Hello everyone! The Journal this week has been shoved aside, er, replaced by a little announcement.
Right now, as I type, the audio version of Potato Surprise: A Brimstone Prequel, is going through the audio approval/ distribution process. Once it's ready, we have a thing planned. (A THING, I tell you!)
Vance Bastian, who voices and narrates the Brimstone series, and I will be running a little Shaxenger Hunt, during which you'll be hunting for clues in the comments of various previous Brimstone Journals which will lead you to a final solution/ code. For which, of course, there will be prizes.
Just a head's up for now. Watch for it coming soon! :)
Time: A long time ago (Shax and Verin's young adulthood)
Place: Aministrative halls of Hell, Earth
"This isn't really punishment for you." Verin leaned back against the rock wall beside the desk.
"Of course it is." Shax slouched on the high stool, rolling the blood pen back and forth across the ledger. "It's so dull and monotonous. And it takes forever."
"Yeah, but you get to boss people around, you little shit. Stop moaning."
The next demon approached the desk. All of the demons in line were a variation on a theme—huge horns, hairy bodies, troll-esque faces, each with a wriggling sack slung over one shoulder and documents clutched in their free claws. Shax reached for the documents, careful not to touch the attached demon.
Krampuses weren't careful at all with hygiene and they stank like wet, swamp-muddied socks.
Shax sighed and sorted through the papers, all in order. The goblins at the head of the line helped the Krampuses with the forms if they weren't the literate sorts, for which Shax was grateful. Goblin handwriting was far superior to Krampus.
"Male child, several infractions—attempted drowning of kittens?" Shax shook his head. He should've been beyond shock by this point, but human children astounded him still. "Well, that's an automatic eatable offense." He checked off the appropriate boxes, signed in the supervisor space and added a note to the bottom. "You have royal permission to terrorize as much as you please prior to consumption."
"Thank you, highness," the Krampus snarled as he retrieved the papers and moved on. It wasn't disrespect. They all spoke in snarls.
"It's all mixed messages, you know." Shax turned to Verin while they waited for the next Krampus to trundle up. "Shax, steal me this. Shax, steal me that. You're such an excellent thief, Shax. Followed by recriminations and punishment when I steal the wrong thing."
Verin snorted. "You stole your mom's tiara. Even I knew that was a stupid fucking move."
"Still. You see my point, don't you?" Shax didn't expect an answer beyond more snorts, so he turned back to his Krampus supervising duties. The next Krampus had hunched shoulders, eyes flicking this way and that. Not suspicious at all. "You bagged this one for making siblings cry? Tsk." Shax pointed and intoned with his best imperious voice. "Put that one back and sing the beatings versus eatings song seven times before you go out for a replacement."
"But Prince Shax, I’m so hungry!"
"You should've thought of that before making an inappropriate catch. Go!"
The Krampus whimpered, but hurried off. Royalty had its privileges, after all. The next one had a sack that was kicking and shrieking. Oddly, the sack seemed to know demon royalty.
"Prince Shax! Prince Shax!"
"So you have a human child in there?" Shax tapped his pen on the stone desk.
The Krampus pulled out a hideous grin and nodded with enthusiasm.
I will not bang my head on the desk. I will not. "Open the sack," Shax said with a weary sigh.
As soon as the sack was untied, an imp wriggled free and leaped to his hooves, pointing at the Krampus. "You are in so much trouble!" Then he caught himself and knelt properly. "Your highness. I beg pardon."
"I should say. Who do you belong to, little one?" Shax did a quick assessment as he spoke. The imp appeared unharmed.
"Prince Vassago, highness."
Shax clicked his tongue in reproof. "Well, you probably are in trouble then…" He glanced at the designation on the paperwork. "Krampus Three Seventeen. Go and tell Uncle Vassago the number, little one. He'll have to decide while this Krampus goes to sit in the corner over there and does not have supper."
The noises coming from Verin made it clear he was stifling a guffaw.
"You're not helping things. I hate supervising the annual Krampus feed. A thousand Krampuses and I swear only three of them have any sense. There are rules."
The next Krampus in line had a sack that was crying. That wasn't too unusual, but this sounded more heartbroken than frightened. Shax frowned as he looked over the paperwork. "This is very messy."
"Do by self," the Krampus said, puffing its chest out with pride.
Ah. One of the barely verbal ones. "I see. So, the reason for trapping appears to be—and correct me if I'm wrong since it's difficult to decipher--kissing other girl."
"Yes. On list."
"What list? Certainly not on ours."
The Krampus felt around in its ragged, dirty cloak and produced a much creased and stained list. "List. Man gave."
"You know better than to take direction from humans," Shax grumbled and smoothed the list out. "Pits' sakes. No. These are normal human things, like kissing another girl. Strife!"
Shax waited until the goblin administrator huffed and puffed down the hall. "My prince?"
"Find out where this list came from and make certain the source is eliminated. Also, have someone return this child. She shouldn't be here."
"Yes, Prince Shax."
Shax put his head on the desk and heaved a huge, I-must-have-patience breath. "How many more do we have to go, Ver?"
Verin gave his tally sheet a quick glance. "Hey, you've seen a lot already. Only seven hundred and thirty-eight more."
It was Shax's turn to whimper, but he managed a sub-audible one. Dignity and all. "Next!"
Time: Shortly after Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Amnesia Spaceport
Perfect weather on Amnesia came in stops and starts, so on pleasant sunny days when unpaved bits had dried and the rains had been recent enough to keep the dust down, the streets of the spaceport bustled with extra activity.
