“Hey, dudes! We got fresh meat here!”
With those words, Mary Batson knew she had been accepted into the party at the Tau Kappa Epsilon house. Steve Baker was in her Art Appreciation class, and to be honest, he was kind of cute. Seeing him shirtless, with a mug of beer in one hand, and the glazed eyes that told of several more mugs previously consumed, he didn’t seem as cute. Still, she mused, it was probably meant to be taken nicely. Looking around, Mary recognized several others in the living room, including Linda Lee, her roommate. Mary waved at the blonde across the room.
“Sure thing, missy. Here you go!” Apparently misinterpreting her wave as a request for a drink, one of the TKE brothers thrust a plastic cup into her hands. “A bit of Milwaukee’s finest.”
Mary took a careful sip and immediately decided that beer was greatly overrated. Still, keeping the cup in her hand would keep other well-meaning partyers from pouring more for her, thereby wasting the beer. She kept the cup in her hand, occasionally raising it to her lips. She made a slow circuit of the room, stopping to greet those she knew, in some cases getting introduced to those she didn’t. There were easily fifty or more people crowded into the room, and there appeared to be people moving between rooms as well. Music was playing somewhere beyond one of the doors, and she made her way in that direction. As she slipped past a couple in the doorway, a young man tried to squeeze by her.
“Oops! Sorry about that, babe!” The cup in Mary’s hand was knocked over, splashing beer onto her light cotton blouse. “Here, let me help clean that up.” From a pocket, the man produced a couple of paper napkins. He reached to wipe at the spill, but Mary intercepted his hand before he could get too close.
“Uhh, thanks, but I think I’d rather do that myself.” She took the napkins from him and dabbed at the stain.
“Yeah, I guess it’s probably better that way.” From the sheepish look on his face, Mary realized that it had been an innocent offer and not an attempt to get fresh with her.
“It wasn’t much, really. Thanks for offering, though.” Mary smiled at him as she soaked up the last of the stray brew. “And I’m not going to miss it, to tell the truth.”
“Not much of a beer drinker, eh? There’s wine and some harder stuff at the bar back in the rec room. I could get it if you like.” He took the soaked napkins from her hand, wadded them into a ball, and tossed them over several heads into an open trash can in the corner of the room.
“Actually, I’m not much of a drinker. Do they have any soda back there?”
“I’m sure they do. What would you like?”
“Seven-Up would be nice. Here, I’ll go with you. I’m Mary, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you Mary. I’m Nick.”
As the night wore on, Mary Batson found herself constantly in the company of Nick Damiano. She discovered that, like herself, he was a Public Communications major. Since he was a year ahead of her, she was getting all kinds of tips on handling some of her professors and assignments. As they continued talking over several rounds of soda pop, it turned out that they also shared an interest in old movies, though he was surprised at how well she remembered some of the more obscure films of the 1940s.
“Well, I have an unfair advantage. I saw most of them when they were new.” Mary giggled a little at the admission.
“How could you? That was forty years ago, and you’re only twen–” Suddenly, the truth seemed to dawn on him. “Ohhh, I get it. You said you’re from New York City, right? You must have been one of those caught in that freak accident.”
“The Suspendium Incident, I think the newspapers called it. The Marvel Family and a good number of their allies and friends were caught in it. We didn’t even realize anything had happened until a while after we awoke, twenty years after we’d been caught up in it.”
“And now you’re trying to catch up? How are you on dancing?” Nick took Mary’s hand and led her to a small, open spot in the middle of the room. The amplified, driving beat of the music made dancing easy; you just moved a foot or hip every time the bass thumped. After only a few minutes in the crowd of dancers, Mary started to feel overwhelmed.
“Nick? I think I’d better sit for a minute. I don’t feel so good.” Mary stopped dancing and stood with a hand over her eyes.
“Here, let me help you.” Nick took her other hand and, wrapping an arm over her shoulders, guided her toward the living room. “Out here, the music isn’t as loud.”
“Yes, I think the time is just about right. Mary Batson, you’ve finished your last dance.”
Flames rose around a tall, dark, slender figure as she raised a dark goblet to her lips.
“We’re in luck — there’s an empty table.” Nick Damiano led the woozy Mary Batson to a small table set in the corner of the living room in the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity house. “Have a seat and catch your breath, Mary.”
“Thanks. I hope that’s all it is.” Mary settled herself clumsily in the folding chair.
“Oh, it might be the feelings of guilt, of not being able to help those Earth-Two heroes,” whispered a sultry, feminine voice. “After all, they were counting on your help when those shadow demons attacked.”
“What?!” Mary’s head shot up. “Nick, did you say that?”
“Say what, Mary? I didn’t hear anything?”
“Of course he didn’t hear me. I wasn’t talking to him.” Almost reptilian in tone, the voice still conveyed an allure, a temptation to follow.
“There it is again! Like a cross between a snake and Marilyn Monroe!”
Nobody else in the room seemed to hear anybody but Mary. Some turned to look at her, but others, including Steve Baker, continued their partying.
“You were a hero once, Mary, but you’ve turned your back on that. You’ve turned your back on everyone but yourself. Why, I’ll bet you can’t bring yourself to help one miserable frat rat.”
From across the room, Mary heard the unmistakable sound of a drinker who had reached the limits of his stomach. She turned to see Steve Baker bent over, emptying the contents of his beer-abused stomach on the floor.
“I could help him, though I don’t know what I could do other than hold his hand. He should know that drinking too much isn’t good for him.” Mary tried to sound nonchalant, but Steve showed no signs of letting up. The sounds of retching were soon joined by moans of pain from the unfortunate young man. Others stood back, horrified as they realized that the bile spewing from his mouth was mixed with blood.
“Help me!” he cried between spasms.
