Time: About a month after the end of Shax's War
Spaceships weren’t so bad if you forgot you were in space. Most times, Corny managed just fine. He kept busy helping where he could and learning where he couldn’t. He had a pair of strong demon arms to sleep in and he had Rosa to take care of.
Sometimes though, it’d hit him. Sitting alone in the galley or walking a quiet corridor, he’d remember and he’d have to force himself to breathe. Outside the Brimstone was…well, near as he could reckon, it was nothing. Just the damned deadly, black, airless empty.
That day’s conniption had hit him hard. Not like the ship was that big, but he had a moment when he didn’t know where anyone was and with the panic rising in him like a spring flood, he’d forgotten how to use the comm. Gasping and shaking, he’d crashed to his knees.
“You all right, cowboy?” Ms. Ivana said softly from the corridor speaker. “Want me to call your big horny demon?”
“No…no.” Corny leaned against the wall, pulling in shuddering breaths. “It’d just make me look a damn fool. I’m fine. Just…gonna go see Rosa.”
“You do that, sweetheart. But I’m monitoring.”
Of course you are. “Yes, ma’am,” Corny said aloud. He did have manners and it wasn’t in him to be rude to a lady.
He whistled sharply when he reached the steps to the hold and grinned despite himself when Rosa’s chocolate-brown head popped up from her stall. The little mustang nickered at him and stomped a hoof as if telling him to stop dawdling. He’d worried that Captain Shax would want to get rid of her, but he hadn’t counted on Shaxy’s soft spot for horses. The little demon adored Rosa, insisting on a plasticrete stall and a fake grass track around the perimeter of the hold for exercising her. Not a bad life for a cow-herding horse. No more cattle drives and dusty trails for Corny’s girl.
His heart calmed as he lost himself in brushes and currycombs, Rosa happily nudging at him when she thought he’d missed a spot. He’d reach content when Rosa suddenly picked her head up, ears pricked forward as she looked up at the landing. The movement didn’t alarm him. Couldn’t be anyone but crew. Still, he was surprised when he turned to find Heckle sitting up there, hoofed feet swinging over the side. The imp’s tail was long enough now to curl around the bottom rail of the steps. Ver said it would have a triangle-shaped pointy end when it grew out full again. Poor little guy. Getting all sliced up in that evil lab.
“You lookin’ for me, little bit?” Corny called up.
Heckle shook his head, his black hair falling over one eye. “Prince…um, Captain Shax said I should try my new wings.”
Right. The hold was the only place as had enough room for that. “They look like mighty fine wings, there.”
As if he had to check, Heckle twisted around and spread his wings. They weren’t anything big and fancy like those huge feathered deals Ness had. Just little bat wings, but they looked the right size for him now. Still, the imp stayed planted on his butt. Maybe he was scared.
“Your horse is pretty,” Heckle finally offered after staring wide-eyed for several minutes. “Is she sick?”
“Rosa? Naw. She’s fit as ever.” Corny stopped brushing to glance up at him. “Why?”
“She never breathes fire. Doesn’t she get enough sulfur and stuff?”
Corny laughed. “She’s not one of them night mares like Shax had, Heck. Just a regular ole horse. No fire.” He took a mental leap, spurred on by Heckle’s unwavering attention. “You wanna come help?”
In a scramble of hooves, all elbows and knees, Heckle careened down the stairs and trotted across the floor. Rosa seemed to understand that the little guy was a mite skittish, so she was careful and moved slow for him. Heckle caught on quick and brushing Rosa seemed to make him as pleased as a lizard on a sun-warmed rock.
After Corny had shown him the basics and let him help with the feed, Heckle finally seemed to be satisfied. He went out to the middle of the cavernous cargo hold and gave his wings a few flaps, rising about a foot off the floor. With a shy grin for Corny, Heckle started flapping in earnest, making little circular flights around Rosa’s exercise track.
For her part, Rosa watched with growing agitation, snorting and stamping, her head turning to follow Heckle’s flight path. When he rose higher than the landing at the top of the stairs, she reared and let out a distressed whinny. The sound startled Heckle so badly, that he squeaked, lost his rhythm, and landed in a curled heap.
“You all right?”
“Yeah.” Heckle uncurled slowly, shoulders hunched. “Did I make her mad?”
Corny opened the stall door and let Rosa out, where she snorted and tossed her head. “No. I reckon it was more of a worried thing. Guess she wasn’t happy with you goin’ up so high.”
“Oh.” Heckle tucked his knees up, obviously thinking. “I’m sorry, Rosa. But it’s hard to keep to five feet off the floor.”
She ambled over and lipped at Heckle’s hair, making him duck and giggle. Wasn’t unheard of for Rosa to take a shine to someone, though she was offish with most people. She obviously liked Heckle, though, and a strange idea hit Corny sideways. Probably had something to do with consorting with demons, his odd thoughts.
“Heck, I wanna try something. You game?”
Half an hour later, Verin came looking for him and stopped on the landing to stare. “What in all the fiery fucks of Hell’s fuck kitchen?”
Heckle flew along the circle of Rosa’s track, a slim nylon rope tied around his waist. At the other end of the rope, Rosa trotted with the nylon held between her teeth.
“Heck’s just havin’ some flight practice,” Corny said with as straight a face as he could manage.
“Great. But why’s the little twerp a fucking horse balloon?”
Corny snorted. “Horse balloon, my sweet ass. Rosa just got a mite worried about him flying around by himself. This makes her happy.”
They watched for a minute, Verin at the top of the stairs, Corny at the bottom, in nearly identical stances, arms crossed over chests, until Heckle spotted Verin.
With a bright grin, Heckle tugged gently on the rope. “Look, Verin! I’m a horse balloon.”
Verin let out a choked sound and Corny held up a hand. “Don’t. Don’t you dare.”
“Didn’t say a damn thing, cowboy,” Verin sputtered on a laugh. “Not even I told you so.”