Chapter Twenty Six
The whisper is harsh and gentle at the same time, a sharp breeze that bites at the skin and turns the heart to ice. A single name carries through the air.
"Whoever put your name in the Goblet did it for a reason," says the face in the fire. It twists, burning, searing. It coughs with a force that shoots forth flame and ash. I've never felt anything so hot.
Moody's grin melts in the heat, face dripping like a wax candle as madness sparks in his eyes.
I jolted into sitting the second the scream ran through my head.
Cold swam through my lungs as breath escaped me at uncomfortable speeds.
It was just a dream.
My duvet wrapped around my torso in a soothing embrace but it did nothing to ease the icy fear that had settled under my skin.
Only a dream.
I lifted a hand to caress my temple.
I was home. I was safe.
So why did this nightmare hum in my skull with the same energy I'd felt when dreaming at Hogwarts? The same energy as when I looked into that stupid crystal ball?
For something so messed up and nonsensical, it had felt so… real. I could still feel the searing heat racing up and down my spine.
I took a deep breath, hoping the sensation might settle the icy feeling in my chest and throat. It wasn't until I let the same breath go that it finally clicked.
I stiffened as my eyes locked onto the lightly glowing figure in the corner of my room.
So much for going missing.
Skulker's appearance hadn't changed any in the last month. Standing tall enough that the flame from his helmet licked at a model solar system I'd hung from my ceiling, his whole suit seemed to shimmer against the light that filtered in through my curtain.
The thing that unnerved me most was the way he was casually leaning up against my closet, arms folded as though he'd been there for a while.
Not wanting to have this confrontation in pyjamas, I let the rings of my transformation wash over me with a murmured, "guess I'm going ghost already."
"How did you do it?"
I blinked as I phased through my duvet and hovered an inch above my bed. "Do what?"
The challenging glow in the mechanical ghost's eyes seemed to be a hybrid between awe and frustration.
"Disappear off the radar like that," he reiterated.
A small smirk grew on my face as I caught on.
"You mean to say you, the Ghost Zone's Greatest Hunter, couldn't find me? And here I was thinking you just hadn't noticed I'd gone."
An ectoblast scorched the wall beside me as the ghost took a step away from my closet.
"I have nothing against beating the answers out of you, Ghost Child," Skulker hummed, voice electric as though exhilarated by the idea.
I scoffed as I drew back, arms opening up as though offering him a hug. "Bring it."
With that, I shot back through my bedroom wall. The sudden increase in sunlight was disorientating but, thankfully, the street was devoid of people.
"So, are you supposed to be the welcoming committee?" I jibed as Skulker burst through the wall after me. Rockets leapt from his arms, firing the second his eyes locked onto mine. The ectoshield that formed in front of me was both ectoplasm and a layer of clear ice. The attack was easily deflected. "Because if you are, I have a few notes."
The shield sprang forward, crashing into him with a force that had him spiralling into a lamppost. I cringed as it collapsed under his weight.
"Standing in my bedroom and watching while I sleep? That's some Edward Cullen level of creepy."
Skulker grunted as he righted himself and shot me a glare.
"How's this for a welcome?"
His attack was fast, net whizzing towards me at a startling speed.
Snape's spells were faster.
I grinned, darting to the side last minute so that the green mesh barely grazed my arm.
"Is it just me, or are you a little rusty?" An ectoplasm charged snowball hit his chest, knocking him into the concrete. "Get it? Rusty? 'Cause your suit is metal?"
I guessed by the look of disgruntled anger on his face that he got it.
I ducked as a harpoon whizzed past my head, embedding itself into a house across the street. Before I could recover, three explosive missiles followed, forcing me to drop a few feet to get out of their way.
I sensed the trap as soon as the black smoke began to drift down around me. Rather than try fly from it and blindly land myself in something far less pleasant, I formed an ectoplasmic orb around myself.
It took only seconds before another net flew at me from somewhere I couldn't see. It wrapped itself around the shield, sending electricity across its surface. I waited until the smoke cleared before I expanded the barrier and the net burst apart.
Skulker was nowhere in sight.
I tensed as I pivoted in the air, scanning every shadowed corner of the street.
