Ellie took to spending her days in the palace library.
Danny thought he was trapped. Believed he was trapped. So did everyone else. But Ellie didn’t believe it. All cages had keys. Danny had opened hers. It was only right that she return the favor.
(Of course, she wasn’t happy about being stuck herself. There were still things she wanted to see on Earth. She missed the stars.)
The books were old and new. Some were in English, others were in languages she couldn’t even begin to recognize. Most of them had nothing to do with what she was looking for. Like in any library, they were on a wide variety of subjects, all spread out.
Still, she searched. The stack of tomes that had to do with ghostly kingship and the laws of the Infinite Realms grew progressively larger. Occasionally, one of the shades would attempt to put the books back, but they were easily dissuaded, having no will of their own.
She was making progress. Not a lot, but some. Enough to keep her going.
Vlad knew when to quit.
Oh, maybe it didn’t seem like it, he was easily as obsessive as any ghost, but he did. Sometimes, a plan just wasn’t feasible, and he had to cut his losses.
Cutting his losses, in this case, meant getting incredibly drunk on ghost wine. Fright Knight didn’t approve, but who cared what he thought? Fright Knight was part of the reason he was in this situation in the first place!
If he had just been warned this would happen, he’d have been able to make arrangements, to find some way to keep his portal open, or to stay in the human world, where his life was.
But no. They were all trapped here. No way out.
When hundreds of ghosts all said the same thing, Vlad was inclined to believe them. Danielle, as motivated as she was, was simply experiencing denial. Or, perhaps, bargaining. He had to admit he was never exactly clear on the stages of grief.
Then, there was Daniel, who seemed to be firmly trapped in the ‘depression’ stage, more of a ghost than Vlad had ever seen him as. He lingered in corners, at the edge of Vlad’s vision, quiet, sad, always flanked by Fright Knight and that other ghost, the one with the clocks.
There were parts of him, his Obsession reasserting itself, that yearned to reach out to Danny, but… He didn’t even know how to begin.
Danny felt like a pale, wandering shadow of himself.
Most of the time, he slept, exhausted by the demands the Zone made on him and the continuing changes he was undergoing. The expanding circle of vitality, of rejuvenation, of reconstruction and growth, that so many ghosts were celebrating had to draw energy from somewhere, after all, and even though Danny was absorbing just as much as he was expending, that process made him drowsy in and of itself.
Pain, too, plagued him. His missing eye ached, and sometimes it seemed as if the crown was burrowing into his skull, not merely resting on it. His hand hurt from all his attempts to take off the ring.
He could hardly care for himself in even the most basic of ways. Clockwork often had to remind him, or help him, and he was always so excruciatingly gentle.
Then Vlad and Ellie came.
Their arrival was a relief. Ellie was a friend, was family, and hadn’t been complicit in his betrayal and binding. Vlad had been an enemy, and not even an honest one at that, but essentially everything they’d been at odds over was moot, but he was familiar.
Despite the relief, despite his desire to connect with people who hadn’t hurt him, at least not as badly as everyone else, he hung back. He didn’t know what to do, didn’t know how to bridge the gap.
So, he lurked and lingered. When Ellie went to the library, when Vlad moped and bothered the shades that ordered the kitchen, he followed, he watched.
Clockwork and Fright Knight, of course, followed and watched him in turn.
At least, this is what happened when he was awake and aware enough to do anything. Danny was under the impression that being awake and independently mobile at all this soon after being… coronated… was unusual, perhaps even unnerving. Normally, he’d be curious, excited about new abilities and what they might mean. Maybe he’d even throw around a quip or two about how awesome he was but…
It wasn’t the time, and he didn’t have the willpower to reach for even that dubious coping mechanism.
In the too-numerous times when Danny was both awake and not well enough to follow Ellie and Vlad around, he liked to sit in the garden. It was almost peaceful there, by the fountain, although the plants had a distressing tendency to reflect his every change in mood.
Today was one of those days. He was too dizzy and lightheaded to drift after Vlad or Ellie, even if neither of them moved very much, but he didn’t want to stay in the bedroom, or, worse, the throne room. His core seemed to pulse, sluggish and painful in his chest. Or perhaps that was his heart. He couldn’t really tell with this mixed-up form. It could even be both.
Another slow wave of transformation swept out from him, making his extremities tingle. He watched, tiredly, as it briefly interacted with the walls of the palace and the scattered shades before moving on. The shades… another aspect of all this that Danny wasn’t comfortable with, but couldn’t bring himself to learn more about. They were sustained through his power, but what were they? Extensions of his will? Aspects of his personality? Constructs generated by the palace? By the Ghost Zone itself? He didn’t know.
As much as he should try to learn, he couldn’t help but think of them as yet another imposition, another burden he was being forced to bear.
