Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Amnesia Spaceport
Amnesia got a bad rap in Mac's opinion—not quite the hive of thieves and villains some people made it out to be. Sure. There were thieves and villains, since Amnesia spaceport had an extremely loose definition of law, but there were plenty of honest folks and business owners just trying to make a living. It was also a familiar place where he knew the streets and a place where people understood a simple social contract:
If it doesn't concern you, keep walking.
Which was why he shocked himself by stopping when he heard a frustrated squeak overhead.
He'd just had lunch with his handsome imp, though Heckle had needed to scurry back to the Brimstone for an incoming shipment, and Mac had decided on a window-shopping stroll. Gnawing on a toothpick, taking his own time down the covered sidewalk, he'd let other pedestrians part around him, wavelets to the prow of his ponderous barge of a body, as he headed toward the bazaar. Never knew what to expect there.
The overhead squeak sure as hell wasn't expected. Mac peered up into the support beams of the walkway awning and spotted something glittery squirming up there. A packing crate outside one of the shops made a good stepstool for Mac. Perfect for him, anyone else would've needed a ladder. Someone more or less Heckle-sized had gotten snagged on a jagged edge of one of the beams and Mac carefully disengaged the captured fabric before lifting the small person down.
"Put me down!" Small Person shrieked and hammered against Mac's shoulder with a tiny, sparkly hand.
"Sure. No problem." Mac set Small Person on his feet, so small he only came up to Mac's waist. "Are you all right?"
Small Person shook out shimmering gossamer wings with a disgusted snort and straightened what appeared to be a blue satin princess dress and tiara of questionable quality. A cigarillo clamped tight between blinding white teeth completed the look. "Yeah. Yeah. I'll live."
"I know it's none of my business, but are your wings viable?"
"Vestigial, thanks for bringing up a sore subject, you ass." Small Person straightened his shoulders. "I'm a dentata pseudonymph."
Mac fought against squinting, though it was a struggle faced with such an abundance of glitter. "You're…some kind of tooth fairy?"
"Oh fuck you, nephy-poo." Small Person rolled his eyes. "Like fairies exist. I'm a dental demon."
Mac's forehead crinkled at the childish insult. "Why were you stuck up in the roof beams if you can't fly?"
Not-The-Tooth-Fairy shot him a frown blacker than anything Captain Shax could manage. "Some big bruiser shoved me up there for stealing her box of flavored dental dams."
"Ookay." Mac wondered if he'd fallen out of bed that morning and hit his head. "Why would you steal dental dams?"
"Hello! Dental demon! It's what I do. I steal mouth stuff. Teeth. Fillings. Ball gags. Dentures. Toothbrushes. All that crap."
Amazing how some explanations don't explain one damn thing. "And what do you do with all of it?"
"You sure ask a lot of dumb questions. But you're a nephy, so I guess you can't help it." The dental demon shrugged. "It's what I do. What I do with what I do isn't any of your damn business. Thanks for the hand, but it's not like we're gonna be friends or anything." The dentata demon glared up at him, obviously waiting for something. "Move, you cretinous mountain!"
Mac stepped aside, gaping after the demon who stomped off in a huff of glitter and fluttering shimmery wings. When the demon vanished around a corner, Mac realized two things—his toothpick had also vanished and he'd completely forgotten what he'd planned to do with his afternoon.
Shaking his head, he made his way back to the Brimstone instead. Heck was never going to believe this.
Then again… Mac shook his head at himself. Heckle had seen a lot during his life in Hell. Probably not much left he wouldn't believe, even demonic tooth not-fairies.
Time: Directly after The Big Reveal
Place: Undisclosed large city, Earth
They really didn't waste any time, did they? Shax stood on the sidewalk staring at the Demon Prizefighting sign with mixed interest and jaundiced dismay. A mere three years after the Powers That Be had decided to reveal the physical reality of demons and angels, and humans had discovered ways to exploit it.
"You're sure?" Shax tore his attention far enough from the lurid poster of battling 'demons'—the artist had obviously never seen one in person—to give Verin a hard side-eye.
"Easy money, Shaxy." Verin gave him a little shove. "You saying you don't fucking believe I can win?"
"I have every confidence in your pugilistic prowess. It's the fighting for the entertainment of humans I find…questionable." Shax wrinkled his nose. "Undignified. Exploitative."
"Just another way to take their money, your royal pain in the ass. Come on." Verin took his arm and gave him no choice but to trot along inside.
The venue was just as dirty and unpleasant as he had feared, a distressing mix of unwashed human and demon blood suffusing the air. A dark hallway let out into the fighting arena, not much more than a sandpit surrounded by chicken wire and rusty bleachers. Shax felt his nose would be permanently wrinkled after this.
A human of impressive size blocked the way into the main room. "Watching or fighting?"
"Fighting," Verin growled and jerked a thumb at Shax. "My manager."
Shax raised an eyebrow, but fell into the role without a hitch. "Who do we need to see to get my boy on the lists?"
