I feel so horrible right now!

Fred: Truly, Gem?

George: Honestly...

I'm sorry, really I am! Please forgive me! I assure you all that I am not giving up on this story, no matter how much it might look that way! It's just that... I have three AP classes. I think you get the picture just knowing that. So far this school year, I've averaged only about a couple paragraphs a day due to the vast mountainous piles of homework I had each day. That's so sad.

George: Silly girl didn't know what she was in for!

I knew what I was in for—college classes. I just... underestimated how tired I'd always be once I finished my homework... But thank heavens for Thanksgiving Break! X)

Well, anyways, let's have a little recap for those who need it! Fred, George, will you do the honors?

Fred: Why, of course! Previously on Playing With Fire, Anisim's six apprentices crashed the party, kidnapped Sam, Tucker, Jazz, Valerie, Paulina, and Dash, and took them to back to the Ghost Zone, luring Danny to the secret portal in the woods.

George: Vlad follows him and they start making their way through this new obstacle course! Will Danny find out Vlad's ulterior motives for helping him? Will they make it through these woods unscathed and save Danny's friends, sister, and peers? And most importantly, will the author decide to give these two a break? Tune in for this latest chapter to find out!

Haha! You know it's only getting started! Thanks for those who reviewed once again! Thank you for your patience! Hope this chapter makes up for the long wait!

Disclaimer: I don't own Danny Phantom.

Chapter Eight

"You know what, Vlad?" Danny asked.

Vlad, without removing his eyes from the trail in front, absent-mindedly gave a "Hmm?" of acknowledgment.

"Life stinks." Danny was beaming, but that was the only thing he could do to keep from having a total raging (panicking) meltdown. He was aware that losing control of his emotions would not serve him or his friends well. His eye twitched, betraying his outward façade.

Plasmius closed his eyes, smirking. Ah, the teenage attitude he knew so well. He wasn't quite in the mood for it at this moment, though. Opening his eyes, he slowly turned back to the boy, "Tell me something I don't know, Daniel. Like how that blasted fool expects us both to get on course when there is hardly any trail, hmm? That would be helpful." Vlad heard the boy's boots kicking at the dirt on the ground behind him. Danny was doing a blasted poor job at hiding his anxiety. Quite a while back the trail had started to mesh with the rest of the forest floor, and the only indication of the trail was an indefinite gap between the trees continuing in a somewhat straight line, which were slowly changing from regular deciduous trees to large, gnarly trees that would be found in swamps. The dirt, which at first had been loose and dry, was now progressively becoming moister and moister with each step.

"Beats me," Danny shrugged, eyeing the demented-looking trees with an unsettled expression. "I have no idea what he's thinking! From the short time I've known him, I can already say that he's nearly in the same league of fruit-loopy-ness as you! And from me? Hehe, well, that's saying something." The teenager chuckled as he kicked at a rock partially submerged in the forest floor in sheer restlessness.

"Daniel—" Vlad calmly and collectively said under his breath. "I don't want to hear another word from you. It's bad enough that we are stuck in another forsaken forest, this time even more dangerous considering the ghostly entitiesthat are sure to inhabit it, and thanks to another ghost, only a handful of our powers that we can still use to compensate for the fact. We're little better off than before."

"I still wonder how he can do that..." Danny muttered to himself, the sarcastic grin wiped off of his face at the man's words. Ah, but of course, this ghost was also a wizard when he was alive. In addition to his ghost powers, he must have also had magical knowledge up his sleeves. Manipulating other ghosts' abilities to suit his desires was probably only one of the many things that this ghost knew how to do. Flip.

"Quiet." Vlad said suddenly, whipping around again, eyes alert.

Danny raised his eyebrows, almost indignantly. "What?"

The elder hybrid grabbed the teen by the collar of his jumpsuit and violently yanked him up to his eye level. Danny cried out in alarm, prying at Vlad's hands in an effort to make him let go. "I said be quiet!" Plasmius hissed urgently. Lowering Danny only slightly, Vlad raised his gaze away from the boy to scan the greenery around them.

The concern in Plasmius' tone caused Danny to immediately stop struggling. The ghost boy grunted, awkwardly trying to find a good footing in this position. After a few moments of this, he found a patch of ground that was slightly more elevated than the rest. But, even so his toes were barely resting on the ground. This lasted for what seemed like forever to Danny while he was stuck in this uncomfortable position, but it was in actuality even less than half a minute before Vlad moved again. Narrowing his red eyes suspiciously, he finally lowered Danny back to the ground and reluctantly released his hold on the teen's jumpsuit. Danny finally breathed again.

