Chapter 1: Monster In the Orchards
When Bonnibel first saw Marceline, she thought they were the same age. One night, just like any other night, she observed the constellations through her grandmother's telescope. Noting patterns and changes, she logged down all she learned in a small notebook she kept by her side. It could have all been avoided if she didn't get that urge to turn her telescope down, at just that moment, to see if anything equally interesting was happening on the ground.
There, floating in the apple orchards, was a child. She was scrawny, her little frame making the T-shirt she wore look like a tent. Fascinated, the young princess watched the girl by the light of the full moon, watched her snatch an apple off the tree and take a bite only to just toss it aside. Miffed at her audacity to not even eat what she stole, Bonni just kept watching, noticing when the girl's hands flicked up and caught something that was flying by. It was alive, and wriggled in her hands, and Bonni saw her smile and whisper to it. Refocusing the telescope in excitement, she saw the girl laugh and release the bat in her hands back into the night sky. Then the girl tensed, turning around. Dark yellow eyes met hers through the telescope, and even though she was miles away, Bonni knew the girl had spotted her. Afraid, but mostly curious, Bonni gulped and kept her eye trained on the grey little girl.
There was a gust of wind, a tangled mess of flying black hair, and then the girl disappeared.
Disturbed and melancholy, Bonni couldn't focus on the constellations after that. She went to bed wondering if the bats were the only friends that little girl had.
Marceline was an oddity among vampires. It might have been because she was already half immortal before being bitten, with a soul-sucking dad who tried to ruin her life. Or maybe it was because she had no interest in their undead politics. Either way, she made her point clear as the years rolled by that her business was just to have fun, not to involve herself in any power games. She dropped out of her gang, dumped Ash, turned her weapon into an instrument. Like a breeze, she fluttered in and our of mortal people's lives, relishing the way they burned so hot and fierce that it seemed this world simply wasn't capable of holding them for very long. They faded away too quickly, all of them, eaten up by the tired earth.
And the daylight. She had a very love-hate relationship with the daylight, while other vampires settled for simple hate. She was an early riser, and enjoyed watching the sun dip below the horizon and creep back up again.
Tonight, the night after she knew she had been spied on, Marceline wondered if she should return to the Candy Kingdom. She wandered the darkness in the shape of a harmless little girl on purpose, to send a tacit message to other vampires (I am no threat to you). It could easily be misinterpreted as weakness and vulnerability, though. And then these creeps would descend, thinking she was an easy target, and then there would be all that blood and death and ugh. Loneliness was a state she could handle, even if she didn't like it very much, and the idea of being watched gave her the tingles.
Finally deciding not to risk any chance encounters tonight, the thousand-year-old little girl flew off in a different direction from the Candy Kingdom and their delicious red apples. She would leave the orchards alone- tonight. Tomorrow though, when the sun fell again…
Well, who could say?
Peppermint had brought her grandmother unfortunate news almost two weeks later. A strange plague had hit the apple orchards, and whole sections were found grey and lifeless, the fruit scattered around the base of their trees. It had started, Bonni soon realized, the night she had spied the strange girl wandering alone. It had only grown worse since then.
Standing quietly next to her grandmother, she learned as she listened. It was technically her curfew right about now, as she was only allowed to stay up late once a month to stargaze. But if Granny wasn't going to cause a fuss, neither would she. However, Granny had a very strange reaction to the news their butler brought her. Bonni waited to see how she would handle this situation. Trying to keep her hands from fidgeting, she kept quiet and listened.
Granny sighed, laughing under her breath. "Leave it, Peppermint," she said. "This is no plague. Leave her alone, and she'll leave more than enough apples for us, you'll see. Besides, soon she'll be gone from these realms for another few decades. Marceline the vampire rarely stays in one place for very long."
A vampire! That little girl was a vampire? All her senses prickled as Bonni willed her Granny not to notice the time and talk more about this subject. Of course, she wasn't that lucky, and soon it was off to bed for the little princess. Not that it did any good. Sleep was hard to come by that night, and the night after that. Finally realizing that the reason she kept staring out the window was because she wanted to look outside it, she hopped out of bed three days later and pulled her telescope out of the closet.
She couldn't properly stargaze from here, but she certainly had a good view of the apple orchards.
Night after night she scoured the ground for signs of the vampire, recording the changes and patterns of her movements as steadily as the stars. During the day she would scour maps of her lands, copying down notes and recognizing that yes, there was a pattern to her series of strikes. If one wanted to find the princess in those feverish few days of preparation (preparation for what? She asked herself, but the answer to that question remained grimly silent) one would find her in the library. Secretly researching vampires, their strength and origin and weaknesses, whether they were really alive, whether they should be allowed to be alive.
More and more complaints arrived from farmers, sometimes relayed through Peppermint, sometimes in person. Granny would just shake her head and smile and say "Let her be. She's harmless."
Bonni grew more and more certain that this was not the case.
And then one evening, it hit her. Closing the book she had been rifling through with a decisive snap, everything became clear. Granny wasn't going to do anything. No one was going to do anything. And when would the vampire decide that candy apples weren't enough? Who would stop her before she moved on to living targets, as her kind were so notorious for?
Bonni knew what she had to do.
She would confront this creature head on, and if it wouldn't leave, she would destroy it.
First, though, she would need supplies, and a few hours alone in Grandpa's old dusty lab. She got her chance the next day, gathering all the materials she needed and the references that would help guide her. She snuck out of the castle that very night, disturbed at how easy it all was. With a large heavy basket on one arm and a yellow flashlight in her hand, Bonni traveled down the familiar pathways and roads to the orchards, which hadn't seemed so far away on the maps and through the telescopes.
It seemed almost like a different planet in the dark, but Bonni had her flashlight and her burning desire to see this through to keep her from doubling back. Not too long later, she found her first drained tree. Contrary to the reports she had heard, however, it seemed perfectly healthy- just barren of fruit. The leaves were thick and glossy, and the bark and stems seemed solid. She couldn't smell or see any rotting or infection, but then again, her night vision wasn't the best. Still, the fact remained that thief was at large, and Bonni was going to deal with her personally.
Remembering that she generally didn't see the vampire girl until late at night, Bonni traveled to where her maps and charts said the creature was most likely to strike next. The princess would lie in wait there, and then this girl would see what kind of monarchs the Candy Kingdom had to offer.
Settling down at the base of a healthy tree, she waited.
It didn't take long.
She heard it at once. The area became quiet, all the night time noises holding their breath. So did she. Then, a sharp crack of a branch breaking behind her caused her heart beat to spike. Standing up and whirling around, she found herself face-to-face with the most hideous monster she'd ever seen. Heat radiated off of it's fur, that disgusting protein-based fuzz which coated so many animals living outside her kingdom. Yellow eyes trained on her, and a bright red tongue lashed within a foaming mouth full of sharp white teeth. Then the beast snarled at her, taking a step closer.
It spoke in a grating voice, harsh and terrifying. "You're far from home, little candy girl," it growled, licking its chops with a hungry grin. "Run away, before I decide I'm hungry."
The beam of illumination from her flashlight flickered and jumped from being held in her shaking hand. "A-are you the one d-doing this?" she asked, desperately staving off frightened tears. "I w-won't let you- let you steal- from my- my people-"
Though she had no idea how she had the presence of mind to notice this, notice this she did: the creature was wearing the same ratty grey t-shirt as the little girl. All the words she'd read about vampires came rushing back. They were known shape shifters, and the knowledge that this creature was the one she had come all this way to confront gave her strength. This was definitely a vampire, a vampire who had directly antagonized her kingdom, and by extension, herself.
She was ready for this. She wouldn't back down.
Summoning a reserve of willpower she hadn't even known she possessed until that night, Bonni flicked off her yellow flashlight and set it down. She would need both her hands for this. Reaching into her basket, she pulled out a large, clunky object and faced her opponent.
The vampire actually started laughing, able to see perfectly in the dark what the princess had in her hands. "Where'd you find that, kid? A museum?" Kicking off the ground, she began to float even closer. Bonni waited, knowing that the less distance there was between them, the less chances she would have of missing. "Listen. Scram, kid. Run away with your little toy gun and maybe I won't strike you dead where you stand."
"It's not a toy," Bonni said, sounding calmer than she felt before she aimed the antique crossbow and pulled the trigger.
Nothing could have prepared her for the recoil of shooting such a large weapon. Knocked onto her back and completely winded, she heard the vampire shriek in pain and mentally applauded herself. Her intent wasn't to kill the vampire, after all, just let it know who was boss, and if she'd hit the heart then the vampire wouldn't have even had time to make a noise before it crumbled. No one came trampling around the Candy Kingdom threatening her people.
She had aimed for Marceline's pelvic bone, hoping to shatter it because it would take the longest time to regenerate. Quickly sitting up, knowing she wouldn't have enough time to reload grandpa's crossbow if Marceline weren't temporarily crippled, Bonni reached into her basket for her last resort weapon. Her ace in the hole. Tiny pink fingers wrapped around what she was looking for just as she ran out of time. A hand yanked at her hair, lifting her back on her feet. a noise of pain squealed out of her, much to her shame.
"You deranged little freak!" Marceline hissed, holding onto a gash on her outer thigh that was healing far too slowly. That would be the garlic and silver infusion Bonni had coated the crossbow bolt in, working its magic. The vampire had changed shapes again into a fully adult human form, and somehow Bonni knew that this was the real face of Marceline the vampire. Yellow eyes had turned black, and her mouth bulged with rows of suddenly sharp shark teeth. "I'll drain you grey, punk."
While she didn't fully understand how killing her would turn her grey, the princess knew a threat when she heard one. Clutching her last resort close to her chest, she snarled right back at Marceline. This actually startled her, quieting her long enough for Bonnibel to build her courage up again to speak.
"I am Princess Bonnibel Bubblegum," she said, "Not a punk. Leave my land at once before I am forced to take a more violent approach."
Convinced that whatever Bonni had planned wouldn't actually work, Marceline laughed. "Oh yeah?" she asked, giving her a little shake. "Just go ahead and try it, Sugarcane."
So Bonni turned on her UV flashlight, distinguished from her regular one by having a blue case instead of a yellow one, and blasted the vampire with the full fury of the sun.
Marceline squinted, blinking in the sudden light. She frowned. "You know only real sunlight hurts a vampire, right?"
