I originally submitted this story for a steampunk short story contest hosted by Calista Taylor. I’m very thankful to all of those who voted for naming this one the winner! All of the stories were awesome and under a thousand words, so I encourage you to jump over to Calista’s blog and discover some new steampunk writers.
The revolver clapped twice in quick succession before the alchemical silver bullets spun from the barrel. As they traveled through the heat-soaked air, they flung little pieces of themselves in all directions. They might have dissolved into nothing if not for the short trip between the gun and the leathery hide of the demon.
Part gargoyle and part zombie, the creature had been lunging for Jacob’s throat when the bullets burrowed into its chest. It shrieked in pain and fell to the pine deck of the airship. One tight fist of only three clawed fingers pounded on the wood while the other clutched at the wounds. In front of the man’s eyes, the creatures veins bulged through skin that resembled slate. They grew and grew until rupturing. Black ichor, wreaking of sulfur, splashed over everything including Jacob.
Another flock of the smaller demons bounced off the invisible shield that surrounded the airship. These creatures, varied through all the colors of a burnt rainbow, couldn’t pass through like the larger ones did. Still, with each impact, Jacob could hear the glut of mason jars in the hull rattling. The vacuum-sealed prayers powered the protective bubble. He knew the yellow glow in the jars had dropped below the halfway point and that the protection would run out eventually.
He had expected them to last longer and to protect him completely. Neither of those things had turned out to be true. Just two weeks in to his journey through the bowels of Hell and Jacob had encountered more demons than he ever thought possible. They kept him awake all hours without rest.
Wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve, Jacob stumbled over to the wooden steering wheel. That same hand ducked into the pocket of his vest and pulled out a small bottle. He gave it a shake and found that it sounded mostly empty. His thumb flicked the cap off and he emptied the white tablets into his mouth. His friend and dentist, Lloyd, had given him the cocaine toothache drops in case his pesky molar acted up during the trip. Surprisingly, that was the one part of him that didn’t hurt.
Suddenly the ship lurched as the bow raised high in the air. Jacob turned just in time to see a huge metal hook cut through the air. He ducked, managing to avoid getting gouged but the chain that hung from that hook caught under his arm. It picked him up and then dropped him like a marionette with cut strings. The revolver flew through the air and over the rail. He knew it was gone; it had surely been consumed by the lava flows below.
Standing on the back of the deck, its horns pressed into the balloon stories above, was a massive quadrupedal demon. The hook-and-chain weapon was grasped between two arms that jutted out halfway between the front legs and a grotesque head. From his perspective, Jacob couldn’t see anything but gnashing teeth.
He hadn’t seen a demon this large before. So far, the biggest ones had been man-sized, although they looked much more imposing given their huge wingspan. This toad-skinned abomination didn’t have wings and Jacob wondered how it boarded the ship. There wasn’t an outcropping of rock nearby and he certainly hoped the forces of darkness didn’t have their own airships.
It was moments like this, the fifth or sixth of this adventure, that caused Jacob to do two things. First, he soiled himself. He had gone through the bulk of his luggage thanks to his body’s natural reactions to the demons. And he certainly wasn’t going to waste his limited steam and drinking water on cleaning.
The second thing that Jacob did during these attacks was to doubt the journey. His friends had told him it was a fool’s errand to tear in to Hell on a dirigible but he hadn’t listened. They eventually relented and assisted in whatever way they could. Better to send him off prepared, they had said.
The brute spun the chain around, clipping one of the ropes that held the ship to the balloon. Before Jacob could calculate how many of those ropes he could afford to lose, the broad flat part of the weapon descended towards him. He rolled to the side moments before the weapon splintered through the deck.
Laying on his stomach in front of the steering wheel, Jacob looked up. Tacked to the wooden pole was a picture of a gorgeous woman with hair that could teach the lava a thing or two about being fiery. She was posed with one foot up on a steam boiler, showing off more of her leg than was appropriate for a lady. His family, the neighbors and even Lloyd had called her a superfluous woman. After her death, they told him to simply forget her.
But how could he? Every time he smelled the potpourri made from her perfume and the dried flowers from her grave, he remembered. He remembered the nights they spent together in the brothel and then the days in his shop. She was as handy with a wrench as she was with, well, his other tool. He’d have made an honest woman out of her if not for her untimely death.
Summoning up all the strength in his weary body, Jacob lunged forward to grab the lever for the airship’s fire suppression system. With one strong tug, the valves open and water rained down on them. Water was precious commodity in the inferno but it was also blessed by Father O’Leary. The hulking brute screamed in agony as flesh was flayed from it. With a powerful lunge that shook the whole airship, the creature careened over the railing.
More ropes were torn in the escape but they could be fixed. Jacob shut the water off before draping his shaking hands over the steering wheel. He quickly put the craft back on course.
“I’m coming, Elle. I’m coming.”