The Laughing Master: Chapter One


I stamp my feet about as the snow slowly drifts down. It's a bloody awful winter for a broke bloke like me and many of you might be wondering why
am I even wasting my time, standing in Hyde Park at ten in the morning even though the lack of sunlight makes the whole place look like some part of Gotham. I reach for my pocket even as reason urges me not to while habit persuades me. Habit wins out in the end and I pull out the pack of ciggies. Lighting a fag in my mouth with a snap of my fingers, I look around the deserted park. Nobody is out right now for some reason but that just makes me more conspicuous to any passing eyes. It's around ten below zero and bound to get colder at night.

Why am I, John Constantine, exorcist, con artist and petty dabbler in the dark arts, waiting here in Hyde Park like some lost soul? Well, the answer to that is interesting in itself. It starts with me being drunk out of my mind three days ago, nearing the end of the month with nothing in my pockets except a deck of tarot cards and half a pack of Silk Cuts. I received a telephone call from an anonymous source which promised a much better deal if I turn up at ten o'clock in Hyde Park. It wasn't as if I had much of a choice. Now that I was here, I was severely regretting making it.

I was sitting on a bench, looking at the water when I heard him approach. I turned around to face him and made sure to get a good look at his face. They say that eyes are the windows to the soul and if that was true then I was looking at the most soulless blonde kraut I had ever laid my eyes on. He wasn't even shivering even though he was only wearing a white jumper over some shirt and trousers.

"Mr. John Constantine, I presume?" He asked. The way he pressed his lips together and how he stared at me made me think that a negative answer wouldn't be appreciated.

"Ah, yah. That would be me." I said as I got up. I offered him a handshake but he simply coldly stared at me until I dismally dropped it. What a bastard.

"A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Constantine. I have been reliably informed that you are reasonably well versed in both the magical and the mundane worlds. My name is Otto von Einzbern and I am here as a representative of my family with a business proposal." The man said in a monotone. I had a sudden urging to punch him on his perfect cleft chin. Pleasure my arse, you couldn't even bother to raise your arm a few inches and touch a plebeian like me? But business is business and I kept my face straight.

"Well, I am flattered by your source's description." I said bitterly.

"It was not said in kindness." Came the cold reply. Christ, did the man even understand sarcasm? I didn't mean it 'in kindness' either.

"Well, let's hear it then." I said a little harshly. "What sort of business are you proposing?"

The kraut's eyes narrowed. For a moment, I thought he would try to kill me outright. I wouldn't be surprised either. There were just so many magicians in society running around in their fancy little pants, thinking themselves so high and mighty only because they could do a bit of magic. Some would even fling around magic for a bit of a lark, completely ignoring the lives of the innocents while others would go power-mad. I don't know much about the Einzbern but I at least do know that they have more restraint than the average mage.

"We need you to retreat the Avalon, sheath of the sword Excalibur." He said finally after contemplating whether or not to speak. The snow kept falling around us as the words seemed to go through my head, each syllable hitting harder than the last.

"Are you serious, mate?" I asked incredulously. It's not that I don't believe in the existence of such items. Hell, I've encountered more fantastic and outrageous items than some simple old scabbard. The reason I found myself so speechless was because I was being asked to retrieve such a priceless artifact. Most of these families which had their heads up their arses usually sent their own progeny after artifacts like these just for them to earn their stripes. Or to kill them off to thin the herd but that was essentially the same thing really. The thing was, they weren't going to send some common con man like me for such a grand task.

Unless, of course, they couldn't find it themselves and were now getting desperate. I took a long draw from my cigarette before throwing the stub away. Now this was interesting even if it was just as dangerous. A desperate mage will be willing to negotiate but he will be just as willing to blast you to pieces. Maybe I should hear what are they offering first.

"That's all very nice, lad, but what's in it for me?" I asked. Could have worded it better but I need to give the impression of a common thug, not someone with a working brain. I am willing to bet that he doesn't regard me very highly. No one actually regards me highly.

