Hey folks, sorry about the hold-up! Here's chapter 4, I've retitled it to conform a little better to the events in the Adventure Time canon. See if you can find the reference!
Be sure to let me know what you think in the reviews!
THROUGH THE WRECKAGE
Chapter 4: Kismet
Marceline's heart raced as she closed the book. Her memories of the events described in Simon's diary were now given renewed depth, the added perspective of her beloved friend melding with her own recollections. She could remember up to a point, the situation with the soldier was decidedly familiar, but she knew that the diary was rapidly approaching a dark spot in her memory. Try as she might she could not remember their journey across what is now known as the Desert of Doom, a vast swath of absolute devastation that no life could reclaim. She levitated to the kitchen and got herself a drink, it was some strong red concoction that would probably eat through the glass if left to sit, but not much else could dent her constitution at this point. Marceline set down on the couch and levitated the diary to her hand. She sipped the pungent beverage as she slipped a talon between the pages and opened it to where she had left off.
"Date: March ? April ?! Oh, who gives a One Month, 14 Days AA (After Apocalypse).
"I have sent Marceline to comb through our cart for what she wants to take with us. I have decided to discard the bulk of our supplies for we will need to move quickly if we are to intercept the military's penultimate blunder. I have the utmost faith in her ability to think rationally on this matter, she's nothing if not pragmatic. This is going to be no small undertaking, I can only pray that my willpower holds out, should the crown wrest control from me once again…It is against the wishes of the crown that I embark on this mission in the first place. The cursed thing thought me a coward, thought that I would quail at the prospect of the Lich being rejuvenated and put it on. Wretched, cursed, l̴͝o͞v͘̕e̢l̡y̨, ͠bę͢͢a͞͝ut̛͢i͘͢f͏̨u̶̕l̶,͠ ͟se̸̴̢x̵̡y̶̨͜…Glob, I hate you. Just…so much. So. So. Much."
Marceline sighed and put down the diary, emptied her glass in a single swig, and continued to read.
Simon rifled through his backpack, searching for superfluous items that could be discarded in favor of food or water. Private Kaspbrack watched from afar, digging into his third MRE. The weary soldier had warmed up to them somewhat once he had figured out that they meant him no serious harm.
"Say, uh, Simon…" Private Kaspbrack said.
"Yes, Private?" Simon said, not looking up.
"Y'all ain't, uh, well…" he murmured hesitantly. "Y'all ain't exactly…human, are ya? You an' Li'l Marcie."
Simon paused for a moment before continuing. "What an astute observation."
"I've seen a lot of weird stuff over the past couple of weeks," Private Kaspbrack siad uncomfortably. "Wanted to know if y'all were mutants or magic'r'whatever."
"Magic," Simon said bluntly, removing a carton of cigarettes he had acquired for future barter. "I'm human but I've been changed, Marcie's a demon and of a renowned bloodline if I recall correctly."
Kaspbrack smiled and shrugged. "Whatever you say, old man. I figured that it was too early for muties to be springin' up. Yesiree, I've seen an' heard some downright crazy stuff, but I can't say I've ever heard of anyone willingly seekin' out the Channeler!"
"I must," Simon said as he rose to his feet. "There's still a whole world out there that's at risk so long as that thing lives."
"No doubt," he said with a nod. "But what're you gonna do to it, huh? You're an old man with some fancy wind powers and demonic granddaughter. This thing is, like, twenty feet tall! He can tear through tanks like they was paper, bullets just roll offa his shields, an' I'm pretty sure he tossed a nuke's fireball at one point! Seriously, it was like, I dunno, volleyball or somethin'!"
'…"old man"! I'm only thirty-two!' Simon shook his head slowly. "They're not wind powers."
Simon gestured at the rebar encasing his legs and closed his eyes. There was a peculiar hissing sound followed by a high-pitched warbling, three sections of the steel flashed blue and then white before shattering spectacularly. Kaspbrack yelped and jumped clear, his legs now free.
He leaned down to pick up one of the steaming shards, only to hiss and snap his hand back when he touched it. "Aaah! Shh…shoot! Man that's…cold?"
Simon nodded and smirked. "And that's when I'm not wearing the crown."
"And when you are?" the soldier asked nervously.
Simon looked down at the crown on his belt. "Let's just say that between me and the Lich, I'm the lesser of two evils."
"So, you think you'll be strong enough to beat the Channeler if you wear your magic crown?"
"That's right. When I'm not wearing it my powers are quite limited but extremely precise thanks to my ability to concentrate them. But when I wear the crown…well, you ever hear of the city of Tanhauser?"
Kaspbrack nodded. "Yeah, it got buried under a couple hundred feet of snow…along with half of the island."
Simon gestured meekly to himself. "Just by being there. I couldn't help it, the crown it…does things to my mind when I put it on. It speaks to me, tells me things, like how I knew what the generals were planning."
