The Devil's Nine
Chapter 1: A beginning
A/N: Blanket disclaimer for multi-chapter story, I own nothing. Brief note for this chapter: Post PP and secret's out. Bear with me. I know this particular chapter is OC heavy, but Danny and gang will be leading the action in future chapters. I just wanted to give you a chance to get attached to everyone I'm going to be killing off... um, I mean give you more characters to love. Mwah-ha-ha. The action in this chapter is the same as the narrative from my one shot "Name Calling" which is chapter 28 in my 'Minutiae' collection. You can think of that as kind of a bonus chapter since its action immediately follows the end of this chapter. I will not be re-publishing it here. The name of the story and the verses I'll be quoting are from a children's ballad "The Devil's Nine Questions." I'll be taking some liberties with the lyrics, but the gist of the song will stay the same.
Quick note to Call me Mad (AKA Ninja Fish) if you're reading this: You were the only one who voted, so your vote is the only one that counts. Poor, poor little Shanna.
Barbie had seen better days, hair cut into a rough bob and thumb missing from her left hand, but she could still wrangle these horses and ponies with the best of them. Shanna carefully tightened a yarn lariat around the plush neck of a bright pink foal and secured the other end to Barbie's good right hand.
"Gi-yup," she whispered, conscious of her father sleeping upstairs. He worked even harder than Rancher Barbie, all day during the week and really late on Saturday nights at his second job. He needed his rest. Clippity-clop hoof beats muffled themselves against the carpet as the steeds raced to murmured commands.
"Shanna," called a rumbling voice almost outside of hearing.
She startled, and looked up guiltily. Had she been too loud? "Daddy?" Shanna crawled to the doorway. "Daddy? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you up."
She was greeted with silence. Walking down the hall to the stairway she cautiously looked upwards. All of the upstairs lights were out. Was he just messing with her? He was always so tired when he came home from work, but… maybe he'd gotten up just a little early. Mom and Greg would be home from Greg's bible class soon. It was almost sunset now. She climbed the stairs. This joke would be a lot funnier if he was pulling it on Greg.
The door to her parents' room was slightly cracked to catch the breeze from the upstairs window. She crept closer, tippy-toe. Asleep or awake he wouldn't hear her. She leaned on the wall next to the doorframe, eyes shut tight and breath sealed full in her chest as she bit her lips. She wasn't scared. Listening, she heard him snoring softly. The used up air rushed out past her lips in a hastily stifled sigh. He was asleep, really asleep.
He always swore he didn't snore, didn't believe them when they all told him he did. So when he was faking he either lay there real quiet and still, or he 'snored' real loud like he was in some kind of cartoon. So who was calling her name just now? Shanna shrugged and moved as quietly as she could back downstairs, being careful to step on only the very edge of the creaky stair. Mom would be home soon and Greg would be loud enough to wake the dead, but Daddy could sleep until then. She wouldn't steal his last few minutes of rest by stomping around. She didn't want anything to hear her. No, she didn't want Daddy to hear her. She and Daddy were the only ones home right now.
She picked up a toy in each hand and crouched there, wondering. Maybe she was just using too much of her imagination and some of it spilled over. Like when you carry a cup that's too full while running. She'd just have to be more careful with those ornery horses down on the ranch. Maybe only wrangle one at a time. All but the wildest of her horses had been sent back to their stalls for the night when she felt it. She was being watched. Shanna looked up warily, turning her head left and right to look around the room. Her neck was so stiff she almost couldn't move her head. It was like her body didn't want her to look, because then it might see something.
Come to think of it, Barbies and horsies were toys for little girls. It would be much better for her to do something grown up. Something like riding her bike up and down the driveway till Mom got home. Shanna didn't hesitate to abandon the toys to their fate as she rushed out of the room. Down the hall, past the stairs, and out the door in back, she didn't even slow to close it behind her. The low hiss of the pneumatic closer mounted at the top of the screen was all that marked her passage.
