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Marla and Zufi, the reigning queens of Hell, were eight years into a meaningless spat, living more as roommates than lovers, and as a consequence, Marla was irritable and Zufi was bored.
The demons and psychopomps who served them stepped lightly (or floated above the ground entirely, if they could) and the dead were uneasy even in their personal paradises. In the mortal world above, crab apples and briars thrived, geese attacked cats without provocation, and dark clouds gathered ominously only to spit a few halfhearted drops of rain before dispersing.
Each queen was sure the other should apologize first, but queens are stubborn by necessity and neither was ready yet to swallow pride in exchange for peace. Still, Zufi was bored enough to look across their breakfast table (which resembled the ugly stump of a huge, petrified tree because it was Marla’s turn to choose the décor) and said, “I’m going to open the pathways and passages and secret trains.” She broke the yolk of her egg and watched it run across the plate toward the rosemary potatoes and waited for her wife’s long silence to break.
Marla was sipping bitter coffee and she made a face to match. “We’ll be overrun by idiot mortals on idiot quests.”
“I am supposed to remind you what it means to be mortal, but it has been so long since I was born and thought about dying that I’ve forgotten how to remember to do the reminding.” Zufi’s blonde hair was swept up into a crown of braids, her lips were a shade of purple borrowed from a sea anemone, and she wore a dress of delicate seafoam lace. “And gods are gods. We should be open to prayers and petitions.”
Marla’s hair was chopped short and ragged and she wore a ratty, old, dark purple bathrobe with white lining inside. She’d sealed up the passages from the world of the living because she valued her privacy, and she’d stopped acknowledging the rituals of necromancers because she found them distasteful, but she shrugged. “As long as you take the meetings.”
“I will take some of the meetings, and you will take the ones I do not take.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Tyrants do what they will. Queens recognize their duty.”
Marla thumped down her cup. “It’s not duty. It’s tradition. Deals with the devil, petitions, contests, feats of daring and demonstrations of talent, ugh, why? We give the dead a place to spend eternity. We make sure the seasons keep seasoning. Don’t we do enough?”
“Not quite. Don’t be sad. You could make some monsters to guard the passageways. I think getting to the underworld should be a possible maybe but not an easy for sure.”
Marla brightened a little, at that.
Marla’s monsters were fearsome, but after four months, someone finally made it through: a mortal woman managed to swim across the Styx by singing a haunting a cappella rendition of “Straight Outta Compton” that made the ravening eelwolves sway, enchanted in the water with their multitudinous eyes closed. The mortal woman limped on toward their palace (which resembled an immense, rusting iron diving helmet because it was Zufi’s turn to decorate, so everything looked stupid) and presented herself in the throne room, dripping green water all over the black and red marble.
“Are you the ruler of the underworld?” the woman asked, before dropping down to one knee. She had a lovely voice. She was in her mid-twenties, perhaps, with blue hair and delicate whorls of tattoos crawling down her arms, wearing a torn, black tank top and a chunky silver necklace and filthy corduroys and heavy black boots.
“No, I’m just a random passerby who likes to sit on a throne carved out of a single, immense diamond.” Marla looked around. “Zufi! You have a guest!”
A bandy-legged demon with the head of a goat and a monkey’s body covered in short, red fur drifted in from a side door. “Zufi went for a swim.”
“So go get her.”
“She’s not in the pool,” the demon said. “She’s in the sea primordial.”
Marla groaned. Zufi sometimes vanished into the sea of chaos for days at a time, swimming among the ruins of Lemuria and Atlantis and R’lyeh and other imaginary places, racing demonic megalodons and chatting with the spirits of abyssal squid and the other sentient sea creatures who had afterlives. Zufi had been a nature witch in her mortal life, and retained her affinity for all things oceanic.
“Ugh.” Marla looked at the mortal. She’d come a long way and bested terrible trials to get here, which probably ought to count for something. “What do you want?”
She kept kneeling, which annoyed Marla, quite unreasonably. “My girlfriend died. We were hiking and she was stung by a scorpion, which usually isn’t fatal, but—”
“Stand up. You want me to bring her back to life, right? What’s your girlfriend’s name?”
