Time: A Long Time Ago During Shax's Teenage Years
Place: In Hell, Palace of Princess Ashtaroth
"Ver?" Shax kicked his boot heels against the rock ledge where he'd perched. His squad of troll guards stood out of earshot, watchful, wary. Maybe riding out here to the Cliffs of Lunacy hadn't been the best idea but it wasn't as if the cliff bats would dare bother a Prince of Hell. Besides, the view was fabulous.
Verin, lying on his back with his eyes squeezed shut, grunted a non-committal response.
"What do you think it's like? The human world?"
"Don't care. Humans are assholes."
Shax chewed on a bit of candied manticore heart from the supply in his belt pouch. "I bet it's interesting. They have towns and markets and wars. Greed and lust and vanity in these weird combinations. They have sunlight. And oceans."
"We have oceans."
"Of water, not lava."
Shax belatedly offered a candy to Verin. "Want one?"
"Gross. No. Don't know how you eat those fucking things. Too sweet."
Verin's horns were finally coming in, fully curved black rams horns that would be devastating in a fight. Shax envied him a little but the horns had grown faster than Verin, imposing a heavy burden on his still-slender adolescent neck. Gave him nasty headaches sometimes. Shax flexed his shoulders fretfully, trying for the thousandth time to see if wings were coming in. Mum had wings. He should get wings. Being an almost-grown demon was irritating.
"One of my cousins told me the humans do festivals."
Verin snorted. "What in all fucking pits is that?"
"Seems to be something like an orgy. Sometimes. But with music and dancing and offerings where they give things to beings they think are gods."
"That's stupid. Why would they do that?"
Shax nodded. "I suppose it's a little odd. But it's all part of worship. If the humans worship you, they want to please you. Sitri says they even offer themselves." He chewed on a thumb claw, unable to let go of the idea now that it had taken root. "I want to go, Ver. I want to see the humans. Not souls, but living, flesh and bone humans."
"You're gonna get us in fucking trouble again, aren't you?"
"Come on, Ver. It was completely worth it to sneak into Uncle Asmo's last orgy. Even if we couldn't sit down for a week."
Verin grumbled something about strips taken out of his ass but they had enjoyed themselves until Mum caught them. It wasn't that she objected to her little princeling buried under a pile of attentive imps but she had expressly forbidden him to attend orgies until his formal presentation at court. She would not be disobeyed. As to the matter of traveling topside, she hadn't said not to. It was just generally understood that immature demons didn't. Restless anger had become his companion more and more. They were nearly grown and still treated like hatchlings.
"Oh, shit." Verin covered his face with both hands, smoke curling between his fingers. "We're doing this, aren't we?"
"Yes." The fever had Shax now. It had to be done. "Tonight."
Later that night, or rather bugfuck early the next morning when Hell parties had ended in stupor and occasional slaughter and the workday had yet to begin, two teenage demons climbed down the side of one of the high towers of Princess Ashtaroth's palace. The one used a rope and the other used his claws to descend the mirror-sheen obsidian. The stone wasn't quite as glass-perfect by the time they reached the bottom.
"That left more of a mark than I thought it would." Shax cringed.
"Yeah, well, too late now, genius," Verin growled. "Your idea to go together so it'd be faster."
They only took Shax's own nightmare, riding double, in a hushed and hurried escape from the stable before the gremlin grooms could wake and ask questions. They galloped to the Cave of Expedition where all points in the human world linked to Hell in some mysterious, arcane way. The narrow mouth opened into a vast cavern where the ceiling vanished into blackness. Shining, shifting surfaces with constantly changing jagged edges, too strange and unsettling to be called windows, stood in a rough circle at the center of the cavern.
Verin touched a surface gingerly with a single forefinger. When his digit didn't sink through, he knocked on it with his knuckles. "What the fuck, Shaxy? How do we get through?"
"Ah, my dear Verin, one needs a key." Shax grinned as he pulled a shard of black crystal from his pack. "And not every demon has one."
"Um…" The color drained from Verin's face. "Did you steal that from your mom?"
"Pfff. Of course not. Do you think I'm stupid?" Shax glared when Verin opened his mouth to answer. "Shush. No. I took it from her secretary."
"Don't know if that's a shit ton better," Verin muttered.
"We just need to find a fun spot to go through." Shax began searching the surfaces, fascinated by the sheer variety of humans and their activities. "Oooh, they're fighting in this one. Ow. No. That looks painful. A night scene. That's what we want. All the fun things happen at night up there, don't they?"
"Don't look at me. Nobody tells me shit."
