by Cynthia Finnegan
“How can this place be so hot and so cold at the same time?” Captain Marvel Junior asked as they landed on the other side of the river Styx.
“Different theologies view Hell differently, Junior,” Mary Marvel replied distractedly. “Some faiths think it’s hotter than the worst inferno, and still others think it’s colder than Antarctica. So we’re getting hit with both.”
“Sorry I said anything.”
“Well, you had to ask.” A look of intense pain flitted across the face of the world’s mightiest girl. Something was wrong.
“Mary?” Junior shook her gently. “What’s up?”
“It’s Billy!” she exclaimed. “He’s here, and he’s hurt!”
“How d’you know that?” The world’s mightiest boy sounded genuinely curious.
“I can feel it. Twins, even fraternal ones, share something of a psychic bond. Billy and I have a very strong one in a place like this.”
“Think you can use that bond of yours to locate him?”
“Of course. I’ve been doing that since we landed.”
“Then what are we waiting for? Let’s go!” With that, the pair took off, guided by Mary’s bond with her twin brother.
Like the Rock of Eternity, time made no difference in the abyssal planes; what could seem to be hours could turn out to be a few minutes, and a few minutes, forever. So, after what seemed to be an hours-long flight, the younger Marvels spotted a stone framework that held a battered wreck of a human being bound to it by his wrists, his feet barely able to touch the ground.
They could both see that he was the victim of torture; Mary had seen ones like him in one of Linda’s Amnesty International pamphlets. He was covered, face and body, with a livid network of cuts and bruises from many beatings.
It wasn’t until Mary and Junior alighted by the framework that she recognized him.
“Oh, God! Billy!” she nearly screamed.
“Good Lord,” Junior breathed, realizing that the bloody wreck before them was his best friend.
Billy awoke from the torpor he had been put under, saw his twin sister and his best friend standing in front of him, and began shaking his head vehemently, trying to speak through his gag.
“Wait a minute, Billy. We’ll get you free in a second,” Mary said, trying to calm him. “Junior, get the ropes off of him, please. I’ll remove the gag.”
“Right,” Junior replied, snapping the boy broadcaster’s bonds. Mary knelt down and removed the odd contrivance from her twin’s mouth as gently as she could, but in doing so, she caused Billy to retch sour bile. After a few moments, he was able to speak hoarsely.
“Mary… Freddy… you’ve got to get out of here! It’s a–” Billy gasped out, nearly hysterical.
“Whoa, slow down, cowboy,” Junior said sternly. “Take a deep breath and calm down.”
“But you don’t understand! It’s a trap! She’s shape-shifted–!” He looked at something standing behind his family, his eyes becoming saucer-wide.
“Billy, what’re you…?” Mary’s voice trailed off as she turned her head.
“Well, well, well. What do we have here? Trespassers, again?” A girl who looked uncannily like Mary stood over the three, triumph written in her very stance. “Poor baby. You did try to warn them, and they didn’t listen, did they?”
All the real Mary could do was gape at Blaze in stunned amazement.
“You — you look just like me!” Mary finally gasped out, shock hitting her like a blow to the head.
Mary Marvel stood up and looked at the demoness intensely. She had morphed herself into a near-perfect copy of the world’s mightiest girl. It was as if Mary had looked into a mirror and saw the worst side of herself. If they had worn the same garments, no one would have been able to tell them apart.
“That’s stating the obvious, sweetie,” Blaze replied venomously. “It took months for the right set of circumstances to occur so that Black Adam could carry out his part in my scheme.”
“And that was–?” Captain Marvel Junior growled, his temper beginning to show.
“Sorry, cutie. Not talking.”
“I’ll tell you both,” Billy interrupted, his voice a little stronger. “Adam’s ‘part,’ which even he didn’t know about, was to get me in a vulnerable position so she could switch me for her brother. Through him, she’s been influencing every decision you’ve made in the past few months.”
“But why?” Mary demanded, although she already knew the answer.
“Because one of you owes me your soul, blast you!” the demoness shrieked furiously. “And I mean to collect it if I have to rip it out of you to get it!”
Blaze raised her hands and shot two bolts of hellfire, not at Mary, but at the boys. Junior’s invulnerability kept him pretty much unharmed, but Billy, blocked from accessing Shazam’s power for four months, took the full brunt of the blast. He cried out in agony as he fell to the ground, his body already overtaxed by the torture the demoness had put him through. Mary felt her twin’s pain as though it were a part of her, and acted.
“Enough!” she screamed as she jumped Blaze, knocking her down on her rump. She then turned her head in Junior’s direction and called out, “Take Billy and get out of here! She may have started this, but I mean to finish it!”
Junior complied, lifting his best friend’s inert form. The world’s mightiest boy now knew what Mary meant to do, but he didn’t dare gainsay her.
“OK, we’ll go. But if you don’t come out of here in half an hour, I’m coming back to get you!”