Bonni's heartbeat slowed, and then stopped. At least that's what it felt like.
This is probably the moment to start panicking, Bonni realized as the vampire started to grin.
Chapter 2: A Better Flashlight
A huge bout of uncontrollable laughter filled the night air. Marceline dropped the Princess to the ground, clutching her abdomen and cackling madly. "You- oh you- you tried to- you thought a fancy flashlight would- you were trying to kill me with a flashlight." One hand covered her eyes, trying to hold back the tears. "Ohhh my goodness, ohhhh my gosh."
Bonnibel was wondering if it was too late to run when a dreadful, familiar voice shouted out across the orchards. A voice yelling her name. Flinching, the princess looked around for her grandmother, trying to pinpoint her in the darkness. Soon the regular march of boots grew louder and louder, making themselves known as her Granny came into view with a platoon of hard candy soldiers.
That was when she panicked. Innocent people weren't supposed to get involved in this, and she knew that they would throw their life away without hesitation if they thought they could save the princess. All her indecision swept away, Bonnibel didn't wait to see if Marceline was distracted. Now was the time to move. Bolting to her feet, she tried to escape only to get caught in a headlock by the vampire.
"Ah, ah, ah," Marceline said to her, rocking her side to side with one razor sharp claw running down the side of her cheek. "Not so fast, princess."
Plans always went awry. Always. She should have known this. She should have predicted this. Struggling, she reached out a hand to the advancing troops. "Run!" she tried to shout, the arm around her neck choking her words. "Run, she's too stron- gkuh-" Marceline had tightened her hold.
The platoon of hard candy soldiers marched up to the vampire, fanning out behind their Queen, who stopped about two yards from the princess and her captor. There was sure to be some sort of confrontation now, bloody and tragic.
The only sounds were Bonnibel's flailing movements, still trying to warn her people.
When Granny broke the silence, her voice was clipped and terse. She held herself in a rigid pose, her back straight and her chest out. "Marceline," she said, her voice resounding with authority. "Please quit man-handling my granddaughter."
"Oh, is this one of yours, Cho?" Marceline drawled at last before turning Bonnibel in her arms, finally letting her breathe. She clutched at her face, leering down at her with a mouth full of needle-sharp teeth. Shaking the girl a little to make sure she had her complete attention, she asked: "How old are you, kid? Tell me honestly or I'll rip you in half."
There wasn't much left to do, except comply with her wishes. Trembling so hard that Marceline's hands might have been the only thing keeping her upright, Bonnibel's voice was nevertheless even and clear. "I'll-" she coughed, her voice dry as a desert. "I'll be eleven in a few months," she said.
"Ooh. I guess it has been a while since I saw you last, huh?" the vampire said, but this time her comment was directed at Granny. "This must be that brat you couldn't stop talking about."
All the gears turning in Bonnibel's head came to a screeching halt.
Still reeling, Bonnibel could hardly believe it when her feet touched the ground again. Blood pounding, she could feel every detail of her body pulsing with life. Every sensation seemed to amplify, fueled by a burst of hope deep within her that she would live to see another day, somehow. Dumbfounded, she just looked up into beetle-black eyes, threaded with beastly yellows and reds, corners crinkled in amusement. Marceline let her go with a mocking pat on the head. "Run along now and go be a fierce little warrior where Cho can watch you, hmm-"
That night, the night the princess had set out to kill the vampire, Marceline said her full name for the first time. A crack of ivory could be heard as the first domino piece fell, and that deceptively soothing voice struck a chord deep within her that she had never known before.
Somewhere in the echoes of her soul, she knew nothing would ever be the same again. It washed over her in a moment of clarity, fast as a synapse and gone just as quick.
She was just a kid again, not a chess piece in a game with rules she didn't understand yet. A kid in way over her head. Confused, but not about to miss her chance, she ran over to Granny, who was looking at her the way Rainicorn often did before she threatened to bite, eyes wide and nostrils flaring. Bonnibel opened her mouth, but nothing came out. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she slowed to a stop in front of her grandmother, waiting for her to say something.
"You get one chance to explain yourself, provided it's in five words or less."
Her lips squished shut. Perspiration ran down her forehead. This didn't make any sense. Granny and Marceline knew each other? On a first name basis? Were they friends? Why didn't Granny say anything sooner?
She settled on this: "I only wanted to help."
Granny just looked at her, and she withered under that gaze as the realization dawned on her that she had made a terrible mistake.
"Marceline," Granny said, not tearing her eyes from Bonnibel. "What happened here?"
"Ah, well, your- grand daughter-" the word seemed to stick to the roof of her mouth; Marceline had a hard time spitting it out.
"Yes?" Granny said, tensing up.
"She tried to kick me out. Said I was stealing, and that if I didn't leave, she'd kill me."
Bonnibel couldn't just stand here and let someone else tell the story. She had to get her word in. "You're going to believe the word of a bloodsucker over mine?" she demanded, shooting a nasty glare at Marceline.
Granny placed one hand over her heart, gasping as though it would be the last breath she ever took. Then in a moment of rage, she lifted her hand, trembling all over. Bonnibel had never been hit- not even spanked- not even when she behaved her worst, broken something expensive, talked back with too much sass. Never. Tensing in preparation, she waited for the blow.
It never came.
Eyes trained on her granddaughter, the queen lowered her hand inch by inch until it was safely back at her side, clenched into a fist. The effort looked as though it was almost enough to make her combust. Pale as a sheet, she turned to her guards, snapping, "Take her- just- just take her back to her quarters, and make sure she stays there." Palm over her eyes, she turned her head up towards the night sky, unable to handle any more.
"But-" Bonnibel hadn't learned her lesson, apparently, because she tried one more time to redeem herself, pulling at Granny's sleeve.
The Candy Queen yanked her arm away, her sorrowful eyes pinning Bonnibel down like a spear through her chest. "You've shamed me, Bonni," she said, quietly enough to break her heart. Rocked right out of whatever protest she was about to make, Bonnibel shut her mouth, silenced by shock. A slap would have been preferable to this level of disgrace. "You've shamed me, your father, your mother, and yourself. Now go home, and think about how anythingyou've done tonight was in accordance with the way I have raised you."
Numb, she let herself be guided away by the guards, her eyes trained on the ground. She had come here hoping to restore things to the way she thought they should be; she left wondering if anything she thought she knew was even true. "Burrrrrn," she heard Marceline's voice waver out behind her, a short cackle punctuating the end of her catcall.
Granny sounded old, and tired. "This isn't a joke, Marcy."
The vampire made a loud, rude noise. "Man, I know it's 'your family, your rules' and all, but I just wanna pitch in that you should be proud of that chickadee. Fearless little runt."
Surprised, Bonnibel looked over her shoulder at the pair, who were walking away further into the orchards, their frames being enveloped by the trees. Their voices grew fainter.
She could still clearly hear her grandmother, affronted. "She tried to hurt you!"
"Yeah, well, who hasn't?" the vampire mused, floating backwards before her shape was consumed by the shadows of the denser woods, just on the edge of Bonnibel's vision. "Besides," her words turned into a song, voice clear as a bell in a tower. "I was getting bored with hurting myself~"
Then they were gone, and she was left with nothing but the sound of heavy boots, and the guilty weight of her own thoughts.
The sharp smack of leather hitting wood snapped through the quiet library. The old tome coughed up a small mushroom cloud of dust as it landed in front of Bonnibel, her grandmother's hand resting on top of it like an old friend. "Your punishment is this," she said, gesturing to the shelf behind her. "They are old contractual obligations, treaties, and agreements made between the Candy Kingdom and various countries and individuals throughout the past century. You will read all of them. You will make notes on amendments made through out the years. Your notes will be double checked, and you will notify me of any expired contracts or those that seem in need of renewal. You will do this as if it is your job- and it is your job to know these things, as ruler. I also expect you not to fall behind on your normal duties."
Her lips trembled once, on the verge of saying something else, but then the steel returned to her old eyes and Granny left her. No farewell, no further lecturing, no reminder of the grave mistake she had made last night or an explanation for how the esteemed ruler of a kingdom seemed to be friends with a loathsome… fiend.
Bonnibel could remember her grandfather's words clear enough. He had spent his whole life protecting the Candy Kingdom from every kind of threat imaginable. That included vampires. Once upon a time he had been a general, fighting legions of the undead while the great Hero Billy did battle with the Lich.
The idea that this could all be some sort of clever trick was still an option. Who's to say that the vampire wasn't somehow manipulating Granny with her undead sorcery? Even if all evidence pointed to the contrary. And even if she was mostly thinking these things because of the fact that now she had another chore on top of her normal duties, and she wouldn't be surprised if her star-gazing privileges were revoked, either.
Yanking the book open and coughing at the dust, Bonnibel tried to ignore the pounding of rage in her heart at this injustice, setting pen to paper as she began her torture. Many days passed before one day as she was turning around the corner in the hallway on her way to the kitchens to request a snack, she heard Granny speaking to Peppermint Butler. Something in her tone of voice made Bonnibel pause; freezing in place, she closed her eyes and listened even more intently when she heard her name being mentioned.
"...Far too long since I have had a day off. I'm sure you and Bonni can handle matters while I'm out for a few hours this evening, yes?"
He cleared his throat, hemming and hawing. "Well, it would be a valuable learning opportunity for my own son," he agreed, even if he sounded reluctant.
They continued conversing about Peppermint Jr. for a while longer, discussing what needed to be done while Granny was out. But for all she tried, she couldn't figure out where exactly the old monarch was going until she gave one last order, an offhand comment- "I don't even know how I'll be able to look her in the eyes after what Bonnibel did to her."
Static filled her head, an angry buzz as she clenched her fists. That vampire again!
"It will be nice to have a calm sit down and cup of tea," Granny sighed. "And I've missed her company."
Gripping at her own hair, she almost yanked it from the roots. What was wrong with her grandmother? What was so special about that vampire that she'd forget the Lich Wars just to go have tea with her? Stomping her foot once, she turned away from where she had been going to head back to the library. No amount of marshmallow cakes was worth having to walk past her grandmother at this moment, so full of rage was she.
If she hoped that by the time grandmother actually told her of her plans and left that she would be feeling calmer, she was sorely disappointed. Should she offer her a stake, just in case? Should she request that Granny could only go if she brought soldiers with her? Why didn't that blasted creature come visit her instead of forcing an old woman to travel out who-knows-where?
