One: In Which Marceline Goes Hunting and Befriends Her Dinner
The world after the end is vacant, but not empty, and there are a lot of not-quite-functional devices and not-exactly-secret places and not-really-real people in it to explore. Marceline the Half-Demon Kid is six, alone and mortal, and therefore of exactly the right constitution and inclination to execute some spectacular exploring.
A novice explorer, she is currently equipped only with a dwindling sewing kit, an unbitten red apple, and a just-barely teddy bear. That's all right. Along the way she will come to acquire a previously-new backpack, a bunch of once-dollars and a large amount of additional red apples, which curiously seem to be some of the only surviving edibles around – besides the corpses, that is.
Right now, however, Marceline is not yet in possession of a backpack, and is forced to clutch her (completely practical) equipment close to her chest, producing a heartwarming picture she finds highly objectionable. Good thing there's nobody around to see her.
Although it is morning, the sky is dark and the sunlight seems more crimson than anything. Later – more specifically, a few decades later – Marceline will drink the red from the skies and they'll mostly return to being blue. At the moment, Marceline is not a vampire yet and the nuclear debris paints the days an eternal dusk.
Marceline doesn't mind. She's used to the dark from visiting her daddy in his Kingdom of Everlasting Nightfall, and anyway it makes things appear more interesting. In a lighting like this one can go hunting shadows that are tall and impressive rather than plump and faded. She can properly stalk instead of stroll. She can upend unsuspecting cement relics dramatically, blending in with the shadows immediately afterwards to avoid rightful retribution. And, most importantly, she can pretend to be a fearsome creature of the night at absolutely all hours of the day.
And when she gets tired, she can go home and sleep assured that the night will still be there in the morning.
At the moment, though, Marceline is not tired. She is hungry. And she has only one red apple, which is beautifully unbitten and unfortunately cannot remain that way if she gives into the temptation to mercilessly devour it.
Reaching a decision, and tucking it under her kinda-sorta teddy bear and safely out of sight, Marceline leaves the apple at home and goes food hunting.
Marceline's home is mostly just three almost-walls and a miraculously vertical door. It doesn't have a roof, but she's okay with that, seeing as her mother was murdered by one. It's not actually her real home. She only just found it a few weeks ago, but its walls are bluish-gray and broken and look a little bit like her, so she decided to keep it.
"Listen carefully, men," she tells herself as she expertly prowls the deserted ashlands. "It is vitally important that we catch the enemy unawares. The element of surprise will ensure our victory!"
She agrees with herself wholeheartedly. The only question that remains is who, exactly, the enemy is.
It can't be pieces of buildings or sidewalks this time. Those aren't things she really wants to eat. It also can't be her own shadow. She doesn't even think she can bite it.
"We'll have to think outside the box," she advises. "Creativity is the leftovers of a meal wasted." She thinks she heard that somewhere. If it's something you heard somewhere, it's probably something worth repeating, unless it was said by a teacher. She's not sure if it was said by a teacher, but it doesn't make much sense to her, so saying it so authoritatively makes her feel smarter.
The wasteland is boring. It's the same old rocket butts and radioactive junk and concrete and ash and bone fragments that are so small they lost their white and look as gray as the rest of everything. There was a lot of color in the world before the war started, she remembers. Now the most colorful thing is the blood-red sky.
There are still some trees scattered around (most of them apple trees and, for some reason, ficusses), which is odd considering even the toughest buildings didn't survive unscathed. It's a lucky break the trees did, though, or there wouldn't have been any nice, unbitten red apples.
Unfortunately, Marceline seems to have depleted the entire apple reservoir in the close vicinity (which so far consisted of the staggering sum of one). That means she would have to venture further in her epic quest for sustenance. She just feels bad about leaving poor Hambo behind. He'll be lonely. Or worse – he might bite her apple, that sneaky old bear.
"Weep not, brave soldiers," she says to cheer herself up. "Duty calls now, but soon you will all return to your loving wives!
"Forget the wife! It's the mistress I'mma miss!" she pipes up.
"Unfaithful scoundrels," she grumbles.
Sometimes it's hard, commanding a fearless army inside your head. Such is the burden of greatness.
Fine. In any case, apples aren't what she's hunting. No apples, no shadows, no bits of concrete. That leaves only one thing: the radio-wolves.
Actually, the radio-wolves have nothing to do with the radio. Marceline just didn't fancy calling them radioactive wolves all the time. The name she gave them is a lot shorter and nicer, at least in her opinion.
"I think it's a stupid name," she says.
But she doesn't care what she thinks.
The radio-wolves are wolves that are radioactive, and Marceline knows that because she's a smart kid and understands (some of) the implications of a nuclear fallout. One of which, obviously, is the mass generation of big, fat, six-legged mutant wolves that have green saliva and eat mushrooms.
