The sun was dying. Well, technically, the sun was being killed, but they didn't know that. It was a misshapen mangled mass burning in the sky, lowering to the horizon quicker than it should have.
I didn't know how I got here but I knew where I was instantly. Even if it hadn't have been for the deformed sun slipping down behind the volcano before me, I would've recognised the other bright light in the sky. If I hadn't known better, I would've thought it was a star. I did know better.
I knew what the disfigured sun meant and why I'd appeared in front of an active volcano. It was Winter Solstice.
Caught up in the confusion of how I'd gotten here, I almost didn't realise just how active the volcano was. A second before I started running, it erupted.
The lava was faster than I was. The debris fell like burning rain. The heat swallowed my body like the ocean devouring the shore.
For a moment only one thought pounded through my head. I'm going to die. But I wasn't entirely sure if I could.
Then there were arms around me, lifting me above the sea of lava beneath me and sheltering me from the detritus above. My stomach lurched as we flew through the air, a stranger's limbs tight around me waist.
I was breathless. Nauseatingly breathless. It felt like a lifetime before I was lowered to the ground - seemingly a safe distance from the volcano.
I knew who I'd see even before I turned around. The Phoenix.
He was tall, with dark hair and darker eyes. His perfectly muscled body was clad in simple black clothes. He looked like some kind of god, unnaturally attractive. But then again, I thought, his type always are.
He was staring at me. "I've never... come across anyone before."
"I know," I said casually.
He frowned. "How? Do you know who I am?"
"The Phoenix?" I said, trying to make it sound like a lucky guess.
He tilted his head and I could see the word how forming on his lips again.
"You did just fly me out of..." I gestured at the volcano now far enough away that I was only sweating slightly. "And everyone knows The Phoenix appears on Winter Solstice from a volcano. It is Winter Solstice isn't it?"
He shrugged. "I didn't know people knew about the volcano part but I guess that saves me an introduction. You don't seem too fazed by the fact that I'm not... a monstrous beast or whatever most people think I am."
I shrugged back at him. Holding out my hand I said, "I'm Daisy."
"Daisy." The name didn't sound like it belonged on his lips. "That's an unusual name," he said curiously as he shook my hand.
"Not where I come from," I answered, still staring at the volcano. "I wonder if that would've killed me," I murmured.
"Where do you... wait what? Of course it would've killed you!" He was staring at me as if I was insane, which I supposed was fair enough, given the circumstances.
I nodded back, doing my best to appear serious. "Yes, of course. Now, Xylon, are you going to take me with you for your yearly tasks?"
He stared at me even more intently then. "How do you know my name?" He actually stepped away from me slightly. I couldn't help frowning at him. He was an unnatural, superpowered, resurrecting being and he was backing away from me? That was... disappointing and embarrassing.
"Lucky guess?" I said with a hopeful smile.
He nodded nervously. "Oh, well um... yeah I have duties to attend to so... um... nice to meet you I guess."
I saw his skin glow slightly as he stepped back and that's how I knew what would happen next. "Wait!" I exclaimed, lunging forward and grabbing onto his arm as tightly as I could.
Then the world went dark. Splashes of colour appeared all around me, sparkling like glitter splashed onto a black canvas. Through the bizarre surroundings - or rather, lack of them - Xylon gawked at me in horror. I grinned back at him.
The world reappeared around me slowly, like a polaroid coming to life. Xylon shook me off. "How did you... I didn't know I could teleport people with me."
I nodded, swaying slightly. "Well, you can, but there's a slight..."
I rushed to the nearest bush, throwing up. "Side effect," I said hoarsely.
Wiping my mouth, I turned back to him. "Have you lit the fireplaces and candles yet?"
Giving me a disapproving look, he said, "I have to see them first. That's why people leave their curtains open on nights like this."
"I forgot that," I mumbled, feeling slightly embarrassed about my momentary forgetfulness.
