Madeleine Prime skimmed along the grassy fields of the first circle of Hell, and for once she was almost excited. She had fought her way through all nine circles. She had trudged through rain, battled windstorms and Nazi hell rebellions, confronted her dead ex-boyfriend Evan. Finally, finally, she was getting out.
Evil Madeleine sped along in her wake. Madeleine allowed herself to think, just for a moment, about what would happen after they busted out of hell. The whole point of her trip through the Infernal Regions had been to break out her evil self and try to undo the damage to reality that Evil Madeleine had caused. How was one supposed to fix reality? It wasn’t like she could stick some duct tape on it and walk away. Or could she?
She pondered the possibilities of reality-mending duct tape as she and her evil counterpart raced through Circle One. A high ridge rose up before them, a long slope of faded grass topped with a few spindly trees. Madeleine knew somehow that the river Acheron just had to be beyond. One more river, and then she’d be out. She swooped up the ridge, shot past the trees, and –
Both Madeleines stopped dead in their tracks. The river Acheron lay before them, all right, with the traditional ferry crewed by Charon, a living skeleton in a cowl. But beyond the river, in rank upon rank, gathered the largest army that Madeleine had ever seen. Every horrific creature she could possibly imagine had gathered there, from giant verminous insects straight out of Kafka, to slimy tentacled things that could’ve been pals with Cthulhu. She saw people she recognized, too. Screwbolt, the goblin from Circle Nine, and a great many of his goblin friends. The centaurs from Circle Seven. A whole division of jackbooted Nazis from Circle Six. The assembled forces spanned the bank of the river for as far as she could see. It didn’t look at all like they intended to let her pass.
Calmly, Madeleine Prime walked down the far side of the ridge to the ferryman. “Hi there,” she said, trying heroically to ignore the massive army on the other side. “I’d like to get across, please. And my friend, too.”
“No,” came the icy-cold voice from the skeleton. “No one crosses back over the river. No one escapes from-“
“Oh? Pity,” Madeleine said, and flame-blasted Charon so hard that the flames went right through him and exploded the ferry in a shower of steam and ash. Madeleine strode through the ash and glared at the forces assembled on the far bank. “Right, who’s next?”
She was acting braver than she felt. Inside, Madeleine wondered how she was supposed to fight all these guys. She was a flying brick, sure, but even flying bricks could be smashed; she’d read a few Superman comics to know that. Did she have anything else? There was her new utility belt. It had a screwdriver, a marker, and a pencil. Madeleine didn’t think she could defeat the armies of hell with a pencil. Could she?
Madeleine Prime pulled the pencil out of her utility belt as the enemy forces began to lurch towards her. “What say, little buddy? Any help here?”
The pencil gazed back at her in mute #2 incomprehension. “Maybe I could stick someone’s eye with you?” Madeleine asked. The pencil didn’t object. “Let’s see…” Madeleine said, looking over the crowd. “There’s ghosties…and ghoulies…how about that long-legged beastie over there?” she asked. The pencil seemed happy with the proposed target. Madeleine readied herself to throw the pencil, praying with all her might that the pencil really was sharper than the sword.
Isle Turtledove had a problem. Lady Eulalie had been flamed. Prince Evinrude was apparently handling the vengeance situation, but he hadn’t yet reported back on how that was going. Worse, however, was that Isle Turtledove didn’t just have an incinerated noblewoman: it had a succession crisis. Someone had to inherit the title. Lady Eulalie’s family supported the livelihoods of a good many Turtledovians. Without her, they didn’t get paid, and that was problematic in the extreme.
A candidate for the title promptly presented himself. He was Lord Basil, from the rival House Burnham, the only other noble family on Isle Turtledove. He had nearly married Eulalie, but instead had romantically eloped with a scullery maid whose foot had fit into a magic glass slipper. Eulalie hadn’t got her foot in, and had been deeply offended. Basil now argued that since he was the only aristocrat left on the Island, he might as well inherit Eulalie’s estate by default. This seemed reasonable to everyone, and it was nearly settled. Then, one moonlit night, the Terrible Connelly emerged.
