Danny knew things. He did. Plenty of things. He knew he was in the Ghost Zone. He knew all the stars in the Big Dipper (Dubhe, Merak, Phecda, Megrez, Alioth, Mizar and Alcor, Alkaid). He knew he was hurt.
He was hurt a lot.
The throbbing pain in the center of his chest was hard to ignore, and he felt that even if he didn't know anything else, he would know that.
But… as much as he knew, there were, to be sure, gaps in his knowledge. Things like his name, how he got here, what had hurt him… He didn't know.
He didn't know. He felt like he probably should. That not knowing these things was unusual, and probably bad.
He didn't know how to fix it.
Maybe if he remembered, he would.
What he did know was that he had to get away. He had to stay away. He had to keep moving.
But where? Where? Where?
He couldn't keep going. An island presented itself to him. He fell, stones crunching and whispering ancient secrets under his knees. Tears dappled the purple rocks. Danny knew things. He did. He just didn't know what to do.
He was scared.
#1: Ghost Writer
"What are you doing here?"
The words startled Danny out of his fitful half-doze and he skittered away.
"I'm sorry– I didn't– I–" He was panicking. Hyperventilating. Something. He was looking up at the frowning face of a tall, gray-skinned ghost. "I'm sorry." He didn't know what he was sorry for.
The ghost stepped closer, leaning down to peer at him, and he cringed away.
"What happened to you?"
"I don't– I don't know."
"You don't know?" asked the ghost, incredulously. "You show up here, right between my lair and Walker's prison, and you say you don't know?"
"I don't remember!"
"You don't–" The ghost cut himself off, still glaring at Danny. Slowly, the expression on his face softened. "Your core's been injured."
Danny hunched his shoulders, curling inward to protect himself.
"Do you really not remember? Do you not remember me?"
"No," said Danny, softly, barely daring to raise his voice above a whisper.
"You–" The ghost huffed out a huge sigh. He was probably one of the ones that had been alive, once, then. "Fine. I'll help you."
"I'll help you. You can stay with me until your core heals, if you follow my rules. Randy'll find you entertaining, if nothing else." The glare came back. "What? Do you think I'm the kind of guy who'll leave someone bleeding out in the wilderness? I'm not soulless."
"Can you not move or something?"
The ghost gave another horribly put-upon sigh. "I suppose I'll have to carry you."
The carrying… did not go terribly well. While the ghost seemed big and tall compared to Danny, he was neither that big, nor that tall.
But despite the unwieldiness of the situation and Danny's general inability to help with it, they managed, and the ghost flew off to his home.
Upon actually reaching said home, the ghost shrieked in agony and rage. Danny looked up blearily, trying to work out what had made the ghost so angry.
The ghost's home, it turned out, looked like a library wrecked by a tornado, and maybe also a hurricane.
Well, Danny didn't have any room to judge the ghost's tastes. As far as he knew, he didn't have a home. So.
"What did he do? It wasn't like this when I got arrested, and that was after all of you people decided to fight me."
"Oh," said Danny. "Sorry?"
"Sorry? Sorry? Sorry doesn't put pages back into the books! It doesn't put books back onto the shelves! If Randy wasn't already dead, I'd kill him!"
Still fuming, the ghost stomped through the towering shelves of books until he reached a small cubby with a reclining chair in it. He laid Danny down on it.
"I don't own a bed," he said, shortly. "This will have to do. Are you dying?"
"I don't… think so."
The ghost grunted. "Then you should recover, eventually. I'll get you food or something. Later. Just. Stay here." The ghost, agitated, turned and hurried away, flying at speed through the stacks of books.
Well. It wasn't like Danny could go anywhere.
The ghost did come back, with food, rants about his half-brother, pillows and blankets, complaints about how his latest writing project was going, long, winding commentaries about the history of the Dewey Decimal system. Between all that he even remembered to give Danny a name. Ghost Writer.
