"Ah," said Frostbite, shielding his eyes as he looked up into the sky. "I hadn't realized we were so close to the turning of the age."
Danny followed his gaze up, then froze. The normally pure green Ghost Zone sky had a crack in it. A long, jagged stripe of deep red, brighter at the edges than the middle, stretching from horizon to horizon. It hadn't been there when he'd arrived in the Far Frozen.
"What is that?" he squeaked.
"It's, ah. I'm not entirely sure English has a proper word for it. It's a… A change in the general ectoplasmic energy. Perhaps the best comparison is flavor or spin in quantum particles, although you don't have a background in that… It's… It's caused by a shift in the character of the Realms. A paradigm shift, if you will. It will grow over time, until it's the dominant ectoplasmic color and mood. Although," he added, almost as an afterthought, "it may not stay this color. I am rather hoping for blue this time, or perhaps yellow, but I must confess to frequent disappointment on that count."
Danny looked back and forth between Frostbite and the red crack. Frostbite's easy acceptance of the phenomenon put him more at ease, but, still, it was disturbing. "So… it just means that the Ghost Zone won't be green anymore? It'll be red? Will my ectoplasm turn red?"
"It usually doesn't affect the ectoplasm color of individuals," said Frostbite. His nose scrunched up. "But it would be incorrect to say that changing the color of the Realms is all it does. He patted Danny on the shoulder. "Why don't we wrap up our sparring session, now, and I can tell you about it over a cup of chocolate?"
"Frozen chocolate?" asked Danny, knowing that was the default in the Far Frozen.
"Slushy," said Frostbite. "Just the way you like it."
Danny gave the news a little fist pump… but his eyes trailed back up to the crack. It didn't look like it was getting wider yet.
Getting the chocolate was a matter of minutes, and soon enough they were seated inside, next to a heatless fire.
"So," said Danny, stirring his chocolate with a ghost ice spoon, "that crack in the sky…"
"Yes," said Frostbite. "It is disconcerting the first few times. But how to explain…" He drummed icy claws against the sides of his oversized mug. "Ah. Yes. You are aware that the human world has many different conceptions of the afterlife?"
"Yeah," said Danny. "But I thought that they were just looking at different Realms."
"To some degree," agreed Frostbite. "But they were often also looking at the Realms at different times. For example, at different points in the past, there has been little distinction between, say, fairies and ghosts, or angels and ghosts, or, even, deities and ghosts. The turning of the age is an aesthetic shift, one that affects almost all ghosts to some degree or another. Red ectoplasm, for example–" Frostbite sighed, heavily, "-is typically the indicator of a more 'monstrous,' or 'demonic' appearance and general aesthetic."
Danny continued to stir his chocolate. "Are you saying that the Ghost Zone has, what, artistic movements?"
"Something like that, yes," said Frostbite.
"Then what aesthetic are we in right now?"
Frostbite tapped his chin. "Green is… not entirely neutral, but tends not to be terribly forceful and allows ghosts like you to remain almost as you were in life."
"And… the other colors?"
"Generally," stressed Frostbite, "blue is suggestive of a more heavenly or divine mien. Yellow, orange, and earth tones are, as their name indicates, more Earthly. Purple tends to evoke fairies and their like. But those are generalities."
"And red is for hell?"
"And ghosts are changed by this? Not just the way things work?"
"Oh, yes," said Frostbite. "After all, your form interacts with your environment. There's feedback. I believe your human form should be unaffected, however, much as it is unaffected by the changes to your form that you initiate, such as… duplication."
Danny made a face. He didn't like that pause. So he was still trying to get the hang of duplication. So what?
"And… how would my ghost form change?"
"I do not know," said Frostbite. "The changes are not easily predictable, and sometimes they stick." He gestured at himself. "If it makes you feel better, we can monitor you?"
"No, that's fine," said Danny. He put his mostly untouched chocolate to one side. "I should go home. Lots of things to freak out about."
"You're going to turn into a demon?"
"That's not what I said!" protested Danny, looking up from his stack of syllabi to glare at them. They were too busy playing foosball to notice. "I might wind up looking like a demon. There's a difference."
"Still pretty cool," said Sam.
"Uh, no it isn't. I have enough trouble getting people to like me without showing up looking like a demon. I can't believe this."
"I wonder if this will change any of your parents' theories?"
"They'll probably decide that every culture's traditional depiction of demons was one hundred percent accurate and that it's proof that ghosts are evil." He shrugged. "I don't know. I'm not my parents."
"Something we thank the universe for every day." Sam bumped his shoulder and continued to dominate Tucker at foosball. "Think of it like a makeover. It doesn't have to be bad. It could be cool."
"But I might wind up looking like Vlad," said Danny.
"Then steal his look," said Tucker. "Make it yours."
"I don't think anything works that way."
"Personal fashion does," said Tucker.
"You won't look like Vlad," said Sam. "Vlad looks old. You don't. Easy. No one will mistake you for him. Not even if you gained about fifty pounds."
"No, I mean, like we're related." If that rumor started up again, he might just die for real this time.
"You could wear a mask?" asked Sam.
"I don't think that will help with my popularity problem."
"I'm just trying to give you ideas. Who knows, maybe it'll just give you some cute little horns or fangs. Animal ears. A tail."
"I guess," said Danny. He still didn't like the idea of it. "As long as it doesn't give me horns like Vlad's."
Sam squinted at him. "Aren't those horn things just his hair?"
"Ew, no, who would wear their hair like that?"
"As far as I'm concerned, Spectra's already a demon."
Tucker cheered! "I won!"
The crack in the Zone sky grew wider over the next few weeks. Red flecks and fuzzies hung in the air, making good bait for blob ghosts, or rained down from far above. Apparently, red ectoplasm was more energetic that green ectoplasm, which made a lot of Vlad's creepy apprenticeship offers make more sense. Mostly.
Animal ghosts started being larger, with overlong sharp claws and red eyes. Yes, even the herbivores. It was unsettling to almost be dismembered by a rabbit or a squirrel.
Jack and Maddie rebuilt the entire ecto-filtration system after a long thread of red found its way into the filter. Something about it operating under different energy constraints, and how they should probably modify some of their weapons to work on red ectoplasm.
Some of Danny's enemies started to show up… different. Skulker's armor gained patterns more associated with traditional armor. The blob ghosts started turning brown or red. Johnny's pupils changed to match Kitty's cat-like ones. Technus grew antennae-like horns. Everything seemed bigger, hairier, and more vicious.
It didn't seem to be affecting Danny, but Danny knew he could trust his instincts on this sort of thing about as far as he could throw them.
"There are always outliers," said Frostbite, who had nearly doubled in size. He and the other yetis hadn't just grown, though. Their fangs, claws, tails, fur, and horns had all lengthened. Their spines had bent. Their voices had deepened to something so gravelly it was almost inaudible. "We are almost always somewhat bestial, regardless of the overall mood of the Realms. Perhaps you will remain largely the same. Perhaps your human half resists the change."
"Or?" prompted Danny.
"Or," said Frostbite, shrugging his enormous shoulders, "it might come upon you all at once."
By winter, the blob ghosts started to change shape. They'd already changed color, all of them various shades of red, orange, and brown, but now they began to become defined in ways that Danny found downright disturbing… and also strangely alluring. He couldn't stop watching them, whether they had little grasping hands or leathery bat-like wings or even grotesque little faces, like goblins.
"It's really weird seeing them like that," said Tucker, as Danny sucked a flock of them into a thermos. "It's like they're turning into little imps or something."
"They're not cute anymore," agreed Sam. "But I think it'll be kind of cool to see what they turn into. What do you think, Danny?"
"I don't know. It's… People are more afraid of them now."
Sam and Tucker exchanged a look.
"You know we're not going to be afraid of you, right?" asked Sam.
"I mean, if you turn into a balor or something all of a sudden, we'll be surprised, but–"
"We won't be afraid of you. Also, don't you think it'll be cool? Everything looks so much cooler with spikes and fangs and horns. I might kill for horns."
"Well, you'd have to die for them, at le–"
Sam threw her gloves at him.
Vlad's horns were undeniably horns. Danny could recognize that they hadn't been before. That they really had been hair… and, actually, didn't that make them antlers or something? He hadn't been paying attention in class the last time that had been brought up.
"Wow," said Danny, "I guess you got tired of using the old pomade, huh?"
Vlad growled at him, which was just a bit out of character for him so early in the fight.
"Gotta use your words, V-man."
"You make light of this, boy," snarled Vlad, slamming him into a wall. "Do you know how long this will last? Do you have any idea?"
"I didn't think you cared about your appearance that–"
Danny was slammed into the wall again.
"It isn't about appearance. Do you know how much more funding fools like the GIW will get to exterminate us now that we look like this? Now that our behavior has changed, just a hair? Do you? It is no laughing matter."
He held Danny down, pinning him with hands that had more in common with talons than anything human. Then he sighed, some of his usual attitude bleeding back into his bearing.
"Daniel. I apologize. The current state of affairs is simply rather upsetting to me. You will understand when you start to change." He leaned closer. "I am asking you again to join me."
"This is not a joke, Daniel," said Vlad, as if it had ever been a joke to Danny. "No doubt you are ignorant of this, but when the mien of the Ghost Zone takes on a demonic bent, it changes socially as well. It becomes the battlefield of demon princes leading armies of conquest, and even those places that play at peace become Baroque and Byzantine. Your hero act is reaching its natural end. You will not be able to protect this place without an army on your side. You will not even be able to protect yourself."
Vlad released Danny and lifted off, hovering menacingly in the air. "Think about it, Daniel."
"Yeah," muttered Danny after Vlad had left. "Sure. I'm definitely going to think about your offer to become a child soldier. What a loser."
Danny's ghost sense went off and he groaned.
"Not another one!"
Danny nursed a black eye and other injuries in Tucker's bedroom.
"Do you think I'm acting any differently lately?"
"I don't know," said Tucker, opening up the first aid kit. "I don't think so. You might be a little hungrier than usual, but that's about it. Could be a growth spurt thing. Do you want to start with the big stitches or the little ones?"
"What about the black eye?"
"No, man. That can wait."
"But it's the part everyone can see."
"Dude. You're bleeding."
"Only a little!"
Now that Danny knew he was eating more, he couldn't help noticing. He was eating an awful lot, and he never felt quite full.
"Do you think it's related?" asked Danny, nervously. He was perched on an icy boulder near Frostbite's head. It seemed more polite than flying the whole time.
The Far Frozen itself had also changed with the age. The snow was streaked with red and ashy gray from the new ectoplasm, and the structures had twisted and grown with their inhabitants. Even the medical equipment had darkened, become cruder, although the yetis all insisted that was in appearance only, and the function was the same.
It really accentuated how much he, unchanged, stood out.
Frostbite rumbled deeply. He and the other yetis were becoming… not quite quadrupedal, but their body structure was much more gorilla or bear like than it had been. "It might be," said Frostbite. "It might not be. It's too soon to tell."
"What about the scans you did?"
"They do seem to show that you are changing internally. Some of your organs seem to have split in half."
Danny felt his whole face scrunch up in consternation. "In half?"
Frostbite's head dipped up and down. "It does not seem to impact their functions, such as they are."
"Oh, I guess that's… good," said Danny, trying not to show any hysteria. In half.
Frostbite shrugged, which was a production, considering how huge he was. "It is neither good nor bad. When the turning of the age comes, we must accept it for what it is."
"Roll with the punches, huh?"
"An apt idiom."
"And what– How long does an 'age' usually last?"
"Hm. Let's see… I believe the shortest age I've ever experienced lasted only a year. The longest was… Oh, it was centuries."
"This could be centuries, too?"
"Certainly. It could also end tomorrow. There's no point trying to predict it, I'm afraid."
Danny nodded. "Okay," he said, dejectedly.
Frostbite lifted a great paw and patted Danny's head with a single digit. "Don't worry. I'm sure it will all work out in the end." They sat together like that for a while. "I do not think those were your only questions."
"Yeah, but it's–"
"You don't need to fear being rude, Great One. As I have said, you are young, and you are new."
"Okay," said Danny. He rubbed his hands over his thighs. "Vlad said people would build armies. That there will be wars."
Frostbite scoffed. "In an attempt to frighten you into aligning yourself with him. Never fear that you will lack allies, Great One. Why, even beyond us, Princess Dora and Queen Pandora are gathering their forces, and I understand that Lord Clockwork is fond of you."
That wasn't untrue, and yet… "So, there will be war?"
Frostbite hummed deep in his chest, the sound vibrating up through the soles of Danny's feet. "It… is true that general social structures change somewhat when the Realms are in this mood. Groups become… more cohesive as the changes sort previously unaligned ghosts into, well, castes." He paused, possibly aware of the negative connotations of the word in the human world. "Even the landscape changes. If this age lasts for long enough, it might evolve so that you could walk from your portal to here. Even now, we are on a collision course with the Mountains of the Snow Maidens. These changes cause tensions, and tensions lead into conflict. On the other hand, personal, individual conflicts tend to lessen. There is a balance to these things."
"Do you have a caste?" asked Danny.
"Not as such, no," said Frostbite. "We of the Far Frozen maintain our own hierarchy across ages. It is one of the reasons we all change together."
"Oh," said Danny, feeling oddly left out. "Will I have a caste?"
Frostbite gave him something that might have been a worried look. It was hard to tell, with how much his face had changed.
"Great One, the castes I speak of… they are not immutable law. They have their basis in the changes the Realms impress upon our bodies and base instincts, yes, but those things do not override our choices."
And what if he wanted to choose to fit in? whispered a traitorous voice in his head. He shook himself. He couldn't say he didn't want to be accepted by the people around him, but chasing things like that only hurt him and the people he cared about. And being part of a 'caste' didn't sound especially great, either.
He formed a small ball of ice between his fingers and rolled it back and forth. "Okay," he said. Then he looked up. "You know, um, if there's anything I can do for you…" He was always making Frostbite and the other yetis deal with his problems. "I'd like to help…"
Danny's stomach chose that moment to grumble.
Frostbite chuckled, the sound like a small earthquake. Icequake. Something like that, anyway. "Speaking of hunger, I believe mealtime is upon us. Come, eat with us, and consider any debt repaid."
"Okay," said Danny, sliding off the boulder to follow Frostbite.
