Mary Bromfield smiled as the text "93%" appeared on the computer screen. She was practicing for a spelling bee, and had just completed an electronic practice test. She heard the familiar beep that showed she had just received a new message on Facebook, which was open in another tab of the internet browser she was using.
"Oh, Joshua, how long before you realize there'll never be anything between us," Mary said out loud as she typed a reply to the Facebook message, trying not to lead Joshua on but also trying not to break his heart. Mary was not so strikingly gorgeous as to catch every boy's attention, but she was both pretty and popular, and that combination tended to attract the occasional unwanted crush.
"Mary, breakfast is ready," Nora Bromfield called from downstairs, her voice carrying through the door of Mary's room.
"It's not ready yet," Nick Bromfield cut in. "The timer still says two minutes."
"Do you have to make that distinction," Nora said.
"It's still not ready," Nick said stubbornly.
Mary smiled, amused as usual by her adoptive parents' bickering. "I'll be right there," she called out.
Mary closed her Facebook tab before another one of her friends could send her any more messages, glanced at a book that was open on her bed, and then descended the stairs to join Nick and Nora.
After breakfast, Mary gathered her schoolbooks and drove to school in the car that her parents had bought her as a present for her sixteenth birthday. She was living an idyllic life, with a loving, upper middle-class family. At school, she had many friends, and she was a member of the "in crowd", while still doing well in her classes. But there were still times when she remembered another life, a life before the one she had now.
The scar-faced criminal grinned hideously as he aimed a gun at the back of Billy Batson's head. He pulled the trigger, and the gunshot was deafeningly loud in the enclosed space as the bullet struck the back of Billy's skull – and bounced off with a sound nearly as loud as the gunshot. The bullet whistled over the thug's head, narrowly missing him.
In the invulnerable form of Captain Marvel, Billy spun around and grabbed the thug's arm, wrenching it around with a sudden crack as the bone snapped. The gun fell from the thug's hand, and Billy pushed the thug against the wall, holding him up by the throat using only one hand. Three other criminals lay unconscious on the floor behind Billy.
Billy had been searching for Mary Batson, his long-lost twin sister, for over a week now. When their parents were murdered by Theo Templeton ten years ago, Billy had been safe in America, but Mary had been kidnapped and presumably sold by Theo's associates. Less than a month ago, Billy had met the wizard Shazam, who had given him the power to transform into the superhero called Captain Marvel by speaking Shazam's name, which would call down a lightning bolt to change his form, and give him the powers of six ancient gods: Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury.
But Theo had a similar power, as the reincarnation of Teth-Adam, Shazam's previous champion. Billy fought Teth-Adam, who became known to the media as Black Adam, and had defeated him using Shazam's lightning bolt, which forced Adam back into the form of Theo, leaving him badly injured and unable to speak. Theo was now in a New York hospital, where the doctors did not know who he was. Theo had betrayed and murdered Billy's parents, and had pretended to take care of Billy, but Billy knew that he could not expose Theo to the world, since people could then figure out that superheroes like Captain Marvel and Black Adam could change form by magic. Billy knew that his greatest weakness was that he had no powers as Billy Batson, and if his identity was known, an ordinary mortal could kill him from a distance with a sniper rifle.
In his search for Mary, Billy had not discovered any definite leads as to her location, but he had started his own private crusade against the evil of human trafficking. He had traveled throughout the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, and had saved many victims of human trafficking while apprehending the criminals. He had started out just trying to find Mary, but he had been moved by the plight of these people, most of whom were young women, and he had continued his crusade, even though he knew there was little chance of finding Mary here in Bangkok.
He'd encountered numerous criminals recently, which had taught him that the best way to get criminals to cooperate was through fear. Criminals respected and feared strength, and one of the most frightening ways to show the Strength of Hercules that Captain Marvel possessed was to hold a man up by the throat using only one hand. The threat was clear, as Billy was showing that he could easily snap the criminal's neck just as easily as he could flick his wrist. The man Billy was pinning against the wall probably deserved to die, as he was a murderer and a kidnapper many times over, as the Historama had told Billy, but Captain Marvel was not an executioner. However, the scar-faced thug did not know that.
"Where are they?" Billy demanded.
"I don't know who you're talking about," the thug choked out, still able to speak because Billy was not actually choking him, just holding him up. The thug did not speak in English, but Billy had no trouble understanding him, because the Wisdom of Solomon understood all languages.
Billy momentarily increased the pressure, as if he was going to crush the thug's neck. He wasn't, but the thug didn't know that, and the thug felt a moment of utter terror.
"Don't kill me, Marvel," pleaded the thug. "The women – there were fourteen of them – we let them go. We know who you are, Marvel. We know what you would do to us. They were here, but they're free now. You can search all you want, but you won't find them. You- you've already saved them."
Billy tapped the thug's head against the wall, knocking him unconscious. Police sirens approached, and soon the four unconscious criminals were arrested. Billy suspected that the criminals may have had some kind of understanding with the police to avoid being caught after running their operation for so long, but not even a corrupt cop would want to risk having Captain Marvel as an enemy.
