It is 1995. There is no sun in the Underworld.
Martin finds it creepy that there are portraits along the stairs.
One of them is a picture of Frederick. He looks a lot more like the hero than Martin does. But Martin knows him. He was Jane’s brother before Martin was.
“I wonder why you failed,” Martin says.
Then he takes out a bit of charcoal and scribbles a moustache on Frederick’s face.
“Now you’re an Archduke!”
Archduke Frederick, presumably of Austria, looks out impassively at the world.
The next portrait is a picture of Tad. Tad was Jane’s brother after Frederick but before Martin. Tad’s got a smooth smile. He’s pretty cool. Martin isn’t cool yet, so Tad’s coolness annoys him. He turns Tad’s picture around. He writes ‘kick me’ on its back.
Martin descends. He reaches the bottom of the stairs, and a land of mud and darkness.
“I have no idea where to go,” he says.
He clears his throat. He says, loudly, “I have no idea where to go! If only there were someone who could help me!”
The world shivers.
Light condenses from the darkness, and ten thousand miles of shadows grow deeper. The light is a girl. She’s carrying a jacket, and her name is Lisa.
“Hey,” she says.
He looks her up and down. They could be siblings. They could be twins. She’s his height exactly, and she’s got his hair, and she’s got his smile, and she’s got his eyes.
“You’re kidding,” Martin says.
Martin looks hesitant.
“She made me,” Lisa says, “a long time ago, to be her older sister. I was an answer to her suffering. I said, ‘maybe it’s for the best. Maybe suffering is transformative. Maybe if I leave her there to suffer, she’ll become something grander, something better, something new.‘”
“Yes,” agrees Martin.
Lisa grins at him. “It makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s a perfect answer. People die in droves, children lay in piles with their arms twitching, dogs starve, and it could all be part of a glorious purpose. The engine that drives the growth of the world. The answer to the Dukkha Call. And I was part of it.”
Lisa turns. She looks out at the mud. She slings her jacket over her shoulder and begins walking.
Martin clears his throat.
“That’s why I’m letting her suffer,” he says, “too.”
“Redundancy’s good,” Lisa says, cheerfully. “Hey, do you have a wish?”
Martin looks down. His eyes are in shadow. “I want to win,” he says.
Lisa grins at him. “That’s a good wish,” she says.
“Can you grant it?”
“Maybe!” Lisa grins at him. Her teeth are very white. “If nothing else, I can raise your hopes.”
Martin is not entirely sure how to take that. He retreats in the general direction of sarcasm, but doesn’t quite make it there.
“Yay,” he says.
In the distance, he hears a cry. “Help me!” it says.
“Ignore those,” Lisa says.
“Illusions to lead me off the path?”
“Dead angels,” Lisa says. “Probably some other gods too. They’re steeping in mud and failure until they become something grander, something better, something new.”
“Do you know the rules of the Underworld?” Lisa asks.
“No,” Martin says.
“They’re like this,” Lisa says. “It’s easy to get into the Underworld. There is no body that does not have its personal gate of death; no soul, without its gate of emptiness; no mind, without its gate of deepness. That’s three whole gates per person, and girls have a fourth, so you can see how easy it is. Getting out, on the other hand, is hard. You can’t leave unless you’re the child of a god, beloved by the one who sits on the throne of the world, or a person inherently good.”
Martin looks wry.
Lisa grins at him. It’s a charming expression. “I know,” she says.
“I do,” she says. “I had the same dream you did. But then I got stuck.”
“I’m inherently good,” Martin bluffs. “Unlike some people.”
“Nice trick,” Lisa says.
They walk on for a bit.
“I mean,” Lisa says, “considering.”
Martin looks up, sharply. For a moment, there’s a force in his eyes. Then it fades, and he bursts out with a question that’s been nagging at him.
“Why are you a girl?”
“The monster isn’t as fond of boys,” the angel Lisa says.
They walk on.
“People who don’t suffer,” Martin justifies, “remain small. They’re weak. They’re isn’ts. They’re shadows. They’re firewood people.”
“That’s true,” says Lisa.
Then the most remarkably clever and cruel expression comes on her face, and she leans close to him, and she whispers, “So are people who suffer, mostly.”
Martin makes himself walk on.
“Maybe you’re a stillborn thing,” Lisa says. “Like a fire made of wind, like a voice crying in the emptiness, like a dream in the mind of an uncaring man. Maybe you’re down here because you died. It’s the path most people take.”
“Maybe,” Martin says.
“Anyway,” she says. “This is your place.”
She gestures ahead of them, where the mud stirs in unseen currents.
“You’ll spend eternity drowning,” she says. “You won’t be able to breathe. Your struggles will be muted. You’ll never know what happened to anyone else you care about. There’ll be no boundary between yourself and the pain. Like with her.”
Martin looks at her.
“It’s not what I’m here for,” he says.
“It’s nicer than being a light spread through ten thousand miles of darkness,” Lisa argues.
“But is it right?”
“I hope so,” Lisa says.
Martin hunches his shoulders a bit. He looks out at the mud.
“I don’t want to drown in mud forever.”
“None save the monster,” she says, “may choose the circumstances of their lives.”
Martin looks at the mud. He looks at Lisa. He looks at the mud. He looks at Lisa.
“Don’t ever tell her I did this?” he says.
She looks at his eyes. Then she grins to him, even as she tries to brace herself for war. “All right,” she promises.
Martin pushes Lisa. She falls backwards into the mud behind them. Then Martin runs.
There’s something on his hands. It might be dust. Or it might be Lisa-cooties. Martin can’t tell. So he scrubs his hands vigorously on his legs as he runs.