Two: In Which Marceline Follows a Tunnel and Eats a Very Old Cookie
The thing about wastelands is that they're the only places in the world that don't look all that much bleaker underground. It's a little darker and a little damper and slightly more ominous, but quite frankly, there isn't much of a difference. The only downside is the rather inconvenient access, especially if you don't like digging.
Marceline doesn't like digging.
It is therefore truly auspicious that she happens to stumble upon a fully-constructed tunnel leading straight into one of the few places she has thus far neglected to explore: the Underground Kingdom of Really Hot Rocks.
At least, that's what the carved metal sign nailed above the entrance claims, and Marceline has no reason whatsoever to question it. When has going down unfamiliar dark tunnels topped by vague signs ever lead to something uninteresting? Very, very occasionally, that's when.
Walking through it, surrounded by rough earthy walls that seem to be breathing and seeing the entrance shrink into an ever-diminishing spot of light, Marceline knows she has made the right decision. She is also, for unrelated reasons, rather glad she dragged Hambo along.
"You see, this is why you should go out more often," she tells him. "You never get to be around this much impermeable darkness staying cooped up at home with the wolves."
Impermeable. It's a four syllable word. Very impressive. Reading all those half-singed detective novels left over from before the war is actually paying off. Maybe by her tenth birthday she'll finally have a sufficient vocabulary to beat the Beta wolf at scrabble.
Oh, she'd definitely enjoy that. And she'll make sure to be extra smug about it.
The further down Marceline goes, the warmer and more humid the air around her gets, though she doesn't see any rocks yet. In fact, she doesn't actually see much at all. The darkness is indeed very impressively impermeable down here. Maybe it's just her other senses attempting to compensate, but Marceline would swear she can hear low rumblings and murmurings and possibly even snickerings.
Now, while it is to be expected that the earth would be somewhat rumble- and murmur-happy this deep into it, Marceline can't think of any reason for it to snicker. Is she inadvertently tickling it? But then it would be giggling or chortling, and Marceline is pretty sure what she's hearing is a snicker.
"Suspiciouser and suspiciouser," she mutters.
By this point the things Marceline can see pretty much amount to nothing but a whole bunch of black, and so she decides following the sound of the suspicious snickering might be her best option. It just so happens that the direction the voice is coming from is also the only way the tunnel goes. Except back to the surface, that is. But Marceline is no giver-upper.
"So, what do you think?" she consults Hambo. "A gnome? Dwarf? Gibberling? Actually, I'm not sure if those even live underground. They just seem like the kind of thing that's likely to snicker."
Hambo, unfortunately, doesn't seem to be any more knowledgeable in this particular department than she is. He's usually a pretty smart bear, though.
Marceline sighs. "I wonder if any gibberlings even survived the War. They don't sound like they're very survival-ly. I mean, they're calledgibberlings. You're probably tougher than they are."
Hambo seems to concur. Arrogant little gibberling-slayer.
"I wonder if any humans survived the War," she says.
Hambo is silent. He knows there is nothing smart to say to that.
"I miss people, Hambo."
He understands, even if he doesn't share the sentiment. People were never very nice to him.
After several more minutes of walking, Marceline notices it is not so impermeably dark anymore. Something, somewhere is emitting a soft greenish glow that washes the tunnel walls in a gloomy, sickly light. Now this is certainly a thing that is interesting, and Marceline is sure that if she could only remember the right word for this kind of organic glow, she'd definitely have some serious scrabble ammo.
The light's been getting stronger, and finally Marceline turns a bend and there, sitting motionless in a murky, bubbling puddle – a gigantic, green, glowing glubbing frog.
The snickering's stopped.
"Uh… hi," Marceline says, hiding Hambo behind her back. Who knows what sort of diet ginormous underground amphibians subsist on. Particularly frazzled teddy bears seem as likely an option as any.
The frog says nothing.
"I'm Marceline," she tries again.
The frog carries on saying exactly not a word. Marceline kicks some more dirt into the pond, to no visible reaction. This frog doesn't look very much like the snickery type.
"So, I hear there's some pretty hot rocks down here, huh?"
The frog blinks. It's one of the weirdest things Marceline's ever seen (and she's seen a lot of those). It doesn't blink with both eyes at the same time like any sensible creature; first it closes its left eye, then its right, like two seconds later. And it doesn't have proper eyelids, only this sort of translucent film that actually closes from the bottom upwards instead of the other way around.
If Delta-wolf were here she'd definitely tell Marceline off for staring. Marceline wishes she had a video camera.
"Creepy," she mutters.
"Oh, don't mind Brunhilda; she's harmless. Mostly."
Marceline would have jumped, except she isn't the sort of person who gets startled. Under any circumstances. Ever. So she just turns around, calmly, and asks, "Brunhilda?"
The thing that most definitely did not make Marceline jump is small and humanoid and brown, and would have been impossible to differentiate from the tunnel walls if not for the frog's green glow.
"Yes," he says. "The person you were just gawking at: Brunhilda. Our kingdom's guardian frog."
