Time: A long, long time ago
Location: An outer residential slum district of Hell
Chest heaving, Verin clutched his prize close and tried to quiet his panting. Any noise would give him away and the shallow cave offered little protection. He could make a stand here. Maybe. At least there was rock at his back.
Sure. He could’ve given his find over and slunk away like a good lesser demon kid, but fuck it. Fuck them. He’d found the flame grub nest and he was hungry. So hungry. His stomach growled and he cursed it. Hell’s sake, go on by. You didn’t hear a thing.
“Oi! The little shit’s over here!”
No such luck. That was Grak’s voice, the toad-fucker. Verin cast around desperately for a weapon, but the walls of his refuge were smooth, heat-blasted rock. Not so much as a sharp shard. Even his own horns had started to curl as they grew—too curled to stab with and not big enough to use as battering rams yet. Fucking awkward age.
“Come on out, you little piece of imp jizz, and maybe we’ll go easy on you.”
Grak’s cronies laughed and hooted at his joke. Yeah. Funny.
“Not gonna make it easy on you, you…you human lover!” Verin cringed at the squeak in his voice.
“Oh that’s it. Don’t have to take that from clanless shit spawn. Boys! Haul him out!”
Verin pulled in as far as he could, kicking and biting the clawed hands reaching for him. He got in some good hits and tore off some nice chunks. Something to eat, anyway. His defense lasted a pitiful few second before they dragged him out into a hailstorm of kicks and blows from fists, horns and tails. This was it. He wasn’t going to make it out this time and he’d be eaten by bigger demons, all ’cause he’d been hungry and thought he could get away with something good.
Still, he curled around the flame grub nest. They’d have to work for it and pry it from his dead hands.
A couple of minutes into the beating, the ground trembled under him, rhythmic thudding like…hoof beats? Great. Now some bigshot demon was coming to join in the fun. Hooves suddenly took up most of Verin’s vision, huge, plate-sized things. This wasn’t just any bigshot. This was fucking royalty. Oh, joy.
“What ho! What transpires here?” a young voice called out from the back of a huge nightmare.
“Prince Shax!” Grak dropped to one knee. “This gutter trash stole our flame grub nest. We thought we’d have some fun before we took it back and ate him, too.”
“Were you now?” The voice was smooth as obsidian, arrogant and cool. A kid maybe, but this princeling knew where he stood. Didn’t hurt that he had a cadre of the biggest troll guards Verin had ever seen. “Gak, isn’t it?”
“Grak, your highness.”
“Well, Gak, seems to me that such delicacies should be offerings for nobility. You were going to offer the nest to Herself, I take it?”
Grak groveled and bleated, “Of course it was for Princess Ashtaroth, long may she reign.”
In the moment’s silence, Verin dared a glance up at the shining figure on the prancing black nightmare. The little prince looked maybe his own age, though he was clean and well fed, the snooty brat. Almost too pretty to be a demon.
“You are dismissed, Gak. I’ll deliver the nest to my mother with your compliments.”
“Thank you, Prince Shax. Your graciousness.” Grak kissed ass some more, even though the cocky little prince refused to get his name right, and tripped over his cronies and his own big feet trying to get away.
Verin had no illusions about what would happen next. He was still so dead. At least I’ll go out in style now.
“You there, with the grub nest. What do they call you?”
Verin blinked up at the shining vision on the horse. Did he really have to wear golden armor to go out riding? “Verin.”
He was sure he’d get stomped for not being all proper and formal, but Prince Shax just smiled. “You may rise and thank me for saving you, Verin.”
“Not gonna happen.”
Now the little prince frowned. “I command you to rise.”
“Sorry, highness. I really fucking can’t. Not sure I can even lift my head.”
“Oh. Well.” Prince Shax gestured to one of his giant guards. “Aktczot, pick him up. Carefully. We’ll take him with us.”
The big beast did his best, he supposed, though Verin still gasped and cursed in pain as broken bones shifted. “Why’re you doing this, your high muckity-muck? Am I dinner?”
The prince threw back his head and laughed. “Oh, sulfur pits, no! You’d be far too tough for the dinner table. I’ve decided I want a minion, and I like you.”
“I like you. You’re stubborn and brave.”