Ness strolled the shopping district with Leopold, comfortable and familiar here, and the shadier denizens gave him plenty of room. Quite the contrast from the first time he'd set foot in the spaceport, naïve, new to the world, and telegraphing target to everyone he passed. That first visit had overshadowed his opinion of the place for some time—the place where an archangel had cut Shax down, the place where Ness had lost his angelic status and his first set of wings.
The memories of that terrible day persisted, of course, but the planet had many different associations now.
Leopold tugged at his hand, pulling him toward a café. They had been walking for some time. Ness reasoned that his son must be thirsty. He helped Leopold onto the self-adjusting stool at the counter, which wobbled up and down a few times, challenged by Leopold's shape and size, before it settled at the perfect height for him. Ness ordered a lemon water and a slice of cherry pie for himself, a soy milk and a muffin for Leopold.
Leopold was particularly fond of the muffins here.
Halfway through his muffin, Leopold murmured, "Papa, there's a man. He's been watching us eating. Do you think we're safe?"
"Is he trying to look like he's not looking?" Ness asked without looking up from his pie.
Leopold shook his head.
"I'd think we're fine, then." Ness checked out of the corner of his eye. Yes, there was a man watching, but he seemed more dejected than threatening. So dejected in fact that Ness couldn't simply walk by his table on their way out. "Sir? Are you all right?"
"I'm…no." The man's voice was soft and melodic, a trained voice, Ness thought. "I apologize for staring but I don't suppose you have any spare credit chits?"
Leopold put down his backpack and disappeared halfway into it as he said, "Are you hungry, sir? I have a cinnamon roll. It may be flattened."
The cinnamon roll, one of Ivana's, was in relatively good shape, safe in a plasti-seal. The man hesitated, but his obvious hunger won out and he accepted it with a nod. "Thank you, young…hedgehog…person."
Ness had taken the other chair at the man's table and let Leopold climb into his lap. "Are you between jobs?" He hoped that wasn't rude to ask.
The man made a non-committal head tilt as he devoured Leopold's offering. When he finished, he licked his fingers. "I was a storyteller. Pubs would pay me to spin stories some nights. Most afternoons, I could find an audience in the squares. Not a job to grow rich and fat on, but I was good at it."
That was puzzling. Ness turned it over and over and finally said, "But you still have your voice. You can't tell stories any longer?"
"They're all gone." The erstwhile storyteller's hands shook as he folded up the plasti-seal. "The place inside my head where the stories should be has been drained dry."
Leopold's peep was questioning, confused. "It's a story drought? But how can that even be? Can't you make new ones?"
"The doctors said the treatment would cure the recurring fibroid tumors. It was experimental. But it changed something in my brain." The storyteller shook his head. "There's nothing but an empty, gray space where the stories should be."
More of a story-pocalypse than a drought. Ness waved the attendant bot over and ordered them more food. "Have you tried to, ah, fill the space back up? Read stories to put back in the empty spot?"
"I have," the storyteller mumbled between bites of cheese bread. "I've tried to read all kinds of stories. They simply trickle out again."
Leopold sipped at the straw in his second glass of milk. It seemed a thoughtful sip. "You told your stories. You didn't read to people. Maybe hear not read?"
"That's an excellent idea," Ness hurried to agree. "Maybe the way your brain retains things has changed. Would you like me to tell you a story?"
When the storyteller gave him a hesitant nod, Ness gave a brief account of Shax and the anti-gravity cows, which had his listener chuckling. When he'd finished, Ness spread his hands and asked, "Well?"
The storyteller's eyes widened. "It's…it's still in there. I have it!"
"Perfect." Ness turned back to his son. "Leo, do you have your reader with you?"
He waited while Leopold fished it out of his backpack and handed it over, then he scrolled through some of Leopold's stories. The Once And Future King. Good, but too long. A Child's Garden Of Verses. Probably not quite right. Finding The Pirate Captain's Secret Baby.
Ness blinked at the torrid cover image. "Goodness, Leopold. What have you been reading?"
Leopold shrugged and somehow managed to look embarrassed.
Finally, Ness settled on a collection of fairytales. "I'll read you a few and then you can build from there. Just have the books read to you instead of trying to read."
"Thank you." The storyteller swiped at his eyes. "You're very kind. I didn't expect that from one of the fallen."
"We come in all sorts," Ness murmured as he searched the index. He flipped his wings to a more comfortable position, settled back and began. "Once there was a king who had three sons…"
Time: Between Shax's War and Beside A Black Tarn
Place: New Bangkok spaceport, planet Barbary
"Well." Shax sat back, drumming his fingers on the boards in the pilot's pod. "This is potentially disastrous."
"What is, sawdust for brains?" Verin muttered from the pilot's chair as he worked through their launch forms.
"Did you visit any demon bars in port, Ver? And if so, which ones?"
"None of your fucking business." Steam curled from Verin's nostrils at an accelerated rate.
"Hmm, yes. Normally I'd agree with you." Shax waved a hand at his view screen. "But we just had a health bulletin come in from city L&I. They've tracked an outbreak of volcanitis back to Tartarus, and I know you go there sometimes."
"Are you shitting me?" Verin surged up from his chair to lean over Shax and read the bulletin. "Aw, fuck. The bastards couldn't have sent this out before we were all boarded?"
