The backs of Rollie’s calves & thighs burned  like acid. Between the awkward position he had to maintain while walking on peppermint-encrusted rags and Belinda’s weight clinging to his shoulders he was already stripped past the point of exhaustion. Still, he couldn’t leave her behind, nor could he stop walking.

The witch still had David.

Straddling the sightless witch’s enormous sweethound Viceroy, Rollie’s older brother lay limply across the creature’s back, moaning occasionally when his broken leg was jostled by one of Viceroy’s steps.

Rollie had already lost one brother to Candytown; he had sworn he would not lose another.

Rollie had followed Viceroy and the witch through the forest of peppermint trees as silently as he could with Belinda on his back. More than once the snap of a brittle peppermint twig sent his heart racing that he’d given them away. And indeed, more than once Viceroy had glanced back over his coarse purple shoulder at Rollie. And yet the beast had done nothing to alert the witch to the children’s presence. Rollie was unsure of what the large dog was up to, but it’s silence gave him a weak sense of hope.

The witch, for her part, walked a pace behind Viceroy and David with her hand on the beast’s hindquarters. Twice as tall as his mother, Rollie judged, the blind woman was so thin she looked more like a dead tree than a person, with blanched, loose skin hanging from visible bones wherever her towering body was visible in the sway of her robes. She matched Viceroy’s slow gait step for step, using him as her eyes to wind through the trees.

Rollie matched the witch’s steps, hoping he did well enough that their presence wouldn’t be made known in the deep silence of the candycane forest. So far the witch had given no indication she was aware of them.

“Do you know, boy,” the witch’s thick baritone voice came suddenly, “that it is fortuitous you arrived in my forest and not somewhere else?”

David said nothing in reply, though he had stopped whipering. Rollie hoped that meant the pain of his broken leg had abated somewhat.

“If you had appeared in the den of the Gumweevil you would have been devoured instantly,” the witch continued. “Or, perhaps if you had landed closer to your intended recipient, most likely Barmazael, an enchanted cereal box seems like his childish style, you would even now be on a stake and lit ablaze to light his garden, enchanted so that you would continue to scream long after you should have burned to a crisp.”

“Are you…” David said through gritted teeth, “are you going to eat me?”

“Eat you?” the witch turned her empty eye sockets toward David, amusement plain in her voice. “No. I do not eat your kind. Your meat is far too tough for me.” The witch paused, halting Viceroy. “Who told you I would eat you?”

“The… flying children… in the fields,” David answered.

“Ah. Onward Viceroy,” The witch instructed. “They assume that because I eat them I would eat anyone who came my way. That is not the case.”

Rollie felt hope kindle in his heart. If the witch was uninterested in eating David, perhaps the evil cherubs had misjudged the blind witch completely.

“Where are you taking… me then?” David asked.

“To my home,” the witch replied.

“Can you send me back? To my home?”

“I could…” the witch mused, “but why would I do that? You are so much more useful to me here.”

Rollie didn’t like the sound of that. Neither did David.

“Useful?” David asked.

“Your presence will allow me to replenish dozens of ingredients for my incantations,” the witch answered. “Did you know that when dried and mixed with ground earwig carapace the liver of a human child will prolong life by decades when snorted?”

David groaned.

So that was it. The witch would still kill David, just not for the purpose of eating him as the cherubs had thought. Belinda muffled a cry by driving her face into Rollie’s shoulder.

It didn’t take long for them to arrive at the witch’s home, a sprawling dilapidated mansion with flecking gray paint and overgrown in what looked like sour apple licorice vines situated in a large clearing. Gaping darkened windows made Rollie feel like a thousand black eyes were staring at him. The whole place had a sense of dread hanging about it.

Rollie and Belinda stayed behind a tree at the fringe of the clearing as the witch instructed Viceroy to take David inside.

“Lock him in the guest room, Viceroy, and you are released to stand guard.”

“Yes, my lady,” Viceroy answered in his low gravely voice.

Rollie examined the ground around him until he found a peppermint log large enough to protect Belinda’s feet and lowered her onto it.

“Listen Belly, I’ve got to go try and rescue David,” he told her.

Tears welled up in the young girl’s eyes instantly. “No Rollie! Don’t leave me!” she whispered.

