THROUGH THE WRECKAGE
Chapter 1 Part 1: The Ominous Cloud
The cave was now quiet. The music that had reverberated off the walls had long gone silent, leaving only the ever-present dripping of condensation from the cave roof. It was a singular sound, the otherwise innocuous 'plip' of a droplet filtered and warped through the echo of its fellow droplets that had fallen before it. It's fragmentation and composure implied distance but its pitch screamed proximity; it was an unnerving sound, a familiar sound.
A young-looking woman listlessly shuffled to one side of her living room and leaned her forehead against the wall, her raven-black hair completely obscuring her face. She turned around slowly, propping herself up against the wall, and stared out at the mess of paper scraps that lay in a pile on her living room floor. She had gathered them all together, pouring through them as she did, often stopping to futilely wipe the tears from her eyes. They were more than scraps of paper; they were the tattered and inexplicably damp remnants of a former life, now covered in messy scrawls of barely legible text.
Lyrics. They were covered in lyrics and very inane ones at that.
Not one hour had passed since the Ice King had flown into her cave, driven by some imbecilic notion of concocting serenades, and completely ruined her day over a scant ten-minute period; Simon had always been a very efficient man. A trait he retained even after all his other positive attributes had eroded away, leaving only the grinning lunatic she had just seen. This was by no means the first time he had shown up on her doorstep, utterly oblivious to their shared history, and she couldn't allow herself to believe that it would be the last. He was, after all, immortal like her.
She held a small picture out in front of her, it was worn and torn but the color was still bright and vivid. It was of a little girl that looked to be no more than ten. She wore a blue dress over a deep red shirt, her dark black hair stood out against her pale grey skin, the happy smile on her face broken only by the sharp tips of her fangs. The memory of that day brought fresh tears to her eyes.
"Oh, Simon…" she said lowly, sliding down the wall until her head rested between her knees. "All this time…I didn't know."
"Didn't know what, Marceline?" said a familiar voice.
Her head snapped up, in her doorway stood a human boy and a yellow dog. They were scanning the scene before them, barely concealed bemusement on their faces.
"Finn! Jake! What're you still doing here?" Marceline said, legitimately surprised that they had stayed…the entire time. "Oh Glob! What did you see?!"
"Uhh…" Finn said, shooting Jake a nervous look. "Well, we were kinda gonna ask you the same thing just, y'know, differently. Like, replace 'you' with 'we' and 'see' with 'what the math just went down in here?!'" Finn paused, mulling over his response in his head. "Waitaminute…'What did we what the math–' that's no good…"
Jake lightly slapped the human boy on the arm. "I think what Finn's trying to say is 'What the donk was that all about?!', right buddy?"
Finn nodded and gestured at Jake. "Pretty much."
"Right, sooooo…" Marceline said, pinching the bridge of her nose.
"What the donk was that all about?!" they said in unison.
Marceline sighed, looking at the picture in her hand. "We have a history, me and the Ice King, I met him when I was just a little girl."
"Before he put on the Ice Crown and went brain-jacked or after?" Finn asked.
"No he had the crown but…" Marceline locked the two of them in a withering red-eyed glare. "What?! You knew about that?!"
"Yep," Finn said, blithely unaware of the hole Marceline was trying to glare through his face.
"And you guys still keep beating him up?!" she exclaimed. "What. The! MATH! Finn!"
"Look," Jake said sternly. "He may have been a real nice guy or whatever, but he's still got mad mondo ice powers! He could really hurt someone, 'specially since he's a complete psycho…that…" Jake began to wilt under the seething glower Marceline had locked onto him.
She rolled her eyes in frustration, "Whatever, look, just…*sigh*…How did you even find out? It's not like he even knows who he is anymore."
"We found some vids," Finn said with a shrug. "He was burying them in a dump, muttering something about secrets. We figured he was planning something and dug 'em up and watched 'em. Turns out he was some guy named–"
"Simon Petrikov?" Marceline finished. "Why didn't you guys tell me?"
Fin scratched his head underneath his trademark hat. "We did."
"Well, yeah," Jake said, nervously shuffling behind Finn. "Remember when we all got together and had hot chocolate and stuff? We were celebrating the fact that something actually made us feel bad for the Ice King."
"Yeah," Finn said. "We just figured that you didn't come inside because you really, really, really, really didn't like the Ice King. We actually thought we'd have to save him when we saw that he was coming here!"
