Floor 93-AI, page 2: This was not my Hell.
Meredith’s perhaps, hanging on the wall.
Or the lion’s.
Or the Queen’s.
It was not mine.
I am still descending.
On a hill there is a house.
In the day, it is a golden house, and it gleams in the light of the sun. At night, it is a white house, pale like the moon. Its windows glimmer.
It is high on the hill, and the hill is grassy, and on that hill the wind does blow. The lights of other houses are far away.
In that house, the Professor’s house, it is kind and clean. There are many floors and many rooms. There is a palpable radiance of safety. And there is a wardrobe. Standing in that wardrobe is a twelve-year-old girl. She sweeps the coats aside. As she expected, the wardrobe has no back. It extends ever onwards into infinity.
“Ha,” she says. “That’s fishy!”
Her name is Ink Catherly. She has been in the Professor’s house for all of thirteen hours and seventeen minutes. It took her thirteen hours and ten minutes to recover her nerve. It took her three minutes to pack her backpack full of odds and ends and a delicious lunch. It took her four minutes to go straight to where the trouble was.
Ink’s short for Incorrigible, or so she’d like you to believe.
Floor 93-AB: There are monks here, standing on a deep deep stair. “You cannot descend,” they said, “without embracing our doctrine.”
“What must I do?” I asked.
“At the first landing,” they said, “we sorrow for ten years.”
“I’m twelve,” I pointed out.
“You may continue.”
So I went down.
“At the second landing,” the monks said, “we must laugh until we understand that we know nothing.” They giggled as they said it. It was a harsh and artificial sound. Their voices pained them, but they did not stop laughing.
“I’m an explorer,” I said. And they gestured me down, and down I went.
“On the third landing,” the monks said, “we spend ten years feeling mildly nostalgic for the previous two landings.”
“Good times,” I said. “Good times.”
Then I bolted, cheating! past them and away.
Ink peers dubiously at the wardrobe. “This looks like something that needs a hero,” she says. “And that’s not my job.”
She takes off her backpack. She sorts through it. She doesn’t have a hero. So she goes to the Professor.
“Excuse me, sir,” she says. “But do you happen to have a hero? Or a heroine? I’m not picky.”
He gives her a sharp man’s look. “Dear me,” he says. “Dear me. Child, there’s no man or woman born who can’t be a hero. You just have to find your courage.”
Ink looks down. She gathers her thoughts. She looks up. She tries again. “Professor, you’ve been very kind. But there’s a magic kingdom in your wardrobe. I know how this works. If I go in there I’ll wind up saving it. And then I’ll be a magical queen. And then I’ll have so much red tape I’ll never have a chance to explore.”
“. . . that might be true,” the Professor allows.
“So I would prefer,” she says, “if there were another little girl or boy around, so I could use them as a dupe. I am happy to dispense any gnomic advice you want me to give them, and even help out if I must. But I don’t want to do it myself.”
The Professor hesitates. “This place is very close to the Underworld,” he says. “That’s why I can afford this house on a Professor’s salary. But it means that children are in short supply.”
Ink looks at him severely.
“There’s Meredith,” he offers. “She was the girl who helped you put away your things.”
“She’ll do!” Ink declares.
Ink leads Meredith to the wardrobe. “Hm,” Ink says. “This wardrobe seems oddly deep.”
“Oh!” says Meredith. “We could go on an adventure!”
“Do you think so?” Ink asks.
“We simply must,” Meredith declares.
Floor 93-AC: This was written on the wall:
We have amended our laws of physics.
Between the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force,
we have added a law of universal fairness.
The strong nuclear force can still, of course, override justice.
But it apologizes, when it does so.
It is only natural that we should reap what we have sown.
If you should read these words,
Oh, remember us!
Meredith proceeds inwards. Then she pauses. “Wait,” she says. “We’re in a wardrobe! We should play dress-up!”
“I reserve judgment,” Ink says.
Meredith looks around. She takes a crown from a dusty shelf and puts it on. She hangs beads of lapis lazuli around her neck. She pins sparkling rhinestones to her teddy-bear top. She winds a gold ring around her waist. She puts on a rich ermine coat and takes a measuring rod in her hand. Then she feels around in her pockets.
