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Authors: Carla Jablonski

The Invitation

BOOK: The Invitation
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the
BOOKS
of
MAGIC
TM
*
1
The Invitation
Carla Jablonski
Created by
Neil Gaiman and John Bolton

For Carol and Margot,
my cohorts in the search for better
physics through magic….

Contents

Prologue

Dust. It was everywhere. Grime streaked the walls; trapped clouds…

Chapter One

What is the point of all this gross national product…

Chapter Two

Tim waited for the men in trench coats to react.

Chapter Three

Tim's eyes widened behind his glasses. “Me? Do a magic…

Chapter Four

Tim squinted in the bright light. After the dark of…

Chapter Five

Tim was tired, cold, and hungry. His feet hurt. They'd…

Chapter Six

Tim woke with a start.

Chapter Seven

Terror shot through Tim, like nothing he had ever experienced…

Chapter Eight

It had happened again. One minute Tim was squeezed into…

Chapter Nine

Tim stared down at the little creature who lay moaning…

Chapter Ten

“Did you—did you say something?” Tim said to the rabbit.

Chapter Eleven

Tim sighed. Couldn't he make a move without being threatened?

Chapter Twelve

“Did I do something wrong?” Tim asked Rose. The key…

Chapter Thirteen

John Constantine leaned against the wall and glared at the…

Chapter Fourteen

“They've been gone a while,” John Constantine needlessly pointed out.

Chapter Fifteen

“So this is it, then,” Constantine said wearily, hunching his…

Epilogue

Now they were three, the men in the trench coats.

W
HEN I WAS STILL
a teenager, only a few years older than Tim Hunter is in the book you are holding, I decided it was time to write my first novel. It was to be called
Wild Magic
, and it was to be set in a minor British Public School (which is to say, a private school), like the ones from which I had so recently escaped, only a minor British Public School that taught magic. It had a young hero named Richard Grenville, and a pair of wonderful villains who called themselves Mister Croup and Mister Vandemar. It was going to be a mixture of Ursula K. Le Guin's
A Wizard of Earthsea
and T. H. White's
The Sword in the Stone
, and, well, me, I suppose. That was the plan. It seemed to me that learning about magic was the perfect story, and I was sure I could really write convincingly about school.

I wrote about five pages of the book before I realized that I had absolutely no idea what I was
doing, and I stopped. (Later, I learned that most books are actually written by people who have no idea what they are doing, but go on to finish writing the books anyway. I wish I'd known that then.)

Years passed. I got married, and had children of my own, and learned how to finish writing the things I'd started.

Then one day in 1988, the telephone rang.

It was an editor in America named Karen Berger. I had recently started writing a monthly comic called
The Sandman
, which Karen was editing, although no issues had yet been published. Karen had noticed that I combined a sort of trainspotterish knowledge of minor and arcane DC Comics characters with a bizarre facility for organizing them into something more or less coherent. And also, she had an idea.

“Would you write a comic,” she asked, “that would be a history of magic in the DC Comics universe, covering the past and the present and the future? Sort of a Who's Who, but with a story? We could call it
The Books of Magic
.”

I said, “No, thank you.” I pointed out to her how silly an idea it was—a Who's Who and a history and a travel guide that was also a story. “Quite a ridiculous idea,” I said, and she apologized for having suggested it.

In bed that night I hovered at the edge of
sleep, musing about Karen's call, and what a ridiculous idea it was. I mean…a story that would go from the beginning of time…to the end of time…and have someone meet all these strange people…and learn all about magic….

Perhaps it wasn't so ridiculous….

And then I sighed, certain that if I let myself sleep it would all be gone in the morning. I climbed out of bed and crept through the house back to my office, trying not to wake anyone in my hurry to start scribbling down ideas.

A boy. Yes. There had to be a boy. Someone smart and funny, something of an outsider, who would learn that he had the potential to be the greatest magician the world had ever seen—more powerful than Merlin. And four guides, to take him through the past, the present, through other worlds, through the future, serving the same function as the ghosts who accompany Ebenezer Scrooge through Charles Dickens's
A Christmas Carol.