"Apparently not. Are we screwed, Ver?"
"We are screwed to the wall with giant screws." Verin sank back into his chair. "Fuckity fuck fuck."
Shax hit the all ship comm. "My dear crew, we have a bit of an issue with takeoff. No panicking, please. Meet me in the cargo bay immediately."
"Really? You went there?" Verin snarled. "Now everyone's gonna fucking panic."
"Then we'll unpanic them." Shax flapped a hand at him. "Go, go. I just need to peruse details and I'll be right there."
By the time Shax reached the cargo bay, there were indeed signs of panic, raised voices chief among them.
Mac strode to the foot of the steps before Shax had a chance to descend and demanded, "What's this about an epidemic, Captain?"
That escalated quickly. "Nothing quite so dire." He decided to address his crew from the landing and set his hands on the railing. "We received a health bulletin regarding an outbreak of volcanitis this week. They've traced it back to Club Tartarus. How many of you have been there in the past five days?"
Nearly every ship denizen in the bay raised a hand, with the exceptions of Leopold and Rosa.
Shax pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. "Wonderful."
"What does this mean, love?" Ness took a step toward him, the trembling in his wings barely discernible.
"It means we're docked and confined to the ship until we've passed the incubation period. Corny, you're exempt. Humans can neither catch not carry this."
"What about Mac?" Heckle's voice shook worse than Ness's wings.
"I'm…not sure." Shax turned to address his engineer. "Mac? Any idea if nephilim are susceptible?"
Mac shook his head. "Don't know, Cap. Never came across an outbreak before."
"All right. So everyone except Corny is confined to the ship. Leopold my dear, that means you too. We have no idea if you'll be affected." Shax heaved a put upon sigh. "This mean three more days in port. Not a terrible hardship, but I was hoping to leave this afternoon. Anyone who comes down with symptoms needs to bunk here in the hold. We can't have—"
Verin made a distressed choking sound, turned away from his shipmates and spewed flame at the metal deck plates.
"Cabin fires," Shax concluded wearily. "Well, damn it, Ver."
"Not my fault." Verin sat hard on the deck, clutching his head. "Oh, fuck."
Everyone backed up as Verin let loose with another gout of fire. Corny held a hand out toward him, clearly uncertain whether it was safe to approach.
"Can we do anything, Cap?" Corny asked from his relatively safe distance.
"I don't suppose anyone has ideas about fire-retardant bedding?"
By the time Mac had found some insulation material that wouldn't burn and had set up a few makeshift pallets in the hold as far away from Rosa as possible, Heckle had collapsed to his hands and knees spewing small spurts of flame and Shax wasn't feeling terribly well himself.
"I'll, ah, sleep in the hold tonight, cupcake." He leaned his aching head against Ness's chest.
Ness stroked his hair and kissed the base of one horn. "I should stay with you, don't you think?"
"Only if you're starting to feel poorly, too." Shax glanced up at him. "You're not, are you?"
"Not at all. Maybe the virus doesn't infect the fallen?"
"I don't—" A sudden wave of heat and nausea warned Shax. He whispered excuse me, and managed to turn before flame erupted up his esophagus and onto the corridor's deck plates. "Pits. I'll just, ah, crawl to the hold. Ms. Ivana could you—"
Another column of flame escaped. Fire suppression alarms sounded. The system doused Shax in foam fire retardant.
"—hold the fire suppression," Shax gasped out, spitting foam from his mouth.
"I'm sorry, Captain Hot Stuff. Didn't catch it in time." Ivana did sound sorry. She also sounded like she was trying not to snicker. "Didn't realize you'd gone literally hot stuff already."
"Do you need help?" Ness called after Shax as he crawled down the now slippery corridor.
"Stay there," Shax got out in a desperate plea as he tried to suppress the next fountain of flame. It didn't work. "Don't want to hurt you."
"All right." Ness agreed, then followed him at a safe distance anyway.
Damn Verin and his clubbing. Though they all went. Damn them all. And no one invited me. What the deuces am I saying?
Shax made it to the hold without setting his ship alight. He curled up on one of the empty pallets by the wall, fevered, miserable, and from time to time vomiting flame, which, frankly, wasn't much fun at all. Verin shivered and moaned through his own fever. Heckle's didn't seem quite as bad as he only hiccupped a few candle's worth of fire here and there.
While demon innards were relatively fireproof, it was still a miserable two days before symptoms and fever dreams subsided. Mac never caught it and neither did Leopold. On the afternoon of the second day, Ness joined them, though.
"You too, hon?" Shax whispered from the pallet that he had partially shredded to make himself a nest.
"I just don't feel terribly well." Ness let out an un-angelic belch. "Thought I should come down as a precaution."
"Sorry, sweetheart. I hope it's not too bad for you."
"I—" Ness hiccupped and belched again. Instead of the expected geyser of flame, pearlescent bubbles escaped his mouth and drifted peacefully toward the ceiling where they popped with little musical pings.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Verin grumbled from his pallet.
Heckle watched the bubbles with fascinated longing. "That's just not fair."
"It's not as if I'm trying to do it," Ness said with an exasperated sigh.
Shax watched another round of bubbles pop against the ceiling girders. Maybe it was leftover fever hallucinations, but he thought he saw sparks.
"Cupcake, if you don't mind aiming those at the floor, please?"
Ness shrugged but repositioned so his bubbles would hit the floor directly in front of him. Sure enough, the next ones hit the decking in showers of miniature lightning storms.
