrows of not only his own life but that of his liege's. "I see before me your lady wives, the first and second each enjoying only a year of holy wedded state before her death." Added grief roughened his voice. "The first dear woman died to give you a girl babe who breathed not at birth and the second wife died days after losing the babe who failed to take true shape inside her. Before I die, know that I admired you for mourning and moving on to plead with your bosom friend George to find a worthy third mate."

"Yeh, that sounds like me." 

Secondhand must have thought John needed more heartening despite the flippant statement. "Yes, milord, Ambassador George quested to bring the perfect bride to grace your throne but did not succeed for Your Excellence."

"My Excellence would have killed the poor cow, so no more about Mrs. Emperor The Third."

Earnest consolation arose from Thirdhand, who stopped unrolling a length of silk and approached to stand near although not too near his ruler. It seemed to John in the weak light that Thirdhand owned a face not quite as seamed in age as the others. "Rest your heart, milord. You shall see your Empresses this day in Paradise."

"If you say so. Hells bells, life here is tough on the ladies."

From his kneeling position, Secondhand gripped John's greaves. His gaze burned into John's without magic, without conjures, with only the spell of his inner solid kindness. "You are the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Eleventh Palaiologos. You will not fail today. You will breathe life into your legend forevermore."

John flogged his memory of First Form History as taught by Mr. Forbush. "I got stuck in Istanbul, I mean Constantinople? Named for me? And today sees its defeat?"

"He has lost his reason! We are doomed in certainty!" Firsthand grieved and went to stand by the slitted window, leaning against its opening to gasp for fresh air before he caught himself. He sprang to safety at the side of the gap and John nearly laughed.

"The eleventh and last Roman Emperor Constantine. You lot will die. I will die. Today is my last day. Somehow I knew all my cons would come to this."

Thirdhand would not be deterred from his comforting duty. "Milord, for your head." The hands settled not a sturdy helmet but a wad of red silk rolled into a turban upon John's head. "I ask pardon that your fallen warrior" --- he nodded towards the farthest corner holding what John saw now was no tailor's dummy but a nude corpse --- "rushed to duty without his helmet and paid the grim price. His plain garb must suffice to disguise his Emperor."

The faithful retainer stood back to assess his work. "You resemble an ordinary soldier. It is the best I can do for you, and now I pray." He sought the side of Firsthand and they both knelt to grasp their swords by the blade, butting the tip into the stone floor without blunting it. They nodded to each other before regarding intently the cross formed by hilt and blade.

Secondhand's voice grew hurried. "Milord Emperor, we make for the gate of Saint Romanus and must fight our way through to its postern hidden gate."

"Not so hidden, was it?" John snorted. "Forrie's lecture is coming back to me. The city's warriors left it open by accident because eight weeks of siege exhausted them and the enemy swarmed into the city."

Screams, pounding feet and shouts passed by the slit of a window. John could not bring himself to look out to see the melee ending a civilization of centuries. He felt sick to have neither a scrying orb nor a simple bowl of water to divine their future if a miracle happened and his magicks returned. Wait! Four swords ... did one have a black handle for athamé reading? No, not one did because all shone softly in either gold or silver. That figured for such posh men as these. "Ah well, all me talent's pissed away except me time smelling sense."

Secondhand was not listening. "We who love you will defend you to the last. Our triple formation will enfold you and we shall prevail against the tide of heathens fouling the streets of your city. They will not expect that. Keep close to us always." He appeared to push his weary mind further. John wondered how much battle he had already seen today. "Milord, the time is now. We seek the postern gate and escape to fight another day! Have faith that we will evade our enemies in the league and one half between us and the sea where surely we may signal a friendly Venetian, Pisan or Genoese vessel to carry us to safety."

"Oi, gents, it's broad daylight and a league is --- well I draw bupkis on how far one is but never mind --- numbers don't lie, it was eight thousand defenders against eighty thousand invaders according to me old teach--- "

"Still, milord Emperor, have faith." All that Secondhand did, was, and hoped for consisted of these two simple words. There was no sense in explaining common sense to this one. John was sure his own face lost its usual knowing smirk and he looked, dare he think it, resigned to his fate.

Another lesson from Old Fatty Forbush slid out from the part of his life that John did not think about much. "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here." He stood in agreement to fist bump with Secondhand, ignoring the puzzled look. "All right, bring it. Life is not that great, anyway."

Firsthand and Thirdhand blessed themselves at the words. Thirdhand approached with one of the swords showing a slight curve, offering it to him reverently. Not quite straight, John thought, I knew this weapon was mine. He took it up for a practice swing. 

Firsthand moved smoothly behind him.