Kaspbrack grinned and nodded. "Hey, no judgment here, man. Everyone does something they regret. F'me it was the homecoming queen, f'you it was freezing a whole city. But, uh, does Marcie know?"
He pointed at the crown and whispered. "That the crown makes you do things? That it talks to you?"
Simon shook his head. "No, she doesn't need to know that."
"No? She doesn't need to know that her grandpa, who's dragging her off with him to fight the Channeler, may just up and bury the country in ice because of some magical hat?" Kaspbrack chuckled sourly. "Whatever you say, Ice King."
"What did you call me?" Simon muttered, an inexplicable chill racing up his spine.
"Well, you got the crown, right? And yer thing is ice, right?" Kaspbrack shrugged. "If you're gonna go and fight that monster, you might as well have a superhero name or something, right?"
Simon paused and stared at Kaspbrack. "…'Ice King'?"
"Okay, so it's a working title," he said defensively. "But c'mon, it fits pretty well. If you die you die, but if you win you're gonna want a title, for the songs an' sh…stuff. Something to go with the whole 'cold vs hot' thing that'll go down 'tween you an' the Channeler."
"You've never even seen the Lich, Mr Kaspbrack…" a voice said from behind. They turned around to see Marceline, her backpack full of supplies and Hambo in her arms. "…Have you?"
Kaspbrack stammered and laughed artificially. "What? 'Course I have! I've been fighting that thing's horde for weeks! I've seen 'im with my own eyes!"
"Liar," she said flatly.
"Marceline!" Simon said sternly. "Mind your manners!"
"You've never been within ten kilometers of the Lich," Marceline said, unnervingly dismissive of Simon's scolding. "If you had, you'd know that he's cold, cold as death itself."
"But–" Kaspbrack began, lifting his hands in front of him.
"It looks like fire, but it's not. His flames are cold like you can't imagine, like ice that spreads," she muttered tonelessly.
"Marceline?" Simon could now see that she was trembling. "Marceline what's wrong?"
"The Lich killed everyone in my hometown," she said, a single tear rolling down her ashen cheek. "Killed my mommy…"
Simon approached her, reaching out. "Oh, Marcie, please don't cry."
She grabbed his outstretched hand in a burst of demonic speed. "Please don't go, Simon! Please!"
Simon winced, she was borderline hysterical, a wrong twitch and she could tear his hand clean off. "Marceline–"
"Don't fight the Lich, Simon! You'll die! Everyone who fights him dies!" she wailed. "He killed my mommy and all my friends, don't let him kill you too!"
Simon heard his knuckles pop and grimaced. "Marceline…let go of my hand, would you?"
Marceline blinked and looked down, she gasped and let go. "I'm sorry, Simon! I didn't mean–"
Simon smiled warmly and rubbed his hand, there were bloodless tears in his flesh from her claw-like nails. "Don't worry, Marcie. I'm fine. You were just a little scared, I understand."
Marceline grabbed Simon around the waist and looked up at him. Her bright red eyes, although welled up with tears, were bright and sharp. "Simon, please. You say you're immortal, but the Lich will kill you! That's what he does! Can't we just hide? Can't we just go back to the shelter and–"
"And what, Marcie?" Simon said fiercely. "Wait for him to make himself stronger? Wait for him to find us and kill us? What about everyone else, Marcie? He'll kill everybody if we don't stop him!"
Marceline looked down at her shoes and sniffed. "But…"
Marceline bit her lip and looked up at him. "Nothing…promise me you won't die, okay?"
Simon brushed her hair out of her face and kissed her forehead. "I…can't promise that, Marcie. If saving the world means dying…"
Marceline pushed away from him, her eyes glowing red. "Then let it die!"
Simon blinked in surprise, his mouth open in shock. Marceline's hands shot to her mouth and she ran off into the forest.
Simon turned back to Kaspbrack. "Shi…shoot man, I don't even…"
Simon shook his head and gestured at Kaspbrack. "Whatever we leave behind, it's yours. Go down the road about fifteen miles and you'll find a shelter, it's full of food, water, medicine. Don't go into the room at the end of the hallway for very long, it's highly irradiated."
"Hey waitaminnite!" Kaspbrack said. "You're still up for this? Listen to me! Listen to the kid! You go near that thing, let alone fight it, you're gonna die! An' if she's with you, she'll die too! You're best bet is to hope that it don't find you for as long as possible! For you and the kid!"
"I can't accept that," Simon hissed. "Any chance we have to kill that thing, any chance at all, is worth the risk. And if Marceline doesn't have me to watch out for her, to guide her, to save her –"
"Save her? Were you strokin' out when she bent steel with her bare hands?!"