“Half an hour. Got it,” Mary replied as the boys flew away. “One way or another, Blaze, this thing between us is going to end today.”
“Then bring it on, little girl. I’m getting bored with your talking about it.”
And with that, the demoness and the young heroine charged each other.
Shazam was watching what was unfolding before him on the Historama with a growing sense of dismay. The youngest member of his Marvel Family, Mary Marvel, faced her toughest adversary yet — not Blaze, but her own self-doubts. Self-doubt had caused her to renounce her role as a hero that, until the Crisis, she so enjoyed being. With a little nudge from Blaze, of course.
Dudley, the kids’ adopted uncle, watched as well, praying for the girl’s success. He and the ancient wizard had been glued to the Historama since she and Captain Marvel Junior had entered the black whirlpool that separated eternity from the abyssal plains.
Shazam thought, My “children” had been to that dread place many a time, but this time…
Just then, a loud shout from outside broke their reverie. It was Captain Marvel Junior, looking somewhat singed and carrying a badly injured Billy Batson in his arms.
“By the gods!” was all that Shazam could say as he saw his first heir’s condition. The young man was rapidly slipping into shock from Blaze’s last attack.
“He’s alive,” Junior said, “but I can’t tell how much damage Blaze did to him.”
Using his own super-speed, the old wizard flew back into the temple, gathering as many large, fat cushions as he could find and something that looked very much like a eiderdown comforter. After arranging everything into a nest, he took Freddy’s unconscious burden from him, set Billy down, and loosely wrapped the comforter around him.
“How is he?” Dudley finally asked, concern written on his face.
“I cannot tell,” Shazam responded sadly. “Billy’s injuries are many and grievous. His wounds go much deeper than his flesh; his spirit also suffers. I fear that they are beyond my ability to heal them.”
“Then he’s had it,” Junior retorted flatly.
“No, Freddy. I said they go beyond my ability to heal. There is one whose power is to heal the mind, body, and soul.”
“Where is he?”
“She is in Manhattan, working at the Museum of Natural History. Her name is Robyn O’Malley, and she is a white witch. Have her and Mr. Tawny come here by the subway train. She will do what I cannot.”
Shazam placed a mental image of the girl into the mind of the world’s mightiest boy — a pretty girl, not beautiful, but something about her caught the eye.
OK, Junior thought as he flew off, I can get to New York, find this girl, and bring her back here. Then, if need be, go get Mary out of Blaze’s clutches. Face facts, Freeman: you’ve certainly got your work cut out for you.
The heroine and the demoness charged at each other, only to slingshot away to opposite sides of the battlefield, sprawled in an untidy heap on the rocky ground.
“How… is… this… possible?!” Blaze shrieked, her now-pretty features turning ugly with rage.
“Why are you asking me? I don’t know!” Mary replied sharply, dusting herself off. “But I’m getting really tired of being your whipping girl!”
A third figure stepped out of the shadows, dressed in a familiar red sweater, white shirt, black trousers, shoes, and tie. It was Satanus, still wearing Billy Batson’s face, now split in an evil grin.
“It’s because you’re too evenly matched, sister,” he interrupted.
“Of course,” Blaze said. “I should’ve realized that myself.”
“What are you two blathering on about?” Mary demanded.
“Oh, she doesn’t know, does she? Since that annoying Crisis, we’ve been given strength enough to match you Marvels.”
“But why? Why the charade?”
“I should think that would be obvious, even to you,” Blaze retorted contemptuously.
And suddenly it was, as Minerva’s wisdom began to override Mary’s anger.
“My soul,” the world’s mightiest girl said, her voice barely above a whisper.
“I think she’s finally got it!” Satanus crowed.
“Only part of it, brother,” Blaze added. “Tell me something, Mary. Why do you think I’ve had your brother here all these months?”
“No. Granted, listening to Billy’s screams was fun for a while, but it got old so quickly. Your benefactor was right. I was using him as bait to trap you, fool. And you fell right into it.”
Mary’s only reply to the demons’ revelations was a scream of purest rage.
Back on Earth, Captain Marvel Junior arrived at New York’s Museum of Natural History. His mission was clear: find Mr. Tawny and a woman named Robyn O’Malley, then use the subway train at the abandoned tunnel to bring them to the Rock of Eternity.
Sounds simple enough, he thought. I only hope she’s not out to lunch!
As he landed in a nearby alley, he called out “Captain Marvel!” and instantly returned to his mortal form of Freddy Freeman. Freddy then hobbled the few feet left to the museum’s entrance, seeking out Tawky Tawny.
“Freddy!” the talking tiger called out in friendly fashion. “You’re not supposed to be back ’til tonight! What’s wrong?”
“It’s a long story.” With that, Freddy told Tawky everything that had gone on, in condensed format. He finished with, “By the way, is Robyn O’Malley working today?”
“I think so. Let me go and check for you.” A short time later, Mr. Tawny returned with another.
