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the Chains of Kings

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If the Ghost Zone has a secret, it was this: Pariah Dark had been asleep when he was crowned.

He'd had a good reason to rage.

.

It was coronation day.

Phantom laid in his bed in the human world, asleep. Dead to the world, but not quite. It was Nocturne's duty, in this whole affair, to keep him that way until everything was over, and even Phantom's great power and stubbornness cannot reverse what has been done.

The old ghost leaned over the younger one, painting a sleep into his mind so deep that he slumbered even in his dreams.

The third ghost in the room, Clockwork, Master of Time, stepped forward. Gently, with a paternal air, he picked Phantom up, cradling his limp form against his chest.

Phantom deserved what little kindness they could give him.

Clockwork opened a swirling blue portal with a flick of his hand and stepped through, Nocturne following soon after. The room they entered was much larger and more crowded. The windows were high, the ceilings vaulted, the walls hung with tapestries embroidered with tales that had never been told by human tongues. Green light filled the room, cast by floating balls of fire.

The people in the room all had two things in common. They were ghosts and they were leaders. From Clockwork, who ruled time itself and lead the council of Ancients, to Fright Knight, the first and most loyal knight of the Ghost King and King of Fear in his own right, to Princess Dorathea and Prince Aragon of Mattingly, who each had their own supporters when it came to who should rule, to Frostbite, Chief of the Far Frozen, to Pandora, to Mab, to Surtr, to the Yellow King, to the Lady of Ys, to the very least of those ghosts who could claim a crown or throne, no matter how humble, they all were there.

In the center of the room there was a throne. It stood high on a dais and was surrounded by chains.

Clockwork carried Phantom to the throne and set him down, careful not to let him fall to one side or the other. Almost at once, a dozen petty dwarf kings leaped forward, and seized upon the chains. They crossed back and forth in front of Phantom, binding him firmly to the throne, shackling his ankles and wrists.

Undergrowth, Mab, and all the other ghosts who claimed any sort of mastery over plants stepped forward, sowing seeds on the steps of the dais. The seeds grew, roots curling over the stone, woody sprouts snaking upwards, towards Phantom. The vines wrapped around the chains and limbs, binding him again.

The dragon prince and princess came to the edge of the dais with all the others who could command fire. The princess's eyes sparkled faintly, but no one commented as they bound the sleeping child with fire.

And so it was with ice and water and lightning and even the air itself.

Pandora came forward with a box she had once buried deep beneath the maze surrounding her home. She eased back the lid, and the burdens of kingship she had stolen from Pariah dark so long ago scurried out of the box and settled heavily on Phantom's shoulders, though they could hardly be seen beneath all the other fetters looped around him. She stepped back.

Fright Knight stepped forward, sword bare. Even the hardest of ghosts cringed at what they knew was coming, bracing themselves. Fright Knight knelt, briefly, before the dais, then, standing, climbed it to stand before the throne. No one could see his expression as he raised his sword. No one wanted to.

He drove the sword forward, piercing Phantom's heart and core all at once.

Phantom flinched and shed his human skin. His hair went white and his skin darkened as a suggestion of electric scaring brushed over it. His aura flickered softly, enticingly. His clothing, a set of space patterned pajamas, did not change.

Were they human, the assembled leaders would have held their breath. They were not, so they didn't. Even so, the stillness that fell over the room was more than supernatural and did not fade until all present were satisfied that Phantom would stay asleep.

All eyes turned to Clockwork. He had not participated in Pariah Dark's coronation, symbolically giving him a way out. Time will not bind you, he had said. In time you shall be free.

But, now, the Master of Time drifted forward, tail streaming into mist behind him. He bent to cup the side of Phantom's face with one hand.

"I am sorry, Daniel," he whispered, giving voice to the only words that had been spoken since he entered. "This is the way things are meant to be." He pressed a kiss to Phantom's forehead and, at the same time, sketched a strange symbol in the air with his staff. Phantom and the symbol both glowed blue for half of one of Phantom's ever-slowing heartbeats.

Clockwork floated back, off the dais, and turned to face the doors. The crowd parted, and the doors opened.

The ghosts that entered were not leaders, they claimed no crown, but they fancied themselves judges. They fancied themselves righteous and fair and brave and a whole host of other things as well, most of which did not apply. But they were judges, and they did have the duty of crowning kings.

Each gazed at their future King with one baleful eye. The Observants were not pleased with the current state of affairs, but even they could not resist the old laws, and so they carried the Crown of Fire and the Ring of Rage.

Both artifacts burned with so much power that the nearest rulers subtly backed away.