The kraut reached for inside his coat. I tensed, expecting the worst but he simply took out a blue box and held it out for me. I hesitated before taking it. I muttered a few safety spells I knew but the box proved to be harmless as far as I knew. Holding my breath, I opened the box before exhaling rather sharply once I saw what was inside. There were three diamonds, uncut, each the size of my thumbnail.

"Each one of these is worth a million pounds, Mr. Constantine. This will be your down payment. The other seven will be delivered to you personally after the success of your mission. Good morning." Otto von Einzbern said stiffly before turning around and beginning to walk away.

"How will we keep in touch?" I yelled at him.

"You won't contact us, Mr. Constantine, we'll contact you." The kraut said as he walked away, not even bothering to turn and look at me. I just stood there, diamonds in my hands, somehow feeling that I had taken part in something I shouldn't have. There was only one thing left to do now. I walked over to the nearest telephone booth.

"Chas?" I said through chattering teeth, the cold finally finding a way through my trenchcoat. "Come over to Hyde Park, that's a good lad."

"Constantine, what an unexpected pleasure." Jerry O'Flynn exclaimed tiredly, as if he had to force the enthusiasm, before standing aside. "Come in! It's not every day a man of your caliber visits." He looked behind me and noticed an extremely surly and shivering Chas standing outside. "Well, all of you better come inside."

Jerry O'Flynn was a collector of strange, magical, magically strange and strangely magical objects. And drugs. He apparently always kept an unhealthy and illegal stash of cocaine in his house if rumors about him were true. If there was anyone who could track an absurd item on short notice, it was Jerry. He gave the appearance of some madman who had stepped out of a story and probably was, a fact that gave him a lot of grief.

"What's the matter, Jerry? You look knackered." I commented as Jerry led us to his study. The walls were lined with several tomes, books and grimoires, some mundane, several magical while a few not falling in either category. Jerry immediately pounced on the nearest bottle of grog and poured himself a snifter which he downed in one go.

"Another one of those blasted young writers came to interview me. Just because I have a persona most don't doesn't mean that I should be plagiarized or copied so frequently. William O'Conner, Ian O'Flaherty, James Donner, Magnus G. Tolstoy, all of these are characters based on me! And people keep confusing me for them!" Jerry said angrily. I simply waited for his anger to subside. "But you're not here to listen to my tragedy. Speak, Constantine, what is it that troubles you?"

"Jerry," I said slowly and clearly to make sure I wasn't misunderstood. "I am looking for Avalon, the legendary sheath of the sword Excalibur."

Any other person would have laughed. Even mages would have laughed in my face. Jerry is a different case. For Jerry, it never is insane enough, queer enough, weird enough to be disregarded. The fat old man merely stroked his beard thoughtfully before getting up and retrieving a book from a shelf.

"It's strange for you to refer to the scabbard as Avalon. It's actually the name of the island where Morgan Le Fay lived. According to legend, it is here where Arthur's first sword, Caliburn, was forged. It was here where King Arthur was taken after he had been hurt to the death by his enemy and son, Mordred." Jerry recited.

"Yes, that's very nice but what we need is the sheath." I said impatiently.

"Patience, young man. It is only through perseverance will you reach you bounty." Jerry scolded before turning back to his book. "It is said that the sword Excalibur was thrown into the Lake and the sheath was thrown before it by the Lady Morgan Le Fay." Jerry closed the book with a snap. "Now the obvious thing to do, of course, is to find the correct lake!" he said with a flourish.

Chas groaned from his seat. "Smashing. Absolutely smashing. There are hundreds upon hundreds of lakes, lochs and pools in all the length and breadth of this country. Do you plan on visiting every single one of them and sticking your hand in to check if some blinking broad chucked a scabbard down?"

"Of course not, my rather vocal acquaintance. We are going to narrow down the number of places where something as magical as a legendary sheath can be." Jerry said as he waddled over to a chest of drawers and pulled out a rolled up map of some sort. He came back and pinned it to the wall with thumbtacks he found from somewhere. It was a map of Britain with ley lines drawn over.

