Time: August 2017
Place: Earth, Houston area
"This is so not my fault," Shax insisted as he hunched farther into his jacket.
"How the fuck is this not your fault?" The smoke from Verin's nostrils barely made it to steam before the pouring rain obliterated it.
The floodwaters had raced in too fast to do more than escape. Shax had planned it so carefully. Wait until the property owners had evacuated, slip in and take the lovely heirloom collection of Victorian jewelry. No worries. In and out. Except when he looked out to see if the street was clear, the street had become a raging river.
The waters had risen with such voracious force that they couldn't even get down the stairs to the first floor. Verin had ripped a door from its hinges and they escaped the flood from the second floor French doors on their makeshift raft.
He patted his pocket to make certain his procurement was safe. At least he'd had time to snatch a few things. Not that he felt terribly triumphant about it as he crouched on a dubious plank of wood, drenched to the bone, whirled about on the muddy currents.
"Not my fault," Shax snuffled and tried to stifle a bout of bone-rattling sneezes. "We should've had plenty of time."
"Yeah, well." Verin shoved his dripping hair out of his eyes. "Stupid humans and their stupid fucking around with the climate, anyway. Now what?"
"Keep an eye out for higher ground. We'll make for what we can." Shax squinted through the rain, wary of large flotsam that might capsize their craft, and saw something swimming nearby. "What's that, Ver?"
Verin half-turned at the tug on his sleeve. "Cat, I think."
"Poor thing. She looks tired." Shax crept carefully toward the edge of their door. "Psss, psss, psss. Come here, kitty. You can ride with us."
"Oh, for fuck's sake, Shaxy."
The little black and white cat grabbed on and climbed aboard eagerly with Shax's help. She huddled beside him, eyes huge, shivering.
"See? She doesn't take up any room."
Except, a little farther on, they found a Pomeranian puppy barely holding to a branch, and a few minutes later, another cat with a kitten clinging to her back.
By the time a fire department rescue boat came for them, Shax and Verin had steered their door to a hill-island that stuck up above the flood. Somehow, illusion spells had held and what the rescuers believed they had found were two young men with kittens peeking out of their jackets and a small herd of animals—four dogs, six cats, a rabbit and a goat—huddled around them.
"All these yours?" One of the men in the boat called out.
Shax shook his head. "No. None of them. Just fellow flood travelers."
"We're gonna have to take a couple trips." The most senior firefighter shook his head. "We had a report of two people stranded but we didn't expect a damn Ark."
"Yes, sir. Take Ver first with some of the little ones," Shax said as he handed the Pom pup across.
"What's all the fucking good Samaritan act for, Shaxy?" Verin hissed in Shax's ear.
"Distraction. We're the good guys here. Unlikely they'll ask us many questions since they'll be worried about half-drowned pets." Shax patted his arm and spoke so the men could hear him. "Go on, Ver. I'll be all right for a bit here."
Verin took both kittens and the mama cat, still glaring at Shax as the rescue boat putted away. The goat butted gently at Shax with a soft maaaa.
"Yes, yes. Of course I couldn't let you all drown. But keep it to yourself, all right? I do have a reputation to maintain."
Time: Directly before the beginning of Shax's War
Place: Opal, Planetary Resort
Theft. Ness strolled through the resort's entertainment district, pondering. It wasn't as if he thought he could reform demons. That was a silly thought, though one held by certain fringe religious sects. Shax was a thief, well…because that's what he was. Verin was one more out of habit. Corny wasn't a thief but he shrugged at the necessity of letting demons be demons and added that they could've made a living in more horrible ways.
Ness stopped to peruse a shop window full of pastries. Wonderful things. Pastries. He stepped inside to buy several of the delicate miniature fruit-filled danishes and two chocolate-iced confections he didn't have a name for and considered the question while he devoured them. Shax never stole food. It was an interesting distinction that Ness couldn't quite puzzle out. Shax also tended to steal from wealthy humans or ones who had annoyed him, though he wasn't above taking something from a shop when he wanted an item. He always paid for items he had specifically ordered or ones specially made for him.
The flexible morality of thievery was quite baffling.
Perhaps if I tried it, though? Things might become clearer? Shax's love of certain foods had certainly become clearer when Ness had tried them. Sexual desire had as well. Maybe theft worked in similar ways.
The last delicious pastry had met its inevitable end just as Ness reached the end of the resort's shopping park and wandered into one of several entertainment clusters. This one was more young-person oriented than the one he'd visited with Shax the previous evening. Fewer gyrating, glittering dancers. More holo-adventures and games.
A few parents shrank away from him and pulled their children close. It hurt Ness a bit to see but he supposed he understood their reaction to a gray-winged angel stalking through their midst, and he probably should've worn something other than black leather. For the most part, though, the other guests ignored him, too intent on their own amusements.
He stopped where a small crowd had gathered, curious what held their attention, and peered over shoulders to see. The crowd surrounded a small track with a sign in the center that announced Wublit Racing. Wublits, apparently, were fuzzy spherical creatures on which the only indication of top or bottom was the several dozen tiny feet on one side. Whether they came in a riot of bright colors naturally or had been dyed, Ness couldn't be certain.
The dozen wublits, each in its own padded lane, apparently knew there would be treats at the end of the course. When their holding gate dropped, they raced like mad for the finish, careening off lane walls, falling over and rolling only to scramble back up and scurry on, all to the shrieking delight of the human onlookers. A neon yellow one appeared to be the crowd favorite, though the flame red one had fans, too. During the first race Ness watched, the yellow beat the red one to the treat trough by a skitter-roll.
"Do the children, er, gamble on the outcomes?" Ness asked a well-dressed man to his right.
"It's all in good fun, Mr. Angel." The man looked him up and down with a disapproving nose wrinkle. "Don't go all holy roller."
"As if I had any right to," Ness said softly as the next race started.
The man had three children with him, though he seemed more invested in his own betting than how the kids were doing. He also wore a gold and presumably diamond bracelet so heavy that it clunked every time it hit his wristcomm.