"Milord, your arm wearies after much battle this morning. Allow me." A chest like a battleship's bow pushed against John's back and an arm of similar rocklike substance pressed over his until the fist covered his own. "Thusly. And thus. And parry. So."

As if a child, John permitted the basic lesson. "Enough, mate. Ta." 

Firsthand stepped backwards to rejoin his two companions and the three nodded as one. "May God guard us, guide us and keep us safe and strong in the Faith," they chorused.

"All for one and one for --- " began John. The three raised their swords before freezing in a tableau.

His need for a last cigarette grew to a thirst before exploding into a craving and he put down his sword.

"Cigs means cigarettes, not sigils, so gimme my Silk Cuts please --- eh?"

Each owner of the hands resembled a wax statue like those in Madame Tussaud's gallery, ten minutes before he and Zee conjured their favorite statues to life as a way to spice up their Halloween together after a mundane dinner and a movie. John padded to each august lord, peering into faces and snapping fingers to wake them.

"Eh? What's going on?" 

"John Constantine, this is your life."

John turned to the darkest corner of the mercery. "Oh. It's you."


The Phantom Stranger emerged from shadows as black as those beneath his cape. He looked exactly as John pictured him, when he had to think of him at all: remote, conniving and altogether not to be trusted. If he weren't the only magicked bloke around, John would cut him like he did his Sixth Form classmates on his Facebook page.

"I did not place you in this beseiged city, although I am here to help."

"Where is here?" John gestured to the three immobile men and then to the long, broad tables filled with rolls of what looked like expensive fabrics. Jewels studded some of the silks, glinting sapphires like the ones he contemplated giving Zee; he could never find a set to match her eyes. "When is here?"

"The when is 29th May 1453 at high noon and to your credit, you perceived the where without actual divination spells. The what is that you were interrupted on your way to Purgatory."

The last veil to John's sight fell away. "I'm dead? Wait, I remember! I'm alive! Madame Xanadu sent me and Deadman to the land of the dead to goose Vampire v2.0 Andrew Bennett from his guilt trip to come aid us against Cain, or as I call him, Vampire v1.0." John frowned. "Madame X cocked up the transport spell? Not like her at all."

"There are more forces at work here than Xanadu. One of them sidestreamed you to this place."

"Who did it? You?"

"I have already said I did not, because I am but a stranger --- "

"Bollocks. I know you even if I can't stand you and you must twig that you're not all that strange in me twisted social circle."

"Oh, don't say that, John. That would mean my name makes no sense at all."

"Banter from you disturbs me. Quit it. And never call me John again."

John recognized a lecture coming on when he saw the Stranger's opaque eyes focus like lasers on a spot ten inches to the left of his armored right shoulder as he got this angin listening look. "People choose good and bad actions and words that either dim or brighten the corner where they are. Your time in this pivotal moment between worlds must prove that you are not indifferent to your role in existence." The focus slipped into introspection. "It --- It is vital not to be a jaded know-it-all."

"That's the biggest pile of" --- John glanced at his three gracious, gallant, good gentlemen companions --- "stuff I've heard in me life. Whatever. I'm in it to win it. I neither want nor need to know who screwed me over by sticking me here. Indulge this question: do I look like Eleventh Constantine to these poor lads?"

"You have taken his place in their minds through my hallucinatory shroud over you. It is rudimentary though I did my best."

John tried to work his will upon the Stranger in the bounder's rare moment of self-doubt. "Hang about, how about this sheepdog hair and beard? It's not me best look, so can you change it to the usual, you know, but leave some manly stubble --- "

"I did not do this, so no, I cannot change you back."

"Hah, didn't think you had that much power. I was just fishing." 

The blighter couldn't be accommodating if it would save his soul from hell. "Think of it as acting in character needing makeup and so forth." The blank eyes showed something in them that John could not read. "Consider Zee in her tuxedo and fishnets and top hat, doesn't that make her look the part of a master magician?"

John felt the remains of his Taco Tuesday indulgence shift like the tides of the Sea of Marmara. "Zatanna is a master magician and you leave her out of it," he snarled, "and do not call her Zee --- hold on, have you done anything to her?"

There was that listening face again. After a moment, the Stranger said, "She is safe enough in an Otherverse nearby. Do you wish her to join you as helpmate for your cause?" The blank gaze turned more personal and John hated when that happened. "She would do it willingly."

"Cripes, no!" he blurted.  "Life is hell enough for men here and for women it's double hell! I shan't take the risk you'd hare off and strand her, I mean us. Let Zee alone!"

"Since you're British, shouldn't you call her Zed?"

John saw red as he clenched his fists but hold on, he needed this git. "It's our little joke."