“Élodie Marie Petit.”
Marla rose, rolled her shoulders, lifted her hands as if about to conduct an orchestra, and the whole room went black. Marla’s crown of ice glowed, casting cold, white light on the petitioner, who was looking around with more interest than fear. After getting past Marla’s guardians, a little darkness wasn’t likely to scare her. A shimmering bubble about six feet across drifted toward them, the color of desert sand. “Here she is. Dead two weeks. Let’s see how her afterlife looks.” Marla reached down and took the petitioner’s hand, and then walked with her through the wall of the bubble.
They stood high on the edge of a canyon, under a deep red sky. A young woman with dark skin and loc’d hair stumbled through the shadowy depths far below, the rocks and floor around her swarming with scorpions. “Hannah!” she shouted. “Hannah, help me, I’m lost!”
“You’re Hannah?” Marla said.
The petitioner ignored her and started to scramble down the rocks. Marla sighed, grabbed her by the arm, and pulled her back out of the bubble. Hannah tried to yank her arm free, which was funny, and Marla dispersed the darkness and the bubble with a wave. “That didn’t work. I was hoping to show you Miss EMP was having the time of her afterlife down here and didn’t need rescuing, but she must have some heavily unresolved issues if that’s the afterlife she came up with.”
Hannah stared at the empty space where the bubble had been. “She died right there in front of me. The coroner said she must have been allergic—”
“Brutal. Okay. You know her body is no good now, right? The stuff they do in mortuaries, oof.”
“She was cremated.”
“Can’t you … restore her?”
“I could, but I’d have to go up there and mess with her ashes, and that’s not happening because I do bad things to everyday reality, being a god. People go mad, there are disasters, monsters spontaneously generate, it’s a mess. I’m radioactive, magically speaking. But what I could do is shape a bit of primordial chaos into a duplicate of your girlfriend’s body, maybe without the whole allergy problem, and stick her soul in the new body and send you both back up to live out your lives.”
“You’ll do that?”
“Nah. I said I could, not that I would. What’s in it for me?”
“I can sing. I charmed the beasts and guardians—”
“They have to be vulnerable to something, to give you folks a sporting chance, but, eh. No thanks. We’ve got, like, Pavarotti down here. Amy Winehouse. We’re good, singing-wise.”
Hannah took a deep breath, like it might be her last. “Do you want … my life? For hers?”
Marla wrinkled her forehead. “You misunderstand. I don’t need more dead people. We’ve got plenty. There’s not any kind of balance I need to maintain, either. Putting her soul in a new body, it’s fine, it’s really just a loan anyway—she’ll be back. I can’t do that kind of thing for everyone, obviously. It would get even more crowded up there, and I’d never get a moment’s rest, which would irritate me, and the seasons would go to hell. Honestly, most people like it fine down here. Their afterlives are nicer than the original lives. Élodie, though … I can do this, but there has to be a cost. I’m a bargaining sort of god. You have to do something for me. Something valuable.”
“Have you ever been to Portland?” Marla said.
“I … in Maine or Oregon?”
“There’s a place there, with great ice cream—”
“Salt and Straw?”
Marla frowned. “You don’t interrupt me. I interrupt you. No, Salt and Straw is good, but I’m thinking Cloud City. I’d love to get a pint of something from there.”
“You want me … to get you ice cream?”
“I can’t go get it myself. If I showed up in Portland, it would stop raining rain for a minute and start raining blood or frogs or whatever.”
Hannah stared. “I can’t believe this. Okay. What flavor?”
“No, that’s the thing, you have to surprise me. I can conjure up ice cream down here, any kind I want, but that means I’m never surprised. And if I ask my wife, Zufi, to conjure it for me, it’s always something weird and gross. One time she made seaweed ice cream. Vile. No, bring me something tasty. Something I don’t expect. Pack it in dry ice so it won’t melt. Then come back. Oh, and bring a piece of your girlfriend, hair from a brush or toenail clippings, even a shirt she sweated in real hard if that’s the best you can do — just something of her body.”