"What was that all about?" Danny frowned. He automatically went to smooth out the creases that Vlad had left in his jumpsuit. He slowly kicked the inch-deep watery mud off of his white boots.

"I heard something..." Vlad quietly and contemplatively replied. His eyes were still searching the surrounding area with mistrust. However, there was nothing there. There was no evidence for any other beings being present besides them.

"Well… there can't be anything—unless you can sense something special that I can't!" Danny raised his eyebrows. His ghost sense hadn't gone off—well, Danny guessed that wasn't really the truth. It hadn't gone off once, but ever since they had entered the forest, the weird feeling had settled in the pit of his stomach that there were ghosts everywhere yet nowhere at the same time. It was just the same sensation that he experienced every time he went into the Ghost Zone. So, he just guessed that there were ghosts somewhere on the island, just not in an especially close proximity.

A sudden high-pitched shriek overlapped the end of Danny's sentence. It was an inhuman sound—it seemed to be almost like the cry of a raptor. However, as it shattered the stillness of the surrounding area, it sounded a lot more ghastly than some bird of prey... and a lot bigger than one, too.

It made a blood-curdling squawk, which was followed by a sudden rumbling thud, causing the ground to tremble beneath them. A deep, ominous, and resonating roar.

Then silence...

"We need to get moving..." Vlad murmured anxiously, breaking the silence. "We need to get away from here and now."

Danny's stomach lurched in apprehension at the elder hybrid's tone. If Vlad was worried... he should probably be worried too. There was no telling how powerful their company was, after all. Did Vlad know whatever that thing was?

This statement seemed to unleash the feelings of irrational haste and panic Danny had been trying to control for the past several hours. He started forward, passing Vlad and continuing on down the muddy pathway. His boots sank farther into the dark wet muck with each step, so Danny decided that walking was no longer going to cut it. He attempted to jump in the air, only to find that his feet weren't going to come with him. The force pulled him down to his knees, splattering the mire all over his jumpsuit. He clumsily stood back up, but his feet suddenly sank down half a foot more; only half an inch of his boots were still visible above the mud-line.

"Ah!" Danny cried out, partially from disgust as a horrible smell was released from the disturbed mud, and the rest out of surprise from the unexpected plunge he took.

"Daniel!" Vlad approached him, this time flying so as to avoid the same pitfall Danny had taken. The boy was sinking at a rapid speed, about an inch for every second that passed.

Danny latched onto Vlad's outstretched arm as the man began to attempt yanking him out of the peat; however, with each tug, the mud seemed to start pulling on him even quicker. The swamp around him was now up to his mid-thigh.

"W-wait…" Danny gasped as an idea struck him. Vlad made a sound of alarm as the rings around the boy's waist appeared, but Danny knew what he was doing. The very moment the rings had passed his feet and turned him back into human form, his legs slid as easily out of the mire that was holding him captive as if it had been water. However, the inertia of Vlad pulling on Danny's arm sent the two of them falling backwards, back onto the more or less firm ground behind them with Danny on top.

The boy just as quickly rolled over and flopped to the ground, his chest heaving with each breath he took. "Well, I don't think I'll be walking anymore as long as we're in here…" he grumbled. Any of the mud that had still caked his legs had now phased off, thankfully. Spasms suddenly overtook him as he coughed from the putrid smell that still surrounded them. He changed back to his ghost form. "Thanks, by the way." he added.

Vlad sat up in a sort of daze. That had certainly been quick and terrifying. Vlad stood up and helped the disoriented teen to his feet as well. "You're welcome. Come on, we still need to get moving."

It had been at least an hour more before they finally stopped for another rest. They'd found something of a small natural shelter. The earth had gotten firm once again and formed into a steep, probably around seventy-five degree incline. However, there was a small hollowed out place at the base of the earthy cliff about four feet deep and seven feet wide.

Danny leaned against the side of the slant facing away from the elder, breathing shakily. "What do you mean, we need to stop?"

"I'm saying that it's late and I know you're exhausted." Vlad sternly replied, knowing where the teen's mind was when he said this. "It was already fairly late when we started and we've gone on for about seven hours. You need rest."