The Observants flew forward and circled Phantom three times before one darted forward and roughly pushed the Ring of Rage onto his finger. The crown-bearer took that as his cue, and shoved the crown into the space above Phantom's head. Then all the Observants fled the room, the great doors slamming shut behind them.

The auras of the crown and ring began to flare brighter and brighter. Their light reflected beautifully off of the tears running down Phantom's face.

The ancient artifacts began to melt. To drip. Where the molten metal touched Phantom's skin it burned and scarred. In his sleep, the young ghost twisted against his bonds.

No one moved to help him, though a few, Frostbite of the Far Frozen included, clenched their hands until their claws drew ectoplasm and the thick liquid left puddles on the floor.

They waited.

At long last, the metal that had once been crown and ring began to cool and reform, crystallizing into new shapes for the new High King of All Ghosts. The ring became a simple silver band. The crown tangled itself in Phantom's hair, growing thorns and icy flowers, one silvery branch looping down to curl in the eye that had been burned away by a particularly large droplet of molten metal.

Only then did the assembled ghosts move. Each ruler took back their binding, whispering oaths of fealty and obedience that they hoped desperately would never be called on, and left.

Soon, the only ghosts in the room were Clockwork, Nocturne, Fright Knight, and High King Phantom. Fright Knight pulled free his sword, cleaned, and sheathed it before moving to stand behind the throne. Nocturne glanced at Clockwork, shook his horned head, and took back his sleep, leaving Phantom to a more natural unconsciousness, before sweeping away.

Clockwork waited.

Free of his bindings, Phantom curled in on himself protectively, drawing his legs up onto the throne and trembling.

Slowly, a change seemed to spread out from Phantom. The throne, all harsh edges, dark green stone, and severe lines, paled, rounded, curved, until its aspect was more like that of carved crystal or ice, and it almost seemed to cradle Phantom.

The change did not stop at the throne. It inched out, a little wave of alterations with each of Phantom's heartbeats, with each thrum of his icy core. It crept across the floor, and the walls, and the tapestries, cleaning them, repairing them where they had been damaged. The colors became brighter, more varied, the ever-present murk and dust of Pariah's reign swept away. The tall windows were filled with stained glass, and the light in the room took on a rainbow hue. The very air seemed to clear.

Above the palace, the sky become marbled with shades of blue. In all corners of the Ghost Zone, the lands shattered by Pariah Dark felt a faint but irresistible tug, a tug that would only grow stronger with time, a call to return to what they once were, to heal, and to become even more, even greater than they had been. Barren places stirred with the first beginnings of new unlife. Old ruins restored themselves. Ghosts everywhere looked up, aggression, rage, fading, for what was for some the first time in their existences, replaced with something softer but no less insistent.

In the chaotic and lawless wastes not far from the palace, a scar known as the Fenton Portal healed over. A similar wound, poorly hidden by a large football, also disappeared. The fabric of the Infinite Realms knit back together around its new and precious king and smoothed itself, all the thin spots repaired.

With the thing that had split him gone and the power of the Zone itself inside him, Phantom changed as well, though not as much. His two halves slowly, inexorably, began to mix together. Black streaks bloomed in his hair until it was as much black as white. His scars darkened, and his skin paled. When he finally stirred and his one remaining eye fluttered open, it was a shifting, shimmering swirl of Earthly blue and ghostly green, not unlike the new sky.

"Clockwork?" said the king, and even muddied with pain and confusion, his voice was clearer and more compelling than it had been when he had last spoken. "What's going on? Where am I?"

"We are in your palace," answered Clockwork.

"I don't have a palace," said Phantom. He reached up toward his missing eye, and flinched when he encountered the cold metal of the crown. "I- I don't understand." But he did understand. How could he not? He was bound to Infinite Realms, and they to him. He could feel them, under his skin. "Why- Why did you do this?" he asked. "Why me?"

"Because," said Clockwork, "you are a good person."

"There are other good people," said Phantom, pressing himself into the back of his throne. Behind him, Fright Knight stood at the ready, prepared to cut down any ghost who caused his king undue distress. "Good people who would be better kings. Or queens."

"You are a good person," repeated Clockwork, "and you might one day forgive us for this." He bowed deeply to the child king. "You might give us a second chance."

Phantom noticed the ring. He swallowed. "I can't go home, can I?"

"You will never be able to leave the Ghost Zone. Such is the curse of kings."

"I hate you," said Phantom. He pulled at the silver ring on his finger. It did not come off.

Clockwork straightened, and looked at Phantom with something like pity. "No, you don't."

"I hate you," repeated Phantom. He choked back a sob, but could no longer hold back his tears. "Don't leave me," he ordered.

"Never."