It was appropriate for the ghost, Danny decided.
Ghost Writer spent a lot of time trying to clean up the library. It was slow going, even compared to Danny's recovery.
As soon as Danny was able to move around without agony, he decided to help. It was only right, after Ghost Writer had gone out of his way to help him. It wouldn't be much, just a little sweeping, a little shelving, Danny was still unwell, but it would be something, something that would help, something that might make Ghost Writer happier.
And the books themselves were fascinating. He spent as much time reading as he did cleaning, and each book made how much he didn't know, how much he had forgotten, clearer.
Bit by bit, the library was put back in order.
But as it was… as it was, it became more and more itself, more and more a library, with all of a library's rules.
Ghost Writer didn't seem to notice, but that was fine. The library belonged to him. He fit into and with it no matter what.
Some of the rules he leaned into. The library had a sense of where each book should go, for example, which was very helpful given his weak understanding of the sorting system.
Other rules were less pleasant to follow.
The silence had started as a faint pressure on his jaw, his tongue, his throat, but that pressure built as the library was restored until it was very nearly a physical weight. Words became difficult. But Danny got used to it. As the effort required to speak grew, his desire to do so naturally faded. Ghost Writer didn't really want conversation when he came to rant. He just wanted someone to listen, and Danny was happy to.
But one day Ghost Writer stopped dead in the middle of a rant. He used his hands to lift Danny's head up and tilt it back. He turned it from side to side.
"You haven't looked in a mirror lately, have you?"
Danny's head was held still. He couldn't shake it. "No," he said, with effort.
Ghost Writer smiled and patted Danny's cheek. "You know, I think I misread you, before. You would fit in anywhere, given the chance, wouldn't you? I think– I think I've changed my mind about kicking you out, once you've healed. You've been very… helpful." Ghost Writer chortled and left soon after.
Danny, of course, went to go find a mirror.
It wasn't easy. Neither bedrooms nor bathrooms were a priority for a ghost library. Eventually, he found one being used as part of a decorative wall hanging.
He didn't see anything amiss with his reflection, but maybe that was just because of the way he was becoming more and more nearsighted, lately. Which was fine by him. He didn't need to see very far to be able to read.
"Oh, my, what do we have here?"
Danny woke from his fitful doze to the sensation of roots and vines wrapping around his limbs. He struggled, of course, and kept struggling even as something frigid and wet dripped from his nose and lips.
"Calm yourself, child, little seed," chided a voice that was all sugar and nightshade. "You wouldn't want to injure yourself even more than you already are."
The island had, while Danny slept, become a jungle, and something huge and dark moved through the trees.
"What has happened to you? A little accident with your core? It must hurt terribly."
Danny tried one more time to pull away, but the vines wrapped around him squeezed and the fight went out of him all at once.
"There, that's better, now, isn't it? Now, let's see… Last time I had taken your friend as my daughter…" Danny felt something creep up the back of his neck, feather-light. "I wonder… What kind of son will you make?"
There was a stab of pain.
When he finally stirred from the soil, healed and in full bloom, it was to do his father's bidding.
The sound of sirens woke Danny from his troubled sleep. His first thought was ambulance, but when he got his eyes open, he saw that he was wrong. His little island was completely encircled by ghostly police cars.
A ghost in white loomed over him.
"Take him to the medical wing as soon as you get him to the prison."
Danny, not seeing any way out of this, decided to pass out. For real, this time.
He woke in a bed with glowing yellow bedsheets in a room with glowing pink walls. His wrists and ankles were chained to the railing on the bed and something heavy weighed on his neck. Being tied up was… bad. But, somehow, the colors of the room soothed away some of his panic.
In the room with pink walls and yellow beds, Danny learned new things. First, he was a criminal, a dangerous one. Second, the prison he was in was ruled by a ghost named Walker. Third, Walker was very happy that Danny was back in prison like he belonged.
