Vlad was occupied with shepherding along a sensitive reaction in his lab when his portal winked out of existence. Engrossed in his experiment, he didn't notice at first, not for several minutes. But, soon enough, the steadiness of the light, the lack of green in it, began to unnerve him.
Leaving the chemicals alone for a moment wouldn't make them explode. Probably. If they did, well. He had more than enough money to renovate his mansion. Again.
Almost immediately, his eyes caught on the gaping, empty hole in his wall where the portal had once been.
"That- Impossible!" He took several quick steps forward, but did not enter the portal or stand directly in front of it. The portal was gone, but he could see that the containment mechanisms were still working, electricity periodically jumping from exposed wires. He reached for the power cut off switch.
Reality rippled. Briefly, Vlad experienced a sensation akin to being moved through a thick membrane.
He found himself among the treetops of a lavender forest, the green sky of the Ghost Zone swirling brightly above him. Disoriented, he put a hand to his head. Natural portals had a tendency to be turbulent, but he had never been through one that felt like that before. Had his portal somehow escaped its moorings? He would have thought he would notice something like that, something like a portal sneaking up behind him. The did glow, after all.
Then again, he had been distracted by his portal's unexplained absence, so maybe not.
He pinched the bridge of his nose and muttered, "Butter biscuits," under his breath. By the time he got back, his experiment would have exploded, and his lab would be in shambles.
No matter. He could always rebuild. The real issue was where he was. He went ghost and-
Wait a moment. He examined his hands more closely. They were mottled, blue on tan. He pulled a strand of his hair in front of his eyes. It, too, had suffered a color change. His individual hairs were alternately dark grey and silver.
He felt his heart speed up. This was a problem. A large problem. He would have to retreat to his lair in the Rockies until he could fix this and return to normal. Until then, he wouldn't be fit for the public eye; his secret would be on display for all to see.
After he confirmed that, at least, he still had access to all his powers, he flew up over the tops of the trees.
The island he had found himself above was large and unfamiliar. Trees stretched out below him in all directions, leaves whispering against each other in the faint ectoplasmic wind. Ugh. Well, he'd find something, or someone, familiar sooner or later. He had traveled through the Ghost Zone extensively while searching for the Skeleton Key.
He scanned the sky, looking for signs of civilization. There, so far away he could cover it with his thumb at arm's length, was a gathering of buildings. True, in the Ghost Zone that didn't mean much, what with all the ruins and the buildings that formed randomly from the ectoplasm, but Vlad didn't have all that much to go on. He'd take the risk.
Ellie had been high in the sky over Louisiana, looking forward to eating some of the famous cuisine of New Orleans, when she was briefly plucked out of reality, tumbled around, and redeposited in the Ghost Zone. Somewhat stunned, she merely floated for several long minutes.
But Ellie was nothing if not adaptable, and she quickly recovered enough to look around and try to figure out what had happened. Maybe she'd been sucked through a natural portal? That didn't quite feel right, but it wasn't as if she were an expert on natural portals.
She shrugged to herself and looked around. Cajun cooking would have to wait for another day. In the meantime, she could amuse herself in the Ghost Zone.
If she could find anything amusing, that is. This particular stretch of the Ghost Zone was depressingly empty. Or was it simply misty? It could be hard to tell.
She picked a direction at random and started flying.
It took Vlad longer than he would have liked to reach the little city. About halfway there, the wind had strengthened to a gale, blowing him back, away from the possibly-inhabited island. It had died again, just as Vlad crossed the island's shoreline.
At first, Vlad believed that the island was entirely uninhabited. No ghosts came out to greet him or drive him off. There was no movement behind the windows or doors. The streets were empty.
But, then, he discovered that all the island's residents had gathered on the far shore, floating together in a loose cloud. They were looking down, at something far below the island, occasionally pointing.
Not keen on drawing attention right away, Vlad gently pushed himself into invisibility. He approached the edge of the island cautiously, and with no little trepidation. Given the timing, this could very well be related to the disappearance of his portal and his sudden presence in the Ghost Zone.
Beneath the island, a long, slender finger of blue wove through the more typical ectoplasmic green.
Vlad frowned at the sight. A river, perhaps? But if that was the case, why were the locals so excited?
He couldn't get any information like this. Reluctantly, he turned visible.
"Excuse me," he asked a relatively quiet ghost in full Roman legionnaire armor. "I've only just returned to the Ghost Zone, and everyone seems rather excited. Do you know what's going on?"
"Coronation," said the ghost, breathless even for one of the dead.
Vlad frowned. "Pardon?"
"Coronation!" exclaimed the ghost. The other chattering ghosts fell silent, and turned towards the legionnaire.
"Are you sure?" asked a green-skinned young woman in a toga, her pale yellow eyes huge. "Coronation?"
"It could be nothing else!" proclaimed the legionnaire.
