The plan was simple: sneak aboard Captain Kem’s airship where she is keeping the philosopher’s stone, steal it from the cargo hold, blast a way out of the ship’s hull with alchemist’s bombs, and parachute back safely to the ground.
Naturally, things never go according to plan.
“What do you mean it’s not here?” Asoka asked, trying to keep the conversation at a whisper.
“It’s not here in the cargo hold,” Len replied. “We’ve been searching for hours, and we’ve triple-checked every crate.” There wasn’t much cargo to begin with, since the small airship, The Silver Dragon, whose envelope was filled with dangerous lighter-than-air gas, had a gondola of limited size; the whole thing was still largely experimental. The airship was one of the first of its kind, and a massive expenditure on Kem’s part, but it would allow for safe, unimpeded trade on the open skies, at least for as long as she could hold the monopoly on the design.
“Does this mean Kem doesn’t even have a philosopher’s stone at all?”
“No, she has one, the Alchemy Guild’s spies are certain of it. And she mustn’t be allowed to use it: likely she will use it to resurrect Master Gildman, the crime lord who was poisoned last year; that, after two decades of assassination attempts.” Len’s small orange homunculous, a leather-winged little man barely a foot tall, nodded emphatically on her shoulder.
“So, what now?”
“… She might not have trusted to keep it here in the cargo hold after all, fearing someone might try to steal it.”
“What, you mean like us?”
“Exactly. She might be keeping it on her person.”
They edged their way up from the cargo hold, parachutes on their backs in case things became dire. On the deck at the top of the stairs was a patrol of guards. They were armed with swords and rifles. They waited out of sight until there was only one guard left at the post, standing bored in the hallway.
Len reached into her leather coat. In various orange pockets she had glass vials, and she began mixing some of the reactants together into a small bead. When she finished, she rolled it along the floor in the guard’s direction, where it landed past his feet before spraying forth a cloud of gas that quickly lofted upwards. He coughed twice and then fell to the ground.
“Sweet dreams, guardsman,” Asoka quipped softly as they dragged him out of sight, making their way along the deck. They continued on their way, until they caught sight of the captain, who was talking to the helmsman a ways off. They ducked back out of sight, Asoka ready with the guard’s borrowed rifle, and Len drawing an elixir from another of her innumerable pockets.
“Do you want me to go pick-pocketing?” Asoka asked.
“Not you,” Len replied, giving the brew to her homunculous, who, after drinking the clear liquid, began to fade from sight and become invisible. She heard the light flapping of wings, softly, through the air as it followed cautiously after Kem.
Kem was a short woman, her hair gray and unkempt. She wore an eye-patch, and her face scarred by many explosive failures from a long career in alchemy; she looked every bit like a pirate of the skies. The two listened to the casual tapping of her leather boots on the wooden deck, and from around the corner, saw her stop. She seemed to be scanning around for something; Len hoped her homunculous was still undetected. It had stuck its tiny, slender hand into one of her pockets, then began circling around her to the other side. Unexpectedly, Kem opened one side of her leather overcoat, and her own homunculous, a creature like a winged, tailless rat, jumped down. It began sniffing the air intently, Kem watching it sternly as it went. Suddenly, the homunculous jumped, and grappled with an unseen creature; Len’s thief had been made, and in a single motion Kem drew her rapier and expertly stabbed the revealed homunculous, where it came out of invisibility, fading into view from transparency to an opaque dead body.
“Sorry Len, but better it than me,” Asoka replied. Len did not seem too saddened, busily creating another smoke bomb.
She threw it at the ground between the two of them and the captain, sending up a cloud of choking smoke as Asoka took a shot at Kem with the rifle. She dodged and shouted “We’re under attack!” Her homunculous was flapping its wings from Kem’s shoulder, keeping the smoke away from her face as she charged forward with her rapier. Asoka tossed the empty rifle away and drew his pair of short swords, parrying the captain and keeping pace with her expert speed.
Behind them some sky sailors came, with swords and guns of their own. Foolishly, Len thought, they had bunched together, and she hurled a ready-made bomb at them, which scattered them with a burst of flame and a thunderous noise. She saw several of them bleeding from the face, and others trying to put out the flames that had started on the ship’s wood.
“Oh, that’s a great idea!” Asoka remarked, stabbing the annoying homunculous buffeting him with its wings. “Don’t just start a fire on a wooden ship, start one on a wooden ship floating in midair attached to a big bag of explosive gas.”
“If you have time to talk, you have time to fight,” Len shot back.
“Indeed,” Kem said, coming at them with another flurry of slashes. “I don’t care who you are, but you should know you should not expect to leave this ship alive.” She parried Asoka’s sword swipes with one hand, pulling a flask from her coat pocket with the other; she hastily downed the whole bottle, and began to convulse.
“Oh, this is bad,” Len said.
Kem dropped the rapier, and seeing an opening Asoka closed the gap, but she caught the blade on her hand. It was becoming gigantic, and clawed, and there was the sound of grinding bones and stretching skin as the once small woman began to bulk up, large, muscular, and brutish. Her teeth became long and sharp, her back hunched, and her body tough and furry. Her head, like the rest of her body, had swollen in size, and while much of the clothes on her tore under tension, her eye-patch snapped off. In the eye socket was a perfect sphere of ruby, with a glowing core of gold.