Large Human nodded to a desk beside a scale in the corner where flurries of activity welled up and subsided at regular intervals. Not only the registry for fighters but also the betting table. He could at least appreciate the economy of purpose.
"Fighter, before you ask." Shax imitated Verin's thumb jerk. It seemed appropriate to the venue. "Your doorman said to sign him in here."
After a quick visual assessment of Verin, who stood with arms crossed and his most belligerent expression, the man behind the table raised bushy eyebrows. "He got powers? Can't use 'em here."
Shax resisted the urge to correct the man's grammar. "Nothing beyond snorting sparks."
"Um." Yes? Occasionally? He cleans up rather well? Shax managed a quick peek at the registry book—so old fashioned, an actual paper book—and the light dawned. "Ah. High-echelon non-royal with infernal attribute."
"Yeah? Don't get many of those. What's his handle?"
"Demon of Impatience." Shax ducked instinctively as Verin aimed a swat at his head. "I'm sorry, Ver. But it's true."
"Stupid demonic registry," Verin muttered.
Despite the grumbling, Verin stripped to his boxer briefs and stepped up on the scale when asked. His horns caused something of an issue since one of the human officials thought they shouldn't be included in his weight class and the other thought they should. In the end, they registered him as a heavyweight since they didn't have the equipment to deduce how much of Verin's weight was horn.
The venue might have been seedy, but the lack of posh credentials didn't appear to hurt its popularity. Humans and demons packed the bleachers and the schedule was likewise overflowing, allowing time for observation before Verin's fight. The rules appeared to follow those of bloodier human sports, those without gloves or head protection or, quick frankly, much in the way of rules. Two demons walked in. One demon walked out, the other crawled or left in some other less dignified manner. No fire or acid breathing permitted and those with wings had them pinned, but otherwise? Claws, teeth, horns, spiked tails, tentacles—all permissible.
As his turn approached, Verin became fidgety, bouncing on the balls of his feet. "You place a bet?"
"Not that I support this demonsploitation, but yes." Shax held up a hand when Verin shot him a hard look. "For you to win, Ver."
"Too fucking right."
Verin's first fight was against a distinctly reptilian demon with a heavy crocodilian tail. The referee, one of the largest rock trolls Shax had ever seen, introduced the lizard demon as Haket Escala, so he was one of those who had embraced the fashion of taking a surname as humans did. Partly, Shax saw the sense of it. If one wanted to interact with the human world, one eventually ran into—he shuddered delicately—paperwork. Much easier to navigate with a first and last name.
The combatants circled. Shax leaned forward as if it would help his focus. While Verin had perhaps a few pounds on his opponent, Haket had the reach and that pits-forsaken tail. Predictably, he feinted with a claw slash and employed the tail in his first attack, trying to sweep Verin's feet out from under him. Silly of him since Verin was far too canny a fighter to fall for the trap. Verin leaped over the tail sweep and delivered a roundhouse kick to Haket's midsection where his foot claws took out a nice chunk. Before the reptile demon could even dredge up surprise, Verin leaped again and brought his joined fists down atop Haket's skull with a nasty crunch.
The evening progressed in this way with Verin taking out previously victorious opponents one by one, usually in the first two minutes of the fight. By the fourth bout, he'd gained a proper fighter's title—Verin the Hammer—for that devastating double-fisted blow.
Just as Shax was feeling rather smug about the fact that none of the demons that evening were at all up to Ver's level of brawling, the referee announced the final bout of the evening. Horror crept up his spine as he caught sight of Verin's final opponent. Twice Verin's size, huge black wings clipped back, sharp bull's horns, one of the most handsome demons in all the precincts of Hell…
"Ver!" Shax waved him over frantically, speaking in a heated whisper as Verin jogged up. "You can't fight him."
Verin twitched when he caught sight of his last opponent, but covered it with a shrug. "So Agi's slumming tonight, so what?"
"Agaliarept will tear you into bite-sized pieces." Shax scrubbed both hands over his face. "Even if you do manage to beat him, think. Commander of Lu's own guard beaten by…well, you? My mother's general might enjoy a bit of humiliation. Agi certainly doesn't. It'll get back to court. We'll be stirring up things we don't want to. Revenge issues. Lu wondering if he needs a new commander. Do you really want to attract attention like that?"
"Fuck's sake, Shaxy. I can't just walk away now. May not matter to you, but I've got pride too."
"Could you, perhaps, throw the fight?"
In response, Verin snorted a cloud of smoke and sparks at him so thick it set Shax coughing, and stomped away to take his place arena-side. Both combatants were announced. The worked up and inebriated crowd roared. The bell rang. Shax winced as the first flurry of fists and claws ended with Verin thrown hard against the chicken wire. With a little niggle of shame wedged under his heart, his relief only grew each time Agaliarept tossed, flattened or stomped Verin. Not pretty by any stretch of the imagination, and good for Ver, he left the commander bruised and bloody, but not an evenly matched contest in the end.