He ignored me as he peered in windows, doing some elaborate gesturing with his hand and watching the houses light up from within, seconds later. It was part of The Phoenix's Winter Solstice return. He teleported around the world and lit up random towns and houses as a symbol of hope. If I thought about it too hard, it reminded me a bit too much of Santa, but I didn't tell him that. I didn't feel like explaining Santa to him. The Phoenix would then, however, give the rest of his fire powers to the sun, so it could keep burning brightly for another year. In doing so, he gave his life, but only temporarily. A year later, he rose from a different volcano. Or maybe it was the same one, I wasn't sure yet.
"Do you need to do that dramatic hand movement thing?" I asked, giving his hands a sceptical look.
He paused between houses for a moment, glancing down at his hands. "I'm not sure actually."
"I don't think you do," I said confidently.
"Well, I like to," he said stubbornly. "I also like doing this alone."
"Really?" I hadn't known that. I continued to follow him, ignoring the perplexed looks he kept shooting me over his shoulder.
I was so caught up in my own thoughts that I almost missed the tell-tale sign of his skin glowing again. I only just caught onto his sleeve in time, falling into a blackness decorated with glittery stains a second later.
Xylon swore. I laughed. "You can't get rid of me just yet."
He rolled his eyes and I stared at him in awe. The expression was so... human, so real. Then the world was back and I was hurrying to the nearest garden again. Xylon snickered. I glared at him. I'd thought he'd be more pleasant, what with saving the world and all.
This time when I followed him down the street, slowly lighting candles and fireplaces, I mimicked his laugh-worthy hand gestures.
"If you keep doing that I'll make sure you don't catch a ride to the next town," he told me, but I thought I saw the corner of his lips twitch slightly. Was that almost a smile?
I obediently stopped, saluting him before walking stiffly behind him like a soldier. He shook his head and I wondered if he was smiling then. The next time, when he teleported, he waited for me to grab on before his skin began to glow.
I managed not to throw up that time, and mumbled something he didn't understand about third time being the charm.
"How many towns and houses do you visit?"
He smirked at me. "What, you mean to say you don't know everything?"
I rolled my eyes. "I know more than you."
"Yeah, but I haven't seen you fly or teleport or use fire powers."
I skipped up beside him. "Technically I've done all three."
"Well I flew when you carried me away from the volcano and I teleport every time I catch a ride across the world with you."
"True," he conceded. "But the fire powers?"
I grinned and mimicked his comical hand gestures as he lit the next fire. "That one was all me," I joked. He actually laughed at that.
"I think knowledge is your only power Daisy," he said, his tone finally turning friendly.
I smiled at him. "I'd rather call it omniscience."
Shaking his head again, he held out his hand to me, teleporting us to yet another town. "I go to however many I have time to," he answered me at last, "before..."
I thought of all the drawings and stories people in this world had created, of The Phoenix giving all his powers to the dying sun. "Does it hurt?" I asked softly.
He faltered, slowly turning to look at me, and the pain in his face... it was even more real than his laughter had been moments ago. "Death usually does."
"It's worth it," he murmured.
I felt a stab of guilt and shivered, only just realising how cold it was here, in this world.
He moved on to the first house of the village and I hurried after him, thinking of something to lighten the mood again. "Hey, what's your planet called?"
Shooting me yet another quizical look, he said, "Our planet? I don't know... home? It's just... our planet. Why would it have a name?"
I scrunched my nose up at him. "That's not helpful."
"You're a strange girl Daisy."
"Where I come from, they just call me creative," I informed him. He merely grunted in response.
"What are you looking at?" Xylon asked minutes later. He must've decided it was time to move onto the next town, but I was too distracted by the distinctive light in the sky to notice his outstretched hand.
"Haven't you ever thought that light was too bright to be a star?"
He stared past me. "Which one?"
"The extra bright one Xylon," I answered dryly.
"Helpful," he said, but must have found it because then he said, "I've never noticed that before."