Now the gargantuan frog deems fit to give a very loud, very deep Ribbit.
"What is she saying?" Marceline asks the small brown thing.
"She is saying 'Ribbit'," he replies drily.
"Oh," says Marceline. "Hey, are you the one who kept snickering around here?"
He looks at her expressionlessly for a moment. Then he says, "Yes. Yes I am."
What is it with small humanoids and sarcasm? It's probably the height-related insecurity, she thinks.
The small brown thing turns to the frog. "Hildie-kins?" he prompts. The frog makes a low gurgling noise and hops heavily to the side, revealing an entrance to another dark tunnel. Or maybe a continuation of the same dark tunnel. Whichever. "Thank you, darling." Turning to Marceline, he says, "This way."
Marceline follows her small brown escort through the short stretch of additional dark tunnel and into an enormous cavern lit by a thousand luminous mushrooms (those things are inescapable, aren't they) and furnished with countless brown rocks that seem to be crawling all over each other, making the cavern's floor seem like one huge, bulky, writhing, living mass.
"So, this is the Underground Kingdom of Really Hot Rocks?" she asks.
"It is," he says. "But the hot rocks thing is just a gimmick."
At a closer look, Marceline realizes the brown rocks aren't rocks at all, but small humanoid things just like her newly-appointed personal tour guide.
Something occurs to her suddenly, something she hasn't considered at all before being formally introduced to Brunhilda the Guardian Frog. She turns to her aforementioned tour guide, and asks, "Do you… have a name or something?"
Marceline would have said he looks surprised, but he really doesn't. She doubts anything could motivate him to expend the energy necessary to coax his facial muscles into the appropriate expression. "I do, actually," he says.
"Can I have it?"
He seems to think it over for a moment. "Well, we can trade. You must give me yours first, though."
Hmm. That sounds rather fishy, and Marceline hates being played for a sucker. "I'll give you the first third, but then you have to give me two-thirds of yours if you want the rest," she offers.
There. She can still haggle. She knew she hasn't lost her touch. "Okay. The first third is Mar," she says.
He nods. "Sigeb," says two-thirds-Sigeb.
"Celine," says Marceline.
"Ert," says two-thirds-Sigeb, one-third-Ert.
Hmm. That turned out to be a mildly peculiar exchange.
"So what do you guys do around here, Sigeb-Ert?"
"We like to think we do all the things the state of being alive implies, and sometimes more than that. We do so love exceeding expectations."
"You can just call me Sigebert, by the way; the audible hyphen is quite unnecessary," says hyphen-less Sigebert. "Please, allow me to show you around."
He leads her down a bunch of stairs to the floor of the cavern, where the large number of small brown things mill about, pinching and pushing each other out of the way and juggling faintly glowing mushrooms.
"Oh, and please take off your shoes," he instructs. "I'd rather you didn't squish anyone today."
Marceline de-shoes and walks alongside Sigebert as he points out various details of cultural and historical significance to the people of his kingdom. Namely, a whole bunch of rocks and dirt.
One of the small brown things (of the living, not mineral, variety) steps on Marceline's foot with rather spiky shoe-soles (how come theyget to have footwear?) and glares at her, like it's her fault somehow. Underground foot-stomping etiquette doesn't seem very feet-friendly.
"And over there, you can see one of the most revered icons of our society: the awe-striking Brownstone of Average Size. It is said that the first ever house-brownie to become a cave-brownie, hundreds of years ago, touched this stone with her very fingers, and was so awe-struck that she decided not to move it, despite the fact that it was interfering with her digging plans. It has been forbidden to relocate it ever since, even if it does throws off the feng shui."
Another small brown thing races by and snatches Marceline's shoes.
"Hee hee hee," it snickers as it disappears into one of the caves branching off from the main cavern.
Marceline sighs. "There's a disappointing conclusion to the fine mystery of the mysterious snickering."
Hambo looks unconcerned, as if to say well, it wasn't all that mysterious in the first place. Such an unimaginative bear.
"All right. Marceline," Sigebert says, regaining her attention. "Now that you've seen our quaint little community and had the chance to get attached to its quiet quirkiness and subtle sensibility, we need your help."
Marceline eyes him suspiciously. She senses… ulterior motives. "Help with what?" she asks carefully.
"Well, you see…" Sigebert squirms. Marceline would never have guessed he was capable of squirming. "We just… The fact is… As the case may be…" He purses his lips. "We can't reach the cookie jar."
Ahhh. She should have guessed all their problems would be height-related. Marceline smirks.
"For hundreds of years, we cave-brownies have been living in this underground kingdom alongside the giganormous cave-frogs. We cultivated our fungi-based agricultural community while they protected us from cave-predators and cave-conquerors and cave-ins, and served as access to the sacred Cookie Jar on the top shelf of the Great Cave. We lived together in harmony and mutual cloying positive reinforcement.
"But then, after the War, the cave-frogs started dying out. We have no idea why, but something in the atmosphere of our caves must have changed. Maybe our frogs weren't supernatural enough to survive the shift, or maybe it was due to some mysterious frog-felling virus.