"Now, according to legend, Arthur was carried over to Avalon after the Battle of Camlann. Before being carried off, he ordered one of his knights, whether it was Griflet or Bedivere doesn't matter here, to throw Excalibur back into the lake. This means that all three places, Camlann, Avalon and the Lake need to be within riding distances of each other." Jerry theorized. Chas merely grunted.

"Well, it sounds reasonable enough, old chap, but it is still purely conjecture. Aren't you going to back it up with some sort of proof or at least theory?" I said, goading him. Jerry likes to bombast and draw out the obvious and I need him to be quicker.

"Glastonbury." Jerry said suddenly.

"Pardon?" I said, quite confused.

"The ley-line passes through Somerset, one of the likeliest places for the Excalibur to exist. The place is perfect as well. There used to be a lake here, if I recall, which was later drained off. The Glastonbury Tor was a marsh in those times, giving the Tor itself the appearance of an island. The battlefield itself could now be Queen Camel, near the River Cam, Somerset. There you go, Constantine, I found your blasted sheath for you. Now you owe me something back." Jerry said in a satisfied manner. I gritted my teeth. Jerry, as I keep forgetting, is a businessman. A business to whom money is secondary to collecting rare and queer items but a business man nonetheless. And just like a businessman, he had given me nothing and was already making demands. Bollocks.

"Jerry, we don't know for sure if your hare-brained theory is correct or not." Chas groaned from the seat. "We just can't pay you for nothing." Good old Chas, always being the voice of reason in a stupid little world.

"I am willing to wait, Constantine." Jerry said magnanimously, ignoring Chas completely. What a bastard. "In return, I would like a photograph of the legendary sheath."

Well that was quite cheap. I had expected him to ask us to retrieve Excalibur or something of the sort. Maybe Jerry could be a reasonable sort after all.

"Let's go, Chas. The game's afoot." I said as I mentally prepared for the long drive to Somerset with my anguished driver at my heels.

Here was I, standing back in Hyde Park. The entire retrieval turned out to be pitifully uneventful, not that I was complaining. We found the legendary sheath buried under the Tor at its foot. All I had to do was basically run a simple divination spell and the magic led me to where it was. Talk about luck. We took an entire roll of photographs and posted it to Jerry. Bloke turned out to be correct after all. Chas could scarcely believe the sight but decided not to speak anything. It was beautiful alright. The golden and blue scabbard looked as if it had spilled out of legend into the grimy modern times of England. How much King Arthur must be actually crying about the state of affairs of merry old England is something I don't know and I don't care to know. What I do know is that I am about to trade this thing for seven million quid.

The kraut appeared after a few minutes, right on schedule. I took out the lit fag from my mouth before dropping it and snuffing it out. Must appear professional after all.

"Do you have it?" Otto von Einzbern asked tersely. This is the first time I had heard emotion from his voice. Not that I have heard him enough times but when someone who is all about appearances looks haggard, it means shits been about. The bloke looked as if he hadn't slept properly for days.

I simply threw down the duffel bag I had on the ground. The kraut immediately bent down and unzipped it greedily. There was no light but the sheath seemed to glow all on its own. Avalon illuminated the man's face, making it look even more haggard and skull-like. He suddenly stood upright, making me back away a little. It was at these moments when employers tend to off their employees so that any secret may remain safe.

"You have performed adequately." The kraut said with a sniff. He might have looked regal if it wasn't for the slight drool still hanging from the corner of his mouth and a brief smile of glee he still had. He reached for his coat pocket and I reached for my lighter. Better be safe than sorry.

He brought out another blue box, similar to the one he had given me a week ago but slightly larger this time. He held it out for me and I reached over to take it.

That was when everything changed.

A sudden spike of pain erupted in the back of my right hand. It seemed as if someone had attacked it savagely with a knife. I gripped it with my good hand and tried not to scream. Blood flowed out of my fingers and freely dripped out.