"How domestic of you both."

By all that was holy and true, he was begging for a punch because John had figured out what the undecipherable look had been. "Envy doesn't suit you."

"You could not stop me from fetching Zatanna." Was this turd playful? Now?  

"She would have something to say about that and maybe I could stop you, maybe not, but I could muck you up if you'd spare me one billionth of me usual talents. I'd conjure away your cloak and Indiana Jones hat and those sissy gloves, jack."

Phantom Stranger fingered his necklace draped over his out of fashion turtleneck. What a twit. "I could function without them and you are wasting your time and theirs." He indicated the three nobles. "They need you to protect and give their deaths meaning."

So cold and calm about death, damn him. "The gloves are off and it's bare knuckles if you want to mix it, Phanty. Me magic's sliced away and if you drop yours, we'll have a right go and see who wins. Hint: it'll be me." John sidestepped his temper with great effort and a nagging question. "Where is the real Constantine Eleventh?"

"He is rethinking his life --- or in prayer --- or in meditation in the Otherverse nextdoor." The Stranger passed a white gloved hand over his brow. "It is difficult to say."

More vulnerability, how interesting. Push, John, push hard. "He is decent. He deserves a break. He is not like me."

This bloke just loved dramatic pronouncements, didn't he? "In most ways, no. In important ways, yes."

John played as sincere as he ever did in dicey situations like this. He grabbed the necklace to pull Stranger close. "Let him live," he said earnestly as his fingers sizzled with hellfire from the silver disks. He let go fast to protect his sword hand.

"That will be up to you." The Stranger primped his necklace back into position. "The reward is as I said: you will continue on your journey to Purgatory with Deadman none the wiser. Andrew Bennett, Madame Xanadu and your Zatanna will never know what you do, either. You and I and --- the One who sideslipped you here will know if you succeed." Was that a smile? That was a smile! With teeth! "Or if you fail."

"You're killing me, Stranger. You're bloody killing me. Only you would think nipping off to Purgatory accompanied by a ghost is a reward."


"Milord, we leave now. Follow me." Secondhand emerged from his stasis as Phantom Stranger stepped back into a shadowed corner with a whispered, "It begins." The corner was the one holding the expired donor of John's own armor and John swallowed hard.

"Wait, wait!" Firsthand dithered. "Your gauntlets! One moment!" The white hair and beard of the man belied a powerful physique, although the strain of untold miseries pitched his voice high. "It is enough that the loss of a chain mail gorget and solid helmet endanger you, you must keep your sword arm in good stead or --- "

John finished, "Or I'm of no use to you. I get it."

Now Firsthand nearly wept. "I meant no offense, I fear the enemy will carve your head from your body as trophy when they see your famed face and sooner would I die than witness that." His voice strengthened. "Keeping your sword arm safe preserves you from that indignity  --- "

"As long as possible?" John sliced his fingers across his throat in the immortal gesture. "I'm in the fight as much as I can be, mate." He shifted his weight from foot to foot impatiently as Thirdhand embraced Firsthand before pillaging gauntlets from the dead soldier. John saluted the body before Thirdhand slid chain mail fingerless gauntlets on him and cinched a belt holding a scabbard about his waist. The gauntlets looked like iron or steel, at least, and not brass; they covered his forearms, leaving the elbow and fingers vulnerable. He made a subtle pass as he Reached for a simple flame spell; nothing happened. "That's it, everything you've got?"

All three nodded, their faces downcast. "Your majestic manner yet shines through --- " moped Firsthand until John stopped him after smushing down his red turban more firmly onto his head.

"Stuff it. Let's go."

"Wait, wait!" Firsthand exclaimed again. "What if we simply bide in this shop as long as we can? At the least until dark? We are safe here."

Secondhand and Thirdhand conferred with a look. Secondhand said softly, gently, "Old friend, the thousands upon thousands of enemy troops will overwhelm us as they claim the three days of pillage granted by their laws. We risk everything by waiting until they discover us like --- "

"Rats in a trap." John seized leadership. "I said come on. Who's with me?" He flourished his sword. "Where's the back door?"

Secondhand unbarred the back door and John peered out into a brightly lit alley. High noon, the Stranger had said, not John's best time of day because so many fascinating things happened in the dark. He signaled the three to follow, jostling them aside when they surged to the front of the protective formation the trio had planned for him. He shook his finger at them and winked. "Naughty boys," he whispered. "Papa goes first."

"Milord --- "


"But --- "


And John fit actions to words, not looking behind him to see if he were being followed because surely Constantine The Real would have done the same.
Like all city dwellers in these and other times, not one soul accosted them to offer shelter.  It was each man, woman, or Corgi for himself and John approved of the sentiment.