Waiting until dinner was over, and her grandmother had left and all of her chores were done, she went upstairs and quite calmly began working on a prototype for a better flashlight.
Chapter 3: Distance
When she slept, she dreamt of nothing but a soothing darkness, warm and safe and compact. Every so often a nonsensical vision would plague her unconscious mind, but when Marceline did dream, it was more likely to be a memory than anything else. Places she had forgotten about in the waking world would emerge from the darkness of slumber to take her hand and walk with her, reminding her of the alleyways of cities that had turned into dust centuries ago, and the scent of human blood.
Gunpowder assaults her nose; her nostrils twitch and she sneezes. Walking between two people, she swings their hands in hers and sometimes jumps up so that she hangs between them, letting them support her weight. She must be a little girl in this dream; she can barely remember the last time she had two friends or even lovers to be comfortably squished between.
Oh, but wait... There was a time after that, wasn't there?
No matter. Friends never lasted. Lovers were even more elusive.
One person lets go of her. Twisting around, she watches her father disappear into shadow and heat, saying, "Promise me you'll take care of her."
The other person promises they will. "We'll be fine, won't we little lady?" he asks her, smiling with too many teeth. She trusts him, completely. No one has ever given her reason to fear the creatures of night and blood.
Her mouth moves; no sound comes out. Clearing her throat, she tries again, reaching for the suited figure who strides purposefully away from her. "Daddy." Nothing answers except the dark chuckling of flames, an empty summoning circle, and the hand of the other adult tightening around hers. Her father is gone; the demon lord's time on this world is up.
There is only him, the only other person in this endless war strewn landscape.
She awoke saying his name, groggy from her sudden change in sleeping habits.
As soon as she regained consciousness she knew the exact position of the sun in the sky, and realized she was running late. The letter Cho had sent her a few days before said when and where they would meet for a less stressful reunion. Swearing and forgetting to float, she hit the sofa cushion with a slap of flesh against unyielding material. Wincing, she made a mental note to burn that stupid couch when she's less pressed for time. As things stood, she had enough time to maybe change her clothes and slap some semblance of makeup together- was a shower out of the question? She didn't want to show up to her meeting with Cho looking like a bum, but she also didn't want to be late. Which would be worse?
Being late. Being late would be worse.
Tearing through her closet, she threw something together and ran her fingers once through her agitated hair before heading towards the entrance to her hideout. Back pedaling just before she burst through the secret waterfall opening, she remembered to grab an umbrella before zipping off through the endless blue skies of Ooo.
The years had not been kind to either of them, certainly, but Marceline still held out hope that her friendship with Cho had not guttered and died. Tumbling head first through the foliage, she still somehow managed to land under her umbrella at Cho's feet, gasping, "I'm here, I'm here! I'm on time and I'm here!" Straightening out and sitting up, she grinned at the queen of the Candy Kingdom. Today was a good day to not have a pulse, though she was pretty sure her nervousness was evident anyway. She had a horrible poker face.
Cho sat with her legs tucked underneath her, a genuine smile almost erasing the generous amount of frown lines she had developed. As usual, she was radiant and regal, even if her mortal frame had begun to bend. "I was late myself, don't worry too much about it, Marceline."
The place where her heart used to live danced at the sound of Cho saying her name; it just as quickly cracked in two. Unbidden, she began to remember every ill-advised action, each foe slain. Each day she had kept herself away from her moral anchor meant more leeway in her thoughts, more innocent people getting hurt because they got in the way of her fruitless quest. It also meant more room for less savory influences, as the people Marceline chose to surround herself with were rarely of a high moral caliber.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled, sitting opposite the queen in the apple orchards, not too far from where she had met the little runt- the grand daughter, Bonnibel. "I've been late for a lot of things, haven't I?"
So many letters had passed between them. Not a single one made up for the fact that yes, Marceline did leave Cho behind. She left many times, even before that terrible night ten years ago, when Bonnibel was just an infant. She left for decades at a time, and not a single wildflower pressed between two pages would make up for the fact that she wasn't there.
Still wry, distant and amused, Cho's deadpan snark hadn't changed much. "Don't worry dear, I haven't exactly been sitting in my tower pining away for your return." Reaching inside a familiar basket, she brought out a spread fit for a vampire: fresh strawberries, watermelon slices, red velvet cupcakes, tomatoes drizzled in soy sauce and sugar, and a bottle of red wine that had an impressive-looking label. She couldn't tell the difference between expensive or cheap wine but she doubted Cho would settle for anything sub par.
Still trying to puzzle out whether she should be relieved or disappointed that Cho remained firmly out of her reach, Marceline decided to just stuff her mouth so she had a reason to not talk. After her long journeys from the Candy Kingdom, it was always jarring to remember they didn't eat a food unless it was sweet enough to rot the teeth. If she wanted a fresh steak or salmon anytime soon she would have to search elsewhere. In the mean time she would eat- actually eat, not drink- whatever Cho thought made good picnic material.
They sat in content quiet for a while, and when Marceline closed her eyes she could pretend half a century hadn't flashed by during the span of one song, that Cho was radiant inside and out, and Marceline wasn't the only one 'pining after her', to borrow a phrase. It was wonderful not to pretend anymore, not to hide behind growls and shape shifting and bravado. She could just shut up around Cho. Soon enough, though, curiosity got the better of them both and they began to ask questions and talk, rippling the silence with banter and stories of the ten years since their last meeting. Bonnibel took up a great percentage of Cho's tales.
"She takes after her father, obviously," Cho said, playing with a forkful of red velvet. "Looking at her, you wouldn't even know she was mostly marzipan." Gesturing to her own beige skin, she only shrugged.
"...Yeahhhh..." Marceline drawled. Forgetting her manners and planting one fang deep into a strawberry, she pulled hard at its juice and drained it until it was withered and grey. Idly, she stared at the slivers of blue sky she could spot from the safety of her umbrella and the tree branches above her. "She has Gregor's eyebrows, though. And his nasty temper- Cho?" Concern entered her voice as Cho dropped her fork with a noise of surprise. Her poise was such that she regained her composure almost as soon as Marceline turned her gaze on her, though.
Guilt, again. "Sorry, do I- do you not say his name very often since-? Sorry." Marceline bit her lower lip.
Only a single strand of immaculate grey hair was out of place; Marceline resisted the urge to fix it for her. "It's nothing, dear," Cho said gently. "It's just, you and I are probably the only people left alive who knew him on a first name basis. The only lips I've heard speak it for some time now have been my own." Folding and unfolding the napkin on her lap, she worried her pale fingers over the fabric and refused to meet Marceline's eyes. "It's very strange," she carried on, her voice nothing but a murmur now. "Even though he's gone..."
A single swipe of her hand wiped most of the crumbs off her lap. Marceline stood, umbrella in hand. "...His essence still has influence. Yeah. I've been thinkin' about it every day."
Surprise. "You have?" Cho asked, twisting the napkin now.
Well, almost every day. "Mm-hmm." Lowering the rim of the umbrella so that it covered her eyes (she'd gone with electric yellow irises today), she nevertheless made no attempt to hide the snarl that twisted her upper lip, baring her fangs. "It looks like my banishment didn't die with the king, so it's been kinda a priority for me to figure out why, exactly."
Cho held her tongue, lowering her head as she began to pack away everything. The vampire helped as much as she could without compromising her safety from the sun.
Bending her knees and curling her feet behind her, Marceline hovered in midair, going just past the trees so that she was on the main path to the castle. Cho followed close at her side. They observed the palace glitter and spew bubbles from far away. Like a grand jewel it remained, just as in her memories. All towers and arches and arrow loops. How many times had she watched it from afar, cursed from ever entering through those doors? Would she never see it from the inside again, or would she be forced to wait until the walls crumbled and melted, the royal line extinguished? By then all she cherished would have long rotted away, as Gregor had promised with his children's blood still on his hands.
A long sigh escaped her. "I'm sorry, Cho."
"What for, dear?" Cho touched her arm, and Marceline felt her chest ripple again. Not only because the vampire still wanted her, but because she was so frail. Candy flesh saggy on brittle bones- when they made contact with Marceline's bare skin, she could almost feel the years on her, and the few years she had left.
Floating with her body parallel to the ground, Marceline tilted the umbrella so that it blocked their view of the castle. She inched closer to Cho. "…I'm sorry for giving Bonnibel something to panic about."
One hand under her chin, she turned Cho's head to the side and planted a delicate, chaste kiss on her cheek. "Wha-"
"She's spying on us right now," Marceline said into Cho's ear. "What do you think would be a better prank- to fake killing you, or pretend I'm getting more than courtly love from under this umbrella?"
It was better late than never, but she finally managed to wrangle a pure, unadulterated, emotional reaction from her friend. Cho's off-white cheeks turned the color of radishes as she stammered, "You'll do neither, you- you- you scoundrel you!"
"Wow, because I've never been called that before." Laughing, she pulled back to wink at her. "C'mon, Cho-Cho, let's scar her for life."
"Don't make me snatch that umbrella from right over your head, young lady. You know I will."
Marceline did know. She also knew it was useless to argue that physical appearances literally made no difference to her; as an immortal shape shifter, age was relative, and the spark of beauty she saw in Cho the first day they met still hadn't diminished one bit in her eyes. What she didn't know was how to voice these feelings, or how to broach the subject of the possibility of courting her again, now that she had been widowed for several years. If it was even right to attempt to replace Gregor.
She pulled back, floating a safe distance from the Queen. "All right then, chickadee. Just so we're clear, though- you do remember I am older than you by like, several centuries, right?"
Her demure veil had fallen again, and again, Marceline was taunted by the distance between them. "Yes, Marceline. I remember."
"So are we meeting up again soon, or...?"
"It depends on you, really. On whether you're going to up and leave me again for your..." she searched for the right word, the only word that could describe Marceline's mission. "Quest."
Another sigh. Booted feet stopped flying and hit the earth. "And I keep telling you, I only left because-" She fell silent again, focus trained on the floor. Little sugar ants marched dutifully; deep underground, she felt the tremors of some subterranean creature digging its way along, sure to cause a lot of headaches for the gardeners who tended these orchards.