To hunt a radio-wolf, one must impale it through the heart with a silver spear christened properly in holy water. Alternatively, it can be lured into an elaborate trap with radio-mushroom bait and shot in the head. At least, in Marceline's opinion.
Unfortunately, Marceline doesn't have a silver spear christened in holy water or a gun. She doesn't have any radio-mushrooms either, obviously, or she'd have eaten them already and that's it. Thinking about it, she vaguely recalls eating some radio-mushrooms sometime in the recent past.
Never mind. Some trickery is in order – and it mustn't involve any mushrooms, since apparently Marceline has a slight mushroom problem.
While she scavenges the land for more of those tasty mushrooms, her dastardly mind devises a cunning plan. She will lure the radio-wolves into a trap using herself as bait, and then kill them using her own fists and teeth and secret samurai skills.
It's too bad she doesn't actually have any secret samurai skills.
It matters not! Marceline has an entire army living inside her cerebrum, and they will have to suffice.
Quickly gathering an array of leaves and branches and rope and a heavy rock, Marceline builds a wooden cage hidden in foliage and tied to a tall tree and a stumbling-block that when triggered will cause the rock to drop and drag the cage and the unfortunate creature caught within it up into the air, where it will flail helplessly in anticipation of its horrid demise.
She regards her elaborate trap proudly. Truly the handiwork of a mastermind.
"Masterminds," she corrects herself. How snooty.
Now it is time to lie in wait.
…Lurk. Lurk in wait.
Time, evidently, passes very, very slowly while lurking in wait. Marceline tries to focus on the spooky sounds of the forest, or on her own tactical superiority, but these things lose their glamour after a couple of minutes. She decides it's time to break out the bait and go lure herself some radio-dinner.
Foraging the woods is another one of the activities any adventurer worth their salt must excel in. And if Marceline had any salt, she'd be worth its weight in gold. Probably even in apples. A seasoned forager (aside from the fact that this happens to be her foraging debut), Marceline knows to move quietly and fluidly, blending in with the vegetation. She takes off her partially-whole shoes and ties them over her shoulder by the laces.
The ground is strangely spongy and springy for a land that was swept with a nuclear explosion. Marceline notes there are small greenish sprouts peeking out of it. It's a little amusing; the earth is so stubborn.
As she forages, she notices several more small things that are a little bit amusing. Like how some trees have woody eyes and long noses which they pick when they think nobody's looking (and they do that a lot, seeing as Marceline's stealth is practically legendary); or how there are tiny insectoid birds buzzing around, cawing ominously and rather shrilly; or how the little stones on the ground swallow up the littler stones if they get too close and spit out the leftover sand.
None of these are particularly helpful to her, though, as neither the trees nor the birds nor the stones can speak to tell her if they've seen any radio-wolves around, and none of them seem any more appetizing than the blocks of cement back home.
It seems to her the only way she could find any wolves might be to get very lost, and although she feels slightly lost already, which is quite inconducive to successful luring, she supposes she might have to get even loster. That isn't a particularly comforting notion. She really doesn't like being very lost. Slightly lost is unpleasant enough already. But she's determined to be fed, and if a little losing is what it takes, that's what she shall do.
Luckily, it doesn't take much more losing before she starts hearing radioactive-sounding growls and snarls and yaps and howls. She forages in the direction of the sounds, and soon enough they seem to grow loud enough to be in her field of vision; but she can't see any radio-wolves.
A foreboding sensation slides down Marceline's spine and she can feel her half-demon-kid sense tingling. Oh, no. It feels just like one of those times when the hunter ironically turns out to be the prey and she's pretty sure that if she turns around –
Growl. Snarl. Yap. Howl. Marceline stares into the mouths of half a dozen huge radio-wolves, fangs dripping green drool down their well-muscled chops.
Oh. Well. Seems her underhanded plan is going perfectly. Time to move on to phase two: casual sprinting at the highest convenient speed (convenient being that which does not dislocate any kneecaps).
She idly regrets taking off her shoes as she sprints through the forest at an above-convenient speed; the little and littler stones are quite sharp and not so nice to step on. Although, measuring against the eventuality of being eaten by a six-legged wolf with green saliva, the cuts and scrapes on her foot soles aren't all that bad.
Blinded by (preplanned) panic, she almost misses her elaborate trap; she's hidden it professionally well. But she spots it by the familiar tree next to it and dashes madly in its direction. Admittedly, it will only be able to hold one of the wolves, but hopefully the others will witness her devious cunning and martial prowess and will be sufficiently intimidated to run away screaming.
She barrels at her trap, the wolves closely following (yes, yes, good, everything is going just as expected) and –
…stumbles on the stumbling block, falling into the hidden cage and triggering the trap mechanism. The door snaps shut, the rock falls to the ground and Marceline, wrapped nicely in her stick prison, hangs helplessly a few feet above the ground.