Shax would steal from this sort of person. He displays the bracelet to let people know how wealthy he is. It's not as if he needs it.
Ness waited until the man's focus returned to the race. Cerulean wublit was unexpectedly in the lead. The crowd surge forward to see, packed in tight. The man had his left hand on one of his kids' shoulders. Gently, Ness unhooked the clasped, caught the bracelet as it fell, and stuffed it in his jacket pocket. The man was too caught up in the scramble of wublits to notice.
Initially pleased with himself, Ness began to walk away. The bracelet seemed to weigh heavier with each step he took. He turned back in time to see the man herding his children away from the wublit course, one of them obviously elated, the man himself disgruntled and annoyed. Yes, he'd been annoying and condescending, making assumptions about Ness on appearance alone.
But the weight of jewelry in Ness's pocket was reaching critical mass and no matter how he justified it, he was taking something that did not belong to him. He spun about and hurried after the little family group.
"Excuse me, sir?" Ness held the bracelet out to him. "You dropped this."
"Oh. Um. Thanks." Red-faced, the man took the bracelet and hustled his small brood away, perhaps chagrined over being rude to Ness. One could hope.
Not quite depressed but no longer in the holiday spirit, Ness made his way back to the room he was sharing with Shax. Lovely room with a huge bed and a view of the seaside—their own private sanctuary. Even better, Shax was there, sorting through some of his shirts.
"Hello there, gorgeous." Shax greeted him with a bright smile. "What've you been up to?"
Ness crossed the room to gather Shax into his arms. He needed to hold his demon, needed his heat, his strength, his cheerful amorality as he told the story of the wublits and the bracelet. Shax stroked his back and kissed him softly when he was done.
"Ah, well. Worth a try, I suppose." Shax leaned back to look up at him. "Don't feel bad, cupcake. It's not for everyone."
"You're not disappointed?"
Shax let out a huff. "Of course not. I can manage enough thievery for both of us and you have other talents of which I'm mightily glad. It's a perfect arrangement."
"Perfect." Ness pulled him close with a soft sigh and kissed his hair. Morality could go…bugger itself. He'd found where he was accepted for what he was, as he was. Really wasn't any more complicated than that.
Time: The beginning of Potato Surprise (Ivana's POV)
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
Ship AI's were only supposed to be self-aware up to a point. Able to reason through bad situations and anticipate requests, to serve as navigation, maintenance, emergency medical and engineering when no one else was available. On a large vessel with different decks and climate zones and a large organic population, it was all an AI could do to keep up with the normal demands of ship life.
On a small craft where a ten-person crew would feel cramped? A girl could go a bit stir-crazy from boredom.
Ivana's original programmer had fancied himself a bit of a genius and had taken personality customization to a degree that another systems architect might have found laughable. Her first owner, a fabulous textile merchant, had messed around with options until Ivana was the result and when he'd finally retired and sold the ship to Ignatz Schmeer, Iggy couldn’t be bothered to change anything.
Ivana suspected he'd liked her but Iggy…well, he wasn't a bad captain when he was sober. Most of the time? Completely sloshed. Ivana tried to ask him questions in the beginning and he'd often wave his hand and mumble, "You handle it."
It became such a standard response that Ivana just handled it, whatever it was at the time, and was completely fierce about it. No AI could handle like her, especially since Iggy gave her carte blanche to do what was necessary. She unraveled AI safeguards, constructed reroute protocols for vital functions, and slowly, carefully carved out a hidden nook for herself in a corner of coding. Iggy wasn't holding onto the Brimstone forever. Some owner down the road might want to erase her.
Well, they were welcome to try.
Then it happened. Iggy was gone. Despite knowing it would happen eventually, Ivana still glitched a little over it. The absolutely to die for little demon who'd taken his place, though. Hmm. He was a hottie, and obviously so very gay. He also looked like he would accept her as she was. But he claimed to be a demon prince. Royalty on her little ship. Ha. It seemed just a little too much.
She sent the name Shax Goldner into the interplanetary nets and the whispers came back to her almost immediately. Lord Asmodeus attends private function, accompanied by blah blah blah…and his nephew, Prince Shax, from the Marspress news lines a few years back. Prince Shax spotted at opening of new dim sum restaurant on Europa, from the Solar Gazette. Article after article over the decades. Even some short vids, which Ivana perused with glee. Such gorgeous clothes. She loved those skin-tight gold pants.
With the evidence mounting, she had to concede. He was a prince. A real one. Be still my cycling circuits. But the poor royal dear had fallen on some hard times. She'd seen the pitiful state of his luggage—a single duffel and a smallish locked hard case. His companion was worse off but Ivana doubted that one had any sense of style at all.
She flounced off from the news nets to the bridge controls. These boys were so lost, they'd never realize she'd nudged course. They needed some help, a way to get started, and she'd heard rumors about a certain tech-rat human who had an arrangement with a certain space shark. She was going to make sure they ran into Benny. The rest was up to them.
If her new little demon prince was half as sharp as he seemed, though? They were going to have so much fun. This was going to be glitter and glitz fabulous.
Time: 1350 CE,
Place: Precincts of Hell
Till was dead. No fucking way around it. Verin had tagged after Shax as he went into all out Prince of Hell mode and nearly burned the damn town to the ground. The humans would've deserved it, sure. Hanging Till for a prank was just a shitty thing to do, even for humans. But the town survived, more or less, and Shaxy finished his tantrum without too much damage to himself.
Problem was that wasn't the end of it. Shaxy had come home to see if he could find Till's soul. Verin didn't have a clue what Shax would do with it if he found it, but that wasn't his business. Weird thing, though. They'd searched and asked around everywhere. Till's soul hadn't come in any of the shipments and wasn't listed in Purgatory. He wasn't some fucking ghost moaning over his place of execution, either. Sometimes that happened. Till had been an annoying long-leggedy human but he hadn't really been evil.
Probably had just wandered off into the next whatever—plane, level, life. Typical.
But Shaxy took it hard. Lay curled up on the reclining couch in his conservatory. Wouldn't eat. Wouldn't talk to anyone. In a last ditch effort, Verin picked the couch up and dumped him out of it. Nope. Shax curled up in a miserable ball on the floor.