The arena erupted in wild cheers when the referee called the bout, and Shax used the pandemonium to retrieve his fallen companion as discreetly as possible, head down so Agaliarept wouldn't recognize him. Not that being recognized mattered too much, but there would be the inevitable kowtowing and court gossip and the commander would want to go out for drinks. Shax just didn't think Ver would be up to it. For a few days.
Cab. Assistance from a bribed bellhop. Hotel room. Some good scotch. Verin had managed a glowering and subdued consciousness a bare two hours later. Not a bad showing, really, but Shax would have to find something Verin enjoyed doing in the next day or so. Otherwise he would become morose.
"You know, I rather liked that." Shax said as they watched the late news.
Verin managed a tiny gout of steam through his swollen nose. "Me getting pounded into the floor? Fuck off, dickweed."
"No. Ver, don't be like that. I meant the ring name they gave you. Quite fitting."
"We really should pick out last names we can register, you know. High time since we're topside so often. Verin Hammer. It suits you, don't you think?"
"Yeah." Verin stopped in the act of pouring himself another scotch and started drinking from the bottle. "Could be worse, I guess."
"Good." Shax hid his smile in a sip of his own drink. Verin hadn't cussed, so the conclusion had to be he was secretly pleased. It was going to be fun, being official in the human world. Even if there was paperwork.
Time: Shortly after Potato Surprise
Location: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
"All right. I have something." Shax nestled into the corner and put his feet up on the galley bench. Teaching the ship's AI to play Twenty Questions was just to pass an incredibly boring stretch of Copernicus flight. He reasoned it would be easy to win since even Ivana's circuits shouldn't be able to make the jumps of intuition necessary.
After a moment's silence, Ivana asked, "Now I'm supposed to ask if it's animal, vegetable or mineral, hotstuff? Are all chlorophyll based life forms considered vegetable for the game? And do all the adorable little fungi get smushed into animal, then?"
Shax furrowed his brow at the nearest speaker. "I think you're making this too complicated, my dear. If it's organic and moves at a visible pace under its own power, we'll call it animal."
"I'm just trying to get the rules down, Captain." Ivana sniffed in offense. "Human games can be so vague and wobbly."
"In the interest of moving along here, I will tell you that my thing is an animal."
Ivana's voice became insufferably smug as she said, "It's a hellcat."
"What? No. That's not how this is done."
"It was a hellcat. You're lying Captain Innocent Face. There's just this teensy kick in your pulse sometimes when—"
"Fine. It was. But that's still not how it's done. This is a process of elimination exercise. If it's not this subset, then it's that subset sort of thing."
"I see. The object is the process." Ivan sent a cup of coffee out on the conveyor, her voice eager and chipper again. "Did you want to start again?"
"All right. Once more from the beginning." Shax sipped at his whiskey-laced coffee with a contented sigh. "Ah, bribes. Thank you, Ms. Ivana."
"You're very welcome. Now is it animal, vegetable or mineral?"
"One track mind this morning. Is it a Sol system species?"
Ivana snickered. "That narrows it down to about a hundred and thirty thousand possibilities. Is your animal chordata?"
"I beg your pardon?" As discreetly as he could, Shax attempted to look up the word.
Chordata…vertebrates… "Oh. Yes. Yes it is."
Shax gave the speaker a side eye. "Yes."
"Is it an otter?"
"That's…" Shax plunked down his coffee mug. "If you've installed some sort of telepathic software, you know that's not at all cricket, Ms. Ivana."
"I'd need bio components that I don't have for that," Ivana said in flounce mode. "Don't you accuse me of cheating, Captain. You were looking at otter videos earlier. It was a reasonable guess."
"Oh. So I was. My apologies."
"Really, I'm surprised you were so obvious. Did you want to try again, Captain Tightbuns?" Ivana cooed, all but stroking Shax as she spoke.
"No. Thank you for indulging me." Shax did his best not to scowl and sipped at his coffee. "It's a stupid game anyway."
Time: An Incredibly Long Time Ago
Place: Palace of Princess Ashtaroth, Hell
"Prince Shax, your shoes!"
For a fleeting instant, Shax nearly obeyed the call of his attendants, the ones who dressed him every morning so he could be presentable for breakfast with Mum. She was a princess and wanted him to look perfect at her table. Normally, he sat quiet and still while the goblin dressers bathed him, fussed with his hair and nails, and picked out the perfect clothes. But today was special and he couldn't wait any longer.
Today was his birthday.
He raced down the stairs from his tower and only slowed as he got close to his mother's breakfast room. Running in the palace wasn't allowed. It wasn't dignified and messed up your hair, Mum said. Shax tried to look dignified as he marched past the servants, but he wasn't sure what that looked like. He would get better at it. At least this year, he didn't have an attendant leading him by the hand as if he didn't know the way.