Hearing Walker was happy and, more specifically, happy because of Danny made him feel disturbingly giddy. Hearing how upset Walker had been about his escape made him feel… not quite remorseful, because he didn't remember doing that, but it put a sort of tightness inside him.
That wasn't all, though. Before long, Danny knew that the prison operated on a strict and fair set of rules, which were the same for everyone, that the chains and cuffs used on him were 'special' and different from all the other prisoners' chains and cuffs, that meals were served on a regular, evenly-spaced schedule entirely divorced from the days of the 'real world,' that meals consisted of unappetizing green slime that died his aura green and made him feel both weaker and more stable, spooned into his mouth by a ghost wearing a SWAT uniform. He learned that when he healed, he would be released into 'solitary confinement' and if he behaved, he might be rewarded by being introduced to the 'general population.'
That was a lot of things to know for someone who had hardly known anything just a short while ago.
One day - or night - or 'interval' - Walker himself came into the medical wing.
"You really don't remember anything, punk?" he asked.
"No, sir," said Danny. He wanted to be good. He wanted to behave. He wasn't sure about general population, but he wanted to make people happy.
"Sir, huh," drawled Walker. "I suppose I can buy the amnesia story, but you're still serving your full sentence."
"Yes, sir," said Danny. He wouldn't dream of doing anything else. He didn't know anything else.
"But I'll consider taking some of it in community service provided that you demonstrate good behavior."
"I'd like that, sir."
"He'd like that," said Walker, giving his head a little half-shake. "Guards! Take him to his new cell in solitary."
The guards came and unfastened Danny from the bed. It was the first time anyone had done that, and he had no time to react before they had rebound his wrists and ankles with new manacles. They were made of the same material as the ones that had held him to the bed, so he suspected these were special, too. They were all connected to each other with a chain that also looped around his waist and linked to the heavy thing around his neck.
The chains were short enough that, when he was placed on his feet, he couldn't walk and stand upright at the same time, so he had to shuffle forward while bent over, even as the ghosts prodded him along. They walked out of the medical wing and into hallways that became narrower and narrower and lower and lower. Danny got the distinct sense that they were traveling deeper into the prison, although he couldn't say how or why.
They stopped in front of a small, violently magenta door, which they unlocked before pushing Danny in. The door closed behind him with a satisfying clunk.
Inside the room, the cell, was a tiny toilet, an equally tiny metal bed, and, on that bed, a lunch tray with a helping of the green slime. Danny sat down on the bed and picked up the tray. There were no utensils, so he ate the slime with his hands. It was as disgusting as ever, and finishing the portion left him feeling lethargic, but peaceful. Even if it left him feeling weak, it seemed to ease the injuries he'd sustained.
He smiled, faintly. This would be his home until he showed enough good behavior to get into the general population and then, oh, community service sounded wonderful. He couldn't wait to serve the community.
Danny woke for just long enough to be thrown into the storm. Then, nothing.
Before Danny was fully aware of his surroundings, he was being cradled and wrapped in something soft and fuzzy. No, furry. Some kind of blanket or skin rug, maybe? He cuddled into it.
"Great One," repeated the voice. "Can you hear me? Do you understand me?"
Danny groaned, weakly.
"Don't worry, Great One. We will be to the Far Frozen in no time."
Danny didn't know what the Far Frozen was, but it sounded nice. Cool.
"He's burning up," said the voice, only moments later. "Get him into a cooling tank as quickly as possible. Snowfall, we will need to seal off the island."
"But Chief Frostbite–!"
"It is the only sensible option. We don't know what did this. It could be looking for him, and we are known to be his allies." Something shifted, and Danny was transferred to something that was neither as soft nor as pleasant to lie on. "Great One, I know you would prefer it if your friends could find you, but they are clever, they are loyal, and they would want you to be safe, as I do."