"Oh…oh, dear," Ness whispered as he lay down with his head hanging off the insulation. "There's two days of this?"
The tiny lightning strikes had become miniature thunderstorms with the next bout of bubbles, complete with about three seconds of rain. Shax rolled father into his nest, pulling the insulation up around him to protect against tiny lightning strikes. Living with a newly fallen was mostly wonderful, incredibly instructive, and never, ever boring.
Time: After Shax's War
Place: Planet Barbary, New Bangkok city dome
Heckle swung his hooves as he waited for Corny to come back from the counter. They'd come into the shopping district for, surprisingly, shopping. Things they couldn't just order from the dockmaster at the spaceport. Captain Shax had asked for a list of things for Ness's unbirthday—in place of a birthday since Ness had no idea when his creation day was—and Corny had needed a substitute for leather for tack repair.
By the time they were finished, they were both starving so Corny had found a place serving a meatless pulled pork that smelled wonderful. Heckle snagged a table for them while Corny ordered since the counter wasn't even close to imp-sized. The food stand was doing a brisk business and customers far outnumbered tables, which worked well since so many of the customers, probably locals, wanted takeaway. Unfortunately, not everyone.
"Oy! Mini-demon! Move along. You don't need that whole table." A large bald human—Heckle was sure he was a human by the scent, though his much bent and crinkled nose could've been a pit demon's—loomed over him, blocking the day-cycle lights of the dome.
Heckle didn't dare look the rude human in the face, but he did manage to stammer out, "I'm—I'm waiting for a friend."
"Then both you mini-demons can go sit your asses on the curb where you belong." The human's smaller, mean-eyed friend guffawed.
Even though he knew he risked being tossed, Heckle swallowed hard and stood his ground. "It's not—"
"Move along, gentlemen," Corny's softest, most dangerous tone came from behind them. "The little hombre got there first."
"Who the fuck are you?" Crinkle Nose turned on Corny.
"The friend he's waiting for."
The threat in Corny's eyes was hard and unmistakable. Both humans moved off muttering about the benches in the park being cleaner anyway. Corny shook his head and handed Heckle his share of lunch as he sat down.
"You all right, little bit?"
The confrontation had shaken Heckle down to his hooves. He pulled in a slow breath before answering, "They didn't hurt me."
"Not what I asked but good to hear."
Heckle dug into his lunch, which was spicy and warm. The food in his stomach steadied him, as it often did and he started to wonder about things. "Are humans or demons worse, do you think?"
It took three bites for Corny to answer. "Well, I reckon there's worse and there's worse."
"I don't know what that means," Heckle said as he shoveled up another forkful.
Corny waved his own fork around to include the other patrons. "Some people used to say that humans are half demon and half angel. That we have to fight all our lives against the bad parts of who we are if we wanna be good people. I dunno much about that. I do know that demons come in lots of types and some are bone-deep bad and heartless. Others are just, what does Cap say? Morally dubious."
"So humans come in different kinds, too?"
"Nah. We're all the same. Not like pit demons and imps and other hell critters. But lots of humans… Well, something goes wrong in their rearing. Or just in their insides. They grow up heartless. Still human. Just can't think beyond their own selves." Corny shrugged. "Demons just are what they are. Come to think of it, some of the things I've heard tell about angels have been pretty heartless, too."
Heckle nodded at that. Taking Ness's beautiful golden wings because he was in love? That had been shockingly cruel even from a demonic view of things.
"I'll cotton to not thinking everything Cap'n Shax does it right, but he's still got a heart. And Ver will tear you to pieces if he thinks you done him wrong. But his heart's still in there. That's what matters, I reckon."
The proprietor of the food stand bustled up then with a thundercloud frown. Heckle was sure she was going to tell them to leave. No imps allowed or something.
She plunked a takeaway container on the table. "Here, sweetie. You take that with you. I don't like seeing my customers bullied."
"Oh." Heckle blinked at the container. "Thank you."
But she'd already hurried off again and probably hadn't heard. He gathered the container close as they left the table. Heart. Heart was good. A full stomach was sometimes just as wonderful.
Place: Earth, London
"Well, fuck me," Verin muttered as he realized the tailor was bypassing Shax's room and coming to his.
Shax was chattering at the poor human at top speed, of course. "Just the coat and waistcoat, please. Nothing else was damaged in the, ah, fall. Maybe something in a deep blue for Msr. Verin. Nothing terribly flashy. He can't abide flash, more's the pity."
"What now, your royal pain in the ass?" Verin growled in Shax's ear. Not that he couldn't guess and he had destroyed the last set pretty fucking thoroughly in a thorn bush as they left a late-night job.
"We have a party to attend on Friday. I need you to look the proper gentleman."
"Whoop-de-do," Verin grumbled, though he allowed the measuring and fussing to begin. It was a job, of course, and he hoped it went better than the last one. He did his best to think of fun things like drinking and brawling while Shax and the bespectacled tailor fussed about silver threads versus gold and fabrics and color.
The night of the party, at some rich nobleperson's house, Verin could never keep the damn names and titles straight, he dressed carefully—hose, breeches, shirt, neck kerchief, the new waistcoat in a pale blue with silver embroidered leaves, and the new coat in midnight blue. He did have to admit that he looked damn good, even before he took the potion that gave him the illusion of being human.
Someday, I wanna keep the horns. Just for shock value.