The queen shuddered as if a chill wind swept past her. "I've long given up hope for justice, Marceline." Pain deeper than any physical wound ached enough to make the stoic ruler slip again; she pulled out a napkin and dabbed at her eyes.
"I've long given up hope for anything."
Nothing could have prepared her for this. The utter defeat in Cho's voice rocked Marceline to the very core, reverberating sourly with what had been driving her for so long. The vampire shook her head. "Even if you've quit, I've still got the time and the resources to hunt him down." Her fangs jutted out, hanging over her lower lips in a silent hiss. "And I will find the man who killed your children. I swear it."
"And Jay?" Cho pressed. "Did you ever find him?"
Marceline did not answer for a very long time. "No, I haven't," she grunted, squeezing the handle to her umbrella so hard it threatened to shatter. "Or the Lion, for that matter. I hear rumors, of course. About a fighter with a limp, carrying a great ebon sword. None of them pan out, but I haven't given up on them either."
"The Lion was a veteran warrior when I was young, dear," Cho reminded her, reaching up as high as she could to brush the back of her hand against Marceline's cheek. She leaned into the touch, soaking up the affection, desperate for more. "It's very likely he has already passed on, and rests with Gregor. Have you..." she paused. "Checked the Underworld for him?"
Swallowing nervously, Marceline shook her head again. "I've been afraid to. So many things went wrong that day." Her shoulders hunched up. "We lost so much. You…" she turned her eyes on Cho. "Lost so much."
Relinquishing her blessed contact, Cho held the basket in front of her now with both hands. "Try searching the Underworld; if the Lion knew anything about the murderer before he and Jay vanished, then perhaps that is where your search should take you next." Fixing her eyes on the castle ahead, expression grim.
"Yes. Yeah, that makes sense, Cho." With another sudden smile, she flitted around until she was hovering in front of the Queen again. "…My Cho."
"I belong to no one, vampire. Take care to remember that has always been the case."
Flickering out her tongue, she hissed at Cho in a way too exaggerated to seem threatening. Chucking and shoving her aside, Cho led the way as they began their journey to the edge of the border where the castle boundaries started and the orchards ended.
Soon she was walking, not flying, and a loud buzzing filled her head. It grew more intense the longer she ignored it, "I think this is where we part ways," Marceline groaned, rubbing at her temples. Her body was starting to ache as well, and her limbs trembled. "I can fly around most of the Kingdom without issue but the closer we get to that castle..." she trailed off meaningfully.
"Then go. Please don't hurt yourself over me."
"Too late," Marceline said with a twisted smile. On even ground now, Marceline actually had to stretch up a bit to kiss Cho's cheek once more. "Goodbye, Your Majesty.
"I look forward to your next letter."
Chapter 4: Extra Lessons, Part One
Being grounded was perhaps the most uniquely terrible thing that had ever happened to her. Though her more logical side told Bonnibel that she should be grateful this was all she had to cry about, her sense of entitlement as a princess meant she was going to be bitter about this for a while. Granny knew that physical blows did little to temper a fiery spirit- and often had the reverse effect on a rebellious young person. But while she'd never been hit once in her life, she knew well enough that a slapping would be preferable to having her star gazing rights revoked. Boredom was the worst castigation this pre-teen could suffer through.
Turning in her bed, she carefully wriggled free from Lady Rainicorn's thin arms. Her friends were still thankfully able to visit her, even if she wasn't allowed to go visit them. Rainicorn in particular had been good to her, listening to her constant worries about her grandmother's continuing dalliances with that... vampire. Can't sleep, can't star gaze, can't go out- might as well get more work done. Running one hand along Rainicorn's shoulders and smiling at her whickering response, she slipped out of bed. Pausing once, she listened to Lady's even breathing, checking to make sure she was still asleep before she left to skulk through the empty halls of her castle. Shadows flickered and snapped from the light of the candle, forming monsters and ghouls on the corridor walls that needed only a bit of help from an overactive imagination to spring to life.
The doors to the library opened with only a small amount of groaning; a flick hsssssh and another candle lit up. Resting it on the table, Bonnibel navigated the rest of the library by memory, fingers trailing over the ridges and spines of the books until she came across the one she sought. The sooner she was done with these blasted records, the sooner she could get back to work on perfecting her anti-vampire flashlight. Even if she didn't want the thing dead, it never hurt to have leverage over someone.
Grandpa taught her that.
Setting her quill down on a fresh sheet of parchment, she began scanning the documents, cross-referencing and double checking every treaties and royal promise and recording those that needed refreshing or changing. Losing herself in the work, she didn't notice the shadow cross over the threshold of the open doorway. Rubbing at her tired eyes and stretching, she didn't see the slender form looming up from the shadow that her lone candle cast, the sharp teeth, the hand reaching for her shoulder until-
Ten bumbling excuses spilling past her lips at once, the young princess jumped to her feet, turning around to see who had intruded on her unauthorized midnight trip.
"Oh Lady," she said, slumping down in her seat. "It's just you. You scared me half to death."
"I scared you?" Lady Rainicorn snorted, her translator crackling around her neck. "You scared me!" Looking stern, she chastised her for wandering alone so late at night. When she woke up, she said, she nearly had a heart attack to find the princess missing from right under her nose! Chomping down on Bonnibel's sleeve, she began to drag the girl away from her work. "Now come on before we both get in trouble."
Stumbling over her own two feet, she tried to break free from the rainicorn's jaws. "Lady!" she protested. "At least let me put my things away- ooh!"
It was a fortuitous step. The furthest she would allow her mind to go was that luck or fortune was in her favor; to call it fate was just a step beyond what she found comfortable or plausible. But when she tripped, her hand flew out to balance herself; latching onto the edge of a bookshelf. She pulled herself upright, and in doing so pushed the secret lever down. Staring at the bent wooden panel, she thought she had broken it until the grinding of stone and the shriek of rusty metal gears brought her attention to the floor next to her. A section of the library floor rumbled back, leaving open a small square entrance to the mystery below.
Staring at it, neither young noble could think of what to do or say next until Bonnibel made up her mind. Snatching the candle off the table, she marched down crumbling steps that seemed to have been carved right out of the castle. A nervous whinny behind her warned her of what she thought might happen.
The door closed behind her- or above her, actually, as she was already several steps down the secret passage. Noticing the flame on her candle shivering, she held it up to confirm another hypothesis: a breeze. This tunnel had another exit.
Before she could investigate further, though, Lady phased through the stones above her, catching her in a tackling hug and squeezing tightly around her. "Oh, good! You followed me. I hoped you would," Bonnibel said, absent-mindedly stroking her friend's muzzle as she unleashed another barrage of scoldings upon her head. On top of being able to fly by dancing along the light spectrum, Lady could easily slip through most walls, provided they weren't very thick. That would be good, assuming they wanted to go back the way they came.
A note of panic entered the mechanical buzz of her translator. "I didn't see how you had opened the door!" Lady said. "I thought you were trapped!"
"Nonsense!" the princess laughed, shrugging her aside. "In fact I have a feeling, Lady, that we have discovered a secret method with which to escape the castle!"
Growling at her, Rainicorn bared her teeth. "If you're thinking of using this to disobey the Queen, leave me out of it! I don't want to get grounded too!" Whipping around her quick as a snake, she placed her thin body between Bonni and her new adventure. Nudging her along, she tried to usher the princess back to the entrance. "Come on, one of us has to be the mature one. It might as well be me."
Complaining loudly, Bonni dug in her heels. "You're only a few years older than me!" she said, being forced to climb back up the stairs in order to not trip over them every time the rainicorn gave her a shove.
"I," Lady sniffed, "Am almost an adult."
"Yeah, well I'm almost gonna puke."
Resting her head on top of Bonni's her translator hummed with a tiny sigh. "For someone so smart, you can be really dumb. And spoiled."
Bonni wasn't a very empathetic individual, even for a child, but she knew Lady well enough to tell that she was more curious about the descending cavern than she let on. The rainicorn hummed again, thoughtful this time; Bonni remained quiet, and when Lady finally glanced over her shoulder at the dark unknown, the princess knew she had won.
"…Wait here," Lady said, zipping upwards through the secret door again only to return moments later with a lit torch in each hand. And not too soon, either- the meager light from her candle was soon extinguished as a sudden gust of wind bellowed up the passageway.
Lifting one fist, Bonni pumped it into the air. "All right! Go, Lady!" she cheered. Setting down her candle, the princess grabbed a torch. For an instant she wished she had brought her flashlight, but batteries were valuable, and shouldn't be wasted when natural fire was more easily acquired. "This is so exciting."
Grumbling something about how she was only doing this to make sure Bonni stayed out of trouble, Rainicorn took the lead, and the two girls were soon swallowed by the darkness.
Chapter 5: Extra Lessons, Part Two
They came across their first obstacle soon after the stairs petered out and Bonni's bare feet hit solid ground. Though Lady took to the air, lifting her dainty legs off the dirt, Bonnibel had to wince and gingerly pad along the rubble-strewn path. "I'm not going to carry you," Lady warned her, the familiar buzzing tweaks of her communicator giving Bonni a strange sense of security in the gloom. She hovered close behind the princess, her indignant snort not going unnoticed. "There's barely enough light in here for me to lift myself."
"I wasn't gonna ask," Bonni said, reaching behind her to give Lady a shove, pouting at her. "I can take care of myself." As she said that, though, she stepped forward onto a viciously sharp rock, the dull edge digging into the arch of her foot. Locking her lips, she hopped along, hoping Lady wouldn't notice her sudden limp. If anything happened to make her doubt her decision or feel that the princess' health was in jeopardy, there was no doubt that Lady would make them both turn around post haste. No amount of ordering or pleading would sway Lady then.
Soon, the path split into two different branches, a perfect Y. Lady and Bonni halted, looking from one dark, featureless tunnel to the other. Neither seemed more appealing. Remembering what had brought her down here in the first place, though- a chance to escape the castle- Bonni held her torch higher, guesstimating which tunnel brought the scant breeze she had felt earlier. After several tries, she was certain the tunnel that veered to their left was the source of the fresh air. "All right," she murmured, pacing to and fro. "This is the one. But how to make sure we get back?" Rainicorn began nosing the ground around them, looking for something. For what, she wouldn't say, leaving Bonni to wonder if she could use one of the rocks on the ground to scratch markers onto the walls of the tunnels. "We need to mark out path someho- oh!"