That was the last thing he remembered for a while. His next memories were of floating in bubbling liquid and basking in the cold. A cooling tank. Very important for ice cores, from what little Danny understood of the conversation beyond the tank's glass walls.
But he did not truly wake up until he was ensconced, quite cozily, in a bed, ice blocks chilling his feet and a cold fire burning in a nearby fireplace.
"You truly do not remember anything?" asked Frostbite, again.
"Well, a little bit? I was running from something. But that's it. I don't know what it was." He shrugged, then smiled. "I must have been running towards you guys, right? Since we're friends?"
"It seems likely," said Frostbite. "In light of that… I must insist that you stay here until you are fully recovered."
"Okay," said Danny. There wasn't really any reason for him to leave, as far as he knew.
Frostbite looked surprised, but Danny didn't know why. "Thank you." He cleared his throat. "While you are here, on the days you feel up to it, I think you may like joining the other children in their lessons."
"Okay," said Danny, again.
"In the meantime, you can read any books from out library you might be interested, or we can have someone come and read to you." Frostbite grinned a little. "It would be helpful for some of the younger children."
"Okay, that sounds good," said Danny. He might not know much, but he did know he was being a real drain on the resources of the Far Frozen. He wanted to repay them as much as he possibly could, even if it was only in little ways.
The first reader came later that day. The young and extremely fluffy yeti, Feathersnow, was smaller than Frostbite, but still head and shoulders above Danny. She was older, too. At least, Danny thought she was probably older. He felt like he was in his teens, and she was nearly a hundred. The book she read to him was a fairy tale about young yetis falling through thin ice and going on a journey to get home.
She was far from the last. More young yetis came, in between checkups and procedures to make sure Danny was healing properly.
Eventually, though, Danny was healed enough, by the doctors' estimates, to go outside.
"Danny," said Frostbite, while they made sure Danny was properly equipped for the snow and wind. "Promise me you won't try to leave, yet. You still have a great deal of healing left to do, and we haven't been able to determine what injured you."
"I promise," said Danny, "I won't go anywhere until you and the other doctors say I'm all better. I don't know where else I'd go."
Frostbite's face did something complicated. They'd all been awfully cagey about who Danny had been and what Danny had done in the past, presumably out of a worry that they'd be tempting him to flee, but Danny rather thought that they didn't have to worry about it so much. Whatever had come before, he didn't have any connection to it. He did have connections to Frostbite and the other friends he had made here.
But regardless of what Frostbite was feeling, they did go outside.
For the most part, outside was what Danny had expected. Low, stone buildings, rolling snowdrifts, icevines, iceflowers, and icewheat, towering glacial mountains… But there was also a huge dome overhead made of glittering green ice.
"Is that what you meant when you said you'd sealed the Far Frozen?" asked Danny.
"Yes," said Frostbite. "There are very few things that could bypass it. Even Pariah Dark could not."
Danny wondered if he'd learn about Pariah Dark in any of the books he was reading. He probably would, if it was important.
Time passed. Slowly, because he was still very fragile, Danny was introduced to the lessons the other children were learning. The lessons were dynamic, taught outside in the snow as often as they were indoors, and all the yetis in the Far Frozen participated from time to time, sharing wisdom learned over the span of several human lifetimes. Danny was invariably the smallest, youngest, and furthest behind in those lessons, but the teacher said that could be a helpful thing, because it let the other students learn how to teach.
In-between lessons, check-ups, and other things, Danny didn't exactly grow, but he did change.
His hair grew long and thick, until he had to learn how to braid it just to keep it out of the way. Before long, it hung at his ankles, and he had to periodically chop it off to make sure it didn't trip him up. The young yetis were fascinated by it, and it made for an interesting and very cheap gift.
Over a very painful and traumatic two weeks, his fangs grew in. They were nothing compared to those of the yetis, but they were sharp and had a tendency to spill out past his lips when he wasn't careful. They gave him a tiny lisp that all the yetis seemed to think was adorable.