“You’ll be safe,” he picked up a thicker peppermint banch that had a sharp splintered end where it had broken off from a nearby tree, “if anyone comes you can stab them with this.”

Belinda’s eyes widened in terror as Rollie felt the air around him sudddenly change texture, becoming musky and moist. Slowly he turned.

Viceroy was standing right behind him, looming like a purple stormcloud.

“Your brother does not have much time,” the gigantic dog whispered in it’s gruff gravely voice.

“Why didn’t you tell the witch about us?” Rollie asked.

“The witch has my pack under an obedience charm. We will do whatever she commands without hesitation. We cannot escape from it and we are prevented from killing her ourselves by the charm. Only her death can bring about our freedom. There has never been more than one of your kind found in the forest. When I saw you escaped her notice I knew we might help each other.”

“Can you help us get David out?”

“I could prove more of a danger than a help if the witch discovers you. If she orders me to take you I must obey,” the giant dog answered. “Now we must move swiftly. Even now she is weaving wards and hexes into place to protect the house. Onto my back. Quickly.”

Rollie and Belinda climbed onto Viceroy’s back with scant hesitation and the beast set out at a brisk pace for the mansion.

“The small one with you, she is female?” the large dog asked Rollie.

“That’s right,” Rollie said hesitantly.

“The witch’s spellbook,” Viceroy growled, “can only be used by a female. A trick to keep her competitors from stealing it from her should they ever try. It would have the power to break the charm as well. While you go to free your brother and kill the witch, I will take this small one to the kitchen, where the spellbook is kept. If you are unsuccessful, or if we are fast enough to cast the spell before she can stop us, my pack would be free to kill her ourselves. I have often longed for the taste of her blood.” Viceroy’s tongue slid along his jowls absently.

Queasyness filled Rollie’s stomach. The thought of leaving Belinda in the hands, er, paws, of a creature who could eat her in a single mouthful, and who was under the power of a spell that could force him to do so even against his wishes, was the last thing he wanted to do.

“I don’t think…” Rollie started.

Viceroy froze. “You misunderstand me, human. Your survival is none of my concern. I help you only to help my pack. I am telling you what the plan is, and you will follow it. Do you understand?”

“But she can’t read!”

“I will read for her and tell her the words. We are running out of time, boy.”

Like it or not, Viceroy was the only option he had for getting David alive, and potentially getting them all home. Rollie nodded.

Padding along silently, Viceroy wove through the partially open gate and onto the porch.

“Your brother will be on the second floor, in the third room to the left of the stairwell,” Viceroy said. “The female and I will be in the kitchen, which is at the the back of the main hallway downstairs. The witch will be in her library, the second door to the right of the foyer. The wards she has set will dissapate with unconsciousness, but the charm will only be dissolved at her death. You must be quick.”

They stood there for a moment, the children still astride Viceroy’s back. Rollie wondered what the delay was.

“I do not have thumbs, human,” Viceroy growled, nosing the swirled jawbreaker doorknob with his muzzle.

“Oh. Right.” Rollie climbed down from the back of the beast and gently turned the colored candy. Inching the door open noiselessly, Rollie saw the entryway open up into an enormous foyer painted the same grey as the exterior of the home. Dimly lit by a rock candy chandelier, two sweeping staircases ran up and over either side of a hallway before forming a landing and continuing up to the second floor. Two mouldy couches flanked each staircase and a single portrait took up most of one wall. Otherwise the room was empty, and everything was caked with dust. Hallways running to the east and west wings of the house stood gaping to either side of the couches.

“To your right. Second door,” Viceroy whispered from behind him.

Rollie hefted the branch he had intended to give to Belinda. It seemed a trifling weapon against the immensity of what he had to do, but it was all he had. He took a step into the mansion…

…and the caked candy cane residue clinging to the rags around his feet made a tremendous crunching noise.

Rollie cursed himself silenty. He unwound the encrusted remains of his shirt from his feet and laid them to one side of the door. Viceroy entered next to him on silent pads. With a nod to the purple beast and a wink at Belinda, Rollie began creeping towards the hallway on the right.

His bare feet, sore from the awkward trek through the forest, took some getting used to again as he placed careful step after careful step down the hallway. He could hear mumbling coming from behind the second door, each pause in speech sending his heart racing at fear of discovery. He passed the first doorway, adrenaline pumping.