“No! Steve!” Mary made as if to rise from her seat, but she was unable to move.
“Too late, Mary. You took yourself out of the realm of helping others. Now you can watch the consequences. They can no longer see nor hear you, and you cannot lift a finger to help.” The voice was growing louder, tinged with hatred and scorn.
“Who are you?” Mary screamed frantically. “Why are you doing this?”
In an empty seat next to an unaware Nick Damiano, a swirl of smoke rose from the chair. It thickened and started to take a human shape. As the reek of sulfur and blood spilled forth, it coalesced, growing darker, until it seemed as if the night outside was seeping into the room to take human form. The voice that previously seemed to come from all around was now focused on the darkened, blood-red features of the tall, diabolical figure that now sat next to the oblivious youth.
“So nice to be remembered, even if it is by a goody-two-shoes such as yourself. Ever since my setback at the hands of you and your brother Marvels, I seem to have been nearly forgotten in the mortal realm.” (*) The otherworldly demoness settled her slender body back into the chair, which seemed to come alive and shape itself according to her desires.
[(*) Editor’s note: Blaze’s first encounter with the Marvel Family is an untold tale.]
“I’ll take care of you quickly enough. Shazam!” Mary called, heedless of others finding out her secret, and more concerned with stopping the fiend before her. However, it was in vain. No magical lightning answered her call.
“You don’t think I’m that foolish, do you, child? Notice that you were hearing me before I was truly here, and that all those around you are ignoring us completely. Everything here is orchestrated to my private whim.” Blaze chuckled as she played with a ball of fire that jumped from hand to hand with no apparent effort on her part.
“I don’t intend to let these pitiful humans forget me for long. The world seems too free of suffering these days, but that can change.” She raised a hand and waved nonchalantly toward the corner where Linda Lee sat on a couch in an embrace with a tall, broad-shouldered young man.
“Come on, Linda.” He stood up, pulling her with him toward a doorway. “Nobody’s in here.” They disappeared through the open door. As Mary Batson sat, horrified, she heard her roommate’s cries of protest, then terror.
“No, stop! You can’t!”
“Aww, come on, you know you want it!”
“No, Brad, get away from me! Let go!” There was the sound of tearing cloth.
“Come on, guys. Hold her down for me!”
“Stop it! Why are you taking out your vengeance on Linda instead of me? She never did anything to you!” Mary was in tears, hearing the torment of her friend.
“Precisely because she’s an innocent, sweet Mary.” Blaze reached out to stroke Mary’s tears from her cheeks, then sucked at her tear-stained fingertips. “Of course, a scenario like this demands a rescuer.”
As if on cue, the front door burst open. Professor Martin Higbee came storming into the room, wearing his usual tie-dyed sweat shirt. “What’s going on in here? By God, these parties are getting out of hand!” He strode toward the room from which Linda’s tearful cries were coming. “Oh, my God, what have you done?”
Before he could take any action, he was grabbed by several fraternity brothers. “Leave them alone. Nobody messes with the TKE’s!” Two hulking students grabbed him by the arms, and they each started pulling him toward different doors.
“Stop!” It was the last understandable thing the hapless professor said, as the massive fraternity brothers each gave a heave, and his left arm was pulled forcibly from his body. The last thing Mary heard from the professor was an incomprehensible scream of pain, echoing the screams within her own mind.
Mary Batson sat in a huddled mass, curled up in a chair. Across the table from her, the dark, reddish-brown face of the demoness Blaze was lit up with sadistic pleasure. Somehow cut off from the magic lightning that would change her into Mary Marvel, forced to endure the suffering of her friends and professor, she was over the edge of despair, bordering on madness.
“Why, Blaze? Why? Take out your anger on me — not on these poor people!”
“Why limit myself when I can take pleasure in both?” The evil creature’s voice had once more lowered to a barely audible level, reveling in the distress she was causing Mary. “Now, who is next?”
As Mary sat with her arms wrapped around herself, she looked down and noticed, as if for the first time, the pendant hanging on a chain around her neck. The pendant was in the shape of a flower, the moley, a flower revered by the ancient Egyptians, and which had played a role in her first encounter with the evil Blaze.
It’s what enabled Cap Junior and I to get out of her realm before. She couldn’t follow us out, Mary thought to herself, then repeated the last part aloud. “You couldn’t follow us out.”
“What’s that?” Blaze asked, distracted from her plotting of the next victim’s tortures.
“You can’t leave your nether-realm. Therefore, you must have either pulled me in, or this is all in my mind!” Mary straightened, no longer held by Blaze’s spells. “Your magic only works so long as I believe it. And now, I believe this ordeal is over!”
“Damnation!” shrieked Blaze. “You were so close to succumbing!”
Even as she spoke, the world around Mary seemed to melt away, like a wrinkled layer of clear plastic wrap over a photograph. When it was finished, Blaze was gone, and Mary was back in the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity house. Nick sat across from her, watching her with a strange look on his face. Linda Lee was walking back toward the room where the bar was, and Steve Baker was passed out on a couch, apparently healthy, if a little worse for wear.
“Mary, are you all right? You seemed to be talking to nobody for a moment.”
“I’m all right, Nick. Just a little woozy from the smoke and the noise. Would you mind walking me back to my dorm?” Mary smiled weakly as she resolved to take up the mantle of Mary Marvel once more for the sake of friends and strangers like those partying around her.
“Sure. I’d be glad to. After all, you never know what’s lurking out there in the night.” Nick stood and offered his hand.
“You sure have that right.”
Elsewhere, Blaze sat and pondered. “Not a total loss. I may not have taken her soul tonight, but I’ve got a small hook in it.”
Blaze looked at the swirling smoke rising from her palm as it solidified into the form of Nick Damiano.