He learned. He never quite managed to catch up to his older classmates, but he could and did see where he had made progress. One of his favorite things he'd learned was ice claws, which was a way to form ice around his hands so that they looked oversized and each of his fingers seemed to taper to a point. He liked how they made him look just a little bit more like Frostbite and the other yetis.
One day, while he played with the other children, Frostbite took Danny aside. "I know it has been quite a long time," he told Danny, "but we have been thinking about unsealing the Far Frozen, and… Do you recall when you first came here?"
Danny fiddled with the long end of his braid, threading his ice claws in-between the strands. "When I first came here?" he echoed. "No. No, I don't think so. I've more or less always been here, haven't I? I mean, I know I'm not a yeti, obviously, so I must have been formed somewhere else, but I don't remember anything from then. I think… the first thing I remember was Feathersnow reading to me. I must have been really young, then." He tilted his head. "I don't know what that has to do with the great dome, though?"
"It was just a passing thought," said Frostbite, patting Danny's head. "Don't let it trouble you."
"Okay," said Danny. "Can I go back to playing, now?"
"Yes, of course," said Frostbite. Then, more quietly, almost too quietly for Danny to hear, he said, "Yes, of course, Great One."
#6: Box Ghost
Even half-conscious, even mostly unconscious, Danny had a sense of what was happening to him. That sense was, to be clear, also a sense of extreme embarrassment.
Somehow, being found by someone calling himself the 'Box Ghost' was just… a little much.
But he was found by the Box Ghost, and the first thing the Box Ghost did was put him in a box. Then he put that box inside another box. Then he put those boxes inside yet another box, and…
Danny did not wake up. Instead, he dreamed.
His dreams, too, were dark and painful, but the pain was the pain of dreams, held at one remove. He traveled beneath flowers and between inverted towers. He skirted rooftops and bubbling vats. He moved with the wind and fell with it, too. He slunk through a jungle so cold he could see his breath when he breathed. He walked up stairs made of liquid ink towards a moon that was a grinning face. Based on what little he remembered of the Ghost Zone, he got the sense that his subconscious was borrowing more liberally from his real experiences than he would otherwise expect.
The dream of steps became more persistent.
At first he trudged up them, heavy footfall by heavy footfall. Then, when the pain grew to be too much, he crawled, heaving himself up one step at a time. Finally, he fell still, and stayed that way.
"Hello, child," said the moon. Danny looked up. It was clothed in the night sky and all the stars. "You're in pain."
"Is it that obvious?" asked Danny.
"What wit!" exclaimed the moon, mirroring Danny's sarcasm. "What verve! What vitality!" The moon leaned down. "Would you like it to go away? The pain?"
Danny's fingers clenched on the lip of the stair, moving smoothly through the dark liquid. "Yes."
"I can help you with that," said the moon. "But you have to help me first. I need you to let me in."
"Let you in where?"
"To your core, of course. I can't fix it if I can't access it. That's what's giving you all this pain. All those little cracks in your core." The moon trailed fingers up Danny's spine. "All you have to do, though, is say that you'll let me in. Easy, isn't it?" The moon drew closer, close enough that Danny could feel its gravity. "Just do that, and I'll make sure you won't be in pain anymore."
Danny didn't know what to do. He wanted the pain to stop, but this felt… wrong. He started to shake.
"I suppose you do always have the choice of letting yourself fade. Simply say the word, and I will leave–"
"No!" said Danny, grabbing for the edge of the moon's robes. "No. Don't go. I'll let you in. Please."
The moon's smile grew sharper and broader, and the stairs flexed underneath him. He now realized that the stairs were simply folds of the moon's cloak and–
–And the ink rushed into him, filling the gaps in his core.
–And he fell, the stairs no longer supporting him, into the deepest sleep of his life.
Nocturne had told the truth. Danny wasn't in pain anymore. And he never would be again.
