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It's Only The End Of The World

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There was no way Zed could ever have imagined her life coming to this point.

"Tell me the truth." John's voice was ragged, even by his standards.

It wasn't as if she'd had a sheltered upbringing, unless by a very skewed definition of the term. The apocalypse had been a regular topic of conversation when she was growing up -- the apocalypse, and the role she was expected to play in bringing it about.

"Do me that courtesy, at least." Biting sarcasm. Last resort of the hopeless cynic.

This wasn't the role anyone had expected her to play, least of all Zed herself.

Manny was implacable in the face of pleading, begging, and violent sarcasm alike. "You don't need to know. You've done your part, John Constantine. Now is the time for history to step in and handle things."

John bared his teeth. He looked more a mess than usual, unshaven and disheveled and still streaked with dirt from the long, grueling trip here. Zed was fairly sure she looked the same.

She didn't care. They'd lost too much. Too many people had died. Too many people were going to die, if they couldn't...

"You played me like a fiddle."

It might've been easier if Manny had gloated, or launched into an evil monologue, or mocked John for being so easy to manipulate. Instead he looked at both John and Zed with seemingly genuine pity and said, "Things needed to happen, and you needed to be part of it. I am sorry I couldn't be more upfront with you from the beginning, but we could never have brought this about if I had." He swept his hands apart, a gesture that took in the whole miserable world, all the death and pain and misery that was going on because of him.

Because Zed and John had trusted him when they shouldn't have.

"Why did this 'need' to happen?" Zed demanded. Her voice was shaking a little, and she hated herself for it. "Why did you send us off to save people if you knew you were going to set everyone up to be killed a little further down the line?"

Manny's expression of tender pity didn't change. "All the pieces needed to be in the right place. It's hard for you to understand, I know -- "

"You're too sodding right it's hard to understand!" John snarled. "You were playing some twisted long con to bring on Armageddon and you used me to do it! Does that about cover the high points?"

"Your soul was lost long ago, John. Are you so surprised that your sins came back around to you? Or did you think you could keep passing the price off to others, forever?"

Gary. Anne-Marie. Ritchie. Chas. Astra...

John turned away sharply, but not before Zed noticed that his hands were clenched into fists, and his mouth was trembling. "Go to hell, angel."

Manny sighed. "No. I think, in the end, it will be much easier to bring hell here."

Without thinking, Zed looked towards the window. Outside, the sky was dark gray from horizon to horizon. She couldn't see anyone, but she knew what was happening -- the most evil forces in the world preying on the weak and the vulnerable. When the rising darkness meets the worst of humanity...

And it was their fault.

"I am sorry," Manny said. "You don't believe me. That doesn't make it untrue. If there had been another way... but this, this is necessary."

"Necessary," she echoed incredulously. She'd heard that sentiment too many times growing up, from her father and his followers. The world was rotten. The world was full of sin. The world must be purged.

She didn't believe it.

She wouldn't let herself believe it.

This wasn't necessary. It was evil.

She said, "What happened to you?" but there was no answer, and when she turned back Manny was gone without a trace.

John cursed and kicked the wall. "That feathered son of a bitch -- there has to be a way to undo this. To force him to... "

"How?" This wasn't like tricking Gary into trapping a demon in his own skin, or convincing Papa Midnite that his spells weren't working as intended. Manny was an angel. He was an angel who knew them both very, very well, and was by now very familiar with John's bag of tricks.

John scowled. "Even angels have their weak points."

"I know that." She didn't say that Manny was very aware of those weak points, and would be very careful not to allow John or Zed or anyone else to exploit them. He wouldn't possess a human body so that John could trap him in it again. He wouldn't give them the chance to capture a feather and ground him to earth.

And even if by some miracle they managed to take him down, it was too late for that to stop the Brujería.

"John?" she said.

"What?"

"I'm afraid."

And he reached out blindly and took her hand. "I know, love."

When Zed was a child, she spent most of her time in a locked room, told again and again that it was to protect her from the evil that infested the world, that one day she would bring about salvation by bringing on the apocalypse that would wipe the earth clean of sinners. When she could, she ran away, and looked for ways to save the world without destroying it first.

And now she was standing on the edge of Armageddon with a con artist mage in a dirty trench coat, and it was their fault.

Even John's initial distrust of Manny had been bound up in a strange kind of trust -- the trust that an angel was an angel, and that he might be manipulating things but he was manipulating things on behalf of a greater power and the greater good. Could he be blamed for that?

Could Zed be blamed for trusting an angel who told her that her powers were a gift from God?

He'd manipulated them so expertly.

So many people had died because of it.

"But we're not beat yet," John said. She looked at him sharply. "The score may be in the Brujería's favor but the game's not over. And you know me... I don't play if I can't win." He grinned, a dark vicious John Constantine kind of sneer. "The right word in the right ear, the right spell at the right time... would you believe me if I said I had a plan?"

"Not really."

"O ye of little faith. You'd better come along anyway, love; I'm going to need you."

(*)

It turned out he did have a plan.

It took the better part of six months to get all the pieces in place, to find all the spells they needed, to call in all the favors they could with the few contacts they had that were still alive. Around them the world continue to descend deeper and deeper into the Brujería's control, the hell Manny had envisioned for them all, and Zed wondered if any of the Resurrection Crusade had survived this far, what they thought of the apocalypse that they had worked so long and hard to bring about and that had, in the end, happened without any input from them at all.

