“He wasn’t evil. Not really.”
Clockwork is stretched thin and brittle, leaning against a flat length of rubble, his ghostly tail curled limply around him like a dead thing. The glass embedded in his chest--that is his chest?--has been broken, allowing him his slouch. He is very old, and very tired.
“Powerful,” he continues, “He was certainly that. But evil? No. Driven mad more than anything. It was a heavy burden he carried, after all.”
Near you is a spreading pool of ectoplasm, hissing and bubbling as Pariah Dark’s bulk collapses, melts. The Ring and the Crown have slipped from what’s left of him, lay askew, stark as paper cutouts in the sickly light. You...you can feel them. No, that’s the wrong word. It doesn’t fit the sensation at all. But that’s the only one you can come up with. You feel them, like an itch, like smoke, like fingers that hover just above your skin. If they could talk, you think they’d say Hello, Danny.
“It’s a rare thing, ghosts dying.” Clockwork smirks. “Oh, we are capable of change, metamorphosis, mutation. Often we persist, wearing the same shape for centuries. But just as often we fade, lose our form, our sense of self. We become an integrated piece of the Ghost Zone itself. To kill a ghost, however? To kill Pariah Dark….”
He has no legs, yet Clockwork leans heavily on his staff all the same. He’s growing younger, and younger, he’s a man in his battered, bruised prime, floating over the wet mess of a dead king. “I knew this day would come,” he says, “and still I hoped it could be altered. That I could do something to save you once more.”
Now that the battle is over, the silence deafens. Your friends and family, your allies and fair-weather enemies are all far, far away. Knee-deep in Pariah’s collapsed armies, maybe. On their way to find you, maybe. Wherever they are, they’re not here, won’t be here. You’re grateful for Clockwork. Without him, you don’t think you could’ve struck that killing blow. Without him, you’d be alone.
Clockworks shrinks and softens, is now a boy in a too-big tattered cloak. “This is the trouble, you see. The snarled bits of a timeline are always trouble. Good and evil, right and wrong--that’s all perception, easy words. Power is what makes these messes, and the consequences that follow for messing with it.”
His empty hand finds the glittering edge of his shattered chest. The clock still ticks and tocks despite its snapped-off pendulum. You don’t know what would happen--what might happen--if it ever did stop. He knows, of course. As he so smugly enjoys reminding you, he knows everything.
“It was fashionable among the old ghosts, once upon a time, to craft items of power. But that’s just it. You pour too much of yourself into an object, you learn to regret it.”
This close, you can’t miss how his fingers tighten along his staff.
“Power, you must understand, is a wild thing, dangerous when left to its own devices, worse when scorched into a tangible thing. Items of power must be controlled, tempered by an equal strength. There must be a hand to guide the lightning.”
He passes over Pariah, casts his shadow over you. His jaw sharpens, his body grows and grows, and now he’s a man again, haggard and feathery at his edges, like a touch could scatter him to pieces. “I wish there was another way.”
Clockwork reaches down and plucks you out of your meat, and at once you are lighter than air, than fire and smoke and thought. There’s no awful weight on your chest, no blood choking your lungs, no shrapnel nor bone shards eating holes in you, no terrifying absence of pain below your waist. You spin once, laughing helplessly, just because you can.
It feels a lot different than you imagined, being a true ghost.
But you stop, force yourself to look at the body that used to be sum of you. How small you were in that body, how young. How broken it is now, how...human.
You died as a human. Something about that is comforting, at least. But Clockwork knew, like he always does. There is no end for a thing like you, not like what your friends and family might get, not even what your allies and fair-weather enemies might get, eventually. You are something else altogether, something new.
For long minutes, after your heart stopped and your brain quieted, you clung to that dead, broken shape. You huddled in there--no. You were compressed in there. Squeezed by bone and meat and pooling blood. You could have stayed in there. become an ugly, temporary thing, a monster made of rot and poison and hunger. You could have.
But no, that wasn’t ever a choice. Not really. You were caught and caged and cornered too often, back when you were alive. You’ve grown to be skittish at the thought of locks and bars, and a ribcage is just that, when you think about it.
Clockwork’s hand cups your shoulder. It feels warm for the very first time. You turn, and he--
He hugs you. Stretched to a thin and brittle old man again, it’s the hug of a grandfather, all bones and the sharp prick of broken glass. But your chest still hitches in the memory of breath; your eyes still sting.
“I’m sorry, Danny,” he says into the curve of your neck.
“I know,” you say into his.
Gently, you pull yourself free of his skinny arms, walk to Pariah’s body. There isn’t much shape to him left. Just boiling, hissing ectoplasm, soon to dissipate, soon to become a part of the Ghost Zone itself. Is it really death though , for a ghost? Can you call it that, when your blood’s an immortal plasmoid that will one day be a part of a home, or a weapon, or even another ghost?
You don’t know. You suppose it doesn’t matter.
The Ring is heavy. Heavier than you expected. But then, look at your fingers. Transparent, a diffuse white, like looking through sheer curtains.
“All new ghosts are weak,” Clockwork explains gently. “Like smoke in the wind. That will change, of course.”
You can’t help but smile at the wry note to his voice.
When you put it--It?--on, there’s a...spark. A connection made. It doesn’t sting. You can’t even call it a proper sensation. Whatever it is, you feel better for it. Like that itch is finally getting scratched.
Clockwork uses the ragged hem of his own cloak to wipe the Crown clean. It’s fire has shrunk some, but it’s not the kind of fire that can ever be put out.
All at once, it occurs to you to be afraid. There’s no choice here, but that doesn’t mean you want this. Your chest moves in the memory of panic, your gut clenches, your hands fist--and the Ring bites like it has teeth, or thorns, or intent. This is what stops you from recoiling, up and out and away from the future the Master of Time--your friend--literally holds in the palm of his hands. You are afraid. Yes, you are very afraid.
“Please,” you say, your voice cracking, “If…. I--What's going to happen?”
“That’s up to you,” Clockwork says, and that’s no answer at all, is it?
“If--If it goes wrong--” No, try again. “if I go wrong--you have to promise me something.”
A strong, broad man again, Clockwork’s jaw works, his teeth grind. He knows, of course. He knows everything. “Yes, of course.”
“Cheat for me again.” But that’s wrong too. That’s not what you really mean. “No, wait. Cheat...cheat for whoever might take me down.”
His eyes shut briefly. In that tiny span, he becomes a child, round-faced and snub-nosed with not even half the amount of teeth he’ll have again, lose again, in less than a minute. Yet his voice never changes, never wavers. Clockwork is a ghost that will persist always. When it’s time for the last light to go out, Clockwork will be there to pinch it between his fingers. You don’t know so many things, but this is something you know.
“I promise,” he says.
Your hands shake as you reach for the Crown. The Ring is drawn to it--It?--like a magnet. You can feel it pulling, insisting. Hurry up, hurry up. Toxic fire flares at your touch, in greeting, maybe. In warning, maybe. Either way, you’ll know soon enough.
Just before you place the Crown on your head, just before your world is twisted up in light and heat and pain and power burning through you like lightning, like poison, like intent, you hear Clockwork say one final thing. Of course. He’s a ghost that likes to have the final word.
“The King is dead,” he says, “Long live the King.”