"No. I don't, Plasmius!" the teenager's voice had risen in volume. "They need my help, and as soon as possible! I don't want them to…" he shook his head; he couldn't finish the thought.

Vlad advanced towards him, setting his hand on the boy's shoulder. "And you need the energy to help them, little badger. Those ghosts are not going to hurt them. As horrible as it sounds, they need them alive and well in order to draw us in."

The thought made Danny's blood boil. But, his shoulders went lax in defeat. He knew that Vlad was right, but he just didn't want to admit it. He wanted nothing but to continue on, beat those ghosts, and march right up to that ghost's castle door and show him just how much of a mistake he had made in messing with him or his loved ones. He didn't care if it took all night, as long as it was as quickly as possible. But, he was absolutely beat—there was no way he could keep it up for that long.

Danny lowered his hand from his face and trudged slowly over to the depression in the side of the incline, sliding down to a sitting position. Shaking his head dejectedly, he said, "You're probably right."

Vlad was about to reply, but was interrupted by a seemingly disembodied voice. However, upon turning around the two discovered an unwelcome sight.

"Don't worry, hybrids," the wizard said, leisurely strolling toward them. "That was only a smaller test along the way. They have relatively simple solutions when you come down to it, just as you had just discovered for that one. The trick, though," white teeth were revealed in a wide smile as he raised an index finger, "is whether or not you are clever enough to see them after this. Good luck." He gave a knowing glance at Vlad, his smile holding a trace of danger. And just like that, Anisim's clone dissipated into thin air.

The faint whistle of the wind rushing through the ghostly trees was the only sound left in the sorcerer's wake, but that only lasted for a mere moment before the water boiled over.

"And what exactly does he mean by 'clever enough'?" Danny scathingly remarked.

Vlad was wearing a small smirk on his lips. It seemed as though he might have known the identity of this ghost. It was certainly a possibility, considering the destroyed object in question. However, seeing as it was almost impossible to be the same individual he was thinking of, he wouldn't jump to conclusions just yet. If it was who he thought he was, though, then that was certainly interesting. He'd love to have a little chat with this ghost in private…. "Well," he said, sounding way too enigmatic for Danny's liking. "I think he means that was just a practice test, and an easy one at that. It will only get harder from here." However, Vlad had a hunch that the words implied something of a deeper meaning as well.

Danny didn't respond right away. He was too busy processing the behaviors of both Anisim and Vlad. Clearly there was something that he wasn't picking up on. That was probably the downside to his C average peeking through. He could tell when something was off, but he could never figure out exactly what it was when he liked to. However, he wasn't that dense. Danny felt a twinge of some all-to-familiar emotion stirring in his rapidly beating heart. "You know who he is, don't you?" he bluntly asked, successfully keeping most of the anger out of his voice.

The elder halfa was caught off guard. His eyes widened for a fraction of a second, but he coolly brushed off some dirt from his white cape, replying, "I don't know for sure. Be quiet." He turned around, letting his eyes wander suspiciously up to the castle turrets peeking through the tops of the deciduous trees.

Danny's eyebrows scrunched together with resentment, his mouth agape. That was the second time in a matter of minutes that the man had practically told him to shut up, and that was totally… totally pushing the boundaries of the teen's pride. He didn't care if that wasn't even that offensive considering most of the insults Vlad had ever aimed at him; he was not in the mood for being treated like—well… a child anymore from the elder, being pushed aside to let the "grownup" take the reigns or being the unknowing pawn in that "grownup's" game! Danny's mouth slowly closed as he got over the shock and tightened into an indignant frown.

"That's it…" he muttered under his breath, raising up an already glowing green fist and shooting it at the oblivious man. The blast struck Plasmius' upper back, knocking him violently forward. However, after stumbling to regain his footing, he managed to keep his balance. Vlad aggressively whipped himself around, his red eyes lividly glowing in the darkness. He met an almost carbon copy of his expression on the younger hybrid's face.

"Look, fruit loop, give me a straightforward answer for once in your life and stop keeping me in the dark like I'm some little kid!" That was it. That cork that had been holding back the pressure in that figurative bottle had just popped out. It had been on the verge of doing so for quite a while now, and now that this event had come to pass, that was the thing that did it. He was tired, he was angry, and even though he dared not think it, he was afraid. Now, all of that pent-up frustration toward the man came rising rapidly up the surface with no restraint at all.

