Chapter 1: Chapter 1
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.
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.)
Three: In Which Marceline Dies for a Few Minutes and then Totally Lives Forever
Contrary to mildly-popular belief, Marceline didn't want to become a vampire in order to live forever (and get into Ash's pants). She wanted to become a vampire in order to live past the age of eighteen (and also get into Ash's pants).
Marceline is seventeen, alone and starving, and still very much mortal. The small scattered groups of living sentient beings are too small and too scattered, and the few bars and diners that popped up from the slowly-receding rubble are getting sucked back into it for lack of paying customers. Nobody wants to hire a barefoot girl playing an ancient modified evil heirloom.
The few green notes of money she'd recovered from a burning house years ago are now slightly less valuable than play-doh, which might be used to plug various small leaks, or even be eaten by the very daring or the very desperate. And while her father might have once been depended on to provide multiple bananas and mysterious raw meat, no questions asked – well, he can't be depended on anymore.
Marceline had spent years living off of apples, mushrooms and extra radio-wolf legs, but now that the world is all out of those, she's almost regretting missing the chance to make use of the corpses; now all that's left are the bones. She's pretty sure she can't digest those, demon blood notwithstanding.
Walking through streets now littered with makeshift houses made of mud, cloth and straw and backyard barbecues comprising shaggily-dressed people grilling their shoe-soles, Marceline can't help contemplating chewing on one of those buggers. But that's not really her style, and their flesh is probably dry and stringy anyway.
When she was a kid everything seemed so much easier, even if she was hungry most of the time. Now she's still hungry, but also much more alone.
"Least I still got you, Hambo," she tells her teddy bear, but he doesn't respond. She's actually a little bit grateful for that.
She's loitering at a not-yet-bankrupt café, getting the stink-eye from the owner who hasn't had a paying customer in weeks, when she first encounters the Gang. They are a bunch of various immortals; a couple of witches, a wizard, a free-roaming ghost and a few cursed spirits. They only got away with calling themselves The Gang because no other group of people were so inclined to play adolescent turf games at the time; most were somewhat preoccupied with preserving their status as things that are, you know, alive.
One of the spirits spotted Marceline and immediately steered the Gang in her direction. Apparently he knew her father from the few centuries he spent in the Nightosphere before getting himself cursed and earthbound.
"We were pretty close, he and I," he tells her. "Downright chummy, we were."
"Really," Marceline says, sipping her tap water indifferently.
"Yes. He actually still owes me a little favor, only I never got the chance to cash it and now I'm slightly banned from ever getting in touch with him again."
"That's too bad," she says and adjusts the axe-bass strapped to her back. "Listen, I really gotta – "
"Look, don't be like that," he coaxes. "Just put in a good word for me, will you? All I need is maybe a decade, two tops, to wrap up my business, tie some loose ends, you know how it is."
"I really don't." She gets up and pushes past him. "Excuse me."
"I can see those bruises, you know," he calls after her. "And the ribs? They're poking out like old sofa springs. I know a guy. Immortality can be pretty damn easy for someone like you. Tickle my belly, I'll tickle yours and all that."
"Meh," says Marceline.
"Hey! Aren't you gonna pay for that?" shouts the angry café owner. Lumping scrooge. It's just tap water, dammit.
Marceline moves on to the next pseudo-town. She fixes up a lady's rusty bike, gives an old man a pedicure, babysits five two-headed kids and chops a guy's arm off with her bass in a DIY surgical amputation. That earns her about two weeks' worth of chow, if she economizes. The last one was a freebie.
Sitting cross-legged on a comfy pile of twisted mutant bones, Hambo seated on a four-eyed skull beside her, Marceline digs into her hard-earned ketchup-nettle-marshmallow sandwich. Scrubbing those ancient muck-encrusted toenails was absolutely worth it.