"Hiding now? You really have lost your edge," I mocked, careful to keep the wariness from my voice. Losing visual on Skulker was never a good thing.
As though to confirm my thought, a sharp spike of electricity shot up through my leg. I gave a yell of agonised surprise as pain coursed through my body with the ferocity of a thousand Skrewt burns. I lost my hold on my ghost form and found myself falling.
The ground came up to meet me with sickening force.
If there was one thing I wished my human half had adopted from my more ghostly one, it was durability. Danny Fenton wasn't designed for colliding with anything more solid than a mattress.
I groaned as I attempted to pull myself upright, desperately trying to ignore the worrying ache that had settled in my bones. Mom and Dad might be clueless, but they'd definitely notice if I lost the ability to walk for a few hours. I wasn't given the chance to check myself over before a metallic hand grabbed the front of my pyjama top and forced me up against the nearest brick wall. Lifted from the ground, my hands were quick to latch on to the one thing keeping me aloft.
"You got some new tricks," I hissed, screwing my eyes up against the fresh wave of pain.
Skulker's face was alarmingly close to mine as he smirked. His free hand lifted to reveal a very familiar device and my stomach dropped. The Plasmius Maximus.
I was in trouble.
"A gift from Plasmius," Skulker confirmed.
Suddenly the smirk dropped. He sniffed, frown forming as he stared at me. I yelped as he pulled me closer, inhaling like a bloodhound.
The force he slammed me back into the wall sent dangerous pangs across my ribs.
"You smell of magic."
I could almost hear cogs turning in the ghost's helmet as realisation dawned behind his eyes. The alarm on his face was undeniable.
"You were with wizards," he spat.
"You…" I took a sharp breath, not entirely sure whether from surprise or pain. "You know about wizards?"
"Of course I know about them," he growled, tone only adding to the confused ache in my head.
A glowing green blade shot from the hand that had held the Plasmius Maximus. I flinched as he brought the edge to my throat.
"Did they see your ghost form? Did you show them?"
I didn't respond, too stunned by the range of emotions passing across his face. There was fear there. Actual, deadly serious fear. The blade drew blood as he pushed it harder.
I couldn't. Not with the blade pressed so tightly below my adams apple. I settled for an incredibly uncomfortable glare, ignoring the beads of pained tears in the corner of my vision.
I thought for a second Skulker was actually preparing to take my head off before a bleep sounded from the computer in his arm.
He didn't spare the device a glance as his eyes remained firmly locked to mine. He hung there for a second, waiting for something in my face to prove his fears wrong. He didn't find it. With a sharp, furious exhale, he withdrew the blade. I let out a small hiss of pain as the edge tugged at my skin, thin stripes of blood oozing from the cut. With my ghost half temporarily out of action, I couldn't help but be relieved it hadn't gone any deeper.
The feeling didn't last long before Skulker hoisted me up and draped me unceremoniously over his shoulder.
"Hey!" I protested as he leapt into the air, shoulder jets unhealthily close to my head. "Put me down!"
His grip on my back grew tighter, pressing hard against what I was pretty sure was a fractured rib. Hot tears of pain slipped from my eyes as I watched the world shoot past below us. His invisibility spread across the both of us as he continued his flight and I found that any kind of struggle did little more than cause me more pain.
The second we passed above the Nasty Burger, I knew exactly where we were headed.
"I thought you were done with being Vlad's lackey," I hissed, voice whipped away by the rumble of his jets. I got the feeling he heard me because his shoulder quirked beneath my stomach, sending a jolt of pain through my torso.
"A lot's changed, whelp," he growled.
He could say that again. I'd been worried about coming back to find Amity Park in pieces, blown apart by some evil ghost or my parents' newest invention. Looking down on it now, it hadn't looked this together since the ghost attacks started. Where were the craters in the pavement? The construction workers sipping coffee over another damaged building? So far, the only damage I'd seen was what I'd caused fighting Skulker outside my house.
We reached Town Hall far sooner than I'd've liked. Knowing exactly where he was headed, Skulker phased through the ceiling, passing carelessly over the heads of several office workers as he made his way through the building.
We passed through a door I knew all too well and before I could do anything to stop it, Skulker all but threw me into the metallic chair that rested just in front of the Mayor's desk.