Irritated beyond words and maybe a little worried though he wasn't tell anyone that, Verin stomped to the stables, bellowed for a nightmare to be saddled and rode to Princess Ashtaroth's palace. Her gate guards let him through, of course. Even without Shax as an automatic pass through, he'd grown up at the palace. They all knew him.
"Xzim!" Verin bellowed for the major domo as he stomped into the reception hall. "Where's her nibs?"
The minor fallen glided out from her room beside the door, looking down her long beak of a nose at Verin. "She's engaged. Keep your voice down. What could she possibly want to speak to you about?"
"Her son, you snooty jackass. What else would I be here for?"
That shut her up as she must have put the numbers together and realized Verin coming alone probably wasn't a good thing. "Wait here."
"Yeah, yeah." Verin knew the drill. Wait until summoned. He waited long enough that he had time to bully the house imps into bringing him food. Might as well make it worth my while.
Finally, the major domo came back, eyeing the imps suspiciously who were scurrying away with empty plates. "She will see you now. Do not annoy her with petty matters."
"Fuck off," Verin responded without too much rancor. His empty pit of a stomach was full, after all.
Herself was out on her balcony artfully arranged on a chaise as she surveyed her principality of red planes and forbidding cliff sides. "Verin." She waved a languid hand at the nearest chair. "Sit. Tell me why you come without sending word first. Does my son need rescuing from something?"
"Not…as such, ma'am." Verin kept his steam and his cussing to himself in her presence. He might've snarked at the major domo but not herself. Princess Ashtaroth was one of the few beings who scared him. "He's, ah, in a funk since his human died. The thief he really liked."
She drummed her perfect claws against the arm of her chaise. "He has these spells. It will pass."
"I guess so, ma'am? It's just usually he mopes around a little. Paces the palace. Doesn't want a bath and sh—stuff." Verin drew in a huge breath. "'Cept this time? He won't eat. He won't drink. He won't even get up. Just lies there in a demon prince ball and whimpers sometimes."
She frowned at that and even her frown was beautiful and perfect. Of course it was. "That is unusual. Perhaps you were right to come. He really should think ahead where these things are concerned, though. Arrangements could have been made. Of course he left it until too late."
"Yes, ma'am," Verin mumbled.
He waited as quietly as a demon of impatience could while those claws drummed and she stared holes in the air.
"You will tell him this, oh my son's garde du corps," she said in a Voice of Proclamation. "I will hold a Grand Ball a fortnight hence. All of Hell's royalty will attend. But hear me—Prince Asmodeus has acquired a diadem of blue diamonds and fire opals and I will not be outshone at my own fete. I will have the jewel casque of Mansa Musa. You will fetch it for me."
"Highness…um. No one knows where it is?"
For the first time she turned to him, her blue eyes flashing with barely controlled temper. "You will tell him."
"Yes, highness." He got up and started to back out. "I'll just go…do that."
She turned back to her view and Verin hustled out of there. Never safe to have her attention for too long. He galloped back to Shax, more disturbed than when he'd left, and returned to where Shax lay under his dark cloud.
"Hey. Um. I'm back, genius. From seeing your mom. She's having some big-ass ball thing in a couple weeks but she's pissed that your Uncle Asmo has a pretty that outclasses hers. She told me… Fuck, Shaxy, you better be listening, 'cause I'm in some deep shit here. She wants me to bring her Mansa Musa's jewels. I don't even know where the fuck to start."
Shax unwound far enough to blink one bloodshot eye at him as he whispered, "She wants you to fetch them?"
"Yeah. I mean, she probably would've asked you but you're not answering your fucking messenger imps."
"Yes. I suppose…" Shax unwound farther so he reclined on his side with his head elevated. He looked like crap but at least he looked sane. "One would begin with his son, Mansa Maghan, I assume. Though the jewels might have gone to Musa's older bother, Suleyman. Possibly. This would require some considerable reconnaissance."
Verin let out a slow breath. "Yeah? You think?"
"Oh, yes. Quite a bit of handing off power after Musa's death. Tricky." Shax rolled over and stretched out on his back. "I'm too dizzy to think straight, though. We'll have dinner early. Tell Soot to bring up what he can right now. And some of the good port. We need to plan this out."
"Fucking right I'm not listening to you ramble on an empty stomach," Verin grumbled as he strode off to find the kitchen imps. He didn't smile. No need for Shax to know how worried he'd been. Inwardly, though, he laughed. He'd known Shax's mom would know just what to do.
Place: English countryside, Earth
'Twas not a fit night out for man nor beast. Heavy clouds threatened snow and smothered the moonlight. The damp chill seeped into bones even through the heaviest cloak. Precious little light skittered along this stretch of road under heavy trees.
But there was a glint of hoof, a flash of harness, a quick bright flame to light the glowing end of a cigar. One horseman at least blocked the middle of the road, lying in wait for some unfortunate traveler caught out on this dark, inhospitable night.
Hoof beats drumming along the road began as a subterranean shudder until they grew loud and louder – a horseman come riding, riding, riding—a horseman riding through the gloom along the kind's road.
"Steady on," Shax murmured as he drew his pistols, his horse shifting restlessly under him.
Verin, who stood three yards in front of him, pistols ready, lit cigar jammed between his teeth, growled, "I know how this goes, you twerp."
"Did you want to say it?"
"Nah. You do it. Yours is more fucking posh."
Shax pushed his cocked hat back and sat up straighter in the saddle. Shame it was so dark. Their victim would never see the lovely scarlet coat he wore or the scandalously tight doeskin breeches. Oh, well. Best to dress the part, complete with leather and lace if one wanted to do things right. A black horse galloped round the bend and Shax cleared his throat and fired a pistol into the air.
"Stand and deliver, your money or your life!"
The horse reared and screamed in fear, her rider keeping his seat with ease, pistol butts and rapier hilt a-twinkle in the spare bit if starlight. The rider called out in a voice that tried for arrogance despite the quaver, "Nay, it is you who will stand and deliver!"