"I just thought you guys were being a bunch of saps or something! Glob! You Good-Alignment types are so frustrating!" Marceline said with irritation.
Finn rushed forward, his hand outstretched. "Hey now Marcie, what's wrong? Ever since Ice King showed up you've been really down."
"Yeah, it got pretty heavy in here during the jam session," Jake said with genuine concern. "Wanna talk about it?"
Marceline blinked in surprise. "What."
"Yeah, what?" Finn agreed.
"Jay T. Dawgzone says that the best way to reconcile a painful experience is through healthy discourse with one or more trusted friends," Jake said explanatorily. "Direct quote."
"Jay T. Dawgzone?" Marceline said dubiously. "The 'Mind Games' guy?"
Jake's eyes darted from side to side. "Y-yeah, well, he writes a lot of things! Bro's well-traveled!"
"I dunno, guys…" Marceline said softly. "This is, like, super personal. I don't even like thinking about that part of my life, talking about it might be…painful."
"We understand," Finn said, putting a hand on her shoulder. "But, math it, we hate to see a pal hurtin', you know? We gotta try and help! Part of that whole 'Good Alignment' thing."
She smiled and looked up at him, "You guys really were there the whole time, weren't you? You were worried about me…"
"Yep!" Jake said with a nod. "Not that we thought you needed help with the Ice King or anything, but we don't leave bros alone with nutbars on principle!"
Marceline sighed and looked out at the pile of tattered memories, a fresh pang of sorrow and helplessness coursed through her. Maybe she did want to talk about it, maybe she had wanted to talk about it to someone for centuries but couldn't; it was only recently that she actually had friends worthy of the story.
"Yeah, alright," Marceline said, patting the ground next to her. "Maybe it's about time I hash this biz out. Plant 'em, this may be a long one."
Jake and Finn smiled and sat down on the floor, Finn shimmied close to her and Jake morphed a lounge chair out of his body and sat on it.
Marceline cleared her throat and began, "I don't remember much from before the war, it's all pretty blurry. I remember my mom cleaning me up after I took a tumble, picnics and stuff like that, but I can't really picture many details. The one thing I remember clearly was when the bombs started falling. It was awful…everyone was panicking, running about and getting into shelters. There were riots, looting, martial law, doomsday cults roaming the streets…and…"
"Warning! Warning! The L1–Channeler has been spotted moving up the east coast!" a military news announcement blared over the riotous racket. "All citizens are to report to designated shelters immediately. Repeat: All citizens are to report to shelters immediately!"
Marceline whimpered and hugged her legs even tighter, trying to become one with the cold tin of the drainpipe she had hidden in. One ear rang with the deranged screaming of the civilization outside burning itself alive; the high warbling of air raid sirens and the screams of the damned underscored by the low thudding concussions of artillery and Isomeric Bombs. It was a demented orchestra that scored the end of the world. The other ear knew only metallic silence haunted by the distorted 'plip' of water, the sound of cold dank darkness. She just wanted to disappear, to climb into the darkness at the end of the pipe and simply leave this place. She sobbed quietly to herself.
Her ears perked; even over the howling of the city outside she could still hear a familiar voice.
She began to make tentative movements towards the mouth of the drainpipe, listening intently.
"Marceline! Marcie! Where are you?"
She gasped happily as she recognized that voice. "Hambo! In here!"
An older boy of about thirteen with shaggy flaxen hair and bright blue eyes appeared at the mouth of the pipe, a relieved smile on his winsome face, it was Hampton 'Hambo' Beauregard. "Marcie! I knew I saw you run over here! Thank–" *BOOOOOM* "Oh jeez! C'mon Marcie, I gotta get you to a shelter! My parents are in the shelter on Spalding Avenue, we'll look after you!"
Marceline shook her head. "Mommy says that those things are death traps! She told me to hide and stay still! We've got a special place to go to."
Hambo grunted as a tremor rolled through the ground and shook the pipe. He yelled in alarm and scurried inside as a main battle tank rolled off the road covering the pipe. It crashed down the incline, engine roaring as its tracks pulled it along.
"Are you okay Hambo?" Marceline asked once the tank had rolled on.
"Yeah…" he muttered, brushing debris from his shoulder. "What do you mean a 'special place'?"