The second my body hit the surface, thick metal restraints burst from the chair to wrap around my shoulders, waist and legs. There was a second's delay before my wrists were latched to the chair's arms.
Vlad always did have a flare for the dramatic.
"Is this really necessary?" I asked, glaring into the face of the man who sat across the desk. My ears burned as his eyes drifted mockingly over my pyjamas. The pale blue t-shirt accompanied by blue and white rocket-patterned bottoms looked ridiculously childish under the thick metal bands that held me in place. I tugged at the restraints around my wrists in my discomfort.
"With your recent disappearance I thought it would be fitting," Vlad mused, fingers drumming against the arms of his own, significantly more comfortable looking chair. "Wouldn't want you running off again, would we, Little Badger?"
"Aww, did you miss me?"
His dark eyebrows lifted in challenge as he pressed his back further against the padding of his seat.
"Your mother did. I like to think she found my regular visits comforting in your absence."
My shoulders jerked in protest, pushing up against the metal.
"Like she'd ever find comfort in you," I bit. Vlad's lips twitched in amusement, riling me up more.
"You'd be surprised, dear boy." He leant forward, hands steepling under his chin as he continued to take me in. "I didn't bring you here to talk about your mother's growing fondness of me, though. We're here to talk about you."
I glanced across at Skulker who now stood all henchman-like in the back corner of the room. Conflict continued to war across his face as his arms resettled into their previous folded position. His eyes burned at my skin.
"See, when most people decide to check up on someone, they usually knock on front door," I said as I looked back at Amity Park's Mayor.
"It's been a long time since either of us could be considered 'most people'." Vlad tilted slightly, leaning against the right arm of his chair to address Skulker. "Learn anything?"
Skulker stiffened at the question and I felt a surge of panic. If Skulker knew, maybe Vlad did to, but something told me if he did, he'd already have found some way to use it against me. Plasmius learning about magic would be a whole new level of bad.
Skulker's gaze flicked from Vlad to me and his expression darkened.
"Nothing," he barked.
That was… unexpected. I blinked as I realised his heated glare held a warning. The older halfa's focus reattached to me with a low hum.
"Be smart for once in your life, Daniel. Where were you?"
"Didn't you hear? I got into an Astronaut Experience Internship. It was intense but I like to think I learned some stuff." My shrug was stopped short by the restraints, but the effect was the same. Vlad's gaze became icy.
"That excuse might have worked for your parents, but I'm not an idiot. We used every tracking system known to humanity and ghost kind alike. Wherever you were, you were untraceable. How is that?"
I frowned, making a show of thinking it over.
"Huh. No clue. Guess those spacey radio signals are more powerful than I gave them credit."
Vlad rolled his eyes before standing very deliberately from his chair. My fists clenched as he made his way around the desk towards me.
"Don't play games with me, Daniel. You won't win."
"Wait until I get my powers back, and we'll see."
I flinched as his hand rested on the skin of my forearm. It was warm, uncomfortably so, and the fact that it was so gentle sent shivers down my spine.
"I doubt this last month could possibly have brought you up to my level." As though to emphasise the comment, he sent a steady flow of ecto-electricity through my arm. I gasped, instinctively trying to pull away but held in place by the metal. My teeth cut into my tongue as I tried to fight the pain that seemed unwilling to stop. It was a long few seconds before his hand eventually lifted.
I sagged forward, struggling to catch my breath as the remaining static singed my skin.
This I hadn't missed.
Vlad perched on the edge of his desk, close enough to attack again but far enough away to comfortably watch my recovery.
"So?" he probed. I groaned, glaring up at him from beneath the hair that had fallen to cover my eyes.
"I don't know what to tell you, Plasmius. I was away. That's all there is."
Electricity crackled in his hands as he looked down at them in thought. I twisted my wrists anxiously against the restraints, not eager for another shock but also not willing to share anything resembling the truth. Skulker's face had turned stoic and unreadable as he watched on. Whatever crime he thought I'd committed by spending time with magical folk seemed to have him happy to sit back and let the brutality continue.
"Look, I don't even see how it's any of your business," I started as the silence became near unbearable. "No matter how much you wanna be, you're not my dad. And you don't have any kind of inherent right to know where I am all the time. It's just creepy."