"What do you mean, a coronation?" asked a ghost in more modern clothes. "As in, a king? This isn't going to be another one of those things where we all run away, is it?"
"No!" said the legionnaire, wrapping an arm around the man's shoulders. "This calls for celebration! A new king has been chosen and crowned!" He tossed his helmet into the air, and it reformed on his head a moment later. "The Realms shall heal from their wounds, and a new age will dawn!"
Vlad fought down a stab of jealousy. Once, he had hoped to gain that position. Well, he could determine how to turn the Zone's new political circumstances to his advantage later, when he was at his leisure. For now, he had more immediate concerns.
"Heal from their wounds?"
"Yes!" said the legionnaire, excited, his head bobbing. "After a coronation, the King's Grace sweeps through the land. Ghosts are called home! The tears are healed!"
"The tears- Surely, you don't mean the portals."
"I do, at that," said the legionnaire, grave in a way only a ghost could pull off. "That is what happened last time. Oh, that I am so lucky as to see a new king rise. May he be a kind one!"
"The portals have closed?" pressed Vlad. "All of them?"
"Yes, all of them."
"For how long?"
"When Pariah Dark took the throne," said the ghost, "it was a good century, at least."
"No," said Vlad. "I can't be away from the mortal world for that long!"
The legionnaire patted Vlad's shoulder consolingly. "Family in the other world? Friends? It is hard to leave such things behind, but, well, memento mori. They will return to you in time! Be glad instead! This is a happy occasion!"
With that, the legionnaire was borne off by his fellows. Vlad could hear some of the ghosts already making plans for a party.
"Wait," he said, snagging one of them by the elbow. He braced himself slightly, expecting to have to field an ectoblast. Instead, the ghost, a middle-aged woman with an elaborate coif, merely looked at him quizically. "Do you know the way to the Fenton Portal?" he asked, desperately. "The permanent ghost portal, guarded by Phantom."
"Oh, thinking that one might not be sealed?" asked the woman. "Best of luck to ye. It's off that way," she pointed. "When ye reach the Seven Obelisks, bend right, so you're aiming between Red Mountain and Mammoth Island.
"Ah," said Vlad, "I know the place. Thank you." And then he did a double take, because when was the last time he had genuinely thanked anyone?
He shook his head and flew, as fast as he could.
Luckily for Ellie, a great wind kicked up shortly after she began flying and blew off most of the mist, letting her see clearly. She did have to take shelter for a moment behind a large floating boulder, to avoid being tumbled head-over-heels by the wind, but that was a minor inconvenience at best.
It did however, mean that she had a chance to look at herself and realize that she was wearing her human clothing. Weird. She had definitely been in ghost form when she got sucked in here, and she could have sworn she had still been in it. She tried to change. Couldn't.
Oh, this could be bad. What if she was destabilizing again? She needed to find Danny. He'd know what to do.
When the wind died back, Ellie peered out, and spotted what looked like a village in the distance. She flew to it, as quickly as she could, though it still took a distressingly long time to reach, nearly an hour.
The people of the town appeared to be in the midst of setting up for some kind of party. Normally, Ellie would love to stay, find out what was going on, and participate in any way she could, but the whole 'I might melt' thing really wasn't conducive to that.
"Excuse me," she said, flagging down a matronly woman. "Do you know how I can get to Phantom's Portal?"
"Why," said the woman, "you're the second person to ask me that today. Ye just go that way until ye reach the Seven Obelisks, then bend right, so you're aiming between Red Mountain and Mammoth Island. Keep on going straight 'til you hit it. If it's still there, you won't be able to miss it."
"Second person?" asked Ellie. "Who was the first? Did he look like me, but a bit older?"
"He had similar hair, aye," said the woman, nodding.
Ellie smiled. Maybe Danny was here and she'd be able to catch up to him.
"Thanks!" she said, brightly, before bounding off.
It was not until she reached the obelisks that she thought to wonder what the woman meant by 'if it's still there.'
Well. It probably wasn't important, anyway.
After a few hours, Ellie had reached more familiar territory, though she still hadn't caught sight of Danny. Her anxiety was building. She didn't want to melt. Not again.
She was so focused on that thought that she didn't notice the myriad tiny and not-so-tiny changes creeping through the Zone. The blue swirls, the more vibrant plant life, the slight alterations in the orbits of the islands, the way the whole atmosphere of the Zone seemed less foreboding, friendlier.
Finally, she reached the stretch of the Ghost Zone where the portal should have been located, but the whole space was...
The portal wasn't there.
She reached up to seized her hair in her hands. How could it not be there?
A few strands in her hair fell in front of her eyes. It was striped, white and black. Oh, Ancients, it was spreading.
And then, to her horror, the voice of the person she least wanted to see split the near-silence.
Vlad sat on an boulder, staring at the space the Fenton Portal should have occupied.