"Nobody was meant to," I murmured.
"What's that mean?"
I turned to him and looked into his dark eyes. They looked like a painting. "I'll tell you in the next town," I whispered, wishing I could hold onto my secret longer.
He frowned but then the now familiar darkness fell around us like a curtain. I reached out this time and was met with a cool nothingness. The next city was blanketed by a grey sky. Thunder greeted us, vibrating my bones like loud music.
"Come on," Xylon said, grabbing my hand. It was pouring down rain, lightning streaking through the sky like cracks in a pavement. I thought he might just teleport us to another town, but instead, he raced down the empty street, pulling me with him. As we ran, he glanced in the house's windows, waving his hands and lighting timber and wax on his way past.
After a few minutes, we took shelter under the roof of a gazebo, me breathless and him looking at me expectantly. I wasn't sure what exactly he was waiting for me to say but I don't think he was ready for what came out of my mouth next. "They're stealing from the sun."
His brow furrowed. "What? Who?"
I sighed, knowing how ridiculous this all sounded. But was it really any more ridiculous than a superhero called The Phoenix who appeared every year only to die and return exactly a year later?
"The Sunlifters," I answered.
He gave me a disbelieving look but didn't interrupt.
"That's why the sun is dying," I continued. "They steal from the sun every year and store its power in the... in a space station called The Sunrise." I shivered, only now fully realising I might actually have to see it in person.
The rain grew heavier, pounding on the roof. A bolt of lightning struck unnervingly close. I almost didn't notice until Xylon raised his hand. Mesmerised, I watched a flame erupt from his palm, burning steadily and... warmly. Looking up at his gentle eyes, I warmed my fingertips by the newly formed fire.
"This year, you have to use your powers to stop them."
He frowned then. "Why? What do they do with the power in The Sunrise?"
"They..." I hesitated. I wasn't actually entirely sure. "They use it to kill people."
"You know... just the basics... world domination and stuff."
His brow crinkled. "Is it really that bad if they take over the world?"
"Of course!" I explained. "Did you miss the part about them killing people?"
"Good point. You just don't seem to know much about them, besides, you know... the basics."
"Well I was going to figure out the details later..."
Xylon sighed. "Daisy, how... who are you exactly? And how do you know about this supposed organisation? The Sunlifters?"
"Supposed organisation?" I exclaimed. "They're real! Do you have a better explanation for why the sun is dying?"
He raised an eyebrow. "I could refer you to any children's book that would probably have a better explanation than that."
I scoffed. "That is very offensive, you know."
"How?" he said incredulously.
"Doesn't matter," I mumbled.
"Even if this organisation is real, I couldn't use my powers to beat the..." he cleared his throat. "The Sunlifters. I have to use it for the sun, otherwise the world won't survive another year."
"No, that's what The... that's what Zoella is for."
"Who?" Xylon's patience was fraying. I could tell.
"The other one with superpowers. Nobody knows about her but she has the same powers as you... at least I think. I don't know actually, but she definitely has fire powers, so if we find her, she can give her powers to the sun and you can kill the Sunlifters. And she... well she's your future love interest but that's unim-"
"This is absolutely absurd Daisy." He shook his head but not in the same light-hearted way he had earlier tonight. "How do we find Zoella, huh? And how come she doesn't have a superhero name too?"
I blushed. "Well, she was called The Leviathan, but that could change!"
"That could... what?"
"And I'm not sure how to find her actually," I admitted hopelessly. My shoulders slumped. There was no way he was going to believe anything I was saying, no way I could prove that I knew what I was talking because... the true reason was even more absurd.
The flame in Xylon's hand flickered and then died and I had the sudden, startlingly horrifying image of the sun doing the same thing. "Xylon, listen, you have to-"
"I'm sorry Daisy. Do you have a home? Family? Is there anywhere I can take you?"