"Speaking of…" Verin stared in bemusement as Shax came down the stairs of their London townhouse, though he had to look twice to be certain it was Shax.
The blue ball gown nearly matched Verin's waistcoat and he wondered if that was a thing this season. It hugged curves Shaxy didn't normally have and how he'd managed cleavage, Verin didn't really want to know. All too much fuss for him. Not to mention the dainty silver shoes with bows that would never have fit his big scaly feet and the careful updo with fucking ringlets. Better Shaxy than him.
Shax stopped at the foot of the stairs with a little twirl. "This is the part where you tell me how lovely I look."
"It's not like I'm trying to get you in bed." Verin rolled his eyes when Shax pouted. "Fine. You're pretty. Can we fucking go now?"
Once in the carriage, Shax finally explained, "A certain heiress has recently come into possession of her grandmother's jewels. Tonight is her daughter's coming out ball and, if I don't miss my guess, this particular vain person won't be able to resist wearing the largest star sapphire from that collection. If I were to go as a male guest, one of only the slightest acquaintance, it would be far too odd for me to stay beside her for more than a polite greeting. If I am a female guest, I can easily sidle into a conversation group with our hostess for an extended period."
"And I thought you just wanted to wear a dress."
"I do like the dress. It's a good color for me."
Verin snorted, trying to keep the steam to a minimum. "So who am I tonight? Husband? Brother?"
"Cousin." Shax swatted Verin with his fan. "My dear cousin who has been kind enough to escort me."
How Shaxy had gotten an invitation for false names, he had no clue, but it wasn't too much of a surprise that they were announced as Baron Lamoignon and Madame Lucia de Toucy. Obscure foreign nobility worked best in London.
Verin trailed Shax for an hour, playing the good escort, until "Lucia" found some ladies to gaggle with. Maybe that was a verb. He didn't really fucking care. Some of the stuffy gentlemen had started card games, so Verin wandered in that direction to stay out of Shax's way and maybe snag some winnings. Gaming at these parties was perfect—top shelf booze, cigars to mask the steam and smoke he couldn't control, and no one bothered him about any stupid dances.
He was finishing a hand of whist when a small commotion caught his eye—Shax hurrying inside from the terrace, bumping into people and excusing himself in distracted fashion. Verin played the last trick in a hurry and left the table, annoying the men he'd taken for all he could. Something had gone wrong and he might have to get them out fast.
Shax hurried to him and flung himself into Verin's arms as if he really were a society matron fleeing some horror. They both knew better than to break character, no matter what had happened.
"Are we going?" Verin murmured, trying not to sneeze as Shax's hair got in his nose.
"That…that cad!" Shax shook with outrage.
"Yeah? Need me to take care of someone?"
"No. Thank you." Shax straightened the shoulders of his gown and composed himself. "I went out to the terrace for some air. The perfume in here is deadly. And this…person followed me out. He seemed polite at first but then he said something crude about French girls, tried to shove me into a dark corner, and was reaching a hand under my skirts. I told him no but he seemed to think he had some right."
"Huh. Not what I expect at a hoity-toity party. Did the gentleman, ah…?"
Shax huffed, fanning himself. "Certainly not. I kneed him in the balls and punched him in the face. And he was hardly a gentleman."
"You still in? Or did that creep ruin the mood?"
"I'm going to rat him out to our hostess so she can deal with it. Then we're leaving." Shax headed toward the matron of the house in full flounce.
After a short hesitation, Verin strode onto the terrace out of curiosity. Sure enough, there was a middle-aged asshole staring out into the garden with a handkerchief to his bleeding nose. Maybe it was the guy, maybe it wasn't. Verin didn't care. He picked the creep up by his coat and hurled him over the railing.
Verin waited for the thud, which came with a nice crunch he hoped was a broken arm or worse. "Next time someone says no, you listen. Jackass."
Time: shortly after Beside A Black Tarn
“I don't understand it.” Dr. Krantz shook his head. “The conditions were identical.”
“Run it again,” Dr. Stern snapped a hand at the vid. “We're missing something.”
Riveted to the recorded images, they watched again. The med tech reduced anesthetic drip. The fallen angel on the table showed definite signs of distress. He began to twist against his restraints and mutter to himself. He turned his head to address the empty air beside him. A heat shimmer wavered in the space he addressed.
Something began to take shape on the tray beside the fallen's head, something dark and twisted, but after a few moments of twisting, impossible limbs and the hint of feral eyes, a hideous shriek sounded and the half-formed entity vanished.
Krantz cut the feed before the fallen began screaming. "You don't suppose it's because this one has horns, do you? Is it possible there are differences between fallen on a chemical level?"
"Nonsense." Dr. Prince yanked a cloth from his pocket to wipe the lenses on his spectroscopy goggles. "All fallen are the same except in superficial, aesthetic ways. They were all angels once. Run the successful one again."
They had all seen it a hundred times, though not with the spectroscopy goggles. Dr. Krantz queued up the file in question and let it run. They had condensed the feed down to the specific points where the entity began to manifest—apparent at first only through the fallen's odd behavior where he stopped muttering to himself and appeared to speak to something beside him, then in more and more visible forms until the bright pink entity became a solid mass.
"He is much more handsome than the other fallen," Dr. Stern murmured.
"And he doesn't have horns like the other one," Dr. Krantz added in a whisper.
"Aesthetic differences," Dr. Prince snarled. "It means no more than eye color or the size of someone's feet."
"I do like a man with big feet."