"A cave up in the hills," Marceline said. "Mommy says that it goes deep enough to protect us from the dirty bombs and no-one knows about it! She's off ste –er–getting supplies from stores…and the army."
"Marcie that's crazy! There aren't any caves up there; I know, I've looked!" Hambo said curtly. "C'mon! If we stay out here when the I-Bombs drop we'll be cooked alive!"
"Mommy told me to stay, so I'm staying!" she said defiantly.
Hambo rolled his eyes and grabbed her by the elbow. He started to crawl out of the pipe, dragging a protesting Marceline with him. He clambered out of the pipe and pulled the struggling girl with him, she started pounding her tiny fists on his arm.
"Lemme go! Lemme go!" she shouted over the din of the panicked city.
"Marcie, stoppit!" Hambo grunted as small feet began colliding with his shins. "Ow! It's not safe out here!"
She lunged forward and sank her teeth into his hand. He cried out and withdrew, cradling the rapidly bruising mark. Marceline darted back towards the drainpipe when Hambo's arms shot out and grabbed her from behind, holding her arms against her body.
"Marceline!" he said sternly. "You've gotta get to a shelter! My dad says the Bug Bombs'll start falling soon, we gotta get inside before that happens!"
"It's not the Bug Bombs you need to worry about," said a voice from behind. "It's the L1–Channeler killing its way up the coast."
Hambo spun around to see a tall raven-haired woman straddling a supply-laden ATV; she lifted a pair of anti-flash goggles and locked her cobalt-blue eyes onto him. "See, unlike a bomb, that thing can just walk through a shelter door. When it gets here it'll kill every last one of you…happily."
"Muh-muh-Mrs. Abadeer…" Hambo said as Marceline rushed past him and into her mother's arms. "I just wanted to keep her safe, I wasn't sure you'd…"
"Come back?" she said flintily. "The bombs could have started falling when I was gathering supplies and I'd still have made it back here. Don't you ever underestimate a mother, Hambo, don't you ever. And you can call me Ruth, Hambo. End of the world, I'll allow some familiarity."
"Mommy?" Marceline said softly. "Can Hambo come with us? I don't want to leave him here."
Her expression softened, "I'm sorry Marcie but we just don't have the supplies, I could barely get enough for you and me. Besides…" she looked up at Hambo, softness all but absent. "I think he'd rather spend the time he has left with his family, right?"
"Yes ma'am…Ruth," Hambo said before he turned to leave.
Marceline rushed forwards and tugged on his shirt. "Hambo! Take this!" she said as she handed him a long gold necklace with a small heart ornament. "It'll keep you safe!"
He smiled gently and put in on, kneeling down to Marceline's level. "You stay safe Marcie. You survive! You hear me? You survive and we'll meet again!"
He leaned in and kissed her on the forehead and she hugged him tightly, a small tear rolling down her cheek. He then rose to his feet and ran up the incline, he looked down at the two of them, lingering for a moment, and ran off down the road. A battalion of tanks and fighting vehicles followed shortly after.
The ATV raced through the back roads of the city, the main highways and road now clotted with the those desperate to flee and the half-frenzied soldiers trying to keep them in. Marceline could only get glimpses of the carnage from between buildings, but each one was an awful tableau in her young mind. Heavy weapons discharging into lines of occupied cars, tanks plowing through throngs of panicked civilians as they swarmed out of the city. Eventually she simply squeezed her eyes shut, the anti-flash goggles fitted snugly to her face made it seem all the more dark. The wind rushing by her head only mostly drowned out the awful screams and sharp reports of gunfire, each one that got through made her instinctively squeeze her mother's waist even tighter.
The ATV stopped behind a partially collapsed ruin of an apartment building. Ruth turned to face Marceline, signaling for her to hop of the vehicle, she did. Ruth swung her leg over the seat and dismounted.
"Marceline, I'm going to go look for a way out, don't move from the ATV. I'll be right back."
