Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I present to you the long-awaited third installment in the A.N.I.E.L. Files. Put your hands together for Monarch or Monster?!
Oh, and please remember that I don't own DP and that this disclaimer applies to the entire fic. Just saying.
I stood in front of the camera with my father and sister and the family pet.
Sounds nice and innocuous, right? Taken out of context, that sentence makes it sound like we're a regular old family, Dad and the kids and the dog (a Labradoodle in a pink bow, to be exact), sitting down to take our Christmas pictures. Or maybe it was after some outdoors sporting event, or at a graduation party, or even just a happy loving family taking pictures for the sake of taking pictures.
In this case, my biological family and the definitely-not-a-Labradoodle and I were standing in front of the camera because we had just dropped a metaphorical nuclear warhead into the collective consciousness of an entire dimension.
Less than an hour ago, billions of ghosts had turned on their TVs to hear the High Observant Council's battle plan for defeating Pariah Dark, the 'dreaded ghost king of doom.' Instead, they'd been treated to a horrifying confession of crime, subterfuge, and greed that stretched back thousands of years. They had been told point-blank that the Observants had lied, that Pariah had never been evil, that the entire War of Power was nothing more than a group of opportunists seizing their chance for a coup d'etat.
But the message hadn't been all bad, mostly because of the whole 'Pariah had never been evil' part. It meant that they no longer had to be afraid, that they were safe. No army of thralls would storm through their homes, burning and pillaging and destroying everything in their path. No deranged, power-mad demon would unleash his fury on their unprotected bodies. They and their families and their friends were safe.
More than safe, in fact. Before Djall, aka The Bad Guy, had taken over Pariah, he had been the greatest, most enlightened, wisest king the two worlds had ever known. His reign had been called the Golden Age for a reason, you know.
And now, for the first time in centuries, the Ghost Zone knew that.
Which brought me in a full circle, because they knew about Djall and the soul merge and the coup because I had decided to stand in front of the camera with my father and sister and the family pet.
Let's go through this quaint, charming little picture, shall we?
The most pathetic thing about our bizarre family wasn't the three thousand years the father had spent in an enchanted coffin. It wasn't the rather disturbing contents of the pet's stomach. No, the most pathetic thing about the House of Dark (or House of Phantom, I suppose, because Danni and I had made the name famous) was that I was the most normal member of our family.
And I am not normal. I'm a time-traveling half-ghost superhero who was born in a test tube and raised by two deranged scientists who currently loathe me with every fiber of their being. That is not, by any stretch of the imagination, normal. In fact, it is decidedly abnormal.
But all my blood relatives are even weirder. Which I personally find kind of frightening.
Take Danni. She is also a time-traveling half-ghost superhero who was born in a test tube. Unlike me, though, she was never raised by half-rabid scientists because she melted into goop before being born. Then she was rescued by the Master of All Time, became my imaginary friend, and had her memories wiped so she could take the place of a failed me-clone. Except she still started dissolving into goop whenever she used too much power, so she and I embarked on this complicated adventure to stabilize her. And then, because the whole unstable clone thing just wasn't enough for her, she flew off into the sunset and spent the next couple years defending natural portals between the Ghost Zone and the Human World.
Next up in the weirdness ranking is our biological father, Pariah Dark, High King of All Ghosts, Prince of the Five Rivers, Commander of the Army of Thralls, Lord of the Infinite Realms, Head of the Great Councils, Ruler of the Underworld. (He has a bunch of other titles, but I'm not going to list them because you probably get the idea by now.) By the age of twenty, Pariah had singlehandedly united the many kingdoms of the Ghost Zone into a single massive empire. Unlike other conquerors, though, people had begged to join his kingdom- and with good reason. He was just and fair and powerful, and the people adored him.
At least, they did until he was possessed by Djall and forced to go on a bloodthirsty rampage so horrendous that traces of it can still be seen today. No one knew he was stuck in a soul merge, so they blamed him for the destruction.
I'm repeating myself, aren't I.