Vlad's hand stretched out in front of me, sparks flying dangerously close to my leg as I struggled to pull away. He let it hover there a moment before clenching it into a fist and letting the energy fizzle out.
"Very well. I will get my answers, don't doubt that. But until then. How does it feel?"
I kept a wary eye on his fist as he pulled it back and rested it against the desk beneath him.
"How does what feel?"
"Oh, come on, Daniel. Don't tell me you didn't notice the state of the town. Ghost crime has been at an all time low since the disappearance of Danny Phantom. How does it feel knowing that your absence was probably the best thing to happen to your beloved home?" The smug expression on his face was sickening as his words sank in.
"I'm just happy you didn't manage to blow the place up," I retorted, though I couldn't deny the sting of his insinuation.
"I can't imagine the townspeople will be all that happy when their buildings start falling down again, can you? Danny Phantom's victorious return resulting in havoc and mayhem. I'd say even your biggest fans won't be able to overlook that."
There was a threat in there somewhere. I blew heated breath up against my hair in an attempt to get it to move aside.
"Are you going somewhere with this?"
His face twisted into a dangerous smirk. Rather than give me an answer he let a hand fall across a small square box by his side. The large red button at the heart of it was quick to catch my attention.
"It's good to have you back, Little Badger," he hummed, running a finger across the button and enjoying the anxiety he could sense coursing through me. I didn't gift him with a response as my glare intensified.
After a few more seconds of tense silence, the button was pressed.
The pain wasn't immediate this time. Rather than the usual electric sting I was used to, the bands around me began to heat up, burning in a way that wasn't entirely natural. A green sheen of energy began to glow around each restraint as I struggled to break free. I felt the panic blossom in my chest as the heat continued to rise and my skin started to sear in response. This new kind of agony was painfully reminiscent of the nightmare I'd woken up from not twenty minutes ago and I let out a shout as it continued to worsen.
The most dizzying effect was the way my brain felt like it was shutting down. Whether against the pain or down to whatever ectoplasmic effects the chair obviously had, I soon found it difficult to keep my eyes open. I felt myself droop against the bands, drained of the energy needed to keep myself upright.
"Would you look at that," I heard Vlad say, though it blurred around the edges. "The thing actually works."
I lost the fight and consciousness escaped me.
The nausea was near unbearable. My stomach churned dangerously as I fought to find a more comfortable position, head feeling like a lead weight against the pillow below it. I felt like I'd been run over by the Fenton RV with my dad behind the wheel.
I'd been burning. That much I remembered.
My eyes dragged open and the familiar star pattern on the ceiling spun above me like a sickening kaleidoscope. I was in my room. That had to be good sign, surely?
I pinned my focus on one particular green dot and waited for the rest to stop moving. My body ached in a way that suggested I'd been in a fight and hadn't come out of it victorious. But if that was the case, how did I end up back here? The skin around my throat gave a sharp sting of pain the second I swallowed.
Already sick of the fog in my head, I pulled on my ghost half.
It didn't respond.
"Well, this is familiar," I croaked.
A knock on the door was quick to grab my attention. Struggling to do anything else, I pulled the duvet up to my shoulders to hide any obvious injuries.
"Yeah?" I groaned, mouth struggling against the fog that was my brain. The door slipped open and Mom's head appeared in the gap.
"Afternoon sleepyhead, I thought you might be hungry so I brought cereal." The soothing tone of her voice curled around me like a gentle hug. I quirked a smile at her.
"Breakfast in bed? You really did miss me."
"I'm not the only one! Look who came to check up on you."
She pushed the door open a little further, revealing a tall, silver haired man by her side.
And then I remembered.
My hands balled into fists as they brought the duvet a little higher to cover the cut on my neck.
The venom in Vlad's smile brought bile to my throat as my mom drifted forward to place the bowl on my bedside table.
"It was the front door you mentioned before, wasn't it?" he mocked, not seeming to care that Mom was in the room. The look on her face turned quizzical but I jumped in before she could ask.
"Thanks, Mom. I really appreciate it," I nodded to the cereal and then had to fight to keep the dizziness from overwhelming me with the jerked action. She smiled down at me before ruffling my hair.