Mum already sat in her throne-like chair in her breakfast room of black velvet and obsidian. She shone like a star against the dark background and the notion hit
Shax for the first time that it was probably the point to all the black furniture and drapery.
Carefully so he didn't fall over, Shax gave her a proper bow since he knew how to do that now. "Good morning, Royal Mum."
One perfect white eyebrow arched at him. "Where your shoes, my princeling?"
"Upstairs. Mummy, I was too excited…"
"I suppose since your feet are perfectly shaped, they won't disturb the aesthetics of the room. Though I do hope you won't be barefoot all day. Calloused feet are so unattractive." She waved to his smaller chair beside him and waited for him to clamber up. There were only two cushions now instead of three to bring him up to the height of the table. "So my own little demonling, what would you ask of your mother for you birthday this year? You must consider carefully since your sixth birthday is an auspicious one."
Considering carefully had taken up most of his thoughts the last month. For his fifth birthday, he'd asked for his own nightmare. Mum had given him a spark pony instead, and told him he must learn to ride first. The pony was wonderful, but made him think about how his mother might react to this request or that.
"I would like my own minion, Mummy. You have lots of minions. I'd like just one because I'm still a demonling."
Mum broke the top of her egg and took a dainty bite before she answered. "I see. This is an admirable wish in a young prince, to want vassals of your own. But minions are a heavy responsibility. Their appearance, their words and actions all reflect upon their liege. You must be able to control them and to discipline them. For that, I'm afraid you're still too young, my own."
"Oh." Shax tried not to let his disappointment show, but a shaky sigh still got away from him. Always too young, too small. When would he be big and have beautiful wings like Mum?
"Someday, I will choose minions for you." Mum raised her hand and with an elegant wave, ordered one of the imps forward. "Today, I have a more appropriate present for you. One I know will please you."
The imp staggered under the weight of a strange stone box. Fancy holes were carved into the lid and the box seemed to be…squeaking.
"You may open it." Mum sounded amused, though Shax didn't know why.
He eased the lid back on its hinges to reveal a ball of glossy fur crouched at the bottom of the box. Shax gasped and bounced in his chair. "A hell kitten! Really for me?"
"For you, my darling prince. We will start with smaller responsibilities before we talk about minions, yes?" She leaned down so Shax could plant a careful kiss on her cheek.
The kitten uncurled to stare up at him with its gorgeous glowing red eyes. Shining black fur covered most of it, but its ear tufts, tail tip and paws were scarlet.
"What will you call your kitten?" Mum asked in that same amused tone.
Shax lifted the kitten from its box to set on his lap and feed little bits of egg. He considered the question seriously, before answering, "I will call her Mittens."
(Author's note: Shax would continue to name his hellcats absurdly inappropriate things like Fluffy and Socks and Spot his entire life.)
Time: Ten years prior to Potato Surprise
Place: Earth, a training spaceport, North America
"You can't take a lit cigar on a training flight." The extra-planetary flight instructor's already thin lips pressed together until he appeared to have a lizard mouth.
"It's not fucking lit," Verin grumbled with the end of his cigar held between his teeth in stony obstinacy.
The instructor waved a hand through the haze around them. "Of course it is! I'm choking in the smoke."
"Ah." Shax turned on his most gracious royal smile as he made a show of checking the instructor's nametag. "You see, ah, Doug, that's not from a cigar. That's from Verin. He puts out a bit of smoke when he's nervous."
"I'm not nervous, your royal douchenozzleness!"
Shax shrugged. "Or angry. Take your pick."
Instructor Doug backed off a few wary steps. "Prince Shax, I was told I'd be giving you lessons, not—"
Smart man, not finishing that sentence. "Mater wants me qualified, yes. Just in case something happens on one of the royal ships. But Verin is my personal bodyguard and my mother is adamant that his training is the priority."
"Oh…well. Just some warning, ah, I mean a heads up would've been good."
Verin grumbled some choice insults, but Shax was in a gracious enough mood to let the slip go. He waved Doug toward the stairs that led to the shuttle's cockpit. Verin climbed right into the pilot's seat and let Shax take the jumpseat behind him. He wasted no time getting harnessed while Verin started flipping toggles and switches.
"Wait! No! We have… Stop!" Doug cried out in horror.
"Get us clearance, little human instructor," Verin growled around his cigar stub.
"But I can't let you—"
Verin turned slowly toward him, sparks decorating the steam billowing from his nostrils. "Clearance, Doug. And tell me if I do anything wrong. Keep up here."
"Verin's licensed on M and H-class extra-planetary's," Shax pulled out a file and worked on a ragged claw with a yawn. "We're working through all the civilian models. As he said, keep up, Doug."
Poor shell-shocked Doug scrambled for the headset, trying to talk to traffic control and get his harness on at the same time. He did both badly. If he'd been a palace demon, he would've been someone's dinner long before. While he maintained a careful air of bored dilettante, Shax did pay sharp attention to Verin's muttering and Doug's stuttered—sometimes panicked—instructions as they taxied out to the launch pad. These exercises in familiarization with different types of small spacecraft were for both of them.