I shook my head irritably. "You found me at the bottom of a volcano in the middle of nowhere Xylon. What do you think? I knew your name when nobody else does. You have to believe I know the truth about this too!" I said the words desperately but that's how all insane people say them. I'd watched enough movies back in my world to know that nobody ever believed people like me unless there was indisputable proof, and sometimes not even then.
Xylon was backing away from me and, with the lightning flashing all around us, I almost failed to notice his glowing skin.
I lunged towards him.
I felt like screaming. I almost did. The world was about to lose their one chance of being saved, all because I couldn't move fast enough, hold onto him tightly enough. All because of me.
Then I heard a voice.
"It's all true."
The voice was almost musical - serene, soothing and alluring. She sounded how I'd always imaged sirens would sound, but I already knew she would, didn't I? I spun around. Her face matched her voice. She was just as stunningly, unnaturally attractive as Xylon was.
"Zoella?" I gasped. She couldn't have had better timing.
She nodded, giving me a look that was a strange mix between bafflement and dismissiveness. "I do not know who you are but you speak the truth."
"Zoella?" Xylon said disbelievingly from behind me.
I looked over my shoulder. "You're still here?"
He gave me a lopsided, almost apologetic smile. "You can't get rid of me just yet," he said, echoing my previous words.
"This is the... The Leviathan?" he asked me.
I cringed slightly. "I'm still not sure on that name."
"Yes," Zoella answered confidently, stepping forwards. His future love interest, I reminded myself.
Clearing my throat, I said, "Glad you showed up but um, we need to start planning."
"How do you know about The Sunlifters?" Xylon asked Zoella.
Zoella frowned, still managing to look unreasonably pretty. "I don't kn-"
"I'm sure that'll come to light later," I said hurriedly. "So, Zoella can do the rest of The Phoenix's job, you know, lighting candles and fireplaces and dying for the sun and whatnot..."
"Why can't he do that part?" Zoella whined, giving me a disgusted look that actually did manage to take away from her beauty.
I stared straight at her. "Because you're more annoying." I'll need to work on that, I made a mental note to myself.
"I can do the... dying for the sun part," Xylon offered, "and you can do... whatever the other part is."
"No," I said, shaking my head adamantly. There was no way I was completing this mission with Miss Whiney. "We'll probably all die anyway," I admitted. Their eyes widened. I looked at Zoella, "You just get to die a simpler death." I turned to Xylon. "And we get to die a more interesting adventurous one." I flashed him an excited grin as if that could make up for the word death. If the returning look he gave me was anything to go by, it didn't.
"We're all going to die?" he asked.
"Correct," I said, having no idea if it was the truth or not. It was partly a way to convince Zoella to give her powers to the sun and partly logic talking. But I made a promise to myself in that moment; if there was a way to save Xylon from dying, I would take it. The pain had been painted too vibrantly across his face when I'd asked him if dying hurt. I didn't want him to experience it again, not this year at least, and if we succeeded, nobody would have to give their powers to the sun again.
"But you're mortal," Xylon said softly. "If you die, you won't come back."
I shrugged. "Nobody knows that for sure until they die," I pointed out.
His facial features stayed drawn tightly.
Both of them grudgingly agreed to their roles and Zoella promptly teleported away, thankfully.
I suggested that Xylon take us somewhere warmer and, grumbling about liking the rain, he gave in and teleported us to...
"The beach," I said with a contented sigh. We must've gone to the other side of the world because the moon illuminated everything here. "I didn't even know if you had beaches on your planet or not."
He gave me a sideways glance but must've decided it wasn't worth asking about. "So," he said, staring up at the second brightest light in the night sky, "you want me to teleport us up there?"
I nodded, distractedly writing my name in the sand.
"My powers aren't strong enough to do that."
My head whipped up. "What do you mean your... of course." I wanted to scream again. "Every power has its limits, I just hadn't figured out what yours were."
I could feel him frowning at me. "Look, Daisy, I don't know what that means, but you seem to know a lot. In fact, you seem to know everything. Knowledge, or omniscience is your power remember? I'm sure if you think hard enough you'll remember something - some solution."