Basil had been meeting with his family’s solicitor in his library when suddenly the door banged open. Servants skittered out of the way as the Terrible Connelly stalked through. His boots squelched on the carpet, and he was actually dripping. Had he literally come in right out of the rain? Basil would have protested, but the Terrible Connelly was carrying a very big sword, and had a rakish look in his eye, all of which suggested pirate in Basil’s brain. “How the devil did you-”
“Ah, stuff it,” the Terrible Connelly said tiredly. “I didn’t murder m’ way in, if that’s what yer whinin’ about. I ‘ad a card.”
“Right. ” He presented it. It was a scrawl on a dirty square of paper, but sure enough Basil could just make out the word Miles, followed by The Terrible Connelly. Basil had naturally heard of the notorious raider, and was even more alarmed. Then Miles surprised him. “I’m Eulalie’s ‘alf-brother, y’ see. I’ve come for th’ title.”
“You’re her half-brother,” Basil said. “I’m sorry, sir, but I’m finding it very hard to believe that Lady Eulalie was related to a…a…” He wasn’t sure if pirate was a derogatory term, and didn’t want to insult someone who used a violent epithet on their own business card. “An adventure capitalist.”
“Well, she was,” Miles said. “Her mum, y’ see. Before she married wot’s his name. She ‘ad me by Rudy the Unkind, and then Rudy went and died and left me ‘is ship and everythin’.”
“Rudy the Unkind?”
Miles shrugged. “Can’t all be Blackbeard.”
“Ah. So… you’re claiming the title. What on earth for?”
The Terrible Connelly looked around at the library, with its towering shelves loaded with books. “Piratin’ isn’t as much fun as it used to be. Can’t exactly make friends. I’ve got me mateys on the crew an’ all, but, comes a time, I want to settle down. Start a family, like. And this little island looks right nice and proper.”
“But…” gasped Basil, whose dreams of complete lordship over the island were disappearing fast. “But… what about Evinrude?”
“Wot about ‘im?” said the Terrible Connelly. “I don’t know any Evinrude.”
“He’s the Prince,” Basil said stuffily. “And he’s gone off to slay the dragon that murdered your, ah, half-sister.”
“Nice of ‘im. Obligin’, like. But I don’t see-”
Basil suddenly had an idea. “Shouldn’t you be going to help? She’s your sister; don’t you want to get vengeance for her tragic murder?”
The Terrible Connelly didn’t have an abundance of formal education, but he wasn’t stupid. “And if the bloomin’ dragon flames me, that leaves you to go after the title, don’t it?”
“Well, ah, of course I hadn’t the slightest-”
“‘Course you did. But still, I can’t say as you’re wrong. Didn’t know my sister, but Mum would be right upset knowin’ she got flamed. Might as well go after Evinrude and ‘elp.”
“Good for you,” Basil said.
Miles turned towards the door, then paused and looked back. “I will be comin’ back for the title, y’know.” Then the pirate disappeared into the corridor and on into the rain outside, leaving Basil quite terrified behind.
The mutant hedgehog assumed Tasha was a hapless civilian. But Tasha was really Super Soccer Mom, and she was upset at being late for her kid’s recital. She also had seventeen exploding soccer balls. She won.
Wendell hated his job. He had replaced the giant snake who had last held the post, and he naively believed he would command the same respect. He was wrong. When the latest entrant came before him, and Wendell made six solemn hops to indicate the proper destination, the new arrival actually burst out laughing. Wendell snarled, and waved his paw. The newly deceased soul’s laughter was cut short as it descended into hell. Wendell watched it go, feeling glum. Always the laughter. Always.
In the distance he could hear the eternal howling of the winds of Circle Two. Wendell shivered. He was quite safe, he knew, here in the pleasantly bland fields of Circle One. Circle One was where people went who weren’t really good or bad, who drifted through life benignly neutral. You had to get to Circle Two before you ran into the types who were really messed up. And every one of them passed by Wendell, the giant fluffy bunny who dispatched them all to their proper places in the lower regions. No one had ever come back, which was fine with Wendell.
Then, he gasped in astonishment. Someone, a woman in a purple and black uniform, had just flown out of the windstorm. No one ever got free of the windstorm. Wendell had been at his post for two centuries. He was professionally indignant. Then his indignation rose to fever pitch when a second person flew out, another woman in purple and black. Worse, she was dragging yet a third out with her, a man this time. Wendell bounded towards them, his eyes blazing in fury. “Hey! Hey you!” he bellowed. “Get back in there!”