Billy and the Bangkok police searched the building, but found no sign of the fourteen women. After he realized that the scar-faced thug probably was telling the truth, Billy flew away, hovering a few feet above a street in one of the poor districts of Bangkok.
"Help us, Marvel," a citizen pleaded. "There's a fire. Over there."
Billy looked where the citizen was pointing, and saw a plume of smoke rising in the distance.
"I'll get right on it," Billy said, flashing his trademark grin.
He took off into the sky, flying towards the fire. A poorly constructed three-story building was engulfed in flames, and a man was hanging out of an upper window, crying for help. Billy flew towards the window, and grabbed the man, pulling him out of the building and setting him down in front of it, producing an enthusiastic cheer from the people on the street who were struggling to put out the fire. Even though he had never been to Thailand, everybody knew who he was.
"My wife's in there," the man Billy had saved said in a terrified voice. "She's trapped. Please save her, Captain Marvel."
Billy flew up to the building, and with the enhanced senses granted to him by the Wisdom of Solomon, he heard a woman's frantic, oxygen-starved cries for help. Following the sound, he flew through a window and hovered above the floor on the second story of the building. He quickly took in the scene. Flames were everywhere, burning all around the trapped woman. She would soon die from smoke inhalation if Billy did not carry her out of the building, but he could not do that without carrying her through the flames. Billy was immune to the flames, but he could not completely shield the woman.
Suddenly, the Wisdom of Solomon helped Billy remember a spell that Shazam had been teaching him. He could barely pronounce its twenty-syllable-long name, so he simply thought of it as an ice spell. Billy had never tried to put out a fire before, although he had saved people from burning buildings. Hovering at the edge of the flames, Billy focused on the spell, using the Power of Zeus to cast it as the Wisdom of Solomon guided him.
White energy blasted forth from his hands, forcing the flames to retreat and clear a path to the trapped woman. Billy wasted no time in flying to her and carrying her through the hole in the flames. Just as they were leaving the building, the fire flared back into existence where Billy had recently put it out. He barely managed to shield the woman from the flames, but as he set her down on the street, he knew that he could not put this fire out magically. There was no sign of the fire department, and he realized that the local firemen might not even care what happens in this district.
He had to put the fire out himself, but he could not do it with magic alone. And then he saw a water tower rising over some tenements to his left, and he got an idea.
"I'll be right back," he said, flashing Captain Marvel's trademark grin.
Billy flew straight at the water tower. Metal screeched as he ripped the water tower off its mountings. He carried the water tower over the tenements, flying while holding up a huge metal ball filled with water. He held the water tower over the burning buildings, and while holding onto it with one hand, he drew back his other hand, clenched his fist, and punched the water tower with the full Strength of Hercules, cracking it open like an eggshell.
A torrent of water poured over the burning building. The people beneath Billy cheered as the rushing water rapidly put out the flames. But then, Billy, who was still holding the water over the building, felt a sudden pain in his shoulders as the weight of the water tower pressed down on him. For a moment, it seemed like the water tower was going to fall and crush the people under Billy. He got a better grip on the water tower, and set it down in the street, with some difficulty. He was utterly surprised, because the Strength of Hercules had never failed before, even for a moment. He did not feel tired, because of the Stamina of Atlas, but there was something wrong with his powers.
When Billy used the Power of Zeus to transport himself back to the Rock of Eternity, he barely noticed the familiar scene. Everything looked the same as it had on the day that he first arrived here and received his powers. The grotesque red granite statues that imprisoned the Seven Deadly Sins were still lined up on the left wall, an eternal flame blazing at the feet of each statue. Shazam was sitting on a golden throne in front of Billy, a pyramidal block of stone hanging over his head by a slender thread. On Shazam's right, there were shelves containing a plethora of magical items. The strangest thing here was an ordinary brown wooden box, which looked like it was from the 18th or 19th Century. It was so conspicuous because it was completely ordinary. It was closed, and could only be opened through a keyhole. Sometimes, Billy had wondered what was inside the box. The only noticeable difference in the Rock of Eternity was the slight damage to its cave-like walls that had been inflicted when Teth-Adam invaded it last month.
This time, the crystal ball known as the Historama was resting on a table next to Shazam. Rather than staring into the Historama as was his habit, Shazam was examined an ornate dagger that shone so brightly in the unearthly white torchlight that it seemed to actually glow. Billy had seen the dagger on the shelves, but he had never paid much attention to it before.
"The Dagger of Ares," Shazam said, in response to Billy's unspoken question. "It was the perfect weapon, forged by the Greek god of war. It has the power to kill any creature, even one as powerful as you. Ares used it to slay the demon Ixitor, but the demon's essence corrupted him, and this blade. Ares was once an honorable and heroic figure, but slaying Ixitor turned him into the vicious, bloodthirsty god that he is now. The other gods decided that it would be better for him if he was parted from the weapon that had slain Ixitor, so they gave the dagger to me, because infernal effects cease to exist in the Rock of Eternity. Only something inherently demonic could bring evil into this place, which is why it is vitally important that you never allow any demon to enter the Rock of Eternity, as the forces of Hell have been trying to breach the Rock for thousands of years, but they have not yet succeeded."