“The philosopher’s stone,” Len identified. “So that’s where she hid it…”
Kem roared, a low rumbling shout, and slammed her fists down to crush them both. They dodged, and although Asoka retaliated with a slash, the deep cut didn’t seem to slow her down. Len took a swipe from the monster’s claws, and as Asoka came in to defend her, she drank from a potion, the bleeding wounds in her side closing quickly as she stood back up on her feet.
“We can’t win a fight like this,” Len remarked. Thankfully there were only battling Kem, as the rest of the crew was trying to contain the fire the bomb had set off; apparently they thought she’d be more than a match, and were not in a hurry to rush to the frightful monster’s aid besides.
“Well, I doubt she’s going to hand it over of her own will,” Asoka told her, parrying another slashing charge with the swords.
Len reached into her coat and worked on another bomb.
“Isn’t one fire bad enough here?!” Asoka asked, trying not to take his eyes off their roaring furious opponent.
“This bomb isn’t fire,” she said lobbing it back behind the beastly alchemist. It burst into a rain of shrapnel, which peppered the captain’s monstrous hide, which was now bleeding substantially. Angered, she rushed towards them, and grabbed Asoka with a massive hand, pinning him to the ground. He couldn’t move as she set to punch him in the head with a fist as big as his whole torso, but his arms were free, and he moved his swords right into place to stab her hand as it came down. She recoiled and released Asoka, who scrambled away and back to his feet with a rolling motion. Len began another improvised bomb.
“Another? The last one just made her mad!”
“It’s not for her,” she said tossing it up at the ship’s balloon. It burst, sending razor-edged shards in all directions as Len and Asoka covered their heads. But while some fragments rained down on them, others flew up and burst the envelope, which was venting gas in strong jets. The airship lurched sideways, and the floor slanted unevenly.
Asoka charged Kem, who was still struggling to keep her footing in her transformed, unfamiliar and bulky form. His blades lodged deep in her throat and chest, and she screamed. He let go of one sword, and plucked the philosopher stone from her eye socket, pocketing it, and then pulling out his swords, retreated back from the bleeding shrieking monster.
“I got it! Let’s get out of here!”
They jumped together overboard from the ship, crashing through the glass windows, smoke and lighter-than-air gas curling together behind them. They pulled the cords, and the parachutes deployed; their descent slowed to a safe speed.
“You’re sure you have it?” Len asked eventually, looking up at him.
“Really,” Asoka began, looking down from his higher position, “You should have asked that before we jumped off the ship.”
“Relax!” Asoka said, holding up the special ruby stone, which glittered red in the sunlight. “I said I have it,” placing it back in his pocket, “so there’s nothing to worry ab–”
A thunderous explosion blasted above them as the volatile gases finally caught fire, and the listing ship was now plummeting in earnest. A splinter of the ship’s wood came through the air, propelled by the explosion, and shredded through Asoka’s parachute and the lines holding it to him. He yelped in surprise as he began to fall faster. He collided with Len, grabbing onto her by the waist, and together they descended. A small hole had been torn in her parachute too.
“We’re falling too fast,” she said. “At this speed, we won’t survive the landing.”
“You mean after all that, only to die hitting the ground? What are we going to do?”
“… I have an idea,” she said, beginning to mix things from her pockets into a flask, “but you’re not going to like it.”
“Less than certain death?”
“I’m trying to concentrate here,” she told him. She inspected the vial of substance she produced, and tossed it away, dissatisfied. She started over completely, but the ground was approaching fast.
“Give me a second…”
“In a second it won’t matter!”
She looked at this vial, and clenched her jaw. “It will have to do,” she said, looking down. She saw Asoka looking back up at her nervously from her waist, but she tried to remain fixed on the advancing ground. If the timing was off …
She tossed it down, and it shattered, spreading into a wide puddle on the hard mountainside stone. It then frothed up, thick, high, and tall. Trying to steer their parachute, they crashed into the foam, which handsomely broke their fall. Within seconds of landing, the bubbles began popping, until all that was left of the temporary cushion was a gross residue.
“Oh gods, it’s sticky! … I mean, thank you Len.”
“I told you that you wouldn’t like it.”
“Yuck, it smells, and why is it warm?”
“All part of the chemical reaction, I suspect.”
“Wait, you suspect? How many times have you made this?”
“Successfully, including today? … Once.”
“Once?! You were making it up as you went along?!”
“Perhaps I can try again later under laboratory conditions. I would hardly call this a controlled experiment.”
He looked at the alchemist. “This is why I need to find another line of work … you alchemists …”
“Any broken bones?”
“… No, but I’ll probably have some bruises in the morning.”
“Then a marked improvement compared to death. Especially since we recovered the stone.”
“Yes,” he said, taking it out, seeing it was safely intact. “Hard to believe there could be so much fuss over so small a thing,” he remarked as they watched the flames from the crashed aircraft in the distance.
Len nodded. “Alright; which way to the next town? I gather we have a lot of walking to do.”