The Ghost Zone
The pain was liquid lightning. It poured through her veins like acid, burning her from the inside out, filling her nostrils with the smell of ozone and singed hair, her mouth with something thick and metallic. Not blood, not quite, but close enough for someone like her—ectoplasm. It choked off her screaming, and she tried to spit it out, but there was so much, and her muscles were spasming, beyond her control, until even writhing against the ghost-proof bonds on one of his ever-present examination tables was more than she could manage.
And still, whatever was in that needle he'd plunged into her arm flowed into her, scorching thought and memory, dissolving the boundaries between past, present and future so that it all became one, and it all became him.
"It's called ectoranium, my dear." His tone was conversational, almost bored. "The ghost's Kryptonite." He was in human form, dapper and urbane, with white hair pulled back and clasped at the nape of his neck, a neatly trimmed white goatee, and a medical smock covering his dark Armani suit.
Change back. The words danced in the storm in her mind. If only he would change back to that creepy, green, gaseous-yet-solid form he'd been in when he'd brought her here to his castle, then the memories of the past wouldn't melt so easily into the horror of the present. Whatever that thing was, it was preferable to him.
That thing she'd never known as "Daddy."
Did I do good, Daddy?
I could not wish for a better daughter.
He's using you! You're nothing but a mess he's not gonna clean up!
You. Exist. To serve. ME!
You are not the boss of me!
He pulled the needle out of her arm, and she could almost breathe again as he laid aside the syringe—empty, but coated with a glowing, ecto-green residue—and began fiddling with some sort of medical monitor at her side. "You remember the asteroid last summer, don't you? The one on a collision course with Earth? Why, of course you do. It would have destroyed the entire planet if all the ghosts hadn't banded together to turn the world intangible so the asteroid would pass through it instead. You knew, I'm sure, that the asteroid was composed entirely of ectoranium. But did you know what happened to the asteroid after it didn't crash into the Earth?"
She couldn't answer, of course, but he wasn't really looking for her to. "It crashed into me. The impact alone should have killed me, never mind the ectoranium. You can't imagine the pain of that much ectoranium fusing into my system." His smile was cruel. "Well, perhaps you can. But instead of killing me, it gave me new life. Like the accident that made me half-ghost in the first place, this accident made me better, more powerful, superior to every creature, on the human plane or this one."
He leaned down over her. "And since you, Danielle, are also a half-ghost, if this little experiment works, you will have that power as well. Like father, like daughter. How's that for a welcome home present?
Home. A cabin. Snow-peaked mountains. A huge fireplace with a bear skin rug on a hardwood floor. A basement lab with glass containment chambers.
No. Not her home. That place was gone.
Out of power, but worth it to take this place down.
Home was something else now. Purple forests with ancient trees, but new blooms. The blue lake that glistened under a sun-drenched orange sky, and the towering spires that rose from the castle at the lake's center. The cobblestone streets and stone cottages intermixed with tall buildings of dark glass and green metal. No family. No father that loved her. But she'd never had that anyway.
But that home was gone, too.
He's come for me.
Wood splintering as skeletal ghosts, warriors and mercenaries from every age in human history—his warriors—breach the Main Gates. Shattering glass, screaming villagers, battle cries from the princess's Royal Guard as they charge in futile attempt to protect the kingdom.
No more hiding. No more quiet resistance from inside the walls of a small, backwater kingdom with no strategic value.
Beyond the gates, he'd been sweeping through the Ghost Zone, bringing realm after realm under his control. Factions formed, and the Ghost Zone spiraled into civil war, some of the ghosts trying to curry his favor by allying themselves with him, while others defied him. Ghosts didn't generally take up causes, and the Ghost Zone had always been a dimension of chaos. But it was their chaos, and they wouldn't give it up easily. Not to some half-human, not-quite-ghost-anymore two-bit despot.
The princess was one of the ones who would fight for her realm and her people.
I will fight.
"Don't fight it, child." He laid his hand on her arm, a gesture of fatherly comfort, but the shudder it sent through her was worse than the fire in her veins.
Fire. The kingdom burning, flames engulfing the forest and the castle, breaching even the lake. A dragon's cry piercing the din of battle—the princess, defending her realm.
But no. Not the princess. A black dragon. The deposed prince.
Dragons clashing—black against blue, brother against sister, prince against princess. The people fighting beside their princess, the skeleton warriors fighting with the prince. Blue flames, green smoke.
Green smoke with red eyes, and a laugh she knew all too well.
"It was a stroke of luck, really, finding you when we did. Who knew that when Prince Aragon offered his eternal service and loyalty to me in return for revenge on his sister for stealing his kingdom, the spoils of war would include my long-lost daughter?"