"Something is wrong with my powers," Billy said. "I was lifting up a water tower, and I almost dropped it. For a moment, I thought the Strength of Hercules was going to fail me." He said this as if there was no logical reason why he should not be able to easily hold up water towers.
"You have been working too hard, Billy. The Stamina of Atlas means that you will never get tired while you are Captain Marvel, but the power that the gods gave you is still finite, and if you use it too much, it may cease to function properly. If Teth-Adam or a demon was to attack you right now, you would be at a disadvantage. I recommend that you get some rest, and return to your life as Billy Batson."
"What about Mary?" Billy asked.
"I do not believe that your sister is in any immediate danger," Shazam told Billy. "And, you never know. Sometimes the things we seek come to us when we expect them to."
"I have another question," Billy said. "Why didn't the ice spell work as it was supposed to? I know that it is more effective in cold weather, but according to the mathematical formula that you gave me, there is too big a difference between its effectiveness here and its strength in Bangkok for the difference in temperature."
"I am afraid that I have not been entirely honest with you, Billy," Shazam said. He waved a hand, causing a key to flutter into the air from one of the shelves. The key inserted itself into the keyhole of the strangely ordinary wooden box. It turned, and the side of the box swung open. A glass vase filled with what looked like compressed white ice floated out of the wooden box.
"This is part of the remains of Ixitor," Shazam explained. "Long ago, Hell was split between two extremes: Fire and Ice. The ice demons were led by Ixitor, while the infernal demons were led by Neron, who you know of as Satan, or simply "the devil." Ixitor was more interested in affecting the earth directly, so he plunged the world into an ice age. But that was not enough for him, as a great civilization flourished in a land that you would call Atlantis."
"Ixitor struck out against the Atlanteans directly, using his immense power to sink Atlantis into the sea. The gods, who normally avoided direct battles with the forces of Hell, confronted Ixitor directly. Their battle devastated what remained of human civilization, but in the end, Ixitor was slain by the Dagger of Ares. Still, the primal ice that composed his body could not be destroyed, and it possessed the potential to freeze the entire world. This ice was placed in thirteen containers, which were hidden throughout the world. If the containers were to be united, the power of Ixitor would plunge the world into a new ice age far worse than the last, although Ixitor himself cannot be returned to life."
"One of these containers is stored here, in the Rock of Eternity. That is why it is easier for you to practice the ice spell here than in the world beneath us. Even when we are in Bangkok, Ixitor's primal ice still empowers the ice spell whenever it is cast in here."
"We're in Bangkok?" Billy asked. "I thought that the Rock of Eternity always stayed in New York."
"The Rock of Eternity follows you wherever you go," Shazam said. "It is always watching over you, but it will not help you make the journey to New York. That is something you will have to do yourself."
Although he was quite reluctant to give up on his search, Billy listened to the Wisdom of Solomon and decided that he would return to New York. It took him many hours to fly across the Pacific, and by the time he turned back into himself and walked to the Freemans' front door, it was Saturday afternoon.
Fred Freeman had been Billy's best friend since grade school. Fred and his grandfather were the only people who Billy knew would take him in now, after his cruel uncle Ebenezer had kicked him out and the apparently kind Theo had turned out to be a monster.
Jacob Freeman, Fred's grandfather, opened the door and enthusiastically welcomed Billy inside.
"We were worried about you, Billy. We thought something could have happened to you. Please, come on in."
As Billy entered the front room of the Freemans' house, which was a nice two-story building that had probably cost a fortune because it was in Manhattan, Fred entered the room and greeted him enthusiastically.
"School was boring as usual," Fred told Billy. "But I think that Tamara missed you while you were gone."
But then Jacob interrupted and said, "Billy. Fred and I were just talking about inviting you to Lake Argyle. We're going to go fishing there two weeks from now, if the weather permits."
Before Billy could answer, the telephone rang. Jacob went to his study to answer the call, and Fred directed Billy to the dining room, where they would be out of earshot from Jacob, who did not know that Billy was Captain Marvel.
"They're still talking about you," Fred told Billy, pointing at the international section of the New York Times, which was on the dining room table.
When he saw the image of Captain Marvel holding up the water tower, Billy realized that even in poor areas of Thailand there was somebody who had a cell phone camera and used it to photograph Captain Marvel. But, he noticed that the article did not mention that he had almost dropped the water tower.
"It wasn't as good as it sounds," Billy started to say. "I-"
But he cut himself off when he saw another article, which sent a terrible shiver of shock running through his body. It was little more than a sidebar, but it said that fourteen young women had been found murdered in Bangkok. Without saying anything, Billy suddenly left the house so he could turn back into Captain Marvel.