"Do you guys have stage fright? Because I have stage fright. Lots of stage fright."
"Stage fright?" asked Pariah, glancing at Jazz. She had become his go-to girl for all aspects of modern life. In other words, a dictionary.
"It's a fear of appearing in front of large numbers of people. We call it stage fright because it's commonly associated with actors when they go onto the stage and forget their lines."
"But we're not going to forget our lines," Danni assured herself. "At least, Danny isn't. Clarisse says she's heard him reciting his speech in his sleep." (Clarisse was another of the thralls. Tucker likes naming things- just look at his PDAs- and he'd gone on a naming binge when he discovered that the thralls didn't have any. Billy Bob was only the beginning.) "But I haven't been talking in my sleep. I think."
Our father nodded his thanks at Jazz before turning to his children, both of whom were nervous wrecks. "I had that too, my first few speeches. Don't worry. It fades eventually."
"Define 'eventually,'" I muttered.
He just chuckled, clearly not appreciating my stark terror.
Pull yourself together, Fenton-Phantom, I ordered myself. You've fought hundreds of evil ghosts and dozens of evil humans. You were a lord in four kingdoms even before this whole Pariah thing, and now you're the freaking Shadow Prince of the entire Ghost Zone. And you asked Sam to be your girlfriend before you knew if she liked you back. You can do this.
"Try going through the plan," Clockwork suggested.
"It's basic psychology," Jazz agreed. "It's reassuring, if nothing else."
Looking at them, so close and yet so far, made my heart ache. In a long and rather awkward conversation just days ago, my sister had told me that she and Clockwork had made their decision long ago: between the age-shifting, age differences, species differences, and the fact that he was bound to the Observants (not true anymore, but the other three still were), they didn't stand a chance. Therefore, friendship was all they could- and would- offer each other.
In a way, that relieved me. I did not need more overly complicated relationships right now, thank you very much.
On the other hand... that didn't make it any less sad.
Clockwork-friend here, young master, Ammut announced. The Devourer, feared by most of the Ghost Zone, dreaded by the mortals of Khemet, the chimera who could destroy spirits on the most complete level possible… had dressed up in a pink bow for the occasion. A wide, loopy, pastel-pink bow that made her impossible to take seriously. That, of course, was the point. Jazz had come up with the bow idea, reasoning that when people saw Pariah Dark's pet demon-beast (their words, not ours) done up like a toy poodle, they'd start to take his rehabilitation seriously. Ammut, for her part, was quite fond of the ribbon.
….Yes, I know that my half-life is completely and utterly insane. I wouldn't have it any other way. Most of the time.
"What about Clockwork?" I asked her.
You say, need ask Clockwork-friend scary sees-lady. You say, maybe know scary sees-lady because sees-powers. You no ask yet. Ammut remind young master ask.
As always, it took a few seconds to decipher that. Then, after patting her on the head, I turned to Clockwork and commented, "Ammut says she spent so much time in the Human World because a 'scary sees-lady' told her to search there. I figure, she's scary, you're scary, you might know each other."
Witty banter: the world's greatest defense mechanism. Without it, I'd have dissolved into a quivering puddle of goo long, long ago.
Clockwork let my comment slide. "I see. Why exactly did she obey this 'scary sees-lady'? What were her qualifications?"
Delphi lady. Delphi sees. You see. You Delphi?
"She says the scary sees-lady was the Oracle of Delphi. And she wants to know if you have any connections to Delphi."
"I do," he acknowledged. "One of the Oracles, Castalia- who I suspect is the Oracle she encountered- was my mother."
"I thought they weren't supposed to have kids?"
Something in his voice made me want to change the subject. There was definitely a long and probably painful backstory there. "Oh. Yeah. Okay. Um, how much longer?"
Clockwork arched a brow. "Do you want the exact time, or just an approximation?"
"Just an approximation, please and thank you."
"All right then. Two minutes. One minute less than the last time you asked."
I gulped, straightened my tie. "Oh. Thanks."
"You'll be fine, youngling," he assured me. "As will you, Danni."
She forced a smile. "Is that a prediction or just a reassurance?"
"Why can't it be both?"
"Let's move into position," Pariah directed. He glanced at the unfortunate Observant who had been drafted for this particular job. "You are first. Don't mess up."
The eyeball gulped, swallowed. "Y-yes, Your Majesty. I mean, no, Your Majesty." It scurried to its place in front of the camera, on the banks of the River Styx. The River of Vows.