“Then you’ll restore Élodie to life?”
“A bargain’s a bargain. Gods have to stick to them. Now shoo.”
Once Marla was sure Hannah was out of the underworld, she made new monsters and this time, she made them all hate music.
Zufi was right. This was kind of amusing.
A week later, Hannah was back, kneeling in the throne room. There was a big chunk of her hair missing and blood all down her face. “The monsters don’t like singing anymore,” she said.
Marla frowned. “No, and they were supposed to pick you up in their jaws and fling you back upstairs. How did you get past them?”
“I used the sword.”
Zufi appeared in a shimmer of sparkles, like sunlight on the water, and sat down on a throne made of coral. “I thought your monsters were too monstery and not sporting so I hid a sword. Also an axe and a whip.”
“Huh,” Marla said. “Well, all right, you worked for it, Hannah. Did you bring the thing?”
Hannah got to her feet and carried over a cooler, full of dry ice. A paper pint of ice cream nestled inside. Marla opened it up. Yellow ice cream with purplish swirls and black specks. “What’s this?”
“Lemon with black pepper marionberry jam.”
“That sounds horrible.” Marla conjured a spoon (the handle was shaped like a seahorse, because Zufi was still doing the décor, ugh), took a bite, made a face, swallowed, and put the ice cream on the arm of the throne. “Bleah.”
“A bargain is a bargain.” Zufi picked up the ice cream and began to eat, with apparent relish.
“Yes, I know. All right, come on.” Marla rose and beckoned to Hannah. They went through a door, and immediately down a spiraling staircase. They descended in silence, Hannah moving slowly, clearly in some pain from her ordeal.
They reached the bottom after a long time. The stairs led to a round stone room lit by torches. A pool of silver liquid shimmered in the floor. “Toss the toenail clippings or whatever in there.”
Hannah reached into her pocket and came out with a snipped-off lock of hair, and dropped it into the pool.
Marla focused a bit of her intention, and the silvery chaos churned. A moment later a woman’s body floated to the surface: Élodie, identical to her mortal form on the last day of her life in every apparent detail, naked and whole. “Pull her out.”
Hannah struggled to drag the body out of the pool. While she was doing so, Marla reached into the pool, just enough to wet her fingers, then brushed them across Hannah’s scalp and arm. The woman gasped as the chaos spread and healed her injuries, even restoring her torn-out chunks of hair. She looked up at Marla. “Thank you.”
“I usually handle the destroyer-goddess side of things, but I didn’t want you bleeding all over my sacred wellspring of chaos. How are you going to handle the whole returned-from-the-dead thing? People will have questions.”
Hannah shrugged. “We’ll think of something. We’ll say she was in a coma and there was a clerical error, they cremated the wrong person … I don’t know. She’ll be alive, indisputably. We’ll come up with something.” She touched Élodie’s face. “Why isn’t she awake?”
“That’s just a shell. Let me pour in the filling.”
Marla summoned the sand-colored bubble, this time much smaller, no bigger than a fist, and sent it drifting down to touch the new body’s forehead. The bubble popped, and Élodie opened her eyes and gasped and took her first breath.
Hannah started kissing her all over the face and Marla waved her hand and they vanished, returned to Earth.
She climbed all the way back up the stairs, instead of just reappearing in the throne room, because she wanted to think. When she reached the dais, where Zufi sat on her throne of coral, Marla said, “Hey. I’m sorry about, you know. That whole thing.”
Zufi inclined her head regally. “I am sorry as well.”
Marla gestured toward the cooler. “Want to go throw some dry ice in the River Styx?”
About a dozen years later, Zufi interrupted Marla’s reading of a posthumous novel by Balzac (who wrote as obsessively in the afterlife as he had when alive) to say, “You have a petitioner.”
Marla closed the book, which vanished (but saved her place), and sat up in the hammock of silken thread. “That’s the third mortal to make it down here in the past decade. We’re not making it hard enough. Can’t you deal with them?”