Did I do good, Daddy?
You. Exist. To serve. ME!
Spoils of war. Plunder. Not the goal of the invasion after all, but merely one of many of the spoils of war.
So those ghosts...?
Bad clones. Mistakes. And I would watch a hundred more failures devolve into ectoplasm to get the perfect, half-ghost son.
His real focus was—had always been—
The sound of an explosion from somewhere outside the castle echoed across the chamber's stone walls, followed by shouts and laser blasts—a skirmish outside. Her pain gave way, if only for a moment, to something new. Hope.
Her captor sighed. "That would be your 'cousin.' Such the hero complex, that boy." He said it with sarcastic disdain, but there was something else underlying it. A sort of grim satisfaction, as if this interruption was all part of the plan.
Well, of course it was. She was the means. He was the end.
She tried to call out for help, but she was too weak from the ectoranium injection to do more than whimper. Fortunately, it didn't take long for Danny to find them. The chamber's huge wooden door splintered, blasted off its hinges by a beam of bright green ectoplasm, and she heard his voice, low and shaking with barely controlled anger. "I told you to stay away from her, Vlad."
Turning her head was enough to bring a wave of nausea, but it was worth it to see him there, a lean teenager wearing a black jumpsuit with white collar, belt, and gloves not unlike what she herself wore. He looked deceptively like any normal almost-seventeen-year-old human, except for his pure white hair—also like hers—green-glowing eyes, and the fact that he was floating three feet off the floor, the lower half of his body currently manifesting itself as a ghostly tail instead of legs.
She might have melted in relief at the sight of him, but the ectoranium injection was already doing a pretty good job of melting her. Literally. The pain had lessened just enough that she could feel green ectoplasm coating her skin like a slimy layer of sweat. Ectoplasm that had come from her own body's degeneration. Hurry, Danny…
Somewhere just out of her line of sight came Vlad's oily voice. "Ah, Daniel. Despite your name, I didn't think you'd be stupid enough to actually come into the lion's den."
Her "cousin"—that's how she thought of him, even though they both knew they were more than just cousins—folded his arms across his chest. She had to blink as her sight wavered but, even so, she couldn't miss the anger burning in his eyes, nor in his voice. "Let. Her. Go."
"And if I don't, what do you intend to do about it? Kill me?" Was Vlad taunting him? It was getting harder for her to concentrate…
"I will not let you hurt her."
"Let me? You have no power over me, boy. And Danielle is my daughter."
"Daughter? How does you cloning my DNA make her your daughter? My DNA, my family. If you want kids so bad, why don't you quit stealing other people's DNA and try getting them the old-fashioned way? Oh, wait. You can't, because you've wasted the last twenty-some years of your life pining over your college crush, who married my dad and wouldn't come near you if you were the last half-ghost on Earth."
Vlad moved into Danielle's field of vision, his body rigid with fury. "That can be arranged." Then, there was an almost blinding flash of green light, after which he almost evaporated into that creepy, cloudy, humanoid-shaped mass of ectoranium.
A blast of green shot out from what passed for his hands. That, too, was ectoranium, rather than the standard ectoplasm rays other ghosts had. Danielle's body convulsed at the reminder of the caustic chemical coursing through her veins, and she wanted to shout out to Danny in warning, but nothing could come out as everything blurred together in confusion.
Flashes of blue light. "Age creeping up on you, huh, Vlad? Not moving as fast as you used to."
Green light. "You were saying, boy?"
Blue light. Cold. "That you're slowing down. And I bet the cold really aggravates the old joints, too."
"You don't honestly think your little ice ray can hurt me, do you?" Green light. Shattering ice.
The pain was ebbing, but a wave of nausea swept over her. Ectoplasm—her own life force—was seeping through her clothes, matting her hair. Too late. He came too late for me.
And then, a hand on her shoulder, solid and reassuring, and a throaty, feminine voice next to her ear. "Hey, Ghost Girl. Remember me?"
Another teenager, this one dressed in a skin-tight black and red battle suit, leaned over her, smiling through the red-tinted faceplate of her helmet, and despair turned to hope once more.
"V-v-va—" She tried to say Valerie's name, but was too weak to speak.
Valerie's smile dissolved into a look of concern. "Shhh. Don't try and talk. Danny's gonna keep Vlad busy while I get you the heck outta here. Sam and Tucker are outside in the Specter Speeder, picking off skeleton minions."
A hum, like a dentist's drill, probably from one of the weapons in Valerie's suit, and then the cuffs that held Danielle's arms and legs pinned to the table fell open, and Valerie scooped her up and cradled her against her chest. "Whaddaya say we blow this joint?"