Despite his body being a ball of pain, Verin’s stomach growled. “And starving.”
“Never fear. You’ll be fed well and have a place at my side. Much nicer than living out here in the low rent districts.” An evil grin spread across Shax’s face. “Besides, I think you’ll very much annoy my mother.”
Time: A few months before Fear of Frogs (or several hundred years before, depending on your time perspective at the moment of reading.)
The stars always looked bigger out on the trail. Corny stared up at the thousand thousand points of light against the black. Some of them were planets, like the one he was lying on. They’d just found a new one, the papers said, not that long ago, and didn’t that just beat all.
This wasn’t such a bad place he’d found himself. Zeke, the foreman, was a rough old codger, but he was fair. He’d promised Corny a place back at the ranch when the cattle drive was over, so there was that. A place to stand again for a spell. Maybe it would last longer this time, the staying in one spot.
He didn’t have anyone but himself to blame, of course. The last job had run him off when he’d been caught kissing one of the stable hands in town. Nearly ran him off on a rail, but Corny had a sense for these things, when things were about to go bad. When the people coming for you were powerful noisy, it helped, too. Gave him time to slip out a bunkhouse window and get Rosa from the barn. He’d had to leave a couple of books behind and that was a dag blasted shame.
Running was something a man could get tired of.
“You awake, DeGroot?” Zeke murmured nearby.
“Yep. Can’t sleep some nights. Just thinkin’ on how big the sky is out here.”
Zeke grunted his assent. “Hits me that way too sometimes, I reckon. Mostly it’s old bones on hard ground these days as keeps me awake, though.”
“You ain’t old, Zeke.”
“I’m old enough.” Zeke let out a sigh. “Be nice to be able to hand this job over to someone else soon. Stay back at the ranch instead of comin’ out on the trail.”
“Why ain’t you done it yet?”
“These whippersnappers ain’t got half a lick of sense between ‘em. Ain’t none of them fit for a foreman’s job. I need someone with a few more years under his belt. Somethin’ you might have a hankerin’ for?”
“Me?” Corny chuckled. “Just got here, boss. You don’t know a thing about me.”
“Not yet. I been watchin’ you though. You’re steady with the men and the animals. Easy hand and a good rope. Couple years, we’ll see.”
“Hmm.” That sounded like they wanted to keep him for the long road and Corny did like the sound of that. Maybe when he felt more settled, knew the men better. “You ever wonder what’s up there, Zeke?”
“In the sky. In the stars.”
“Nope. Got too much to worry about right here. No time for that.”
Corny did wonder sometimes, though. Other planets. Did they all have people on them and grass and horses? Was someone lying on his back looking out at the stars and wondering if there were people on Earth? Made him dizzy to think about it. But what if there were people up there and what if somewhere, they were mostly people like him?
Nah. That made no sense. People out in the stars. He turned over and pulled his blanket up higher. Didn’t do any good, thinking like that. This time he was gonna keep his nose clean and keep out of trouble. He had a good job and a good life, and he might even make foreman one day. Things were gonna settle down now. No doubt about it.
Location: Triton Station
Time: Shortly after the end of Potato Surprise
“They need the fucking docking fee in advance,” Verin snarled.
Shax coughed and waved a hand through the smoke saturating the pilot’s pod because of Verin’s aggravation. “Ver, for pits’ sakes, turn on the fans. I can’t see to find the console.”
Cursing up a storm, Verin hit the ventilation fans and enough of the miasma cleared for Shax to stumble to the co-pilot’s chair. He read the messages from station traffic control. “So we need to dock to sell the cargo to get the money. But we need the money so we can dock and sell the cargo.”
“Thank you, Captain Telling Us What the Fuck We Already Know.”
“Just thinking it through, Ver. We don’t have the fuel to make it any farther.”
“Know that too, mud for brains.”
Shax drummed his fingers, humming to himself. “I wonder how hard it would be to play barnacle.”
Verin gave him a hard side eye. “Look, I know we’re in a shitty spot, but there’s no reason to lose your head now, Shaxy.”
“What? Oh. No. I had a thought, and it might not be workable. The big ships line up on the docking ring and get hooked up with passage tubes and umbilicals, and the smaller ones go inside to one of the docking bays. If I could hitch a ride on one of the small ones…Ms. Ivana, do we have an EVA suit?”