"Oh, yes. Long feet with elegant toes—"
"Will you please focus, gentlemen?"
Dr. Prince's teeth were clamped together so, Dr. Krantz felt it best to shut up and concentrated on the extraordinarily pink entity, which had chosen to manifest as an unusually large hedgehog. There didn't appear to be anything unusual about his elemental makeup—the normal carbon sorts of things, oxygen, calcium, iron, hydrogen, nitrogen and so on. But where had the atoms come from to make the entity? Was it actually physical, or did it merely appear to be? Was this an anomalous creation of matter? And if that were true, and everything they knew was wrong, what was the point? And what were--
"Why wasn't the entity detained?" Dr. Prince wrenched his goggles off with a frustrated huff.
"Security believed it was a data glitch." Dr. Stern edged away carefully.
"A data glitch. A data glitch." Dr. Prince tapped his goggles in the counter in a swift, syncopated rhythm. "Gentlemen, we need another fallen. A fresh one. We'll begin again. Take another look at brainwave patterns. There must be a way to repeat the phenomenon."
Dr. Krantz sighed, not looking forward to dealing with the people who brought them subjects, but he supposed it had to be done as many times as it took to replicate the results. For science, he told himself, for science.
Time: Shortly after Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Elistrus, Thinis CIty
"Shoo! I don't want any dirty animals in my bakery!" The proprietor backed up her words with sharp snaps of an apron.
This was why Leopold dreaded going into new establishments, though he realized he would probably do better if he wore pants on a consistent basis.
He heaved up onto his hind legs and held out his front paws. "I'm a small demon. Not an animal, per se. And I have money."
"Oh. Sorry." The proprietor still scowled. "You should probably lead with that."
"My apologies," Leopold managed a little bow, careful of his backpack. If he disturbed Max and Nic too much, they'd want to come out and see what was happening. Yes. That would go well. "Your danishes smell so good. I would like two, please."
After a bout of indecision—all of the pastries looked delicious—Leopold settled on a raspberry danish and a lemon one. The shop owner was magically more polite and friendly when he paid for them, but he reasoned that he could be a bit of a shock for some people. The nice human in his favorite yarn store in Thinis had never reacted that way, but they were the exception.
Outside the shop, he reverted to all fours and ran to the nearest city park where he monopolized a bench and let Max and Nic out of the backpack. Max trilled and waved his front sets of legs toward the sunlight while Nic stayed close to Leopold and sniffed the air suspiciously. Planetary air was always a little weird for Nic, born and raised in space.
Leopold broke bits off each pastry, with a line of tiny pieces for Max on the right and another for Nic on the left, before he began devouring. They really were as good as they smelled and Leopold polished off his portions in seconds. His companions were considerably slower eaters, nibbling, in Nic's case, and breaking off tiny crumbs for a tiny mouth in Max's. Not that they were in any hurry and Leopold enjoyed the sunshine.
While waiting, Leopold opened his backpack all the way and dug into the larger pocket for his flute, the silver one, and started to compose a song about pastries. Max hummed softly in accompaniment while he ate and Nic swayed to the rhythm. Leopold lost track of his surroundings until a man walking by dropped a small credit chit into the open backpack.
"Sir? You've dropped something," Leopold called after him. "A credit chit—in my pack. I see it in there."
The man kept walking, oblivious, so Leopold shrugged and returned to playing, transitioning from his new song to older ones he'd learned from Papa Shax. A few minutes later, another human dropped a chit into the pack. This time Leopold was watching and it looked oddly deliberate.
Max finished his crumbs and began to sing in earnest, harmonizing with the flute, while Nic began to do a rat dance in earnest, the suckers on his paws allowing him to use the back of the bench as well as the seat. The chits kept coming, from a few isolated plinks to a steady shower.
When Leopold finally packed up to go home, there wasn't any room left for Nic and Max in the backpack, so they rode on top, clinging to the clinking pack. Still puzzled, he took everything into the galley where he found his Papa Shax.
"What in all levels do you have in there?" Papa Shax asked as his eyebrows rose. "It sounds like your pack's full of credit chits."
Leopold thumped the pack on the bench and climbed up before he opened it.
"Ah. It is indeed a pack full of small credit. Should I ask how you obtained these? Or perhaps why in the world you would?"
"In the park, Papa. It's accidental busking. I didn't mean to."
"Huh. Well. I'll have Heckle and Ms. Ivana help you get those deposited." Papa Shax patted his paw. "Don't feel bad, my dear. We've all engaged in more-or-less honest employment from time to time, accidentally or not."
Time: Shortly before Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
It had been a bit since Ness had seen or heard Shax. He wasn't in the pilot's pod tormenting Verin and he wasn't in his usual lounging spot in the galley. Not that Ness was worried…not exactly. It wasn't as if Shax could get into any trouble in the finite space of his own ship in transit between systems.
No. Strike that. Shax would somehow find trouble confined to a packing crate.
He checked the cabin next and was more than a little relieved to find Shax slouched in his desk chair staring at the ceiling as the audio system wailed out an unhappy song.
What have we found?
The same old fears
Wish you were here…
"Love?" Ness poked his head around the door. "Are you all right?"
"Hmm?" Shax startled, his feet thumping down off his desk. He caught himself and offered a swift smile but not before Ness had seen the expression it replaced. "Fine, cupcake. Why do you ask?"
"Just a thought, but sitting in the dark listening to sad songs doesn't strike me as completely fine."