But not even Pariah could compete with Ammut, his adorable soul-eating pet (I'm perfectly aware that that's a contradiction in terms. And I'm also aware that she's not a blood relative, but she's so odd that I have to include her). Part hippo and part lioness, with the head of a crocodile, Ammut was one of the strangest-looking ghost creatures I've ever seen. The pink bow she was wearing- a gift from Jazz, which she believed would make the infamous chimera look less threatening- only augmented the weirdness.
Not that anything else about Ammut is normal. Remember what I said about her eating souls? Yes: she eats souls. And pancakes, which apparently taste like souls and which I am never touching ever again. At the moment, there were two souls in her stomach- Djall and my jerky future self from an alternate timeline, Dan. Oh, and she's telepathic too, but not exactly in words.
So there we were, just the four of us, staring at the camera. Ammut was grinning, her tongue lolling, which made her resemblance to a happy puppy even more pronounced. Waves of contentment radiated off of her. Happy happy, she not-quite-said in her ancient, childish not-quite-a-voice.
I smiled slightly, patted her reptilian head. She snuggled in closer to me. Think working? Hope working.
I hoped so too. I didn't say that out loud, though, because Ammut is only linked to those of Pariah's blood. No one watching the TV had heard her, and I had no desire to look like a nut job by answering a voice no one else could hear.
Besides, if I spoke to her, I'd interrupt. Pariah had already started his speech.
He laid his hand in the Styx, the River of Oaths. "By blood and bone and name I swear. Thus I bind myself, by name and bone and blood, that my power shall never again be used for evil purposes. Thus I bind myself, by name and bone and blood, to never betray my people. Thus I bind myself, and any man foolish enough to use me as Djall did." His remaining eye glinted fiercely, just daring someone to try.
Hefty words, I thought, watching him take his dripping hand out of the magical waters. Yes, magical, as in, anyone who makes an oath on the River Styx is physically incapable of breaking it. If you try to break it, your own body will overthrow you and force you to carry it out. So even if Pariah ended up in another soul merge (which wasn't particularly likely, as he's going to be paranoid about that for a long time), the combined entity wouldn't be able to re-create the War of Power. He could try, but then he'd end up in a nine-year coma.
Now it was his children's turn. Danni and I had removed our gloves before going onscreen. Acting as one, we dipped our hands into the river. The liquid was deathly cold and tingled slightly. Just touching it was enough to make my ghost sense go off with red mist. It's never done that before- blue for ghosts and teal for other halfas, but never red.
I spoke the words of binding first. I was the firstborn (at least, we were fairly certain I was the firstborn. Danni had melted into goo months before my 'birth,' so there was a bit of doubt about that. But we had somehow, without consciously thinking or actually speaking about it, decided that I was the firstborn), and according to the law of primogeniture, I got to go first.
The sensation of swearing on the River Styx wasn't exactly unpleasant. It was certainly unsettling, like being wrapped in a second skin that was a bit too tight, but not painful or anything. It wouldn't be painful unless I was dumb enough to break my oath (or at least try to. As we've already noted, actually breaking a Stygian vow was impossible). After recovering from the nine-year coma, the second skin would tighten like it was trying to squish me. Also, the waters that had absorbed into my bloodstream would start to burn 'like ten thousand pints of acid, scalding skin and organs, an excruciating punishment beyond comprehension.' They would keep doing that until I fulfilled my oath.
That description comes from a guy who actually tried it. He'd written a book on the experience, one my morbid curiosity had led me to read. I now regretted reading it, as I had enough to worry about without adding excruciating punishment beyond comprehension to the list.
I made pretty much the same promises that Pariah had- tell the truth tonight, do no evil, let no soul merge use my powers for evil (which I'd promised years ago, though not on the Styx). Each word I spoke was another layer of too-tight skin, another drop of enchanted water mingling with my blood.
Then it was over. I fell silent, irrevocably bound.
When I pulled my hand from the river, I couldn't help but notice that it wasn't wet. The water didn't cling to my body; it went back to its home. Only the droplets that had worked their magic on me remained.
Danni's oaths were a carbon copy of my own. We'd decided on them together, reasoning that since we had pretty much identical positions in the Ghost Zone's new government, we should probably be bound by the same strictures.