I thought for a moment about calling him Richard Grenville, after the hero of my book-I'd-never-written, but that seemed a rather too heroic name (the original Sir Richard Grenville was a sea-captain, adventurer, and explorer, after all). So I called him Tim, possibly because the Monty Python team had shown that Tim was an unlikely
sort of name for an enchanter, or with faint memories of the hero of Margaret Storey's magical children's novel,
Timothy and Two Witches
. I thought perhaps his last name should be Seekings, and it was, in the first outline I sent to Karen—a faint tribute to John Masefield's haunting tale of magic and smugglers,
The Midnight Folk
. But Karen felt this was a bit literal, so he became, in one stroke of the pen, Tim Hunter.

And as Tim Hunter he sat up, blinked, wiped his glasses on his T-shirt, and set off into the world.

(I never actually got to use the minor British Public School that taught only magic in a story, and I suppose now I never will. But I was very pleased when Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar finally showed up in a story about life under London, called
Neverwhere
.)

John Bolton, the first artist to draw Tim, had a son named James who was just the right age and he became John's model for Tim, tousle-haired and bespectacled. And in 1990 the first four volumes of comics that became the first
Books of Magic
graphic novel were published.

Soon enough, it seemed, Tim had a monthly series of comics chronicling his adventures and misadventures, and the slow learning process he was to undergo, as initially chronicled by author
John Ney Reiber, who gave Tim a number of things—most importantly, Molly.

In this new series of novels-without-pictures, Carla Jablonski has set herself a challenging task: not only adapting Tim's stories, but also telling new ones, and through it all illuminating the saga of a young man who might just grow up to be the most powerful magician in the world. If, of course, he manages to live that long….

Neil Gaiman
May 2002

D
UST. IT WAS EVERYWHERE.
Grime streaked the walls; trapped clouds of stale cigarette smoke had long ago tinted their once white paint a dingy muddy-water brown. Faded paintings hung askew, as if they were too tired to hold themselves up.
What would be the point
? they seemed to sigh.
Who is ever here to look at us now
?

A long bar, pockmarked with time and cigarette burns, ran along one wall. Unlit candles hunched in sconces on the wall, burned halfway down and unlikely to ever flicker again. The last time anyone had visited this hidden location, seemingly out-of-time, this precinct had held other tenants. Before the money and the parties and the carefree celebrations moved out and desperation moved in. The neighborhood above had changed, leaving the once exclusive underground club abandoned by those who sought the new, the shiny, the clean.

Abandoned, but not empty.

Now, in this dimly lit basement of a boarded-up shop in a seedy neighborhood of London, four
men in trench coats eyed each other warily. The tension crackled in the loaded silence. Respect, caution, old battles, and new challenges mingled in the shadows. Even to a casual observer it would have been clear that these four were not ordinary men. The very air around them was charged, and it seemed that even the dust avoided settling on their dark coats. But there would be no casual observers; these men were far too adept for that.

It had been decades since anyone had been down here, and no one outside could have imagined the faded opulence in the subterranean room. The building had passed through several hands; it was unlikely the current landlord ever saw the basement. The shop above had been boarded up for several years, left to rot. No one bothered peeking in through the windows, no one peered through the grates. It had been forgotten; then again, perhaps it had been concealed, cloaked. These gentlemen certainly knew their way around shadows.

A match was lit. The blond man, slouched against a wall, brought the tiny flame to the end of his cigarette and took a deep drag. Of the four, he was the most ambivalent, hesitant—and yet so much rested with him.

“I don't want anything to do with it.” He exhaled his words in a swirl of smoke. He let the match burn nearly to his fingers and watched it wink out.

The tiny end of the cigarette glowed as the man took another slow drag. It was the only light in the room, other than the faint and fading afternoon sunlight that attempted to creep in through the streaks of dirt. But these men didn't need to see each other to communicate. They had spent more than enough time in and with darkness. Besides, each was skilled in his own way of seeing.

“Constantine.” The man known only as the Stranger spoke toward the direction of the cigarette. His voice resonated with authority but betrayed no impatience, since he knew John Constantine always presented a challenge. Particularly to authority. It was a quality that made him very valuable. “I thought I had made myself perfectly clear. We have no choice.”

“Why not?” Constantine demanded. “And don't let's start debating bloody free will again, 'cause we could be here all week.”