“I took care of the last two. They were boring secret-wanters and justice-seekers, nothing fun.” Zufi smiled and her eyes twinkled, in the literal sense. Marla felt a surge of affection and lust. Things were good. In the world above, summer was lush in one hemisphere and winter was mild in the other and the air was sweeter than usual everywhere. “This one is all yours because it was yours before in a reversal.”
“What does that mean?” Marla demanded, but Zufi had already melted.
Marla stepped through a shadow into the throne room. As a god, her memory was perfect, so she said, “It’s Miss EMP, twelve years older. What are you doing in my underworld? Come to return the body I made you? It’s not a lease. You can’t trade it in for a newer model.”
Élodie knelt, head bowed. “It’s Hannah. She died. There was—there was a fire in a club, the roof collapsed, and—” She began to sob.
Marla sat down. “Okay. Well, you got an extra dozen years together, so I’d say, be grateful and all that. How did you make it down here, anyway?”
“I answered the riddles. I won the debates.”
“Huh. You’re smart.” Zufi kept hiding swords and shields and things along the secret passageways, so Marla had switched the nature of her guardian demons to create more intellectual barriers. Zufi couldn’t soft-heartedly hide extra brains for the petitioners along the way, after all.
“I brought ice cream,” Élodie said. “But I got one of the riddles wrong because it didn’t make any sense—‘why is a raven like a writing desk?’”
“Nobody reads the classics anymore,” Marla said. “There are like three answers my beast would have accepted. But if you couldn’t come up with one, how are you here?”
Élodie shrugged. “The creature that asked was a giant owl-bear thing, and it said it was hungry, so I fed it the Thai coconut ice cream, and it let me by.”
“My guardians are vulnerable to bribery. That’s the problem with creating creatures capable of independent thought. You want me to bring Hannah back to life? After she brought you back to life? Don’t you feel a little unoriginal?”
“The fact that Hannah did it just proves there’s precedent.”
“Ha. Okay. Let’s look.” Marla darkened the room and summoned Hannah’s bubble, which rippled the yellow of flames. Not promising. She poked her head in, leaving Élodie outside, and saw about what she’d expected: fire, devastation, and Hannah stumbling in the smoke, screaming herself hoarse, calling out her lover’s name, forever. Marla withdrew and banished the afterlife. “Most people who aren’t wracked by terrible guilt have pretty nice afterlives. What is it with you two? Are you actually cult murderers who feel bad about your evil?”
“Of course not. We just … need each other. We’ve supported each other through terrible tragedies.” She shrugged. “We’re in love, and we can’t be happy without each other. What can I do to get her back? I can go get you more ice cream.”
“What? No. It has to be harder. This is a resurrected person trying to resurrect another person. It’s not the kind of thing I want to encourage. But my wife says if anyone makes it here, they get a shot. So. How about you sing for me?”
Élodie lifted her gaze. Her eyes were dark, deep, and sad. “I can’t sing. That was Hannah’s thing. I was happy just to listen.”
“So what are you good at?”
“Formulating public health policy for underserved rural areas?”
“Huh. Doesn’t lend itself to a fiddle contest, does it?”
“We could play chess.”
“Take that shit to Sweden and leave it there. Ooh. I know. You can clean the Augean Files.”
“It’s our little joke. I used to have a personal secretary. He’s great, but he’s off on an extended mission, and the files are a disaster in his absence. I keep sending demons to work on them, but, well, chaos is their substance, chaos is their nature, and it only gets worse. What do you say?”
“You want me to do filing?”
“Sure. It might take you a while. This is a period-of-service type thing. Come out when the job is done and you get Hannah back. Come out before it’s done …” Marla shrugged. “Back upstairs.”
“I’ll do it. Of course.”
Marla led her down a corridor and flung open a door. The interior was a vast, dark warehouse, full of filing cabinets stretching fifteen feet high, in rows that seemed infinite. The drawers were mostly half-open, and papers were scattered six inches deep all over the floor. “It’s files on mortal lives, mostly. Some dossiers on supernatural creatures, a few tomes and grimoires. You’re going to see all kinds of forbidden wisdom, but we’ll spritz you with Lethe water when you come out, make you forget it all. About a hundred and fifty thousand people die each day, so, the files are gonna keep piling up.”
