Degrees of Cold
Can the hero brave the heart of the storm?
The ringing bell and shouts spurred Melchior to scramble up the mast net in a panic. The bitter chill of the skies was outmatched The bitter chill of the skies was outmatched by the one that ran up Melchior’s spine as the crow’s nest bell rang. They were hunting Aquinas, the water phoenix. Her blind rage threatened the Camina Terminus, a fortress which was the bulwark against the Midland hordes. If it fell, they would flood onto the Etruscan peninsula and that would mean the end of the Republic for good.
In a rush, Melchior hired the only airship he could find on the continent, the Voidwings. They were your typical privateer outfit, out for nothing more than money. But the longer the water phoenix’s furies continued, the greater the chance Camina would fall. Despite their pirate tendencies, he found them dependable enough for the mission at hand. And he wasn’t going to let her get away this time.
The ringing bell and shouts spurred Melchior to scramble up the mast net in a panic.
“Sighting off the starboard bow!” The spotter called from the crow’s deck, the wooden ring which encapsulated the dirigible’s balloon.
A sudden wind gust threatened to launch Melchior from the ship. Despite the overwhelming pressure, and his long blonde hair tousled and blocking his vision, he held firm and inched upwards, desperate to see what the clamor was all about. And the storm they found themselves in, unexpected, there could be no mistake it was Aquinas’ making. Not only that, but the immense Esper energy she emitted coursed over his flesh. It sunk deep into him like a hawk’s talons, ready to drag him away.
Melchior rolled himself onto the deck and low-crawled towards the starboard side of the airship through a persistent gale. Afar, a massive cumulonimbus cloud rushed through the sky, a fluffy arrow in flight. In its wake, a stream of trails dissipated and left a growing thunderstorm. Lightning crashed into the frozen sea which caused snow devils to spiral into existence and carve up the ice. Melchior was certain Aquinas was at the head of that cloud, dragging it along the sky. He was going to make sure he would put an end to her rage.
Prone, he rolled on his side, pulled a spyglass from his leather jacket, and extended it. Hugging the deck to stabilize himself against the wind, Melchior tracked along the clouds. He shifted and groaned, unable to see anything through the tumult of the storm. Then a strong turbulence hit the airship and it began to sway like a withering leaf of a winter-ready oak.
Melchior couldn’t hold himself against the vibration and shake. The deck began to slam against his chest. Each hit grew more intense, and he was launched upwards. Desperate cries rang out as he, along with the rest of the crow’s deck, were swept away by a gale, an invisible rogue wave which crashed into the craft and caused it to tilt.
The airship was far above the iced-over sea. Melchior had gotten used to hurtling towards the ground from high up, flight no rarity to him. With a shift of his legs and shoulders, he righted himself so that he was facing downward. He spotted the two men who were also swept away. There was time to rescue them. But he had to do it in one shot.
Melchior shifted himself and dove toward the nearest crewman, who was knocked out. With a palm to the shoulder, he rolled the unconscious man on his back, curling him up. Then, Melchior clenched his own fist. The compass etched on the back of his hand ignited with a green light. He threw open his palm and a rush of air launched the unconscious man toward the second falling crewman. With another gust, Melchior flew after and past him.
With his foot, he slowed and stopped the knocked-out crewman and stabilized himself with a short burst of air. There wasn’t much time left, Melchior could make out fine details on the frozen sea below. He learned early on that saving someone from plunging to their death is much like rescuing one from drowning. If you let them get a grip, they’ll take you down with them. He swooped under the second, flailing crewman and latched onto his hip. Then, using his momentum, snagged the unconscious man and gripped him under the opposite arm.
A glance at the compass on the back of his hand showed it was half-filled with green wind Esper. With all three of them, he had to be exact, or it would be a long trip only to be smeared along the landscape. With both hands enveloped in an emerald glow, he released a gust from both hands. Melchior winced, strained as he struggled to hold on to both of the crewmen and keep stable. Flying by his fists was the worst way to move through the air. He once had the ability to fly, a gift bestowed upon by the water phoenix herself. The loss of Aquinas’ blessing was the most painful part of this whole endeavor.