From some streets away, screams of agony from outraged women clawed at his heart as the enemy took possession of the city. He could not think of them, he told himself. He had to survive for many reasons. He turned onto a broad road before Thirdhand yanked him back. "The hidden ways, I know much of the secret ways to Saint Romanus gate. Allow me to guide you, milord."

"Right on." And the four heeded Thirdhand as he pointed the group away from tramping feet and brusquely shouted orders. The city thinned out to John's surprise, because there stretched several London blocks' worth of open land that held crushed, ruined crops. Past the fields, John saw more of what he called Cityscape: small outbuildings leading into taller ones but still modest appearing, like a strip mall in Manchester. He foresaw alleys and other inviting dark spaces to slip into, but right now it was hustle like The Arsenal in the FA Cup Final. He thrust his sword into its scabbard, charged and heard but did not see his entourage racing behind him out of cover.  Two hours and one more open space later, an arch gaped before them. John took over from Thirdhand at that point, hustling them all by a dark door as yet unburst by opportunistic hands. The shadows that grew at two in the afternoon turned into something John could work with.

"We could use some help. Where are me forces?" John whispered and then, "Heck, they're playing music and singing?"

The gate, breached and oh so promising for escape, held twenty enemy guards to each side of the gap, waving pikes as they wailed victory songs beside a pile of splintered timber. John couldn't make out the words through the pounding drums and trilling flutes but it was just as well. He doubted the Stranger's hallucinatory shroud extended to translating more than the ancient speech of his three compatriots.

John crouched to make himself a smaller target should the guards notice him. "Me army got smashed, dinnit." It wasn't a question.

Secondhand knelt beside him as John turned to look him square in the eyes. "Your army could not win against so many but there are alternatives to fighting, milord."

Thirdhand remained standing, his grip squeezing John's shoulder to the point of pain. "Many of our fellows die as I speak, more will be sold into slavery as this horrible day wears on. Your troops are fit and young, most of them. The old and the proud will fight to their own end rather than live enslaved, but the young have yet hope of a life even as slaves."

Always a comfort, always positive, always seeing the good, John thought. Like Zee. "Where are me, er, common people?"

Firsthand stood in front of his three countrymen, sword up, aged body still upright as a youth's. "We prepared our thirty-two thousand simpler folk for this ill turn, milord. They seek divine aid at the largest holy church. The Lord shall provide it."

Uh oh, how to juggle that? "If you say so, but where are the rest because I've not seen any blood---er, single soul and not everyone can fit inside --- "

The door opened inwards behind them, John tumbled backwards and each lord of the realm gasped as a black cloaked figure wearing a fedora muscled them inside the building. "Stranger!" John exclaimed. "Helping despite yourself, eh?"

"Who are you?" Firsthand rasped, pointing his sword at the Stranger's heart. "Friend or foe?"

Secondhand stayed his friend's quick anger as he pushed down the weapon. "I think his actions speak for themselves and surely a friend giving shelter would not betray us?" The kind gaze swept from John to the Stranger. "Your Emperor seeks your help, citizen, and we his protectors will not endanger you by staying under your roof for long. Come and take counsel." He found the sturdiest chair and sat, wiping his brow.

What was it with the Stranger's hushed, humble manner? A straight up mystery in a day of mysteries, thought John, but what came out was, "He's a stranger."

Thirdhand's shoulders slumped in relief. "A blessing is what he is to us all." He looked around for a place to rest before deciding on hovering at his ruler's elbow as John commandeered the biggest chair at the home's dinner table.

"None of me people here either, eh, Stranger?"

The Stranger still stared at Secondhand as if he knew him. "Th-They fled to sanctuary at the largest church farthest away from the mob. The invaders followed and unspeakable evil happens this very moment." He roused himself. "Constantine, I discovered a way to make straight your path to freedom. I will accompany you to lend my best concealment."

Firsthand snorted. "And how will you do that without witchcraft?" He raised his sword to point at the door. "Once outside and on the move in daylight, not even your black cloak will hide us five and I spy that you have no melee weapon or light cannon that we relied upon to defend our walls for aught it accomplished." He flopped onto a chair that creaked with his weight as he gave in to weariness at last.

"Oh, don't put down witchcraft --- " began John but thought better of it as an outrageous notion popped into his head. "Who's to say he's not an angel instead?"

Everyone in the room turned to him and the Stranger's mouth dropped open. "If you only knew how far you are from the truth," Stranger whispered before his voice firmed. "The One who placed you in this time awaits your choices." He moved to a bucket sitting on the table, swished the water around and sipped from a ladle before offering it to John.