Who knows why so many marshmallows and cans of beans survived the wipeout. Same way the apple trees and giant squids did, possibly. Maybe not exactly the same way, though; those giant squids probably have some secret nuclear weapon-proof super-advanced civilization. They were probably the ones who instigated the War, even. Glubbing nautical supremacists. If Marceline wasn't a simply disgraceful swimmer, she might've organized an invasion force just to see the ink drain out of those smug invertebrate faces of theirs.
She's halfway through her KNM when she encounters the Gang for the second time.
It's the white-haired wizard guy who approaches her this time.
"What, are you guys following me or something?" she asks, clutching her sandwich protectively.
He ignores her completely. "Hey, so, I'm Ash," he says and twirls his hand in an elaborate flourish. The marshmallows slip out of Marceline's sandwich and float to his mouth. "You're kinda hot, for a mortal," he continues casually through a mouthful of her marshmallows.
"Those. Marshmallows," Marceline grinds out through clenched jaws, "Are. Mine!" She pounces on him and, fisting a hand in his fancy shirt, socks him square in the nose.
Immortal and wizardly though he might be, this Ash guy is still as vulnerable to socks in the nose as any other squishy meat-based life form Marceline has ever had the pleasure of punching. There is nothing particularly magical about the way he cries.
"Oww! Look whad you did to by dose!" He presses a hand to his nostrils to slow the flow of blood.
"Yeah? Well look what you did to my sandwich!" She waves the now M-less KNM in his face.
"Fide! Here, you cad have the whide odes." He levitates a few half-chewed white marshmallows toward her. "I odly like the pidk odes adyway." They slap her in the face, splattering her with wizard slobber.
"Rrrgh." Marceline's exasperat-o-meter is reaching critical levels. She should shoo this guy off before anyone (else) got hurt – or, glob forbid, she lost any more marshmallows. "Listen, guy, if you want your nose to only have one acute angle in it, better skedaddle. Go on, scoot. Beat it! Before I'm out of spunky ways to say get the lump outta here!"
The Ash fellow swiftly executes a hurried skedaddle, but doesn't forgo tossing a roguish wink her way in the process.
Glob, what a douche.
Kinda hot, though.
The third time Marceline bumps into the Gang is also her last as a proper living thing and, incidentally, her birthday.
Of course she knew that, demon blood or no, prolonged dehydration and deprivation of various nutrients were bound to get her in trouble with her leg muscles at some point. She'd just never anticipated the stubborn buggers choosing to disobey her right on the lip of a nice, scenic, ridiculously steep cliff of all place.
As she tumbles down she has just enough time for one final indulgent fantasy consisting of a bowl, a spork, a napkin, and an enormous, greasy, gravy-dripping all-you-can-eat buffet. The napkin is optional.
Then comes the BAM.
And let her tell you, BAMs are a nasty business. You're falling peaceably, dutifully obeying the laws of gravity, when all of a sudden they sneak up on you, and they really aren't subtle about it. They're loud and painful and disorienting, and not at all among Marceline's favorite things.
She's half conscious, or maybe less, when she notices the hazy brown stretch and the hazy blue stretch that comprised her vision are being rudely interrupted by a hazy gray lump.
"So," the hazy gray lump says, sounding much smugger than a hazy gray lump has any business being, "would you care to reconsider my offer?"
It must be the great irony gods (which in Marceline's mind always look somewhat squid-like and scholarly and very very punchable) that watch over her, she's certain. Nothing amusing ever happens to her that isn't at her own expense.
She gazes at the mildly-colorful haziness around her and tries to remembers if her legs have always felt this, well, feeling-less. She has a bit of an itching suspicion that no, they have not.
"Because, you know," continues the inappropriately smug lump, "as a general rule, I don't like to conduct my business in a rushed manner." The lump takes a step closer. "But seems to me rushing might be in your best interest right now."
Marceline tries her best to glare at him properly, but she's not sure how well she's doing, considering she has to squint to see anything anyway. It's really not her fault. It's her stupid eyes, suddenly deciding to become abstract painters and use her brain for a canvas.