Shanna knew she shouldn't be up right now. It was really, really late and Mommy was gone to work and Daddy had already tucked them into bed with kisses and goodnights. She really should have stayed there, but just after dinner she'd seen the news teaser. It had promised her brand new Danny Phantom ghost fight footage during the 11 o'clock news. Danny Phantom! They didn't have a DVR or even a VCR to record the show, so if she didn't watch it herself she might never see it. Shanna couldn't even imagine how awful that would be, so she tossed and turned until just before eleven. She watched the clock tick, tick, tick. And she snuck downstairs to the living room to turn on the TV, sound really low.
It would just be just a couple minutes, just to see the fight. Just until she saw her hero save the day again. But those stupid news people kept promising, "up next", right after this story about an old guy you've never heard of, "just next", after a war somewhere far away, "up next", after we show this policeman get a medal. Well, that one wasn't so bad. She kind of wanted to be in the police when she grew up. Sometime after she invented a way for the car to run on water and sunlight, but before she had kids of her own. But as cool as the cop was, he wasn't Danny Phantom. He couldn't fly or shoot lasers out of his hands. It was closing in on midnight before the promised show began. Shanna was so excited as she watched, that she didn't really register the first whisper that slithered in from the hallway.
"So cool," she squeaked, nose inches from the screen. The ghost looked mean. It also looked like it could hit really hard. She winced as her hero tumbled through the sky. She bit her knuckles as hard as she dared to keep her cheers and groans inside. She knew Phantom would win, because he was the good guy and because he always won. And also because the news people would have tried to sound more serious and sad than excited when they talked about the fight. Shanna was right there with him as he pounded the ghost into submission and sucked it into his thermos thingie.
She couldn't wait to talk about this with the Phan club at school tomorrow. She clicked the TV off and bounced a little in excitement as she sat cross-legged on the carpet, replaying the fight in her head punch by punch. She had to remember everything just right so she could tell the others properly.
"Shanna." She jumped up and looked through the doorway. There was… no, there wasn't anything there.
"Daddy?" but she knew it wasn't him. Daddy had gone to bed right after he tucked them in, because he had to be up before dawn to go to work. "I'm the only one awake right now. I'm brave like Phantom. And I'm good and I'm going to bed now."
She ran upstairs. She closed her door tight. And she flipped on all the lights. Only babies like Greg needed nightlights. It wasn't the same thing if she happened to fall asleep with the regular lights on. And since no one was there calling her name, that meant it wasn't real. Shanna didn't have to tell anyone about things that weren't real. All she had to do was remember the fight she saw on TV. Because that was real, and was on the actual news. Everyone would want to hear about that.
"You have to count to fifty. And no peeking!"
"All the way to fifty? Where are you planning to hide? China?" Shanna laughed at Greg.
"No, not China. That's stupid. I've got a really good hiding place that you'll never find. And you can't trick me into telling you where it is. Now close your eyes and count slow." He frowned at her until she obeyed, then ran off into the partially finished basement. "No Peeking!"
She snorted where she rested her head against crossed arms. "Like I need to. You always hide in the same place." She knew her mutter went unheard just like she knew he had bee-lined it straight to the cupboard where their winter clothes were stored. Once Shanna had 'one-thousand'ed her way to fifty, she confidently moved into the laundry area. Greg always hid there because he knew she was afraid of the room. He only halfway believed her when she told him about the monster that watched her when she was in here. She threw open the door with a dramatic "Ah-hah!" but he didn't come out right away.
"I know you're here, Greg, the clothes are moving." She moved them, expecting to see him pouting. Nothing. She shoved all the clothes one way then the other along the hanging rail and looked underneath, but didn't find him. She did hear the laughter, though. That didn't sound like him. "Greg?"
"Giving up already?" his voice echoed from the room further down the hall.
"Yeah, come out now."
"Say it first." He demanded.