"Mmmmm," was all John said as he tried to discern motives without a scrying orb or athamé reading or anything else comforting like that. Water, now water in a plain shallow pan was best but he wouldn't be a mage if he didn't know of many ways to tell the future with hydromancy. He took the ladle, dipped it into the bucket and turned his back to the group as he drank, his dark arts teacher's words echoing inside his sweaty head before he spoke them aloud. "Whisper mysterious and personal words over water and see if it bubbles and how much, you said, Necru. Right on, I'll give everything I've got to help Constantine The Bloody Saint escape oh mercy me I must nick more water."

"Sorry, I need more than me share of the water," he explained as he turned back and dipped again from the bucket. To his utter non-surprise, Secondhand excused the action.

"Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown, milord. We understand."

"Um, yeah. Ta." John faced away again and mentally pushed everyone in his world aside to concentrate on personal words he remembered from a certain Halloween night in London among dead wax statues of celebrities. The gloriously alive Zee's voice came back to him as he repeated her spell. "Em ssik dna pu tuhs."

He Reached with all he had inside him, why didn't this work, why couldn't he catch a break? The water in the ladle did not bubble or boil and rippled only because he was holding the handle so hard that his grip shook. He tried again; still nothing.

Someone cleared his throat behind him and John turned back, holding out the ladle blindly. Like it or not, the Stranger's proposition contained the best bet for escaping this mess.

He did not trust the Stranger as far as he could throw him.

He did trust these three praiseworthy gentlemen.

"Lead on, Stranger," John said.


Eighty feet, eighty feet to dash to the gate of Saint Romanus and escape this hellpit. Surrounded on four sides by his protectors, John savored the feels of not leading as much as he ever did, which was to say not much. Still, Phantom Stranger's cloak of concealment did the Stranger proud because none of the forty fresh, unbloodied soldiers guarding the gate noticed five refugees, four of them pointing swords their way. 

Tramping inside the concealment spell proved odd and a little smelly. He supposed the exertions of the day accounted for that because the weather itself waxed coolly springlike and perhaps pleasant to those not fleeing for their lives. Envy soured his thoughts because Stranger glided to his right, cape upraised on one arm like he was a vampire of the Bela Lugosi type that John named Vampire v3.0. Another minute and the Stranger would proclaim, "I never drink ... wine," and smile creepily. John thought that at least he himself had fun with magic much of the time.

His true hearted companions stayed silent before stopping abruptly. John gaped at what they were looking at, too. A cannon the length of a Winnebago Adventurer pointed directly at the Saint Romanus gate from thirty feet away. Two granite spheres the size of exercise balls from the gym that he went to once as Zee's guest and never again lay beside the cave mouth that was the business end of the cannon. The cannon lay unguarded because who needed it now? The battle was won.

It seemed to John that Firsthand couldn't help himself from speaking. "We trembled when it roared and so this is what broke us down to frightened children." Firsthand spat in its direction. "Come, stranger, guide us from this place with your magicks."

"The sooner the better," agreed Secondhand.

"May it never fire again," added Thirdhand. 

John was too busy putting one foot in front of another to sightsee. Oh sure, he was experiencing history but who cared. "Step lively, gents. We want the sea and a plan to signal a friendly ship, yeah? Who's with me?"

Nobody answered except by trudging faster. Five hundred fifty feet along the route of who knew how far because who knew how far a league was, John and his crew spotted fresh troops making for another gate. As the five passed the gate which had been opened with no noticeable scars, John considered damage control from the fallout of Firsthand's remark. "He is a stranger in a strange land to him and they dress different where he comes from," he rehearsed to himself, "and oh right, his cloak works like our Greek Fire, a mystery that no outsider needs to know, hush hush but real all the same." There. Thanks to Fatty Forbush's lecture on the Byzantines, he'd constructed a plausible con to these worthies, a white lie for the good of all. It was his usual reasoning for what he did best. John reassured himself about his motives, which helped, mostly.

Stranger kept up a reasonable pace for weary soldiers, his Armani suit untouched by dust or sweat. Heavens above, they left no footprints! Awesome! After his feet began to ache, John lost track of how far they had traveled and how far they had to go. Their southward path to the sea led close to the walls and about one hour later, a contingent of marching soldiers wearing turbans higher than John's strode their way. This was no mob, these were trained and disciplined to the highest degree and Phantom Stranger hissed.

"Janissaries. We must be cautious."

The plumes on the turbans nodded in time with marching leather boots until the only Janissary on horseback raised a hand to halt his squad of thirty. His horse danced beneath him, ears pointed like radar guns towards John's group. John came out of his trance of wondering how he could make up with Zee, because hey, like the song said, I'm the same old trouble that you've always been through so why don't you love me like you used to do?