“I … it’s impossible. No one could do all that.”
Marla shrugged. “So, you give up?”
Élodie glared at her. “I didn’t say that.”
Marla shut the door on her. She locked the file room in a bubble of dilated and diluted time, an “eternity in an hour” type of thing. A few moments later the door opened and Élodie emerged. She was older, by at least a few years, and she was wearing different clothes, which was strange. She gestured. “I am finished.” Marla looked. The filing cabinets were all neat, with no paper on the floor. “I set up a system for filing new information when it arrives, too.”
“How did you manage all that?”
“I looked for the tomes and grimoires first. Learned to manipulate chaos, first well enough to make food and clothing, then enough to conjure simple servitors.”
“You made your own demons?”
“They don’t have minds like yours do … or the tendency toward chaos and independent thought. They’re more like robotic vacuum cleaners than living things. But they can alphabetize.”
Marla whistled. “Okay. Damn. Let’s get your Hannah.”
Not long after, Marla rolled over in their ridiculous bed (it was the size and shape of an ancient Egyptian pleasure barge, because it was Zufi’s turn) and gave Zufi a shake. “Mmmm?” Marla’s wife said.
“Did you give that petitioner help in the file room?”
“I hid in the ceiling and dropped a better book on the conjuration of simple spirits on her head, yes, but I made her work for lots of subjective months first.”
“You used to spend all your time with fish and wet rocks. How did you turn into such a romantic?”
“You must have done it to me,” Zufi said, and then did things to Marla for a while.
Nearly fifty years passed, as humans reckoned time, before Zufi rose up and broke the surface of the hot spring where Marla soaked, in a tributary of the river Plegethon. The sky—really just the overhead space inside the vast metaphysical cavern of the underworld—was full of streaking stars, far more souls plunging toward their afterlives in the primordial sea than was typical in a usual day. Must be a war happening, or some kind of bad natural disaster. Her and Zufi hadn’t been fighting, but sometimes bad things happened up there anyway: their relationship was just one factor, and mostly impacted the weather. Maybe Marla would send a demon or one of the souls she had working off a debt of evil to look into current affairs. She tried not to meddle in mortal business, but sometimes, if the world was getting off track, she gave things a nudge. She told herself it was pragmatism. If humans destroyed themselves utterly, after all, she’d be out of a job.
“This water stinks like rotten eggs,” Zufi said. “Also it’s made of fire which is not how I think water should be made.”
“Don’t you dare change it. It’s my turn.”
“All right. You have a visitor. An old friend.”
“Who? All my friends are happily dead, except the immortal ones, and they’re elsewhere.”
“Someone you’ve known a long time, anyway, and shared important importances with, if not a friend then. Her name is Hannah.”
Marla groaned, and sank down into the water, and bubbled up through the briefly liquid floor of her throne room.
Hannah was there, much older now, and she didn’t kneel, instead leaning on a cane. “Catch,” she said, and tossed a small carton of ice cream at Marla, who snatched it out of the air.
“Not Cloud City,” Marla said. “But I guess that rupture on the Cascadia subduction zone put them out of business. We held it off as long as we could.”
“You … No. It’s homemade.” Hannah’s face was lined, but her voice was still as young and melodious as ever. “Plain vanilla, but good, made with real vanilla beans. Those are hard to get lately.”
“How’d you make it down here? Those passageways are supposed to be almost impossible these days. We haven’t had a petitioner in a dozen years.”
“I hired a bunch of trivia experts, philosophers, and martial artists to escort me,” Hannah said. “I left them back on the other side of the river.”
Marla snorted. “Right. Let me guess. A piano fell on Élodie.”
“No. Cancer. In her bones. Why did you give her a body that could get cancer?”
“I removed her scorpion allergy. What did you expect, eternal youth and immorality? For a pint of ice cream with pepper in it? Come on.”