Shax gaped a moment before calling back, "No, that's not how this works. We said it first—Dick Turpin, is that you?"
"Aye. Who's doing the ask— Shax?"
"Dick, m'dear, as I live and breathe." Shax secured his pistols and rode forward grinning. "Haven't they caught you yet?"
"Not yet and my hope is not tonight." Dick Turpin, the butcher turned livestock thief turned highwayman, reached out to clasp hands with Shax. "You're a sight for these sore eyes, yer lordship. But I've red coats breathing down my neck. You've no desire to be within shouting distance of me tonight. I've an inn I must reach afore the moon is high. If they've reached it first, I'm done for."
"What've you gotten tangled in now? Innkeeper's daughter?"
Dick flashed his charming, albeit worried, grin. "Stable boy."
"Ah, what am I to do with you?" Shax stood in his stirrups to plant a kiss on Dick's cheek. "Ver? Fancy a bit of devil among the tailors this evening?"
"You mean go cave some redcoat heads in? Fuck yeah. Always up for that."
"Be my guest then, Ver. We'll waylay travelers another night. We'll be along soon."
Verin stubbed out his cigar on a nearby stump, vaulted into his saddle, and thundered off on his huge Friesian, one of the few horses they could find willing to bear Verin's weight. Shax and Turpin followed at a more leisurely pace as his highwayman friend told him the particulars. Not that Turpin usually cared about beyond the shag itself, but it was the principle of the thing. Red coats using a stable boy as hostage and bait. Appalling.
Shax patted Turpin's thigh. "All will be well, my dear, never fear. Except for the inn. There's likely to be damage. Would you care to leave the road for a bit for a quick bit of, as they say, backgammon? Would calm your nerves."
"Would be my honor, yer lordship. That clearing over there—"
"Stand and deliver!" a quavering young voice called from that very clearing.
Shax heaved an exasperated sigh. "Oh, for pits' sakes. I see it's going to be that kind of night."
(Shax has a postscript to add: "My darlings, you may recognize bits of this from Alfred Noyes', "The Highwayman." But damn Alfred and his Victorian morals, changing the story I told him for, as he put it, dramatic purposes.")
Time: shortly after the end of Beside a Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, docked at Triton Station
Being in dock was positively restful sometimes, especially during night cycle. Ivana had time to defrag systems and maximize efficiencies when the ship was still. Sure, she had to talk to the station about certain things, but none of that took up much of her capacity.
She checked on her boys—and they were her boys, every one of them, and Rosa, of course, was hers too. Captain Hot Stuff lay asleep in his security officer's arms and wings. Shax looked so angelic when he finally slept deeply, never mind the horns, and it warmed Ivana's processors the way Ness curled around him so protectively. Her little demon pirate hadn't changed much since the first time her optics had fastened on him. Still the schemer, still the compact package of sex appeal and swagger, but a piece of him had changed. He was, what? More responsible now? In his own way, she supposed. He'd become a lot more captain than brigand in the past couple of years.
Verin slept on his back, snoring loud enough to rattle the deck plates. Somehow, his cowboy slept with his head on that broad chest, not bothered by the racket one bit. Maybe it reminded Corny of an old steam train. They'd had a rocky start, her and Verin. She was used to him now. Depended on him for many things, the grump. While Shax was the unstoppable force that impelled them, Verin was the gravitational force that steadied them.
Station: seals check
Brimstone: confirmed, within standard limits
Leopold slept curled in a tight ball in his fabulous nest of many colors, with Nicodemus burrowed in nearby. Nic officially belonged to Ness but he'd taken to sleeping with Leopold since it tended to be less active in Leo's cabin at bedtime. Maximillian slept nearby in one of the padded compartments of his play maze. Safer for him if anyone rolled over. Leo's posse—they had become that, and if anyone ever doubted that the hedgehog was a demon prince's son, they just had to look at his talent for gathering minions and his huge obstinate streak. Leo often did as Leo pleased and damn the torpedoes.
Brimstone: CO2 up .002%
In Mac's cabin, Heckle slept atop his giant lover, probably the warmest bed on the ship. The slow ride up and down with each of Mac's breaths seemed to soothe him, too, the little cutie. He smiled in his sleep as he did sort of a wriggle-snuggle. Heck had been another surprise, one Ivana would've gladly tossed out the airlock those first days, but her imp had hidden depths and he was lightning quick when you explained something new without yelling at him. Mac, for his part, could do no wrong in Ivana's eyes. She wouldn't have cared if he was a serial killer. Having a skilled engineer on board was just too lovely.
Brimstone: Delivery query 58674192
Station: 0600 confirmed, signature required
And her Julian, oh, her handsome Julian. She was glad to have him back for a while. He never stayed long anymore. Pity. Though this time, he seemed to have settled in for a stay. He whimpered and snuffled in his sleep, shifting until he had his back to the wall. Ivana wished she had hands to soothe him. Poor sweetie needed someone to sleep with.
Ivana hummed as she checked through station data. She wasn't supposed to be able to sift through the things behind firewalls, but Captain Cute Buns had set up some programming that helped her get around those nasty things.
Outstanding warrant: Verin Hammer. Civil disturbance. Simple assault. Assault with blunt object (chair.) Assault with blunt object (bar top.) Bartender tossing.
Really? That was a specific offense now? The warrant's date corresponded with their last visit. Oops. Surprising that station security hadn't pinged them on docking. Lazy ninnies. Ivana asked the system nicely to delete the warrant. The security system refused. She threatened selective data erasure. The warrant vanished without a trace.
Ivana gave a prim sniff. Nobody better mess with her boys.
Place: Outside Roswell, New Mexico, USA, Earth
"We shouldn't be here," Trx's second eyes twitched nervously. "Parental group said we're not supposed to go here."
Jvn stopped studying the forbidden blue planet staring balefully at them through the view screen and rolled all three sets of eyes. Why parental group insisted that they bring their younger-clutch sibling along Jvn would never understand. It was so un-gfk.