By the Five Rivers, this was actually happening. In sixty short seconds, the cameras would roll, and I'd go public as the son of Pariah Dark.
The rest of us- me, my sisters and father, Sam, Clockwork, and a few other Observants- made sure we were behind the camera's line of sight. "Can you see us?" Danni asked Tucker, our cameraman.
"Nope," he replied cheerily. "Just Mr. Eyeball over there."
"…I'm a woman." Even terrified, the Observant managed to inject some irritation into her voice.
"Sorry, Ms. Eyeball." He glanced at his wristwatch. "And we're rolling in five, four, three, two… one."
When we set the date for the big reveal, the Observants had begun advertising that they had some big, important news about Pariah Dark that they would be sharing with the world on Halloween. By now, every ghost in the Ghost Zone (and the ones who had fled to Earth) knew to tune into channel 31 at 6 PM Greenwich time.
The Observants are many things, but no one ever accused them of being bad actors. This one seemed calm, cool, poised, nothing at all like the terrified wreck she'd been a few minutes ago. Eye impassive, she floated over to the river in the background, dipped her hand in the water. The fluid hissed softly as it penetrated her skin, entering her bloodstream.
"By blood and bone and name I swear. Thus I bind myself, by name and bone and blood, to speak the truth this night. On the Stygian waters I make my vow, to tell the true story of Pariah Dark, King of All Ghosts."
I imagined how the audience was reacting. They were probably leaning forward in their seats, murmuring questions. We know the story of Pariah, they were saying, that's why we're so terrified. Skip to the part where you reveal your plan for locking him away.
"At the end of the Golden Age, a criminal named Djall was brought before the High King…." She spent over a minute describing his crimes, painting a picture of the awful man he was. I hadn't known half of what Djall had done before merging with Pariah. Now that I knew, I found myself wishing that the Observant had skipped this part. My father had been stuck in a soul merge with that?
"His punishment was to be fed to Ammut, the Devourer of Souls. In those days, it was the king's custom to watch every execution- not out of sadism, but to remind himself of the costs of the crown. That day, as he watched, something went wrong. The tattered, twisted remnants of Djall's soul- the very dregs of his spirit, the worst and most tenacious components of his personality- escaped the Devourer's fangs. It fled to the nearest spirit in the room- Pariah Dark.
"Djall's evil had been concentrated; all the weak parts of his mind had already been destroyed. He suppressed the king's true personality, implanting his own in its place.
"And so began the War of Power."
The Observant paused here. It cast a silent plea towards Pariah, asking permission to change the plan at the last moment. My father shook his head. No. Continue with the script.
She flinched, but obeyed.
"The Ancients informed us almost immediately what had happened, but…. We did not react in the way we should have."
I fought back a snort. Understatement of the millennium, lady.
"We saw a chance to claim power for ourselves." The Observant's voice was filled with agony. Whether that pain was regret over their choice or regret that they'd been busted, I couldn't tell. "And so, instead of freeing our king- we had the ability to; he had given us control of the Ancients, and we are not without our own powers- we let the war continue."
I imagined the scene: ghosts gathered around a television, white-faced with shock and horror. But also, glimmering faintly amongst the numbness, a tiny golden kernel of hope. Why would the Observants say this unless…?
"You know the rest: our king, along with Djall, was sealed in the Sarcophagus of Forever Sleep. We Observants took control as the heroes of the War of Power. This continued for three thousand years, until Pariah's son and daughter freed their father from Djall's bondage."
I could almost hear the stunned gasping of the audience. Son and daughter? they repeated incredulously. What in all the worlds...?
The Observant floated away. Clockwork took her place. He placed his hand on the Stygian waters and repeated the other ghost's oath. "By blood and bone and name I swear…."
Despite being the legendary Master of All Time, Clockwork doesn't often appear on television. Or on the radio. Or in public. But that didn't make him any less recognizable or trustworthy. People knew him, knew he had the best interests of the timeline at heart.
"At the Battle of Mal'observem'ul'a, the Council Chamber was empty save for a vat of Pariah's blood…." He told them how a woman (he didn't mention that she was human, as that would have clued too many people in too soon) had come through a natural portal and stolen some of the blood for experimentation purposes, not knowing to whom it belonged.
"For seventeen years, neither of the twins knew the truth of their origins. Then, just under a month ago, the prince discovered that he shared no blood with those who had raised him. Soon he, his twin, and their trusted friends had discovered his father's identity.
"The prince knew nothing of Djall. He thought that his sire was a monster. With that in mind, he and his twin resolved to ignore their supposedly monstrous heritage.