Which wasn't precisely true. Higher-level demons tended to talk around Verin since he was 'just a minion.' They'd learned some juicy stuff that way.
Shax rounded the curve and came upon an intriguing scene—young humans, naked or mostly so, danced around an enormous bonfire. They wore garlands of leaves and flowers twined in their hair and they swayed as they leapt and turned, chanting wildly.
"This one. Definitely this one." Shax reached out a hand. "Come on, Ver. Hang on tight."
Verin clutched his arm with both hands, claws digging in. With a deep breath, Shax stepped forward with the crystal in his free hand, letting the black shard touch the portal surface first. There was a moment's resistance, then the portal spat them out with unseemly force so that they tumbled in a heap onto a broad moonlit meadow.
They had landed downslope from the bonfire, outside the circle of light, so Shax rolled off Verin and stayed flat in the grass to observe. The humans had food and wine piled up on a wooden, flower-strewn dais. It all looked so festive and inviting…and lithe naked humans…
Shax stood slowly, even though Verin hissed and cussed at him to get down.
"They'll fucking see you!"
"That's the idea." Shax left his pack on the hillside and after a moment's thought, his shirt and his boots as well. Then he walked boldly into the firelight.
The nearest humans gasped, their drums and pipes petering to a ragged halt as the dancers spotted him, mouths open, eyes wide. The frozen tableau only lasted a moment until one young man flung his head back and let out a crazed bellow. This seemed to be some kind of signal. The humans rushed toward him.
"Pan! Pan has come!"
"A young god! Pan come to us as a young god!"
"Pan has heard us!"
"He's brought a satyr too!" This came from the gleeful group of celebrants dragging Verin up the hill.
Humans fell to their knees in the grass before Shax, they leapt and danced around him in joyous celebration, laughing and whooping.
"Shax! They're…touching me!" Verin called out in panic as the humans pulled him down to the grass.
Shax laughed and pulled a young man close for a teasing kiss. "Relax, Ver. This is worship. You're fine."
"Oh. Huh." Verin had ended up with his horned head in a lovely young man's lap while another fed him some small round fruit. A third had shoved Verin's kilt up and was licking at eager demon cock. "Oh…fuck yeah."
The young humans surrounded Shax, touching him, stroking him. One lovely with golden hair brought him a goblet. Another brought him a bowl of little…somethings. Shax took one delicately in his claws. Hard. Teardrop shaped. Oh. It was delicious. Nuts, he decided. He had heard of those.
"Which do you choose, oh, Pan?" A youngster with beautiful black ringlets knelt before him, one hand on his thigh. "Which of your virgins would you prefer tonight?"
Shax's wits scattered and lay in little ecstatic balls around his feet as the youngster reached up under his kilt and did wicked, wicked things. "Mmmm…I do like you. You're not really virgins, though, are you?"
The youngsters laughed in delight.
"No, my lord Pan. It's a ceremonial title. What fun would actual virgins be?"
Shax relaxed back in the arms of his supplicants, stroking and kissing languidly as he pleased but letting them do the work. And, oh, it was glorious, all those hands and mouths and cocks everywhere. He thought he would shatter with pleasure. Everything was going--
"Shax, you fucking little pile of goblin shit!"
A frighteningly strong, clawed hand reached into the dogpile of humans and yanked Shax out.
"Ah. Um. Hello, Sitri." Shax swallowed hard as he blinked up at his cousin's face. His purple with rage face topped with the sharp goat horns. "Nice evening for a stroll, isn't it?"
"What the fuck do you think you're doing with those humans?"
"I wasn't really doing much of anything. They were doing the, ah, doing."
Sitri breathed out a short gout of fire and turned his back on the worshippers. "Those are my worshippers, you little git. And you're poaching."
"Maybe you should arrive to your orgies on time then, Si."
The blow Sitri gave him was so hard, Shax tumbled all the way back down the hill. He lay there dazed until Sitri came stomping down with Verin under one arm. He scooped Shax up with the other and tossed them, rather rudely Shax thought, back through the portal into the Cave of Expedition.
"Fucking pits, Shax," Verin muttered. "Why the fucking fuck do I listen to you?"
It was three days later, with their scurrilous deeds discovered and their rather nasty punishments over, that the adolescent demons were back in Shax's room. Verin was missing an ear. Shax was temporarily devoid of thumbs. But they were mostly whole, the missing parts would grow back, and hadn't been fed to Leviathan or anything. Yes, Mum had been furious, mostly about the damage to her lovely tower.
"It could've been worse." Shax picked at his dragon stew. Such a bother eating without thumbs.