The yetis were eating. They had brought in a huge ice-worm and were stripping meat off it methodically and dumping it into a huge cauldron. There was a chunk of ice underneath that radiated a cold even Danny could feel.
Frostbite went to the cauldron and selected from a stack of dishes a bowl that looked comically small in his hand. He used a ladle to scoop some of the soup into the bowl and handed it to Danny.
The bowl was bigger than his head.
"No spoons, I'm afraid," said Frostbite, humor in his voice.
"That's okay," said Danny, raising the bowl to his lips. The soup was frigid and creamy, rich with the ruddy ecto-blood of the ice-worm. It was good. Although Danny was sure it was something that Sam would view with horror.
In the back of his head, something told him that, in the past, he wouldn't have eaten something like this so willingly, politeness aside. That, even, Frostbite would have hesitated before serving it to him, hospitality aside. But he was so very hungry, and it wasn't like Frostbite would give him anything dangerous to eat.
He didn't know how, but he finished the bowl. For the first time in a while, he went home to sleep satiated.
It happened suddenly, after all.
Danny blinked down at hands that were much too large and much too sharp. Each finger came to a needle-like white point, and his gloves… They'd always been fairly tight to his skin, but now it felt like they were skin, except for the shiny little scales that covered the backs of his hands and went up his arms. His whole suit felt like that, and since it was the only thing he was wearing–
Something swished past his ankles, and he twisted his body only to see that he had grown a tufted tail. He twitched it, incredulously.
And then a fiery ectoblast shot past his head, reminding him that he was fighting Ember, who had gone full, music-themed succubus over the last couple of months.
But when he beat her the next thing he did was dive through the school walls into Casper High's 'haunted' bathroom and stare into the mirror.
His irises were huge, big enough that if he squinted it would be hard to see his sclera. His pupils were slitted, like a cat's.
The collar of his suit had similarly merged with his skin. There was no longer a sharp distinction between fabric and flesh. The white color had creeped up to his jawline along with more little scales. He would have run his fingers over them, but he was a bit wary of his newly sharp fingers.
He bared his teeth at the mirror. They were sharp, too, but not overly so.
He sighed. This wasn't too bad. This, he could deal with.
Except, it turned out to not be that sudden. That change wasn't the last one. His very next transformation into ghost form showed him that.
"Danny, dude," said Tucker. "You didn't tell me that your skin had turned white."
"I've always been white," said Danny.
"Not paper white."
"What?" said Danny. His tongue felt oddly clumsy in his mouth. Was it the fangs? "Paper white?"
"Yeah," said Sam. She took his wrist and dragged him into the basement bathroom. "Was it not before, or…?"
Danny peered at himself in the mirror for the second time today. His face was paper white, and those little scales had crept up his cheeks, forming an almost decorative pattern near the edges of his eyes. His ears had become long and triangular. His teeth– Yes, they were longer and… He swept back hair that definitely hadn't been so long or fluffy before. He had little horn nubs at his hairline.
"Oh, no," he said. And he definitely wasn't imagining his tongue being weird. He stuck it out. It was easily half an inch longer. He turned back to human, relieved that his human form wasn't affected. As far as he could tell. "It's still going. I thought it was done!"
Tucker patted his back, awkwardly. "Congrats on the cool tail, at least? And the scales are sort of cool?"
Danny groaned. "It feels like I'm not wearing anything," he complained.
"Well," said Sam, "that I can fix. We'll just wait a bit to make sure you aren't going to turn into a giant, too, and then I'll get you something appropriate. In the meantime…" She left, almost skipping up the stairs.
"What's she doing?" asked Danny, somewhat fearfully.
"Getting clothes?" hazarded Tucker. He shrugged. "I don't know. I don't understand her on a good day."
"Here!" exclaimed Sam, somewhat out of breath. She threw a pile of clothes at Danny.
He shook them out.
"Oh my gosh, is that the anime sleeveless turtleneck?" asked Tucker.
"I got it for a reason," said Sam, smugly.
Tucker started laughing.
"I hate you guys," said Danny, transforming again. He paused. The white scales were definitely higher on his arms than he had been before.
"I think your ears got longer," said Tucker, reaching out to touch one. Danny flicked it away, instinctively. Tucker's eyes sparkled. "I think I'm jealous."
Danny made a face at him and pulled the turtleneck on, followed by the black jeans.
"I think I'll need to make a hole for the tail," he said.
"That's fine," said Sam. "I don't wear these anymore, anyway."
"Jeans didn't fit my style." Sam shrugged. "Do you need scissors?"
"No, I think I–" he punctured a hole with one of his claws. "Yeah. That works."
Sam nodded approvingly. "See? You're going to be fine."
Danny put on a smile - one that didn't show too many teeth, and nodded back.
"You don't look bad," said Jazz when he came home. "Just… different."
"I look like a monster," countered Danny. "I have scales."
"The scales are fine," said Jazz. "They're a little translucent, aren't they?"
"What does that matter?"
"I don't know," said Jazz. "It's something… something to mention? Like I said, you don't look bad, just less human. And if people can't look past your appearance to see the good you do, their opinion isn't worth anything, anyway."
"Except that they can still decide to put a bounty on my head, or vote for Vlad, or call the GIW if they decide they don't like the way I look."
The twist of Jazz's face told Danny his point had struck home. "We'll think of something," she said, unconvincingly. "But you can be sure that, in the meantime, I don't think you're a monster, and neither do Sam and Tucker."
Danny bobbed his head.
"... That's not the only thing bothering you, is it? Is there something else going on in the Zone? With Mom and Dad?"
"I'm worried about Dani," he admitted. "I know what's happening, but she doesn't have a Frostbite to explain it to her. She doesn't have anybody."
From the expression on Jazz's face, that hadn't occurred to her, which was reasonable. She didn't know Dani well.
"She'll come back here if something is wrong, though, won't she?"
"I hope so," said Danny.
Weekend breakfast was delayed in favor of finding out what else had changed overnight, despite Danny's almost ravenous hunger. The white parts of his 'suit' were getting bigger, leaving the black as intermittent patterns. Without Sam's clothes, he was almost entirely white, except for his eyes, which were as green as ever.
For the most part, everything was just more this morning. His hands were bigger and sharper, so were his horns, so were his teeth, so were his ears… He was half convinced his eyes were bigger, too, but that might have just been the black lining, like natural eyeliner, he'd gotten overnight. The tuft on his tail was fluffier, and his tail longer.
But there were new things, too. His feet seemed… off. Too long, too big. Whenever he landed, he felt the need to stand on the balls of his feet, and he got the sinking feeling that he was going to wind up with paws by the end of this.
More mysteriously, there was a strange divot running from his lower lip, down his chin and throat… He took off his turtleneck, and saw it when all the way down his front, all the way to just above his groin. In placement, it almost resembled a zipper, except for the two branches that split off at his breastbone. Those made it resemble something else. Something that haunted his nightmares. The divot continued on the inside of his mouth, passing between his lower front teeth and running over his whole overly-long tongue, down into his throat. He prodded it with his fingertips, sharp as they were, which felt weird, but didn't give him any more information.
Between that and the fangs, Danny wondered how much of a lisp he'd have. Well, no time like the present to test it out.
He opened his mouth to speak. No sound came out. Not even a squeak. He tried again, and again. Everything from whispers to shouts.
Nothing. He couldn't even feel the muscles working, or hurting, like he sometimes could when he'd lost his voice during a cold. He rubbed his neck with the backs of his knuckles and tried again. Still nothing.
He flew up, through the roof. Whatever had changed this time to make him unable to talk, maybe it didn't work on his wail. He had to know. It was his ace in the hole, his last resort against the nastiest of his enemies.
Once he was far enough above the city to be safe, he opened his mouth and–
And kept opening his mouth. As he prepared to wail, the divot in his lip turned into a gap and his lower jaw split sideways, his chest blooming like a four-petaled flower full of teeth. Some were flat. Some were sharp. Some looked like his ribs.
He closed his mouth.
He closed his mouth, and patted along its length and width to make sure it stayed that way.
Then, he flew down and landed on the nearest building. He felt dizzy. He felt nauseous. He was, despite everything, still extremely and inappropriately hungry.
A blob ghost - no, this one was entirely imp-like, no hint of blob left in it - that had made its nest nearby chittered angrily at him. Danny hissed at it, not in the mood. At least that was a sound he could still make.
The little demon-thing bit him.
Reflexively, without even thinking about it, Danny opened his mouth and.
"Ah, Great One!" said Frostbite, his voice deep enough that Danny doubted humans would be able to hear it at all. "I see the change has taken you. How is it?"
Danny wavered. Then, he tilted his head back and started to cry.
It took a while for Danny to communicate what was actually wrong to Frostbite and the others. Just telling them was right off the table, as long as he was in ghost form, and he was too keyed up to just change back. Having his fingers turned into knives had turned his handwriting into an atrocity - or maybe that was more a result of the stress. He wasn't sure.
Then there was the size difference. Some of the yetis were over two stories tall. Danny, developing digitigrade feet or not, was tiny compared to them.
Eventually, though, he remembered that he could turn human. And he did.
"It does explain your earlier scans," rumbled Frostbite. "I imagine that it was in preparation for your new mouth. That would also explain your difficulty speaking. It cut right through your voicebox."
"Great," said Danny. "Can you fix it?"
"I can't talk," said Danny. "There has to be something."
"There are ways of speaking that do not rely on vocal chords, as many ghosts do not have them. I believe we have some books on the subject. But I cannot fix it in the way you mean. If there was an injury, then I could make an attempt. But there is nothing broken."
"It feels like there is," said Danny.
"I know," said Frostbite. "I could sew the lower portions of your mouth together, if it gives you such distress, but creating a voice for you from nothing is beyond me."
Danny hunched his shoulders. That whole image– eugh. "So, you don't think it's bad that I ate that imp?" he asked.
"That you ate it so reflexively, possibly," said Frostbite, "but you're young, for all your deeds, Great One. Many ghosts eat one another. It is not unusual, or immoral." Frostbite grinned, showing off many fangs. "It's no different than eating ice-worms or beef. Just make sure you eat when you feel hungry, and to try ectoplasm when consuming human food doesn't help. You will be fine. Those imps don't even have cores."
"Okay," said Danny, quietly.
Frostbite cleared his throat, which sounded like icebergs crashing into one another. "Now, if you will turn back, we can give your ghost half a checkup as well, and ensure everything is proceeding in a healthy way."
Danny made a face. He wouldn't call any of this healthy. But he complied nonetheless.
He was immediately aware that the layout of his mouth had changed even more. He felt around with his tongue to find four fangs behind his normal set of teeth that somehow folded back into his mouth.
Something for Frostbite to investigate, he supposed. Danny was still too busy being hung up on eating the imp.
"Do you think the same things might be happening to Dani?" he asked.
"My clone," said Danny. He'd only introduced her to Frostbite the once, he couldn't fault him for not recognizing her name.
"Most likely, yes. Siblings tend to be in the same caste."
"Do you…" he trailed off, hating to ask Frostbite for even more help. "Can you keep an eye out for her? Just in case?"
"Of course, Great One! Now, that checkup!"
It turned out his new folding fangs functioned like a snake's, and he was venomous now, if only mildly so. Joy.
But Frostbite fed him again before he left, so that really was a joy.
After he left the Far Frozen, something else occurred to him. Someone else who might be facing changes without knowing why.
"So, you want to drop hints to her?" asked Sam. "While you're human?"
"I can't really do it as a ghost," said Danny. He hadn't seen her all that often around fights for a while now. "At least while I'm human I can say something. I just have to play it off as coming from my parents. I just need you guys to set me up for it when she's in earshot."
"Sure," said Tucker. "Always down to be your wingman."
Sam scoffed. "That's not what's happening."
"It could be."
"It's really not," confirmed Danny.
But although he did keep an eye on Valerie, and he was sure she overheard them talking about the red ectoplasm and the changes it brought at least once, she didn't seem to be experiencing any changes, and she never came to talk to them. He hoped she wasn't getting all her information from Vlad… but she probably was.
Days of incremental changes passed for Danny, small alterations accumulating bit by bit, transformation by transformation. Every time he went ghost, something had changed, whether that something was truly minor, like more black being replace with white, or something more significant, like his feet legitimately turning into paws, complete with paw pads. And claws.
But nothing completely new had been added for a while, and Danny took comfort in that. He could, somehow, deal with problems getting worse better than he could handle getting entirely new problems.
He was learning to cope with it all. Tucker helped a lot, surprisingly. He was good at pointing out the positives to things like ridiculously huge ears and a tail. Even the horns, he said, could be useful in an emergency. Or if he really wanted to headbut Skulker.
(Danny got the sense that Tucker was just a little jealous, to be honest.)
It was… not as bad as he'd thought it would be. His friends were great.
"Hey," said Sam, pausing the movie and turning to face Danny. "That reminds me, have you been Phantom at all today?"
Danny shrugged, and stole another handful of popcorn from the bucket. He was trying not to eat it all, but… He was hungry. "No ghosts have shown up. Why?"
"You should go ghost," she said. "So you can see if there were any changes."
"Come on," she said, poking him. "You want to keep an eye on things, and if there's anything new, you want to see it while it's still small."
"She's right," said Tucker.
"Oh, fine," said Danny, getting up, because sitting on his tail tended to be uncomfortable. He raised his arms, transformed, and unbalanced backwards so badly he had to tap into his flight powers to stay upright.
Feathery white wings lurked at the edges of his vision.
Oh, no, he thought, discovering he could move them. Wings? He spread them out to either side, as far as they could go, and raised his arms. He found that they reached just past the last knuckle on his middle digit.
Why wings? He could already fly!
But then, so could the blob ghosts, and the imps had grown wings, anyway. Which didn't stop Danny from eating them, incidentally. Somehow, despite regular raids of his parents' purified ectoplasm supplies, he still got awfully hungry sometimes.
He craned his neck to get a better look at the wings. They weren't pure white. Many of the longer, trailing feathers had eyespots on them that looked disturbingly like his own eyes, both ice blue and ghost green.
"Okay," said Sam, her voice squeaking a little. "I didn't expect that. But aren't you glad you looked before they, um. Got bigger?"
Danny nodded, aware he was shaking a little. He didn't like this.
"They're pretty?" said Sam. "At least?"