Dr. Occult turned from where he'd been peering through the streaked windows and cleared his throat. “I think what our friend is saying—”

Constantine cut him off sharply. “Not
my
friend, mate. Not these days.” The edge in his voice could have sharpened a blade.

The Stranger and Dr. Occult exchanged a glance.

“If I might be permitted to finish, Mr.
Constantine…what our friend is trying to say is simply this: The boy is a natural force, for good or for evil. And it is up to us to channel that force for good and, perhaps, for magic.”

When he was done speaking, Dr. Occult gave the Stranger another glance, wondering how his words would be received. Constantine took another long pull on the cigarette and said nothing.

The others knew better than to try and predict Constantine's reaction, or to take his allegiances for granted. It was never wise to take
anything
for granted with Constantine.

The fourth man emerged from the shadows, his blind eyes hidden behind dark glasses. “I say we should kill him,” Mister E declared. “End the matter there.”

The energy in the room changed; Mister E sensed their disapproval. The three others were in agreement against him. He did not like the odds, but he disapproved of their positions and would press his argument further. He knew he was right in this. They were foolish, soft. He could guide them. It was his duty to do so.

“As righteous souls, it is our responsibility to terminate the matter,” Mister E said. Surely they could see his wisdom. It was so obvious, even for these morally ambivalent three. “We must ensure that this power does not fall into the wrong hands.”

“There will be no killing,” the Stranger insisted. He kept his voice neutral. “Our role is only to educate, to offer him the choice.”

“Does one offer a rabid dog a choice?” demanded Mister E.

“That has nothing to do with it, E. The boy is no dog.” The Stranger's voice hardened and his square jaw clenched. “He is a human child. A normal human child.”

“Normal?”

“Why can't we just leave well enough alone?” Constantine moved deeper into the room. “If the kid's going to be magical, he'll get there on his own. He doesn't need us.”

“Constantine, if he is to choose the path of magic, then he must choose responsibly,” the Stranger said. He knew Constantine was aware of this; still, it was necessary to state it. “He must know enough about the labyrinth to walk a true path through it.”

“And there are also those who would desire to show him another path,” Dr. Occult warned. “The Cold Flame know about him already. My sources tell me they are still debating what to do.”

“How do you know this, Occult?” asked Mister E. Suspicion made his unseeing eyes twitch behind their glasses. “Do you commune with the forces of darkness?”

Dr. Occult took no offense; he was used to Mister E. “You see traitors in every shadow, E,” he said without rancor. “I have sources. I'd rather leave it at that for now.”

Constantine hoisted himself up onto the bar, his feet dangling over the edge like a kid's. “All we know for sure is that we don't know anything for sure.”

To the Stranger, Constantine's childish posture was mirrored in his adolescent statement. “That is a particularly foolish thing to say, John Constantine.” The Stranger was beginning to tire of this debate. “Light and darkness, life and death. These things are eternally certain.”

Constantine sighed. “All right. I'm not going to argue with you anymore, chief. What are you proposing that we do?”

The Stranger almost smiled; Constantine could seem positively petulant when he had to give in.

“Enlighten the child,” said the Stranger. “Show him what magic truly is, and what it was, and what it may become. He has the potential to become the most powerful human adept of this age. It is up to the four of us to ensure that he chooses his path wisely. That is our mission and our burden.” He let this statement resonate in the gloom. “Are we all in agreement?” He turned to where Dr. Occult stood by the windows. “Doctor?”

“I agree,” Dr. Occult replied with a sharp nod. “I will show him the fair lands.”

“Mister E?”

“If you are too soft to dispose of him, then I suppose you must educate him. If he gets that far, then I will take him to the end.”

“Constantine?”

Constantine leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, and tilted his head. He gave the Stranger a squinty stare, then said, “Yeah, fair enough.” He hopped down off the bar. “I'll give him the grand tour. Introduce him to the runners, give him an idea of the starting price.”

“Then we are agreed,” the Stranger stated. “It will begin with me. I will show him the origins and history of magic.”

A crackle of electric anticipation circled the men.

“Let us go.”

Three of them headed to the door that only they could find. Constantine lingered a moment, savoring the last of his cigarette.

“Just what the world needs,” he muttered, dropping the butt to the floor and grinding it into the layers of time that had already accumulated, “the charge of the Trenchcoat Brigade.”

BOOK: The Invitation
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