But at last, the two of them stood together in the middle of a spell circle drawn in chalk on the roof of the tallest building Oliver Queen had been able to find for them, John naked and painted head to toe in pig's blood, Zed carrying the rest of the supplies he needed -- a half pound of salt; Liv Aberdine's amulet; a lithium battery; a baggie of dried myrtle.

She listened to him chant the beginning of the spell, the hairs on the back of her neck prickling, and she couldn't convince herself to believe this would work.

Surely it was too late?

But he kept chanting, and she made herself pay attention and deliver the right supplies at the right moments.

Manny showed up several minutes earlier into the spell than John had predicted he would, but they had rehearsed it so many times that Zed refused to let that throw her of, and John didn't falter for a moment.

"What do you think you're accomplishing with this?" Manny demanded, staying well outside the edges of the circle. "Even if you could put the boundary back up -- which you can't -- what good would that do? Hell is empty, Constantine. All the devils are here."

John continued to chant.

Zed said, "We do what we have to. I thought you of all people would understand that."

"Oh, of course... humans do cling to their foolish hope at the most impossible moments. But I wouldn't have thought you two would fall in that trap."

She wasn't sure what to make of that. John, okay, John was a cynic, a depressive, a pessimist. But Zed had always clung to hope. Manny had commented on it before. So she opted to ignore it for now. "If it's not doing any good, why did you bother to come here to stop us?" John paused, briefly, and she remembered to pour a handful of salt into his hand. He resumed chanting, pouring the salt into a small heap at his feet.

Manny chose to ignore her comment, which was telling. "It's pure arrogance, really. The belief that surely you can control the world, if only you try."

"Unlike your arrogant belief that the world needs you to bring it to hell," she spat at him. The battery. She fumbled the handoff slightly and dropped it, but John managed to catch it without interrupting his spellwork.

"You cannot begin to imagine the amount of thought and consideration that went into my actions, Zed Martin."

"No," she said, "I can't," and halfway across the continent Papa Midnite began his own version of the spell.

He was exactly on schedule.

Manny turned away from Zed sharply, his expression going distracted. Good. John had predicted that as soon as the second spell started Manny would sense it and have to divide his attention, but he'd seemed less than sure of his prediction than usual -- and given how many of his usual predictions amounted to wishful thinking, that hadn't filled Zed with confidence. But he was right.

Which had to mean the spell was working.

Another handful of salt.

Manny didn't bother with any farewell formalities, he simply vanished, and Zed exhaled slowly before putting him out of her mind for the moment. That had gone easier than she'd expected, but that just meant something else would probably prove more difficult. She couldn't afford to let her guard down now.

John caught her eye briefly.

And then looked away.

That didn't seem like a good sign.

The spellwork lasted another hour, John chanting tirelessly and Zed trying not to fidget too much as she kept track of where he was in the spell and what she had to do next, and Manny kept popping back in to check on their progress, unable to cross the chalk circle and stop them. He seemed increasingly anxious each time, but his visits became more and more infrequent as the hour wore on and across America and Europe other mages, mages who owed favors to John Constantine, began casting the same spell.

It was, she had to admit to herself, a particularly clever idea. It meant Manny's attention was divided, it meant the multiple spells reinforced each other, and it meant if one person failed that didn't mean the plan was a loss.

Assuming the spell actually worked.

No one, not Zed or John or Midnite or even Manny, knew for sure if it would.

And finally John reached the words that indicated the end of the spell, wrapping it back to its beginning in a self-perpetuating circle, and Zed felt in her mind the boundary between the worlds flickering faintly, weakly, back to life.

"It's working, John!"

"Fantastic," he said, but he didn't sound as excited as she'd expected. Or excited at all, really.

She turned back to him just in time to see him collapse to his knees. Underneath the pig's blood he looked ashen. "John!"

He braced his hands against the rooftop but didn't try to stand. When he spoke next it was between wheezes. "What about the others?"

"It's too soon to tell -- Papa Midnite won't be done for another ten minutes, at least, and the rest -- John, what's wrong?"

"Never mind that now, love."

She kicked aside the piles and lines of salt that surrounded them both and knelt next to him. "John, look at me, tell me what's going on."

"If the others haven't done their part it won't work." He sounded bad and looked worse. His skin was taking on an unpleasant yellow-gray tinge. "The boundary needs to be reinforced or it'll tear like tissue paper the first time something tries to cross it. There's one or two redundancies in the design, but -- "

"Well, there's nothing either of us can do about that right now. What's happening to you?"

"All magic comes with a price. You know that." His arms gave out and he would have hit the rooftop face first if Zed hadn't caught him. She pulled him into her lap and he tried to smile. "Nice place to visit, love, but I could think of much better reasons to be here."

She ignored that. "What are you talking about? What price? Just... energy, right? A loss of energy?"

"You know better than that."

"John -- "

"Just putting the boundary back up isn't going to solve the problem. You're going to have to put hell's denizens back there if humanity's going to have any hope of avengeing. You know who you can ask for help."

"John, please -- "

"It's up to you now, love." He tried to smile. It was a miserable failure. "Hope I've taught you enough." His fingers tightened briefly on her arms and then went limp.

"John! John!"

In her mind, the boundary grew stronger as Papa Midnite completed his spell.