“Oh, cool,” she says. “An ancient Babylonian clay tablet!”
She reads it.
“It says: ‘on this tablet are fourteen me, great blessings of power. They are truth, the descent into the underworld, the ascent back, the art of lovema—‘”
Meredith covers her mouth with one hand and giggles. She also blushes. “Oh my God.”
“Let me see that,” Ink says.
Meredith clutches the tablet close to her chest. Ink rolls her eyes. After twelve seconds, Meredith shows it to Ink. Ink skims down. She grits her teeth. There’s a pause.
“Um,” Ink says. “Well, the ‘making of decisions’ bit is probably good.”
Meredith giggles. Ink stomps her foot.
“This is a serious journey!” she says. “If you make me start giggling, I’ll be very vexed.”
Meredith puts the tablet back in her pocket. She walks onwards. Occasionally, she giggles again. Finally, Ink giggles too; and, horrified, fishes her cynicism goggles out of her backpack and puts them on.
“The Professor’s intentions are not so pure as I’d imagined,” Ink cynically concludes.
“Or the ancient Babylonians’ weren’t!”
“They might have had impure intentions!”
“But besides,” Meredith says, “the tablet isn’t his. Didn’t you see, at the bottom? It’s signed with a pawprint! So I know it belongs to the lion of the wardrobe.”
“Oh.” They walk along for a bit. Then Ink frowns. “Wait, what?”
Meredith beams at Ink. “He is the great wise one,” she says. “He is the son of the king of the universe. He has been gone from us for some time, no doubt drinking again, but when he sets foot in the world, he brings the secrets of lore and wisdom. When he shakes his mane, civilization grows and spreads. When he roars, it means the end to ignorance! Even his pawprint brings wisdom.”
And at the end of the wardrobe, there is a gate, and outside it, pacing, there is a lion. And while Ink stares at the lion in dismay, Meredith runs forward and casts her arms around his neck, saying, “Oh! Isn’t he beautiful?” And the lion rumbles, deep in his chest.
“I suppose,” Ink says.
“Child,” the lion says, “I have ordained a difficult duty for you, who carries my sacred me.”
“Anything,” Meredith says.
“You must descend into the Underworld,” the lion says. He licks Meredith’s ears with his great raspy tongue. “Lo! I have opened your ears. You may hear the wailing of the Queen.”
“Oh!” Meredith says. “It’s so . . . it wrenches my heart.”
“Then listen well,” the lion says, “for I shall give you gifts.”
Shaking Meredith gently off his neck, he stalks to a sack of gifts and opens it with a paw. He struggles somewhat with the sack, and Ink senses that at times even the lion of the wardrobe would appreciate opposable thumbs.
“This key,” the lion says, “will give you entrance. With this dagger and this sword, you shall know the arts of war. Drape this standard about you, and understand the arts of the sacred prostitutes. Take this holy miniature shrine and learn the arts of song, and wisdom, and power, and treachery, and the plundering of cities, and lamentations, and joy, and deceit, and kindness. Take this certificate of training and learn the arts of copper and writing and wood. At that,” he says, “take it all, save this.”
He noses a small stuffed lion. “This is for Ink,” he says. “Because I did not know what else to get her.”
So Meredith takes the sacred objects and adorns herself further; and she walks to the gate, and she turns the key.
“Stay here,” she says to Ink. “If I’m not back in a few hours, I’m probably in trouble!”
The lion lays himself down, gently, in the sun. Meredith is gone.
Floor 93-AG: There was a spider here, or perhaps it was an angel. It was a thing of aurora borealis, a glittering and beauty hanging in the air. It shimmered. It shone. As it crawled upon its web, the strands played symphonies.
There were people in its web. Mummified people. Soldiers. Drummers. Generals. It seemed like some great army had marched this way; and stopped; and tried to parlay with a thing that does not understand either mercy or fear.
I picked up a gun from the ground. It had been loaded but not fired. I checked, afterwards. None of them had been.