"In any case, they all died. Only Brunhilda remains, and she is too weak to help us. We are prohibited by our deep-rooted religious beliefs from building ladders or standing on each other's shoulders, and so we prayed that a stranger of sufficient height would come to our rescue. And here you are! You, Marceline, are of sufficient height. You are the chosen one!"
Marceline stares at him. "Did you… You just made all of that up, didn't you?"
"Never mind that," he says. "Do you want a cookie or not?"
Marceline stares some more. She glances at Hambo. Then: "Sure. Lead the way."
The sacred Cookie Jar on the Highest Shelf of the Great Cave didn't seem particularly sacred. Marceline barely had to stand on tiptoe and stretch a little to get to it. But she has to admit: it is a pretty big cookie jar.
Of course, Marceline hasn't eaten any cookies since a while before her mother died, years ago. She can't say she isn't the slightest bit excited as Sigebert sits her down on a surprisingly comfy patch of dirt and starts arranging some cookies on a plate.
"You are obligated to drink tea," Sigebert informs her. She takes the tiny cup he hands her and finishes it in one quick slurp.
This tea thing, it's pretty tolerable. "Can I have a cookie now?" she asks.
He gestures vaguely towards the fancy cookie plate. Marceline takes one, and she has never been so grateful for her fangs before, because she is pretty sure she would have lost all of her teeth if they weren't so sharp.
This cookie might be harder than concrete, but the taste's pretty similar.
"So," says Sigebert as Marceline struggles not to asphyxiate on her treated-steel cookie. "How are things on the surface?"
"Red," Marceline says as soon as she's choked down a flinty piece of her allegedly-cookie. "Also, dark."
"We have heard of your overworld war," he says. "We approve."
"Uh, thanks?" She's not sure how she's supposed to take his touching endorsement of the nuclear apocalypse. "These cookies are terrible, Sigebert," she tells him. "There's no way anyone could eat them. They were better off on the shelf."
"Hmph." So he really can pout. You learn something new everyday. "You should be more sensitive of other cultures. Criticizing such fine cuisine, honestly…"
"Sigebert, have you ever met any humans?" Marceline interrupts his tirade.
He looks at her like he has just learnt something important about her. "No," he says. "I've lived down here my entire life, and no human has ever come by to visit. Rather impolite, when I think about it."
"Oh," says Marceline.
He gives her another oddly understanding glance. "And you?" he asks. "Have you met any humans?"
"Yeah. I used to know a lot of them. But there aren't any left now." She plays with the wrought-iron cookie in her hands. It doesn't crumble, not even a little. "I guess I kinda liked them, while they were around."
Sigebert hums vaguely in encouragement.
"I have my wolves now. But they're a lot fuzzier than most humans."
Sigebert sips his tea ponderously.
"Well, fuzzy is good, I think," he says.
"Yeah," says Marceline. "I guess it is."
They drink some more tea and pretend to eat another cookie, then Marceline goes rock-sledding in the Cavern of Jaggedness. It doesn't go as smoothly as she expected, astonishingly enough.
"I guess there really are some pretty jagged rocks in the Cavern of Jaggedness, huh?" she tells Hambo, and she thinks he would have shrugged if, y'know, he actually had any shoulders.
She finds Sigebert back where she left him, trying unsuccessfully to put a dent in his cookie by bashing it repeatedly against a rock. The rock cracks a little.
"Thanks, Sigebert," she tells him. "For the tea. And the cookies, I guess. Ugh. What did you need them so badly for, anyway?"
"Oh, nothing of significance," he says. "Only to take over the world and such."
Marceline snorts. Sigebert smiles.
She bids a polite farewell to Brunhilda on her way back up to the surface, but the frog doesn't bother ribbitting for her. Glubbing snob.
Even though the sky outside is as dark as ever, Marceline still has to blink as she steps out of the tunnel to adjust to the new lighting. She tucks Hambo under her armpit and heads home.
So. She's lost her shoes, eaten some terrible confectionaries and gotten a new tear in her jeans (which will pretty soon cease to be eligible for classification as an item of clothing), but she had fun.
"Sigma-wolf will probably be mad, though. He hates sewing." She peeks at Hambo. "Oh, don't give me that told you so face. Like youdidn't think going rock-sledding was a pretty sweet idea." Yeah, he's got nothing to say to that. He wanted to try it more than she did.
So, okay. Now Marceline knows: going rock-sledding in dark caverns filled with jagged rocks is not necessarily a pretty sweet idea.
Most of the time. Thus far.
The next one will probably be considerably sweeter.
"I hope Sigebert doesn't really plan on taking over the world," she says, as an afterthought.
Hambo simply smirks.
(Marceline hopes Hambo's not secretly in cahoots with the cave-brownies in a nefarious plot to bend the entire world to their will using unbreakable chocolate-chip cookies. She's probably just being paranoid. It would definitely be entertaining to watch, though.)