"Shut up." Verin snarled from where he curled in a ball on the bed.
"Ver, come on. It was wonderful until Sitri came."
A steam-laden sigh drifted through the bed curtains. "I guess. Yeah."
"When we're grown and I have my own palace, we'll go to the human world whenever we want. Wherever we want. Worshippers are nice but I'm sure there are a million amazing things to do there. We'll have so much fun."
"Maybe." Verin grunted, shifting around on the bed. "For right now? I'm gonna be lying on my one fucking ear so I can't hear you anymore."
Time: a few months after the end of Shax's War
Place: Thinis, planet Elistrus
It had taken a bit to cotton to the signage of Corny's new world. Verin had been mighty patient, all things considered, but he'd been knocked back a couple of times by the things Corny had asked. Frustrating for both of them. Corny was getting it, though. He knew what kinds of things meant a saloon, or rather a bar now. His own instincts from back home did the rest in scouting out a place where he might could be comfortable.
Nowhere too highbrow. Nowhere too rough and tumble like Verin liked. Nowhere too wild like Cap'n Shax liked. Just somewhere seedy and quiet where he could have a drink and ruminate a spell. This being Elistrus, the seedy never got quite as bad as on Amnesia, say, but he found himself a dimly lit bar that was a mix of characters and nobody paid him any mind when he wandered in. It wasn't that he was hiding from his shipmates, exactly. He'd adjusted pretty well to this strange new life. But there were days when he looked at his new home—a metal box that hurtled at unsafe speeds through an airless, frigid nothing—and his new family—not another human among them—and he came over dizzy and weird. Dislocation syndrome, Mac said.
He didn't know anything about that. He just knew he needed a little time away.
With a quick glance around the room, Corny headed for the chrome and dark something material bar and slid onto an empty stool between an hombre who looked human enough and a person in a hood and robe. There was a beak sticking out of the front of the hood, but he wasn't judging. Corny nodded to the demon on his right, who ignored him, and to the human on his left, who turned out to be in no wise human. The boy had tusks.
Corny tapped in his whiskey order on the little light panel on the bar top and paid for it using the handy wristwatch-that-was-not-a-wristwatch the captain had given him. He had his own bank account—devil only knew how—and he had pay that magically appeared in it every month. Maybe not magic exactly. Captain Shax did that too but Corny didn't want to know the how's and why's of it all. The whiskey came by way of a robotic arm from behind the bar, which was handy when you really didn't want conversation. There were still flesh and blood bartenders in his new world, Corny had been relieved to find. Tonight, this was just fine.
Tusk Boy leaned over the bar to talk around him to Beak. "Kak? He look likely?"
For his part, Beak turned to stare at Corny if saying that a bird's skull with empty eye sockets could stare, of course. Gave Corny the willies, especially when Kak stared longer than was strictly polite.
"Help you with somethin', mister?" Corny drawled without looking up from his whiskey.
Kak opened his beak and let out a strange clattering sound like a raven's laugh scraped across bones. "Canz he helpz us, Tsidigor? Canz he?"
"Now see here, boys." Corny put his whiskey down with a solid thump on the bar. "I live with demons, so I ain't afeared of 'em. Whatever game you're fixin' to play here, don't deal me in."
"Game?" Tsidigor smiled and it wasn't a friendly, come-in-and-have-some-tea kind of smile. "No game, human. Though your new owners might have plenty of fun planned for you soon."
Corny hadn’t let himself be distracted in one direction or the other, so he was ready when Kak slipped a pair of cuffs out of his robe. Hand on the butt of his pistol, one of the brace of plasma pistols Verin had given him, Corny spun to his left, shoved Tsidigore off his bar stool, and jumped to where he could face the pair of them as he drew his weapon. Out of reach, of course. He didn't know exactly what was going on, but he knew he sure as hell didn't want to be part of it now.
"Hands where I can see 'em, the pair of you. Got a lot of nerve, tryin' to shanghai a stranger and not a lick of sense betwixt and between you for pickin' on an armed man."
Disturbingly, Kak laughed again. "Thinkz a little toy gun stopz us. Stupid human."
Things were fixing to get ugly mighty quick until a clip-clop of hooves ran up behind Corny and Heckle peeked around him from his unarmed side. "Corny? Um. Hi. Prince Shax said to come find you. He said he had a report of slavers in the city. Prince Shax said—"
At the first mention of Shax, Kak and Tsidigore exchanged what could have been a funny double take under different circumstances. At the second, they hopped off their barstools right quick and edged around Corny to scuttle out the door.