There was a tingle in the pit of Danielle's stomach, and a bright flash of light, coalescing into twin rings. They passed over her body in opposite directions, to her head and feet. Black jumpsuit morphed into blue sweater and red cargo pants, white boots into blue sneakers, and white hair into black, as the pain subsided to something almost bearable.
Cuffs were keeping me in ghost form. Without them, reverted to human. Doesn't hurt as much in human form.
"Well, well, well." Vlad's voice, hazy, distant. "Valerie's come to play as well. I should've known."
Arms tightening around her and a strange sensation—was she changing back to ghost form? No, it was coming from Valerie this time. Then, they were moving, and she understood. Valerie's jet sled. She'd called into being under her feet, and they were riding it up and away from Vlad.
A snarl of fury, more blue light, and Danny's voice. "I said: Leave. Them. ALONE!"
His last word became a shout, and then an unearthly howl, which radiated out from him in sonic waves, a tsunami of sound, slamming into Vlad, the examination table, anything and everything in its path.
Somehow, Valerie maneuvered them behind Danny, out of the danger zone. "Okay, Phantom, time to go!"
His Ghostly Wail died off, and they were gone, flying out through the chamber's broken door into the corridor, she and Valerie on Valerie's sled, and Danny above them.
"This would be easier if we could take the, uh, shortcut," Valerie told him.
"Yeah, I got you."
Danielle felt him settle in behind Valerie on the sled, wrapping his arms around the two of them before triggering his own metamorphosis. Over Valerie's shoulder, she could see the twin rings of light as they transformed him into a completely normal-looking human teenager with black hair and blue eyes, dressed in a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers instead of the black jumpsuit.
Valerie kicked down on the throttle, sending them straight toward the wall. Danielle's eyes squeezed shut, but they didn't crash, and then she remembered. Ghost Zone. Humans pass through stuff here. Ghosts don't. She opened her eyes again as they phased through several more walls this way until they were clear of the castle.
Below them, a mob of Vlad's skeleton army swarmed around a boxy, silver, spacecraft-like vehicle. It shot back at them, rays of blue and green streaming out of a weapons array on top.
"Now it's my turn to provide the shortcut." Danny changed back into ghost form. Danielle felt Valerie click her heels, and the sled beneath them was gone, Danny now the one keeping them aloft. A tingle ran through Danielle, followed by pain, and she let out a strangled cry.
It only lasted a moment, and when it subsided, she was inside the vehicle, a cross between a NASA lunar module and a minivan, still cradled in Valerie's arms.
"Punch it, Sam!"
Danielle heard a thick boot stomp down on the accelerator, and she was pressed harder into Valerie's chest.
Real-world vehicle. Danny had to make us intangible to get us in. Intangibility hurts.
But now that they were solid once more, the pain was ebbing again, and she could take in more of her surroundings. She and Valerie were in the second row of seats with Danny, still in ghost form, beside them. In the front seats, operating the various controls on the vehicle's dashboard, were a pale girl with black hair and clothes, and a dark-skinned boy with thick glasses and a red felt beret.
When the acceleration leveled off, Danny reached for Danielle and gathered her into his own arms. "Dani…" His voice cracked. "Are you okay?"
She swallowed and forced a smile, meeting his ghostly-green eyes. "B-been… better, cos. Better when human, though."
His eyes closed, he pressed his forehead against hers. "I… I should've looked for you as soon as I knew he was back. I am so sorry, Danielle."
"N-not… your… fault."
"It was my responsibility, though. You—" He opened his eyes again and sat up straight, worry hardening into resolve. "I swear, he's gonna pay for hurting you again, Dani. Just… tell me what he did to you."
"He blasted you with ectoranium?"
She shook her head, but she was feeling woozy and could see the green glow of ectoplasm from her own body seeping through her clothes and onto his jumpsuit.
"Dani?" He sounded alarmed now.
Valerie answered for her. "I saw a needle on the floor by the table he had her strapped to. I think he might've been injecting her with the stuff."
"Injecting…?" His grip on her tightened and she closed her eyes, resting her head against his chest. "It's gonna be okay, Dani. I promise. My…" His voice cracked again. "My mom, she's a parabiologist and, like, the world's best expert on ghost physiology. She'll fix you up, I promise. Okay? Dani?"
But the pain and exhaustion were too much from her, and Danielle succumbed, letting the darkness take her away.
Vlad got up off the floor, transforming back into his human form, and dusted himself off. Looking toward the door through which the three children had "escaped," he allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction. "You are your father's son after all, Daniel. You could have been great once, but now you are nothing more than a puppet, who dances to every pull of the string."