Marceline nodded and her mother darted around the corner, carefully scanning the surroundings for soldiers. As soon as she disappeared from sight Marceline got low to the ground and shuffled under the four-wheeled vehicle. That was when she heard it, a low buzzing sound like a swarm of angry bees. She looked out from under the ATV and up into the sky. She could see Dominion warplanes as they soared overhead, each one releasing dark black clouds of roiling insects: Bug Bombs. The sparrow-sized biomechanical weapons streaked towards the hapless city, each one carrying an isomeric warhead. The swarm touched down over the downtown area. Marceline felt a searing heat on her face as thousands of bright white dots shone through her flash goggles like tiny stars. Instinctively her hands shot up to her ears, her hands clapped against the solid plast-armor of her helmet as she curled into a ball. No sooner than she had a colossal staccato blast tore through the alley, dust and debris surged forwards as the blast wave passed. Marceline had squeezed her eyes shut and almost screamed when a pair of steely hands pulled her out from under the ATV.
"Marceline!" It was her mother. "Are you all right?"
Marceline blinked rapidly, she was too terrified to respond.
Her mother clicked her tongue in exacerbation. "I wish you hadn't given your protection charm to that boy! Marcie, hold still…I'm going to do something that may feel a little weird, but I want you to stay still, okay?"
Marceline nodded and tried to quiet her trembling body. Ruth raised her left pinkie finger to her mouth and bit down hard enough to draw blood. She drew a small rune on her daughter's forehead and then smudged it with her thumb while saying. "Defendes a periculo."
Marceline felt a strange fizzling sensation ripple across her body. "It…tickles."
Her mother gave a small tight-lipped smile; barely able to hide the agony that now wracked her body. "There, that should keep you safe."
"Are there any soldiers mommy?" Marceline said quietly. "Is it safe to leave?"
She picked Marceline up and sat her down on the vehicle, sitting with her in between her legs. "Leaving would be safer than staying. Hold on!"
The ATV's engine roared and the two streaked down the alley. The small vehicle drifted between buildings, the shockwaves of further explosions thudding into their bodies as the attack continued. A particularly close explosion sent a tremor through the block and sent an already compromised condo past its breaking point. The terrific sound of cracking concrete and rending rebar dominated the air as they rolled forwards. Marceline screamed and covered her head with her hands. In a series of movements almost too fast to see, Ruth nipped her left ring finger and wrote a glowing rune into the air. She crushed the glowing symbol in her hand and shot out her arm, now encased in a crimson aura.
"Dispello!" she shouted.
The building arrested its fall an instant before being completely obliterated by a blast of red energy; its pulverized remains hurtling out in the opposite direction.
Marceline felt something happen to her mother's breathing, it was becoming low and haggard. She looked up at her mother, her usually rich olive skin was now pale and ashen, a small rivulet of blood running down from her left nostril. "Mommy? Are you okay?"
"Shut up!" she snapped. "Keep your head down and keep quiet, I need to concentrate!"
Marceline whimpered and ducked her head.
The ATV crashed through a wooden fence; Marceline felt the sharp wooden splinters shatter themselves against the field that encapsulated her body. They raced across the yard of a freshly looted house, from her huddled position she could only see the former occupants for an instant, four pairs of dangling feet out the corner of her eye. Another impact as they plowed through another fence, but instead of another lawn they were now clambering up an unkempt grassy hill. They had made it to the outskirts of the city.
The ATV's engine groaned as it hoisted them up the hillside, its heavily treaded wheels tearing the dry grass from the exhausted soil. Marceline could hear the sharp coarse expletives spat out by her mother, as though her anger could motivate the machine to climb faster. A final lurch and the strained vehicle rolled over the lip of the ledge and rolled up onto a small dirt road. The ATV came to an abrupt halt and a final whispered curse slipped from her mother's lips.
"Marcie…" she said shakily. "Keep your head down, honey…"
Marceline's head shot up to look around, her eyes going wide at what she saw. For fifty meters on either side there were dozens of artillery pieces, scores of military vehicles, and hundreds of soldiers. Roughly twenty soldiers turned from their business and gawped at them for a moment before raising their assault rifles.
"What're you doing here?" the closest soldier shouted. "You're supposed to be in the shelters!"
"Please, just let us through!" her mother said plaintively. "Those shelters are death traps! The Lich will kill everyone who stays and you know it!"
"What did you say?!" a high-ranking officer shouted. "How did you know it was…Arrest her! Security breach!"
The other soldiers began to advance on the two, weapons drawn. Ruth began to raise her left hand to her mouth.
"Mommy! No!" Marceline begged, grabbing onto her wrist. "You'll get hurt if you do that again!"
She wrested her arm from her daughter's grip. "Quiet! We need a distraction if we're going to get away!"