Doing her best to hide a pleased grin, Lady held out what she had been looking for: a decent sized stone, softly glowing with the whole spectrum of colors. "Oh, Lady!" Bonni said, clapping one hand to her cheek and waving around the torch with her other. "How did you do that?"
Setting the stone down in the correct path, Lady whickered and whirled around Bonni, careful not to tangle herself up too much or touch the torch. "Rainicorn magic," the young noble said proudly, cheeks flushing pink. "I can manipulate light in all sorts of ways. Dance on them, phase through them, and put it so that it shines where I want!"
Now that she had mentioned it, Lady's torch did seem to be shining a bit dimmer now. "You're fantastic, Lady," she said, meaning every word of it. Lifting her torch higher and leading the way into the tunnel they had chosen, she walked with new confidence in her step. "You and I should quit this princess thing and just become famous adventurers."
"I don't know, Bonni. I can't always be there to keep you out of trouble."
Either her ears betrayed her, or Bonni could hear water dripping in the distance, echoing off the stone walls in a constant pu-kink, pu-kink that would be irritating if it didn't excite her so. "You don't need to worry about me," she promised the Rainicorn. "They say the Candy Monarchs know when they are going to die, and I'm feeling quite hale." The torch guttered and hissed as an unexpected drop of water dripped down from the ceiling, stirring small shrieks of fear from both of them as they huddled closer together, unsure of what had just happened. Their eyes met. Small giggles; Bonni took the lead.
Lady did not seem overly impressed with Bonni's logic, however. "Who is 'they'?" she inquired, rubbing her velvety muzzle against the top of the princess' head.
Truth be told, Bonni was used to this saying being accepted without comment. Stammering and stumbling over a few half-baked answers, she tried to think of what her grandmother would say only to finally respond with, "I don't know... just 'they'!"
"Hmm," was Lady's opinion on that. The air around them grew increasingly humid, the moisture in the air thickening and the stones giving way to damp, spongy moss. While it was gross and chilly, it was also softer on her feet, so Bonni found no reason to complain. Another split in the tunnels soon arrived, but this one was easier to decide on. Both the breeze and the moss continued on in one direction, so after Lady imbued another rock with the full spectrum of colors, they confidently moved towards their goal.
After an interminable amount of time, Bonni tapped on her friend's shoulder, eyebrows arching up as she cupped a hand around her ear. Jerking her head towards a bend in the tunnel, she drew closer to the warm body next to her out of fear as much as from the increasing chill. "Do you hear that?" she whispered, though there was no need. "It sounds like the water is getting louder."
The sharp bend in the path widened out and the low roof exploded up into a huge cavern, half-flooded end to end from a subterranean lake, small rivulets flowing freely out the many other tunnels leading to countless mysteries further in. A little island stood in the middle, holding a statue of some long-forgotten hero, sword in hand. Bulbous, glowing mushrooms cast a soft-blue, gloomy tint to the whole room, just bright enough to give the girls' eyes a break, but not a very significant one. Lady gasped openly in wonder, turning around in circles as more details came to her attention: engravings on the walls, faces in the stone, discarded, rusty weapons on the floor. "What is this place?" she asked Bonni, whose attention was elsewhere. "Bonni?" she repeated when she got no answer.
She looked to the girl only to see her stepping down the gentle slope to the lake. Gripping the hem of her nightgown by her teeth, Bonni waded into the freezing cold water until she was submerged up to her waist. Whinnying with worry and zipping after her, Lady fretted around the princess, trying to get her to go back. Any attempts to tug her up into the air were futile. There was just enough light in the room to lend more danger to the shadows and what they might hide; she still wasn't strong enough to support the princess' weight. Steadfast and sharply focused on the statue at the center of the lake, Bonni didn't stop until she could stare up into serene dead eyes. The marzipan knight was crafted to look down upon the viewer, curiously calm, the edge of his eyebrows tweaked in just a small enough angle downward to give the impression of placidity tinged by sorrow. Both his hands rested atop the pommel of his sword, which stood point-down into the base of the statue.
"Bonni?" Lady repeated, her thin arms wrapped around the girl's midsection, looking back the way they had come to assure herself it was still there. She'd discarded her torch not too long ago, as the light within it was now locked to the markers on their path. "Bonni, are you okay? What is that thing?" She curled up closer to her.
Entranced, Bonni could only respond with another question. "Who is it?" Followed shortly by an answer she had suspected since she first saw his face: "One of the Candy Monarchs, no doubt." More observant now that her initial spellbound reaction had worn off, she scanned the statue for any signifiers or clues towards the warrior's identity. Bringing her torch closer, she spotted large, blocky letters on the base of the statue. Half the inscription was covered in moss, ripped aside by trembling pink hands. Bonni read it aloud: "With Conviction I was saved, may she rest forever at this grave. Wrapped in vines that never bud, she is bound to none save noble blood. Huh."
Further digging led to no more clues than those they had started out with, leaving them to puzzle over the inscription. Rotted bits of leather littered the ground; "What do you think that means?" the princess asked, tapping at it with the wooden end of her torch. The flames danced faster in agitation. "Conviction."
"That we've had enough fun and we should go back to our room."
"Conviction is spelled with a capital C," Bonni noted, gnawing on the flesh around her thumb, fitting into familiar grooves from previous bouts of intense thinking. "You don't suppose that's not some fancy, old-world spelling and not because it's a proper noun, do you? Like, Conviction was a woman?"
"Glob forbid you ever actually listen to me for once, but could it have something to do with the sword he's holding?"
Bonni had initially thought the sword was covered in vines and moss like the rest of the statue, but when she ran her hands over it again she could feel the unyielding nature of the stone underneath. Strong vines covered the sword, trailing down to puddle at the knight's feet. Quiet at first, Bonni let out a long, slow...
She slapped her forehead. Passing her torch to Lady, she got down on her knees and started tearing away at the moss on the statue, still hoping for more clues. "Okay. Okay so Conviction is a sword. Duh! But I'm royal blood, so that means it's rightfully mine. So let's find it!"
A treasure hunt. This had turned into a full blown adventure after all. "I bet you his tomb is right here, right under this statue," Bonni continued, beginning to dig at the loose, wet soil. Lady made a noise of agreement, hovering just above her to act as a light source. Her ill-organized thoughts turned into a long, rambling speech as she dreamed of the possibilities. "Or somewhere in these tunnels. Then I'll have a new antique for my collection- oh man, Grandpa would be so proud of us- I'll learn how to use the sword in combat and then one day I'll be Queen, and we can use Conviction on all the adventures we want, and-"
A scream ripped Bonni's heart right out of her chest as something whipped by overhead, tackling into Lady. The torch went flying into the lake, plunging the cave back into gloomy semi-darkness. The two large shapes grappled in the mire, limbs flailing and teeth gnashing. Trapping it in the coils of her long, sinuous body, Lady pinned down the creature long enough to lock eyes with Bonni, a single trail of blood running down her snout.
The creature screamed again, kicking all eight, pawed feet at the Rainicorn. It sunk its fangs into her flank, causing her to straighten out from the pain and release it. Jumping free with another sound kick to her jaw, the monster skittered up one of the walls, trying to disappear into the darkness. Lady growled, focusing all the light in the room on the tip of her horn and striking out with a dazzling beam of energy, changing the dark fur on the creature from brown to a brilliant vermillion. It's sidewise jaw dripped bits of foamy slather, bright red tongue panting from exertion. Eight eyes blinked, yellow iris focusing in the dim light.
Bonni could see it plainly now that Rainicorn magic had made it impossible for it to hide: a wolfspider, one of the awful chimera leftovers from the Mushroom Era that still haunted certain corners of Ooo. The broken, howling scream was enough to petrify most of its prey- Bonnibel included. Lady seemed less than impressed, though, responding to another hunting cry with a ferocious hiss, her fur standing on end. "I said to run, Princess!" Lady said again, locked in a staring match with two of the monster's eight yellow eyes. "The path is clear. I'll hold it off!"
For the second time in only a few weeks, Bonnibel had put someone else in danger due to her own recklessness. This was no ancient vampire, though, faster than an eyeblink and stronger than steel. There was no way she would abandon any of her subjects, and no scenario in which she would ever turn her back on her dearest friend. "N-No way!" she said, managing to shake free of the instinct to freeze up. Backpedaling a few steps, Bonni stooped and gathered up an armful of smooth rocks from the lake. Hurling one at the wolfspider as hard as she could, Bonni taunted it with a few choice four-letter words she had learned from Grandpa. "Bug off, you big freak!" It clacked against the wolfish part of the monster's awful, bifurcated head, striking hard. "You loaf!" Ka-rack. "Leave my friend alone!"
Hissing again, Lady surged at the wolfspider when most of its eyes focused on Bonni, digging her sharp teeth into it like a terrier with a rat. A paw struck her between the eyes, claws raking at her as it scuttled down the wall, headed straight towards Bonni. Shrieking and dropping all her rocks in a panic, the princess lunged to the side, ducking behind the statue of the knight. It tried to duck after her last second, but the mix of two species that had given it such strength left it with poor coordination. All two hundred pounds of furred abomination slammed into the solid stone, forming a crack straight down its middle. Lady pounced onto the spiderwolf's unprotected back, stomping her hooves down with as much force as she could muster, concentrating solid packets of light around the ends of her otherwise dainty feet to add more punch to her assault.
Tangling her body up in its legs, the Rainicorn compressed herself around it, snake-like as she furiously started biting chunks out of it. The careening mess of furry legs and supple Rainicorn flesh flailed around, animalistic growls and yelps echoing through the entire tunnel complex. Showing more cunning than either of the girls had given it credit for, the wolfspider slammed into the statue again- this time on purpose. Letting out a pained neigh, Lady went limp as the statue gave way under their combined weight. Both the Rainicorn and the statue crumbled at Bonni's feet, leaving nothing standing between her and the enraged chimera. Luckily, Lady's magic held strong, and the beast remained a softly glowing crimson. The blood red hue gave off just enough light to shine on it: the edge of a blade peeking out of its scabbard, lying amid the rubble of the statue.
Who knew how long it had been encased there, hidden inside the effigy of its previous owner?