Heckle leaned out to watch them flee down the street in a manner not becoming…well, anyone. "What was that all about?"
Corny put an arm around Heckle's shoulders and steered him out in the direction of the docks. "Never you mind, Heck. Don't have a hankerin' to explain it right now. Just accept my thanks and let's head home."
"Oh. You're welcome." After a couple of minutes walking, Heckle said in a small voice, "Those were the slavers, weren't they?"
Corny glanced down at him just to be sure Heckle wasn't too badly shook up. "Sharp eye you got. And the less we say about the matter, the better."
His demons may have been ornery varmints sometimes but leastwise they weren't low-down bushwhackers. He just had to remember that not all demons were up to his high standards and that sometimes you had to drop a demon prince's name into a bad situation to come out with all your skin.
Time: After Beside a Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
Space station engineers initially bred spacer rats as diagnostic assistants. Even the best spider bots have difficulty navigating certain angles of duct and pipe, and rats, notorious for getting into everything, ended up being a better choice in certain situations. With head-mounted cameras, they could be trained to seek out sources of wiring and pipe leakage issues.
Several modifications in the domestic rat became essential, though. Rats have poor eyesight, which was addressed with some avian gene splicing, resulting in the spacer rats keen and somewhat disturbing red eyes. Gecko DNA borrowing resulted in the suction-cupped feet and a bit of harvest mouse genetic borrowing in the prehensile tail, both of which allow the spacer rat to operate in zero-g with ease.
Unfortunately, spacer rats are also notoriously curious and independent. It didn't take long for portions of their populations to escape their handlers and spread out to the spacer community at large…
Mac tapped off the article's audio and leaned back on his bunk to think. The Brimstone wasn't a huge closed system like a space station but she did have spots that were harder to reach. Could Nicodemus be trained to carry a camera and check in tight spaces? And come back when asked? That was probably the trickiest part. Nic was something like a toddler in that regard and did what Nic wanted to do when he wanted to do it.
Maybe if he knew there was an incentive for doing the job right? Mac scratched at the stubble on his chin. He'd never trained animals before. Corny would probably have a better idea of how to go about it and Ness would have to agree. Nic was definitely his rat and ran to the fallen angel whenever he was in trouble.
He stood, stretched, and had just exited his cabin when an unholy shrieking rang out from the galley.
"Get out! Get out! Get your dirty little feet out of my flour bin now! What in all holy feather boas are you doing in there!"
Not something one heard every day aboard a space freighter. Mac hurried down the corridor and turned the corner into the galley to find exactly…nothing. The galley was empty. Ms. Ivana's screeching jumped from galley com only to all ship.
"Ness Angelus! You come and get your filthy little disrespectful rat right now!"
Mac leaned against the counter to wait. It didn't take long on such a small ship. Deck boots pounded on the plates as Ness, dressed only in his boxers, careened around the corner, wide-eyed and breathless. "Where is he? Ms. Ivana, what's happened?"
"He's in my flour bin!" she wailed in repulsed distress. "He's…he's excavating in there!"
"Oh, dear." Ness folded his wings to his back neatly but otherwise stood frozen, obviously not equipped to puzzle through the problem.
"Above decks or below, Ms. Ivana?" Mac asked in the steadiest voice he could muster. Laughing right then seemed a poor choice.
Ivana let out a miserable sniff and said in a much smaller voice, "Belowdecks. I feel so violated."
"All right, sweetheart." Mac patted the com. "You just hold tight. We'll take care of this."
He motioned for Ness to follow and strode down the corridor to the ladder leading to stores. Everything in storage was properly fastened and strapped down—Heckle saw to that. Nothing worse than loose articles once the ship hit the hard acceleration of Copernicus drive. Small things became missiles. Large things became wrecking balls.
Ivana's supplies lay toward the inner wall of storage, a long line of specialized containers that her picking arms and feeder vaccum tubes used as needed. Empty carton? The feeder arms unlatched and retrieved a new container and refilled. The only time galley transport wasn't a closed system was during refilling, and that was a matter of two minutes at most. Nic had to have been watching. And waiting.
Obviously uncomfortable and embarrassed, Ness put a hand on the release for the flour container. "In the feeder bin?"
"Yes!" The AI voice trembled and Mac could have sworn he heard a muffled sob.
"I'm so sorry about this, Ms. Ivana. Truly. I feel terrible." Ness fumbled with disengaging the feeder tube and Mac stepped into help, making short work of sealing the tube and disengaging the lid catches. As soon as he could open half the lid, Ness leaned over and whistled. "Nicodemus! You come out of there! You know you're not supposed to be in the food!"