"But–" the little girl began to say.
The soldiers grew closer with rifles raised when a soundless wave of sickly harlequin light washed over the landscape. Wherever the light touched plants wilted, colors dimmed, and people shuddered. Though bright as the nuclear heart of a fusion bomb the light was as cold and clawing as the bitterest winter gale. It felt as though life itself fled from whatever surface defiled by the light, leaving only a numb, oily sensation behind. The soldiers gawped at the terrible epicenter as it hovered over the city; their already haggard faces withered and grayed somewhat under the onslaught of awful magic. As the undead star above the city waned a single terrible figure could be seen at its center.
The officer from before was the first to regain his composure; he activated a number of targeting devices on his helmet and shouted into the receiver, "All guns, target sighted! It's the L1–Chaneller! Range oh–oh–two–point–five; aerial quadrant point–six; eighty-two degrees on Gun Twenty-Seven's position. All units fire!"
The closest gun to them turned and stabilized its solution, taking its target into its sights. There was a massive report as the gun fired, its barrel thrust backward from the force of the firing as a flash of smoke and fire belched from the muzzle. Over three-dozen similar blasts followed immediately after, each one hurling isomeric warheads at the relatively miniscule target. An agonizing second later and the air immediately around the dread being lit into enormous explosions that pulverized the city blocks beneath.
Ruth revved the ATV and shot off into the hills while the soldiers were distracted. The small vehicle tore up the dirt road, twisting and turning between stupefied soldiers, occasionally nearly getting flipped by the delayed blast waves of the distant detonations. As they sped along the road above the gun battery Ruth looked out at the city. Large sections of it were now leveled as bright white flashes popped like festive fireworks. Through her anti-flash goggles she could see C-Beams, glittering pillars of incandescent plasma, as they wrought terrible destruction on downtown and residential areas from their orbital platforms. The terrible beauty of the scene had almost distracted her from the orbs of green death lancing towards the gun battery not thirty meters away.
"Oh no," she muttered quietly.
The impact was muted and dull, sound died at its epicenter. The blast wave was akin to a roiling sheet of ice water as it picked up the ATV and its occupants and scattered them like motes of dust. The only sound from the display was the thunderous roars of the guns as they let off one last volley before wilting and evanescing, melted and vaporized by the heatless flame. The agonized screams of the soldiers caught in the terrible inferno were mercifully short, their bodies obliterated before they could fully express their suffering.
Marceline groaned and stirred on the ground, even through the shield she had felt that impact. She was unharmed but her head felt terribly jumbled, like loose marbles were rolling around inside as they looked for their old slots. She shakily rose to her feet and removed her helmet. She looked around, where the artillery had been there were now smoldering wrecks of liquefied metal, barely discernible human corpses littered the ground around them. As a stray breeze pushed a column of smoke onto the hillside she steeled herself against the all-too-familiar stench of roasted flesh. But there was no smell, no cooked meat, no burning slag, not even the comforting smoky smell of burnt grass; no smells whatsoever. She looked down at the grass around her feet; the brownish-green blades were now gray as ash. She reached down and felt it; she hissed in surprise and drew her hand back, it was as cold as snow. She scanned the hillside; all the plants were gray and dead, even the flowers. A single flower stood within arms reach, it looked like one of those old pictures Marceline saw in their family photo book or on those artsy websites her mother hated…Mother!
"Mom!" Marceline called. "Mommy! Where are you?"
She desperately scanned the hillside, nothing was moving save for the billowing coils of smoke. Marceline knelt in the death-cold petrified grass, a sob beginning to form in her plaintive cries. "Mommy…"
'Marceline…' rumbled a voice in the back of her head.
She looked up, the voice had no origin outside her mind but the sensation inside her head directed her gaze towards the smoldering wreckage of the guns. Through the smoke and dust she could see two blazing pinpoints of green light hovering an inhuman height above the ground. The smoke parted revealing an enormous man clad in dark green garments, a gilded crown sat atop his head as a green flame flickered above it, two enormous horns jutting from the sides of his head. He was easily four meters tall and his bone colored skin was as desiccated and lifeless as parchment. His 'eyes' were merely two enormous sockets; empty caverns save for the glowing pupils peering out of the shadows within. His thin dry lips were pulled back from crooked teeth in a ghastly smirk. He raised a decayed arm; abuse of blasphemous magic had eroded away the flesh up to the elbow. He made a beckoning motion with his huge skeletal hand.