"You don't get it…" Simon muttered. "Imagine if I wasn't here! Imagine if you had pulled your gun on her alone, angered her, scared her, she would have torn you limb from limb! Her powers are just beginning to manifest, with the right guidance she could be this world's savior, without it…I fear she may do terrible things. She's just like any child; she needs a guide, a moral compass to show her how to constructively channel her abilities. She needs me."
"Yeah?" Kaspbrack said wanly. "You sure it ain't vice-versa?"
Simon blinked in shock. "What?"
"That crown of yours, it's messin' with your brain, yeah? You tellin' yourself you gotta look after her just so you got an anchor, somethin' that you can latch onto when that thing starts messin' with you. You keeping her around for her sake, or yours?" Simon stared at Kaspbrack for a moment, trying to formulate a response and failing. "Heh…I know I sound like some hick, but the army was payin' for my university courses. I'd have been a clinical psychologist if World War III didn't happen."
Simon stared at the ground, wringing his pale hands. "I am discontinuing this conversation."
"Hey, yer the Ice Wizard," he said quickly. "You said you're leaving me your stuff? If there's anything I can do to –"
"Directions," Simon said. "And I'll be taking your weapon."
Kaspbrack chuckled incredulously. "Directions, yeah, but think I'll be keeping my gun."
Simon locked his arctic white eyes on Kaspbrack, the air between them becoming an algid gulf. "Not a request, I'm afraid."
Kaspbrack felt his skin prickle and tighten as the air around him cooled at a supernatural rate. "R-right…you keep it. You'll need it more'n me."
Simon smiled coldly, displaying his inhumanly sharp teeth. "Now…directions."
Simon walked silently through the underbrush, his backpack filled with food, water, and other amenities. The Grazer slung over his shoulder thumped quietly against his abdomen. He approached a little girl seated on a log; there were shattered rocks and shredded trees around her, the unmistakable marks of anger and frustration as she had vented on them with fist and claw. "Marceline?"
She stiffend slightly upon hearing his voice and did not turn around.
Simon walked over to her and sat down next to her, she turned her head away. "Marceline…I know you find it hard to understand why I feel we have to do this, but this isn't something we can just ignore."
She didn't face him. "… 'We'?"
"…I have to do this, Marcie," Simon said lowly. "Ever since I started to change from who I was to what I am now I've had these urges…" Marceline perked up slightly and Simon continued, "I sometimes feel compelled to freeze everything, to bring about an age of ice and snow the likes of which the world has never seen! …Ahem…I'm always aware that it would kill everyone on the planet but sometimes the compulsion is so strong I almost don't care. Just by being alive I'm a threat to this world and everyone on it! Doing the right thing, helping people, saving the world…it's how I can make it seem like I still belong here, like my continuing to endanger the world just by living is justified. I have to do the right thing whenever I can, to make up for…existing."
"How could you say that?" Marceline said quietly, turning to face him. "How could you think you need to prove yourself? You're the best person I've ever met, Simon!" she hugged him around the waist; just tight enough to be sincere, but restrained enough to be gentle. "If you have to do this, if it makes you feel good about being alive, I'll go with you and help you because…I love you, Simon."
Simon felt tears well up in his eyes, and he put a reassuring arm around her in return. "I love you too, Marcie."
Simon and Marceline continued to walk out of Meridian's city limits and entered into the suburban waste. Row after row of burnt out houses littered the landscape, their formerly neat and carefully divided lawns were now smashed and ashen, the immaculate topiaries grey and petrified along with the rest of the plant life. Cars lay strewn about, upturned and stripped by the mobs that had swarmed through the streets. Simon would occasionally give each one a half-hearted search for supplies, but if there had been supplies they had long since been stripped by other survivors. The suburbs told the tale of an immense migration of former citizens. Meridian had been one of the first major cities on the coast to be burned by the government's desperation; a single low yield weapon had leveled the industrial district, presumably out of military habit, and had left the population more or less unscathed. It was only with later cities that the military became increasingly thorough, presumably when the Lich's thralls from Meridian fanned out to cannibalize the neighboring cities. Citizens not turned by the Lich's dread magic promptly fled south, cutting a scavenger's swath straight through Meridian suburbia, leaving little in the way of items and even less in the way of food.
Simon stopped at a crossroads and took a piece of paper out of his pocket. "Alright. Mr Kaspbrack said that there are two ways to get across the big river coming up. One is the path he took, it's farther away and will take about four and a half days longer than option two, but he can personally vouch for its safety. The other way is about a half-week's walk along the riverside until we get to the interstate bridge; from there we follow the highway to the capitol, it's a straight line and should take us about a week. If we take number one, we'll be taking a safe route, but we'll be adding more than half a week to our journey. Thoughts?"
Marceline shrugged. "How long does it take for a bomb to hit the ground? A lot less than four and a half days, I bet!"
