“Phoenix is going to be sacrificed tomorrow.”
None of the Phils even blinked. Of course, as Sam and Steve didn’t have any eyelids, they couldn’t have if they tried.
“She will be tossed off the Cloud,” continued Liam, looking for reactions. He found none. “She will probably die.”
“No, really?” said Phoenix.
“Are any of you actually listening?” asked Liam, ignoring her.
“Sorry, what was that?” Liam glared at Sebase, who looked around uncomfortably. “Did I miss something?”
“Listen up, Phils,” said Liam, slapping the table to get their attention. Once Phume had taken his attention from the copy of Sports Illuminated in his lap, he continued. “Phoenix is going to be sacrificed tomorrow by falling from this cloud. Any ideas on how to save her?”
“Isn’t that against the definition of ‘sacrifice’?” asked Phume.
“Yes, but it isn’t supposed to be our sacrifice, it’s supposed to be the Aardvark’s.”
“But that still means she should die.”
“I suppose it does, but I think it still counts as a sacrifice if they just think she died.”
“And if they find out?”
Liam sat heavily in his chair. “We aren’t supposed to be thinking of worst-case scenarios here, we’re supposed to be thinking of best-case!”
“Best-case right now is that Phoenix dies,” said Steve bluntly.
“Exactly, Steve, so we need a new best-case scenario.” Liam stood and walked to the whiteboard on one wall. “Any ideas?” he asked, unscrewing the dry-erase marker’s cap.
“I shapeshift into a bird and fly under her,” said Feiron.
Liam wrote it on the board, then crossed it out. “You can’t shapeshift.”
“I could do my best.”
Phoenix raised a hand. “Since I was bonded to a firebird, that made me begin growing into a phoenix-human hybrid of sorts. So does that mean I can have wings?”
“I was thinking of writing that into your story… when it was still going,” said Liam slowly. “I wasn’t sure whether to give you full wings or just a few feathers on your arms. The point is, I haven’t done that.”
“Can you do it now, since this is my main story?”
“Unfortunately, no. You are no longer under my control here.”
“Well, that change wasn’t under your control either; it was under time’s control.”
“But technically I’ve taken a snapshot of you from one point in your story, and that’s what you are here.”
“So can you just download version 2.0?”
“What’s version 2.0?” asked Isaac.
“No I can’t,” said Liam, ignoring Isaac. “Because that would make you almost completely different.”
“What’s version 2.0?” asked Isaac, louder.
“It’s a computer term,” explained Feiron.
“What’s a computer?”
Feiron didn’t bother to answer; he smacked Isaac upside the head.
“Gologer’s wing is still broken,” said Liam, trying to start up the conversation again. “So he can’t fly.”
“His cousins?” suggested Sebase. “They’ve helped us more than once.”
“Unfortunately, they recently found a place that fed them free cows daily—obviously we don’t offer the same benefits. They’re mercenaries, so they can be bought.” Liam wrote and crossed out that option.
“Can you pull a Human Torch sort of thing? Flaming person flying around?” asked Quirk.
“We talked about that,” said Liam, looking at Phoenix, “but it doesn’t seem to be a possibility. Apparently you must be more than just a pyromaniac to be able to fly.”
“Hey, I’m not a pyromaniac!” protested Phoenix. “I just… like fire.”
Liam shrugged. “The fact remains that we have no way to save you from your imminent death.”
“Would it be possible…” began Steve, implying a finger invisibly diagramming in the air, “to use the our process of changing from gravity to centrifugal force to fly, or at least slow down a fall?”
Liam nodded slowly, tapping the marker against his hand. “Possible, yes. It would have to be timed perfectly. There would be no room for error.”
“Could you time it for me?” asked Phoenix.
“I… probably not.”
“And why are you Head Phil again?”
“Hey, I just don’t know the full force of the centrifugal force we experience up here. Thus, I cannot compute the amount of time necessary for one to come to a complete stop after even one second of free fall, let alone minutes. Percival could probably do it, but I can’t talk to him directly without making the army suspicious.”
“You have email, right? A cell phone?” Phoenix gave him a scathing look. “Talk about being pathetic.”
“Steve’s idea is our best bet,” said Liam, ignoring her yet again and circling the idea on the whiteboard. Capping the marker, he turned to Phoenix again. “If we can’t get anything to or from Percival, you’ll have to do timed falls, broken at intervals by centrifugal force in the opposite direction. You’ll be doing a lot of switching in any case.”
“Couldn’t we just sacrifice Quirk instead?” the old lady asked.