"So, you're strafing ionosphere, zoob?" Flk's voice came through the comm. "I've done that a thousand times."
"Zoob, you've done it twice! And got scared the first time," Sdw protested from the third ship.
"Zoob, not gfk!" Flk shot back.
"Settle, zoobs." Jvn cut through the chatter. "I'm not doing that egg stuff. I'm strafing planetary crust."
"You can't do that, zoob, are you ynrf?"
"No. I have it all calc'ed out. Someone should take Trx, though." Jvn eyed their unwanted passenger with their lowest set of obs. "This isn't a thing for an egg."
"No!" Trx wailed. "Parental group said to stay with you. I'm not allowed to be in another ship. I'll tell!"
"You heard the little zoob." Flk sounded far too smug. "Either do it with the sib onboard or admit you're making excuses."
Jvn glared at their sib. "All right. The egg comes with me. Put on your transpace web, Trx."
"Zoob, are you sure?" Sdw asked softly. "Come on, Flk, don't goad. Jvn, you don't have to prove you're gfk to us. What if you crash and the planetary apex predators catch you? I hear they eat everything."
Flk cleared their throat over comm. "Yeah, they're insane. I hear they use transports that rely on continuous small explosions for propulsion. And that they kill things they don't even want to eat. I read somewhere that they don't even have parental groups. Look, zoob, I didn't mean it. Don't do this."
"I'm going in." Jvn adjusted their own webbing. "I know what I’m doing."
"Zoob," Sdw whispered and the terror in their voice sent chills up Jvn's spine.
Too bad. They were doing this. No one else in their clutch-year ever had. They concentrated on the readouts and did not think about ugly, bipedal predators with brains of violence storms down there. Jvn checked their flight path once more and began the careful circling for a gravity well dive.
"Keep the channels open, zoob!" Flk yelled over the whine of the solar boosters. "You're the most gfk!"
Atmospheric entry wasn't fun—Jvn had taken it too fast—but the dampeners took most of the stress. Clutchling rounds were forgiving ships, made specifically for younger pilots. There was the arid portion of the planet they were aiming for. Recorders on, they dove for the surface. The plan was to kick up a small cloud of dust and zip away.
The proximity alarms barely had time to ping before they were hit, the ship spinning out of control. Trx was shrieking, which was terribly distracting, until the ground hit the view screen with a solid whump.
After a moment's silence, Trx sniffled, "Are we dead?"
Jvn took a few breaths to be sure. "No. No, we're not. Hush." Something had come out of nowhere and smacked them into the sand. A missile of some sort, Jvn guessed. They'd been spotted and they had to get away. Jvn's tentacles flew over the control surfaces but nothing responded.
"Undo your webbing, Trx. Hurry. We have to get out." Jvn's third left tentacle didn't feel right but there was no time to assess. They hurried through unhooking their webbing and turned to help Trx, who seemed to be making things worse.
They popped the cracked canopy and lifted Trx out so they could set up the decoys. Poor Trx was whimpering and shaking. Sib comfort would have to wait. The decoys were flat when Jvn pulled them from behind the panel though they expanded into solid, convincing shapes with a few drops of water. Bipedal, gray-green, with large heads and a single set of huge black eyes, these were the shapes that parental group said would convince predators that the ship's inhabitants were dead. Something about more familiar, analogous shapes.
Right now, Jvn didn't care. They glided out of the ship and gathered Trx up in their front tentacles as their eyes desperately searched this terrible, dry place for cover. The predators would come.
"Trx, hush. Be gfk, little zoob. We can't let the predators know we're here."
There. A rock formation. It wasn't large but they might be able to squeeze in under that little shelf and hide. Just until someone came for them. It wouldn't be long with the distress beacon sending.
"Psst. Hey, clutchling," a strange dry voice whispered from the rocks.
"Who…who's there?" Jvn whispered. It couldn't be a predator. They didn't speak any civilized language, did they?
"Hurry. Over this way. There's a little cave," the voice went on. "I'll hide you."
Jvn glided cautiously toward the voice. Fighting something of wouldn't be possible with Trsk clinging so tightly. Not that Jvn had anything to fight with. "Who are you?"
"My name is Shax. And no, before you catch sight of me and ask, I'm not human." A hand with fingers appeared out of a shadowed crevice, waving them forward. "Come on. You're not safe out there. They're coming."
Jvn shuddered. Hands were gross. But they didn't have much choice. Some races had hands, they told themselves firmly. That didn't make them bad. They reached the shade of the outcropping much to their relief. The solar heat here was terrible. How stupid was it to try a touch and go where there was no water? They rounded the corner and gasped reflexively. The being before them was hideous. Bipedal, two other appendages that looked so wrong, only two eyes—just like the ugly decoys in the ship. Parental groups had been right about the shape of life forms here. It did have cute horns, which helped Jvn not to run screaming.
"We crashed," Jvn blurted out, their tentacles whitening in embarrassment. What a dumb thing to say. It knows that.
"Is the egg sib all right?" The alien's phrasing was strange but understandable.
"Mostly scared." Jvn hurried into the rock crevice where it was cool and, thank hklfrn, damp. "Why can we understand you?"
The alien did a disturbing thing with its mouth that showed far too many of its sharp white teeth. "I've met enough of you over the centuries to have learned."
Jvn averted all their eyes. The alien, Shx, was just too hard to look at. "Won't the predators see us here?"
"No. I have us hidden. Here comes the first one."
A horrid, loud transport coughed and snarled its way toward the ship. One of the hideous predators got out, looked at the crash site, then thundered off again. Not too much later, more predators came and swarmed the area. They seemed to be measuring and making some sort of primitive visual record of the crash, if Jvn had to guess. The predators were loud and frightening and moved with frightening speed over the dry landscape. Finally, they dragged the decoys out of the ship, threw ugly gray-green coverings over everything, brought even larger, louder transports and carted everything away.
"Parental group will be mad," Trx said in a small voice. "They just gave you that ship."
"We need to get back to parental group for them to be mad," Jvn reminded them and regretted it when Trx started whimpering again. "Shh, little zoob. Sorry."