A prince is ready for any contingency. Never be helpless. Mama's favorite edict.
"Got my damn clearance?" Verin growled as he turned the shuttle into position. "No, never mind. Too fucking slow. I see it on the boards."
Verin punched the EM throttle and the craft jerked into the air with a stomach-dropping leap. Doug might have screamed, but Shax was diplomatic and didn't mention it. Maybe Verin took the ascent toward atmosphere a bit faster than was strictly safe. That shouldn't have been quite so upsetting. Perhaps Doug was having a bad day.
The G-forces eased and the craft leveled out as Verin left atmosphere and switched over to fuel cell propulsion. He leaned back, head turned toward Shax. "You're gonna do re-entry, princess."
"I most certainly am not. Re-entry makes me nauseous."
"Re-entry when I'm flying makes you upchuck 'cause you're a wuss." Verin pulled out his best scowl. "Seriously, Shaxy. You need to do this shit."
Shax countered with his most put-upon sigh. "Fine."
"Good. Fucking perfect." Verin unbuckled and jostled Doug as he prepared to switch places.
"What are you…? You can't…"
"Hell's gates, Dougy. Simmer the fuck down. We're in orbit. We've got a couple minutes here." Verin snorted at Doug and the poor human nearly compacted into his seat since there was nowhere else for him to hide.
The switch was mostly uneventful, though Verin's left horn briefly caught in the strap-hangers at the rear of the cockpit. With a good deal of grumbling and soft swearing, Shax took the pilot's seat and began his checks for re-entry. "Clearance to land, my dear Doug? I do believe we need that."
Doug managed a grimace that he might have meant as a smile—who could tell with some humans? Somehow he stuttered and gulped his way through the conversation with control. "You have clearance, highness. Pad five for landing. You…you have done this before?"
"A time or two, yes." Shax took the controls and edged the shuttle around until the instruments showed it in correct attitude for re-entry. Always important if he didn't want to render them fried students and instructor.
"Gently, highness. Please," Doug whispered. He could, at any time, have taken control himself. Interesting that he hadn't tried, though that might have been Verin's rather effective intimidation factor. It was one of his best things.
Shax toyed with the idea of taking a slow, conservative dive back into atmosphere. Messing with Doug had become too much fun. He punched the throttle and sent them careening back into the gravity well at the top end of the shuttle's tolerances. "Wheeee!"
Doug, poor dear, didn't even seem to have the energy left for a scream.
Once landed and disembarked, Shax gave a shaking, gibbering Doug with a pat on the shoulder, while getting his thumbprint and signature on the certifications. Yes, those usually took a number of flying hours, but royalty didn't have time for that. Then he strode off to catch up to Verin.
"So which fucking shuttle's next, sawdust-head?" Verin asked as they made their way across the tarmac.
"The Starlion—ooh. A luxury shuttle. You'll like this one, Ver." Shax took a quick glance back at Doug who now sat on the ground with his head in his hands. "Pity about poor Dougy. I really don't think he has the constitution for this job."
Time: Just after Fear of Frogs
Place: Brimstone cargo hold, Carolus Spaceport on route to Opal
"I thought we agreed no more unverified fucking eggs, sawdust for brains!" Sparks flew from Verin's nostrils as he gestured toward the aforementioned alleged egg on the floor of the hold.
It was an odd one, if it was an egg at all. More of a rounded cube than an ovoid, striated as if it were made of granite, it had been lurking, er, sitting outside the Brimstone's hatch access. In the most logical, reasonable, self-preservation parts of Shax’s brain, he knew he shouldn't have brought it inside.
But he was curious.
"Don't look like no egg I ever laid eyes on," Corny drawled at his shoulder. "But then, I ain't exactly home no more, am I?"
Shaking his head, Corny turned on one of the adjustable spot lamps, turned it so it faced the ceiling, and ambled over to the egg.
"Uh, what're you doing, Corn?" Verin asked in a much softer voice than he'd used to address Shax. Typical.
"City demons." Corny shook his head as he picked up the egg and placed it atop the spotlight. The bright light rendered the shell partially translucent.
Shax leaned in with undisguised fascination. "There's someone in there, I take it?"
"I reckon so, Cap. Not sure what, but you've got yourself an egg that's fixin' to hatch, well, somethin'."
"Do you suppose we should keep it warm?" Ness cupped the egg in his hands, frowning at it.
Verin snickered. "You gonna sit on it, wingboy?"
"I may have feathers, but I'm not shaped quite right for that," Ness said in a too-even tone Shax couldn't quite parse as serious or not. Probably not, but Ness's sense of humor could evaporate when he was distracted. His wings flipped and fluttered as he gathered some hay from Rosa's feed bin and constructed a serviceable nest. This he set on the floor of the hold and turned the spotlight on it. "Should be warm enough, don't you think?"