All three had landed on the grass, scuffing up the terrain with their boots. The guy looked stunned, so much so that he ignored the oncoming bunny. “So, Maddie,” he said. “Didn’t expect to see you here.” He looked between the two identical Madeleines. “Didn’t know you were a twin, either.”
“I’m not a twin, Evan,” Madeleine Prime said. “That’s the evil me. Long story.”
“I’ve got time,” Evan said, bitterness in his voice. “Lots of time.”
Another pause ensued. Wendell approached. “All three of you, back inside, right-”
Madeleine casually seized the bunny and hurled him like a football away towards the castle. He landed with a distant thud and a yelp. She ignored him. “Yours is probably shorter. How’d you get down here?”
“The hard way. Plague. Caught it from Lizzie.”
“Figured that might be it,” Madeleine said, and suddenly her face twisted with pain. “God, Evan, I liked you. All through high school. And then you went and…” She couldn’t go on.
“Paid for it, didn’t I?” Evan said. “Learned that life lesson. Turns out Lizzie was secretly working with East Plaznik chemical weapons suppliers. They’re fighting a war with West Plaznik. She stole some weapon for them, and needed to test it. Lizzie asked me to help rinse the dishes. I guess I should’ve said no.”
“Ah,” Madeleine said. “Should’ve stayed with me.”
She felt guilty about that. She’d gotten her heart broken that Christmas, but Evan had wound up down here. Madeleine didn’t really want to emphasize the point. Especially since…
“Evan,” she said, “I can’t stay. I’ve got to break out of hell, save the universe.”
“When did you become a superhero?” Evan said.
“After Christmas. Long story.”
“Right. No time. I don’t suppose you can take me with you?”
He’d asked, not really expected her to say yes. She wanted to say yes. But there were rules. The iron realities of hell could not be trifled with. “I’m sorry,” Madeleine said. Her eyes burned, but she didn’t cry. She only blinked, very hard.
“Hey, that stupid bunny’s comin’ back,” Evil Madeleine said. “Want me to flame him?” She sounded hopeful.
Madeleine Prime sighed. “No. You can’t flame the stupid bunny. Let’s just get out of here.”
“Maddie-” Evan began.
Gaseous Girl kicked off into the sky. She didn’t look back. Evil Madeleine shrugged. “Hey, in my world, I cheated on you. And Lizzie was super nice. At least until I broke New Mexico. She got super upset about that. Dunno why. See ya!”
They both flew away into Circle One. Madeleine Prime still wasn’t crying. She just wanted to get out. Focus on that, she thought. Then she wouldn’t have to think about anything else. Especially not about Evan.
The proprietor of the White Beetle inn on Kirtle Island had a mania for neatness, and hated dingy smoke-filled rooms where all sorts of unsavory people could meet and conduct transactions of questionable legality. So he’d built his inn with an abundance of windows and lanterns, flooding the place with light, and constructed his fireplaces so as to create a minimum of smoke. He even arranged for a constable to sit by the bar and keep an eye on things. The White Beetle was, as a result, perfectly respectable, and so were its customers.
Rowena was definitely respectable. She used her magic to make sure that the winds and waves were favorable, and provide direction for sailors with faulty maps. She belonged, after all, to the Order of the Rabbit, and Rabbit members never gave anyone trouble. Evinrude, being the Prince of House Charming, was also respectable. No one could have found any fault with their meeting. What Evinrude wanted, however, shocked Rowena badly. “I need to find a dragon.”
“You what?” spluttered Rowena.
“Dragon,” Evinrude repeated. “I need to find it.”
Rowena gathered herself up in righteous indignation. “My dear sir, why on Earth would you-”
She hadn’t noticed the glass vial of light gray ash he was carrying. Now he drew it out and set it before her with a clunk of cold finality. “This used to be a friend of mine. She got flamed. I want to find who did it.”
“I see,” said Rowena, feeling instantly sympathetic. “And you’d like me to sense where the dragon is?”
“Yes. And who hired him,” Evinrude said. “I know how things work. Dragons these days work under contract, and they hide pretty well. You’ve got to be a wizard to find one. After I kill the dragon, I’m going after whoever sent him.”