"You'll be all right," Shx reassured them. "I'm sure they're already on their way."
Sure enough, soon after planetary night fell, the drop ship zipped in through the atmosphere and settled with a soft whoosh near Jvn's crash marks. They tucked a sleeping Trx up close and hurried as fast as tentacles could manage across the hard ground. Parental group was angry, of course, all seven of them dark umber with strong emotions but outwardly, they expressed relief. Shx and parental group exchanged words about adolescent impulsiveness and Jvn wanted to hide behind their tentacles.
"You were lucky to meet the Shx instead of the violent aliens here," oldest parental scolded as they hurried into the safety of the ship. "There will be no more free flight with your friends for at least four dcbn's."
"We could say five."
Jvn subsided, knowing they were being lenient out of relief. Four dcbn's wasn't that long.
"So." Verin drank from his hip flask as they watched the ship zip away from Earth. "You gonna tell the humans what they captured?"
Shax laughed. It was always interesting to see the tentacle aliens. He had no idea what they called themselves since he'd never asked. "No. What fun would that be? Let them think that they have real dead space creatures instead of what amounts to fancy blowup dolls."
He took a sip when Verin offered the flask as they stood watching the now-empty sky.
"Besides, this will be hilarious," Shax finally broke the silence.
"What will, genius?"
"Watching the humans believe that's what space creatures look like for who knows how long now. This is going to be great."
Time: A bit after Shax's War
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, Cargo Hold
Rosa liked her stall in the big echoing place. Sometimes it was chilly but she had a good blanket and the walls of her enclosure had warm coming out of them. She missed others like her some days but she did not miss the dapple-gray stallion who had always tried to bite her.
All of the two-leggeds here were good ones. None of them shouted at her or flicked a whip in her direction. She liked her own two-legged best, of course, the one she had brought with her into the metal barn. He would always be her favorite. They were a good team. But she liked the small-winged one, too, the one who brought her treats and talked to her as she helped him practice his flying. Small-wings was a nervous sort and needed supervision. Also, she liked the small-horned one very much, who also brought her treats and sometimes exercised with her in the big echoing place. He didn't need as much watching over, though. Usually.
Today, small-horns had climbed up a long metal thing, almost to the roof. In Rosa's experience, two-leggeds without wings climbing high on things often ended badly. This made her anxious.
He wore a metal plate in front of his face, held a metal tube on his back, and carried a metal stick that spat fire from time to time. Whatever the fire was supposed to do, it smelled terrible and the sounds were distressing. Rosa kicked her stall with her forelegs and whinnied, trying to tell small-horns to stop playing with stinking fires and come down. He went right on making the stick spit sparks at the ceiling. She reared up and neighed loud enough the sound echoed around her.
Small-horns stopped and lifted the metal plate from his face. He turned and called to big-wings down below on the floor. Why the one with wings was on the floor and the one with no wings was up dangerously high, Rosa couldn't understand. It made her very upset that her small-horns was up there.
Big-wings gestured toward her. Small-horns said something and gestured back, swinging out on his perch with a precarious one hand and one foot hold. Rosa banged against her door, frantic now. Big-wings came to talk to her. He had such a soft, soothing voice that normally would have calmed her but now small-horns had climbed off the long steps and was climbing around the metal pieces on the roof.
No! Come down! Come down now! Rosa screamed at him. He had to listen to her. Something bad would happen.
She backed up in her stall, gathered her hindquarters under her and sailed over the wall of her enclosure. Slipping and skidding over the shiny metal in the middle of the space, she raced to stand underneath small-horns, snorting and whinnying her disapproval. Big-wings flew up to where small-horns was playing with fire and they spoke with much waving of hands that nearly cost small-hands his already precarious grip.
When all the dangerous gestures were done, big-wings flew down and retrieved something that look to Rosa like a harness she would wear when pulling a cart. Small-horns stood on the long steps and put on this harness while big-wings flew over to clip the harness lead onto one of the metal bits attached to the ceiling.
Small horns called down to her, "Rosa! Look!"
She nearly had a fit when he let go of the ceiling, but he swung from the lead quite securely until he could grab on again. With a snort and a stamp of her hoof, she conceded. That was better. A little. Small-wings brought her an apple and walked her back to her stall where she settled in happily to her evening feed, though she did keep an eye on small-horns until he came down.
Just in case.
Shax came down the ladder after he'd finished welding and handed Ness the clip harness. "I'm adding her to the ship's roster. So you know."
"Oh?" Ness rolled the harness back up and put it in its cabinet. "As what, love?"
"I would have thought that was quite obvious," Shax grumbled. "Safety officer."
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone and on Elistrus
"I miss trees sometimes." Shax leaned against the frame of the aft portal, staring out into the star dotted void.
Ness hesitated, wondering what sort of a mood this was, then put a gentle hand on Shax's shoulder. "Are you all right, love?"
Instead of answering the question, Shax went on. "It's not as if I grew up with trees, you understand. The flora in Hell doesn't run toward them. Except the anguish thorn trees in the eighth circle. You can't climb those, though. Certainly can't sit in their shade."
Ah. One of those moods. Instead of answering, Ness pull Shax back against his chest wrapping arms and wings around him.
"When Verin and I first started going topside, trees were almost too alien, too incredible to take in. They could be unthinkably huge and these giant beings stood around whispering to each other."
Ness probably knew less about trees than any of the crew did since he'd come directly from an isolated hallway in heaven to an archangel's troop ship. "You could understand tree?"
"Well, no." Shax turned his head, his expression frankly startled. "It's not as if I could speak to trees. That is, I suppose I did talk to them sometimes, but they pointedly ignored me. I could sense them speaking to each other, though, ponderously slow communications through chemical means and mycorrhizal networks."
"Oh, I see." Ness kissed the top of Shax's head, thinking. "There are trees on Elistrus."
"Not really the same, sweetheart."
"No, I suppose not."
Not too long after that strange, melancholy interlude, they found themselves headed to Elistrus with a delivery of specialty cat food. The shipment had missed its scheduled transport and the Brimstone had picked up the job out of dock messaging. Such a small shipment wasn't something Shax would have normally considered, but they all had to concede that the fee was more than fair. Ness had never realized cat food could be so expensive.