All Bonni knew was that it was her only hope. Drawing upon the confidence that had led her to try and go head-to-head with the vampire queen, and the gumption that had led her down here in the first place, Bonni fell to the floor, grabbing Conviction by its hilt and lashing out with a wild swing. It was an unbelievably sloppy maneuver, more suited to a club than a legendary sword, but it had the desired effect. The scabbard went flying off the blade, flung like a stone from a sling straight into the beast's leftmost eye.
Scrabbling at it with one paw, it managed to dislodge the scabbard; it scraped along the stone floor, landing back at Bonni's feet. In pain and bleeding, the beast screamed once more, louder than ever. Just as the first time, Bonni froze, Conviction pointed at an awkward angle in front of her as the spiderwolf advanced. The point of it trembled, getting too heavy for her rigid arms now that the initial burst of adrenaline was proving not enough to sustain long periods of fighting. Crouching low, seven yellow eyes burned for her corpse. The beast pounced.
Not like this...!
Thrusting forward without finesse, Bonni fell to her knees, jabbing upwards as the spiderwolf fell upon her. The point buried itself deep into its furry thorax, the awful sidewise jaws snapping inches from her face before jerking aside with a sharp squeal. The sword fractured, cracking down the middle and leaving her with nothing but a hilt and a few centimeters of jagged steel. The rest stayed inside the wobbling creature, which scuttled away from her cautiously, limping from the damage the two girls had inflicted upon it.
It eyed Lady's unconscious, helpless form, inching towards the easier prey. Blazing with renewed fury, Bonni leapt forward, tossing the useless hunk of metal at the spiderwolf. "Back off!" She shouted, trying to appear as intimidating as she could manage. Since she could at least use it as a club, she held Conviction's discarded scabbard in both hands, raising it above her head and shouting. "Go! Scram!"
Claws clicking, it slowly started backing away. Maintaining eye contact, she willed herself not to blink, to wield the full force of her desperation and rage as a weapon. Slinking away down another tunnel, the bloody red monster left, taking away a significant source of the cavern's light with it. Black blood was spilled all over the floor, fouling the clear water of the lake and splattered all over her nightgown.
Turning into jelly, Bonni sat down, hugging Conviction's scabbard close to her chest. Everything caught up with her now that danger had miraculously been beaten back; hot tears slid down her face faster than she could wipe them away. Stirring nearby, Lady groggily got to all fours, shaking her blonde mane and looking around for their enemy.
"Bonni?" she ventured, stumbling towards her. "Are we dead?"
A short laugh bounced around the empty cavern, broken up by a tearful hiccup. "N-not possible," Bonni said, running her fingers over the cool metal in her hands over and over. "They say the Candy Monarchs a-always know when their t-time is near."
"Yeah?" Lady asked in return, cuddling close to her, her snout nuzzling against Bonni's sticky hair. "Who's "they"?"
They started laughing, harder than what was probably rational. "Ohhh," Bonni groaned, curling up against Lady. A sudden pain stabbed at her ribs, making her vision go slightly red. "I feel awful. I think it razed me with one of its paws." Lifting up the edge of her nightgown again, she examined the source of her agony.
A long black claw lay nestled inches deep inside her.
"Oh," Bonni said again, processing the sharp way her grenadine blood contrasted with the inky pollution of the spiderwolf's gore, crusting up on her dress.
To say that she slept would be a lie; somewhere between lucidity and dreams, she lay on the hospital bed, staring up at the stark white ceiling. Doctors and nurses babbled and moved about, but from very far away, and through a gauzy layer of film that separated her from the land of the living.
When she turned her head to look at her bedside, she saw she had a visitor. No filmy haze stretched between them. He was the most real thing in this entire building.
Empty sockets gazed at her impassively, a cow's skull resting atop bone-thin shoulders.
A gnarled hand rest against her cheek, knuckles brushing at the purple bruise blossoming there. "It's such a shame to meet under these circumstances," Death tells her. His voice is surprisingly melodic, low and masculine and maybe just a little bit enticing. "But I have a deal with your kind. I only get to take you the second time you see me."
The mattress dipped under his weight, one scabby knee followed by another.
"Just like this," Death promised her, crouching above on his hands and knees, the empty skull sockets commanding her vision. The longer she stared, the larger they grew, till they were all she could see. Endless, warm darkness. The room had disappeared, and his voice swelled around her. "In your bed, with a fever. Your heart will break. And then it will stop."
Fear, pure and raw, gripped at her insides. The vision was fading, the light returning. Her time with Death was over, for now. But the spark of demanding, haughty pride that burned within her above all else would not be put out for long. As the blackness receded, so did her terror.
Grabbing the front of his shirt and pulling him back down before he could dissipate back to wherever she came from, she narrowed her eyes. And so she made one more demand from him.
Shocked laughter rebounded around her, within her.
"You'll see," he promised slyly.
Bonni woke up.
Chapter 6: Ghost Stories, Part One
For the fifth time today, Bonnibel had to remind herself that she had nothing but her own hubris to blame for her current predicament. 'Current predicament' in this case meaning choking down another bowl of boba soup, since the doctors insisted she get some nutrients back in her system yet refused to let her near solid foods. Letting the spoon rattle against the side of the still-full bowl, the princess lay back with a groan, wishing Lady's weight wasn't so heavy on her stomach.
The Rainicorn rested on and around Bonnibel, her body an incomprehensible, inescapable knot. Soon after her own injuries had healed Lady had insisted she be by Bonnibel's side. The first thing Lady had done when she peeked through the doorway to see Bonni sitting up on her own was neigh loudly, zipping past a startled nurse and wrapping herself up in her friend. They had been inseparable ever since, Lady refusing to go back home until she was certain her princess was on her feet again. It helped Bonnibel immeasurably to have that reassuring warmth so close by. Sleep was elusive. The vision she had seen of Death chased her every dream. Awakening in the night to uncontrollable shivers and headaches, she had developed a compulsion to check her temperature more than was strictly necessary.
"Want me to finish that?" Lady asked with a yawn, button eyes blinking away the sleep-gunk. "Doctor Princess doesn't have to know." Grunting and handing her soup over, she thanked the Rainicorn, who lapped away at her leftovers. Here in the light of day with her best friend in the world, it was much easier to believe that her dream had been just that- a dream. And the fact that Lady hadn't abandoned her after she had gotten them into so much trouble helped her rest, even when she could not sleep.
"Blehhhh," Bonnibel succinctly opined, eyeballing the boba soup. "Tapioca is for old people. Why do you enjoy that swill?"
Licking her lips and dabbing at her chin with a napkin from the bedside table, Lady held back a burp and set aside the empty dish. "Because it's good, miss smarty pants."
"Maybe you're just secretly an old person."
"Maybe you're just secretly a picky snooty patoot."
"Maybe the both of you ought to try listening to your elders once in a while."
The two girls sat up ramrod straight, turning their attention to the voice of authority that had just entered their sick room. Grandma Cho had taken time out of her feverish schedule to visit both of them at least once a day since they had been found collapsed on the library floor. Rainicorn had dragged her unconscious friend back up to safety before blacking out herself. They were frequently reminded that they were both lucky to be alive and that their punishment was not forgotten, but merely withheld until a later date. Now, seeing that Cho held Conviction's scabbard flat in both her hands, they had a sinking feeling that their due reward had caught up to them at last.
"Girls," Cho said by way of greeting, giving them a curt nod. They did their best to return some sort of curtsy while still bedridden, murmuring the proper welcome to the monarch. "How are we feeling today?"
Lady whickered, "Fairly well." Lowering her gaze and pawing at the bed sheets, she shrank closer around Bonnibel.
"Better," the princess said, resting a hand on Lady's back, not afraid to meet Cho's steady scrutiny with a practiced shrug. She couldn't hold it for long, though, quickly breaking down into a nervous cough and a hopeful smile. "...I'm glad to see you, Granny."
"As seeing you gladdens me. Though I'm only here to return what's yours; I must attend to my regular duties soon."
A tension in her muscles she hadn't realized she had been holding slipped away. Bonni breathed a little easier when Cho set the scabbard down across her lap and bent over, pushing aside her messy hair to plant a kiss on her forehead. "Do you like it?" she couldn't help but ask as her grandmother pulled away. She held her scabbard close to her chest, hugging it tightly. It represented something important to Bonnibel, validated her in a way she hadn't known she had needed. "It saved my life down there. It belonged to a sword named Conviction and it saved me because I'm a true Candy Monarch."
Cho laughed, her wrinkles lightening for a moment. A shadow of her youth splintered out in that instant; Bonnibel blinked, and it was gone. "Oh, did it now?" she said, still smiling.
Deeply rankled, Bonnibel shook the scabbard point first at her. "What, don't you believe me? It is drawn to royal blood, you know! The statue said so!"
"I don't doubt it," Cho said, her movements careful and ginger as she sat on the edge of Bonnibel's bed. Her creaking joints complained, but she ignored them. "But Conviction isn't a stranger to me. And it isn't a sword."
Though quiet ever since Cho had entered the room, Lady spoke. Unable to resist satisfying her curiosity, she shyly looked up at the queen. "What is it, then?"
"Ahh." Another smile; the stiffness in her posture relaxed, Cho's mind going somewhere far away. "Conviction? Well, to the right person, it's a lot of things." She made a wide gesture, crooked fingers splaying out towards something only she could see. "It's light as a wish, but as powerful as an ideal."
"I'm sure she meant-"
"I know what she meant, Bonnibel." Tapping one long fingernail against the scabbard, Cho sharply tapped out her syllables, shutting off whatever Bonnibel was going to say. "Lis-ten- to- me- for- once- in- your- life."
The princess clammed up, her lips stretching back in a bemused smile. "So, uh, Conviction isn't a sword. So are you going to tell us what it is or are we going to dance more around all these cryptic clues?"
Cho merely tapped the scabbard again, nodding down to it.
It took a moment to click.
"What, the scabbard?" Bonnibel asked, holding it aloft. "This thing doesn't even have a- a point or an edge or anything." She set it down, meandering between pleasure and disappointment. On one hand, a long lost treasure was still a treasure. But who ever heard of a magic scabbard?
The queen clucked her tongue. "It's not meant to be a weapon. On its own, Conviction protects, it guides, it inspires. It doesn't attack, though it makes your strikes fly truer." She rested her hand on top of Bonni's, squeezing tightly. "Do you understand?"