Hannah sighed, leaning on her cane. “I get it. I miss her.”
“Sure you do. You were together a long time. You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I’m a widow, too. And unlike you, I’m cursed with a perfect memory. You’ve got it easy. Grieve a while and the pain will fade.”
Hannah shook her head. “You found someone else to love. I won’t. I need her. We need each other.”
Marla rubbed her temples with her fingertips. “Listen, there’s some mythic precedent for bringing back people who died young in stupid, accidental circumstances. I’m okay with that, every once in a while, it’s a nice thing. But Élodie died of getting old and running down. If I put her in a fresh version of her body, she’d just get cancer again, anyway. I’m not going to put her in a young and forever-perfect form, because then she wouldn’t be human anymore. Death is a part of life. I can be persuaded to delay it, but not to stop it. I’d put myself out of business.”
“You misunderstand, Majesty.” Hannah dropped her cane and struggled down to her knees. “I don’t want you to bring her back to life. I want to die, too.”
Marla frowned. “Not an unprecedented choice in your circumstances, but you didn’t need to come all the way down here for that. You can die just fine upstairs. Plenty of people do it every day.”
“I’ve seen what the afterlife is like,” she said. “I saw Élodie’s, and she saw mine. They’re bubbles. Each one separate. Right?”
Marla shrugged. “Every soul gets their own little island of chaos to shape as they see fit, or as their subconscious dictates. It can be hell or paradise or an imitation of life or anything in between. It’s an elegant system, nicely self-regulating, for the most part.”
Hannah shook her head. “I don’t want that. I don’t want to be separated from Élodie for all eternity.”
“Look, in your bubble, you can create a version of her, a perfect version, one that never has bad breath or farts in bed or ….” Marla trailed off under Hannah’s stare. She sighed. “Yes, I get it. But what do you want from me?”
“Put us in the same bubble.”
Marla stared at her. She sensed Zufi’s arrival, and turned. “Did you hear this?”
Zufi nodded. “I did.”
“I mean … could we?”
“We are queens. We can do whatever exists within our duty. Perhaps not one bubble. That would be tricky. But two, with a point of overlap in the middle, so they could have their own spaces, with together space between.”
Marla imagined a Venn diagram: two circles, merged, with independent space on either side, but a shared space in the middle. “I mean …” She glanced at the carton. “I do like vanilla bean ice cream.”
“Will you do it?” Hannah said.
“You’re sure you want to die?”
“I’ve had a good life, and without Élodie, I know my best days are behind me.” She coughed. “I’m sick anyway. Not as bad as she was, but it’s a matter of time and not that much of it.”
“I don’t approve of this. I like self-reliance. But you don’t have to be like me. So, okay.” Marla took a sudden step forward, seized Hannah’s head, and twisted it hard.
The old woman’s body fell to the floor of the throne room. Marla looked at Zufi. “I haven’t killed anyone in ages. Not with my own hands, I mean. I don’t really like doing it anymore.”
“In a way, that was as romantic as rose petals and Eiffel towers and candy hearts,” Zufi said.
Marla gestured, the space went dark, and two bubbles floated in, each about six feet across: one was bright blue, the other dark brown, and they floated slowly together, bumped into each other, and then merged about halfway. The result was oddly beautiful, a double-domed shape that floated and spun. Marla ducked her head inside, and Zufi did the same, alongside her.
No fire. No scorpions. No screaming. Gardens, and music, and shouts of joyful reunion.
They pulled back, and with a flick of her hand, Marla sent the conjoined afterlives spinning into the primordial depths with all the other afterlives.
“Those two. They’re co-dependent, is what they are.”
“We were married in a magical ritual that bound us together for as much of eternity as we can get,” Zufi pointed out. “Maybe we are co-dependent. They are, I think, in love.”
Marla reached over and took her wife’s hand. “We could make ourselves separate palaces, maybe, instead of taking turns decorating this one and arguing about it all the time.”
“And a third palace where we could be together in together times?”
“That would be nice.”
“Can this time be together times?”
Marla pulled her close. “Yes. Bring the ice cream.”