"Oh, hey," said Tucker. "Danny, can I see your hand for a sec?"
Danny held out his hand, keeping the claws pointed away from Tucker, just in case. Tucker took his wrist and turned Danny's hand this way and that. "These scales are different," he said, pointing.
Danny looked closer. They were. Instead of the translucent white of the other scales, a few on the back of his hands were green, blue, or clear, putting him in mind of crystalized ectoplasm or ghost ice. He tapped one with the tip of a claw. Actually, they might be ghost ice. He tried to dispel it, with no avail.
Well. The wings were the main problem.
"You know," said Tucker, whose eyes were on the wings again, "this is going to be an obstacle to your shirt-wearing goals."
Danny plucked a pillow from the couch and threw it at him.
"I think your hair is getting longer, too. Want to try a haircut?"
At that, Danny returned to human form.
"My hair's never grown in ghost form," he said.
"Well, it has, now." Sam shrugged. "Consider it for science."
"If you turn me bald, I'm going to haunt you," said Danny, suspiciously.
"As if you don't already. Come on, Tucker, can you grab that old ratty sheet from the– Thanks, that's good. Danny go sit– Actually, with the wings, you'll probably want to turn around– Great. Let me go get my scissors and comb."
With a great show of reluctance, Danny slunk to the chair and sat on it backwards. Tucker, with an equally great show of pomp, tied the blanket around Danny's shoulders, working very hard to cover the wings, too. Danny tucked them in, and they seemed to take up far less room than they should, but that was just what ghost physics were like, most of the time.
Sam returned with a pair of scissors and a comb. "Just checking, but you don't have lice, do you?"
Danny sent her a vaguely rude gesture. She snickered.
"Just checking," she repeated in a sing-song voice. Then, she got to work.
About halfway through, she wrapped her off hand around one of his horns, casually, to adjust the angle of his head. It felt surprisingly nice. Satisfying, almost. Or maybe secure was a better word.
"Oops," she said, letting go. "Didn't mean to manhandle you like that."
Danny transformed back. "No," he said. "That actually– It felt good."
"Yeah," said Danny, rubbing his forehead about where his horns were while he was in ghost form. "It did."
"Okay, then," said Sam. "If you don't mind."
"I don't," insisted Danny.
"I still have a haircut to finish, by the way," said Sam, using the scissors to describe a circle in the air. "You want to…?"
"Oh, right," said Danny, going ghost again. Long strands of hair fell around his jaw and tickled the back of his neck.
"Uh," said Sam. "Nevermind. Looks like the hair is part of the package."
"Yep," agreed Tucker. "There's a lot more of it now."
Danny buried his face in his hands. His stomach grumbled.
Long after everyone else was asleep, Danny stood in front of the bathroom mirror. It felt like he did that a lot, these days, and yet every time he had a harder time recognizing himself. The whiteness, the wings, the eyes, the horns, the ears, the teeth… He wasn't really worried about being recognized as Phantom in human form anymore because he was just so different.
He leaned closer to the mirror, making note of how fine blue and green scales had gathered near his eyes to accentuate the 'natural makeup' look that had started with the black ones. Raised silver lines curled around the gemlike scales and up his horns, like filigree. There were a few lines like that on his arms and hands as well, and he suspected he'd get more of them, all over.
If one discounted the mouth– if he kept his mouth closed– he almost looked pretty, in a distinctly monstrous way. He was certainly far more delicate in appearance than any other ghost he'd encountered since the turning of the age, including the imps. In fact, although he hadn't brought it up to his friends, despite standing on his toes all the time while on the ground in ghost form, he wasn't any taller than he had been before, and that height, according to Frostbite's measurements, had been taken out of his torso.
It was weird to think about.
But he was stalling, now. Between everything else and this… He was afraid he would just keep not looking. That he would get distracted by new things, new problems, and just let this one lie. He couldn't do that. He had to face this. It was part of his body, like it or not.
Slowly, bit by bit, he opened his mouth, all the way down.
Apart from the fangs, which were getting long enough that he suspected he'd have trouble speaking even if he did have a voice to speak with, the top of his mouth looked normal. Ish. Alright, it really didn't, but he could lie to himself about it. His lower jaw, just as fanged, was harder to look at, with his tongue hanging off of it and twitching whenever he thought about it too hard. The tongue led back to, presumably, what remained of his esophagus, a smooth, deep, lining that spasmed every so often.
To either side of that, in his throat, were two little holes that flexed as he breathed. Wind tickled the flesh around them. They must be his windpipe, split in two to go to either lung.
A little further down, there were teeth again, rows and rows of them on flesh that had been peeled back from his chest like flower petals. The movement of his lungs could be seen clearly beneath them.
The teeth were sharpest on the outside edges, structured to pierce or tear. The longest were rib-like, curving, and hollow tipped, each of them weeping something clear. Deeper, the teeth became blunter, more suited for grinding.
In the very deepest part of his mouth was an octopus-like mass of tongues, each undulating gently. One stretched itself out to lick at one of his teeth, and Danny shuddered. He could feel it.
A line of drool ran down his cheek. Ancients, he was hungry.
He closed his mouth, and, almost on autopilot, drifted down to the kitchen. The fridge light bathed him, and he floated there for a long moment, staring. Then, his lips parted.
He woke up to his parents ranting about ghosts stealing all the food in the house.
Danny rolled over and groaned. He had a problem.
Danny flew through the ghost zone, falling motes of red and ashy ectoplasm staining his wings. It made his feathers feel weird and sticky, and he wanted to stop and clean them off immediately, but he had to go to the Far Frozen.
When Frostbite saw Danny, his whole face lit up, his yellow eyes practically sparkling. "Oh!" he said in a voice that was definitely too deep for humans to hear. "I know what caste you are in, now! I had wondered– But, now, seeing your wings! Wonderful!"
Danny blinked up at him, hoping he would explain. He didn't feel like going back and forth between human and ghost right now.
"Yes," said Frostbite. "The lack of wings confused me. But, now, I see. You are a Mouth."
For obvious reasons, Danny crossed his arms and glared at Frostbite.
Frostbite didn't seem to notice. "Mouths are messengers - or they were the last time the Realms turned red. They would speak with others' voices, carrying messages across the Realms."
Danny tilted his head. He couldn't speak at all. What was Frostbite talking about?
"Ah, yes. I can see how that might be hard to believe. If I can show you?"
Danny nodded, cautiously, and Frostbite knelt down. He brought his head, bigger than Danny's whole body, to Danny's level, and, with exceeding care and gentleness, touched his horns to Danny's.
Sam holding onto his horns had felt good. So did this. This contact, though, had a vibrational quality that Sam's lacked. It was like energy was being pushed into them and flowing down, down, through his skull, down his spine, into his stomach. He leaned into it, eyes fluttering closed. If he'd had any voice at all, he'd probably be purring.
Frostbite withdrew, but the sensation of energy in his stomach remained.
"There," said Frostbite. "I've filled you with a message. Now, try to speak."
It wasn't like Danny hadn't tried to speak to no avail before, but he opened his mouth and Frostbite's voice came out, his feathers vibrating with it.
"Hello, Great One, I see you've received my message. May I invite you to come eat with us again?"
He snapped his mouth closed as soon as the second sentence was over, acutely aware that he hadn't been able to do that until the whole message was over, no matter how startled he'd been.
An odd, tingly sense of mild euphoria came over him. Distantly, he acknowledged that what had just happened had been disturbing. He also acknowledged that this feeling must be related to those 'caste instincts' Frostbite had talked to him about before.
With his regular tongue, he licked his lips.
"Well?" prompted Frostbite, an eye ridge raised. "Will you?"
Danny realized, belatedly, that Frostbite was waiting for an answer. From him. He nodded. With the message gone, he felt oddly hollow inside.
Once again furnished with a bowl of soup larger than his head, Danny sat down next to Frostbite.
"Now," said Frostbite. "There are many things I do not know about Mouths. It was not a terribly common grouping. However, I do believe I saw a book on the subject in Princess Dora's library some time before the turn. You could go to her and ask to borrow it."
Danny nodded even as he greedily slurped the soup. He was trying to have manners, but not opening his mouth all the way was the best he could do right now.
"If you do, I would ask you to carry a message to her, and return with her answer as well. I have learned a few troubling things about her nearest neighbors that she should know, and I have a proposal for her."
Danny nodded again. Of course he would do that. Frostbite hardly needed to ask.
"Excellent!" said Frostbite. "It is always useful to have a messenger who is already friends with an ally!"
Danny preened– Well. Not literally. He didn't really know how to take care of his wings, yet, and he was a bit too busy with the soup, anyway.
The Time Locked lands had changed a lot. Once many scattered islands, they had coalesced into a new whole many miles across in each direction. As he watched, pebbles and minor, asteroid-like islands added themselves to the outskirts. Dora's castle towered sharp and black in the center, bristling with ballistas. Ghosts in segmented, thorny plate armor patrolled the streets. In the distance, Danny could see Poindexter's Casper High morphing into something out of nightmares.
In a wild fit of prudence, Danny decided not to fly directly to the tower, but instead landed at the city gates.
"A Mouth?" asked one of the guards, slitted eyes wide. "Do you have a message for Princess Dorathea?"
Danny nodded. The guard called for more guards, and he was escorted to the castle by six ghosts in various stages of transformation, all armed. They brought him through the receiving hall and several other public corridors before they were finally directed to Dora.
"Sir Phantom," said Dora, her voice soft with wonder. She raised her hand to brush his cheek. "Your new appearance suits you."
Danny could say the same about Dora as she reclined regally in her tall-backed chair, maps of the Zone laid on the table beside her. She looked fierce, her dragon horns and wings on full display, her nails long and sharp, her skin even more scaled than his was.
"I understand you have a message for me?"
Danny nodded, suddenly feeling shy about the whole situation, and opened his mouth. Frostbite's words poured from him, but he didn't understand them. They were in a rumbly, lilting ghost language that Danny didn't know.
When the message finished playing out, Danny sat down on the ground, spent and… Distracted. He was going to call this distracted. He felt all noodly and worn, but also satisfied and happy, like he'd just helped someone with something big.
"The Observants and the Medicis. Of course they would get along."
Dora gestured at the guards, directing them to bring Danny closer, resting his head on her knee and spreading his wings out to their full extent on either side.
They were getting bigger, darn it.
Dora put a pointed nail under his chin and tilted his head up, so he was looking her in the eye. "I know you aren't likely to give me your first loyalty," she said. "Assuming, of course, that you give it to any one person. But I would like you to remember this… fondly." She lowered his head back to her knee and began to stroke his hair. "Go fetch the falconers. Tell them to bring their grooming supplies."
At least one of the guards left. Danny couldn't tell if more than that went just from the sound.
"Frostbite said you were looking for a book on Mouths," she said. "I'm afraid I no longer have it. I had borrowed it from Ghost Writer and returned it some time ago. I know you pledged to return to Frostbite with a message from me. I will give you one momentarily. I know you do not have a very positive relationship with Ghost Writer. If you would, kindly, return here after bringing my message to Frostbite, I will give you a message to Ghost Writer as a sort of… peace offering. There are certain volumes I wish to borrow from him, regardless, and it would be very useful not to need another messenger."
Danny, vaguely aware a response was needed, nodded.
"Thank you, Sir Phantom." There were footsteps behind Danny. "Ah, the falconers, very good. I noticed you were picking at your wings earlier. I believe they can help you with that."
That was the only warning Danny got before hands descended on his wings and he ascended into a state of bliss. Getting the gunk off his wings felt so good a few tears escaped from his eyes.
"There, there," said Dora. "I will give you my message, and you can rest before you go back, yes?"
Danny nodded again, and Dora bent her head to touch her horns to his.
The sensation of the message settling inside him and that of the falconers tending his wings worked together to overwhelm him completely, but it only lasted a few minutes. When Dora straightened, she looked to her guards. "Please take him to one of the messenger rooms," she said. "You know the ones."
The guard picked Danny up, first like a kitten, then like a baby, which was distantly embarrassing. He couldn't hold on to that feeling for long, though. Not when he was so tired. He fell asleep before they got where they were going.
Danny woke up starving and smelling food. He hardly noticed the nest-like bed he was in, the hypnotic patterns painted on the walls of the room, or even that he'd been sleeping in ghost form as he followed his nose out. Before he knew it, he was sitting at a great banquet table, piled high with food and eating, struggling to limit himself to his regular mouth as Dora watched indulgently from the other side of the table.
He wondered if he should turn human and start a conversation, but he didn't know what that would do to the message he currently carried inside himself. He stayed in ghost form.
"As long as you are visiting the Ghost Writer, I would like you to take a message to him for us as well– Yes, before you ask, Mouths can hold more than one message," said Frostbite, forestalling Danny from turning human to ask. "Well-trained ones can even choose which of multiple messages to play back, which is useful, but I don't think you're there, quite yet. But before you visit him, I need to clarify a few things with Princess Dora."
Danny nodded and continued to gnaw on the odd, fist-sized nuts Frostbite had given him as a 'snack.' He had to go back there, anyway.
"I don't know the answer to that," said Dora. "Not on my own. You will need to go to Queen Pandora. Do you know the way to her kingdom?"
"Good, good," said Dora. "I will send you to her with a message explaining everything. After you eat, of course."
On the way to Pandora's kingdom, Danny passed by a lot of violence, from small bands of ghosts fighting one another to groups that might very well be classified as armies. In a few cases, where he knew one side or another, and the groups were small, he intervened, but for the most part he avoided everyone. He wasn't a stranger to fights, or even wars, considering what had happened with Pariah Dark, but the scale was new to him, and unsettling.
Not to mention how everyone else seemed to be getting bigger and tougher while he only felt more and more delicate.
He glanced at his feathers. They and his wings seemed to be the only part of him getting bigger other than his hair. Beneath the red ectoplasm stains, he could see traces of that silver filigree winding down into them as well. It was all over his body, now, raised lines wrapping around the scattered gem-like scales. It made him look decorated, or decorative, like a weird kind of statue. Except for the whole horror mouth, horns, tail, claws, ears combination. That sort of broke the illusion.