The deep commanding voice in Marceline's head sounded again, 'Marceline…come.'
The last word seemed to echo inside her head and slowly but surely she walked towards it. Part of her screamed at her to run away, to find a hole to hide in, to kill herself right there, to do anything but approach that horrible twisted thing; but another part, a part that was like an ice-cold nail inside her brain, ordered her onwards. As she drew closer she noticed a catastrophic drop in temperature, like she had just walked into a freezer. The air was slowly setting around her like ice, a feeling similar to gelid needle points pushing into her flesh arresting her breathing and sending waves of shivers up and down her spine. The cold was unbearable. The world around her began to bleed away, evanescing like so much smoke, becoming a dark frigid abyss. All that was clear and distinct to her now was the cold, the terrible, terrible cold, and the dimly glowing being in front of her.
'Aren't you cold…Marceline?' he asked, the smile on his face seemed to be that of kindness.
"Y-yes…" the little girl whimpered quietly, she could feel her flesh stiffening as it froze solid. "I-I-I'm s-so c-cuh-cold."
As icy death crept through her skin and into her heart she could now see that the beast's smile was not only kind, but also warm, a beacon of warmth and heat in a deathly abyss.
He held out his arms as if inviting her for a loving embrace. 'Come to me…Marceline. Aren't you cold?'
"Yes," she said numbly, shambling forward with her arms outstretched. "Please…Please, help me."
'Fret not, little one…' he rumbled, a sort of dark serenity in his voice. '…You will never again know cold, nor will you know hunger, or pain, or sorrow. You will never know the cruel joys of the world or its merciful agonies.' Its hands became encased in poisonous green flames, dread energies coiled up its arms. 'You will know peace…Marceline.'
She was now but a few paces from the undead abomination, arms still outstretched for a hug. "Thank you."
Just as the blast of dire magic leapt from the Lich's hands a body hurled itself between the two of them. It was the girl's mother. A futile action he had witness a million times over from a million mothers protecting their spawn. She had leapt upon her child as though her frail body of meat and bone could protect her from the hellfire. He chuckled softly to himself, even though he had butchered millions he still took a unique satisfaction from 'playing' with his prey. The Lich turned to walk away; he had a city to kill after all…work, work, work…
Something stirred in the blasted crater.
He spun around to see the human woman clambering out of the crater, the little girl in her arms; there wasn't so much as a burn between them. He growled lowly and let loose another wave of demon's fire, the woman and child were consumed yet again, lost to his eyes amongst the roiling cloud of destructive magic. To his dismay the woman ran out the other side of the inferno, still clutching her child, still unharmed.
"What?" he muttered aloud.
The Lich moved to give chase when a familiar sound washed over the hillside. The droning buzz of rotary cannons drowned out the Lich's thoughts, he shook and shuddered as hundreds of armor piercing bullets smashed into his magical barriers. He spun around to see dozens of gunships hovering above him and still more tanks and soldiers approaching, guns trained and missiles primed.
He turned his head to see the mother running up the hillside, child in her arms. "Hm."
The Lich silently launched himself at the swarm of irritating pests.
Marceline's eyes fluttered open, a momentary panic overtook her ask she remembered the ordeal. She shuddered and rubbed her arms, fearing they had actually frozen solid. But she was warm now, cradled in her mother's arms as she run up the hillside. She looked up at her mother and gasped, alarmed by the greasy pallor her face had taken; rivulets of sweat rolled down her ashen face, her usually full red lips were now thin grey lines pulled into a tight grimace of pain. Her bright blue eyes peered out from a creased sweating brow, the pallor-darkened skin underneath them made her eyes stand out all the more, a steely look of determination burned in them. She sprinted up the hillside until she came upon a ridge at the base of a large outcropping of rock. Ruth stopped dead in her tracks, panting raggedly.
No reaction, not even blinking at the sound of her daughter's voice.
"Mommy!" she repeated.
Again, no reaction.
