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.
About the Author