“We do, Captain Sexy, but honey, I have to tell you. That’s a crazy thing to do.”
“I know, dear. Right now I’m just spinning ideas. Does the suit have propulsion and is it in good working order?”
“Yes and yes. You’re just determined to give me palpitations, aren’t you?”
Verin let out a couple of sparks with his snort. “Look, I gotta go with Ms. Thing on this one. I see where you’re going and it’s deadly stupid.”
“So theoretically, if we simply drift out here and run out of fuel, what would be the most likely outcome?” Shax knew, of course. He simply wanted it said aloud so everyone understood.
“Well, Captain.” Ivana hesitated, her voice oddly subdued. “You and your pilot would most likely be rescued and taken to the station in accordance with interstellar law. You could try to come up with the funds to pay your rescue fee and your fines and hire a ship to come back out to do a refuel and re-claim, but by that time, the Brimstone and I would most likely have been claimed as salvage.”
“Precisely right.” Shax turned his attention to the scans, marking incoming ships. “We won’t abandon you, Ms. Ivana. That’s not an item on the agenda. Ever. And we need to make certain we’re never in this situation again. Better funds management. Better fuel management. Benny can help with ship to ship buyers when we need it.”
He saw one coming in. Right in their path. The Harrier was a small private craft, most likely some wealthy business owner and crew. It might be close enough…
“Ivana, track approach on the Harrier. Ver, get us as close to station as we can without violating docking regs. She has to decelerate as she comes in. I’ll catch her as she’s gliding into the bay and hope the traffic is enough to obscure one little demon in a spacesuit.”
“You’re a fucking maniac. This is a really shitty idea. A mountain of troll shit kind of idea.”
A slow grin spread across Shax’s face. “But if it works, it’ll be brilliant.”
Verin grumbled for the entire two hours it took to get in position, but he’d given up trying to dissuade Shax. Suited up, waiting in the airlock, Shax stared out at the dark. Space was just amazingly huge and dark. If he missed…if he ran out of propellant before he could adjust and latch onto something inbound…
At least he’d become a case study for how long it took a demon to die in space versus a human. It would be a useful death.
“Countdown set on the outer lock,” Verin said through the comm link. “Three minutes and we’ll be as close as I can get you.”
Shax couldn’t help a little smile. There hadn’t been a single cuss word in that message. Ver was worried about him. “Got it. Deep breath, Ver, I can do this.”
When the lock cycled open, Shax pushed out with the tracking on his helmet display locked onto the Harrier’s ID transmission. She was close and moving toward him. He triggered a burst from both of the suit’s back jets, careful to keep within intercept speed. She was a falcon-class interplanetary, sleek and fine, and Shax experienced a moment’s ship envy. Concentrate. No stray thoughts.
Course corrections and speed corrections took up all of his thoughts for that next half hour. Then he was suddenly alongside, with the hull slipping past him. He had to find something to clip to or this whole mad scheme was done. Why didn’t this ship have comm aerials? Or…wait. Handholds by the solar housing, probably for repair maneuvers. He just had to get over there.
Careful burst from the left jet, readjust from the right. Almost…there…
He missed the first c-curved hold. “Goblin shit!” All right, there were several.
The second rolled by… “Piles of imp shit!” His fingers had grazed the handle but he wasn’t as good with the heavy gloves as he thought and he found himself groping at empty space.
Next one…come on… “Fucking mountains of archdemon shit!”
Verin’s voice crackled through the comm. “What in all fuckery’s going on out there?”
At the fifth, not quite the last handhold, Shax’s fingers finally closed around the metal tubing and he had to hang on tight as the ship’s rotation nearly yanked his arm out of its socket. He clung for a moment, with whispered cussing and deep breaths, then clipped on before something caused him to lose his grip.
“I’m all right. Attached. Riding in.”
“You little son of a sore-riddled, pig-fucking—”
“Ver! I’m all right. Sorry. Had a bit of trouble getting a spot to clip on.”
“Mold for brains little maniac,” Verin muttered. “You’ve got about twenty minutes until Harrier reaches a bay slot. Probably another ten for the damn locks to cycle so it can roll into the bay. Don’t get crushed.”