Before she could answer, one of the nurses bustled in, bowing to the nobles before taking away Bonni's discarded lunch, congratulating her on finishing all her soup today and my, what a good patient she was being. The princess and Lady exchanged a look, but otherwise the three remained silent until they were alone again.
Conviction rested hard on her lap, digging down with its dull weight. Indestructible magical heirlooms were the sort of thing that belonged in her collection, no doubt. But if it was really as powerful as Granny Cho seemed to insinuate it was, then surely there was a better recipient for its power. Hefting it up, Bonnibel extended Conviction to her grandmother, pressing it into her hands. "I do understand, and you should have it, Granny. You need it's protection more than I do."
Gracious yet firm, Cho refused to hold the scabbard, pushing it back to the girl. "With all the running around you do- against my explicit orders, I might add-" Bonni and Lady both flinched, since after all they were still waiting for the bomb to drop on their reckless rule breaking. "I think you're the only one here who needs a little more guardianship. Besides," Cho said, getting to her feet again. It took effort, her old limbs resisting movement. Standing with her hands clasped in front of her, Cho gave her willful grand daughter an inscrutable little nod. "Conviction seems to be attracted to your... most defining trait."
When all else fails, try to be cute. "You mean my, eh, aheh, my ah, adventurous spirit?" Bonni asked with a grin and a dry laugh. The dry pounding of a headache was beginning to form behind her eyes, formed from the cocktail of stress and anxiety that had shaped the past few weeks and stirred by her current reminder of her inability to please her grandmother.
"I mean you're more stubborn than a mule."
"She has a point," Lady said.
"You're not helping," Bonni darkly grumbled, lying back on her bed and holding Conviction for extra security. It did resonate with her, in a way. Though she wasn't quick to jump to a supernatural explanation for her sense of attachment to the scabbard, it did appear at just the right time to save her life. A little suspension of disbelief was forgivable in this scenario. A sudden, sharp yawn jerked her thoughts back to the hospital room, and her lingering headache. "I am really sorry for disobeying you though, Granny," she said, burying her face against the cool metal. "I shouldn't have gone off on my own." Groping around her until she found a stretch of downy fur, Bonni stroked along Lady's long back. "I keep putting other people in danger."
If there was any chink in Cho's armor, it was beyond a doubt her love for Bonnibel. Shushing her, the queen put her palm against the girl's cheek. Ironing out the worry wrinkles forming on Bonni's frowning face with her thumb, she said, "Shh. Just rest, child. We can discuss what happened when you're better."
Bonni didn't say anything, but fell asleep to the soothing feeling of having everyone she cared about close at hand.
The blessing of their youth and young, green bones meant that the two girls healed up fast and well. By the time Lady Rainicorn's parents arrived from the neighboring kingdom to recover their daughter from her long stay at the Candy castle, all that was left of their little adventure was a few moldy purple bruises, soon to fade into memory. Cho decided the injuries they had sustained were punishment enough for their unauthorized escapade beneath the castle; further deterrent, she believed, should not be necessary.
"What are we going to tell my parents?" Lady whispered to Bonnibel, spotting her mother flying in over the horizon. Fidgeting and coiling a few times around the princess, she nuzzled against her for comfort.
"I dunno. Maybe they already know."
"If they knew I was in trouble they'd have shown up sooner."
They didn't get much time to formulate any kind of plan. Soon her parents had swept her up in an embarrassing display of hugs and kisses. When Granny showed up to properly greet them and nobody commented on the bruise still visible on Bonnibel's cheek, they decided that perhaps it was best to keep this their little secret.
To properly enter the section of the afterlife where her friends most likely resided would take three things: time, planning, and gumption. Marceline lacked neither time nor a well formulated plan, but the idea of finally confronting a dead man she had successfully avoided for near two decades- well, it didn't sit very nicely with her, to say the least. Cho would visit her in her secret lair, brave past the crashing waterfall to tidy the place up and make it more cozy, homey. A woman's touch! she said, ignoring the fact that Marceline was quite female, thanks.
There was always lot of news to catch up on, stories to tell, and boasts to brag about. It was comfortable and casual even when Marceline acted like a shameless flirt. They also discussed business- where and how to get the materials necessary for Marceline's journey to come, the next step in her quest to find out who had murdered Bonnibel's parents.
To be honest, this was a last resort. There were few places vampires hated more than the Underworld, being neither alive nor dead. Though she had some status there as the daughter of Hunson Abadeer, she also had more than a few enemies who resented her rank and her refusal to accept it. But as the letters stating their meeting times became more and more frequent, Marceline was almost... glad to have this excuse to be around Cho again, even if it was mostly a lot of nostalgia trips and necromancy.
Then, one day, when she expected Cho to come striding through the waterfall with the spray catching in her hair like stray pearls, someone else busted through the sheet of water, shrieking at the cold. The unfamiliar voice put Marceline on instant alert. Was it a stranger accidentally sneaking into her well-hidden home? An intruder? Hunter? Spy?
Axe in hand and clinging to the shadows, she peered through narrowed eyes at the interloper only to discover someone far, far worse.
It was that child, Bonnibel. Her first instinct was to 'shift into something uniquely terrifying to try and send her running away screaming, but the last time she had done that she wound up with a crossbow bolt splitting her pelvic bone in half. Sighing loudly, Marceline dripped free from the darkness stained across the ceiling, dropping in front of the girl with a loud thmp of boots and leather in an animalistic crouch. "What-" she straightened up, hefting her axe over her shoulder "-Are you doing here, little girl?"
Though she'd been startled, she regained her composure to display her empty hands. "I'm unarmed."
Marceline's mouth yawned open in a silent hiss, jaw full of more teeth than normal and wider than it had any right to be. It was instinctual more than anything else- she doubted Bonnibel would react to it more than she would react to a good plain old fashioned fuck you. "You think I give a shit? Listen, I think you're kind of a badass, but that doesn't mean I like you or enjoy your presence." Lifting one leg up, she pressed the sole of her boot against Bonni's shoulder, pushing her back. "Am-scray. And leave the basket," she added, noticing it tucked in the crook of her elbow. It smelled like there was something nice in there.
Stumbling back, all the red in her body rushed to her face, filling the air with a scent almost better than the basket. Very distracting. "I'm not here because I want to be!" she protested, cheeks puffing out. "I trust you about as far as I can throw you, vampire, but Granny broke her hip and she can't come so here." She tossed the basket into Marceline's stunned arms, whipped around, and started marching back out of the cave. "I hope you choke on them!"
She was already through the waterfall curtain by the time Marceline set down the basket, pulled on a hood, and chased after her. A lanky pre-teen rainicorn had been waiting for her outside, mumbling something in cracking, buzzing translator speech to calm the princess down. "Whoa, wait!" Marceline said as Bonnibel threw one leg over the rainicorn's shoulder, getting ready to fly away back to the castle. The rainicorn paused, even though Bonni ushered her to just leave already.
What a royal brat. To think that she expected to come here, deliver that news, and then just leave? Marceline conveniently forgot she was the one who had ordered the girl to scram in the first place. Floating up so that her body was parallel to the ground, she took a deep breath to calm herself. "Wait. What's wrong with Cho? Is she okay? Was there an attempt on her life? How'd she break her hip? Is-"
Bonni pressed her palms against her ears, shaking her head. "Stop, stop, stop!"
"Well, answer the question, pipsqueak!"
"Which one?" the rainicorn asked dryly, twisting her body so that she came between the vampire and the princess. "The Queen is in no danger. She simply fell down the stairs."
A broken hip. She could have snapped her neck just as easily, and Marceline wouldn't have been able to do anything about it. Like a lightning bolt, her real reasons for trying to find the killer who had taken away Cho's family revealed itself to her: If she could settle these ghosts at last, then maybe the curse that kept her from entering the Candy Kingdom would finally be lifted. And then, finally, maybe she and Cho could be together again, for however long Cho had left in this world.
An expression of pure pain twisted Marceline's face like the knot of a withered tree. Too easily she could imagine Cho, helpless and frail, still ordering her only grand daughter out to make sure Marceline got the latest pieces to the portal she was building. She sent Bonni so that Marceline wouldn't get concerned when she was late. Turning away, Marceline went back to the cave without another word. Letting the pair fly away, she sunk into her mattress and wished she were tired so that the sleep could null her grief, if only for a little while.
Chapter 7: Ghost Stories, Part 2
This was so incredibly frustrating.
No, this was beyond frustrating. It was maddening. Ever since Lady had gone home with her parents, Bonnibel had been left alone with nothing but her own thoughts for company. They tended to circle around in infinite loops, growing tighter and tighter till they threatened to cut off the oxygen to her brain. Her sword, Conviction, traveled with her more often than not. Though traditionally worn at the hip, it dragged on the floor when she tried. Instead she slung it over her shoulder, bumping diagonally against her back.
And she carried a small thermometer in her purse, wherever she went.
She didn't dare ask Granny if she knew when she was going to die.
Asking a question like that was out of bounds, and not just because she didn't want to admit her meeting with Death hadn't been a hallucination. She knew it hadn't been. She knew because she felt his familiar chill floating around Granny every time she came into contact with her, the cold miasma leeching away at her strength. Cho's hip had fractured terribly, and in her vulnerability she had succumbed to a terrible infection. The longer Cho stayed in the sick bay, the more her condition worsened. She was growing withdrawn, looking frailer by the minute. Worst of all, she increasingly began asking for Marceline in her barely lucid moments, fever started to grip uncomfortably at her senses.
Were fevers catching?
Bonnibel didn't know. The only thing she knew was that she was alone, and every eye in the castle increasingly began to turn to her, wondering if the time was soon coming when she would inherit the throne. The only time she felt she had total privacy was when she retreated to her room, where her thoughts coursed around her in their endless circling, or in the library.
Her punishment seemed so long ago. Even though she had been forgiven, the task lay half completed. So, pushing back her sleeves and lighting up a candle, she threw herself into the work when she had spare time, losing herself in something she could control.
And when even that wasn't enough, she finally went to Grandpa.
She had found him many years ago, buried in a little box in her mother's closet. Letters- so many letters, all addressed to different people. She had read through all of them at least a dozen times, each turn of phrase, each word choice as familiar to her as her own speech patterns. Though he had died before she could remember, she felt closer to him than her parents, having no mementos of them. There was nothing other than family portraits to relate to. With Grandpa, though, a remnant of his personality still shone through in his words, and so she fancied she knew him. He was a man of action, quick to solve problems, and sharp as a dagger's edge. She bet he would know what to do about Marceline.