It still set him apart from the other ghosts, and he didn't like that, even if he didn't want to be like that. It had to be some weird human pack instinct…
He reached the spot Pandora's kingdom usually stood, and looked around, confused. There was nothing there except for blasted black and red pseudo-volcanic rock. Nothing… except for a hole in the ground, a tunnel leading down.
No. It couldn't be. But the other option was that Pandora's kingdom had been destroyed, and Danny couldn't consider that, not yet.
He flew down. The tunnel was just large enough for Danny to enter while standing upright, but the sense of uncertainty about the size gave Danny the impression that would be the case no matter who approached it. The edge was carved with crude Greek letters. TARTARUS, they said.
Okay, then. Danny entered.
Inside was dark and claustrophobic. Within ten paces of the entrance, the tunnel curved sharply, blocking off the light from the entrance. Danny, not wanting to navigate by his glow alone, lit an ectoblast in his hand. Then it thinned and twisted again, forcing Danny to tuck his wings in and shimmy sideways. Thankfully, it opened back up, but then the sides of the tunnel became thorned and spiky. Danny strongly considered going human and just phasing through everything, but he once again forced himself to remember that doing that might make him lose the message. He didn't really want to do this twice.
The tunnel split.
It was a labyrinth. Of course it was. Danny had preferred the hedges.
Danny decided to go right. He was immediately attacked.
He didn't get a good look at his assailant, beyond a long muzzle and flashing teeth. A few good ectoblasts and claw swipes drove it off. Danny absently licked the blood from his fingers and continued on.
It wasn't the last time Danny was attacked, and by the time he emerged into a vast cavern packed with Greek-style buildings carved from the cave walls and stalactites and stalagmites, he was grimy, bruised, and tired. At once, he was accosted by a group of spear-carrying warriors. They dragged him inside a building surrounded by stone carvings of fruit trees, then to a pool inside it. Pandora was lounging near it, her feet dangling in the water.
Danny opened his mouth and let the message - in Dora's voice - spill out. Then his legs folded underneath him and he laid down.
"I will, of course, return you with an answer," said Pandora, He turned his head just enough to look up at her. She was about the same size as she had been before, but her skin color had deepened to a rich purple-red. Four long bull-like horns extended from her head. "But I think you might appreciate a bath, first?" She gestured to the pool, and he saw, now, that it was only one part of what appeared to be a larger bathing complex. One that was full of bathers.
Danny blushed, but nodded. After the labyrinth, he wanted to be clean.
A group of bath attendants chivvied him into one of the pools and, somehow, stole the jeans he'd borrowed from Sam. In ghost form… demon form, whatever, he didn't really have anything down there, not since he'd changed, but still. Naked.
He sank deeper in the water, spreading his wings out over the surface and letting the grime wash away. The warmth of the water was both soothing and uncomfortable, making his ice core feel loose and melty. The temperature eased higher. His muscles were completely relaxed, but his core was uneasy.
"Don't fall asleep," said a bath attendant, prodding him. "Queen Pandora wants us to show you how to take care of your own wings."
Danny didn't want to move, but with all the prodding, and the knowledge that dozing off probably wouldn't be good for him, he made an attempt. But his attempt was clumsy, half asleep, and it didn't please the attendants.
"Ah! I give up!" said the attendant. "I should have known a Mouth like you would be too useless and lazy even to take care of themselves!" They finished rinsing him off perfunctorily before dragging him from the pool and throwing a chiton over his shoulder. He was ushered quickly through the bathhouse, stumbling under the weight of his waterlogged wings. They shoved him through the doors and he collapsed, tears gathering at the corners of his eyes.
"Oh, dear," said Pandora, gesturing him closer to where she laid on a couch sized for her huge frame. "What's the matter?"
Danny, his wings still wet with water, crawled closer to Pandora until she picked him up and set him down on the couch, next to her hip. He curled in on himself, burying his face in his knees even as he kept his long ears oriented towards Pandora. He couldn't say anything.
"Are you hurt?"
Danny shook his head. His injuries from the maze were mild enough that he didn't want to bother anyone about them.
"Are you sick?"
No, Danny didn't think so, although he certainly didn't feel right.
"Was someone unpleasant to you?"
Danny nodded. He wasn't even sure why this was bothering him so much. Normally, it wouldn't. They weren't really mean to him, just… He wiped tears out of his eyes again.
"There are many people in this world who will not like you, simply for who and what you are. That's only more reason to cherish those who do like you, isn't it?"
Yes, that was true, that was right.
"You will cherish them, won't you? Your friends and allies?"
Danny nodded. Pandora smiled and handed him a crystalline orange. Danny's brain must still be fried, because he began to gnaw on it. To his surprise, his teeth cracked the surface before too long had passed, and he crunched the shards into gem dust before swallowing and licking his lips. Pandora patted him on the head, smiling.
"You will cherish them. Now, go to sleep."
He was out like a light.
In the morning, Danny was too embarrassed to even look at Pandora, although he kept his ears pricked and still nodded or shook his head when she asked him questions, and generally did not resist when she adjusted his position or patted his head.
"... and this will keep you from getting attacked in the labyrinth," she said, fastening a bracelet around his wrist. "Although, you will still need to find your own way through the maze."
Danny perked up and examined it. It was simple bronze impressed with the Greek key, a golden thread wrapped around it, and it fit perfectly around his wrist. Danny looked up at Pandora, hoping to convey his gratitude. Going through the labyrinth like that, although far from the worst thing he had ever done, had been awful.
"It's the least I can do, when you are so likely to have to come back. Frostbite's proposal will require quite a bit of back and forth. Pandora patted his head again. "And you still have the message?"
Danny nodded. He wasn't sure how he could lose it. It was inside him.
"Then it's time for you to be off."
Danny emerged from the labyrinth and shook out his wings. He was happy to be above ground where he could fly again and–
He twisted and reached back. Below his first two wings were two smaller wings. When– When had that happened?
He shook himself. He was on his way back to Frostbite anyway. He would get a checkup to make sure everything was okay then.
As Pandora predicted, many more messages had to be delivered before she, Frostbite, and Dora worked out… whatever they were talking about. Danny still didn't know, because the messages were all in languages he couldn't speak. He thought it would be better if they just met up with each other and talked face-to-face, but he could acknowledge that he wasn't exactly up on current Zone politics. More pertinently, he was always carrying messages he didn't want to lose, and he still hadn't been able to take a moment to determine whether or not changing form got rid of them.
That was at least partially Danny's fault, though. Unless he was completely spent, he always wanted to deliver his messages right away. Delivering messages was tiring, especially since they just seemed to get longer and longer. And there were so many distractions. Like food. Holding the messages made him… somewhat less hungry, but whenever he was given anything to eat, he just couldn't say no. Not that he could say anything, anyway.
Then there were things like the baths in Pandora's kingdom, which he always needed badly after a trip through the labyrinth but which also always left him feeling melted and emotionally inept, or the painted walls in Dora's 'messenger rooms' which were so entrancing that he was sure he'd lost hours staring at them, the medical checkups Frostbite insisted Danny go through regularly and which got weirder as both Danny and the yetis changed more and more, and the fights between the Realms that got more and more vicious as time went on.
More than once, Danny had been chased by soldiers with nets.
But Danny was getting used to it. Just like he was getting used to how his body was changing slowly even without turning back and forth from human form to ghost form, or how tiny he was compared to literally everyone else. Even Sidney Poindexter towered over him when they passed each other in Dora's castle. Apparently, Poindexter was part of something called the 'Knight' caste.
Although, one thing he wasn't getting used to was not being able to ask questions. The Zone was changing so much around him and everything seemed infinitely interesting, so new, so strange, and he couldn't ask questions. Not even the most basic ones about what he was, although he knew Frostbite was trying to get him the information he craved by telling him about that book. Otherwise, the best Danny could do was watch and listen. He was getting good at that, though, and according to Frostbite's checkups, Danny's eyes and ears were getting bigger. Even so, there were limits to observation when so often he was barely capable of thinking.
It helped that Frostbite, Pandora, and Dora were all being so… so soft with him, so gentle. They were really putting a lot of work into taking care of him when the only thing he could do was deliver messages and then fall over. It made him feel sort of guilty.
But just as his little mail route started to feel routine, the three of them resolved the issue and sent him off to Ghost Writer stuffed full of messages.
Ghost Writer's library had always been imposing. It had also been sort of comical. The front of the building had been sculpted to resemble a shelf of books for goodness' sake.
It was no longer comical. Now it was gothic, full of wrought iron spikes, roses that looked a little too like blood blossoms for comfort wending up the sides.
Nothing for it. Danny went and knocked on the oversized door. He knocked again. He started knocking and kept knocking until Ghost Writer himself yanked the door open with a sharp "What?" Then he froze, looking down at Danny. "Phantom?"
Spitefully, Danny opened his mouth and let the messages play.
At the beginning, Ghost Writer's posture was hostile and sharp, but it slumped into something defeated about halfway through before resolving into resignation. "I don't have the book."
Danny frowned at him.
"Clockwork bought it from me," said Ghost Writer in a highly aggrieved tone. "Just before the aesthetic changed. He gave me– Oh! It doesn't matter! I can see that he got the better part of the deal, the old cheater. Well. Come in." He pushed back, away from the doorframe. "I'll give you what the Princess, Queen Pandora, and Chief Frostbite want."
Danny flew after Ghost Writer, a little wary of entering the library. He was also a little confused. The messages, altogether, had been shorter than usual, and he didn't feel nearly so tired as he usually did after delivery. Maybe there was some correlation between length and fatigue…?
Inside, the library was just as gothic as it was outside. The bookshelves were ebony. All the books were bound in shades of blood or rose red.
"Don't touch anything." He lugged a metal box from under his desk, then two more just like it. "You don't know what these are, do you?"
Danny shook his head.
"Typical," muttered Ghost Writer. "These are messenger boxes, for Mouths." He smiled, some malice in the expression. "They're made of special materials, too tough for you to drive your little teeth through. I fill them up with their books and you take them back. In your mouth."
Danny blinked as Ghost Writer started to fill the boxes with books and twisted his head to try and read the titles. Wouldn't it be better to carry them in his hands, even if they were bulky…?
"Keeps thieves from taking the packages or something."
Oh, that was okay, then. If this was how it was done, he'd at least try.
Ghost Writer finished filling the boxes, then latched them closed and stepped away.
"Don't look at me like that," he said when Danny continued to gaze at him. "I'm not putting my hands anywhere near your mouth. You can do that yourself."
Danny approached the boxes dubiously. All of them were at least two feet long. He wasn't sure they'd fit. But he opened his mouth and, well. Grabbing something with his mouth was pretty reflexive, he was sorry to say.
It felt… Well, it felt like holding something in his mouth. But also like something was just shy of triggering his gag reflex. He kept trying to reflexively chew on the boxes, but there was no give to them, which was unfair.
… Did he really just think that? Was he so hungry these days that he really wanted to eat the library books his friends were checking out?
He hoped it was just a reflex. Just… Yeah.
But the strangest part of this was that although the boxes definitely were large enough to bulge through his skin, large enough they shouldn't fit all together, they weren't visible at all on the outside of his body. Another point for weird ghost physics.
"You have them. Good. Now get out."
Danny looked up at Ghost Writer, startled.
"You heard me," he said. "Get out of here."
"It's alright, Great One. You can do it."
Danny was… not quite sweating. He didn't sweat in ghost form. Demon form. Whatever he should call it, now that he had animal ears and a tail, long, curling horns, and a disturbing fixation on eating things. He was, however, becoming progressively more stressed and angry with himself as he continued to try and fail to drop the message box labeled for Frostbite.
Every time he got close to finally doing it, either his tongues or his teeth reflexively clenched around the box, forcing him to start all over again.
"Perhaps you could try to drop all the boxes," said another yeti who had been talking to Frostbite before Danny found him.
Danny looked at him askance. No, he couldn't. Those boxes were for Dora and Pandora.
"Perhaps we should take a break," suggested Frostbite. "Give you some time to rest."
Danny shook his head. He couldn't give up just because something was hard.
"You know you won't be able to safely eat anything else until you let go of those."
That was certainly an additional and very powerful motivation.
Slowly, stooped over and his hands holding back the petals of his mouth, Danny relaxed his tongues enough that the Box slipped free and hit the floor with a clang. He leaned back, letting most of his mouth close. His upper mouth remained open, his split tongue lolling out as he panted.
"Very good," said Frostbite, stroking Danny's head with the very tip of his smallest claw. From a distance, it looked sharp, but from Danny's perspective it was blunt and rounded, the diameter just barely smaller than that of his head. "Now, all you have to do is bring Dora and Pandora theirs." He continued to pet Danny, but shifted so that he was sort of looming over him. Not that Frostbite could do anything but loom over Danny. Snowflakes drifted down from his mane and settled unmelting on Danny's skin. Danny wondered if the yetis knew they each had their own weather system. "Once you have done that, come back here. We have messages for Clockwork, too."
Dora and Pandora had messages for Clockwork, too, long ones, so it was a very bloated-feeling Danny who landed in front of the shiny brass doors of Clockwork's lair, Long Now. He paused before knocking, examining himself in their mirrored surface. It had been a while since he had really looked at himself.
His ears and horns completed for real estate on his head. His hair hung halfway down his neck, almost to his shoulders. His wings were larger than he'd thought, and the secondary pair was almost as long as the first. His hands and feet were hugely oversized, giving him a kitten-like appearance. His eyes were big enough that his default expression could be read as innocent curiosity… which was fair enough. That did seem to be the main thing he tried to emote these days.
Experimentally, he started making other expressions. To his distaste, almost all of them parted his upper lips enough to see the fangs in his regular, upper mouth. He put his neutral, curious expression back on. Much better. His mouth should only be open when he was eating, or delivering a message.
Except… except, maybe, when he was in human form. Then, it should be… acceptable to open his mouth to talk. Yes. That was the right word. Acceptable.
Danny raised his hand to knock on the doors, but they swung inwards. At the clear invitation, Danny flew inside.
Some things had remained the same about Long Now. It was still full of ticking. There were still gears set in the walls. Weights, chains, and bells still hung from the ceilings. But it had changed. Gone were the statues, gone was the stone masonry, gone was the verdigris and dust. All the walls were brass, wood, glass, or pale porcelain. Everything was polished to an aggressive, gleaming, brightness that contrasted sharply with the outside world and somehow felt more threatening than all of the spears of Dora's Knights.