"Probably won't need it long." Corny pointed to a crack started on the top surface of the egg cube.
All sorts of possibilities swarmed in Shax's brain and he knelt beside the nest to watch as the unknown eggling pecked its way toward freedom. Some little alien dragon, perhaps? Or an exotic reptile? A recognizable beak showed through the gray and white shell now, yellow and thick. With a heave, the eggling broke the shell in half and sat in the midst of the shards, breathing hard. It was just a ball of egg muck at first, but it shook itself…
Its covering—feathers, fur, hair—fluffed out all at once. Now it was a ball of purple fluff with a beak and, possibly eyes in there somewhere. Tiny talons peeked out at the bottom of the fluff ball, so there were at least feet if not legs.
"Aww." Corny tipped his hat back and crouched beside Shax. "The little feller's so dang cu—"
The force of the chirp soundwave knocked Shax and Corny on their butts and sent Ness staggering back a step. Verin, too sturdy to be knocked about by a mere bit of auditory shockwave, had still squeezed his eyes shut.
"Well." Shax decided sitting was a good idea and stayed right where he was on the floor. "That was unexpec—"
At least they were more prepared this time, though Shax was quite certain the sound could stop someone's heart. "Perhaps we should move ba—"
"Hell's motherfucking pointy gates!" Verin bellowed, hands clapped over his ears. "Get rid of that thing or I'm dropkicking its ass into the next century!"
"It's just a baby," Ness grabbed his arm to keep him from charging. "Don't hurt the poor thing."
"I don't care of it's a stinking cherub made of gold! Shax, don't just fucking sit there!"
Carefully, to make certain he didn't startle the potentially dangerous fluff ball, Shax reached for Rosa's empty feed bucket and popped it over the newborn whatever-it-was.
The mighty soundwave nearly knocked the bucket off again but Shax held tight. Contained, the sound was nearly bearable, though probably not good for the hatchling. What now, what now… Call spaceport security? Find a soundproof box? Before he could make any decision, a beautiful trilling song drifted into the cargo hold followed by one of the most gorgeous creatures Shax had ever seen. Not quite the length of his forearm, the creature flew on shining appendages that were more delicate fins than wings, trailing lustrous, decorative tails. Color was difficult to assign since it changed from blue to green to brilliant orange as it progressed through different bits of light. The closest analog he had were old Earth sea dragons, but that didn't give the creature justice.
It flew right to Shax as he sat entranced at its approach, then it turned and smacked him across his face with its several shining tails.
"Ow!" Shax sat hard, hand on his stinging cheek.
The creature trilled again and Shax nearly forgave it for striking him. Then it pushed over the bucket and fluttered around the hatchling.
"That can't be the parent?" Ness asked in an awed whisper. "Can it?"
The hatchling answered for them, bouncing on its stubby feet and calling pitiably in a tiny voice to the flying creature, cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep, as if it had never produced sounds capable of endangering ships. The shimmering creature hovered close, gathered the peeping hatchling into several of its appendages and flew off out of the hold, leaving Shax on the floor gaping after it.
"Shaxy," Verin's growl was soft, all the more threatening for its lack of volume.
"No more unverified eggs or I snap your horns off and give them to a pack of stray dogs."
Shax accepted Ness's hand up and dusted off the seat of his work pants as he huffed at Verin. "Fine. No sense of adventure."
"Your sense of adventure might well get us all killed someday," Ness murmured. "And I agree with Verin. No more strange eggs. They don't seem to be good for you at all."
Time: Shortly after the end of Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
"It won't hurt him, will it?" Ness eyed the contraption warily as Nic ran down his arm to sniff at the thing.
"The whole rig only weighs about eight grams." Mac pointed to the little camera on top. "Whatever branch of ISE Julian works for, their equipment's topnotch and the harness is all out of polyglass fiber."
"All right. If Nic lets us put it on, he can try it." Ness held out his hand to let Nic climb back on, whiskers twitching. He kept putting his head back down to sniff the camera harness, though, so he was more curious than cautious.
With more delicate care than Ness would've credited for such huge hands, Mac slipped the harness over Nic's head and body, making small adjustments until it was snug and secure. Nic lifted his head, still sniffing, though he quickly figured out that lifting his head also lifted the camera and he seemed to offer the rat equivalent of a shrug before he went back to the plate of brownie crumbs on the table.
Ness put his head atop his arms on the table to get to Nic height. "How will you tell him where to go?"
"I'm thinking some combo of light trails and treats. But for now, just want to see how he does with it and how clear the camera is when it's inside the guts of the ship."
"Hey now!" Ms. Ivana chimed in on the comm system. "I didn't consent to any rodent running around inside my—insides."
"Technically, we're all running around your insides," Mac said as he adjusted Nic's camera a hair. "This'll help with diagnostics, Ms. Ivana. I know you can tell me when something goes wrong and where, but sometime places are hard for the little camera bots to get to so I can see exactly what."