A rodent head immediately popped out of the flour, Nicodemus even whiter than usual. With a bit of a struggle, he fought free of the flour and climbed up onto Ness's hand. Rather sheepishly, Mac thought. He climbed up to Ness's shoulder, trailing flour and squeaking miserably.
"I told you not to go in the food," Ness scolded softly. "What if he hears about it? What are we going to do then?"
"Oh, he heard," Shax purred from the ladder. He stalked over, eyes narrowed on Nic. "Difficult not to hear with Ivana so upset. What was our agreement, rat? That you stay as long as you stay out of my food stores. Someone doesn't listen."
Mac had the uncomfortable feeling that he was watching a deadly collision in slow motion. Shax was about to do something he would very much regret later. Ness was about to have his heart broken and his love shaken to the core. No, no. I can't stand here and let this happen.
He put an arm around Shax's shoulder and turned him back toward the ladder. The demon prince resisted but Mac pretended he didn't notice. "Captain, perfect. I wanted to talk to you about Nic, an idea I wanted to run by you. I've been reading up on spacer rats in engineering roles and I think there's a way to harness Nic's excess energy…"
Shax's interest diverted, he relaxed in Mac's grip and allowed himself to be led back up to the crew deck while Mac kept talking. He was going to have to do something nice for Ms. Ivana to smooth over having Nic scrabbling around her ducts but that would have to wait.
Behind him, he could've sworn he heard Ness whisper to Nic, "Yes, I promise. We'll get him to like you. Just don't go food diving again."
Time: During the ending of Shax's War
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in dock on Amnesia
Leopold climbed onto the chair in what was now his cabin. Why he had been given his own cabin was unclear, though his demon father assured him it was appropriate. The bunk remained folded into the wall since he had no desire to use it. He would have to work on a corner nest at some point. In the meantime, he had a small desk and comm console, complete with lightpad and holo screen. Wriggling himself into a semi-comfortable position, he began to type.
Several questions still
Many concerning language
How do I know speech?
How do I form words?
Why am I able to type?
Am I a figment?
The AI says no.
Says I have bio readings,
and physical mass.
This could all be part
of the elaborate dream
of which I'm a piece.
All quite puzzling. However, if he was a figment and this was a complicated hallucination, he still had to live in it. Comforting that he could keep a journal. The act made him feel more…real.
Leopold plopped back onto the floor and scurried out into the already-familiar corridors. The interconnected corridors were less complex than in the big ship, so he knew them all by heart. The people living here were more challenging to untangle.
There had been three angels but there would soon be only two, since two of the regular angels would be sent home that day. Papa Ness was a "fallen" angel, and Leopold was beginning to understand what that truly meant. Not that he agreed with it. The rest of the crew, barring a single human, was made up of different sorts of "demons," which seemed a catchall phrase to him.
He skittered outside the sick bay and managed the turn without too much sliding. Only three patients still occupied the beds since Papa Ness had moved to the cabin he shared with Papa Shax to complete his convalescence. Quieter there, apparently.
Leopold stopped to sniff outside the big demon's cabin. Demon. Human. Strong pheromones. Ah. They had engaged in that thing paired beings did called sex. And sometimes more than pairs of beings. It all seemed messy and overly energetic for the reported outcome. Some beings did it as a means of physical procreation, though he understood Corny and Verin most likely would not produce young from it.
When he passed the kitchen where the imp, Heckle, sat talking quietly with Mac, he scented similar pheromones, though they weren't engaged in any of the types of activities he had seen on the vids showing sex. Odd. Whatever Mac was doing, he had managed to focus the imp's attention, which was good. Heckle no longer caused chaos in the kitchen. Maybe that would be part of Mac's job. Imp distraction.
When Leopold reached the hold, he plunked down on the landing to watch the goings on down below where Papa Shax was in the process of tossing an unpleasant looking human off his ship. Leopold hoped the angels would be safe with the angry human. They had been through too much.
As he sat there with his short hind legs swinging, something about the four people standing in the hold glaring at each other. They were crew. The ship where Leopold had been born had been much larger and crew had meant many things, with many different jobs. Still – it meant that each person had a place here, did something the rest depended on. Crew.
He stared down at his stumpy limbs and small paws. What could he possibly do that would be useful? Clean dust out of air ducts? No. This ship had little bots to do that. What then?
"If you live onboard, you apply to the captain. His ship—he will know."
He would ask Papa Shax when he returned. Simple as that. Then he wouldn't be a figment at all. He would be crew.
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