But, perhaps, the most unsettling change was the floor. The last time Danny had been here, it had been normal, unremarkable. Now it consisted entirely of enormous gears, each of them turning at a different speed, and on top of the gears and threaded into them were layers and layers of shifting, twitching chains. He stayed a healthy distance above them.
"Hello, Daniel. I have been expecting you."
Danny whirled at the sound of the voice. He hadn't seen Clockwork. He still didn't see him. All he saw was a giant clock draped in purple… oh…
Like everyone else, Clockwork had changed. Danny supposed his new appearance only surprised Danny because Danny hadn't been around to see it happen.
Clockwork was taller, obviously. About the same size Frostbite had been when the Zone first began to shift. But that was far from the most notable change. Clockwork's face had widened and flattened, becoming pale and circular, his mouth and nose disappearing. Brass decorations crept around its edges. His eyes had multiplied and spread, so that there were twelve of them, evenly spaced around the rim of face and glowing bright. From behind the bronze rim spiraled two long, bronze horns, both polished to the same shine as all the other metal in this place.
Danny could still see the clock that had always been in Clockwork's chest, but the numbers on it had been replaced with something spikier, and the rhythm of it had changed - not enough for Danny to identify the change, but enough for him to know it was there, enough to know that if he listened to it for long enough, it was all other clocks that would seem off. He could also see Clockwork's ungloved hands, segmented and porcelain like a doll's, and the brass mechanics underneath them.
"I understand you have messages for me," said Clockwork.
Oh, right. He opened his mouth and let the messages play. When he was finished, he sank down to the ground, careless of the gears and chains. That really had been a lot. Maybe Clockwork would have a place for him to rest before sending him back out?
"I do," said Clockwork, picking Danny up, "but I think you should eat first. You are hungry."
Danny blinked blearily at Clockwork, unsure if that had been a question or a statement. The chains ran into and out of Clockwork's robes, and they moved more when he moved. Danny gazed at them, trying to determine how that worked.
"In many ages," said Clockwork, "I am integrated with Long Now. Bound to it, if you would. Although, I am bound to it regardless, sometimes the forces keeping me here have more… slack to them."
He sat Danny down at one end of a long brass and wood table that spanned the diameter of a slowly turning gear. It and the chairs around it were bolted to the gear. From above, chains lowered… objects to the table. They were shiny geometric shapes.
"Eat," said Clockwork, inclining his head. "They are quite edible for demons like us."
Okay, then. Danny wasn't the kind of person to reject food. Or, at least, he wasn't any longer. Still, he was tired enough that he ate slowly, watching as the room rotated slowly around them. Everything was so bright and shiny it was beginning to hurt his eyes, but closing them would be rude, he was sure, and he didn't want to be rude to someone who was feeding him. Eventually, his eyes landed on Clockwork's face as the least shiny thing, and he watched as Clockwork's eyes blinked open and closed, mimicking the movement of hour, minute, and second hands.
Clockwork began to speak, voice low and regular, rising and falling in time with the ticking of the clocks.
Next thing he knew, he was done eating. He shook himself, blinking hard. He felt like– He– He opened his eyes. Something had happened there. He didn't know what. Already, his certainty that something had happened was softening. Nothing looked out of place. With how drained he had felt, he probably was just zoning out, daydreaming.
"All done?" asked Clockwork.
Danny nodded. He could eat more… but, then, he could almost always eat more. He had other things to worry about, like whether or not Clockwork would want Danny to take a message back to one of the other three. Or all of them. But Danny couldn't repeat messages multiple times, yet. He would, he hoped, be able to do that eventually.
"The messages you brought me mentioned, among other things, a book regarding Mouths," said Clockwork, rising and moving around to Danny's side of the table. "I do have the book, but I do not believe it would do you much good."
Danny frowned at him. What did he mean?
"See for yourself," said Clockwork, taking a red and black bound book out from inside his robes. He set it on the table in front of Danny.
The symbols on the cover were unfamiliar to him. Careful not to let his claws damage the book, he picked it up and let it fall open to a random page. There were black and white illustrations on it of a series of people who looked remarkably like he currently did. Wings, horns, horribly extended mouths… Not all quite in the same arrangement as Danny's, no. One unfortunate had eight wings. Another's mouth was extended down from the corners, not from the center, like Danny's. None of them seemed to have skin or scales quite like his, either. Even so, they were all definitely the same kind of thing.
All of the words on the page were in a language he didn't know. He couldn't even recognize the script.
"It's formal court Demonic," said Clockwork.
Oh, that's what– Wait. How–?
"How am I doing that?" asked Clockwork out loud, echoing Danny's thought. "So long as you are not carrying a message, if you become frustrated enough, you return to human form to ask your question. I do believe that looking ahead is more efficient. Also, your ears and tail tend to give you away. They are very expressive." He ran a porcelain finger along the velvety back of one of Danny's ears, making all of Danny's hair stand on end even as he immediately began to plot to get Clockwork to do it again.
But back on topic… Was there an English translation of the book, somewhere?
"There is not," said Clockwork. "This is the only extant copy."
Maybe he could get Frostbite - No, his eyes were big enough now that even this book, massive as it was, would be too small for him to read. Dora or Pandora, then? But they were so busy… Clockwork? He looked up hopefully.
"As it turns out, there is a simple technique for teaching Mouths other languages." He pulled another book from within his robes. "This is a textbook designed to teach the Demonic language. A Mouth may learn a language by digesting several of these, one after another."
Digest as in…?
"Yes, I do mean eat. I will have one prepared for you every time you return."
Return? Not that Danny didn't want to, of course. He reached for the book, which Clockwork relinquished easily.
"My correspondence with Dora, Pandora, and Frostbite will take some time, and likely several exchanges."
Oh. Of course. Danny had known that. He examined the textbook a little longer. Well. If Clockwork said it was okay… and he was still hungry. He shoved the book in his mouth before Clockwork could change his mind.
Clockwork chuckled, tick tick tick, and stroked the back of Danny's ear again. Danny practically melted. So good.
"I shall record my messages and show you the place I have set aside for you to sleep."
Danny nodded, his eyes still on Clockwork's hands. Up close, his finger-segments had a similar filigree pattern to the one on Danny's skin. Even though in everything else other than color, his and Clockwork's hands were completely different, the sight still made something settle inside him. He didn't think about it for very long, though, because Clockwork was touching his horns to Danny's, and receiving a message was always a bit… consuming.
Clockwork's message wasn't too long, though. "There we go," said Clockwork. "Bedtime." He slid away from the table.
Danny tried to follow him but he found his legs were bound to the legs of the chair. He twisted to look down. Fine brass chains had wound around his legs up to his knees.
"My apologies," said Clockwork. The chains begrudgingly unwrapped themselves. "I do not have as much control over them as I would like. Perhaps in the future, I will improve."
Danny knew what that felt like, so he shrugged. Being stuck for a moment wasn't a problem.
This got Danny another ear stroke, this time on the other side. He was going to get spoiled.
Then, Clockwork flew upwards, towards all the bells and weights dangling from the ceiling. Danny followed him, avoiding a few taut chains that stretched across the empty space to feed into gears on either side of the tower. There, nestled amidst the bells, was a birdcage.
The cage was big enough for Clockwork to fit in it, and the bars were close enough together that Danny would not be able to worm his way out. Inside were amenities such as a bed, a bedside table, a bird swing the same scale as the cage, and a vanity with brushes and wing-picks. Towards the top of the cage were rolled lengths of fabric which were clearly intended to roll down to cover the cage.
"I know it is not, perhaps, ideal," said Clockwork, "but it is the only way to keep the chains out."
Well. Danny didn't want to wake up wrapped in chains, and that bed did look comfortable, birdcage or not. It had lots of pillows. Still…
He watched as Clockwork demonstrated that the cage door did not lock and then held the door open for him. His eyes trailed up to the top of the cage and the curtains.
"I imagine it will be hard for you to sleep without them," said Clockwork.
That was a good point. It was very bright in here. And, despite his brief rest with the meal, the day's activities were catching up to him and it was becoming harder and harder to stay airborne.
"Daniel, I am not usually so direct, but if you fall out of the air, not only will I tuck you into that bed myself, I will also find a lock to put on this door, so you don't get it into your head to leave before you are rested."
Chastised, Danny slunk past Clockwork. But, feeling just a little contrary, he didn't go to the bed. Instead he sat at the vanity and gave Clockwork a challenging look.
"That is what it is there for," said Clockwork. "Rest well, Daniel." He closed the cage door and left.
Well. Okay then. He picked up one of the brushes. He did need to get some of the red ectoplasm and ash gunk out of his wings. It felt gross, as always, and he had picked up some things between the falconers and Pandora's bath attendants.
But he couldn't keep it up for long, and soon he was dozing off between brushstrokes and, oh! The blinds were on automatic, run by one of Clockwork's chains. He'd wondered.
He put the brush down and crawled into the bed. The backs of the blinds, he saw as they reached the bottom of the cage, were painted in the same pattern as the messenger room in Dora's castle. Maybe they were a gift from her to Clockwork?
Long Now became a new, comfortable stop on Danny's route. Clockwork, like Frostbite, tried to explain things in ways that Danny could understand, but unlike with Frostbite, Danny felt like he was really having conversations with Clockwork, thanks to his ability to look ahead and see what Danny wanted to ask.
Flying started to feel different as the pieces of land in the Zone started to clump together more and more. Volcanoes were getting common, for one thing. Probably all the ash in the air was from more distant ones. Seeing flying ghosts was getting rarer. These days, the only people Danny saw flying were ones with wings. Everyone else marched on the ground.
"As we shift from being ghosts to being demons," said Clockwork, offering Danny another textbook to eat, "our abilities shift as well. You will probably notice many people losing their auras soon, although you are likely to keep yours."
But Danny had thought the shift was only aesthetic. And why would he be an exception?
"Are our abilities not part of our aesthetic?" asked Clockwork. "And you are not exactly an exception, per-se. Your caste is designed to be flashy, visible. You notice, do you not, how easily you stand out against most natural landscapes." He lifted the edge of Danny's wing, showing off its white feathers.
So, did that mean he couldn't turn invisible anymore? Or go through walls? Not that he could test that second one while he was in the Zone.
"Well," said Clockwork, "when was the last time you tried?"
Putting it that way… Danny went invisible. He could still do it, but it was definitely harder. He let himself fade back into visibility.
"There are, as always, outliers," said Clockwork, amused. "It would be useful if you could keep that ability."
Useful. Clockwork and the others were using that word as a compliment a lot, lately. He was useful, his messages were useful… It was becoming sort of attention-grabbing for him. A positive trigger. On the other hand, being called useless…
"If those fools of Pandora's are giving you a hard time, I can mention it in my next message."
Danny shook his head. He didn't want to get anyone in trouble. He got the impression they were just jealous.
"If that is your preference. It is time for you to sleep, now."
Obediently, Danny flew himself to his birdcage and shut the door behind him.
Danny listened to a group of yetis argue. An argument between yetis sounded like an apocalypse, and shook the snow from nearby mountains. Danny was avoiding the avalanches by hiding in Frostbite's mane.
His latest message from Clockwork had set this argument off. Something about nearby demon princes and the Observants. Or, the Observants counting as a demon prince. Or about the groups that held the land between the Time Locked Lands and the Far Frozen becoming more aggressive. Or about them being conquered. Danny got the impression that the topic had shifted a few times, and he lacked a great deal of context.
He sort of wanted to ask Clockwork to give him books about whatever language everyone was using for messages, too, so he could understand better. Although, on the other hand, he got the feeling that a lot of what he carried was military secrets, so… He might just be better off not knowing.
The argument eventually wound down, and Frostbite plucked him from his mane. "I am sorry you had to hear that, Great One."
Danny shrugged as best he could in Frostbite's grip.
"Are you ready to eat?" asked Frostbite.
Danny nodded vigorously. He hadn't been as hungry lately, with all the messages he was carrying in his stomach, but there was no way he'd ever turn down food.
One morning… or, well. It wasn't really morning in the Zone. But when he woke up, he stretched and looked at himself in the birdcage's vanity mirror. Ugh. He'd thought his lower back had been weirdly itchy last night. Turns out he'd been growing another set of wings. Fun. At least nothing else had changed in a while. Chitons worked fine for him, but, wow, was Sam going to have trouble designing anything modern that would work with all this.
He went through his morning routine and flew down to where Clockwork waited by the long table. He was holding a book. The book, Danny now realized.
"I think you should be ready, now," said Clockwork, pleasantly. He put the book on the table in front of Danny.
He could read it!
The book was titled The Training and Use of Mouths, a Complete Primer for the Rising Demon Prince. Danny opened the cover, and turned pages carefully with a bent knuckle until he reached a table of contents.
Chapter 1: Qualities of Mouths
Chapter 2: The Training of Mouths
Section 1: Initial Training
Section 2: Messengers
Section 3: Songbirds
Section 4: Training for Other Specialties
Chapter 3: The Uses of Mouths
Section 1: Traditional Uses
Section 2: Taking Advantage of Loyalty
Section 3: Mouths as Weapons
Section 4: Mouths as Status Symbols
Chapter 4: The Care of Mouths
Section 1: Physical Care
Section 2: Social Care
Chapter 5: Incorporating Mouths into a Typical Court
Appendix A: Materials
Appendix B: Other Modifications
That was… hm. This seemed oriented more towards people who were in positions of authority over Mouths rather than Mouths themselves, but he was sure it would still be useful to him. At least, if he knew the traditional uses of Mouths, he might be able to do them better, if he was asked.
Danny flipped pages back and forth, reading a passage here and a passage there, not quite ready to tackle the whole thing in order.
Mouths are voracious, even ravenous, omnivores, especially when they are not carrying messages. However, they rarely gain weight, unless they are recovering from malnourishment. It is unclear where the things they eat go. Their hunger is a great benefit to those wishing to impress one to their service, or those wishing to train one, as they are highly food-motivated.
Among other castes, Mouths have a reputation for being vain and lazy. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. This stereotype arises from their atypical docility, lack of territoriality and ambition, and sensitivity regarding their feathered wings. Mouths will rarely start fights. However, this should not lead to the assumption that they are weak. Recall that Prince Morningstar used legions of Mouths in his armies, and they were terribly effective.