"Don't mention it. Vlad's kindly offered to cook tonight so don't go snacking after that, okay?"
My gaze shot to Vlad as his smile turned to a dark smirk. Mom would never have let Vlad cook before. Jazz had mentioned that he'd been lurking around a lot. Could it be that he hadn't been having delusions when he said that she'd warmed to him?
"I was actually going to go to Sam's tonight. She offered to help with my catch up work so…" I rushed, not caring about the plea that bled into my voice.
"Well, she's more than welcome to have dinner with us." Mom announced, looking back at Vlad for confirmation.
"Of course. You could even invite that other friend of yours if you'd like. Wouldn't want to separate the three of you. Not yet, anyway." His face was a picture of innocence when Mom was watching but as soon as she turned away, the dangerous glint returned to his eyes.
"Oh, how lovely. Then we can all catch up together. You can tell us about what you were doing in Florida," Mom all but squealed as she grinned down at me.
"I think we all want to hear about that," Vlad concurred, though there was nothing friendly in it. I fought the urge to glare, knowing Mom's eyes were on me.
"Sounds great," I said through a strained smile.
"Perfect. We'll leave you to it then, honey. Let us know if you need anything." She gave my cheek a sharp pinch before bouncing out of the room. Vlad lingered a second longer, gaze fixed on mine so tightly it seemed to draw the oxygen from my lungs. The urge to demand answers was overwhelming but the risk of being overheard and the fact that I still didn't feel strong enough to lift my head stopped me short.
When he was satisfied I was uncomfortable enough, he spun on his heels and swept after my mom.
I let out a pained sigh. Unhealthy pangs swept through me as I pushed the covers back and held my arms up for inspection. Cuts and bruises from my fight with Skulker were still raw and glimmered back at me in deep blues and reds. What confused me was that there were no marks where the chair had held me in place. When I'd twisted my wrists enough to be sure, I let my hands drop to prod at my chest. My ribs protested the investigation, but again, the metal bands had left nothing.
But how did that make sense? I could have sworn I felt the heat of them searing through my skin.
I sagged against my mattress, ignoring yet another wave of nausea. Whatever the chair had done, it sucked worse than Hawthorne's sedative spell.
My phone gave a sharp bleep from the bedside table where Jazz had put it on charge earlier.
Trying not to move any more of myself than necessary, I dragged my arm over the side of the bed and felt for the familiar electrically warmed device. It took a bit of fumbling but eventually the screen was hovering inches above my face.
I ignored the alert that said I had 452 missed calls and 173 new messages, and opened the group chat I shared with Sam and Tucker.
Danny! Jazz told us you were home. Are you okay? We're coming over - Sam's latest message read.
Was I up for visitors? Definitely not. Would I prefer having Sam and Tucker around with Vlad lurking around downstairs? A hundred percent. I began typing my response.
Hi guys. I'm fine. Got into a fight with Tinman a few hours ago and I'm a still a little out of it so be gentle with me. Vlad's over. Cooking dinner, apparently. If you guys don't have plans this evening, back-up would be appreciated.
I hit send before I could overthink it.
They'd want answers. Answers I wasn't sure I was ready to give. The nausea seemed to intensify the moment I thought about telling them anything that resembled the truth. They deserved to know, but at the same time… everything inside me felt like it was protesting the fact.
Maybe I could stall a little longer. With Vlad lurking around, it would be stupid to think he wouldn't try eavesdropping. Maybe this was blessing in disguise.
My entire body gave a painful twitch at the thought.
Vlad being a blessing. There'd be more chance of me voluntarily working for the Ministry of Magic.
AN: So this wasn't actually due for another few days but I'm home for a week so I thought I'd share with you a little early and actually maybe be able to reply to some reviews this time. The response for chapter 25 was phenomenal and I can't tell you guys just how much I appreciate your comments and continued support. Even you silent readers, thanks for being here! And I hope I can live up to the expectations a lot of you have!
Well Danny's restful return isn't exactly as carefree and easy as he'd hoped. If wizards don't know about ghosts, how is it that Skulker knows about wizards? And why does he seem so keen to keep Vlad in the dark? Much to consider. Much to consider.
I'll leave you with that one. I'm going to see if I can add some words to the melting pot that is chapter 28.
Til we meet again!