"Well, I suppose," came over the comm with undeniable flounce and sulk. "Since it's all official."
"Good. I wouldn't want to have non-consensual diagnostics on my record." Mac finished fiddling and opened the grate on the vent beside the galley table. "Off you go then, Nic. Go explore."
Nic sat up on his haunches and glanced at Ness.
"Yes, you may," Ness told him softly. "Go on, but no chewing on wires."
With a squeak and a whisker twitch, Nic scampered into the duct system. Mac brought up the holo display for the camera so they could both monitor his progress. The mini light on the camera did a better job than Ness would've credited and while colors were muted, the display was sharp and clear, showing every seam and rivet along Nic's route.
For the first few minutes, the view remained relatively uniform with only the turns of the ductwork for variety. Then Nic stopped and poked his head through a grate somewhere. Lighting contrast whited out the image for an instant while the camera readjusted and the picture resolved to a view of storage from above with Heckle happily engaged in counting supplies, pirouetting between stacks as he entered totals.
Nic must have squeaked a greeting since Heckle stopped his dance-counting and looked up. His smile immediately became concerned and he approached Nic saying things that Ness couldn't quite make out, though the shooing motions were clear enough. You're not allowed down here, Nic and the captain's going to have you for dinner if he finds out. Go! Go!
Not that Ness really believed Shax would do away with his rat for a minor infraction, but he would be quite annoyed.
Duct corridors came back onscreen for a few turnings, then a shorter whiteout as Nic stuck his head into a dimmer ship space. The lowered lights revealed someone's cabin, not one Ness could place immediately. The camera panned, almost as if Nic had experience in shooting vids, and stopped on a figure curled up into a tight ball on the bunk. Even curled up tight, the thick black hair marked the figure as Julian. He twitched and shifted restlessly, showing eyes slitted open even in sleep. In a sudden blur of motion, Julian whirled to his feet, laser pistol pointed directly at the camera. For just a moment, his expression was flat and cold, eyes narrowed, stock still.
The moment passed and Julian shook himself with a laugh as he waved to Nic and pointed to the camera. He holstered his weapon, sat back on the bed and said something with his eyes twinkling. Nic took it as a signal to leave.
Ness glanced over at Mac with a shudder. "That was…"
"Yeah. Little scary sometimes, that one." Mac shrugged. "But it's the work he does and he's still alive to do it."
"I…" Ness forced himself to think about that without jealous twinges in the way. "I suppose that's true. Can't be an easy life."
The next time Nic emerged, the camera showed a more familiar cabin. A very familiar cabin. Shax stood in front of the mirror in a long coat Ness had somehow missed seeing. The black velvet swirled about his bare ankles as he turned this way and that—preening. There was no other word for it. Shax did that when he was needed a specific look or when he tried out a new outfit. A fond smile crept up on Ness as he watched, though this face heated when he recalled Mac was also watching.
The heat increased to inferno levels when Shax flung open the coat and let it drop to the floor, revealing the black corset and thong—and nothing else—he wore underneath. Ness nearly dropped his mug of tea.
"Well." Mac sipped at his own mug. "That's not something I ever needed to see."
"Nic!" Ness reached over and smacked the all-ship comm. "Nic, you need to come back now, please!"
The vid stayed on Shax for a few more moments as he turned and posed, cocking on foot back and bending at the waist. Then the view shifted abruptly, the camera bouncing as Nic ran at top speed back to the galley. Ness got him treats to work on, hurriedly put his tea mug away, and made flustered sounds that should have been speech.
"I'll get the rig off and make sure Nic gets dinner." Mac made shooing motions. "Go, ah, see to things."
Ness gave him a grateful nod, wings rustling in agitation as he hurried out, hoping by all the holies that Shax would be preening for just a few seconds longer.
Time: Ivana huffs, what is the current system the humans are using? Really? If you say so sweetie.
Using the Christian Calendar, it’s star date 09.01.2018.
*aligns ship to address the planet properly*
Hello, sweeties. Please do keep it down, we don’t want to wake Captain Hotstuff and the crew. They’ve had a rough few weeks and need to get their beauty sleep.
Good. Thank you.
Due to some unforeseen circumstances, it really was a fine mess they got themselves into this time, the boys will be taking some time off to rest and recuperate. But I didn’t want you all to worry so I’m letting you know the boys need some downtime before getting back to their usual wheeling and dealing.
Don’t worry, Ness is making sure Shaxy stays in bed until fully healed. I’m currently babysitting the other cranky members of the crew. Sorry, playing nursemaid—excuse me.
Corny, I said I’d make sure Rosa is feed, now you go curl up with your demon.
As I was saying, the boys will be back once everyone is a hundred percent again (No doubt getting into another troublesome scheme because of our dear Captain Hotstuff.)
Until the boys get back to their escapades, I suggest everyone take some time for self-care.
A nice warm bubble bath.