"You sodding bastard." I said trough gritted teeth. It was the kraut's fault, I was sure of it. Trust me to make such a mistake. Trust me to be naïve enough to trust a mage like him. Fucking back-stabbers, the lot of them.

"Show me your wound. I swear on the Root that I didn't do anything." The kraut said, sounding concerned. He reached out and gripped my wrist. His hand was unexpectedly soft yet firm. I could get used to a hand like that. He forced my good hand away and looked at my injury.

I am not going to say that it was the queerest thing I ever saw but then again, it did make the top ten list. The wound was gone and replaced by some sort of blood tattoo in the shape of a curved sword and two crosses above it. The entire tattoo looked a little like a smiley face like the ones on five penny pins.

"Mein gott, a command spell." The kraut muttered. I knew that tone. It was the tone of someone who has to cancel parties, the tone of someone who has to do something unpleasant yet necessary, the tone of someone who had to kill you. I yanked my hand away and jumped back.

And then things started happening extremely quickly.

The Einzbern raised two jeweled golems out of the ground. Apparently, they had already been stored there or he could simply form them out of available minerals. I didn't know and I didn't care. I needed a fire quickly. I reached for my lighter and flipped it open. The flame sprang out, lively as ever. There was no time for me to recite a spell. I would simply have to charge the flame with magic and shoot it straight at the kraut.

Einzbern's golems leaped at me. My fireball leaped at Einzbern.

The fireball hit the kraut square in the chest. I don't think the poor bloke actually expected me to be so much faster than him which was why he didn't even bother shielding himself or maybe my magic managed to tear through his shields. The golems exploded into a thousand fragments before they even hit the ground. It was over.

"Constantine…" Otto von Einzbern croaked. I walked over to his dying body.

"What is it?" I asked. I am not going to say that I felt pity for him. He did try to attack me after all. But I guess that didn't mean I didn't have to listen to his dying words.

"Hear me Constantine…" Otto said, struggling for breath. "You… may have… defeated me… but… the Einzbern… will avenge me! Our new weapon… Kiritsugu… will defeat you… in the… Grail War…" he said.

"What's a Kiritsugu?" I asked, nonplussed.

"My death… won't be... in vain!" Otto said before dying with a twisted smile. I simply stood there, in the middle of snow, jewel fragments and blood. For a moment, I felt like screaming up at heaven and calling out the Authority. Why me? Why is it always fucking me? Why give me all the weird shit? Why do I get the melodramatic ones? Here I was, expecting a nice sum of money to help me stave off any worries about the future and this huge pile of shit just had to fall in my lap, didn't it? Bollocks.

But I didn't. I simply picked up the blue box of diamonds and the duffel bag containing Avalon. Then I cremated Otto von Einzbern and wished him luck beyond the veil. Guy was an arsehole but that didn't mean he didn't deserve some sort of ceremony. Then I simply walked out of Hyde Park.

It was time for me dig into whatever this Grail War was.

Name: John Collier Constantine

Species: Human Magus

Alias: The Laughing Magician

Element: Fire and Earth

Origin: Trickster

Sorcery Trait: Synchronicity

Circuit Count: 40 (The Constantine Family line doesn't require Magical Crests)

Circuit Rank: c- (Circuits tainted by injected demon blood)

Circuit Speed: b+ (Circuit speed increased by injected demon blood)

Strength: d (Constantine isn't strong even by human standards. His strength is usually magically augmented.)

Endurance: c (Constantine isn't tough even by human standards. His endurance is usually magically augmented.)

Agility: c (Constantine is slightly agile. Most of his agility isn't magically augmented.)

Magic: d (Constantine severely lacks the fire power most magi can boast of. He usually has to rely on cunning, deception and trickery. He can, however, boost his abilities using various herbs and roots or amulets and artifacts)

Luck: A+ (The entire Constantine family line possess the signature magic of Synchronicity Wave Travelling, the instinct ability to be able to be at the right place at the right time. This luck is further boosted whenever Constantine is in mortal peril, allowing him to survive what even most magi cannot.)