She… possibly should have thought this plan out more thoroughly.
She looks down at the radio-wolves, all of which have sat themselves down on their hind and middle legs and most of which are currently quietly snickering. Marceline's temper flares.
"'S not funny," she says, and she swears the slight whine in her voice is strictly due to getting the wind knocked out of her. Some of the wolves burst out laughing outright. "I mean it! Stop laughing, you guys!" The closest wolf rolls onto its back, hollering with glee, green froth bubbling out of its mouth.
"Hmph. You don't even know how much I've worked on this thing. I had it all planned out. It was beautiful in its simplicity, yet deadly in its – "
"Wait," one of the radio-wolves says. "Had all what planned out?"
"Capturing one of you, obviously!" She rolls her eyes.
Another wolf tries to curb its laughter to ask, "Why?"
"'Cause I'm hungry," she explains patiently.
The wolf stops laughing completely, its face adopting a look of astonished amusement, if Marceline is any judge of radio-wolf facial quirks. Which she is. "You… you wanted to eat us?"
Marceline rolls her eyes again while masterfully avoiding the appearance of petulance. "Don't give me that," she says. "Like you don't want to eat me too."
Most of the wolves have grown quiet by now. Several heads start shaking in bewilderment. "No. Why would we want to eat you? We eat mushrooms."
"Yeah, mushrooms are great!"
"We love mushrooms!"
"I kinda like meat…"
Marceline regards them suspiciously from between the bars of her cage. She smells a trap.
"Well, if you don't want to eat me, then why did you chase me?" Aha. None could hope to outwit such astuteness.
"You were running," says the chatty one. "What's there to do with something that runs except chase it?"
The other wolves nod in support. It is hard to argue with solid logic.
"Besides, it was fun." The wolf bares its oversized, green drool dripping incisors in probably some sort of radioactive grin. "We should do this again sometime."
She smiles back. Treacherous facial reflexes! "No, no! This isn't about fun. This is about food," she insists. "And I'm still not sure you don't want to eat me."
"Yes, well, we already know you want to eat us, so," says the wolf.
"That's a good point," says Marceline.
An awkward silence settles over them. Marceline's brilliant plan didn't cover possible lulls in conversation.
"Well," another radio-wolf says eventually, "I think we might be able to work something out here." He turns to the other wolves and they huddle together and start whispering.
"Just hear me out."
"You always think up the stupidest things."
"Hey, I don't think I need to remind you whose idea it was to go bungee jumping off the Cliff of Foreboding without the rope and harness."
"I didn't see you trying to modify regular bungee jumping gear to fit a three-hundred pound, six legged canine. The abrupt deceleration will kill you if not absorbed properly, you know."
"Just… shut up."
They whisper some more. Marceline strains to hear but she can't make out anything further.
Eventually one of them (she should assign them color coded knitted scarves or something; if only she could knit) stands up on its hind legs and approaches Marceline's cage. Fully erect, the thing looks really really tall. Tall and muscly and juicy and perfect for a stew. It plucks Marceline's cage off the tree and sets it down on the ground.
"Thanks," she says, somewhat reservedly. "You're not going to eat me now, are you?"
"Glob, the hypocrisy," a background wolf mutters.
"Nah," says the one who set her down. Instead, it takes hold of its middle legs with its front ones and pulls. The two limbs detach with a little pop! The now four-legged wolf hands her the severed legs. "Here, take these. You can eat them. We only need like four of those anyway."
There's a wave of mumbled acquiescence followed by a loud series of pops, and Marceline finds herself laden with a large pile of radio-wolf legs.
"Uh… thanks." She adjusts the pile in her arms. "This is really nice of all of you."
"No problem. To be honest, the extra legs were kind of awkward to prowl in. Radioactive waste-induced mutations are not at all as advertised."
Some of the wolves murmur in assent. One of them scowls. "Look, you owe us one, okay, little girl? Those legs were two of my favorites."
"Okay," she says. "I'm Marceline, by the way. I live in the concrete ashlands not far from here. If you guys need a detective or a hunter or an explorer or a war general or something, you can come by."
"Fine," it grumbles. "Let's go, everyone. Losing two legs oddly made me crave some mushroom ice cream. We can burn it off chasing moonlight later."
Marceline didn't wear her shoes on the way back home, because she didn't have any free arms to put them on with. She did have a lot of extra legs, though. Heh.
All in all, she thinks, it was a pretty good hunt. She might not have done too much actual hunting, but she got a pretty sweet business opportunity out of it. It will probably look good on her imaginary resume. And the radio-wolf legs, while a little furry, are delicious. And Hambo didn't even take a bite out of her beautiful red apple after all. And… well, it was a lot of fun. She should definitely do this again sometime.