They closed in on the dirigible and Melchior found his estimation off. They were coming in fast and shallow. He was lined up with the rear of the craft almost exactly. But he undershot how high he needed to be. And if he guessed correctly, he didn’t have enough Esper left to correct upwards.
There also was no way for him to slow down. If he were to throw his hands in front of him, the two crewmen would fall to their deaths. With a firm grip, he pulled the two tighter and blew a short burst from his right hand, spinning them shoulder-over-shoulder. His back was now pointed toward the craft.
“Get off the deck!” Melchior shouted repeatedly as they closed on the airship.
Crewmen on the dirigible scrambled to make way as they saw Melchior careening towards them. They dove onto netting and took cover under anything that looked solid. He slammed onto the airship and continued to slide on his leather coat. Braced for impact, he collided back-first into the fo’c’sle wall. The impact sent the airship bobbing and weaving. Winded, Melchior wanted nothing more than to roll over on his back and pass out from the agony.
The ship’s crew rushed to Melchior and pulled the two off him. As they did, he coughed and left a spatter of blood on the wooden deck. Relief welled within as his chest eased and he could breathe again. With shaken arms, he started to push himself to his feet when the crew snatched him upright. With a swift brush to his jacket and pants, Melchior gave them a firm nod as they patted him on his aching back and cheered. He staggered over to the ship’s captain, who manned the helm.
“We have to go after that storm.” Melchior struggled to speak between gasps. He propped himself up by the thighs.
“I’ve been trying to avoid it. That front seems to be headed this way.” The captain chewed on his cork pipe.
Melchior twisted his shoulders starboard to see the cloud darting straight for them. At the head, a purple and black speck darted and weaved around the shape of the storm front. It was Aquinas, corrupted by The Queen of Sin. The wind he evoked earlier drew her attention. If the water phoenix reached the ship, she’d tear it to pieces.
“I need a Spark Shard.” Melchior shouted to the captain.
“We need those to stay aloft. And this expedition is running long as it is.”
Melchior pointed at the clouds rushing toward them. “That’s what we’re looking for. And it’s coming. For us.”
The captain spun on his heels to look at Aquinas soaring toward them in furious spirals.
He swallowed hard. “Go get one.” Then he pointed toward the floatman. “Thirty degrees down-draft!”
The crewman pulled a lever and blue flame beneath the linen balloon extinguished. The ship began to descend. Then it started to nose-dive. The bubble within the metal balance on the main mast was pinned to the thirty-degree mark, at the very limit of the measurement. Then, wind suddenly captured the balloon and the airship righted and began to ascend. The force from the momentum reversal pinned the crew to the deck. The ship’s hull groaned and whined as they continued upwards.
Melchior emerged with a small obsidian stone when he was yanked to the floor from the force. Seeing the purple hue of Aquinas against the clouds drawing near, he forced his hand up and clenched the Spark Shard. As he gripped it, the dull white glow within the stone dimmed. The circle within the compass on the back of his hand filled with an iridescent glow. Then, as the last of the luminance within the shard vanished, the stone burst into fine particles which were whisked away in the gale that engulfed the ship.
With all his strength, Melchior dragged himself to the edge of the deck. He struggled to get himself up to the ledge. There, he could see Aquinas’ form and features. Her bubbling feathers flicked and danced as she soared. Her four eyes emitted black ooze which flecked off with each wing flap. Her otherwise golden beak was covered in obsidian lesions. Melchior took one look at the crew, all unable to move, and without hesitation flung himself from the still ascending ship.
Melchior enveloped both fists in green Esper energy. The moment he flung open his fingers, he launched himself away from the airship. Aquinas bucked and twirled as Melchior summoned wind, one of her two affinities. As he hoped, the gust provoked her. As he cut the wind coming from his hands, he glided above the clouds. The atmospheric winds died down. Around him, great cloud peaks and valleys filled the skies. He’d never soared so high before. For a moment, he felt like a foreigner in a strange land.
A great force slammed into him. Melchior tumbled head-over-heels. This foreigner was given a regal welcome—the Empress of the Skies arrived to greet him. In a panic, he threw his hands out and evoked gusts in a bid to stop his spin. Just as he ceased the rotation, the phoenix swooped down from above for another strike. With a snap burst of wind, he was able to shove himself out of the way. A second gust launched him onto the bird’s back.