Good advice. Shax did his best to flatten himself against the ship’s hull as she maneuvered into one of the little bay pods. The EVA suit was too bulky, though and the pilot not terribly competent as he scraped in too close on the right side, damaging expensive solar components. Shax tried to scramble up the hull but the edge of the pod still caught his leg and ripped into the suit. He held still, letting his breath out slowly so his lungs wouldn’t be damaged by vacuum as the suit depressurized. Frigid cold surrounded the tear in the suit. His leg went numb.
Someone needs to invent a faster cycling airlock for these things. Seriously.
He waited just long enough for the inner lock to cycle open with a blast of air and warmth, and for the Harrier to begin rolling before he unclipped and dropped off. His leg crumpled, but he didn’t have time to take stock and lick wounds. He kept low and scrambled behind a refueling station by the nearest wall of the bay. There were other ships docking, plenty of noise to cover his movements, and everyone busy with ship maintenance.
Out of sight, he wriggled out of the damaged suit and contorted himself to look at his leg. Not great, but not bleeding since it had been freeze-seared. Freeze-dried demon. Good on toast or just as a snack.
Shax giggled, suspecting he was a little delirious from his rather bumpy ride. He closed his eyes and drew in a few deep, steadying breaths before he tapped at his wrist comm. “I’m in. Going silent.”
All he got back from Verin was a grunt. Good enough. Then he started his slow way along the wall, searching for some way to sneak onto the station without going through customs and security. There was always a way…
A few minutes later, he was brushing off the dust from an access shaft and trying to get his bearings in the busy entrance hallway where shops of kitsch and necessities tried to catch the eye of unwary spacers who might not know enough or care that there would be more reasonably priced goods farther in. Dragging his leg was too much of a liability, so he stole a lovely cane with a dragonhead handle. A little antiquated, perhaps, but there seemed to be something of a fad for them onstation as fashion accessories.
Thus, he was able to meet his client with a certain amount of style if a bit worse for wear, complete the lucrative and highly illegal sale of specialized nano electronics, and find a nice little café near the habitat zone.
Completely at his leisure, he finally called in. “Ver? Everything all right onboard?”
He had to turn down his audio for a few moments while Verin swore a blue streak plus several colors not in the visible spectrum.
“Are you done?” Shax waited and got a disgruntled snort. “I’m fine, thank you. I’ve paid the docking fees like a responsible captain. Bring her in.”
“Huh. That was fast.” Verin’s voice had returned to grumble mode. “How many fucking bodies did you leave to do that?”
“Not a single one, my dear Hammer. Not a one. But you’ll need to come get me from…” Shax twisted around to find the name of the café. “Le petit blaireau in sector G-12”
“Why the fuck do I have to do that?”
“Because my leg’s a bit torn up and I don’t think I can walk that far.”
Shax winced and offered apologies to nearby patrons as Verin began bellowing through the comm link again. He tapped the connection off, sat back with a pleased sigh, and enjoyed a cup of surprisingly good coffee. This being a space demon wasn’t hard at all. Easy as…
He waved to the server as a sudden craving struck. “Mademoiselle, do you have pie?”
Location: Velkash (a partially terraformed human colony planet)
Time: a few weeks after the end of Beside a Black Tarn
Shax pulled his mount to a walk, waiting for Corny and Rosa to catch up. It was one of those rare perfect days for a ride on the Velkash plains. The inhabited continent had two seasons, dry and wet. The wet season was soggy and miserable and the dry season was hot and miserable, but there were often a double handful of days in between when a demon could understand the planet’s appeal.
His rented Velkash stallion was more reminiscent of the Nightmares he’d owned as a prince of Hell. Broader chested, thicker legged and shaggier than human mounts, Velkash steeds were specially bred for the greater-than-Earth-normal gravity. Poor Rosa wasn’t. She was a tough little bronco, but the heat and the extra weight slowed her down.
“Should we turn back?” he called out as Corny rode into shouting range. “Has Rosa had enough?”
“Probably best to walk the horses for a spell, Cap.” Corny eased Rosa up beside the coal black Velkash. “We might could head to that ridge and circle back from there.”