"Magic us away from here, Stranger. Come on, man!"

The mounted officer swiveled his head, foot long plumes fluttering in the breeze. One of his orders alarmed the Stranger as the troops broke into a trot.

"Quickly, to the Golden Gate!"

"San Francisco? You're daft!"

"Milord, our friend has not led us astray thus far! Obey him!" And Secondhand put away his sword as did his friends before turning to the Stranger. "I trust you."

There was that queer, strained look from the Stranger as he answered, "Thank you. This way, everyone." He led without looking behind him, again raising his cloak. John was the last to follow, grumbling to himself. 

"Issues, I never thought you had self-esteem issues, Stranger, best not let them get the better of you --- "

And then the officer shouted something like Sihirbaz and charged, his men running behind him screaming at the top of their lungs. John ran until he stumbled and lost his turban. Firsthand turned back to help him as the others kept pounding towards yet another gate, the biggest one John had seen. Strewth, this gate loomed large like the Pearly Gates that John had never beheld and did not wish to just yet. You could drive a herd of freaking elephants through its width. He grasped Firsthand's outstretched arm and stood up. Firsthand spun to face the onrushing horse. 

"Run like the damn wind!" he shouted over his shoulder as he drew his sword. 

John did. Much depended on his survival, he told himself, as he heard the collision between aged Byzantine lord and charging stallion. There sounded a loud Ιησούς that John did not need translated and then a wrenching victory cry in an unfamiliar voice. A horse's dying scream amid a flailing of hooves told the whole story.

John kept going until he reached his fellows, who had not paused in the headlong race towards the gate. Secondhand sobbed as he ran, his tears driven to the edges of his shoulder length brown hair by the speed of his passage. John pulled abreast of him and cried, "I swear down, mate, I just did what he told me --- "

"Hold your tongue!"

John obeyed and soon but not soon enough they reached the gate, through which they could see swarms of the enemy.

This bred a pause, a breathing space as the infantry squad of Janissaries pounded towards them from a mere thirty feet away. John could only think that the spell of concealment failed to conceal them from the horse and that the now extinguished Janissary officer blatted something about invisible witches.

His faithful squad fanned out, swinging their scimitars in circles, hoping to blood anyone, magicked invisible or not and this raw tactic just might work.
Phantom Stranger panted like the rest of his group, casting around for a way out. "I --- I --- this seemed the best option --- "

"Otherverse, man! Do it! Never mind the two innocents with us!"

So Phantom Stranger subjected two innocent men to the sickening shift in reality until they stood beside John and himself in a mundane appearing cave. Only it was not mundane, heavenly or spiritual because it was Other. The light came from an unseen source, the air did not smell right, the stone beneath their feet was a strange color and feel and to top it all off, the hair on arms, head and other places rose as if pulled by static electricity.

"Where?" questioned Thirdhand.

"Why?" questioned Secondhand.

"What?" bellowed John. "Picked a bloody Otherverse like this fecker from among millions when you could have spelled us into a blinking paradise --- "

"Hush, milord," intoned Secondhand, who adjusted quickly to new situations, John noticed not for the first time. "Explain not, stranger. I trust you will do the right thing and after all, we live yet."

Thirdhand, too, picked a lane. "I despaired and was wrong, I confess it, Isa." He clapped an arm around Secondhand's shoulders. "I grieve with you over Ignatios."

"Oh Eustace, he --- " began Isa and then could go no further. They embraced each other before pulling John into the closeness.

This was strange and real and true. John lost track of how long Emperor and knights basked in equal measures of the joy of life and relief at its continuation. It took Phantom Stranger to ground him once more.

"This place is safe for awhile." He speared John with a look. "My strength in sustaining us here is not unlimited, Constantine."

"You admit it, well triple points for being honest. Er, ta for saving us and all that," John said over Isa's shoulder before pulling away. Isa and Eustace withdrew to slump against the rough cave walls and confer together quietly as John and the Stranger did likewise.

"Couldn't you have saved the poor old gaffer?"

"Could you not have?"

"I've got nothing, Stranger, except me two hands to fight with. I hate it."

The Stranger crossed his arms and looked down. "So you are not indifferent. You portray yourself poorly in your life story, you know. You need to cast someone rougher, tougher and meaner."

"What the hell does that mean?"

"It means I noticed you dismissing the heaps of dead we passed to focus on completing the test the One laid upon your shoulders so you could return to the mission that Xanadu thrust upon you. Another would have drowned in melancholy at the soul-rending sights, turned back to certain death in the city or thrown himself on the mercy of the invaders." The blank eyes dimmed to gray pained disks. "I assure you, in the hordes' thirst for plunder and personal acclaim for Constantine's dispatch, you would not receive mercy."