Ruth blinked abruptly, snapping her gaze down to Marceline. Marceline carefully wrested herself from her mother's steely grip, setting both feet down on the ground. The sounds of screaming and explosions drew her attention, she looked out at the city and tears welled up in her eyes. Her home for her entire life was now wreathed in flame and smoke. The once tall proud buildings of downtown were blazing pillars of flame and shattered ruins of steel and concrete. The residential areas were either infernos belching greasy black corpse smoke or glowing swaths of molten slag. The skies were clear and no bombs were falling.
"The bombs have stopped falling," she murmured, still hearing the sharp blasts of explosions and the high senseless sounds of human suffering. "So where's the…"
She looked down at the base of the hill and gasped. Amidst the ruin of gunships and tanks stood an impossibly tall man; his hands radiated green energy while he tore through vehicle and soldier alike. Though too far away to discern actual features, an electric chill raced up Marceline's spine: he was looking at her.
'…C͏̸o̵̶͘͝ḿ̧̧͜͞e̷̷͘͡ ͢͠t̴̨͢͞ò̴̕͜ ̶̶̴̕҉m͘͢e̸̸͘.̧͡ ̷̡…͏͢Ḉ̷͠o͘͟m̀̕ę͠ ̷͘͠͡t͘͠͏̷͘o̷̷͡ ̸͘m͞͏́ȩ̀͡͡,̶̀̀͞ ̴͘c͘͞h́͘͢͝i̷͟͏҉̴l̛̀͜d̶̢.̶̸̨͜͟ ̨̛͜͝…̶B̸̷̧͡͞ę̡͝ ̵̵̵̢f̸͘͢͡r̡̨̢̀͟e̷̡͜ę̷̵.̸͟͞͞,' echoed inside her head.
She squeezed her eyes shut and backed away from the edge; she shuddered violently and looked around for her mother. She was on her hands and knees in front of the rock face, busily scribbling symbols and runes into the dry powdery dirt.
"Mommy!" she cried as she ran towards her. "Mommy, the Lich! He saw me! He's coming!" Marceline shuffled and bobbed in panic, her mother continued to scrawl into the dirt at the base of the rocky outcropping. "Mommy?"
Ruth placed a blood-soaked hand on the surface of the stone and hissed, "Qui latebat, revelatum est."
There was a sound of stone and earth shifting from deep within the mountain. The solid rock face fragmented and began to swirl like a vortex; the spinning mass of grinding rock receded into the mountainside, revealing a cave.
"Is that–" Marceline began to say when her mother grasped her shoulder, holding a bloodied hand to her face. She began to mutter arcane words as she ran a wet finger up and down Marceline's face, expertly drawing elaborate symbols and patterns in a matter of seconds.
"Marceline…" Ruth said, a pained hiss escaping her as she leaned forward. "Listen, I–"
Marceline looked down and almost screamed, a large shard of jagged metal was protruding from the right side of her mother's abdomen, dark clingy blood had already soaked most of her leg. "Mommy! You're hurt!"
She grimaced and shook her head; Marceline could tell she was trying not to tremble. "I'll be fine, honey. Please…please listen to me. I put a barrier on the opening of the cave; it'll be safe from the Lich in there. I need you to go into the cave–"
Ruth continued uninterrupted, "–inside there's a pool with a special circle. I want you–"
Marceline shook her head. "No!"
"I want you to kneel in the circle and–"
"No!" she cried, tears running down her cheeks. "Come with me! Show me what to do! Please, I can't leave you out here!"
"I can't, the spell I cast on you earlier will let you go through the barrier. I can't cast one on myself."
"Then I'm not going!" Marceline shouted.
"Marceline!" she barked, her haggard face still as stern and commanding as ever. "You listen to me right now! You go into that cave, understand? You go into that cave and kneel next to the pool!" Marceline squeezed her eyes shut and looked away, only to have her mother's steely hand grasp her jaw and turn her back. "LISTEN! You kneel in the circle next to the pool and wash the symbols off your face! Got it?"
Marceline blinked mutely, Ruth leant in quickly, a soft look on her face. "Got it?"
She reluctantly nodded and her mother let go and leaned back. "Good. I need you to be strong, Marceline. I need you to be brave. If you die, then all of this will have been for nothing." She kissed her on the forehead and drew her into a tight hug. "Mommy loves you Marcie. Forever and always…"
Marceline sobbed and nodded, holding on tight to her mother. "I love you too, mommy…will I see you again?"
"…Of course," she lied. "Now get in the cave honey…he's here."
She felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end, an arctic breeze wafted over her shoulders.