For those concerned about their Mouth's food needs, it is important to note both that they are true omnivores and that their food intake drops drastically when they are regularly carrying messages.
Even more than the Knight caste, Mouths are loyal. They rarely alter their allegiance after their first moon-cycle of existence, and changes of allegiance after a sun-cycle are unheard of except in cases of extreme coercive force. Even the waters of the Lethe are not effective on their own.
On occasion, Princes especially concerned with the loyalty and discretion of their Mouth - or perhaps wary of the resourcefulness of their enemies - would fit the Mouth with a carcanet, or collar. This carcanet would prevent the Mouth from opening and repeating the message unless it was first unlocked and removed. Generally, only the Mouth's master and those they regularly corresponded with would have keys. In some cases, where the Prince only used the Mouth as a medium to receive messages with, only the Prince themselves would possess a key.
It is important to note that only ghosts of a certain strength can properly impart a message to a Mouth. A Mouth that is too much stronger than the one giving the message will not be able to receive it.
There are two subsets of Mouths. Messengers and songbirds. Messengers are in a more natural state, and are the type most discussed in this book. Songbirds are created by repeatedly filling Mouths to their limit with messages consisting of musical compositions and preventing them from discharging those messages, typically either through excellent discipline training or a carcanet, until the messages are digested. Through this process, the songbird will eventually develop a 'voice' consisting of the musical compositions used in this process. However, this should not be mistaken for a true voice, as the songbird has little control over what they are 'saying.'
A less common use for Mouths is as a disposal for cursed or inconvenient magical artifacts. Even very powerful artifacts can be digested by a Mouth in a matter of cycles. This does not come without side effects, however, and the wise Prince would do well to expect the Mouth to be unusable for the duration.
Danny, disquieted, returned to the table of contents, and found the section titled Initial Training.
Training of Mouths should begin as soon as their wings and feathers grow in. Assuming the Mouth is not already familiar with and positively inclined towards the prospective trainer, their cooperation may be easily secured with a promise of food. Then, a short message, no more than two sentences, should be recorded on the Mouth. The prince may accomplish this by touching their horns to the Mouth's and focusing on "pushing" the desired message into them. This should feel similar to sharing energy with Knights or imparting instructions to Hands, but less taxing. The message should then be delivered by instructing the Mouth to attempt to speak.
Some difficulty can occur if the Mouth was mute prior to becoming a Mouth. If this is the case, the author humbly suggests that the prince reading this guide consider training the Mouth as a songbird (see section 3 of this chapter for more details).
The Realms in Their wisdom create Mouths in such a way that they find both the receipt and delivery of messages pleasant, and many Mouths also have Obsessions that align with these ingrained instincts, which increases the effect. However, if the message delivered is as the prince intended, the Mouth ought to be fed regardless of whether or not food was promised to it. This not only associates reward with the acts of receiving and delivering messages, but also with the prince themselves.
If the message was not correctly recorded, the prince may try again. If the recording continues to fail, the Mouth may be defective (see chapter 4, Care, for more details).
While the Mouth is eating, and therefore receptive, they should then be asked to deliver a message elsewhere. The receiver should either be one of the prince's own retainers or a close ally, to prevent the Mouth from being stolen by enemies. This message should be as long as it is possible for the Mouth to hold. The prince will be able to sense when this limit is reached by a feeling of heightened resistance when recording the message.
Delivering a message of this length will exhaust the Mouth, allowing the receiver to care for the Mouth by giving it food, grooming, and a place to rest (see chapter 4, Care, for more details, and Appendix A: Materials for grooming tools). During this time, the receiver can then ask the Mouth to carry a message in return.
This pattern of exhausting the Mouth, caring for it and rewarding it, and making a further request should be continued with small alterations each time. Alterations may include things like changing locations or kind of reward, slowly changing requests to expectations and orders, and package training.
One new to the training of Mouths might be surprised to find package training to be part of initial training, however this author finds that–
"They are using you to cement their alliance," said Clockwork, leaning over Danny's shoulder. "They are all quite fond of you, personally, and your utility is high. I believe the alliance will be successful." He leaned back and started carding his fingers through Danny's hair. "Why does it matter that they like you? You have read that Mouths are loyal. For those he owes that loyalty to to break with one another… It would be very damaging to you, Daniel, even now, and they do not want to hurt you. This alliance is very important, but given the pressures of these forms… The aggressions engendered by red ectoplasm…"
Danny could understand it. An alliance between the Far Frozen, the Time Locked Lands, and Pandora's Tartarus would keep the peoples of those lands far safer than they would have been on their own. Danny was flattered, honored, that he had been able to help, that they trusted him so much, that they liked him so much that they considered hurting him to be a strong disincentive to betrayal, but he would have liked to have been asked before being made a lynchpin.
"I would like to join them. In this aesthetic, the chains that bind me to Long Now are both stronger and… more literal. As you might imagine, having the Observants as my sole contact with the outside world is distasteful to me." Clockwork began to twist Danny's hair into a braid. "I would ask you to help me."
See? Clockwork got it. Danny nodded. Of course he would help. If he was already delivering messages for Frostbite, Dora, and Pandora, it wasn't like it was an imposition. And he'd always asked these guys if he could help them, and the answer had always been no for so long.
Clockwork chuckled, the sound clicking and mechanical. "You do not need to decide just yet. I am perfectly happy to give you all the time you need to consider your options."
That just prompted Danny to nod more vigorously. He wanted to help. He wanted to be useful.
Which, maybe, he shouldn't, considering what he had just read. The instructions in that book laid out how to manipulate someone like him, and his friends, his allies, had followed the steps perfectly. They'd done it for a good reason, sure, but… It should have shaken him to the core, and it did. But he didn't exactly dislike what he had been doing. He could have stopped at any time. He'd enjoyed it. Carrying the messages had been oddly fulfilling, he'd enjoyed the positive attention, he was well fed, well rested, clean, useful, and he hadn't gotten into a fight since– since–
A flush of panic spread from Danny's heart to his extremities. How long had he spent running messages? How long had he been away from home?
Clockwork wrapped his hands around Danny's horns, grounding him. He hadn't known holding his horns could do that, but of course Clockwork would. He'd read the book.
"It has only been a season," said Clockwork, calmly, despite the not at all soothing content of his words. "When you leave here, immediately return to the human world and only transform to your human form when you are near a hospital." He lowered his hands to Danny's wings and began to clean them methodically. "You have not been human for some time, and there are consequences to that. Tell them that you were kidnapped and drugged, and do not remember where you were. Your body will corroborate your story, as it will be somewhat malnourished, although not dangerously so. I would like to borrow seven of your eye-feathers."
One of Danny's ears rotated back towards Clockwork, questioning.
"It is to make something for you, and us. There is a section about it in that book." Clockwork leaned over Danny's shoulder and turned to a page in the appendices. It was labeled Sympathetic Summoning Rings and included an illustration of a Mouth wearing two shiny metal rings around the bases of their horns. "Two for your horns, one for me, one for Princess Dorathea, one for Queen Pandora, one for Chief Frostbite, and one for your sister. So you know when you are needed by one of us, and when you are needed at home."
Yes. Jazz would like something like that. Especially considering how badly he had lost track of time. He nodded his agreement and Clockwork plucked the feathers so quickly he barely felt it.
"I also think that you may be able to do more than act as a simple messenger. After all, you are not only a demon," he continued, answering Danny's unspoken question. "Do you not think that a truly loyal ambassador might be useful? One who might negotiate, not merely repeat messages? That even in this troubled age of demons, you might help broker peace?"
Oh. Oh. No, he hadn't considered that, but now he wanted it, and he wanted it with an intensity that left him rather… bemused. He hadn't been this passionate about things like this before, had he?
"That is because protecting your town took up most of your time and attention. You have been… reoriented and redirected. Before, you acted against your ghostly nature in many ways, in your obedience to the authority figures of your hometown and your desire to conform. Now, you act in accordance with your demonic nature with that same obedience. But even if you could act as a scout, would that not be helpful? Would that not be useful?"
No longer at all upset, Danny nodded. Yes, he would be useful. He still felt… bad… that he'd been away from home so long, though, and he couldn't help but wonder if someone had gotten hurt.
"Amity Park is safe," said Clockwork. "For the most part, the princes are turning their attention towards enemies closer to home. It is unusual for a demon prince to conquer enough of the Realms to feel secure in attempting to invade the Earth. Pariah was, as you have correctly concluded, the last one to do so, and he was betrayed quite handily by his subordinates for his pride. Besides, your rival, Vladimir, is territorial enough to defend it in your absence."
That was a relief.
Clockwork finished Danny's wings and patted his shoulders. "One more thing you should know, before you leave," he said. "The Observants have started to work to occlude my vision of nearby events. I have been timing your departures to help you avoid enemies, but until whatever tool they are using is stolen or destroyed…" He shrugged, indicating his inability to see.
Danny wondered if this was why Clockwork had shown Danny the book today, rather than waiting for another time.
"It did affect my decision," admitted Clockwork. "You can stay here until you are ready to go, of course. Perhaps someone will destroy their tools for us, and I will be able to send you on with a clear conscience."
That would be nice. But Sam and Tucker had to be worried out of their minds, not to mention Jazz. Danny wasn't sure what a 'season' meant to Clockwork, but thinking back… Yeah. It could have been months.
What had he been thinking? How did he lose track of time so badly? How could anyone? Why didn't it occur to him that he should go home? It's not like he'd forgotten about his friends and family.
"During these shifts, our new instincts can grip us quite strongly. It isn't a moral failing to fall into them."
Alright. He was just going to chalk it up to ghost… to demon weirdness and let it go.
But he also had to go. Now that he'd noticed, he couldn't delay.
Danny flew high over the battlefields, occasionally snatching imps out of the air with his tongues if they passed too close to him. It had been a while since he traveled without a message or at least a package, and he felt both light and empty.
The landscape had changed so much… There wasn't a hint of green anywhere, except on his wings and in the spilled blood-ectoplasm of a few unfortunate demons.
As Danny got further from Long Now, he had to dodge more random attacks. No one was really flying after him, but ectoblasts fired from the ground were still annoying, and once he passed a group with siege engines, and that had been more annoying. It kept him on high alert.
About a quarter of the way back to the portal, he started to feel like he was being watched. The feeling kept increasing. He turned himself invisible, and changed directions. This might lose a casual follower, but if he was getting followed by something really nasty that could see through his ruse, he'd rather face it in the Time Locked Lands with Dora's armies at his back. Or, preferably, at his front.
Not having to fight all that much for 'a season' really had spoiled him.
But he'd miscalculated. The density of the rain of ectoblasts that came down at him made invisibility a moot point.
Danny called up an ice shield and twisted as he fell, trying to stay airborne despite the burns on his wings. He built another shield beneath his first, and let that one fly outwards as a hundred tiny knives of ice. He was rewarded with grunts of pain as Observants fell from the sky around him, apparently too distracted by their injuries to stay flying.
Observants. Of course. And of course they managed to keep some ghost powers, too, even as they mutated into horrible gargoyle-like creatures with eyeballs instead of faces and stony wings.
They were above him in the air, for the most part. That was dangerous. If he wanted to escape them, he needed a superior altitude.
He dove, trying to gain distance, and then banked sharply up, dodging ectoblasts as best he was able. Even so, he could hear his shield cracking with impacts. The density of fire they could achieve when they all were shooting at once was just too high.
Another group cut off his escape, forcing him to swerve, and then, with a well-placed hit, drop further into a kind of gully that deepened further into a canyon cut by a slow-moving river of sludge.
… Actually, from the stink, this might be the River of Revulsion. Ick.
Even beyond the River of Revulsion being disgusting, this was very bad. He had to punch a hole out, now.
He swung to the side of the canyon, clung to rock with the talon-like claws on his feet, and called up an enormous ice field that spiked up from the ground. The Observants who had been lining that lip of the canyon scattered, and Danny flew up and out, winding his way between his ice spikes.
Come to think of it, this is what he and Frostbite had been practicing, when the age first began to change.
He shot off, as fast as he could go, staying close to the ground. When among the Observants, he'd wanted to get higher, but now the goal was to make himself as small a target as possible. Ectoblasts impacted the ground just behind him, and to either side, but he felt sure he was outpacing the Observants.
Then, the net.
The thing hit him hard, and, in turn, he hit the ground hard, rolling for who knows how long before he came to a stop and the thing immediately shocked him. Repeatedly. This wasn't his first encounter with shock-happy jerks, though, and being shocked just gave him more of a reason to struggle, not less.
But the net was weighted, and the more he fought, the tighter it got. Even ice didn't seem to have any effect on the net.
And then another net was dropped over him. And he was kicked so he rolled over and the second net tangled around him, too.
"I told you, you wouldn't be able to catch him with your regular techniques," said a familiar voice. Danny glared up at the faceplate of Skulker's new armor. "Nothing personal, Phantom, but if I want to stay an independent bounty hunter, I have to deliver bounties."
"Which you still haven't," wheezed an Observant. "Your contract was for his safe delivery to the Panopticon."
Skulker sneered. "Fine." He jabbed something sharp through the nets and into Danny's arm.
Danny woke to the sensation of someone putting something around his neck. He lunged forward, claws out, or tried to. His hands and feet were chained securely to the surface of a table, where several Observants worked to file down his claws, in itself a horrible feeling.
He tried to open his mouth and attack with tooth and tongue, but he could only part his lips to the place where the underside of his jaw met his neck. That is, the upper edge of the collar, the carcanet, he had just been fitted with.
"Don't look so surprised," said what looked like a higher-ranked Observant, standing on a platform above Danny. "This is standard treatment for songbirds, which is all you're good for."
Danny did his best to ignore that chilling statement, and licked the back of his teeth. They hadn't muzzled him. Their mistake. He spat his venom directly at the ranking Observant. It hit his cloak and ice began to spread over it rapidly. He continued to spit, sowing chaos throughout the room until someone thought to sedate him again.
He woke in a cage suspended in the center of a huge atrium. Observants scurried around, in the air, on the walls, and on the floor. Occasionally, a few of them would stop and… look at Danny, their gaze almost admiring, like they were looking at a work of art.
Danny didn't like that.
Worse, several of his feathers, ones he thought were important, had been either pulled or cut out. He didn't know how that would affect his ability to fly, but he didn't imagine it would be good.