John never tolerated close physical contact with non-friends and stepped back as the Stranger's fingers brushed his throat. "Oi, I get the picture and I like me bonce where it is. So what now? I pass the test? Proved meself like a fresher at Uni?" 

Listening remained the only word describing the Stranger's face. "I believe you have," he said slowly with the smallest of smiles. 

"Anticlimactic is what this is, you ponce." John felt no different at this portentous announcement. Typical bombast from the Stranger and John couldn't wait to leave this era in his rearview mirror. Traveling through worlds to reach the  land of the dead was more what he was used to. The final question was how the Stranger would shift the real Emperor Constantine from wherever he was to his homeland in Year of Our Lord 1453. John had some ideas about how to help his namesake, now that he had walked miles and miles in his royal shoes.

The Stranger listened some more and sobered. "I also believe my strength wanes and so we must leave in haste, you to rejoin Deadman on your assigned journey and your two friends to rejoin their world."

"Wait, wait! Can you help me to help them?" John pleaded. "Return me old magic so I can twitch them onto a passing friendly ship? It's the very least you could do." He Reached but nothing came up.

"I sense they became dear to you. I will do what I can." The Stranger turned to John, intensity burning like St. Elmo's Fire. "Would you keep Constantine as safe as possible?"

"Of course I would!"

The Stranger acted.

A familiar nausea simmered through John's belly, which was what he always felt when dimensions opened and closed in his vicinity. The shimmering air disclosed a portal and behind the oval opening stood a man in imperial regalia who could only be Constantine the Eleventh Palaiologos. He looked like he had just now heard his flight announced over a celestial loudspeaker because he clasped his royal purple cloak more closely around him with one hand. A firmer hand rested near his sword hilt that protruded from his scabbard, yet he did not draw it. A gold circlet held his wavy hair in check, his nose seemed broken and he looked like he had been through hell. John was certain that he had.

The Stranger gestured to Isa and Eustace to approach and they stepped out in faith that he would not hurt them. Once they viewed the portal, they pingponged their heads back and forth between John and Constantine their Emperor, falling back two steps with questions shining in their eyes.

"Witchcraft, witchcraft!" gasped Isa and shrank away when John offered his hand in comforting friendship.

Even Eustace quailed from the inexplicable. "Milord, are you enchanted?" he asked John. "Is this a wizard's trick to confound your enemies with a false body conjured from magic?"

You hit the nail smack on the head, Stacey me lad, John thought, but he said nothing as Constantine the Eleventh raised a commanding hand, smiled and spoke. No words penetrated from one Otherverse to the other through the portal.

The Stranger sighed, "These noble folk will parse this as they will, so come, Emperor Constantine, from your refuge to rejoin your world." He thrust his hand through the portal; the Emperor steadied himself with it as he stepped through to the Otherverse next door. Another John in another world would have hustled about to make a proper cuppa for the distinguished guest; this John would offer a pint of his best. This John noticed that the portal closed up tighter than a landlord's purse strings before winking out of sight. His nausea faded to something bearable.

Eustace and Isa stumbled farther away, sword hands at the ready. John had lost their trust, but he put aside his heartache with the knowledge that they would be saved along with Constantine The Eleventh, last Roman Emperor. If Constantine survived to marry again, the third Missus Emperor might enjoy a better fate than his other wives, eh, because the third time's the charm? John could only hope.

Constantine's embattled hoarse voice would hold warmth, John surmised, because the man radiated concerns for his homeland as well as gratitude for these four within the room. John leaned forward to catch the first words of his namesake.

Constantine the Eleventh clasped the Stranger's hand with both of his own. He smiled and then wariness settled upon him. He took a step backwards, held the flat of his sword flush with his chest and appeared to await further developments.

"Nobody here will hurt you, don't fret, mate, we lot worked our behinds off to save you --- " began John but then Constantine the Eleventh's face turned gray.

"Oi! He's sick, help him, Stranger!"

The gray spread downwards to throat, chest and legs and upwards to the crown of the head.

"I am sorry, John. We must keep him safe until he arises again to great need in the future." The Stranger's soft voice explained the outrageous event taking place before John. "My powers fade, this cave will revert to a real cave in 1453 beneath the Golden Gate of Constantinople and its Emperor will rest here until the world changes. It is best he becomes a statue."

Isa and Eustace wept aloud at the news. "Why? Why?" sobbed Isa. "We trusted you, stranger!"

"I know you did. I know. I am doing my best for the state of affairs I find myself in." 