Vlad was dumbfounded. Where had this come from? Sure, annoyance was only to be expected from the child, but… to this degree? What caused…? The elder half ghost narrowed his eyes. "Come, now, Daniel, you're overreacting. I think you need rest."

But Danny wouldn't give up just because of that. There was no getting off of this train. Not anymore. In the back of his mind, Danny vaguely had the impression that he was also shocked by his own reaction—but, hey, then again it wasn't overreacting. This jerk had been doing this for… how long, again? Ever since he met him; that's how long. "I am not overreacting! I am so sick of being just another game piece to you! That's not what I am! I am not your pawn, and I am not going to just sit around when I know you're planning something! What is it?!"

"You're still going on about this?" Vlad scoffed, a mixture of impatience and incredulity, "Daniel, would anything I do or say actually make you believe me when I say that there is nothing—at—all—that I am up to?"

"Well, for one," Danny raised his hands, continuing with a mock whimsical tone, "you could actually tell me what you know? That might do it for me. That might convince me. Unless there's something you don't want me to know?"

Vlad forced himself to swallow his frustration, shaking his head wearily. "Daniel, trust me when I say that I don't want to make any hasty conclusions based on hunches. It doesn't add up, anyways, now that I think about it." It was true, after all to an extent. At first, the man thought that he had had this ghost figured out from cover to cover, but that wasn't the case. Now he didn't know what to think, except that his first assumption was virtually impossible without some other explanation. He didn't know how the person could still be intact after all that had happened to him and the circumstances that he had been in at the time.

Danny's own fury died down at hearing the softened tone of the other. Vlad no longer sounded like his pompous and snide self, but exhausted and slightly worried.

"The only thing that's for certain is that he has to be involved in one way or another with—"

"The Gale Gem…" Danny grumbled in realization, pressing a hand over his eyes. He almost said it reluctantly, since he didn't know how the…vindictive… elder hybrid… would react to his mentioning it.

"Exactly…" Vlad gave a small nod. "You caught on quicker than I thought you would." He suddenly laughed at the sigh of annoyance from the boy that followed.

Danny snorted, a little more confident now that he knew it was a safer subject to touch. "Yeah, well, it's hard to forget about something if you're still tormenting me because of it, Plasmius!"

Plasmius began pacing back and forth in front of the teen, blocking off the opening the little shelf of earth provided. "Well, what can I say? You deserved it!" Vlad smiled good-naturedly, but his tone still contained that proud complacency he was known for.

"Crazy fruit loop…" Danny rolled his eyes, though the contempt that usually came with the name had already left. His gaze then began following the man's movements; he didn't know why, but the maneuvering struck him as slightly… well, protective. But, judging by the absent-minded manner that the action was being performed in, Vlad probably wasn't aware that he was doing it. Danny didn't really know how to react; should he feel resentful? It wasn't as if he was a defenseless... well, child! He thought he'd just made that clear to the man. However, the act was surprising coming from him.

"Stubborn little rat…" Vlad smoothly replied, though his eyes had lowered from the dark sky.

"So, who did you think he was, then? At least tell me that." Danny persisted, but none of the rage remained in his voice.

Vlad sighed, pausing in mid-stride, "The man who had made it… but, it can't be him. He would've been destroyed as soon as you destroyed it."

Danny's eyebrows raised in alarm. Did he… cause a ghost's afterlife to end just by simply destroying that crystal? But he didn't know! How?

Plasmius noticed this and elaborated, "That's only a myth, though! There's no proof his afterlife source was connected in any way to that crystal! Legends are often changed over time, and that just happens to come from one of the fantastical versions of the story. However, if it's not true, then he probably hasn't survived anyway—the Dark Ages was a terrible time period, especially in the Ghost Zone." And anyone who was involved with something that powerful would have been... removed... by Pariah Dark once their purpose had been carried out. "Don't dwell on it, Daniel. That's why I didn't want to bring it up in the first place."

The boy tensed even further, though not due to the same concern. The way the man phrased the last part of that sentence sent shivers down his spine. "And you're not lying to me?" Vlad gave a stiff shake of his head. "Okay, then," Danny murmured, not really knowing whether to still be concerned, be satisfied with this explanation from the man, or still be suspicious. His gaze lowered to his knees. "I guess I'll let you off of the hook, then… for now!" he chuckled mildly.