The company of good friends, and --
no, Leopold, we can’t borrow a human
—and maybe curl up with a good book.
See you on the upside, sweeties.
God rest ye merry gentlemen…
"Ver, don't." Shax put a hand on his companion's arm just in time to prevent the snowball's launch at the carolers. It probably had a piece of cobblestone at the center, knowing Verin. "We're being inconspicuous today."
Verin snorted steam and shook him off. "But it's fucking obnoxious. What the hell are we doing here, anyway? I hate Christmas. I hate humans at Christmas. And London's too damn cold. Let's go to India."
"I like London this time of year." Shax tipped his hat to a passing pair of matronly women, localized concealment charm firmly in place so his horns didn't show. They were dressed as gentlemen that evening, walking sticks, top hats and all. "The humans are less guarded. In a more generous mood. They tend to drink too much, go out to parties and luncheons more. Makes them easier marks."
"Whatever," Verin grumbled, then laughed when Shax showed him the three pocket watches he'd already acquired. "Yeah, fine. But I want a pint someplace warm in the next few damn minutes or important parts are gonna start freezing off."
"Soon, soon, we're headed in that direction."
"We've passed three pubs."
"Ver." Shax put a hand to his heart and gave Verin a look of feigned shock. "A gentleman can't simply walk into just any pub."
Verin grumbled several ungentlemanly things and followed up with some anatomically questionable suggestions until a pack of street urchins surrounded them, clamoring for whatever the good gentlemen could spare. Shax handed out pennies with an indulgent smile, which slipped not a hair when the pack ran off and he seized the hindmost.
"Give it back, my dear," he demanded softly with a firm hold on the boy's arm.
All wide-eyed innocence, the boy dared to answer with, "What's that, sir?"
"The watch." Shax snapped his fingers and held up his hand until the boy pulled the watch out of his too-thin jacket.
He placed it in Shax's palm with ill-conceived grace and sullen fear. "Didn't mean nuffin', honest, guv."
"I'm not offended by the theft. I'm offended by your technique." Shax tsked. "A much lighter touch. A more subtle approach than simply smacking into your target, er, patron." He turned the boy so they were walking side-by-side and slipped the watch into the boy's outer pocket. "Here, mark how it's done. Nothing at all to see. My man is on your right, mind. Don't trod on his feet. And there we are."
The boy gave him a sidelong glance. "You didn't do nuffin', sir."
With a bright grin, Shax held the watch out by its chain, altogether too pleased when the boy's eyes widened. "Like that, my dear. Here, you keep that one. I'll have several before the night's done."
The street urchin gave him a shy grin, snatched the watch as if Shax would change his mind, and pelted off after his peers.
"Should've beat his ass," Verin growled. "Cheeky little bastard."
"I am, after all, the patron demon prince of thieves." Shax allowed himself a little swagger, swinging his walking stick. "Can't let a teaching moment like that pass by."
They hadn't even reached the next cross street before they encountered the urchin mob a second time, this time begging for pennies from what appeared to be a harmless, if grouchy, old man. He had appeared ancient, at least, until he straightened from his hunch and began laying about with his cane, striking the beggars indiscriminately and shouting about taking hard-earned money they didn't deserve.
One of the boys dared to call out, "But it's Christmas, sir!"
"Christmas! Bah! Just an excuse for the indigent and shiftless to pick their betters' pockets. Be off with you, the lot of you!" the man bellowed at them, huffing and muttering as they scattered.
He was old. Shax could see that, but his wizened soul had aged him far beyond his actual years. Normally, Shax would have been amused at the horrid old miser. Normally. If he hadn't begun to think of those street urchins as his.
"Don't like that look, Shaxy." Now Verin was giving him side-glances.
"Change of plans." Shax nodded toward the old codger, who had now returned to shuffling down the street. "We're following him home."
Verin cracked his knuckles. "So I can pummel him and ransack his house? Good plan."
"Not precisely, no. We'll follow him, see where he lives, then go back to our house."
"Wha—? How's that help anything?"
Shax patted Verin's arm. "A little faith, please. I need to go back to the town house to summon some spirits and give them instructions. Then we'll go back to the old miser's place to watch the fun and do some incidental ransacking while we're there."
"Fine." Verin nodded and strode off after the soon-to-be-unfortunate human. "That does sound fun. Sometimes you even have good ideas, Shaxy."
"Oh, this is a good one." Shax bared his teeth in an evil smile. "This is the stuff humans write stories about and tell each other for years and years."
Snow began to drift down, fleeting ghosts in the streetlamps echoing the ghosts yet to come.
The Potato Surprise audio edition is coming out this week - and in honor of the launch, we have a little game for you.
There are audio codes on the line and all it takes from you is a few minutes and a little persistence! Vance Bastian (the voice of Shax and narrator of the Brimstone series) has all the details for the Hunt on his website. Follow the trail and email me when you're done - simple as that. :)
First five to complete the Hunt win!
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