"So I have this vampire friend." The blubbing lump is still talking. "He's a vampire king, actually. He's also a guy who owes me a little favor. I'm sure an impromptu blood-swapping session can be easily arranged."
It seems unlikely he is planning on shutting up any time soon. Seriously, you'd think gray lumps would be more sensitive of proper monologue-timing.
"As you know, vampires are somewhat immortal, and unlikely to die from a negligible occurrence like, say, falling off a cliff a little."
This is getting repetitive.
"Unlike some other creatures, such as humans or half-demons, who might find such an incident rather… inconvenient."
"Okay, okay!" she says through clenched teeth (she is actually rather impressed with herself for that). "I'll ask my dad for a nice half-pension organized tour in Hell for you, all right? Just go get the globdamn vampire already."
He laughs and drags her up, and after he passes a hazy gray hand over her eyes and kicks her (in a decidedly un-hazy fashion) in the shins things start looking slightly less abstract again and her legs seem to be more cooperative. "Hic veni, Lamia Rex!" he declares very dramatically. Marceline wonders how good his grammar is.
There's a loud whoosh, a flame Marceline hadn't noticed before flares theatrically, and she finds herself someplace else.
"I'm here," says a dreadfully melodious, bell-like voice.
When she turns around, she's completely alone save for a man with sharp teeth and the stink of blood.
The Vampire King is kinda pretty in an obnoxious babyface sort of way. He has the sort of nose that can be described with this word she forgot, and very nice eyebrows. Marceline's pretty sure she can take him in an arm-wrestling match, and when he smiles toothily at her and asks what grade she's in she thinks she'd probably really enjoy killing him. A few years later she'll find out she was right. For now, she kinda needs him to kill her if she doesn't want to die forever, so she plays nice.
"Uh, hey there. Nice… cape." It's all black and red and velvety, too.
He looks pleased with the compliment, though, if his ever-widening toothy grin is any indication. Seriously, he has really stretchy cheek muscles. "Thank you. I've had it sewn together from the abject misery of a thousand ridiculously cute critters."
Oh. Well, that she can appreciate. "That's… actually pretty cool," she says.
"I know." He flips it over one shoulder and pulls a quill out of his waistcoat pocket. "So, I understand my services are required."
"Well, yeah, I guess. I just need you to bite me."
"I know. I have already been informed by your liaisons. It was a rhetorical statement. Please sign here."
It's probably one of the most frivolous things she's done in a while, signing this crisp yellow parchment with that slick black feather quill in flowing blood-red ink, and she's done more than a few frivolous things in her life. They're practically her favorite things in the world to do. But really, in a post-apocalyptic world where cannibalism is looking less objectionable by the day, the use for paperwork is pretty much of negative value.
"So, are there any actual lawyers left in the world?" she asks the Vampire King, who's busy conjuring specks of dust to flick off of his starched sleeves.
"Hnmmnm," he says.
The Vampire King vanishes the paper in a plume of blue fire, and Marceline absently notes that she doesn't even know his name. She can't say she is terribly bothered, though.
After he tilts her head at a neck-cramping angle and sinks his fangs into her throat, she blacks out for a while. Dying, in her opinion, really isn't all it's cracked up to be; and neither is this blood-drinking business. She's never experienced anything less romantic in her entire life, she doesn't think – and she is a girl who spent her sweet sixteen riding a wolf over a cliff and into a leech-filled swamp, and who will spend her first date sucking the red right out of her boyfriend's pimples.
Not everyone can survive the transformation into a vampire. It's a pretty draining experience, pun intended. But Marceline's daddy is lord of the underworld and she isn't too brittle a lass herself, and like that spirit said, immortality can be pretty easy for someone like her.
When she blinks her eyes open again, she finds herself hovering horizontally above the ground, drool dripping out of the corner of her mouth and the blood trickling from the two puncture wounds in her neck staining her favorite shirt red. Hmm. Good thing this particular shirt was already red in the first place.