"Ah. That." Shax crossed the floor to snuggle into Ness's arms. "Sometimes I just feel like sad songs."
"Mmm-hmm." Ness kissed the top of Shax's head. "I thought you weren't lying to me anymore?"
Shax reared back. "I'm not! A little spot of melancholy doesn't mean something's wrong. There are just…moments."
"This will probably sound odd to you. But there are times when I miss Hell."
Ness gathered his demon close again, wrapping a wing around Shax for good measure. "From anyone else, I'd find that odd, yes. But you're just homesick."
"'M not homesick." Shax moved his head so his words weren't muffled by Ness's chest. "When you're homesick, you're horribly depressed. You can't eat. Nothing's fun anymore. You have these disorienting bouts of displacement. I'm just…home slightly nauseous."
"What can I do to make your life more hellish?" Ness snapped his mouth shut on the last word. "Not quite what I meant."
Shax's chuckle vibrated against Ness. "I know what you meant, gorgeous. This is nice. I'll take all the holding I can get."
Happy to oblige, Ness did just that until Shax muttered something about needing to check on something. He left his beloved captain to his captainy business and wandered off to the galley with the germ of an idea.
"Yes, sweetie? You look a little rattled." Ms. Ivana's voice was sugary with concern, which made Ness wonder if she was bored and hoping for a challenge.
"Do we have any demon food on board?" Ness held up a finger to forestall any smart aleck response. "By that I mean, any demon food that would normally be found in Hell?"
"Well, there's always the Foxfire…"
"Something, ah, less usual, please? Something, oh, stored away and perhaps forgotten?"
"Hmm. Give me just a tic to access." Ivana hummed softly as she dug through data. "We do have a cute little box of dried fire grubs in storage."
"Are they within reach of your robotic arms? Or should I help dig them out of wherever they are?"
"Aww, you're a doll to offer—"
"Ness. Ms. Ivana." Ness glanced down at a tug on his sleeve. Heckle stood there gazing up with an earnest, determined expression. "I know. Where they are."
"You do?" Ness blinked at him.
"Our imp cutie's pretty much memorized what's in storage already." Ivana managed both proud and smug. Once she'd become accustomed to Heckle, he become her endearingly eager student.
"Oh. I see." Ness held out a hand for Heckle to take. "Could you help me find them? And do they have to be cooked?"
Heckle nodded and trotted off at a brisk clip, towing Ness behind him. "I know right where. But cooked? They're, um, kind of a delicacy. Usually fresh for a royal demon's table. I guess you could cook them? Don't think I ever saw them that way. We weren't allowed to eat them."
Good to know. Ness kept his thoughts to himself while they climbed down into storage and Heckle slipped into impossibly small spaces between rows of crates.
"I know it's back here. Just a second." There were some alarming clunks and thuds before Heckle called out. "Got it!"
"Are you all right?"
"Yes." Heckle popped back into view, his face blushed maroon and Ness had to remind himself that simple questions of concern were new to him. "Thank you."
"And thank you." Ness took the roughly meter long box and undid the catches. The smell that crept out was appalling, somewhere between mildew and rotten potatoes. "Oh, dear. Have they gone off?"
Heckle shook his head, wiping the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand. "That's how they smell dried." He took a long sniff, eyes closed in appreciation.
Ness held out the box. "Would you like one?"
"Me?" Heckle squeaked. "Oh, no! Those aren't for me!"
"I'm overriding any royal privilege and saying you may have one." Ness held the box out further. "Take a grub, Heckle. Our captain would gladly give you one and if he didn't, he'd have to answer to me."
"Oh." With a shaking hand, Heckle reached out and snagged a stinking grub delicately between thumb and foreclaw. "Thank you, sir. Ness."
"My pleasure." Ness tipped his head to one side as he had another thought. "Can you think of anything else I might do to ease the heart of a demon prince who's missing home?"
Head down, Heckle shuffled his hooves a bit. "Um. I guess there are things? But I don't know… I mean, where would you get a hellcat out here?"
"Perhaps something simpler."
"Please don't take this wrong. I mean, I know you're not a servant or anything. But you could…polish his horns? The princes I knew always liked that?"
After brief instructions about horn polishing, Ness took the box up the ladder, trying to ignore the crunching and slurping going on behind him. He hoped Shax didn't savor the grubs quite as much as Heckle did.
This time Ness entered the cabin without announcing himself and simply leaned against the door with the box of stench grub. Initially immersed in reading a long missive, Shax twitched and turned slowly.
"Is that what I think it is?"
"I'm not sure how it could be mistaken for anything else," Ness allowed ruefully.
Shax rose slowly, his eyes glued to the box. "I forgot we had those. Hell's gates that smells good."
"If you say so."
"Hmm." Shax put his hands behind his back and peered into the box. "There's one missing. Did you actually try one, sweetheart?"
"Goodness, no." Ness wrinkled his nose, then straightened his shoulders as he tried to look quite stern. "I gave one to Heckle and…and I'll hear no objections about it."
"Certainly not." Shax hummed as he perused the selection. "Little bugger deserves one. Or several."
Well, that was easy. "Why don't we sit on the bed and I'll polish your horns?"
Shax's head jerked up. "You'd do that? Oh, my sweet, sweet angel."
They ended up with Ness sitting behind and Shax leaning against him as he devoured dried fire grubs. After Ness had started the room vents, of course. Polishing horns was easy, with a cloth and toothpaste of all things, but the contented purring from Shax made it seem like a much bigger accomplishment.