Simon nodded. "Still, I'd prefer the safer route…"
Marceline scratched her head before holding Hambo out in front of her. "What do you think Hambo?"
The toy's head lolled to one side as it dangled in her arms. "…"
"Hambo says 'coin toss'," Marceline said with certainty.
Simon smiled and reached into his pocket. "You're a wise man, Hambo."
Simon produced a coin and balanced it on his thumb and looked to Marceline. "Heads is option one, tails is option two?"
Marceline nodded and Simon prepared to toss the coin. In the moment he built up energy in his thumb to flip the coin, Simon felt an odd flowing sensation course through his body. The crown's influence had made him sensitive to extradimensional phenomena and he didn't know it, but this point in time was a crucial crossroads in the timeline. From this simple coin toss entire worlds could be created or destroyed. The coin leapt into the air with a metallic 'ping' as it tumbled upwards. Simon was acutely aware of every spin and every stray band of light caught on the coin's surface. Feeling the metal drop into his palm he instantly closed his fingers. He raised his fist and deposited the coin on the back of his other hand, waiting a few agonizing moments before looking at the result.
'…Monkey's paw…' raced through his mind in a fey low-toned voice that was neither his nor the crown's.
"C'mon, Marcie," Simon said.
They walked in a straight line for nearly five hours in a row, both of them able to keep a strong pace throughout thanks to their respective abilities. Marceline effortlessly hopped over obstacles as they exited the broken city. Simon knew his limits and how far he could push himself, exhaustion was more or less a mental concern at this point, prone to take over during lapses in concentration. But Simon was now focused, his determination silencing the outdated mortal concerns such as fatigue and aching muscles. His world was gone, but the life-hating beast need not slaughter the world that would come after.
"Simon!" Marceline cried. "Look!"
Simon looked up at Marceline as she hopped up and down on an upturned car, she was pointing at a house. "What is it, Marcie?"
"That house! It uh, uh…" she said before pausing, gesticulating in frustration as the words escaped her. "It's just, I dunno, funny. Makes my eyes tingle, like looking at the sun…and it smells like, smells like…"
Simon looked over at the house; now that she pointed it out he could notice something decidedly odd about the place. It was almost pristine, the siding was dirty only in the superficial sense; a thin and sickly film of dust and fallout coated the otherwise immaculate surfaces of the building, a far cry from the torn and crumpled houses around it burned by the flash or obliterated by the debris and blast. There was no damage to the fragile vinyl panels, thermal, impact, or otherwise. The windows were unbroken without so much as a crack; the door hadn't even been pried open by scavengers as they thoroughly picked the city's corpse. Besides a coating of soot and ash, the house was unnaturally unharmed.
The more he looked at the house the less and less he liked it. "I think we should just keep walking–wait, Marcie!" Simon said as Marceline leapt from the car and darted towards the house.
"Daddy!" Marceline cried out as she raced up the walkway flanked by petrified topiaries. "That house has magic in it, Daddy's magic! I can sense it!"
She cleared the steps up to the deck in a single bound and went straight for the door, obliterating it with a single swipe. She skidded into the foyer as splinters and chucks of the door scattered across the floor. Marceline looked around, sniffing the air and tasting for magic. She scampered down the hallway and turned the corner leading into the living room, gasping in shock at what she saw. On the wall were a sort of bizarre grinning face in a circle and the crust of what appeared to be milk smeared across it. On the floor before the circle were the remains of an eviscerated goat, its now dry innards a leathery pile of coiled rope on the floor.
Marceline shivered and took a step back when she felt a bony hand settle on her shoulder, she exclaimed in alarm and spun around. Looming over her was a ghoul wearing dark red ceremonial robes; the visible flesh was grey and wizened, its face was long and gaunt as its thin and desiccated lips parted over a set of yellowed teeth. Its 'eyes' were simply two huge pits of light that glowed inside the shallows of its sockets, framed by sharp angular cheekbones.
It's mouth moved with a ghastly creaking sound as a low exhalation exited. "Hhhhhhhhuuuuuuoooonnn…"
Marceline screamed and jumped back from the creature only to collide with another similarly garbed ghoul. It lurched forward with its arms outstretched and moaned. "Hhhhiiiiwuuuuun…"
Marceline hissed and shoved it with both her hands, the animate corpse hurtled across the room and smashed into a boudoir, the plate glass shattered with a sharp crash. The corpse crumpled to the floor, the body within the robe bent and jutted out in unnatural ways. The other one groaned in what could have been confusion as Marceline made a dash for the door.