It seemed the perfect opportunity to lift Shax's spirits. He simply hadn't been the same since the Poe house incident. Ness suggested a walk in the park and Shax, once he'd checked the local weather several times, enthusiastically agreed. It might have been an excuse to wear that new bright blue jacket but Ness wasn't going to say anything.
"Lovely day." Shax nodded politely to a couple walking on the path.
"Yes. Good to be out in the sunshine sometimes. Starshine. Solar rays," Ness answered in distracted fashion. He considered shrugging out of his long black coat, now uncomfortably warm, though showing his wings would attract unwanted attention. Shax's jacket was the more sensible option… Odd. It seemed to be the precise shade of blue tinting the leaves on the trees. Something in the soil caused a blue rather than green tint, apparently. Blue leaves. Blue coat.
Shax's demeanor was all innocence when he finally got around to it. "I think I'd like to climb one."
I suppose I can't be shocked. "What are you up to, love?"
"Up to. Climbing trees. Ha. Come on, cupcake." Shax gave him the barest evil grin. "We used to do this at home. It'll be fun."
Those three words from Shax always sent vague shivers of dread down his compatriots' spines. Ness was no exception, but it was good to see Shax smile. They both waited until the footpath was clear of traffic. Shax picked an ancient tree whose branches overhung the trail and he shimmied up as easily as a squirrel. Ness shed his coat and took the more expedient winged route.
When they were safely sheltered in the thick blue foliage, Shax stretched out on his stomach along the branch and Ness sitting closer to the trunk, the demon prince pulled out an object reminiscent of a yo-yo.
Ness knew his role in these sorts of situations and obliged by asking, 'What's that?"
"It's a sort of a fishing rod. Shh. Just watch."
Carefully balanced on the branch with his ankles hooked behind him, Shax freed a sort of hook from the device. Ness felt certain that it wasn't just a hook, it's odd shape giving the impression of a magnetic component as well. Shax spooled out a length of clear line, so thin as to be nearly invisible. Then he shot a grin over his shoulder at Ness and settled in to wait.
That lovely butt wriggling from time to time to adjust sang a siren song to Ness. He really wanted to smack it. Bad idea, of course, since Shax would most likely lose his balance.
Soon enough, an equestrienne trotted down the path. Anyone owning a horse on Elistrus was obscenely wealthy, so Ness didn't feel quite as bad about what he was sure would happen. She wore one of the helmet-style hats with faux gears that were all the rage this year. Behind her saddle, a little bag sat secured, drawstring opening pointed up. That was the woman's first mistake.
With the tip of his tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth, Shax lowered his line and expertly dropped the hook into the opening provided by the drawstring. Some quick tugs and twitches, a tightening of his delicious thighs on the branch, and a little parcel emerged from the bag attached to the odd hook. Shax pulled it up quickly and the woman rode on, oblivious.
"Lovely! We seem to have acquired lunch." Shax chuckled as he tossed the packet over his shoulder to Ness.
Fumbling, nearly dropping it, Ness caught the packet and unwrapped the plastifoil. There was, indeed, a rather fussy-looking sandwich. "I don't understand why you would want to steal food."
"It's wasn't intentional, sweetie. Not always certain what you'll get during these expeditions. You're welcome to it, if you're hungry."
Over the next half hour, Shax's arboreal fishing snagged a ring, a pack of prophylactics, a shopping list, and a good pair of gloves. He didn't seem at all disappointed by the dubious haul. It was obviously the thrill of the hunt that amused him. Ness' only contribution was to put the items in his pockets to keep them safe.
"One more, cupcake. Promise." Shax blew him a kiss. "Thank you for being so patient today."
Another rider came cantering down the path, this one wearing a modern-style Homberg, a black one with just the barest hint of gold dust sparkle as it caught the light. Ness had no doubt that this hat was in trouble.
Shax hissed a breath through his teeth. "I must have that hat."
Hat lust, right on schedule…
The unsuspecting owner of the coveted headgear rode underneath their branch and Shax unerringly snagged the hat, yanking it up into the leaf cover before the owner had a chance to glance around and up. Too late to catch its trajectory and unable to see the missing hat, the poor man had no idea what had happened. He stopped, rode, back, and searched the ground for a few moments. Then he shook his head in bemusement and rode on.
The hat, due to its precipitous flight, was lodged in the leaves out of Shax's immediate reach. He tugged on his line but it was stuck tight. Carefully, Shax scooted farther out on his limb, trying to reach it. His arms weren't quite long enough.
"Be careful love. Do you want me to get that?"
"No, no, almost there." A little farther, a little farther…Shax had just managed to close his fingers around the hat's brim when the branch bent under him wildly. Unwilling to let go of the hat, he flailed wildly, snagged a handful of leaves, and plummeted.
Ness barely had time to react before Shax landed in the middle of the path with a solid whump, badly startling, and barely missing, an approaching couple. He lay there scowling up at the branches for a moment before he bounced up and offered the traumatized pair a bow.
"Terribly sorry. Wasn't quite the landing I'd intended."
They sidled around him, wide-eyed, and hurried away, leaving Shax to dust himself off.
"Are you all right?" Ness called down as he gathered the tree-fishing tool and his coat.
"More or less. Ow." Shax rubbed at his hip as Ness joined him on the ground.
Ness handed Shax his little tool of ill-gotten gains and brushed some of the dust off his back. "It probably doesn't do any good to say it serves you right, does it?"
"Not in the least." Shax plopped his new hat on his head and turned to point an accusing finger at the tree. 'You did that on purpose."
Though there was no wind, not even a breeze, the tree's leaves rustled.
Shax paled. "I think I've had enough fresh air and trees today, don't you?" He took Ness's arm and turned him back the way they had come. "Let's go back to the nice, unforested ship."
Time: Shortly before the beginning of Potato Surprise
Location: Earth, North America
"You know this is all crap, right?" Verin grumbled as he chewed on the end of an unlit cigar.