When Danny woke up, he wasn't in pain anymore and his bones vibrated with the sonorous ticks and tocks of a massive clock. His eyes eased open to see a ceiling made of slowly moving brass gears.
"Time heals all wounds," said a deep voice. Danny flinched into a sitting position to see a blue-skinned ghost floating at the foot of his bed. "Or so they say." The ghost's form shifted as Danny watched, growing younger. "To answer the question you were about to ask. I am Clockwork, Master of Time, and this is my lair."
Danny blinked in surprise, processed what was said, and then opened his mouth to ask–
"Time may be bought, spent, or wasted, but no matter the idiom, it is precious. It has a price."
"What was the price to heal me?" asked Danny.
Clockwork was silent for a long moment. He grew from a child into an old man. "Steep," he said finally. "However, failing to do so carried an even steeper cost. I looked through the available timelines and all were… unpleasant. For others, if not for you, yourself." He grew young again, hovering around middle aged. "I can show you who you used to be. That, too, has a price. Remaining ignorant also has a price."
"For me?" asked Danny. "Or for you?"
"What if I found out on my own?"
"No," said Clockwork. "There are certain risks I will not allow you take, and that is one of them. If you choose to leave, I will tell you what injured you and why. If you stay, you may refrain from learning what injured you and who you once were, but you may also reweave yourself with as little influence from the previous pattern as possible."
"I was running from something really bad."
Clockwork inclined his head, minutely.
"Can I… Is there anything I can help you with, while I decide?"
"There are certain projects that might benefit from your assistance," said Clockwork. "You understand this is also a decision."
"Yes," said Danny, swinging his legs out of the bed. "When can I start?" Something inside his chest ticked in time with the clockwork heart of Clockwork's lair. He briefly raised his hand to feel it. It wasn't his heart. It wasn't his core. It was something lower.
He didn't remember it from before, but… He'd been hurt. Maybe he'd just missed it.
He shook his head and followed Clockwork out of the room. They went to a workshop crowded with gears, lenses, pliers, wires, tiny models of things, spinning wheels, clocks, snow globes, music boxes, looms, tapestries, and other things Danny could not name. There were great windows on one wall, showing a garden enclosed in a courtyard. The trees were in various states of pruned and unpruned, picked and unpicked, flowering and bare, and the plots weren't much better.
"As you can see," said Clockwork, his shoulders slumping somewhat and his voice tinted with amused embarrassment, "I have many projects."
Over the next weeks Clockwork and Danny worked their way around the room, Clockwork explaining every item and why he was making or repairing it. They went outside, then, and Clockwork did the same thing with each plant. Only then, did they actually start to work on the projects.
It was slow going, sometimes, as Danny had to eat and sleep, and Clockwork often had to be called away for his 'official' duties. Danny would have liked to help with those, too, but these smaller tasks were important to Clockwork and, in some cases, the timeline. Still, object by object, the projects were finished. The clocks were fixed, the lenses ground, the trees trimmed, the books rebound, the tapestries woven.
Danny polished the last tool he'd used, cleaning off every bit of oil before putting it back on the shelf. "I think it's time," he said.
"Yes, I thought it might be," said Clockwork. "Have you decided what you are going to do?"
"Yes," said Danny. "I need to know what happened, and then… Then I want to find out who I was. And who I am."
"That is very mature of you, Daniel."
"Thanks," said Danny. "It's just… You said there were other options, other timelines." His eyes lingered on the books, the wisteria, a spare length of chain, the tapestry of a storm-tossed sea. "They were bad, too, weren't they? Sometimes, staying here, I think I see glimpses…"
"They were not all bad," said Clockwork, patting a snow globe they had repaired earlier that week. "Not for you. But they were not the way things were meant to be. Are you ready?"
"Yes," said Danny, his hands curling into fists on his knees as he braced for the worst.
Clockwork sat down on the stool across the worktable from Danny and folded his hands on the table. "What happened was…"