With unnerving speed it spun around grabbed her by the hair, it's groans becoming more and more coherent. "Hiiigh Ooonnne…Aaaa-baaa-deee…"
Marceline growled and smashed her fist into the offending arm. It snapped cleanly in half, the damp partially rotted flesh made a muted ripping sound as it tore. Marceline then leapt into the air and swung a clawed hand into the ghoul's face, tearing away flesh and bone, leaving a ragged concave that began at the lower jaw and ended at the forehead. The light from within the former eyes now coursed out of the destroyed sockets. A sound similar to screaming accompanied the whirling maelstrom of animate magics that had rushed in to fill the void left by the forcefully removed soul. The jittering corpse collapsed in a heap on the floor.
Marceline panted and looked over at the broken ghoul, it was slowly crawling its way towards her, its body too broken to stand. She shuddered and ran into the hallway, looking down the hall that led deeper into the dark house. She could hear at least three more sets of feet shambling throughout the house; a pair of glowing white eyes turned the darkened corner and began to shuffle towards her.
"Aaaabaaadeeer…" it groaned. "Looord Aaabaaadeeer…"
Marceline blinked. "You know my father?"
"Faaatheeer?" It stopped and nodded. "Suuummoned…looord…beg…help…angered…sssoulsss…"
"He did this to you?" Marceline whispered. "You angered him and he did this to you?"
"Yesss…" it nodded again. "Blood of his blood…restore ussssss."
Marceline stepped back, another set of eyes appeared in the darkness. "I can't…I don't know how! I'm just a little girl!"
The creature lunged forward, yellow teeth bared. "Blood! Restore us!"
There was a hissing crack as a beam of red and orange light snapped into existence over Marceline's head. The hallway lit up for a scant moment as orange light filled the room. The brief flash bathed the darkened part of the hallway in bright orange light, for an instant Marceline could clearly see the ghoul that had lunged at her as the lance of gamma-ray photons skewered its torso, leaving a glowing hole the size of a softball in the animated corpse. She could also see the other ghoul behind the first one, hunched over with arm raised, recoiling from the onslaught. A half second later and another beam parted the darkness; this one sheared the lead ghoul's arm and shoulder clean from its body and went on to vaporize the raised hand of the other ghoul before completely coring its head. The hall went dark again and, through the twin lines of flashing white that now consumed her vision, Marceline saw the lead ghoul combust from residual heat as the one in the back slumped over onto the ground, visible only by the glowing ring of coals that was once its face.
Marceline felt a wiry arm loop around her midsection and yank her off the ground. She blinked futility as the flashes persisted, only seeing the odd limb wreathed in flame as the burning corpse flailed about in its throes.
Simon hurriedly rushed out the door, careful not to turn his back on the place. As he exited the door he saw another set of glowing eyes lurch out of the darkness, the beast lumbered towards him with arms outstretched. "Waaaaaaaaaiiiit…Pleeease!"
Simon paused; its posture was that of prostrate desperation. "What do you want with her?!"
"Her…" it shuffled forwards and into the cold grey daylight. "…BLOOOOOD!"
Simon gritted his teeth and set the grazer to maximum. The ghoul disappeared in a blast of razing light, the entire hallway burst into flames from the sheer magnitude of heat lancing through the air, the scorched wall at the end of the hall erupted into flame and exploded, tearing a meter-wide hole through the house. Simon stood back and leveled several smaller blasts at the house, etching lines of flame up and down the hitherto untouched vinyl; soon, the entire house was aflame.
As the fire belched fresh smoke into the sky Simon looked down at Marceline, she was still blinking and rubbing her eyes with one hand, trying to get the flash out of them, and tightly clutching Hambo with the other.
"What have we learned today?"
"Don't go into houses where my dad has been 'cuz they might be filled with bloodthirsty monsters?"
"Well, I was thinking more along the lines of 'listen to Simon', but I guess that works too."
They exited the suburbs two hours later as the sun began to set. Simon smacked his lips as he breathed in; there was more moisture in the air that usual, which meant that they were close to the river.
"Simon?" Marceline said.
"Yes, Marcie?" Simon answered.
"How big is this river?"
Simon smirked; he could hear it too now. "Big."
The great river, a massive tributary over three kilometers wide, was overflowing and rife with debris. Some cataclysm elsewhere had possibly broken a dam or caused a massive runoff, likely both. Though turbid and fast as a mountain rapid, it was a shadow of its former destructive glory judging by the high-water mark of devastation left behind; the water now only ebbed into the first 100 meters or so of the district that once bordered the mighty tributary. Buildings on the edge were now almost totally submerged, various debris and flotsam bobbed and spun in the whirling eddies created by the current-breaking edifices. The supply-laden roofs of cars belonging to fleeing citizens dotted the submerged streets; their former occupants, along with the rest of the city's population, had either long since fled or were no longer buoyant enough to float.
Simon and Marceline walked down to the waterside, now somewhere in industrial, and scanned the landscape. Simon clicked his tongue and shook his head. "I hadn't expected it to be this bad…"
"You think that's why Private Dingus told us to go downstream?" Marceline said. "All the bridges in the city are all smashed up by the flood."