It only took one shot.
“I don’t want a stuffed lion,” Ink says.
The lion of the wardrobe stands. He pads over to her. Ink shrinks back. With his terrible mouth, he bites her cynicism goggles and lifts them off her head.
“Oh, it’s cute!” Ink says.
“But ultimately hopeless,” the lion admits.
He drops the cynicism goggles on the ground and returns to his spot of sun.
“Why do you say that? I mean, besides cynicism?”
“I have given her everything,” the lion says, “but there is a deeper magic than the magic of the me.”
“Of the I,” Ink corrects.
“. . . there’s really no proper grammar for this situation,” the lion concludes.
“A deeper magic?” Ink asks.
“The gateway to the Underworld is but a crack,” the lion says. “Thin, like a knife. So even now Meredith sets aside her key, for she needs it not. And her sword. And her dagger. Her shrine. Her certificate. Her standard. Now she sheds the coat, and the ruler, and the crown, and the jewels. She must enter the Underworld naked, like a child, and thus, you see, I have played her false. That is the deeper magic.”
“And Meredith says,” the lion rumbles, “‘Oh pale Queen of bone and death, I come to bring you surcease.’
“And the Queen touches her with the wand of death, and Meredith becomes a rotten corpse, and the Queen hangs her on the wall.”
The lion rises. He pads away. “We are done,” he says. “You may proceed to the next floor; the exit is in the Professor’s study.”
“Wait,” Ink says, in confusion.
“She was nice.”
“Without the symbols of adulthood,” the lion says, softly, “she is just a dead girl, of no particular import, hanging on a wall. Move on.”
The lion pads away.
Ink looks down. She hesitates. Then she picks up the small stuffed lion. She hugs it close. She touches her free hand to one of the lion’s pawprints. She pushes her hand around in the dirt, trying to find magical inspiration. Her fingernails get dirty. She scratches behind her ear. Now the spot behind her ear is dirty too. She won’t wash it any time soon. She’s twelve!
Ink walks to the gate. She walks inwards. She walks deep. She’s thinner than Meredith, so she can just squeeze through while dressed, with her backpack and the lion held by her side.
In the caverns of the Underworld, there dwells a Queen. She is in agony. As Ink draws closer, Ink can hear the wailing and the gnashing of teeth. But she cannot quite make out words until she enters the room; and there is the pale Queen, naked and unkempt, upon the floor.
“Oh!” screams the Queen. “My inside!”
At a loss, Ink takes a note.
“Oh!” she screamed. “My inside!”
“Oh!” screams the Queen. “My outside!”
“Oh!” she screamed. “My outside!”
And the long litany of pain continues.
“Oh!” screams the Queen. “My gallbladder!”
“Oh!” she screamed. “My gallbladder!”
Ink hesitates. “Where is that?” she asks. “I mean, I’ve always wondered.”
The Queen looks up.
“I’ve been taking notes,” Ink says. “It was all I could think to do.”
The Queen rises and looks at Ink through narrowed eyes. “All this time?”
“Pain matters,” Ink says.
“Ah,” says the Queen. Then she tilts her head to one side. “It pleases me,” she says, “to be heard.”
Ink nods mutely.
“But—you are here to challenge me?”
“I can’t,” Ink says, uncomfortably. “I . . . just wanted to say something gnomic to Meredith. You know. ‘Buck up!’ or something. It’s not much, since she’s dead, but . . .”
Ink smiles crookedly. She looks a bit overwhelmed.
“Ah,” says the Queen. Then she smiles. “You are a gracious creature. Tell her the words of life; and she shall be restored; and you may take her from this place.”
“The words of life?”
“It is a secret of the Underworld,” the Queen says. “Whisper to a corpse’s ear, ‘Be not ashamed to live.’ And it shall rise.”
Ink is silent for a time. Then, hesitantly, with one eye always on the murderous wand of the Queen, she walks to the wall, and whispers in Meredith’s ear.
“This is the deepest magic,” says the Queen, “from before the dawn of time.”
The halls are filled with a sound like the roaring of lions, or the wakening of the world.