The raw air was like knives on her skin. She had grievously misjudged the potency of her artifact and now she was in trouble.
Her brother’s hot-air balloon was so far above now. She couldn’t hear him anymore, only the roar of wind past her fur.
It became nothing but a shrinking point and then vanished.
Puzzle’s hand clamped like a vise around the feather full of fluid. It was literally the only thing keeping her alive. Stupidly, she hadn’t attached it to anything.
The other hand had held a rope. Only 500 feet long. It had burned her hand as she plummeted at a speed well beyond what she had predicted, then slipped away with no resistance.
She had held onto the magical feather with cursed water inside, called out to Atlas she was going, and just jumped off the edge of the balloon.
This turned out to be a massive mistake. The artifact let her fly but it also continued motion in the current direction.
Currently, that was down. Rapidly.
She was going too fast. Much too fast. Her left hand throbbed and burned with surface abrasions. She was losing feeling in her right hand and it felt like her nose and legs were going numb.
The wind was freezing. There were no clouds, just blue above and blue below. Sky going on forever.
Puzzle could barely see. The air stung her eyes at this speed.
Tears streamed vertically up along her face. She never saw it coming, because her eyes are closed from the cold and the pain.
It hit her like a wall.
Puzzle grabbed for something solid, finding nothing. She continued thrashing, with no idea if she was going up or down.
Up and down long ago ceased to have meaning. She tried going toward the blue that seemed brighter.
Her lungs ached.
It was freezing.
All sense of orientation and time left her. Grey pushes in on at the edges of her vision.
She needed air.
It was so very cold.
She passed out.
Atlas screamed as she dived over the edge of the prow, like she weighed nothing. He ran behind her, rocking the boat of the hot air balloon that had held them both just a moment ago.
It swayed dangerously from side to side. He snatched at a rope.
He could barely breathe.
“Puzzle! Puzzle, what the moons?! You shitwit!”
He just held the edge of the basket, looking over in disbelief. Her figure had levitated for a second or two, clutching her new feather artifact, then she had plummeted downward like a rock.
Straight toward the ocean.
Down. He needed to go down. After her.
“Sakes alive, are you an addlepated mooncalf now? If all the moons fell, you’d probably be out there with an umbrella! Sand-sure, sunwept!”
Curses continued spilling from his lips as he leapt backwards lithely, knocking aside the heat shield in his hurry, snatching for the burner. Off. Pulling the valve cord, opening the vent above completely.
She could die.
She might already be dying.
Tears began to fill his eyes. The last thing he had said to her, before she leapt, telling her about how the artifact he had found worked. If he had just shut up about it, maybe she wouldn’t have grabbed it from, the damn foolhardy whisker-size brained idiot!
Atlas didn’t know how to live his life without her in it.
The hot air balloon began to sink, torturously slowly.
“Please, please, Losus, Queen Aerophanim, by all the gods, please please please let her be okay…”
He had never prayed in his life. His mother hated church.
He didn’t really know how, besides the fear gripping him completely.
Atlas could barely see through his tears as the balloon continued floating down, slow as molasses on a winter day.
The ocean came closer.
He saw her figure in the water. Unmoving. Imitating her leap from earlier, Atlas jumped over the edge. Unthinking. He just saw her and did it.
The impact of his hit boomed in his ears, a dull underwater echo surrounding him. He floated back up in a ball, pushing at the water around him with his paws.
The water was the coldest thing he had ever felt.
His head broke the surface and he gasped in deeply. Kicked hard, raising up, looking for her body.
Found it. Bobbing.
He wrapped her arms around her.
He didn’t remember how, but at some point, he made it back to the boat.
Atlas only remembered the terrible rhythm of her coming to, almost dragging him under again in her panic, grabbing back at her, pushing, flailing, swimming, rolling, back to wherever the hot air balloon had landed in the water.
He had had to peel clothing off her, underwater, so she could swim unimpeded. The long trail of it kept wrapping her legs. Her skirt was floating somewhere out there now, lost to the waves.
He didn’t think she’d be the one to almost kill him after saving her.
It was just a blurry gap, the fear not subsiding yet.
Was he okay? He wasn’t sure.
The air balloon had completely deflated and floated in the water behind them.
Puzzle shivered violently and her teeth chattered audibly. Atlas was hugging her and he didn’t remember doing that either. She was having trouble breathing. Rattle in her throat. Coughing.
Trying hard to say something.
She pushed something in his hand.
How had she held onto it, while unconscious?
Puzzle doubled over, holding her stomach and vomited water into the bottom of the basket. Atlas looked away and around. There was a few things that might work as an improvised paddle. The bottom was boat-shaped but a big wave might turn them over.
That was his biggest fear now.
Atlas started pulling in the flaccid balloon by ropes attached it, pulling it over the side into the bottom. Water was everywhere. The moons had risen.
Every bit of wind moving felt horribly cold.
He realized his body was moving slowly. He hadn’t escaped unhurt after all. Whatever had given him energy was leaving him now.
“Shore,” he whispered hoarsely. “We’ve got to get back to the beach.”
Puzzle nodded, not trusting herself to speak yet.