“Robyn O’Malley, meet Freddy Freeman. Freddy, meet Robyn.”
As Freddy turned around, he saw one of the most stunningly beautiful women he had ever met. Ringlets of long, auburn-cast black hair cascaded down her back, and her piercing green eyes nailed him to the spot. She was tall, trim, and athletic, garbed in a velvet dress the color of claret.
Not the girl he was looking for.
“Are you sure she’s Robyn?” Freddy asked dubiously.
“I’m Robyn. What’s this all about? Mr. Tawny said you needed a healer.”
Freddy told her an edited version of the events of the day and gave her a description of the girl he was sent to get: slender, medium auburn hair, hazel eyes, and a dancers’ build. She listened intently, and when he finished, shook her dark head.
“Sorry, I’m not that girl,” she said with genuine regret. “But…”
“Great, now what?” Freddy asked no one in particular.
“I was going to say that she sounds a lot like my cousin, Caitlin. She’s a bit younger than I am, but she’s a much better healer. She lives only a few blocks from here. I could call her.”
“Do it, please. Tell her to bring whatever she thinks she’ll need and to meet us at…” Freddy then gave Robyn directions to the abandoned subway tunnel.
As she picked up the nearest phone, Freddy’s thoughts were with Mary, wondering if he should have left her.
An hour later, Freddy met Robyn and Mr. Tawny in the abandoned subway station. With them was the girl Caitlin O’Malley, who looked exactly like the image Shazam had put into his mind: petite and slender, with wavy, burnished copper hair and large, almond-shaped hazel eyes. He thought, How could Shazam get the wrong name with the right girl? Blaze’s doing?
Unlike her cousin, Cait wore a deep forest green leotard and a pair of baggy pants of the same hue. A silver pentacle hung from a blue cord around her neck, and a pair of silver crescent moons dangled from her ears. In her bag were healing herbs, incense, and a few candles. She also carried, oddly enough, an old-style broomstick, “To sweep away the bad vibes,” she explained.
“You owe me, cousin,” Cait said with a hint of an accent. “I was leaving for dance class when you called.”
Holy moley, Freddy thought as he stared at Cait, she’s not much younger than we are. But if she can heal Billy, I won’t argue with how she does it. My only problem is, how am I gonna change without the girls seeing?
“What a dump,” Robyn finally spoke, hands on her hips. “So, where are we going, and how do we get there?”
“Oh, didn’t you know?” Cait said in a faraway tone. “We’re going to the Rock of Eternity. A train’s coming. And… Freddy, right? Hadn’t you better change to Captain Marvel Junior before it arrives?”
All Freddy could do was gape. How had this slip of a girl deduced his secret identity?
“Caitlin, how do you know about Freddy?” Mr. Tawny asked.
“Because I can see magic,” came the reply.
“That could be a very useful trick,” Freddy remarked. “But Cait’s right, and since you two already know about me, all I have to say is… Captain Marvel!”
At those words, a bolt of mystic lightning struck the crippled young man, changing him into his heroic form.
“I think I liked you better in street clothes,” Robyn commented, tossing her dark hair back.
“Thanks, I think,” Junior replied as the train started pulling in.
“Why can’t we fly there?” Cait inquired.
“Because the speed it takes to get there would kill a normal human being.”
When the train came to a full stop, the doors opened, and to everyone’s surprise, Dudley poked his head out.
“Junior! Thank heavens! You’re needed back at the Rock!” Dudley exclaimed.
“Is Billy all right?”
“He started thrashing about a few moments ago, and Mary’s situation is beginning to look dire as well! Is this young lady Robyn?” the elder man said, looking at Cait.
“No, Unc. This is Robyn.” Junior gestured to the dark-haired beauty. “This is Caitlin. Blaze has been messing around with our heads again.”
“Well, now that we have that all straightened out, all that needs to be said is all aboard.”
The small party boarded the subway car. A few moments later, the doors hissed shut, and the train pulled out of the station, going faster and faster, until it finally vanished from sight.
On the Rock of Eternity, Billy Batson’s condition was worsening. He had begun to thrash around just before Dudley left to retrieve Freddy, but now the young man was deep in fevered delirium, alternately mumbling bits of plots and conversations he had overheard and moaning in mortal agony. Whatever he had gone through in Blaze’s realm was starting to kill him, and Shazam prayed to his long-forgotten gods for his “children’s” success in their missions.
On the abyssal planes, Mary Marvel was not only battling against Blaze and Satanus, but the lesser demons and the spirits of the damned as well. The world’s mightiest girl punched, kicked, and performed flying maneuvers that would have made Bruce Lee green with envy. But they just kept coming, and Mary was beginning to lose hope.
Billy’s dying, she thought as she gave another demon a flying crescent kick, and, heaven help me, I can’t do anything for him until I can fight my way out of here.
And in the background, Blaze laughed. It was all going so perfectly.