Vlad rolled his eyes and raised his right hand to rub the back of his neck gingerly, pressing the other firmly against the small of his back. That blast sure had jarred him; he'd probably be feeling that one in the morning. "You really needed to get that off of your chest, didn't you?" he half-jokingly chuckled softly, though that other half was filled with something Danny couldn't quite interpret. It just translated as rather awkward to the teenager. As a silence of the same nature ensued, Danny felt his face getting uncomfortably warm even in spite of the cool environment of the Ghost Zone at night. The darkness, which only a matter of hours ago had been the object of his loathing, was now the object for his gratitude.

Danny finally looked up from his knees at the man, still pacing slowly, almost leisurely up and down the small stretch that the overhanging earth left open. "Of course, cheesehead! I enjoyed our, ahem, little talk—you have no idea how long I've wanted to do that!" the teenager laid down on his back, relaxing his tensed muscles for the first time since seven o'clock that evening. He relished the feeling, closing his eyes as he shifted to a comfortable position.

"I can imagine," Vlad murmured, finally turning back one last time. "Good night, Daniel."

The younger halfa was at a loss, realizing just how quickly his fury had deflated just barely. He wanted to still be angry with the man, and he realized just how much reason he still had to be. However, he found that he just didn't have the energy anymore. Huh… must really be tired. Danny mused, letting out his breath a sharp exhale. Now that most of that bottled up anger had been released, he finally felt somewhat at peace in a way, even though that absolutely did not mean he was totally calm and collected now. His friends were still in danger, but he had to get his rest in order to keep up the strength he needed to help them. So, forcing himself to push back the panic trying to seep back into his tired brain, he rolled onto his side, facing away from the pacing elder hybrid and towards the earthy wall supporting the shelf above. Don't worry, guys... I promised, after all... right? Danny shut his eyes as his thoughts couldn't help but wander one last time to Sam, Tucker, Jazz, Valerie... even Paulina and Dash.

"'Night, Vlad…" he softly called over his shoulder.

Sam Manson could not believe her luck. She exhaled exasperatedly, blowing her bangs out of her eyes, being unable to do so with her hands. It wasn't even so much the situation that was bothering her than the company.

"Where am I? How did I get here? The last thing I remember was cheerleading practice! Was that long ago? When's Danny Phantom going to come and save me?" Once Paulina had regained consciousness, the sound of her voice asking all the typical questions never ceased.

What luck indeed. Sam simply tuned out. While she wasn't all too thrilled with her circumstances either, she still maintained a cool head. She was still just as disoriented, but she was determined to get herself out of this. She twisted around, trying to get a better view of her surroundings.

It was dark, since all of the environment was some shade of dark and dull greens, blacks, or grays, but the ghostly glow of the foliage surrounding them provided just enough light to discern the other features of their environment. A vine that was at least a quarter of a foot thick was wrapped tightly around her waist and legs kept her suspended in the air. The tiny thorns covering the hardy plant dug into her skin at the movement. Sam let out a wince; she could feel small trickles of blood running down her arms.

"Okay, what have we got he—?" Sam was interrupted in her scan of the area by a sudden shriek from Paulina.


Her head snapped down to find the source of the scream. The cheerleader had previously been located about two feet beneath the soles of her combat boots, a yard to her left.

The vine that had been similarly holding Paulina had slipped, causing her to drop about five feet. Sam bit back a smile, forcing herself to at least try not to enjoy seeing the cheerleader freak out. Paulina was now hanging upside down, whimpering.

"Oh, these thorns are ruining my flawless skin!" the A-Lister whined, pouting at the scratches adorning her arms.

Sam's amusement ended with the plaintive tone she so hated. "Paulina, can you please stop making so much noise? A few scratches won't kill you, you know..."

"Oh, who asked you?" she scathingly responded in a mixture of tears and anger. "Easy for you to say, anyway, since you don't have a good complexion to lose! These could turn to scars and blemish my skin for years or who knows how long!"

"I mean it, Paulina! I'm trying to find a way out and we won't be able to if you're being as loud as a siren! The ghosts might hear it and then a lot more than just your 'flawless' skin will be ruined, anyway!"

"Don't worry! The ghost boy's going to save me—and by extension you, since you're here," she carelessly added as an afterthought. "After all, he always does!" she giggled suddenly, obviously twitterpated at the thought of Danny's alter ego. However, once the action caused the vine she dangled from to start swinging, the giggle promptly turned back to the whimper it had been before. Her face was becoming flushed from the blood rushing to her head.