She sighed, but began to chant. "Gregory is great, Gregory is king, Shanna has lost, She can't find a thing." Scratchy and fading in and out, a whole bunch of ladies voices gabbled at each other. They laughed and mumbled like some radio comedy show, but Shanna knew the radio was up in the kitchen.
She was staring at the old woodstove by the pantry when Greg came out of hiding. She asked him, "Do you hear that?"
"Hear what? Hear you sucking at hide-and-seek?" He smiled a nasty little brother smile.
"Nevermind. And don't talk like that. You know Mom doesn't like it." Shanna wrapped her arms around herself and edged towards the stairs. She never took her eyes off the darkness behind the stove.
"Mom's not here to hear me." He sassed.
"She'll know anyway. She always does. You'll see. Let's go upstairs and play. Now that I know your newest hiding place, the basement won't work anymore."
He looked thoughtful, then nodded. This was the first time she hadn't found him. He wanted to hang on to the victory. "Okay. Race you to the back yard?"
She didn't need a second invitation.
It was getting worse. Shanna dreamed of fire almost every night now. The house was going to burn down, a spark of electricity, a tiny ember, a strike of lightning, or a serpentine trail of fire from an almost invisible hole in midair. She couldn't help Mommy with dinner anymore because the fire of the burners terrified her. She refused to leave the house when they all went to her Aunt Jerri's for a bar-b-q. She was missing TV and the news stories of Phantom, but she couldn't bear the thought of seeing that image flickering on screen, either in a commercial or on the news. And she was missing too much sleep, spending restless nights reading her stories by flashlight beneath the covers because she was too afraid to sleep.
Just last night she'd heard something. She'd heard something horrible down at the foot of her bed. She'd woken up that night, terrified without reason. Shanna was certain that she could hear paper rustling at the foot of her bed. She had looked down the endless distance towards the shadows at her feet. There was nothing there. She tried to go back to sleep, putting her head down, only to hear a match strike and fire crackling. She pulled her feet up, knees tight to chest, scared stiff. She felt the flames reach up for her, though she couldn't feel any heat. She gathered her strength to look again, and again there was nothing there. Eventually, Shanna was so exhausted from the nights of lost sleep that she slipped away into slumber's darkness. She didn't remember the sound stopping.
Tonight wasn't any better. She woke from her nightmare, pinned flat to the bed. She couldn't move and the house was going to burn down with her in it. It was going to burn down, and she couldn't move, and she couldn't breathe, and mommy and daddy and Greg were all going to die, because she couldn't… Shanna was abruptly released, shooting upright in bed with a breathless scream. It turned to shamed sobs as she felt a spreading warmth dampen the bed beneath her. Stupid little baby, that's all they'd think. She whimpered when her parents came in to check on her.
"Oh, honey, again?" Her mother asked, coming to her side. Shanna could only cry, face hidden in her hands and shaking.
"F- f-from the b-basement," she sobbed.
Her father ran a hand though his hair where he stood sleepily in her doorway. "It'll be okay, Shanna. You let your momma clean you up an' you can come sleep with us tonight. I'll use the time to give the house a check over. Come mornin' I'll go ahead an' pull out that chimney. We don' use that old woodstove down there anyway." He paused before turning to leave to say again, "It'll be okay."
Now if he could only believe that himself.
He could hear Sherry singing a simple, repetitive folk song to Shanna as he ghosted though the house, room by room. He knew this one, an ancient song about beating the Devil and his riddles. Sherry never sang the first verse to the kids, because she felt it was just too frightening for young children. He hummed it softly to himself as he inspected his home for any possible source of flame.
If you don't answer my questions nine
(Sing ninety-nine and ninety)
I'll take you off to Hell alive
O, who is the weaver's bonny?
Come to think of it, he reflected, it might just be a little too frightening for him. He finished his mission down in the basement, staring resignedly at the stove and the job ahead of him once the sun rose. So much for his day off.
