The candy-cane pillars are rotting. There are bugs crawling over the spun-sugar castle. The lake of molasses issues forth a foul stench. A 12-year-old girl trips over the body of a gingerbread man. She falls. With a sharp snap the corpse’s arm breaks off. Caramel flies rise from the bone in a buzzing, angry cloud. Her hands come down in dark muddy chocolate. In the corpse’s wound, a white marshmallow larva writhes.
“Ew,” the girl says.
Floor 93-B: Nothing of note.
Floor 93-C: Above me in the sky, I can see a beautiful enchanted queen, made of mist and gossamer. I called out to her. She ignored me. I yelled more, and finally she turned, and said, with every sweetness, “You must be quiet, child. The echoes of your words will tear me apart.” And I saw how she was fraying at the edges, torn by my intemperate voice, and with a gulp of horror I went through the door.
Her name is Ink Catherly. Named because she loves her books, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth. She’s wearing a backpack. She’s carrying a journal.
She walks along. She walks on yellow, then blue, then orange, then green, then red. The colors are a patina of some scummy liquid over the candied swamp. Her feet sink into them. Tigers ate Ink’s shoes three days ago, in floor 93-G, and her toes are caked with thick black gunk.
There’s a scurrying all around her. There’s a rustling in the reeds. Then she sees the war party. They’re gingerbread men. They’re haggard. They’re as tall as she is. They look like children have been nibbling on them for months. They’ve got red and green streaks on their face and sides. Ink can’t tell if it’s war paint or blood. They’re holding bits of candy corn, knapped by a candycutter until wickedly sharp. They rise from the swamp and surround her.
Ink brushes her hair back behind an ear. “What are you?” she says.
“Killer,” one says, as if introducing himself. He shuffles forward, icing mouth sprawled unnaturally wide. His candy corn knife extends towards her chest.
“Thug,” says another. And “Horror. Beater. Thrash. Knife.” And “Hook.”
“I found one of yours back there,” she says. She gestures backwards.
“Morbid,” Killer says.
“My name is Ink Catherly,” she says. “And I’m going to the gingerbread house. I’m an explorer.”
Killer’s shuffling advance hesitates. “Don’t like the house,” he says. “Evil house.”
“Evil,” mutters Thug.
“Bad. Bad place!” adds Hook.
Ink tilts her head to one side. Her hair falls in long locks past her ear. “Tell me,” she says, “Why is it bad?”
“Fiends,” Killer says.
Floor 93-D: Nothing of note.
Floor 93-E: Poppies. They exuded a sweet stench and made me sleep, then crept up all around me to feed upon my dreams. Poor things; they had tempered themselves to the tiny minds of butterflies and ants, and I woke to find them vomiting up shards of my fancies, too rich for them by far.
“Fiends,” Killer says. It looks her up and down. “You fight fiends? Or work for them?”
Ink reflects. “I don’t work for them,” she says.
Killer’s eyes widen. Then he grins. It’s a slow, smug grin. “You go to fiends. You fight fiends. Then they spit out your pieces. We feast. No work.”
He turns to the others. “No work!”
“Hungry,” grumbles Hook.
“Scary girl,” Thrash points out. “Got heavy backpack. Crush gingerbread like butter. We eat her, two, maybe three gingers die.”
“I don’t know if I want to fight them,” Ink says.
“That’s okay,” Killer says. “You want jelly?”
He holds out a jelly bean. It’s red and green. Ink, a bit hesitantly, takes it.
“Good girl,” Killer says. Then the gingerbread men are gone.
Floor 93-F: I found a poem carved onto the wall. It read:
Once, this was a world of endless promise.
Rivers flowed with joy and the sky was full of rainbows.
Yet bit by bit it was unmade
By those who loved their pain too well.
Now there is emptiness.
And we are not real.
And we fade even as we write these words.
The walls were porous and hollow here, and I walked through them and made my way on.
Ink reaches the gingerbread house. She knocks hesitantly on the door. It opens gently and she sees a fiend. It has the overall shape of a gingerbread man, but its face is as textured as a human’s, its body is shrouded in shadow, and its eyes burn red. “Come in,” it says.
She walks into the house, and sees them all around her. There’s a fiend creaking in the rocking chair, and a scurrying shape in the window above, and two conversing in low tones by the fire. She is surrounded. She turns back towards the door, and asks the doorway-fiend, “What is this place?”
“This is the land of Rot and Cavity,” the fiend behind her says. “It is the dark reflection of Candyland, forming whenever children are poor sports at the game. We are created by cheating. By crying. By the sharp and swift upending of the board. We are the hungry gingerbread fiends of hate.”
“But what does that mean?” Ink asks.
The fiend tilts its head to the side. “Why do you ask?”
“I’m an explorer,” Ink says.
Floor 93-A: I cried to the sky to open me a path to Hell, and a hole in the sky yawned wide; and it said to me, “I will let you pass through into the realm beyond; but such pain as you know there is at my sufferance, and of my possession.”
I did not like the condition, but I went through; for it is my mission to explore.
There’s a pause after Ink speaks; and then the doorway-fiend sighs, “Ah.” It considers, then gestures her to a chair. She sits down. It creaks dangerously, and the fiend sits down opposite.
“People find many answers to pain,” the fiend says. “One of them is rejection of the world in which they live. They do not want things to be as they are. And, understanding that they cannot change it, that they have no escape by the terms of their own lives, they dream of the world’s breaking. Of the stalking horrors of madness. The shattering of the edges of the world. The destruction of law. The twisting serpent of agony turned back on those who gave it form. This is the wish that gives rise to fiends; and thus, we in the Gingerbread House of Rot and Cavity are the fiends of children’s hate.”
Floor 93-G: I can no longer say that I am entirely positive on the issue of tigers.
Ink looks a bit uncomfortable as she broaches the next question. “And how can I destroy you?” she asks.
“Why would you wish to?”
“Because you plan to eat me,” Ink says, “or at least turn me rotten and spit out the chunks. And also, I see no exit from here, so I think I have to; because there was a hole in the sky at the top of the tower, and a gap in the wall around 93-A; and so forth and so on through all the days and the worlds, but I think that my exit from here is your ending.”
The fiend leans forward, and its eyes are bright. “If I try to rot you,” it says, “and fail, then, by inevitability of corrosion, I myself shall be unmade.”
“Why might you fail?”
The fiend smiles with a certain intensity. “You are a child,” it says, “possessed of a certain amount of pain. If you release that pain, and take up the practice of happiness, then I and all these things shall rot to dust around you.”
Ink frowns. “Pain is important,” she says.
“Or,” the fiend says, “perhaps that is a construct of your conceptions, and you could find happiness simply by choosing to value happiness instead.”
Ink stands up. She slams the journal down on the table, which crumbles into a thousand crumbs. “You’re trying to tempt me,” she says. “I won’t have it. I will not be cheerful. I will not be happy. I will not stroll in lands of rainbows and clean pure candy and dreams! There’s nothing there to explore!”
She rises to her feet. Her fists curl tight.
“Then you shall rot,” the fiend says, and turns his power on her; but Ink Catherly does not rot, for her pain is spoken for, and she is not one of those permitted to know Hell.
Dedicated to Chrysoula Tzavelas, on the occasion of her birthday; and with some apology to certain others of my friends for whom, in the matter of birthday presents, I am sadly behind.