"I guess I shouldn't have questioned him. He probably saw the flooding upstream, the state of other bridges…" Simon said dourly. "The only bridge on this river that could survive such a cataclysm is the one he told us to cross. Probably a local or something."
"So, now what?"
Simon looked around, his eyes squinting through his cracked glasses before lighting up. "How about a boat ride?"
Marceline looked out at the river, her demon eyes clearly seeing the enormous whirlpools and currents as they flung around jagged debris at dangerous speeds. "…How about 'no'?"
Simon gestured at a shape as it bobbed between two nearby buildings, snagged on the top of a dumpster. It was boat, a small dinghy with what appeared to be an adhoc fallout shield made from a tarp and PVC pipe. "C'mon Marcy! It's not like we'll try and cross the river in it or anything! If we stay to the side we'll be able to make better time than we could on foot. I bet we'd get there inside of a day!"
"I dunno Simon…" Marceline said slowly. "That river looks pretty rough."
"Nonsense!" Simon said with a dismissive smile. "I've sailed boats before!"
The two began to wade out into the murky water, Marceline held her backpack high above her shoulders so that Hambo wouldn't get wet. "Really? What kinds?"
Simon nodded. "Yes, really. I've piloted big ones, little ones, some with sails, and some without. All kinds, really."
"Part of my old job. I used to be an antiquarian, you see, someone who'd go out and look at items of interest and tell people what they're worth based on their history and quality." As the water deepened, Simon raised his backpack above his head. "I was a little more 'hands on' than most. I was on call for an eccentric museum proprietor who'd have me shipped off to exotic locals to appraise antiquities on-site rather than have them shipped and documented properly…he had me pull a Triple-A more times than I care to mention!"
"A 'Triple-A'?" Marceline said, raising her chin in vain as the water got deeper.
Simon turned around and plucked her from the water, placing her on his shoulders as he continued to wade. "Eh-heh…that was our little term for it. If the items were otherwise too difficult to attain legally he'd pay me extra to Appraise, Acquire, and Abscond. A few sticky situations arose from that policy, I can tell you."
'Ahhh yezz…Meester Petrikov, zho ve meet aghain! Only zees time I am ze veektor, me!'
'The Gauntlet of Will belongs in a museum (mine, for preference) Von Richter!'
"You'd steal things?" Marceline said, surprise clear in her voice.
Simon chuckled nervously and made an uncertain gesture. "Well, only if the items were of extraordinary historical significance or rarity, and were either in danger of destruction or hedonistic squander."
'Give me the amulet, Lady Thornedyke! Your collection can do without it!'
'I'm afraid you'll have to…search me for it, Mister Petrikov. Do be gentle…'
"What's 'hee-dun-iss-tic skwan-der'?" Marceline said as she reached out for a floating piece of rope attached to the dinghy.
"Well, remember the story of the Hero Calibrex and the Gilded Dragon?" Simon said as he hoisted her up onto the boat.
"You fought a dragon!?" Marceline exclaimed excitedly.
Simon chuckled as he clambered onto the boat. "Heh heh, no…well, there was that one time, but it turned out to be Old Man McGucket XV in a dragon-shaped robot. Anyway, the point is that some people are like Hāz the Dragon in the story; they'll take something just so other people can't have it. They take and take and take and then they hoard it all away. Sometimes the things they took were very important to history of the world or to the heritage of entire peoples, so when they couldn't be bought or reasoned with, well…"
"Triple-A?" Marceline said with a happy smile.
"What happened when they didn't want you to take their stuff?"
'Ve VILL meet aghain, Meester Petrikov! Und I VILL be zee veektor!'
'Hojojutsu knot, eh? I do so love a man who's good with his hands…'
"I'll tell you later, when we run out of stories in the Enchiridion."
Simon bridged the conduit inside the outboard engine and it sprung to life, electric engine keening lowly as the dinghy lurched forwards. Simon sat down at the stern of the boat and carefully steered it between buildings and other obstacles. Marceline stood at the bow of the boat and watched for debris, her superhuman eyes more than capable of seeing objects in the muddy water from dozens of meters away.
"Left!" she said, her hand on her cheek as she propped up her head. "Right!"
"That'd be 'port', Marcie," Simon said, steering to avoid the debris. "And 'starboard'."
"Whatever…" Marceline said dully as she watched the muddy, detritus-laden water raced by. "Hey, Simon…"
"What you said before…" she turned around and looked at him. "…That was the first time you ever said anything about, y'know, before."
Simon drummed his fingers on the bench. "…Keep an eye out, Marcie."
"Simon!" she said insistently. "I told you all about my mommy and stuff, all you had to do was ask. Now I'm asking you, it's only fair!"