His lower legs and arms had been encased, from claw-tip to heel and claw-tip to elbow, in… in some sort of decorative covering. The material was heavy and didn't bend, and was inscribed with the same motifs that decorated the walls and the Observants robes. The casings also trailed chains that led into tubes on the sides of the cage. Experimentally, he froze the material, but, paradoxically, it heated up, symbols glowing, and he stopped before he could give himself nasty burns.
And there was a muzzle, now. One that hooked onto his horns and put tension on them that felt, weirdly, both good and bad. Like there was supposed to be tension on his horns, just not like this.
Other than that, the cage was bare. Nothing on the floor, no comforts, no bed except for the bars. Not even any clothing for Danny. Someone had stolen his chiton. Jerks.
A group of Observants broke off from a larger gathering and flew to Danny's cage. With a great deal of pomp, they opened the door.
Whatever mechanism operated the door must have been connected to the chains attached to his arms and legs, because those chains went taut, pulling him into a starfish position suspended in the middle of the cage. An Observant wearing fine, jeweled robes strode in, stony claws clicking over the bars of the cage.
"Ah," it said, "our new little songbird."
Danny glared. This seemed to amuse the Observant.
"You understand that although a prince might try to rescue a messenger, they won't raise a hand to help a songbird. In only a few more cycles, you'll only be useful as decoration." The Observant circled him. "No one is coming to save you. You're never leaving this cage again." Its eyes crinkled in pleasure. "Yes, that frightens you, doesn't it? And we haven't even gotten started."
Wow. Not even started, huh. Danny sure considered them kidnapping him to be starting.
"Oh, even if we'll never have your loyalty, we can train you up, yes, yes, and punish the little clock, that wind-up toy for daring to go against us." It wrinkled its eye further, and patted Danny's cheek with a three-fingered hand. "You doubt, now, don't you? But you're already hungry, aren't you? Eventually, we will at least have your…" It lowered its voice to something deep and ominous, "cooperation. Hm? And if not, well… You'll sing very prettily, regardless, and remind all our… vassals of what we can do."
Danny doubted that.
"Well. Well. We need to start on our first session, don't we? I will begin with my favorite composers." It touched its horns to Danny's.
Before this, Danny hadn't appreciated that his friends hadn't filled him to his limit. No. They must have stopped when they felt him approaching it. This Observant had no such scruples. He filled Danny, then kept pushing until it hurt. Only then did it step away.
"I will return," it said, cheerfully.
The chains dropped Danny to the bottom of the cage as the Observant left, closing the door behind it. Danny trembled, his jaw twitching to open and release the immense pressure of the message inside him. He felt he could almost hear the music, something howling and operatic, inside his head.
He had to get out of here. Fast. But if he tried to escape haphazardly, under these circumstances, he would fail.
The Observants had, seemingly, overlooked an enormous hole in their security. Danny could turn human. He could phase cleanly through most Zone materials… unless that, too, had changed with the age.
But, his human form was, in Clockwork's words, malnourished. Enough that he'd thought Danny should go to a hospital, first thing. And this cage was at least a couple of stories up. A fall could be… bad. Especially since he was pretty sure his wings had been clipped and he therefore couldn't rely on a transformation to keep him from hitting the ground.
Then there were all the Observants. He'd gotten lucky, that time with Walker. Most of the time, ghosts were able to adjust more quickly to humans in their midst, and these weren't ghosts. These were demons.
But even so…
He pulled himself into a sitting position, grimacing at his inability to move his feet or wrists. A place like this had to operate on some sort of schedule. If he could figure out what the quiet times were, he would have a better chance. And maybe he could somehow use the chains to climb down… Or he could climb up. This cage had to be attached to something up there.
That was a good idea. He'd climb up and then… go from there. He had no idea what the rest of this place looked like, so planning beyond get out and general strategies wasn't going to be very useful.
He squinted at the Observants below him. Maybe he could steal a robe or a cloak from one of them and sneak around? It worked in enough movies… He probably shouldn't bet his life and freedom on something from a movie working, though.
He continued to sort through options as he tried to find a pattern to the Observants' movements. For a while, that served to keep his mind off… things.
Not forever, though.
He hadn't read a lot about songbirds in the book, but he'd read enough to know that he really would be useless if the Observants succeeded in making him one, and he had no idea how long that process would take. He couldn't, at least, serve as a messenger anymore, and the implication that he wouldn't have any choice about 'singing' was clear. He didn't want to be some kind of demonic iPod.
If that happened, he wouldn't blame anyone for abandoning him.
The next 'session' left Danny clawing at his neck and face in a futile attempt to remove the carcanet and muzzle. But with the coverings, he couldn't even scratch his face, let alone metal.
The internal pressure was enormous.
He managed to stop himself after only a few minutes of writhing. He wanted to pant, but had to settle for breathing heavily through his nose.
Maybe he should just take his chances at escaping now, rather than wait for a good time. He wasn't sure how much more of this he could take, especially if they weren't going to feed him.
His stomach turned uneasily against the sensation of being both too full and too empty.
But, no. Planning. Planning was what was going to get him out.
But what if he just got weaker and weaker until he couldn't escape?
He flexed his knees and elbows, and the joints of his wings, trying to distract himself. If two more 'sessions' passed without him being able to find a good time, he would just take his chances.
A pair of Observants in plain robes flew up to his cage. One of them held two bowls, one full of cut fruit, the other full of seeds. The other unlocked the door, pulling Danny into the same splayed, vulnerable position as before.
Danny's stomach rumbled loudly, and he felt drool drip off his chin. He was starving, and he didn't doubt the Observants knew it.
"If we take off the muzzle, will you cooperate and eat like a good little songbird?"
Danny made his eyes as wide and innocent as possible and nodded, projecting serenity. As soon as the muzzle came off, he yanked on his chains and twisted, biting the Observant. It yoweled as its flesh froze beneath Danny's fangs, and Danny spit it out, disgusted. Even as hungry as he was, he didn't want to eat that.
That's what demons with cores taste like, supplied the itchy, instinctive part of his brain as he did his best to raise more chaos.
The muzzle went back on.
The door, however, stayed open. They left the food, too. He wondered if this was another carefully-constructed torture, waving both food and freedom in his face like this when he was even more immobilized.
He tried to comfort himself by thinking it didn't really matter. The food was probably drugged, anyway, and he could still get out of this by turning human.
But he was so hungry. He was tempted to turn human just so he could eat. He still had enough willpower to refrain from that, even though his body periodically twitched towards the food.
His question about whether or not leaving the door open and the food present was intentional was answered moments later. Another plain Observant flew towards the cage and started to adjust something near the door.
The tension on the chains holding Danny in place increased.
A few minutes later, just as Danny had gotten used to the new stress on his limbs, the tension was increased again, to the accompanying giggle of the Observant.
It kept on like that for… it must have been hours. At irregular intervals, the Observant would either tighten or loosen the chains. Never enough to give Danny any real relief, no, but enough to make him wonder if they were finally closing the door.
All thoughts about planning an escape were put on hold in favor of anticipating whether or not the next change would be an increase in tension or a release. Between that and the increasingly delicious smell of the fruit and seed, he had no room in his head for anything else.
"I've come to see our little songbird."
Danny jerked his head up. A small group of Observants floated at the door. He hadn't noticed them coming. The two best dressed were a large Observant with jewels set in its stony skin and a smaller one with a clipboard.
The Observant who'd been operating the chains giggled. "I don't think you'll like the look of it, my lord."
"I'll be the judge of that."
The Observant got up close to Danny, poking and prodding, pushing back his eyelids and looking in his ears.
"You were right," said the jeweled Observant. "I don't like the way it's looking at us. Schedule an appointment with the enucleator."
The Observant with the clipboard scoffed. "The stupid thing probably doesn't even know what that is."
"No, it doesn't. Maybe we'll tell it, eventually. In the meantime, have him fitted with a blindfold."
Danny… did not panic. It was a near thing, but he didn't. Even when a large portion of his mind was screaming he had to go now now now because there was no way he'd be able to spot a pattern in the Observants' movements while blindfolded, he didn't panic.
Panicking would lose him the few advantages he did have here.
So he breathed slowly, deliberately, as one of the Observants held lengths of cloth up to his eyes for the jeweled Observant's approval and another ducked behind him to clean his wings. He resisted, of course, moving as much as he could, pulling his wings away. He didn't think he'd be able to stop himself from at least doing that.
"If you don't stop moving, little songbird, we will have your ears stopped up with wax as well."
Danny went as still as stone.
"Good songbird," said the Observant.
The Observant eventually chose an embroidered length of cloth with an eye motif on it. Danny might have thought it pretty if it wasn't associated with the Observants. This was then sewn, in front of Danny, onto a stiff, shaped leather body that was clearly intended to attach to the muzzle Danny was wearing. Which indicated to Danny that the whole thing was a farce, and they were always going to blindfold him.
Before they put the blindfold on, they painted his eyes over with something stinging and sticky. It started to harden as soon as the blindfold was pressed in place. He was not going to be able to get it to slip.
Then, of course, the Observant 'filled' him.
Forget going through this again. As soon as they left and shut the door, he was going to start his escape, good timing or not.
Or, at least he'd start as soon as his head stopped ringing with hallucinatory music.
The door did not close. The tension on his limbs was not released. In fact, a moment after he thought that, the tension increased again. That one stupid Observant was still here.
At least that one stupid Observant was still there.
Fine. Fine. Danny would just have to… to listen. To focus on what he could hear to find out if they were really gone.
Danny's hearing seemed intent on making up for Danny's inability to see. Danny was becoming less and less sure that the music was hallucinatory. It was distant and faint, maddeningly so, but it was also very regular. On top of that were the rising and ebbing sounds of the Observants going about their business. Also, his ears felt like they were growing, and he hated the fact that they might be.
But his hearing wasn't the only sense Danny still had access to. His bare skin felt every breeze. He could feel the coverings on his arms and feet cutting into his skin. He could feel the glue over his eyes drying, itching. He could feel the carcanet as his neck strove to open. He felt the muzzle pressing in on his jaw.
He could smell.
The food was still in his cage, and it smelled delicious.
The idea of food grew larger and larger in Danny's mind, not that it had exactly been small before. Drool dripped down his front.
And then it smelled close. The chains loosened just a little, and he unconsciously leaned forward. They listened a little more. He was getting closer. Bit by bit, until he was eeling along the barred floor, his joints stressed too much to work right.
He strained towards what he knew was food… And then he was yanked back up, pulled away.
The laughter was uproarious. He flinched away, but it was coming from all sides and he couldn't move.
Then it started again. He knew, he knew he was going to be yanked backwards again, but he couldn't help being hungry, and, maybe, just maybe, there was a chance.
There wasn't. He was jerked back again.
A third time, he was slowly released.
He reached the food. Finally.
He still had the muzzle on. He pushed it against the fruits in the bowl, well, fuitlessly.
"Aw," said a voice much closer than Danny had expected. "Is the little songbird hungry?"
Danny nodded, tearfully.
"But the little songbird misbehaved. Has the little songbird learned its lesson?"
"Next time," said the Observant, sing-song and taunting, "if the little songbird is naughty, it won't eat again until it can sing for its food."
The muzzle was stripped from his face and he immediately dove at the bowls. He didn't care, in the moment, if they were drugged or not. He didn't care that the fruits were filled with unsatisfying paper. All he cared about was being a little less hungry.
Or, rather, those things did matter to him. It was just that eating superseded other concerns.
"Little songbird's favorite food is music," said the Observant, giggling. "Bye bye, little songbird. Until next time."
The door clanged shut. Oh. Oh, thank goodness. They'd left him alone.
Something drowsy came over him. Of course the food had been drugged. Of course. But if he fell asleep now… His imagination conjured a horrible cycle where he woke up starving, was 'filled,' and then fed and drugged again and again and again. Probably with some added torture to amuse the Observants, who had definitely picked up a sadistic streak.
But he could feel himself slipping, slipping, slipping–
He called on his ice powers, and the coverings burned hot. Hot enough to wake him.
Okay. Alright. He could do this. He could stay awake, and listen, and keep his ice powers going, and escape.
He listened. The sounds the Observants made increased and decreased like a tide. There was a pattern. There was. Even beyond the music playing in his head, there was. There had to be.
There was a dip. A deeper dip.
Good enough. He turned human.
The music he'd been holding inside him burst outward with destructive force. Half the cage bars exploded outward, and what was left of the structure spun dizzily. Danny clung to the chains that had held him in place earlier, his human hands small and shaking, his sneakers unfamiliar as they scrabbled against the bars.
The atrium, he saw, had not been emptier. In fact, there had been several jeweled observants close to his cage, no doubt coming to torment him.
They were now embedded in the nearest walls.
It was no ghostly wail, but Danny was glad he had something. Let them just try to turn him into a songbird again!
Well. Actually, no. They'd probably come up with some way to keep him from transforming.
He had to get out of here.
It would be a lot easier if his human form didn't feel just as horrible and shaky as his ghost form. Malnutrition sucked and he never wanted to do it again.
Something landed on his shoulder. Reflexively, Danny turned and bit. Observants tasted just as gross in human form as they did in demon form, but this time, he didn't let go. He wrapped his arms around the hapless Observant as it flew to and fro, trying to dislodge him. Danny tried to use his weight to steer it lower.
It did get lower. It also ran headfirst into a pillar. They dropped.
But Danny, at least, didn't drop far. He grabbed on to a tasseled rope and slid several meters down, friction wearing burns into his hands. More cautiously, but still quickly, before the Observants gathered themselves enough to really look around themselves, he let himself slide down the rest of the way. He hit the Observant he'd caught a ride on in the head with both feet just as it was getting up.
Ooh! Free robe!
Maneuvering the Observant so he could strip the robe off it was difficult, but, wow, adrenaline was great, wasn't it? He flipped the hood up over his head and disappeared. Literally.
Going invisible in human form was always a bit harder than it was in ghost form, but now it was harder still. He didn't know if it was because he was slowly losing the ability, or if it was just because of how… how… He didn't know how to describe his physical and mental state at the moment. Bad, he supposed.
He ducked down a corridor that led out of the atrium and walked until he was almost falling over. He peeked into rooms until he found something that looked like a storeroom and tucked himself behind the crates there. Then he passed out.