The second door stood slightly ajar, and Rollie could hear the witch’s deep voice from inside still working through a spell. He manuevered as best he could to see into the room without moving the door, but the witch was out of sight. Exhaling quietly, he pushed the door gently open.

The witch stood bent over an ornate table against the far wall of the room. The table was overflowing with all manner of books, and the walls were lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves of the same. The room had a damp, unpleasant musk that twitched Rollie’s nostrils. Hands on either side of a large leatherbound tome, the witch’s voice continued to drone and Rollie slinked into the room. The five yards seperating them seemed an uncrossable chasm to Rollie as he stared at the skeletal woman’s hunched back.

As he stood there, hand tensing around his splintered candycane branch, a peculiar feeling began to settle on Rollie. Something about the witch nagged at him, pulling at his mind.

Was it her voice? No, it sounded just as it had in the forest, albeit more monotone. Her appearance seemed just as decayed as it had been earlier. And the book…

The book.

She was reading it.

“Yes,” the witch stopped her mumbling and turned to regard Rollie, “I can see you.”

Rolling within her empty eye sockets, glowing green fire coalesced and collapsed upon itself. Rollie gasped and took a step back reflexively.

“…and I smelled you long before that, boy,” the witch continued. “Did you really think you could approach me unnoticed? That I take no precautions for my own safety?”

Rollie’s mind raced. Either Viceroy had sent him to his death willingly, or he was as unaware of the witch’s abilities as Rollie. Neither seemed more likely than the other. If the beast didn’t know of the witch’s enchanted sight, it was possible that Belinda breaking the enchantment on his pack would be all that could save Rollie. He had to buy them time in the hopes the dog had been telling the truth.

“Barmazael, my lady,” Rollie said, using the only name he remembered the witch using, “he sent me. As a gift of peace.”

“A gift of peace?” the incredulity in the towering woman’s voice was clear.

“Yes, my lady,” Rollie knelt to the ground and lowered his head in what he hoped appeared to be piety. “He begs your forgiveness for past transgressions and hopes you will find my usefulness suitable compensation.”

“How very… unlike him,” the witch arched an eyebrow and cautiously approached Rollie. “You say you are a gift, yet you come into my home, armed, without announcing yourself. Far more likely is you are a spy and assassin, and I should kill you where you are.”

Rollie felt the air in the room waver, as though it had begun to flow away from him and towards the witch.

“If my lady wishes,” Rollie said, eyes still downcast.

The witch stood silent for what seemed like an eternity to Rollie. His palms grew sweaty from fear, but he held his ground and waited. If his gamibt had failed, they would all be dead anyway.

“Viceroy!” The witch shouted suddenly.

It took a few moments for the great purple beast to appear, but appear he did, filling the doorframe from edge to edge with his muscled bulk. Rollie felt a kind of nausea form in the pit of his stomach. If Viceroy and Belinda had not been successful…

“Yes, my lady?” Viceroy asked.

“Viceroy, do you see this child before me?” the witch asked.

“Yes, my lady,” the hound answered.

“Can you explain how a human child was able to enter this home, undetected, while you and your sweethounds are to be patroling at all times?”

Rollie risked a glance, first at the witch and then at Viceroy. The fire in the witch’s eyes was gone, he cold empty sockets returned. Viceroy was looking directly at him, a disapproving frown on his face.

“I myself was patrolling the house, my lady. With your permission I will call those who were responsible for the exterior patrols.”

“Yes. Call them. This incompetence will not go unpunished.”

Lifting his head high, Viceroy let out a loud low howl that shook the floorboards Rollie knelt on. Entering the room to wait by the witch, Viceroy stood at attention as two other sweethounds, both as large as Viceroy, entered the room.

“Rictus, Brawlus, at attention!” Viceroy’s voice grew even gruffer as he barked out a command. Both sweethounds sank to their haunches, ears perked straight.

“This… child, entered the home of our mistress undetected. Who was responsible for the front patrol?”

“I was,” the sweethound on the right, who was just a shade darker than Viceroy, answered.

“Failure to protect myself and this house cannot be allowed,” the witch said. “Your indescresion leaves you useful only as an example to the others, Rictus.”