“Oh,” Rowena said. “That might be more complicated. It’s several removes away from the, ah, remains, and-”
“Can you do it?” Evinrude cut in. He didn’t snap, or roar, or thunder at her. He just asked, very calmly. But Rowena felt unnerved nonetheless.
“I can try,” she said at last. She touched the vial, and closed her eyes. One of the basic rules of magic was that if you got killed by something magical, a link was created between you and the thing that killed you. Someone skilled, like Rowena, could trace that link and find out what had done you in. She did that now.
She could sense the dragon; it left an acrid, burning feeling in her mind. Rowena followed the link. A golden beach flashed in her mind, then a long running coastline, then the cold waters of a northern inlet. She sensed a cave overlooking the narrow water, and stars above the cave. She carefully noted the positions of those stars. “Right,” she said, still with her eyes closed. “I know where the dragon is.”
“Wonderful. Who sent him?”
“Hang on,” Rowena said irritably. “This isn’t easy work, you know.” She concentrated again. The cave itself was linked to the dragon, so if she could find someone else linked to the cave… then a darker thread lit in her mind, a thread twisting and powerful. She gasped. Rowena knew that magical signature, knew it like her own hand. It was Mortimer, a dark wizard of the Order of the Polecat, a known mercenary, who would summon dragons at the highest bidder and who had no ethics whatever. He was also her father.
She had taken great pains to cover that up. No one in Kirtle knew. Her fellow Rabbits didn’t know. But if she sent Evinrude after the dragon, and he confronted Mortimer, he might find out. She could tell by his intensity that he wouldn’t let it go. Rowena reluctantly decided that he couldn’t find out.
“You’ll have to keep sailing due west, for twenty days,” she said. “On the twenty-first, you will come to an island, an extinct volcano. Inside the volcano’s cone, you will find the dragon, and the wizard who sent him.”
“Thanks,” said Evinrude, and without ceremony he took back the vial, laid some gold before her, and walked away. Rowena sighed. The volcano existed; that was true. It was also a portal to a dimension of otherworldly sea monsters of terrible legend. Once Evinrude crossed through, he would either go mad or be eaten. Rowena knew she would never see him again. All the same, she didn’t sleep particularly well that night.
Being a flying brick isn’t the same as being invulnerable. Madeleine knew this. A flying brick meant you could take a swat to the head with a car and walk away. It had been a green smartcar in her case, but still. Invulnerable meant you could take anything up to a thermonuclear explosion. Natalie was invulnerable, or pretty near it. Word was she actually had survived a small nuke. Madeleine didn’t know whether this was true, and Natalie never said.
Her life was flashing before her eyes again, as she tumbled through the unceasing windstorms of the second circle of hell. She had lost her concentration when she had seen her ex-boyfriend, and she hadn’t got it back yet. It is very hard to take a moment to think when you’re tumbling about end over cape, like socks in the dryer. She still managed to have a flashback, though. Madeleine was getting used to these. Apparently hell had a lot of flashbacks. Opportunities for remorse, she imagined.
She’d never joined a superhero league. Madeleine had received invitations. The Caped Coasties, for instance, also the League of Metro Defenders, both of whom had taken her “no” politely and gone away. Then there was the government, with the perennial attempt to kickstart a special sort of organization with an overly long and very patriotic acronym. Unfortunately, it had never gotten out of committee, and the budget wasn’t there for it anyway. Gaseous Girl had soldiered on alone.
Not completely alone, exactly. She had made a friend, here and there. Audrey the telepath, brilliant mind, who loved words of more than one syllable, and who occasionally failed to grasp the concept of privacy. Trina, who could turn invisible, or purple, or, whatever other color she liked, who had once asked Madeleine to look after her little Rosalie during an unexpectedly lengthy patrol, and who had neglected to tell Madeleine that the kid could also turn invisible. Natalie, the invulnerable, whom she had met in Toronto while pursuing the Maple Leaf Mayhem Maiden. Sam, the reporter who gave her insight into the twisty mazes of local politics. She’d almost had a relationship with Sam. That wouldn’t be happening now.
The flashback wrapped up, and she tumbled away into the storm again. Then she saw a flash of green. Madeleine kicked towards it. That might be Circle One of Hell, and the way out. Madeleine hoped so, because she was sure as hell getting sick of this place. She was also getting tired of ironic statements like that.