"Marcie, if you don't concentrate on what's ahead–"
Marceline rolled her eyes and spun around for a moment before turning back. "One tree, four tires, three branches, two cars, fourteen bodies, six cats, a dog, and a bunch of chickens. Not good enough? Left, left-right, right, wide turn left, sharp turn right, the rest you can just plow through. I'll let you know when to turn."
"…" Simon sighed and shrugged. "I don't know…"
"Why?" she said with a frustrated gesture. "You don't trust me? You don't think I'll understand?"
"No! No…it's not that," Simon looked at his feet. "It's just…it's a very painful subject for me. I lost people."
"And I didn't?!" Marceline snapped, before adding. "…Turn left now."
Simon complied and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Marcie, but it'll have to wait until later, I'm just not ready.'
"Whatever, Simon…" Marceline grumbled. "Whatever."
For the rest of the day the small boat thudded through the water at a slow but steady pace, although nowhere near the vehicle's top speed it was still many times faster than walking. Marceline continued her duties as watch, tersely shouting directions without looking back at Simon until darkness fell and so too did she fall asleep. Simon continued to steer the boat through the night, using the 300-watt floodlight at the front as a poor replacement for Marceline's keen eyes. As morning approached Simon estimated that he'd been awake for almost two days now, 'imagined' fatigued weighed heavily on his mind. In the dim light of the proto-morning Simon could see a crescent-shaped alcove in the riverside, almost a bay but not quite. There were the remnants of a city in the alcove, partially obscured by the water and heavily polluted mist that shrouded the area. Simon steered for the alcove, hoping to find a place to dock and rest–no, wait–get his bearings. He didn't need sleep anymore, right? He knew he didn't need sleep…how? When had he discovered that? Had the crown told him? Had it been lying? Was it trying to trick him? Was it–?
A light snore drew his attention. Marceline stirred lightly under a blanket.
She was right about it not being fair, but it didn't change the fact that in order to tell her about himself he would have to explain the nature of the crown and its effect on him. For whatever reason, contemplation of that prospect filled him with an unshakeable dread; if she knew what it was doing, if he could no longer represent the self-control he had endeavored to impose on her…
"No…" Simon muttered. "She wouldn't leave me…would she?"
He looked over to her; Marceline lay curled up near the front of the boat, fast asleep. In the serenity of sleep she looked just like any other little girl, vulnerable and innocent, a dangerous assumption to make when considering the truth of the matter.
'S͘he̸ w̶o̸ul͠d̢, ̧y̡o͞u͟ kno̴ẁ…' the crown hissed. 'Léa͞v̨e you̧.͠'
"No she wouldn't," Simon whispered. "She's better than that."
'Ḩa! Sḩe's n͏ot ̶l̸i̕k̵e͜ a ̶n̶or͘mal҉ ̡child͝, S͜i̢mo̸n! Y̶oú'͟ŗe i̛m͏p͟osing̷ ̨yǫur val̵ues̛ ͏an͟d҉ ̸mora̶ls o͝nto a̧ ͟mo͡n̸s̷ter!̷ S̛he̵ ͡sta̢ys̀ ̸wi͢th͡ you ҉out̨ of̷ ̷ćo̸nveni͠e҉nc͠e͡,̛ f̡o̢o͜d,͟ an͝d̡ a͏t̴te̵ǹt͝i̢on, r̵a͢ther ̕like̢ a̕ ̧c͠ąt́ ͢o͟r͞ ́a wíld do͏g.͠ The i͞ns̸ta̴ņt ͟y͟ou show ̕w̴eąk͏neşs͡,͡ the ̶in͝śt̶a̵nt ̀y̕ou͜ f̶al̡ter͠,͞ ̨s̷h̢e'll b͘e ͠o҉ff! Bu͢t̵ p͢ro͜b̷ab͠ly n̴ot̕ ͏b̨efore̛ s̡he mau̕ls ̢y̕o̵u̵ ͏f͘or͠ y͞o̢ur t͏ro̕ub̢le̛!̡'
"You're wrong! She's just a little girl; she needs someone to teach her how to act, is all." Simon gritted his teeth, the terrible cold of the crown's grip fastening around his mind.