"Don't turn around until you're in the cave," she heard her mother say. "Go. Go now."
Marceline shut her eyes and ran towards the cave. As she crossed into the mouth of the crevice she felt a familiar fizzling sensation across her skin, another shield. She spun around to see the horrible creature looming over her mother, hands wreathed in luminous destructive energies.
He locked his gaze on her, a ghastly smirk spread across his features. "Step out of the cave, child. Come and accept my gift."
Marceline picked up a small stone from the ground and hurled it at the monstrosity. "PISS OFF!"
The stone clacked harmlessly against the Lich's shin, prompting him to utter a cruel chuckle. Almost to fast for the eye to see the monster's arm was raised and a glowing blast of fire rocketed towards Marceline. She screamed and instinctively raised her hands to her face. The Lich's laugh trailed off as he watched his flames splash harmlessly against the shielded entrance, the little girl was unharmed yet again.
"Is that all you got?" the wounded woman in front of him sneered, getting his attention. "I'm not sure why, but I actually thought you'd be stronger than this."
The Lich growled quietly and glared down at her. "Explain, hemomancer. I have fought thousands of your kind and not one has withstood my might."
"It's magic," she said dismissively. "I ain't gotta explain sh–"
The Lich unleashed a mighty blast of hellfire. The woman was totally engulfed in the razing green fire, the stone and dirt around her began to glow and run like hot tallow. "Language."
"Mommy!" Marceline screamed.
The Lich smiled and pointed at the girl from across the blaze. "Fret not, I'll be with you in moment."
A red pulse of energy lanced out of the inferno, catching the Lich square in the chest, pushing him back several meters. The Lich staggered for a moment before looking up at the source with an irritated look on his gaunt face.
"What." he hissed.
Ruth walked out of the flames, the fire parting around her body. "A monster like you will never understand. A true magic user allows the energy to flow through their body, to let it work to their ends. Channelers like you take; you tear and force energy from the universe. Your kind are greedy, you'll never understand the power of selflessness, and you'll never defeat it."
The Lich silently hurled a ball of fire at her, hissing in anger as it broke over her like water. "How? How are you protecting yourself?"
She smiled, looking back at Marceline. "I'm not. Your magic simply cannot counteract mine."
He reached out and grabbed her by the neck, lifting her clear from the ground and brought her face-to-face. "Then I shall take a more direct route."
Ruth felt the Lich's decayed hand begin to slowly crush her windpipe; she reached down and pressed her hand against her wound. "…Sanguis meus ad vitam…"
She reached up and smeared a bloody handprint across the Lich's mouth and cheek, the parchment-dry skin instantly turned charcoal black and began to smolder. The Lich cried out in surprise at this new sensation, it was unlike anything he'd ever known; it was pain. He stumbled backwards, his hand raised to his smoking face. The Lich growled in fury and threw the woman in his grasp at the rocks. Her body collided with the hard rocky surface with a sickening crunch, her entire lower body twisting in an unnatural direction. She slid down the rock face and collapsed in a heap at the mouth of the cave.
Marceline screamed and ran to her mother's side only to abruptly bounce off the magical field. She pounded futilely on the shield before kneeling down in front of her body. "Mommy…"
"Marcie…" Ruth croaked. "My brave little girl…"
"No…please, don't…" she sobbed.
"Marceline, the entrance to the cave will close soon," Ruth said, each breath was a long drawn out gurgle. "You'll be safe from the Lich…but you'll only survive if you do as I told you to."
"Go to the room with the p-pool," Marceline said shakily. "Kneel in the circle, a-a-and wash the blood off my face. Right?"
"That's right, Marcie." Ruth gave a warm smile and blinked slowly. "…I…lo…"
Her mother became very still.
"Mommy?" Marceline said quietly, tears flowing down her face.
An enraged scream drew her attention. The Lich approached the cave entrance; the entire area of skin covering his mouth and cheeks he had torn from his face gave him an impossibly grotesque appearance. "Kuh-ki…Kill you…KILL YOU ALL!"
He raised his hands above his head, roaring with effort as he marshaled energy for the attack. With a final grunt he threw his hands forwards and unleashed a huge wave of roiling green flame. Marceline numbly watched the blast as it streaked towards her, the instant the destructive magic touched her mother's body the view became that of a solid rock wall.
The entrance was closed.