He wasn't despairing. He was planning. If a portal could be made from that side of the veil, surely he could make one from this side. If he couldn't do so with technological means, there were mystical ones. Before resorting to that, however, he should try and find ghosts with the ability to make portals. He knew that some existed, though he had never encountered any directly, himself, with the exception of Pariah Dark.
Speaking of the old king... Perhaps dethroning the new one would make the portals reopen. A fight with the new king, whoever he may be, wasn't something that he would enter into lightly, but if all else failed...
His eyes returned to the former location of the portal, and he clenched his fists. He couldn't be trapped here for a hundred years. He just couldn't. It was unthinkable. Too horrible to contemplate.
A small figure flew into view. A familiar figure.
It couldn't be. But why not? If he had been sucked in here by the coronation of the new king, then why not the other two half ghosts?
He flew forward. "Danielle?" he called.
The girl turned. Clearly, she had been crying.
"Vlad!" she exclaimed, with venom. Her eyes narrowed in something approximating concern. "What happened to you? Are you destabilizing, too?"
Ah, and there was a theory to haunt his nightmares. "Not to the best of my knowledge," he said, adjusting the cuffs of his suit. "I presume you were also brought here by the coronation?"
"The what?" asked Danielle, drifting backwards, hands up, ready to block or deliver a blow.
Vlad rolled his eyes. "The ghosts have crowned a new king. Why now, rather than all the years Pariah Dark slept, I have no idea. Regardless, it has had certain effects on the Ghost Zone, and," he looked at his blotchy hand with distaste, "apparently, us. You aren't destabilizing."
"That's what you'd like me to think," said Danielle.
Vlad scoffed. "Please. I don't care what you think. I don't suppose you've seen Daniel? I suspect he's been brought here as well."
"No," said Danielle.
"And you wouldn't tell me even if you had, hmm?" said Vlad. "I'm not interested in picking a fight with him. For the moment, we have the same goals: return to the mortal world."
"How do you know what his goals are?"
"Have you seen how he dotes on that town of his?" asked Vlad. "Not to mention his dolt of a father. Of course he wants to go back."
"Assuming he's even here," grumbled Danielle. Even so, she relaxed her guard.
"Well," said Vlad. "Where is he?"
"I already told you, I don't know."
Vlad frowned. "Then, if you were he, where would you be? It should be easy for you to deduce. It is, after all, what you were designed for."
Danielle tilted her chin up, defiantly, nostrils flaring, but she reigned in her temper. Doing so was the one thing in which she had surpassed her original. "Knowing Danny and his luck, he's probably right at the center of all this."
Vlad angled himself towards the place where all the blue swirls were radiating from. "Of course he is."
The two half ghosts arrived at what had once been Pariah's Keep.
"Wow," said Ellie. "This is different." She craned her head back, trying to take the whole thing in. "Reminds me more of a palace than a keep, now."
"What would you know?"
"Excuse me? I've been to Europe? I know the difference."
Ancients, she wished she wasn't as worried about Danny as she was, but if he was trapped or something she'd need Vlad's firepower to break him out.
Cautiously, the pair moved closer to the palace. It wasn't empty.
"Shades," said Vlad, his voice low. "Not true ghosts. They follow the will of the one who casts them. In this case, most likely the king. I would have expected more of a crowd than this, though, considering how recently he was crowned."
"Yeah, like, a party or something," agreed Ellie. "But this place looks really big, maybe they're all just inside?"
"Perhaps," said Vlad.
"So, do we sneak in, or what?"
"No," said Vlad. He smiled, thinly. "I believe I will request an audience. Perhaps I'll offer my services."
The audience was denied, and all other attempts to gain access were rebuffed, firmly, but with a gentleness not often found in the Ghost Zone. The shades only had one thing to say: Return when the king wakes.
Not having many other options, Vlad and Ellie adopted an uneasy truce as they searched for Danny- or at least his allies. They had similar needs, after all, as they both had a human half.
Uneasy was definitely the key word.
Danny's allies had made themselves frustratingly scarce. Vlad was contemplating an attempt to establish himself in a community, or at least make a base of operations.
A week and a half later, one of the shades came to them.
The king wakes, it said.
It was practically an invitation. Ellie wasn't convinced accepting it was a good idea, at this point, but she had to admit that she didn't know where else to look for Danny. He had to have come through. Every other ghost and half ghost had, right down to the smallest blob.
They went back to the palace. A shade led them through perfumed gardens and past tinkling water fountains. Ghostly insects played among luminous flowers. Detailed statues marked turns in the path, and the rest of the stonework was carved just as intricately. A distant wind chime sounded once every minute or so, presaging the arrival of light gusts of air.
They were brought to a small circular paved area that was lined with benches. Two ghosts, real ghosts, stood on either side of one of those benches. That bench was occupied by a small, slender figure. A crown of glassy flowers and silver vines adorned his striped hair.
He turned slightly, slowly, to face them.
Ellie couldn't restrain a gasp. Danny was missing an eye.