Long blue stalks with cylindrical ends waved around them, silken soft when Shax reached out a hand to brush over their heads. “I have a shirt of velvegrass. Strange stuff. I suppose I’ve never thought about where it comes from. That I’m wearing alien grass.”
Corny answered with a grunt that could have been assent or could’ve been a diplomatic I don’t know what to say to that. After they reached the shade of the ridge, Corny finally spoke again. “Everything’s powerful strange out here, Cap. Doesn’t it ever get to you? Don’t you never miss home?”
“Sometimes.” Shax shifted in his saddle and pushed his hat back to meet Corny’s earnest gaze. “Oh, of course I miss some things. I was a prince in a realm where the court regarded my talents as desirable qualities. It was worse in the beginning when I felt horrendously out of place and depressed. I don’t dwell on it too much these days.”
“But you can’t never see your ma and your family.”
Shax chuckled and started his stallion back toward town. “My mother is positively frightening and my family is…problematic. I both loved and hated the intrigue of court. Loved and hated interacting and simultaneously hiding my nature from humans. It’s different since space travel. Different out here. There are legions of things I don’t understand as well as I should, but I feel as if I’m given more time to breathe and process. Most times.”
“My dear Mr. DeGroot, what makes you ask that?”
Corny shrugged, clearly uncomfortable as he stared out at the horizon. “Begging your pardon, Cap, but he hasn’t been himself since that awful house.”
The shadow around his heart, the reason he’d wanted a ride in the first place, grew to an ache. “He’s working through some things. I’m…I find myself uncertain…”
“Which is why you’re out here and he’s back there.” Corny held up a hand when Shax began to protest. “Someone’s gotta say it. You avoid him more, he talks less, and you’re just driving the Julian-shaped wedge further betwixt and between you.”
“I can’t be held responsible for his jealousy.”
“Didn’t say that, Cap. Don’t toss words in my mouth. He ain’t been independent as long as you or me. Hell, he learns fast, but he’s still learnin’.”
Prince Shax wanted to be offended, to be haughty and angry and put the uppity human in his place. Captain Shax knew better and could only grumble that Corny had a point. What was worse was he knew this and had said as much to Julian, lovely Julian who was so good at manipulating humans and not so good with angels. He knew Ness was struggling, but he hadn’t addressed the issue in any way besides groveling and avoidance.
I let him have a pet spacer rat. Though “let” probably wasn’t the best description since Shax had given in while being stared down by angry angel eyes. They’d had sex… Yes, desperate, almost panicked sex after the Poe house incident and Ness had curled up and cried afterward.
“Maybe we need a vacation,” he blurted out.
“Sure, Cap. The last one turned out so well. And you’ve got varmints comin’ after you, from what I understand.”
“True. Presents! Showers of gifts always help!”
Corny nodded slowly. “Might. Though he might be askin’ where things came from.”
“I’m not sure your advice is helping terribly much.”
“You’re the smartest demon I know, Cap. You’ll figure it out.”
They separated at the stables outside town, Corny to get Rosa back to the Brimstone and Shax to return his borrowed mount. He puzzled and turned things in his head, working through scheme after elaborate scheme until his brain spun. By the time he got back to the ship, he was walking slowly, head down, tapping his riding gloves against his thigh. Material things, grand gestures, Ness could appreciate them, but Corny was right. They weren’t what he needed right now. At least, Shax didn’t think so. Respect, inclusion, time together…not easy things on a ship full of wildly diverse personalities soon headed right back into trouble.
For now, the corridors were quiet. He slipped into the kitchen and plunked onto one of the benches attached to the floor. “Ms. Ivana?”
“What’s wrong, hot stuff?” Even though she teased, the AI’s voice was soft and concerned.
“Could you make some things for me, please?”
“Always so polite. Of course I can. You want cinnamon rolls, sweetie?”
“No. Thank you. I’d like…all of the things Ness likes. I’d like him to meet me outside when it’s done, if you could arrange it. Outside in the velvegrass.” He stopped, drumming his fingers on the table as Ivana started up the food processing equipment. “Also, do we have anything resembling a picnic basket to put it in? That would be a nice touch. And a bottle of whiskey.”
“You’re angel cutie’s drinking whiskey now?”
“No, dear. The whiskey’s for me. I think I’m going to need it.”
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