But though our positions in the new regime were identical, our reputations among ghosts were not. Danni had been a traveler, following the Infi-map to natural portals, where she fought the opportunists who used them to escape. In her spare time, she had wandered the Ghost Zone, defending weaker spirits from the bandits which plagued some places in the Land of the Dead. She'd had many adventures- singlehandedly taking down the Green Swords, the most notorious thieves in the Borderlands; preventing two major jailbreaks; defending Queen Pyrrha's right to the throne of the Burning Lands- but she had not defeated the soul-merged version of Pariah Dark when he escaped three years ago.
That had been me.
In other words, I had no reason to let Pariah out unless everything we'd said was true. Locking someone into an enchanted sarcophagus does not endear you to them. In fact, it usually makes them hate you.
And the whole Ghost Zone knew it. The story of a fourteen-year-old half-ghost with less than a year's worth of experience going out and defeating the most feared legend in the known universe… well, it had spread. Rapidly. And then it had entrenched itself in the public consciousness, making me just as legendary as Atlantis and Pariah himself.
Of course, I was even more of a legend now….
No, Fenton-Phantom, focus. It's time to address your people as their prince. Great power, great responsibility, and that.
I'd expected my voice to quaver, betraying my nervousness to billions of viewers. Instead, it was steady as stone. "First of all, I would like to apologize to every ghost I've been in contact with since Pariah's release."
Danni and I had debated for a long time on whether or not to call Pariah by name. We'd eventually decided to use both his given name and the title Father. We wouldn't exactly alternate- the order in which we used each appellation would be completely random- but our way of addressing him would tell the Ghost Zone that we were doing our utmost to make this family thing work, but that we weren't close enough yet to do stupid things (cough, release from an enchanted sleep, cough cough) for the sake of a blood tie.
"I was dishonest to you," I continued quietly. "And while I did have good reason, and I certainly didn't betray any of your hidey-holes and have no intention of doing so without permission, you all deserve an apology.
"Now that that's settled-" I'd originally wanted to say 'out of the way,' but apparently that sounded too dismissive "-I need to explain Danni's and my motivations. When we first found out about our convoluted heritage, we decided to ignore it. Unfortunately for that particular plan, the Observants had no intention of letting us carry it out. We ended up on trial for something we couldn't help.
"At a recess in the trial, Clockwork suggested that we should visit the Keep. That's where Ammut found us."
The chimera in question grinned, hippo tail wagging happily.
"She showed us her memory of the possession." Danni took over. Her voice, too, was firm and strong. "Danny and I were pretty skeptical at first- it seemed way too convenient. So we went to Clockwork, who looked into the future. He found out two things: first, that Ammut was telling the truth; and second, a way to free Pariah from Djall with minimum bloodshed. He told us that if we played our cards right, the Golden Age would come again."
Her mouth tightened. She hadn't particularly wanted to admit this part- she thought it made her sound needy- but we needed to be completely honest. "Of course, that wasn't my only reason for wanting to free Father. Part of my motivation was that of a selfish teenager: I wanted a family.
"If Clockwork had told me that Ammut was lying or that she had been tricked or that it was impossible to undo the soul merge, I would have left him in the Sarcophagus. I wasn't desperate enough for a parent that I'd endanger both worlds just to acquire one. But my reasons for releasing Pariah were threefold: desire for a father, the belief that it was unjust to let an innocent suffer like that, and hope for a new Golden Age."
My turn again. "So once the three of us decided to free Father, Clockwork found the timeline that was most likely to succeed. That's the memory you saw… though I don't think even he anticipated the Sarcophagus breaking.
"You saw what happened then," I sighed. "Djall is gone, and the true king is back. The Ghost Zone itself senses this- look at all the land that's reappeared, how much healthier the skies are. His mere presence is enough to heal this entire dimension."
"Our point is," Danni said, "that we don't regret what we did, because it was the right thing to do. And because it is the right thing to do, we will support our father and liege however we can."
The Stygian waters hummed in my blood, binding me once again.
Confession time: This story is fighting me. I think it's giving me writer's block. Spirited Away isn't- that fic is going great- but for some reason it's been really hard lately to write MM.
Do any of you have reactions you want to see? I have some planned out, but suggestions are welcome.