After all, it had been a vampire that killed her parents.
He made his opinion of the undead clear, recounting the part he played in the war against the Lich. Also, here and there, he made mention of a few particular entities he refused to call by name. L, J, and M. The references to them were always a mystery, one she tried to pick apart many times. With a hot snake of anger uncoiling in her belly, Bonnibel had a feeling she finally knew who "M" was, after all this time.
Sighing, she put the letters away in their safe space, folded neatly with the newest at the top of the stack. The deeper she looked into the past, the more she was beginning to see Marceline had been heavily entwined in her life since long before she was born. Picking up Conviction where she had left it lying next to her, Bonnibel decided now was a good time to figure out just what kind of connection this vampire queen had to the Candy Monarchs. Going to the window, she squinted out into the sunset. Dragonfly wings buzzed around her, curiously far from the moat below on the castle grounds. Waving the pest away from her face, she found herself once again without a plan or even a clue as to what to do next.
Though she was loath to do so, it was time to open the other box.
The cupcakes Cho had sent probably hadn't lasted long, and Bonni doubted Marceline's patience fared any better. Without Cho, all the progress on their weird secret project ground to a halt. More and more often Bonni spied the vampire prowling the borders of the Candy Kingdom, looking for a weak point in the invisible field that kept her away. Cho was too feverish and confused to be much help, but Bonnibel managed to wrangle bits and pieces of information out of her.
Though she wasn't sure on the specifics, she was certain the two of them were working on a method for Marceline to break the curse that kept her banished from the Kingdom. Unlocking her banishment lay in the underworld, and too much of their work involved esoteric formulas and cryptic spells that Cho knew, but Marceline didn't. Cho was the brains of this operation, but Marceline was the one with enough raw magical ability to carry it out.
And Cho was sick.
So she stood on the mossy bank outside the vampire's lair once again. Careful not to slip on the green-sponged rocks that led to the waterfall entrance to Marceline's cave, Bonnibel hoped the vampire would be inside. Considering it was high noon, she doubted the vampire would be wandering about. But with Marceline, who knew?
A crack echoed inside the cave, jolting her with fear for an instant. She saw her, then, was fortunate enough to catch her in the middle of a spectacular temper tantrum. One jagged stalagmite clutched in her white-knuckled hand, Marceline paced familiar grounds, swiping the air in front of her occasionally with an angry outburst. She hadn't noticed Bonni yet, but Bonni could see her by the light of the torches that lined the walls of the cave, flickering and dancing. Anyone peeking in then would see twisting shadows and the occasional gout of flame, and hear hissed curses and stone breaking.
Most people would have taken that as a sign of demonic possession, a trollish witch casting unknown spells. Bonnibel took it as a sign Marceline was home, and so stepped further inside without much further thought. Crossing some invisible threshold, or maybe making too much noise with her steps, she alerted the vampire to her presence. They locked eyes across the caves, the waterfall roaring behind her, and then all of the torches fizzled out.
"Hello?" she called into the darkness, catching the vampire's ghoulish shadow in the corner of her eyes a few times. Clutching her basket closer to her chest, she wandered further inside, aware she was being stalked. The faint static of the waterfall entrance drowned out any other noise and the darkness shrouded the cave in mystery. Deprived of most of her senses, she nevertheless charged in blind. "Um, Marceline?"
When she bumped into the house, she almost screamed. The wood was dry for being in such a humid environment, little splinters crumbling off under her fingertips. Then, the torches roared up again, blinding her after her vision had adjusted to the darkness. A clawed hand grabbed her by the back of her neck, dragging her roughly inside the house. Stumbling, her feet scrabbling for purchase on the slick stone floor, Bonnibel did her best to keep hold of the basket in her hands as Marceline pulled her along, eventually dumping her onto the couch. Hitting it like meat against the cutting board, Bonnibel winced, but made no noise. Instead she glared rebelliously up at the vampire, waiting for her next move.
For whatever reason, Marceline had resumed using the guise of a pre-pubescent girl. In fact for all Bonnibel knew, this was her true shape. Marceline might have been turned into a vampire as a little girl. Barely older than herself, Bonnibel realized with an unexpected jolt.
Jerking the basket from her hands, Marceline didn't even bother insulting her this time, just opening it at once, finding the box inside, and rifling through the contents. Bonnibel watched Marceline pick a letter at random from the box and open it, red eyes scanning it hard enough that Bonnibel feared her intensity might set the brittle pages aflame.
Folding it with more tenderness than she had whipped it out, Marceline lifted the letter to her nose. Her eyes closed, eyebrows furrowing together. "It smells like secret places and dust," she breathed out in agonized bliss. Something fell into the pit of Bonnibel's stomach at her tone of voice, and she squirmed in her chair, looking everywhere but at the vampire lost in her memories. "But I knew what they were the moment you walked in." Regaining her composure, Marceline's loose, easy peace was broken. She set the box down next to Bonni on the couch, lips tightening. Flapping the letter in Bonnibel's face, the princess felt the red-hot intensity of her gaze focused on her once more. "Where'd you get these?"
"I found them. They are yours, correct?" Bonnibel asked, picking up a single envelope at random. Her fingers managed to just slide it open before Marceline snatched the letter out of her hands.
The vampire returned it to the box, tapping it against her palm like a deck of cards, neatly packing them together. Her hands, capable of so much bloodshed, were loving and gentle with the faded yellow documents, old from age and many re-readings. "None of your business, Snacks," she muttered.
How should she go about this? It was hard to ignore the black hole in her gut, pulling at her lungs, making it hard to breathe. "They are yours, both those addressed to you and those written by your hand. I already read one of them," she confessed, wishing Marceline would shape shift into an adult again. Talking to an adult was no problem, especially one she didn't like. Rebellion was a pure, hard emotion, quick to strike and easy to wield.
When Marceline looked just like her, well... it made her chest constrict.
Her hair flared up with a wriggling life of its own, her tiny fangs bared in a grimace of rage. What blood remained in her body rushed to the surface of her pallid gray skin, flushing it and making her seem almost normal. "Oh god, you are- you're the worst. I really don't think there is a person on this planet who is more vile than you. First you try to kill me-"
"I merely threatened you. No action I took would have actually ended your existence." The fact that Marceline wasn't technically alive was a point she wanted to stress very much. Undead people had no right being fussy about their existence.
"-Then you invade my privacy. Way to go, hero. Serious princess skills you got there."
No one questioned her princess skills. "I didn't know they were yours at first," she said, getting up so that they could be on equal ground. It didn't work the way she envisioned it, since Marceline had a habit of floating and so remained a head taller than her. "Just that Granny told me not to read them. But she's sick and she really wants to see you so I went looking for a clue about your banishment and found these stupid love letters instead." Grabbing the box again, she thrust the letters towards Marceline, surprising her into holding it before it fell out of their hands. "So here, take it. Your property restored to you."
The letters rustled under her fingers, running along the top of them like they were skimming through pages in a book. "Why?" she asked, short and sharp. Almost like the way her younger body was shaped, all angles and joints. Her lower lip dimpled under the pressure of one fang, chewing on it from a habit that was likely older than the fangs themselves.
Bonni licked her lips, dry from nerves. "It's a peace offering. I want to work together to end your banishment." Breaking eye contact, she turned her body aside unconsciously, her feet shuffling back and forth. "I don't like you, but Granny does. I'm willing to cast aside my pride if it would make her happier."
Far from appeasing her, that only set Marceline further on edge. "Dang." Her feet hit the floor. "She's really sick, isn't she? If a little brat like you is swallowing up all your nasty for her sake-"
Snatching the front of her ragged old t-shirt, she forgot for a moment that this was a centuries-old vampire. "Hey!" she said, shaking her once. "I would do that and much more for Granny, any time she asked. You don't know anything about me, bloodsucker."
She slapped her hands off her, a light motion that carried the weight of all her supernatural strength. It hurt, a lot. "That's rich, coming from you. You never even gave me a chance-"
"Urgh, enough, enough!" Grasping her head, she mussed up her hair and stomped her feet. "Do you want my help or don't you?"
Lifting up into the air, she twisted upside down, regarding her with crossed arms. The box of letters remained firmly and securely shut. "What could a snack-sized brat like you do, other than shoot me again?" Her flipped expression sneered. "Being stupid-brave isn't enough to get us where we need to go."
"And where, exactly, do we need to go?" she asked, not liking how the vampire looked down on her, both figuratively and literally. Even then it didn't seem like Marceline would take up her offer, so Bonnibel went to her last resort. "I owe you a life debt. I'd see it fulfilled."
She didn't want to admit it, but it was true. She had tried to kill Marceline. No matter how hard she tried to rationalize her behavior, that fact remained.
In the span of an eye blink, Marceline was in her personal space again, scrutinizing her. Maybe vampires could see a lot about a person from just their eyes. That explained the staring matches she tended to engage in. Or maybe she just didn't care about how uncomfortable it made people to look directly into their eyes- maybe it was a display of dominance, like an animal. In any case, Bonnibel gave as good as she got.
Marceline's eyes shifted from red to a chipped steely blue.
"Fine," she said. "If you have any grand ideas about how to get to the different Dead Worlds, I'm all ears." To prove her point, she shape shifted dramatically, paper-thin bat ears twitching their way free from her thick black hair.
Though she didn't want to, Bonnibel grinned. "I might just wind up surprising you, Marceline."
Her long tongue rolled out, emphasizing each dry word. "Your entire existence is a constant surprise to me, Snacks. But you have something in mind?"
"Yeah. I can get you where you need to go, but it won't be easy. And you'll need to do as I say without getting fussy and angry."
Marceline's eyes narrowed at that.
"I never said I'd be your friend," Bonnibel pointed out. "Just that I want to help you. Now, do we have a non-aggression agreement, or don't we?"
"You deal hard, baby," Marceline grumbled, but in the end she must have seen that they needed each other. If for nothing else, they both wanted to help Cho get better. That common ground was enough to get them on speaking terms, and maybe even working-together-without-killing-each-other terms. "But yeah, we can do business."
They shook hands on even ground, Marceline deigning to let her feet touch the floor and stand at her level.
It felt good.