Sam grumbled in annoyance. "Seriously... out of all people to be abducted with, it had to be her!"

Paulina made a snide remark in response, probably an insult to her popularity status, but Sam didn't pay attention. She decided that Danny's ex-crush wasn't going to come up with any ideas any time soon except wait like some damsel in distress. While she knew Danny was going to come to save them, she had no idea if he had run into trouble of his own. It had to at least have been a couple hours since the game gone awry. She needed to get out of this.

There were vines of all different thicknesses draped across the thick gnarly trees. A swampy mixture of watered down peat concealed the roots. However, she could see about twenty yards away the land sloped upward and returned to muddy yet definitely firm terrain.

Sam kept her eyes fixed on the sight while she wriggled her arms toward each other, biting back a groan as the thorns continued tearing at her skin. Thankfully, however, she didn't need to go far since her arms were already tied behind her. Her hands finally met each other after a few minutes of struggling. Before proceeding, she cautiously scanned the area for the two ghosts that had kidnapped them and gave a warning glance down at Paulina. Then, she took a deep breath, found the button on the wrist ray with her left hand index finger, and pressed it.

Paulina gave a shrill squeak as the green beam of light shot through the vines, severing the bottom half of the cords in the process. At first nothing really happened, except the force of gravity started pulling down harder on her now that the bottom half of the vine no longer supported her body. Sam carefully kicked off the loose vines wrapped around her legs; they fell down to the mire below, at first floating on the surface of the sticky and viscous pool, but then sinking slowly into the murky abyss. Sam stretched out her legs in relief, but didn't have much time to get rid of the pins and needles from the stinging scratches before she started slipping through the vine.

"Um… Sam?" Paulina timidly interjected. If she hadn't been so caught up in what was happening, Sam would've been so dumbfounded that the cheerleader had actually called her by name, or found out the reason why she had.

"Ah, ah…" Sam hissed as the thorns began tearing up her arms. However, the quiet sounds of discomfort quickly turned into louder sounds of fear. "Whoa!" She latched onto the bottom of the vine just as she slid out of the last coil and began falling. The vine caught her initial fall, but the force of her body being jerked back snapped the vine and caused her to fall the rest of the six feet to the swampy floor. She landed on her feet, sinking to mid-calf in the mud. Upon moving, she found she couldn't. The peat suddenly solidified around her legs, almost to the point where it was rock-hard. "…What?"

She looked up only to find a very unwelcome sight.

"So you say that one of the humans escaped?" the wizard's tone was low. He had received this news with a level of calmness, although there was an edge of danger lurking beneath his placidness. It was almost hard to hear his reply, since the constant loud turning of the cogs in the clock bounced off of the walls of the bell tower they stood in. However, this clock didn't measure time in the typical way—it only chimed once an intruder breached a certain area. It was very useful at times, though its peals rarely ever went off these days.

"Yes, she did, but—" Marsden had an ever so slightly panicked pitch, "We caught her. We've made sure she won't be able to again." If there were two things that made him nervous, they were not having the upper hand in battle and his master. The sorcerer certainly knew how to intimidate even him when he wished to, and that made Marsden nervous at the fact.

Anisim's gaze flitted away from the brawny ghost, landing back on the open window that overlooked the forest. He liked being in the high towers of the castle. It gave him a sense of dignity and control if he had the view of the entire island. These notions of power didn't come from a lack of solid reasoning, either. Sometimes the sense of being observed every step of the way that could even drive some of his intruders insane before reaching the castle. However, that only happened to those who couldn't hold a candle to these hybrids. He hadn't even gotten a chance to see their prowess yet, but what he'd heard of them from his followers had intrigued him, and just seeing them had confirmed that they weren't all that they seemed. He could just sense the peculiarity about the two of them.

Even though there was hardly a difference between night and day in the Ghost Zone, he could tell that the green misty clouds were becoming brighter with each passing minute. Dawn had almost arrived. He took in a deep breath through the nose at this thought. "Good. I won't have my plans thwarted simply by the escape of any of those mortals. You did mention from your study of the young half-breed that his little friends had a talent for meddling, did you not?" Anisim' voice came in a whisper. At seeing Marsden give a small nod in his peripheral vision, he shifted his gaze back to the landscape below him. He gave a small nod himself, speaking again in a low monotone, "Alright then. You know how this will all work out, correct? Keep the prisoners secure. Once the clock strikes, make sure you are ready for them. Don't be unprepared. After you beat them, do what you wish with the humans—but bring the hybrids to me."