'That̴'s ̴al͝l it̛ ͝wil͞l ̷e͡v̀er҉ ̨b͢e͏,͟ ̕S̡im͜on!' the crown retorted. 'A͏n ̨a͠c͡t͡!̛ No͘n҉ȩ o̴f ͢t͞h͜is͝ 'he͢ro͢' ̴ma̡l҉a̛rk҉e̵y̛ ͟w͡ill ac͏tua͏ļl̛y̵ sti̢c̢k ̡wi̴th her,͏ ̀a̡l̶l͞ y̸o̕u'̛re ͟d͘o̸in͡g̀ i̸s̨ ̡tea̛c͜h͡in̷g҉ ̶h͢e̕r͠ ̵h̵ow̕ ͠tǫ ͟prete͟nd t͠o͝ be͡ ̵nor̵m͝al!̡ I k̛n̷o҉w̸ y̷o̧ų ͝see i͜t, ̛yo͜u͜ ̶mor̡t̕a̸l̴ ͢f҉òol, ͞t҉he w̶a̷y̛ s̡he pr̨et̷ęņd҉s͡, th̵e w̵a̡y ͢s͏he ͜a̧cts.̡ ́A̴ll you̶r̢ ͟serm͏on̴s, all y̷o͘ur sp̷e͘ech̨ȩs,̢ ͜th́e̛y'̴re ͞al͢l ju̴s̵t̨ wo͡r͜ds t͞o h͜e͜r͢! ͘In̡ ͞thé ̧e̸n͏d̴ ͟she̕'̕ll͞ only ͝b҉e͝ ̕wh͜ąt ̴şhe has ̡t͞o ̴be ̶tò ́su҉rv̡ivȩ a͞nd ̶thrive̴,̡ án ani͡ma̷l and ͘n͞othin͞g m̷o̴r͡e!'
"Shut up," Simon said breathily. "Shut up, you yammering headgear!"
'O͏h͜,͏ ̧g͘ood on͡e͘! ͜I͢'ll add̴ ͜that͞ to ̵my l̸ist̛ o҉f 'P̵e͡trík͟o͘v Zinge̛ŕs'͢!' it said sarcastically. '͢T̨he ̴s͜o̷l̢d̵ier ̷w͝a̧s͞ ̕rig͟ht!͝ Mar̴ce͜l̢in͝e͡ ͏is ҉al̸l t̶h͠at ́k͏e̛ep͟s you from ̢m͢e,͘ S̴i͘mon, and͠ ͞s̛hę d̴oes̴n'̵t ̨e̡ven̶ ̨c̀a͞re ab̛o̡ut ̡y͞o̡u͟!͠ ͘How d͢o͢e͞s ̕i҉t͢ f͢e͠e͟l, to͜ k͢no̢w ͡tha͘t ̨y̛our͘ ͡sa̢lva͜t́ion, ̨y͢our͝ ̧ve͡ry͝ ŕeason͝ t̨o l͞iv͏e,̕ ͏is ͡a soci͜o͜p͘ath҉ic ́he͏ll͡sp͠ąw͢ǹ w̴h̴o ͡w̨i͘l̕l ̴lea̶ve̵ ̀y͝o͘u ̕i̶n͘ m̶ỳ cl͞ut͞c̵he̛s̛ t͏he̵ i͏nsta̛n̴t͏ y͘o͝u bore̶ hèr̡? ͜H̨o̧w d̢oes͜ i̧t ͢f͢e̢e͠l͞, P̷e̡tr̛ikov͘, to kno̶w ̵thàt y̛our ļi̢fę ͞m̕eaǹs so litt͏le t̡o͡ ͢one͞ y̷o͘u͝ ̵l̵o̧v͡e͢ s̡o̶ mu͘c̡h͘?'
"I know what you're trying to do, and it won't work," Simon said with a hard, steely voice. "Even if you were right, even if she didn't really care about me, that wouldn't stop me from caring about her, from loving her. So long as she lives, I'll have cause to fight you and the willpower to win."
'So l̷on͡g as͜ she̢ ̵l͞i̕ves͠, ̛éh?̀' the crown said, its voice thick with sardonic amusement.
'We͞'̨l͜l̕ c̸on̸t͟in̸úe͏ ́t̷h҉i͟s ̀a͟r̀gu͡m͏ent͝ at҉ a ̢lat̶er da͏t͡é. ̨U̷nt̨i̶l th̷en,͏ ̛I l̷ea͟v͘e͠ ͘y̴o͏u̡ ͞with ̕a ̨piec̨e ̀of ar͟càn͏e w͝i͢sdom̛…̧'
Simon raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
'…D͜o͢n͟'̵t̷ ͝driv̀e yo̴u͘r boa͠t ̸int̡o ͞a͢n҉ ąlco̷ve̕ ̧f̵i̶lleḑ wi͜t͞h̶ n̵a̧va͟l m͘i͢nes̀.'
The boat lurched to one side as it bounced over a mine, triggering the fuse. The dinghy managed to put ten meters between it and the warhead before it detonated. A thundering boom echoed through the morning mist and an enormous grey-white pillar of water thirty meters across climbed eighty meters into the air. The tiny boat and its occupants were scattered like motes of dust by the blast, hurled almost one hundred meters through the air before plunging back into the cold grey water.
The sun rose over the horizon.
Alright, so there'll be a tiny hiatus for TtW while I work on The Corridor and The Nightmare Engine. I find that taking a break from a piece to work on another really helps me to keep fresh on the idea. Be sure to check out my other works and let me know what you think!