He returned to his room and looked at his wife. Shanna nestled into her side, finally, finally asleep. "What are we goin' to do about this, hon?"
They were all so tired.
Sherry sat thoughtfully, then looked up at him, "We've heard her stories. Voices talkin' ta her. We've seen the nightmares. I…" She hesitated. "Glenn, honey, I've never felt comfortable in the basement myself. My sister feels the same. If this is real…"
He could only look at her solemnly.
"If this is real, maybe we ought ta call the Reverend ta say a blessin'. On the house and for Shanna."
He nodded decisively, any glimmer of hope was welcome nowadays. "Call him in the mornin'. This can't go on much longer."
She snuggled down and ran her fingers gently through her daughter's hair. "Shanna wants ta write a letter ta that Phantom boy. He does live just up the way."
Glenn climbed under the sheets and let his head fall into the pillow. "We need to try some others first. Don't let her get her hopes up. I know he's her hero, but… He saved the world. He'll prob'ly be too busy for us."
Shanna could hear the voices whispering loudly. She tried to remind herself that it was only the sound of heat moving through the vents, or her parents talking to each other in their room. But then the voices, all those faded, scratchy voices came together into one. They (it?) sounded like many a choir's many voices talking in tight unison during service. All those voices layered atop each other to become a single sound. But this one was dark. It was cold. She didn't want to hear it.
"Shanna. Do it now. Hit him. Go hit him. Go now."
She could see it in her head. She would walk across the hall to his door. She would go inside, stepping over toys and clothes to stand over his bed. Her fist would raise high over her head, knuckles white. It would plunge down, square into his face, over and over and…
She didn't want to do it. She loved Greg. She'd never tell him, but he was her best friend. He was her best and most loyal playmate. Shanna felt the need to be protective of him. Ever since he'd come home from the hospital in her mother's arms. She loved him when he was the weird little thing wrapped in blankets that mewled and smelled of milk and powder. She loved him when he helped her push a chair so she could swipe them some cookies from on top of the fridge just this past week. The last thing in the world Shanna wanted to do was hit her brother, but these voices kept urging her to do it.
Finally she couldn't take it anymore. She was so angry! Shanna stormed out of her room. She didn't look over to the stairs, but she knew that man's voice was down there in the first floor hallway. It would be laughing at her, mean and horrible. She frowned. She walked across the hall to his door. Its stickers and crudely drawn pictures told the world that this was Greg's Room, Stay Out. She went inside, stepping carefully over fire trucks and stacking blocks and dirty clothes to stand over his bed. Shanna leaned over his bed, hearing the voices telling her, "Yes, yes!" And she leaned down, tucked him in, and kissed his forehead while he slept peacefully.
The voices stopped and didn't start again that night. Sherry found her daughter curled up asleep on the floor in front of Greg's door when she came home after the late shift.
Shanna ran back up the stairs from the basement pantry as fast as she could. So cold, her teeth were chattering. Her whole body hurt and she shook, handing her mom the vegetables for that night's dinner. Sandpaper hate grating on her skin, she knew she never, ever wanted to go down there again. She looked up at her mother with sick eyes. "It hates so much. It wants to kill me, all of us."
Sherry knelt to wrap her arms tightly around her girl. She looked over to Glenn where he was talking on the phone. Making eye contact, he said something into the handset, and then listened to the reply. He turned to them, calling out to his daughter. "Shanna, darlin'? You got any tests or anythin' at school tomorrow?"
She shook her head and he returned to his conversation. Glenn nodded, said goodbye and hung up the phone. "It'll be okay, baby girl." He was almost sure he meant it this time. "That was him. You an' me are takin' tomorrow off. He'll be comin' by to see to us in the afternoon. If you ask politely, he might even sign you an autograph or somethin'."
For the first time in weeks, Shanna smiled.
A/N2: I can't believe I led in with a Barbie. *shakes head* Three guesses who that was on the phone, and the first two don't count. Danny will be making his first actual appearance next chapter.