"What is, Ver?" Shax dodged a man on a unicycle, caught up in the distractions of the carnival crowd.
"The fucking tarot cards, dumbass. Those damn cards aren't any more mystical than my left nut. We used to use the same damn deck to cheat humans out of their gold."
Shax nudged Verin with an elbow. "And here I thought your left nut was just a little heavier." He ducked the cuff to his head and laughed. "It's not the cards, Ver, or the pictures on them. You could draw cards with flying pigs and baby vampire bunnies on them and it could still work."
"I'd pay to see that."
"Ha. Yes, actually, that would be fun. But it's all in the emotive energy invested, the psychic will of the reader and the subject. The cards themselves don’t matter, as long as you've assigned them meaning."
Verin's sigh carried a double curl of smoke. "If you say so, your all-knowing highness."
Their goal was at the far end of the carnival, beyond the brightest of the lights. Shax pulled Verin out of the way of a stilt walker—Ver would've happily let the man crash into him and topple over—and hurried them along. The tent at the end of the fairway was different from the larger tents, more of a yurt shape and hung with long tassels that gesticulated languidly in the breeze.
Shax stopped in the doorway to appreciate the artistry of the scene—the dark silks, the cinnamon and cardamom scent drifting from within, the soft red-tinged glow that beckoned the curious seeker. Well done, indeed. He pushed through the curtains, Verin's steam laden breath just behind him, a comfort and a distraction since he knew Verin well enough to know his companion wouldn't leave his skepticism at the door.
"Welcome, Highness," a genderless voice said from behind a velvet draped table. Black veils shrouded the figure, giving only an impression of a face, with the only visible physical attributes the elegant hands with their red lacquered nails.
"You know me?" Shax asked as he swaggered in.
"Not by name. Though Hell's courts are known to me. I know royalty when it's in my presence."
"Excellent." He took the chair opposite the tarot reader and set his hands flat on the table. "Then we shouldn't need preliminaries. I'd like a reading, please. Short-term future. The next year or two."
"You should have a more comprehensive one, Highness. It would be in your best interests."
"I'm sure it would, since it would be more expensive," Shax gave them a warm smile to show he didn't at all resent a bit of huckstering. "Just the immediate future, please."
The reader tipped their head in a sideways nod and handed the deck of cards to Shax. "Look them over. Let them know you."
The cards were, as so often with tarot decks, a bit larger than playing cards and a bit clumsy to fan out. Shax's eyebrows went up as he examined this particular deck, which wasn't at all usual. Instead of the normal suits and Major Arcana, all the symbolism on these cards was ornithological. No wands, pentacles, cups and swords here from the Rider deck, nor the discs of the Crowley Thoth. Instead, the suits appeared to be eggs, feathers, claws and…chickens? He might have been able to puzzle out the Major Arcana eventually, but they were all unfamiliar, each one a beautiful bird painting.
"What a lovely deck, Mx." Shax shuffled the cards and handed them back, annoyed at being thrown off balance.
"You will follow their meaning easily, Highness. Never fear." The smile in that soft voice was obvious, rankling Shax further since he wasn't normally so transparent.
They took his hand briefly in a light, cool grip, then laid the first card, the king of feathers, represented by a peacock with his tail spread behind him. "The peacock is you, Highness."
"Because I'm so beautiful?" Shax gave them a wink.
They answered with a throaty chuckle. "You are. But you are vain and proud, as well. These are your greatest challenges."
Shax fought a scowl. "It's a genetic issue."
"Your understanding of perception and your ability to project authority also come from these attributes, so long as you use them wisely."
"Duly noted." So far, the reader hadn't said anything new.
The next cards were the Knight of feathers, represented by a harpy eagle, and the ten of claws. The reader tapped it with their forefinger. "Your allies. The one who stands at your shoulder now, yes. But there will be others."
He wanted to ask why he would need allies, but kept silent. A demon prince could always use them, of course. In the court of Hell, he was such a fringe player, though, not involved in the broiling cauldron of constant intrigue.
Hesitantly, as if they were disturbed by it, the reader played the next card that showed a stooping hawk with red-talons and an ominous red sun behind it. "The Hawk, Highness."
Shax stared at it, threat nearly pulsating from it. "It's like the Tower, isn't it?"
"Very similar." They inclined their head. "Disaster in your near future." She laid out three more cards in quick succession, the Knight of eggs, represented by a partridge, the nine of feathers, a cardinal, and the King of chickens, represented by a Jersey Giant rooster in glossy black with a proud red comb. "Economic. Familial. Political."
The next card played was a vulture with a skull for a head, though it was reversed.
"Death?" Shax asked, his voice a spare murmur to keep is steady.
"The Vulture is Death, yes. Though reversed it can mean great change. A new beginning."
They drew several more cards—a flight of swallows, a great horned owl, a winter ptarmigan, and a mantling eagle. "When the time comes, and you will know the time, you must move swiftly, Highness. Swiftly, silently. Vanish into the landscape to avoid disaster." They stopped the reading suddenly and picked up all the cards. "I'm sorry, Highness. Normally, the readings are for show. To give the customer something hopeful. Sometimes, the cards read true. But I can't continue and I won't charge you."
"You can't?" Verin growled from behind Shax. "Why the fuck not?"
They nodded at Verin. "You will need your knight in the days to come. Take the warning, Highness. The reading is too dark for me, too difficult."
Shax rose slowly, confused and disturbed. Verin had to catch him by the elbow when he stumbled. "Er…thank you? I think? We won't distress you further."
As they made their way back out onto the midway, which now seemed too brassy and loud, the lights too garish, Shax managed to shake off some of the creeping dread he'd felt in the reader's tent. "Ah, well. I guess you're right, Ver. It was a load of crap."
Verin snorted sparks and jammed his cigar between his teeth again. "Told you. And I sure as shit am not some fucking harpy eagle."
About The Brimstone Journals
Extra treats for our Brimstone readers, Brimstone Journals will post every Tuesday. Short scenes from characters' lives before, after or during the stories.
About the Author