"Even if they have found another Mouth, Clockwork is useless to their alliance without his predictions. As long as the oracle has the Mist of Ages, we will crush them."
Danny blinked himself awake. Oh, that sounded interesting. Mist of Ages, huh? That sounded like something important. That sounded like the thing 'occluding' Clockwork's vision.
"And the songbird's escape?"
"It won't stay escaped."
Screw them. He would stay escaped.
"The oracle is having a hard time seeing it. Its turned human."
"That won't last forever. I would never stay human for so long."
"Songbirds have no standards."
"They must have some pride. Even they are demons. In fact, its probably turned back and the oracle can see it now."
"I doubt it."
"You doubt me? Your senior? Very well. Let's go back and check."
Danny carefully extricated himself from the boxes he'd fallen asleep among, and crept out of the store room, drawing on invisibility as much as he could. Down the hall walked a pair of Observants. He followed them.
Maybe that was stupid. He was trying to escape, after all, but if the oracle had the thing keeping Clockwork from seeing, even if he got caught, it might be worth it if he could destroy it. Plus, he had no idea which way was the way out.
The Observants reached a set of stairs and climbed up and up. Danny, shaking, followed.
The stairs were topped by a set of double doors guarded by Observants in armor. They confronted the two Observants Danny had been following, and spoke to them for a while. Then, they opened the doors.
Danny hurried to follow them, slipping in just before the doors shut again.
In the center of the room sat a huge, bloated Observant. Despite its size, its eye was more than twice the size of the rest of its boxy. Tiny, stubby horns poked up from its head. It lounged among eye-embroidered cushions and in its clawed hand was a bottle that spilled fog into the room like there was a miniature fog machine in there.
Or maybe not so miniature, Danny realized as he grew closer. The bottle was as big as his torso, at least.
His invisibility flickered, and he latched onto it with mental claws. Not. Now. His eyes unfocused and his ears filled with static.
Heck. He really felt bad.
"Oh, great oracle," said one of the Observants. "Prince of Seers! Tell us, where is the songbird once called Phantom?"
The oracle's great eye turned towards Danny. Danny lunged forward, clawing and biting and scratching and basically doing everything his worn body was capable of. This did not seem to be something the oracle expected.
Danny was beginning to doubt their credentials, vis a vis the whole 'Prince of Seers' bit.
He got the bottle in his hands and smashed it on the ground. This had the effect of filling the room with opaque smoke. It also had the effect of giving Danny a very large weapon of very pointy glass.
Uncaring of the smoke, he stabbed around himself wildly. Everyone in here was an enemy. Well, except for himself, and, mentally, he was relaxing in Tartarus, the Far Frozen, Long Now, or the Time Locked Lands, so there. From the screams of pain, he was hitting targets.
Then, he hit something big that burst like a balloon, the remains of the bottle serving to channel a lot of moist, bloody gel directly at Danny. Oh. Oh, gross. He must have popped the oracle's eye. And now its eye goop was on him! In his clothes! On his skin!
Not that all the Observants didn't deserve to have their eyes popped, but. Gross. Very gross.
All the lights in the room went out.
Except… there was a skylight.
In human form, he'd never make it up there, but in demon form… He transformed. The blindfold came back, but the claw coverings had, thankfully, been left behind. Too attached to the chains, he guessed. He licked them. They felt raw and blunted, but they'd do. He covered them with sharp ice and began his way up the wall.
He remembered, more or less, where the window was, and when he thought he'd gotten close enough, he let ice spread out from his hands. A sharp enough temperature change–
Something splintered, and he felt small pieces of glass rain down on him, accompanied by a breese. There were shouts from below. He ignored them.
He was on the roof.
How far up he was, he had no idea. None at all. But he had no choice. He threw himself forward and flared his wings.
He faltered, falling, the feathers that the Observants had cut from his wings enough to sabotage him after all, but then he remembered what it was like to fly as a ghost, and he pulled up.
This was fine. Fine! Bats flew blind all the time, didn't they? Surely his hearing was at least as good as a bat's!
Bats also could make echolocation sounds. Danny was mute.
He hit the ground and rolled, going human halfway through. He lay sprawled on his back for several minutes, watching with pleasure as the Observants' stupid building caught on fire. He hadn't thought his escape would cause so much chaos, but he hoped it hurt when they burned.
… That was a kind of sadistic thought for him, wasn't it?
Maybe, but he'd never been tortured before, either, had he?
He kind of had, though.
Not for that long.
Wasn't talking to himself sort of a bad sign?
He pulled himself to his feet. Now, all he had to do was get back to the Far Frozen, the Time Locked Lands, Long Now, or Tartarus. Easy.
Another way of putting that was to say all he had to do was travel an unknown distance in almost-literal hell, in an unknown direction, while avoiding an unknown number of demons, while literally and actively starving, and also human. Probably by walking. Less easy.
Better than staying here. He stumbled forward.
He saw the yetis long before they saw him. It was hard to imagine it happening otherwise. The yetis were a range of ice-mountains, moving slowly across the volcanic plains, white and stately. They looked, from this distance, like a cross between polar bears and lions.
Danny walked towards them, pausing to wave every few minutes in case they saw him. It seemed like forever before they did. But when they turned towards him… Oh, that was the best he'd felt in forever.
He sat down and started to cry, just a bit.
When they reached him, his earlier thought that their voices were too deep for humans proved true. He could feel them speaking, the words vibrating in his bones, but he couldn't understand any of it. They seemed to understand that, though. They gave him tasty jerky to chew on. Definitely an understanding.
Frostbite crouched in front of him. There was a box hanging around his neck, like the little cask around the neck of a St. Bernard. He took it off and put it on the ground next to Danny. Compared to Danny, it wasn't so little. It was easily the size of a good sized room. Frostbite took the lid off the box, and picked Danny up, carefully, telegraphing the movement far in advance.
Within the box was a hammock, a great number of pillows and blankets, and a small lamp.
Before he could be tucked into the box, no matter how inviting it looked with all the soft, cozy pillows and the comfortable hammock, he grabbed a handful of Frostbite's fur.
"Did you mean it?" asked Danny, hoarsely. "When you said I had a choice?" He switched to demon form so he could hear the answer.
"Of course!" said Frostbite. "But choosing to follow one's instincts is also a choice. You could have refused to carry any of our messages, after all, but you did not. I would hesitate to do so, under the current circumstances, but some would consider you quite fortunate that your new instincts align so well with your personal values. Even before you became a Mouth, you desired to be helpful, to be useful, to be valued, did you not? And now you can be, simply by playing the role you have been adapted for. Some would consider it fate."
Danny would… not discount fate, exactly. He flipped back human. "Where are you taking me?" he asked, before going back to demon form. Switching back and forth was starting to give him a headache.
"To Long Now. We may still retain our medical knowledge, but the physical practice of it… Even before you were taken, it was beginning to slip from us. Clockwork will be able to help you. Now, you must go in." Frostbite pushed him down a bit more firmly, and Danny let go. The lid of the box clicked closed above him.
He went human. He wanted to see.
The inside of the box was painted with the same pattern as the inside of the messenger room in Dora's castle. There had to be a meaning to that, there had to…
The pattern lit up, little lights moving this way and that. Danny felt his pupils go wide and his muscles relax. Oh, he thought, oh. This is what it was for. He felt the rough edges of his mind… they didn't disappear. It was more like they were put on mute.
He cuddled down into the blankets and pillows. So comfy. So nice, watching the little lights.
The lid of the box opened, and the little lights went out. He made a muffled noise of protest as he was lifted from the box not by Frostbite, but by Clockwork.
"Hello, Daniel," said Clockwork, carrying him deeper into Long Now. "I am sorry this happened to you. I know this is something that makes you anxious, so rest assured that you would have been rescued even if those fools had succeeded in making you a songbird. If nothing else, you would have always had a place here." Clockwork gestured up at Danny's cage.
Danny blinked at him, at first feeling nothing but gratitude, but… "Did you… mean for this to happen?"
"Daniel, if I wanted you made into a songbird, I would have merely needed to lock the door behind you that first night, and it would have been beyond easy to take care of the rest of the steps myself. I know you are not in a state to be interested in the details, but the Observants did a horribly sloppy, rushed job in their hurry to throw you back in our faces. If I were making you into a songbird, I would start with letting you help me pick out the music."
That was… weirdly comforting.
"In any case, if I were to make you into anything but a messenger, I would make you into a scribe. You would be much more suited for that role, even if their rarity surpassed even that of songbirds."
Still comforting. Somehow.
"But I would never do that without talking to you about it." He sat Danny down on a stool. "I will begin with an IV and food for your human form," he said. "I want it to be strengthened before we start on your demon form, so it is not forgotten again."
Danny nodded and offered up his arm. Clockwork, somehow, seemed to pluck an IV from thin air and carefully placed it in Danny's arm. Food, human food, or at least human-looking food, similarly appeared from nowhere.
"Eat," said Clockwork, "but slowly."
"Clockwork," said Danny, after he had made his way through several tiny, well-spaced meals, "can't I just… fix my human half when I go home? I mean, you told me to go to a hospital, so…"
"Ah," said Clockwork. "I'm afraid that's no longer possible."
Danny frowned. "Why not?"
"My powers have also shifted. I can no longer make temporal or physical portals." He snapped his fingers, as if to demonstrate. "If I could, I would have sent you home straight from here all those weeks ago. This means that you would have to fly there yourself."
Danny frowned. "Yeah? So?"
"When our allies discovered the Observants had captured you, they turned the majority of their forces towards them."
Danny hadn't realized that. Hadn't dreamed of being that important to them.
"This, in turn, meant abandoning some other projects." He sighed. "We had hoped to conquer the lands around the portal, both for the benefits access to the human world would bring, and for your ease, but it is no longer possible. The alliance of Vladimir, Fright Knight, and Technus is formidable. I do not believe they would let you pass without trying to keep you."
"Oh," said Danny.
"Do not worry," said Clockwork. "The age is yet young, the balance of power unstable. Alliances like theirs fall apart all the time. You may yet return. For now, put your effort into recovering, so you may help us."
"You think I'll still be useful?"
"As I said, even as a songbird, you would be useful, and, according to Frostbite, you had yet to undergo any of the physical changes that herald the transition from messenger to songbird."
"I could hear the music, though, in my head."
"Not ideal," said Clockwork, "but you will recover. I can see the future, you know."
Danny examined himself in the vanity mirror. It was strange, perhaps, but despite what had happened with the Observants, his birdcage didn't bother him at all. It felt like home, now, nice and secure. The only person who could lock him in this cage was Clockwork, and Clockwork would only do that if he was trying to do something stupid, like fly on broken wings, or if it were very expedient indeed.
Speaking of things not bothering him… He looked just as he had before the Observants caught him. Even his filed-down claws had recovered. The only scars the encounter had left were mental.
Hopefully, Clockwork would let him start working again soon. He was getting a little jittery from being cooped up in Long Now. Not that Long Now wasn't interesting, or that Clockwork wasn't taking wonderful care of him, giving him as much food as he could eat! It was just that he'd been in for a long time.
"Daniel," called Clockwork from below. "Come down. I have something for you."
Danny didn't need to be told twice. He leapt from his cage and flew down to hover in front of Clockwork.
"Do you remember what we talked about before you left?" asked Clockwork, smiling and leading Danny to a piece of wall that consisted of a mirror-polished gear. "The summoning rings?"
"They are done," said Clockwork, pulling a set of five rings from inside the sleeve of his robes. They were silver, the same color as Danny's filigree. "They resize to fit the wearer," he explained as he slipped one over his own wrist. He handed the remaining four to Danny, then pulled two more from his other sleeve. "May I?"
Danny bounced eagerly, wings fluttering. Clockwork's stance took on an indulgent tint.
"Turn around," he said.
Clockwork slid one of the two rings over Danny's left horn, all the way to the base, where it touched his skin, and the second ring over his right. They sat there, dense and cool, but they didn't quite feel right. He tilted his head one way, then the other.
"Stay still," chastised Clockwork, and Danny stopped, obediently.
Clockwork placed each of his index fingers on Danny's horns, right above the rings, which felt nice, then slowly drew them back, all the way to the tips of the horn. The horns grew, and Danny gasped at the sensation. The silver rings resisted the growth, tightening. This, he realized, was what the muzzle hooked to his horns had almost achieved. Any more, and it would have been painful, any less and it wouldn't have felt secure.
Clockwork tugged gently on the rings, making sure they were firmly in place. "They will stretch, somewhat, with your horns as they grow," said Clockwork, "but your horns should not grow much more. Would you like me to show you how they work?"
Danny nodded, happiness bubbling inside him.
Clockwork raised the wrist his ring was on. "All one of us has to do," he said, "is touch the ring and think strongly of you coming to us."
The rings around Danny's horns started to impart a sort of vibrating, pulling energy to him. Involuntarily, he took a step towards Clockwork.
"Of course, if we are wearing them, we are already touching them. I would like you to deliver the other three to our allies. Along with a few messages from myself."
Danny hugged Clockwork. Yes! Not only was this a great gift by itself, but he got to start working again! He could be useful again! But Clockwork had said three allies, not four. Who was the fourth ring for? Not Jazz, anymore, with how inaccessible the human realm was.
"Ah," said Clockwork, "just in time."
Danny looked up, then at the doors. Was Clockwork predicting a visitor?
"A friend, back from delivering a message to the Kingdom of Gluttony."
The doors of Long Now swung open, and a demon flew in. They… looked exactly like Danny. Identical, down to the color of their eyes and the rings around their horns.
He stared. They stared. Then, they started to smile, and Danny knew. Knew.
He opened his arms wide and so did she. They ran towards one another and embraced, touching their horns together. They couldn't transmit messages themselves, but they could share the feeling that came with the touch. Danny was so relieved she was alright!
"As I said," said Clockwork, all twelve of his eyes glittering, "I thought you would like one to give to your sister. And, Danielle, I believe you have one to give to your brother?"
Shyly, Dani slipped a ring off her wrist and offered it to Danny, who exchanged it with one of his own.
"Excellent," said Clockwork. He patted them both on their heads. "Now, Danielle, I believe you have a message for me?"
Dani opened her mouth and Danny couldn't help but keep smiling. This was such a wonderful day!