I shook my head, sinking to the ground. "It doesn't work like that Xylon. I can't come up with one when I'm... here. It won't work."
"Just try," he said, and there was something in his voice that made me comply.
I squeezed my eyes shut and for a moment, I could no longer hear the crashing of the waves or feel the breeze's fingertips in my hair.
One second I was in a world where I knew almost everything, and the next I was seeing a painfully vivid image of a car speeding towards me. I heard a scream and didn't know if it was me or them, then or now.
I felt the impact - two cars colliding. I felt sick, and I didn't know if that was from then or now either. An airbag appeared between me and the steering wheel, slamming into my body with a vicious protectiveness. If I had had time to, I might've thought I was safe, but before I could think anything, my stomach was met with the unmistakable feeling of being airborne.
There was another crash of collision. Pain was everywhere. The pain was paralysing. In a dizzying, senseless moment, I wondered why the sky was the colour of gravel and broken glass and why the ground was blue and cloudy. Someone was screaming, but it wasn't me. I couldn't move... couldn't do anything.
Daisy, wake up.
Daisy, come back.
Daisy, hey, it's okay.
I opened my eyes to Xylon's confused face. For a second I had wondered if I'd ever see him again. For a second I thought I had left this world behind and I wasn't sure if I had wanted to. This world was magic and moonlight and predictability and the other one was all pain and pain and pain.
"It's okay," Xylon was whispering, and I realised I was shaking, almost uncontrollably. "It's okay, it's okay, it's okay," he kept saying and in the back of my mind I had the thought that that was an incredibly uncreative thing for him to say. I didn't care though.
After awhile I said, "It was a memory. I don't know how but I'm sure it was a memory."
Nodding, he asked, "What happened?"
"It doesn't matter," I said, trying to shake it off. I didn't have time to explain the concept of cars to this powered man who only lived one night a year in a world that was not mine.
He frowned. "Well, you might be pleased to know I have an idea."
I stared at him. "You do?"
"Don't look so surprised," he said with mock offense. "Wouldn't it make sense to go back to where I came from? The volcano. Shouldn't I be able to get more powers from there?"
"I guess it won't hurt to try."
The glitter was less bright this time, almost as if warning us that The Phoenix's powers were fading. I turned to him instead. He was already looking at me. "What I'm most curious about is why you think Zoella is my, what was it you said; future love interest?"
I scrunched up my nose. "Why? Are you already feeling the chemistry and sparks?"
He let out a short laugh. "Hardly. I'm more taken with you."
I tilted my head at him. "That's... weird, but I think it's only narcissistic if I return the feelings."
He shook his head at me and I didn't know if it was amusement or awe in his eyes. "You are definitely the strangest girl I've ever met Daisy."
"Hadn't you not met anyone before tonight?"
He paused. "I suppose you're right."
"If I told you everyone is like me, would you believe me?"
He shook his head yet again and I started to wonder if that was a apart of his personality or if he just did it around strange girls like me.
He dropped me off at the place we'd had our first conversation, flying back to the volcano promptly after. As I impatiently waited for him to return, I heard something.
I looked all around me. Where was that voice coming from?
Daisy. Come back.
A deep distressing chill settled around me. Why did that voice sound so familiar?
When Xylon came back he was literally dripping with...
"Is that sun? Liquid sun?" I asked.
He grinned, the glowing, excruciatingly bright substance rolling across his skin. "I guess, but it felt more like honey. Just not as sticky."
"Gross. Did it give you more powers?"
He nodded enthusiastically. "I flew all the way to the core of the planet and there was a pond there."
"The core of the planet," I said thoughtfully. "I should've thought of that. Anyway, let's go."
The journey through space was filled with colours so blindingly bright I could barely keep my eyes open. When we appeared aboard The Sunrise, I threw up three times. Why was that the chosen side affect? I questioned myself angrily.