"But now that they knew their father's name, faithful Ammut, who had never forgotten her master's dual imprisonments, was able to find them. Through the link of blood they share, she told them what had truly happened at the end of the Golden Age. Naturally, the prince and princess were suspicious, so they came to me.
"My sight could not extend that far into the past, but I could and did look into the future to see what would happen if Pariah were loosed once more. I looked, and saw Djall's destruction… and its aftermath, when the Age of Gold began anew."
His eyes shone with joy he could not suppress. Whatever he'd seen, it had been good.
"And so, at great risk to themselves and their reputations, the royal twins went to free their father from both the Sarcophagus and Djall. And they succeeded."
He fell silent. Tucker pressed buttons, flipped switches. "Okay. It's on."
A picture was worth a thousand words. Following that logic, footage of my second battle against the soul merge (with help from Danni and Jazz and Clockwork, of course) had to be worth more than the entire encyclopedia. That, and it provided evidence that we weren't making Djall up as a convenient plot device or something.
Obviously, there hadn't been camera crews filming us as we opened the Sarcophagus and tried to kill each other. This was where Clockwork came in. As the Master of All Time, he could view pretty much anything he wanted on a big computer-like screen. That big computer-like screen just so happened to be compatible with human recording technology. All he'd had to do was transfer images from our battle onto a DVD, and he could easily show it (or have Tucker show it. Same difference, in this case) to the entire Ghost Zone.
The knowledge that one of my secrets was currently being projected on dimension-wide television left me paralyzed. I've guarded my secrets- not this one, obviously, but many others- for so long that the thought of deliberately, knowingly, willingly telling people on such an epic scale….
"Daniel." Pariah touched my shoulder. I started, close to panic.
Calm down, Fenton-Phantom. You're being stupid. You've thought this through, and you're doing it on purpose. It's not going to, like, rear up and attack you. So chill. You will be FINE.
"Daniel," he repeated. "It's time for us to go onscreen."
"Huh?" was my oh-so-intelligent response. "Oh. Gotcha. Yeah. Yeah." I floated in front of the camera, taking up position with my father, my sister, and Ammut. We'd invited Jazz to come too, as she was my and Danni's sister and the semi-official shrink to the Ghost Zone's Royal Family, but she'd declined. She'd said that this was our moment, not hers, and that she had no intention of stealing our limelight.
"You wouldn't be stealing our limelight," Danni had pointed out. "You'd be a human shield."
Jazz had arched a brow, unable to hide her grin. "And that's supposed to make me want to go on camera with you? Your persuasion skills need some work, little sister."
"How much longer, Tuck?" I rasped.
"Three minutes. You okay, man? You look ready to puke."
"Well, you do."
"I'll be fine. How much longer?"
"Two minutes, thirty seconds. Are you going to keep asking that at thirty-second intervals?"
"Maybe." I fidgeted.
"Knock it off, Danny," Danni ordered. "You're making me nervous."
"I'm making you nervous? You're already scared to death!"
"Well, you're not helping!"
"Both of you knock it off," Jazz ordered. "You'll be fine, I promise. And I'm like Danny- I keep my promises."
I almost mentioned that she couldn't exactly control the future of the Ghost Zone like I could control Dan's future (mostly by preventing it from existing), but Clockwork caught my eye as I was opening my mouth. My jaw clicked shut.
"She's right, you know," Pariah assured us. "You two are strong and brave and beloved by all my people. You will make wonderful royalty."
"Thank you, Father," Danni whispered.
"Thirty seconds," Tucker called.
My mask snapped on, obscuring all my fear and anxiety. Pariah squared his shoulders. Danni straightened, jaw set.
"Ten… nine… eight… seven…."
Vlad's probably watching this. Think about the look on his face when he realizes that you and Danni are royalty. With a capital ROYALTY.
"…six… five… four… three…."
Maybe I can convince Clockwork to show me Vlad's expression. He MUST use those viewscreens for comedic purposes, otherwise he'd've lost his mind centuries ago.
The camera clicked on, and the Ghost Zone- no, both the worlds- were forever changed.
Book 3 of The A.N.I.E.L. Files, tentatively titled Monarch or Monster?, will explore exactly how both the worlds are forever changed. I'm planning to make an outline of it today. Any and all suggestions are welcome, as I have a minor case of writer's block and no idea what I'm doing. It won't be up for a few weeks- I want to write several chapters, just to make sure I can get the necessary revisions done before posting.
Thank you all for reading! You guys are what keeps me going.