"All right then, a few quick rules," a very satisfied Vampire King says from behind her, wiping her blood off his mouth with a lacy handkerchief. "No direct sunshine, no monotheistic religious symbols, no wooden stakes or any facsimile thereof to the heart or surrounding area, and most importantly: no spicy foods," he tells her sternly. "Believe me, you will not enjoy bringing them back up afterwards."
"Mmm," Marceline says, rubbing her eyes and coming up bloody.
"You should stick to a diet of red for the next few days," he continues. "No blood, at least until you've mastered the whole creature-of-the-night routine and settled on a type. Mine is blondes, by the way," he says with a smirk. "What can I say, I'm an old-fashioned fellow."
Marceline tries to stand, with feet actually touching the ground and that whole shebang, but only manages to flop over in a sort of wobbly somersault and ends up with her feet above her head and her hair sweeping the floor. "Whoa," she mumbles woozily.
The Vampire King winces. "Please refrain from getting your blood all over my floor," he tells her. "My housekeeper just waxed it yesterday."
Marceline gathers up as much saliva and bile as she can and spits it onto his impeccably polished floor. He grimaces.
"That's nice," he says. "Your gratitude is greatly appreciated."
"I'm sorry," she tells him. "I'm not feeling it." She pushes against the floor with a finger and floats upside-down out the door. "Bye, VK. Say hi to your housekeeper for me," she calls behind her.
"You owe me at least three bloodbags," he calls back.
Yeah, right. He just got a free meal out of her. He should at least give her an I Got All My Blood Sucked Outta Me Today And Didn't Cry glitter sticker or something.
Marceline looks at herself in a shard of mirror and admires her non-reflection. She is a vampire now. Cool.
She thinks it's rather ironic that she undied on her birthday. Also economic; she can celebrate both her birthday and undeathday at the same time. That's half the amount of parties.
Oh, dammit. Well, maybe she can fib it and still get to have two separate parties anyway. After all, if the good in the world is ever to be restored, the number of parties for any given occasion must always be maximized. Especially if they're thrown on her account.
As she attempts to get the hang of this whole airborne thing, Marceline looks for something suitably red to practice her vamp-hood on, though she has no actual idea how to go about doing it. Maybe she should have stuck around and asked Vickers some questions.
Actually, no. No, she doesn't tolerate him nearly enough for that.
She glides haphazardly between carcasses of old buildings and the entrails of butchered cities, hoping to find a deflated beach ball or a pair of boxers with a Mickey Mouse print, and laments once more the demise of the glorious apple trees. She's sick of all this wreckage.
When the wolves left all those years ago, they talked about finding a place that's more sprout than decay. Marceline thinks they were really just bored. They weren't that much of wishful thinkers.
But then, Marceline knows the world used to be very big; the sort of big that doesn't mean anything to someone not the size of a sun, at the least. The war is unlikely to have made it significantly smaller. She looks over at the thick woods to the east. It would be pretty cool to just sort of… float above them.
Now then, how do you steer this thing?
She pulls upwards and, whaddaya know, it works. It's pretty nice, actually. Like drowning in reverse or something of an equal degree of grandiloquence.
Marceline stops somewhere below a few poofy-looking clouds and looks down, bobbing lightly with her legs bent leisurely at the knee like they've never even heard of this exceptional oddity known as walking, the lazy bums.
The ground beneath her is an unassumingly drab patch-quilt of greens and browns and grays, but somewhere in the distance there's a long stretch of red and black sprinkled in between some yellow, suspiciously resembling a field of poppies. The wind in her hair is very considerate, and only whips it behind her in a suitably badass fashion rather than splat it in her face. And off at the edge of the horizon, she swears she can see some dust rise behind something that's running very fast and is probably enjoying itself a lot.
There isn't yet a Land of Ooo and there isn't a Candy Kingdom (and no Princess Bubblegum, either), but through her newly (and awesomely) vampiric eyes, Marceline has to admit the world actually looks kinda… appetizing.