He drummed the fingers of his right hand against the marble he leaned against, his other hand resting motionless on the stone. He abruptly stopped the motion, noticing the amount of pale chalk-like dust shaken off of his hand and clinging to the cool stone underneath. He cursed under his breath.

"No matter; it won't be long now anyways," He wasn't talking to anyone in particular at this point, though it still perplexed the tall earth-controlling ghost still in the room before realizing it wasn't him he was addressing. Anisim removed his eyes away from the dark dense conifers and turned around to face the interior of the room once again. Even though the wizard couldn't see the hybrids, he knew where they were. They were coming up to their first real test fairly soon. The previous night had been a nerve-wracking one for him, since they had stopped for rest, but now that it was morning the pressure became a little easier to bear, knowing that Vlad Plasmius and Danny Phantom were soon to arrive at the destination of the first leg of the journey.

"Perhaps another day or two..." he reasoned with himself in an ever so slightly shaky tone, a bead of sweat forming along his brow. The small, coagulated droplet dissolved some of the same dust that was eroding off of him and slowly rolled down his temple. Anisim growled and furiously wiped it off of his face with the sleeve of his robe, storming over to the table standing in the middle of the room. No. He wouldn't let his anxiety take control of him. He wouldn't be weak. Until his plans concerning the two hybrids and the phoenix were carried out all the way, all he had to do was concentrate on not falling apart. Thankfully, the warlock had just the thing to keep him stable until the time came when he had the bird and could exact his revenge on the two foolish half-humans in one swoop.

The sudden squawk of the crow from overhead didn't even faze the wizard or the tall ghost's clone. The large dark-feathered bird hopped to and fro on the chandelier's limbs before settling on the outermost one. The bird's bright yellow eyes seemed to penetrate the darkness just like the blue candlelight that flickered close by.

The ghost contemplatively picked up the similarly golden apple in the bowl and held it up for a moment before raising it to his lips and taking a bite. Then, he lowered the fruit and stood perfectly still, as if waiting for something to happen. At first, however, it seemed that he would be disappointed in the literal fruits of his labor, but after a minute in silence the wizard gave a euphoric and relieved sigh. The stream of dust trailing off of him with every motion had ceased—or at least reduced to the point where it was hardly noticeable. The horrible feeling of damage in his core had diminished; he felt rejuvenated, suddenly much more aware of his surroundings than he had been before. His head had cleared of all the trivial type of panic that was trying to override his mind, trying to convince himself that he had no idea what would become of him, that all hope was lost.

Oh, but he was still desperate. He knew all too well that eventually the supply would run out, and when that time came, he would have nothing to keep his shattered core stable if he didn't have the firebird. He would slowly fade and fade until there was nothing left. Yes, he was a desperate man. Yes, he had nothing to lose now except his afterlife. And yes, that made him dangerous. He had one last hope for survival, and he was willing to do whatever was necessary to meet it. His goal was the phoenix, and the key to her was the little hybrid who had put him in this situation in the first place. How fitting. The ghost managed a small smirk at the amusing thought, in spite of all the feverish anxiety that was consuming him.

Anisim's eyes snapped open. "Well? Return to your post this instant! I'm certain those hybrids will be arriving at your swamp soon enough!"

"Yes, sir," Marsden gave a slight bow before his translucent figure dissipated.

The wizard turned slowly on his heels before relaxing casually with his hands pressed against his lower back. His pale blue eyes lazily dragged across the chamber he stood in. He stood like this for at least half an hour, silent and motionless. What he was waiting for finally came when the tower he was in vibrated violently as the deafening and raucous sound of bells chimed the hour.

Once, twice, thrice, it continued until the ninth chime ended the cacophony. The last peal was still ringing on the air when the sorcerer specter smiled softly. "And so it begins," his tone matched the smile. "Good luck, hybrids. May the best ghost win..."

Alrighty! So, things were relatively quiet in this chapter, but it's needed. Now that I think of it, this story is a lot more complex than "Survival of the Fittest" was, so it requires a lot more build up—a lot more than I expected, anyway. Next chapter, however, is where this pays off! There's a lot of action in the next one, and I think you all can guess why!

Once again, I am so terribly sorry about taking forever with this chapter! I'll be as quick as possible with the next one! Please let me know what you think!