Liam grinned. “I would, but he isn’t nearly as photogenic as Phoenix.”
It was a door like any other in the Castle Under the Cloud, and yet there was a mysterious quality lent to it that made it more formidable than any other. Perhaps it was the feeling of too much plainness—perhaps just the thick wood. Perhaps it was the sign that read, “This door may admit to having eaten the last piece of cake, knowing who killed Mr. Robinson, or having called you mean things behind your back, but the one thing it will never admit is… YOU.”
Liam, of course, ignored the sign and pushed the door open. Klaxon began ringing immediately. Liam looked around and saw a button on the wall—he hit it and the noise stopped. He looked up, relieved, only to see the equally formidable face of Phoenix.
“You’d think I wasn’t welcome,” he said.
“The point is for you to think you’re not welcome,” she said. “So get out of my room.”
Liam automatically claimed that he wasn’t in her room. She rolled her eyes. “Is it time yet?” she asked.
“Good. I wouldn’t want to be late for my death.” Even though she was keeping up a hard exterior, her voice shook slightly.
“I’m glad you’re so positive about it.” Liam stepped aside to let her through the door.
“I’m never positive,” she said as she passed him. She almost melted the elevator call button as she pressed it.
Liam had to give it to her—she was tough. Tough enough to hold off until the elevator doors slid closed to fall apart emotionally. Her shoulders began shaking as she began to sob. Phoenix, sobbing? It was unheard of. It never happened. Then again, she had never been executed before.
“It’s okay,” said Liam tentatively, patting her even more tentatively on the shoulder. Her skin was so hot that the tears evaporated inches after leaving her eyes. There were no flames yet, for which Liam was grateful, but she was barely holding it in.
“Would it kill you if I told you it wasn’t okay?” she said, looking up at him through a cloud of steam hovering around her head.
“No. But it’d be the biggest lie you ever told.” Liam took both of her shoulders with his fingertips to avoid major burns, and looked her in the eye. “You’ll survive this. I wouldn’t let it happen if you couldn’t survive.”
She lifted her chin, tears still precipitating and evaporating on her face. By golly, she had her very own water cycle!
Liam continued. “You’re one of my Phils. None of my Phils dies without the written consent of their story.”
The smile beginning to form around her lips abruptly disappeared. “I thought it was for a more personal reason,” she said. “But since I’m just a Phil, and my story didn’t sign the permission slip…”
Liam sighed. “You take delight in misunderstanding me.”
“No, you just choose not to say the things that would really help me cope with my situation.”
“I still think you misunderstand me.”
“No, you don’t say the right things.”
“You don’t say the right things.”
“Don’t say the right things…”
“Mis—“ Suddenly Liam noticed the doors had already opened to reveal a small crowd of eavesdropping Phils. “Miss, you’d better get going,” he said, changing his sentence abruptly. He shoved Phoenix out of the elevator first.
Most of the Phils were wrecks. Isaac in particular was sobbing, using his blindfold to alternately blow his nose and wipe his eyes. Feiron looked on disgustedly. “Goodness, she isn’t dying—she’s just being executed,” the fairy said, annoyed. “There’s a difference.”
“Thanks, ‘Ron,” said Phoenix.
“I’m here all week,” said Feiron. “You, on the other hand…”
“Don’t remind me.”
Isaac and Feiron left to get a new blindfold for the Prince. Captain Phume, the leader of so many successful army campaigns, and so many more failed ones, was next to say goodbye. He saluted Phoenix with the wrong hand, knocked his overly polished helmet off of his head as he did. Not caring about his exposed lack of eyebrows, he choked back a single sob and collapsed.
“That’s not good for the morale,” muttered Liam.
Sebase just patted Phoenix on the shoulder, withdrawing his hand quickly. Phoenix was heating up to a dangerous temperature for human skin. Heat waves were visible radiating from her body.
“Phoenix, calm down.”
Phoenix didn’t answer, bursting into flame.
“Phoenix!” Liam barked. “There are flammable materials here, not the least of which being your fellow Phils. Stop, or the NFPA will be all over us for violating standard 160.”
“What’s that?” asked Phoenix dispiritedly as the flames disappeared.
“The standard for safe use of flame effects before an audience,” Liam replied. “All I could come up with on short notice. The NFPA could come up with more.”
“And the NFPA are…?”
“National Freaks and Pyromaniacs Association, or something like that,” said Liam. “Anyway, can we hurry this up? You’ve got an appointment, Phoenix.”
“I know. But can you blame me for not wanting to keep it?”