This wasn’t a healthy mindset. Jazz would tell him as much. Jazz wasn’t here.
He looked up, his one eye already searching for Ellie. Fright Knight stepped forward, as if to protect him, but Danny snarled at him, annoyed. He wasn’t going to let him get in between him and one of the few people he could currently stand. Clockwork stayed back, passive, but he looked… worried. Uneasy. As if anticipating a disaster.
“Danny!” exclaimed Ellie again, bursting from a bush, a thick book raised above her head. “I found it!”
“Found what?” asked Danny, leaning forward slightly as Ellie joined him sitting on the edge of the fountain.
“A way out!” She opened the book and started flipping through it, obviously looking for a specific entry.
Both Clockwork and Fright Knight looked extremely tense, now. They probably didn’t want him to find this, didn’t want him to leave. Would they try to stop him?
He hunched his shoulders. He might not be well, but he could fight and make it hurt.
“Here!” said Ellie, triumphantly. “Look at this.” She tapped a picture of a bright, spherical object.
“The core of the Infinite Realms?” asked Danny, reading the legend of the picture.
“Uh huh. Apparently, it’s what determines what the Ghost Zone is like as a whole and controls the rules and laws and stuff. Like, even when it comes to what ghosts act like, and what they can physically do, or how the Ghost Zone’s physics behave. But the important part is that you can go talk to it and petition it and stuff, and sometimes it’ll listen. I bet we can get it to listen to you and make it so that the Ghost Zone doesn’t need a king anymore.”
Danny felt a flutter of hope. The book was old from what he could see, and, ignoring Ellie’s paraphrasing, the language was fantastical and couched in metaphor, but still if there was a possibility…
Near their feet, small, bright flowers began to bloom, each no larger than the head of a pin.
“Daniel,” said Clockwork, in a careful, soft tone. It wasn’t pity, not quite, but it was the verbal equivalent of being handled with kid gloves. “It doesn’t work like that.”
“Then what is it like?” asked Danny, hunching his shoulders and leaning protectively over Ellie.
“What do you think the King of the Infinite Realms is?” asked Clockwork.
Danny shrugged. Clockwork gave him a small, pained smile.
“The King of Ghosts and the core of the Ghost Zone,” said Clockwork, “they’re the same.”
Danny shook his head, unwilling to let this scrap of hope slip through his fingers so easily.
“Please, Daniel,” said Clockwork. “Why do you think it was so vital that you be crowned? The Realms cannot exist without their core.”
It made sense. A horrible, horrible sense.
“That doesn’t make sense,” said Ellie. “The core’s supposed to be the basis the whole Zone is built on. That can’t just be one person.”
“The library has some books on the subject,” said Clockwork. “But you can see how Daniel is changing things.”
Danny felt his hope collapse and doubled over, hands on his head, face almost touching his legs. A scream bubbled up in his throat, but he swallowed it. All those people, everywhere, his responsibility, his… Not just the people, everything. Everywhere. Not just his responsibility, but relying on him, modeled on him, dependent on him, centered on him.
He wasn’t just the Ghost Zone’s ruler, nominal or not, he was its heart.
“Danny?” asked Ellie. He looked up.
There were blast lines in the ground, radiating away from him. The fountain was cracked and leaking water. Fright Knight had, evidently, grabbed Ellie and leaped away, into the air.
Clockwork hadn’t left, still leaning towards Danny. There was a jagged, dripping slice across his shoulder. Danny gasped, reaching towards him.
“It’s alright,” said Clockwork. “It’s alright.”
“I can’t be,” said Danny. “I can’t be. I’m—I can’t be part of the Ghost Zone. Not—Not like that. That’s not—I can’t be what the Ghost Zone is built on, it doesn’t make sense, I…”
“It’s alright,” repeated Clockwork. “Would you like to go inside? You may feel better if you eat something.”
“Don’t want to bother Vlad,” mumbled Danny. Didn’t want another person to see him crumbling like this.
“We can send something up to your room,” said Clockwork.
He did feel tired. The fountain was repairing itself behind and underneath him. He groaned as the ground beneath him pulled together as well.
“I don’t want to be the core of the Ghost Zone,” he said, knowing that what he wanted was not and never had been a consideration. “I don’t want to be king. I don’t want to be in charge of anything.” He grabbed the edges of Clockwork’s robe, ignoring the moisture despite the pang of guilt it brought him. “I want to go home. And I…” His words failed as he reached for Clockwork’s injury. “I don’t want to do this.”
“This is nothing, Daniel,” putting a gloved hand over the wound. “I have had far worse.”
It started to rain. Great, heavy droplets of water tainted with just enough ectoplasm to glow.
It was one way to hide tears, he supposed.