When Shax had finished five or six of the grubs, he closed the box to save the rest for another time, and leaned back with a contented sigh.
"Is that a little better, love?" Ness asked softly as he rocked Shax in his arms.
"Mmm. Yes. You've managed to make the day quite hellish." Shax choked on the last word. "I don't mean—"
"Shh. I know what you meant, love. More than happy to make your life hell in all the right ways."
Time: Shortly before Hell for the Company
Place: Kepler Station
"Well. They've certainly done a lovely job." Shax stopped on the catwalk above the newly renovated Kepler Station shopping concourse to appreciate the view. Brighter, wider, with more merchants and even a miniature park, the designers had completely transformed the old, dingy shopping district.
Unsurprisingly, Verin was less impressed. "Yeah, yeah. Can we just get the shit we need and get the fuck out of here?"
"You take all the fun out of shopping, Ver. Why did I bring you?"
"Because I don't trust you to buy pants for me, that's why."
Shax heaved a put-upon sigh. "I bought you plaid pants once. Once. And it was centuries ago."
"One fucking time too many." Verin pushed off the railing and stomped toward the stairs. "Come on, your annoying highness. Let's get this crap over with."
"I'll just have to come back later and shop properly," Shax muttered as he followed Verin's streamers of steam.
The expedition went well for the first three stores—new work gloves, a bit of a restock on the liquor supplies, some electronic bits and bobs Ivana had requested. In the fourth store, however, things began to go oddly pear-shaped.
Verin was standing in the waist-high booth so the tape measure lasers could get his particulars for his pants purchase when the oddest feeling crept over Shax. Verin simply had the most glorious horns and Shax couldn't help staring as a contented warmth wrapped around his heart.
"What?" Verin finally stepped out of the booth, regarding Shax with narrowed eyes. "Shaxy?"
"Ver…you…" Shax stepped up to him and rested his head on Verin's shoulder. "You've put up with so much from me. Dragging you all over the galaxy and back. All the jobs gone wrong. All the times you've had to come after me. I…I don't think I tell you enough how very much I appreciate you."
"Hey, don't start crying and shit." Verin actually wrapped an arm around him instead of pushing him away. "If I didn't feel appreciated, I would never have fucking stayed. You know that, genius."
"I do. I know that. You're my brother in all but blood. You're…" Shax grabbed a fistful of Verin's shirtfront. "Ver…something's not right here."
Verin didn't let go but he did start to edge them toward the door. "Was kinda thinking the same thing."
"You are indeed very dear to me, but this isn't like us."
"Nope. Not one fucking bit. And I love you too, Shaxy." Verin held on tighter and started edging faster. "Fuck."
By the time they made it out of the store, they were the only people still making a concerted effort at moving forward. Difficult to say who might have known whom previously as they were forced to step over and around fellow shoppers, concourse employees and security who had paired off or trio-ed off or however many people were involved in the corner there, all kissing, groping and in various stages of screwing.
"Hell's gates," Shax whispered. "Come on. We have to get off the concourse."
He grabbed Verin's sleeve and pulled him along, though the urge to join the carousers on the floor yanked at Shax every step of the way. As soon as the concourse doors whooshed shut behind them, the powerful urges subsided.
"What the fuck was all that?" Verin yanked his sleeve out of Shax's grasp, steam billowing from his heaving breaths.
"Not sure, but certainly not a natural reaction." Shax stared through the closed doors at the orgy taking place on the other side. "Sonic interference isn't out of the question but one of us would've noticed. Chemical interference seems more likely and there are only two vectors that would work that quickly on such a varied sample of victims – air and water."
"And since all of those people weren't drinking water at the same fucking time…"
"Exactly. Whatever it is, it's in the ventilation system in there." Shax hurried over to the nearest maintenance port and hacked into the station schematics, fingers flying over the screen. "Interesting. Why would they do that?"
"Do what, you smug little shit?"
Shax grinned even as he kept at the schematics, drilling down into behind the scenes corridors. "That's my Ver. They've built the concourse with a ventilation system independent from the rest of the station. Or I should say isolated from."
"Well that's the stupidest—" Verin cut off, his eyes going wide. "Oh."
"Yes. While I completely support underhanded methods in merchandising, even as far as subliminal suggestions, this is going a bit too far." Shax shut down the terminal. "Come on. We're finding a way into the back rooms."
Breaking into the back corridors was child's play. Finding the room that served as the monitoring station for the concourse wasn't much harder. The screens showed the strange scenes playing out in the concourse, though the room appeared abandoned until Shax spotted the trio of security goons going at it under the counter. A huge tank on a transport cart sat along the far wall, hoses obviously hooked into the ventilation system, Experiment 642 stenciled in white block letters on its side.
"Ver, shut the damn valves. Please." Shax tapped a foot in irritation. "There's obviously a leak. How dare they. I don't even have words."
"Sounds like you still got plenty of words, slush for brains," Verin grumbled as he turned the valves shut on the tank. "So what now?"
"We're taking this thing and hooking it up to the administrative offices. Then we're leaving."
Verin snorted out a cloud of black smoke.
"What, Ver? You're against revenge suddenly?"
"Oh, fuck no. But I still didn't get any pants."
"Next station. I promise." It took both of them to get the tank moving into the corridor, Shax huffing and straining. "One that doesn't experiment with untested airborne drugs on its shoppers."
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.
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