“Steel your rage!” Melchior mustered to shout over the overwhelming wind around him.
“Deceiver. Liar. Brigand.” Aquinas called out. “I will extinguish you, charlatan.”
The water phoenix spun and dove. Melchior struggled to keep a grasp on what handful of feathers he’d latched onto. With all his strength, he began to scale up the bird.
“I’ve done you no wrong. You have been corrupted.” Melchior shouted at Aquinas, only a hair’s width from her head. “I can save you.”
The bird snapped at him with her beak. As it neared, he felt the darkness radiating from the lesions. He dodged away and latched onto her neck. With both of them still in a dive together, Melchior inched his way up towards the corruption. The water phoenix wagged her head as he neared.
As she bucked, Aquinas spun and tumbled through the air, leveling off and then gaining altitude. Melchior struggled again to hold on as the bird thrust herself back high into the air. The water phoenix halted her ascension and he reached for one of the rock-like sores on her beak that dangled not far from his head. With a firm smack, it tumbled away and fell to dust. As it left her body, Aquinas’ feathers flickered turquoise for a moment. It was working.
Melchior threw his hands at her beak with wild abandon, smacking the stone-like sores and dislodging them. Each lesion ousted caused the feathers of the bird to shift from blue to green, then back to purple. He reached for the final lesion when Aquinas went into a hard dive again. He latched onto her neck with both legs and reached in desperation.
His outstretched hand was still too far from the very tip of the water phoenix’s beak. Melchior tried to inch up further, but it was yet out of reach. Seeing the ground rush toward him, he let go with his other hand and reached with both, wrapped legs were all that held him to the bird.
Aquinas bucked and flipped, tossing him from her neck.
Melchior tumbled and, in a panic, evoked several bursts of air to stabilize himself. The water phoenix dropped in, ready to strike with sword-like talons extended. He readied to evoke a jet of water. It was her other affinity, in being one of the four Ordinal Beasts. With both of his hands clasped, his hand radiated with a blue light. As he locked eyes with her on an approach to attack, he spotted the last sore on the very tip of her beak, in line with the space between her two forward-facing eyes.
Now falling toward the frozen landscape, Melchior let loose a jet of water from his unclasped palms. It landed square on the lesion and blasted it away. The impact caused Aquinas to flinch, and she fell into a tumble. The moment the obsidian stone fell to dust, her feathers changed to a gradient of blue, dark on the base, light at the tips. Then the edges of her feathers brightened to an emerald green. Aquinas was cured.
Melchior spun to face the ground and shoved his hands forward. He evoked the power of wind, ready to slow his descent. Nothing. The compass on the back of his hand was empty. The ground grew larger. He could see the fine particles of snow wafting across the frozen landscape. Melchior tried again, thrusting his hands forward even harder.
Several more attempts were equally fruitless. As he panicked and braced to hit the ground, a large shadow grew over him. Then two sets of golden toes wrapped around his body. Only a few body-lengths away from the ground, a great swooping gust jostled him. The force from the sudden ascent churned his stomach as the frozen sea below whirred past his face. Aquinas had snatched him from the air, and they were soaring within arm’s reach of the icy surface. With a firm flap of her wings, the water phoenix stopped to a hover and released him. He fell on his stomach.
The storm faded as Aquinas came to a rest on the ice. Warm air descended upon the iced-over ocean the moment the clouds dissipated. As the cold beneath him soothed his aching bones, he watched the frost and snow on the far landscape thaw. It wouldn’t be long before the ice upon which he lay would again become water. Melchior heard the airship descending in a wide circle overhead, its rear propeller whirred to bring it to a slow.
“Come, let us return home.” Melchior turned his attention to the water phoenix.
With the bow of her head, Aquinas’ form burst into a fine mist and was swept away by the returning ocean breeze. Upon the compass on the back of Melchior’s hand, the image of a wing appeared in the northeast ordinal. He breathed a sigh of relief and pressed his head against the ice.
Though he escaped it today, Melchior was certain the bitter chill of the frozen sea was by far outmatched by that of death.
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