“If… you wish, my lady,” Rictus said, seeming to struggle with his words.

The witch stretched out her open palm towards the sweethound and began to draw breath to cast a spell, but before she could form a word Viceroy had turned and clenched his jaws around her forearm. With a mighty jerk of his head the witch’s arm tore free of her body entirely in a spray of bright red blood. Stunned, Rollie pushed himself away, succeeding only in landing on his backside even as Rictus and Brawlus pounced bodily over his head, colliding with the witch and smashing her first against the table and then to the ground.

“Rollie! Come on!” Belinda’s stood in the doorway, a large battered clothbound book clutched under her arm.

Green fire and lightining sprung up between the sweethounds causing Rictus to yelp and move back a step before renewing his attack. The wtich’s screams were barely audible over the thunderous snarling of the sweethounds.

“Go boy!” Viceroy barked with bloodstained muzzle, shaking Rollie free of the fear that held him frozen. Scrambling to his feet he ran for the door, catching Belinda’s hand as he rounded into the hall. Yelps of the hounds and cracks of explosions followed them down the hall as they ran frantically to the foyer and charged up the broad steps to the second floor.

The floor shifted suddenly, sending them both tumbling onto the landing just as they were climbing the final step.

“What was that?” Belinda asked, eyes wide.

The house shook again, and from Rollie’s vantage on his back he could see  a black rot begin eating away quickly at spots in the roof, growing outward at an incredible rate. Climbing to his feet and hauling Belinda to hers he saw that the rot had begun to spread on the walls as well.

“The witch must have some kind of spell to destroy the house if something happens to her!” Rollie yelled over the increasing rumbling and shaking. “Come on! We’ve got to get David!”

Clasping the bannister for support, the two siblings sprinted the rest of the way up the last flight of stairs. Already portions of the ceiling, covered in black rot, had begun plopping wetly to the floor. Racing down the hallway they came to the third door.

“Here goes,” Rollie said, taking hold of the jawbreaker doorknob.

The door pushed open with nothing more than a squeak. David sat in the middle of the room, cradling his leg which had grown a far more viscous shade of purple and still buldged where the bone remained broken.

“The walls started rotting!” He yelled at Rollie as he entered with Belinda in tow.

“The witch is dead. We have her spell book,” Rollie told him. “Viceroy said there should be something in here to get us home, but only Belinda can read it!”

“He showed me the one. It has a picture of the thing that sucked us here,” Belinda shouted to be heard over the din of the collapsing house.

The boys tore the spell book open and paged through it furiously. Black rot oozed up the walls and began creeping the floor towards them. The doorway they had just come through began collapsing with a series of plops.

“Here! There it is!” David hollered triumphantly, pointing to an illustration of the purple-black wormhole that had originally pulled them from the breakfast table earlier that morning.

“Belinda has to say it! You’ve got to read it for her to say!” Rollie yelled even as the floor under them buckled and shook.

“As here is as there and as there is as here,” David read.

“As here is as there and as there is as here,” Belinda repeated, placing her hand on the spell book.

“The door to the other world now shall appear,” David continued.

“The door to the other world now shall appear,” Belinda repeated.

With a crack and a roar the purple-black spiraling wormhole opened up before them. Rollie could feel its suction pulling the hair on his arms even as the floor bucked again beneath them.

“Jump!” he yelled to Belinda. Pulling David’s arm over his shoulder he ignored his brothers strangled cry as he hauled both of them into the vortex.

The tile was cool on his face as Rollie regained consciousness. Squinting his eyes against the fluorescent light he pulled his arms underneath him and pushed himself into a sitting position.

The kitchen was a mess. The wall was dotted with colored cereal and milk splashes where their bowls had been thrown by the vortex, as well as bits of black splattered goo from the rot that had been pulled along with them.  The kitchen table, rarely used, was upside down and thrown against the far wall, leaning at a precarious angle. One or two of the cupboards had opened as well, and their contents added to the mosaic of broken glass and ceramic splinters that littered the floor. Rollie could see one spoon sunk halfway to its hilt in the drywall. David moaned softly and stirred, but did not wake. Belinda also lay unconscious on top of the tiled island, arms crossed over the battered spell book of the witch.

They were home.