John trembled at the finality of it all as the roiling nausea of shifting dimensions returned, along with the smell of dank earth from a natural cave on his natural world. There was no light from any source until the Stranger snapped his fingers to cue a gentle glow. John sniffled away tears and as he did, he recognized the scent of 1453. So the test was for nothing, he was stuck like a toad in Superglue in a city and age where bloodlust ruled and the Stranger had lied. 

"I wouldn't con a bloody dog the way you conned me, Stranger. And for what?"

John's heart broke as Eustace strove to put a positive face on their situation. "Isa, we do not understand these things but have faith, my friend, have faith. Perhaps the stranger is an angel after all and so is the false Constantine."

Isa continued sobbing until he ran out of breath. "M-Maybe you are right, Eustace. I must believe we rest in helpful hands." He sagged to the cave floor as if a heavy timber pushed him down before lifting his head to regard the statue of his Emperor. "What comes next in this frightful day?"

"I do not know, but I have faith that this is not our end." Eustace continued patting Isa's shoulder while he offered a calm glance to John. "Who are you, then?"

That's when everything turned pear shaped because the light went out. John would forever remember the feeling of hands all over him, pulling off clothing head to toe and pulling on his usual outfit. He never did figure out whose hands accomplished all that, but that mystery paled beside noticing the welcome whisper of waves upon sand.

"Hallelujah!" was the first word he heard, echoed by another "Hallelujah!" and then from his own lips a third "Hallelujah!" He coughed and opened his eyes before he sat up. Some kind soul had folded his tatty trenchcoat under his head and oh joy, was that the crinkle of a packet of cigs in its inside pocket?

The sea, now the sea looked mostly the same upon his native earth wherever you found yourself. The Sea of Marmara held three dots, which moved slowly left to right, er, he meant to the west because it was about fourish, yeah? And spring, it was spring so a few more hours of daylight stretched before him to accomplish what he had to because magicks flowed like springtime sap through all his body.

He jumped to his feet, seeing that Isa, Eustace and the Stranger shaded their eyes to see the approaching clumsy looking ship, a galleon or some such rot that he couldn't recall from Fatty Forbush's lecture. The Stranger flashed his necklace in the sun towards the ship in a code or maybe the ship's officers would take the gleams for loot to plunder and take home to wherever their home port was. Crete? Italy? No matter, John meant to be on his way and good riddance to the Stranger, although not to Isa and Eustace. The promise of a new life had perked them up considerable.

Eustace and Isa waved frantically to the ship flying what must be friendly colors, but the Stranger walked back to John with his cape held tightly around him in the stiff sea breeze. "You may leave when ready, Constantine."

John nodded. "In a minute. It's been a tough go for some hours and I'm knackered." He sat in the sand. "I'm also piffed with you."

The Stranger sat beside him, arranging his cloak into a picknicking blanket shape, if Strangers did that sort of fun thing. "I am knackered as well."

The ship approached, a high sided clunky piece of maritime engineering. It stayed out from the shore and John saw tiny figures hauling ropes to put a small rowboat into the calm sea. His friends departed soon, one less than he had figured on saving. 

"Poor old Ignatios."

"He died full of years and glory."

"Yeh, but he died. And Constantine the Ever Lovin' Glorious pulled a King Arthur, thanks to you."

"You hoped to save them all?"

"Damn straight. Didn't you?"

The Stranger removed one glove to run his fingers through the sand. "I did. I failed."

"Gah, don't go all brony because me heart couldn't take it."

John magicked a sand flurry in his friends' direction, out of their line of sight. "Funny thing, war. Your buds become your buds in minutes."

"Indeed." The Stranger rose to his feet after redonning his glove. No sand clung to his cloak as he strode away and he left no footprints. "Farewell."

"Goodbye," John said as the Stranger passed behind a dune to disappear into shadows, homeward bound. As for himself, he Reached to bundle together hydromancy spells that bubbled the waves in front of him and scried them for omens. This ship will have a safe voyage, he thought to himself as he discerned an acceptable outcome and then he called out loud for long lives upon these two stalwart friends. He never expected to meet them again this side of, well, wherever he was bound for.

John ran a hand through his short crop of blond hair and lit a cigarette to think better.



Isa and Eustace raced to their benefactors only to find them gone. 

"Angels," Eustace decided.

"Angels, or close enough," said Isa. "We must spread the good news about our rescue and the divine ones we met." 

They turned their faces to the sea and their future as the rowboat touched on land.


The End.


A/N By April 7, 1453, 568 years ago, the Siege of Constantinople had truly begun, ending the Middle Ages with cannonfire. On the 29th of May when the city fell, the legends began of the return of the last Roman Emperor.

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