"What do I do?" Xylon asked me. It must have been nearing morning now and I wasn't sure what would happen to The Phoenix the day after Winter Solstice if he hadn't sacrificed himself. We had to hurry.
I looked at him and said simply, "Burn it all."
Before he could answer me, we were surrounded by a group of people wearing what looked to be some kind of protective gear. As we let them escort us down the hall Xylon looked at me, a surprising look of concern flittering across his face. "Please tell me you can fight you little mystery."
"Did you just... come up with a nickname... on your own?"
"No, I can't fight."
He sighed and, as we arrived outside a cell that seemed to be our destination, began blazing with light. He covered me with his body, shielding me from the writhing burning flames waltzing around us, striking at our attackers like blades.
I hid my face against his chest, closing my eyes tightly. Amongst the blazing chaos, I heard the voice again. Daisy, please come back.
I pulled back from Xylon. The flames disappeared. Our opponents still stood. Their protective gear remained completely unharmed. I gaped at them. Of course. Their gear would be to protect them from the liquid sun. Obviously it would protect them from The Phoenix and his inferior fire powers. We were helpless. Fleetingly, I remembered lying upside down, still, in a crashed car. Helpless.
The Sunlifters pushed us into the small cell, locking the door and leaving us alone and forlorn.
"I can't teleport," Xylon said, voice verging on panic. "Something's wrong. Something's stopping me from teleporting."
He took a few deep breaths before looking at me with the same kind of look he'd had in his eyes when I'd asked him does it hurt?
"Daisy," he said now. "You have to tell me everything."
I didn't think he even knew what he was asking to hear, but there was no point keeping it a secret any longer. We'll probably all die anyway, I'd told him, and now I knew I was right.
I couldn't look at him as I whispered the truth that had been a brick wall between us this whole time.
"I'm a writer."
"I wrote all this. I wrote them. I wrote you," I said, finally looking at his confused face. "None of this is real," I said, voice breaking, desperate to make him understand. "It can't be. I wrote it."
"That's how I knew so much," I explained the obvious. "But my novel was only in the drafting stages and I hadn't finished it so..."
"I'm not real?" Xylon asked but then recovered surprisingly quickly. Imminent danger can do that to you, or at least, it usually does to my characters. "So then you can write the ending right? You can decide what happens now? Just wish them all away?"
I shook my head. "It doesn't work like that. I tried to change how things were happening when you almost teleported away because you didn't believe me about the Sunlifters. It didn't work."
"But Zoella appeared and then I did believe you."
"That was a coincidence. I didn't write or... imagine that."
There were footsteps outside the door. I didn't know if they were real or imaginary. "That memory you had," Xylon said desperately, "whatever it was must've been so traumatic it sent you here. If you just... if you wake up, you can write the ending. You can save the world... save me."
I shook my head, more out of panic than anything else. "No but..."
The door burst open. The generic, half planned bad guys seized Xylon and, not for the first time, I wondered if I could die here. "No, wait!" I exclaimed, jumping up too slowly.
They dragged him outside and, just before they closed the door I heard him yell, "You have to wake up!"
A second later, alone in the cell, I heard another voice. Again.
Daisy, please... please wake up. The words were disrupted by distressed sobs now, as if someone was completely falling apart right beside me.
Xylon and I were about to die, but the memory of the car crash was terrifyingly excruciating and I had no idea what I would wake up to. What was worse, the monstrous story I'd created or the one where each page was a complete mystery to me?
I thought of Xylon, who died each year so this planet's people could bask in the sunlight.
Does it hurt?
It's worth it.
I thought of the silent promise I'd made, that if I could save him, I would. Maybe he wasn't real, but his heroism was. He'd told me to wake up, and now maybe I had the strength to do it.
I closed my eyes. Wake up.
I concentrated hard. The sounds of brakes screeching and glass shattering echoed in my head like a war cry. Come back.
I opened my eyes.