Location: Prison Cell, Gerard Station
Time: Two years before Hell for the Company
Verin stared at the institutional gray ceiling of his cell. Why the fuck were the ceilings always a dirty gray? Sometimes they painted the walls green or some shit to be "calming" but the ceilings? Nope. Couldn't be bothered.
It was the first time in a hell of a long time that he'd been picked up and tossed into holding for brawling. Normally, he managed to get the fuck out before the cops showed, but he'd been having too much fun smashing up the furniture. Well, troll shit. Big steaming piles of it. He'd been in here two days now, in solitary since he was dangerous, without any word on a hearing or any message from Shax.
Maybe this time Shax finally had decided to leave him to rot. Maybe it'd been too much trouble to spring him and his highness had gotten the fuck out of Dodge. Not that Verin necessarily blamed him if things had gotten messy, but it still would be a hell of a thing after all those centuries.
The hiss of the door at the end of the corridor unlocking slipped through the silence of the prison's night cycle. It wasn't followed by the tramp of prison guard boots like it should've been. That's not right. Verin got up slowly, easing around to the wall behind the door, just in case something nasty was about to pop in for a visit.
There were scraping sounds on the other side of the door and muffled, whispered curses. When the door opened, a familiar clawed hand thrust through holding out a filtration mask. "Here. Put this on."
Verin snatched the mask up and put it over his face before he asked, "What in all hell's pits have you done now, genius?"
Looking like a giant bug in his mask and goggles, Shax popped his head around the door. "I had to gas the facility, didn't I? No other way to get this far in. Honestly, barbaric place. Couldn't bribe any prison guard to get you out. Couldn't find any official willing to listen to reason. Or cash, more importantly. What kind of prison is this, that they don't know the rules?"
"How bad of a spot are we in?"
"Please. Have a little faith and follow me."
Verin grumbled, but his annoying highness really did have it well planned. He had clothes for Verin to change out of his gray prison robe and transport waiting. They dumped the filter masks down a garbage chute and strolled out of the prison intake office like they had every right to, got in the hover cart and zipped off to the berth where the Brimstone waited. Within fifteen minutes, Ivana had clearance and he was piloting the ship away from the station.
"Not bad, Shaxy." Fine. Verin was fucking glad to be out of that cell and credit where credit was due. Sometimes.
Shax heaved a tragic sigh. "I suppose thank you is too much to expect. But I'll take what I can get. I couldn't just leave you there."
"He was frantic," Ivana piped up.
"That's enough, sweetie," Shax growled. "No need to overshare." His highness leaned back in the co-pilot's chair, looking pretty damn pleased with himself for a few minutes. Then he started to frown. The frown creased his forehead. "What's that sound?"
"What sound, bonehead?"
"That beeping." Shax got up and did a slow circuit of the pilot's pod. Still frowning, he did it again. Finally, he stopped behind Verin's chair and bent down. "Ver, your ass is beeping."
"The fuck?" Verin cleared the last of the station beacons and put the ship on auto before he surged out of his chair, twisting as if he could locate whatever the hell Shax was talking about. Yeah, he heard it too, now. A persistent soft beep coming from somewhere below his left hip.
"Huh. That's different." Shax had tilted his head to listen to the beeping, which might have been funny, his snooty highness listening to someone's butt, if it'd been someone else's damn butt. "What did they do to you, Ver?"
"Fuck if I know. There was this crazy shower/med exam thing. Not sure what in all damned levels happened then."
"Ms. Ivana? Could we have a quick scan, please? Just to make sure we haven't brought, ah, explosives on board?"
The AI gave an offended sniff. "I would never let my hot little captain bring a ticking bomb onboard. That's a tracking device. Probably activated when you took Mr. Grumpy out of his cell."
"Well, fuck me with a chainsaw," Verin grumbled. Now that he was aware of it, he could feel the damn thing buzzing in his ass, a sensation that vibrated nearby bones and set his teeth on edge. "How hard's it gonna be to dig out?"
"No idea if it'll make you hard, big guy." Ivana's tone implied batting lashes. "You'll just have to come down to medical to find out."
"Sooner the better, Ver." Shax took his elbow to herd him into the corridor. "Who knows how soon they're going to recover and come after us."
Spouting steam all the way, Verin stomped down to medical and spent an uncomfortable half hour on his stomach while the auto-doc dug the tracker out of Verin's ass. Shax took it, still beeping, and tossed it out the airlock.
"Well…that was interesting," Shax said as he came back into medical. Maybe to watch Verin get dressed. Hard to tell with the little pervert. "Ms. Ivana, if we can add that to boarding scans, please? Check for trackers?"
"Will do, Captain Tight Buns."
"Just gonna have to be more careful, that's all. No more getting my ass hauled in." Verin let out a cloud of irritated smoke as he buttoned his shirt. "Worst fucking butt call ever."
Ms. Ivana Explains
Location: The Brimstone's galley, in transit
Time: Shortly before Beside a Black Tarn
Coffee was brewing. In fifteen minutes, it would be time to send a wakeup call through to Captain Hot Stuff's cabin. He didn't always need one but there'd been some heavy drinking the night before, poor thing. Then there would be the nav calcs as they dropped out of Copernicus space. A ship AI's work was never done.
Ms. Ivana was starting the kitchen equipment on a batch of cinnamon buns when Heckle trotted in and hopped up to sit on the table.
He looked like he was thinking hard as he pulled up his friction socks. "Ms. Ivana?"
"What can I get for you, sweetie?"
"Oh, um. Is there coffee? But I really wanted to ask you something."
"Coffee in just a few little shakes, hon. And not that I care, but your adorable butt should probably come off the table before Captain Big Horns comes in."
Heckle's eyes went wide as he hopped down and reseated himself on the bench, adorable little hooves swinging. "Sorry. Sorry. Um…I wanted to ask you about the chili."
"Now you know that's our cowboy's secret recipe," Ms. Ivana scolded. "I can't tell you what's in it."
The coffeemaker signaled completion of its cycle and Ms. Ivana chose the mug that said Fall in Love with a Gargoyle with the words "a gargoyle" crossed out in red and replaced with "an imp" and sent it down the conveyor for Heckle.
He rewarded her with a delighted little chuckle before he grew serious again. "Not the recipe, Ms. Ivana. But when I ask about how it blew up a ship, everyone says to ask you."
"That's because they haven't a clue, sweetie." She made sure the buns were baking properly before she went one. "You know I think you're the cutest thing since baby bunnies, but I won't tell you exactly how it helped blow up that mean old ship that hurt you so badly either. Especially not with Julian onboard. You never know when that boy is listening."
"Oh." Heckle sipped his coffee, hooves still swinging. "Do we have eggs still? Could I have one, please?"
"We do and of course." She started his egg boiling, since that's how Heckle liked them, and added a second one for good measure to make sure he was eating enough.
"I guess I just wondered how all of us can eat the chili and not blow up."
"Were you worrying about that all night? My poor little imp." Ms. Ivana debated playing a Sousa march over Captain Shax's cabin speaker. It would be just what he deserved. "I don't think that iron stomach of yours would blow up if you ate a grenade. But it wasn't the chili by itself, silly. It was the chili combined with the other chemicals our handsome captain mixed together. The Opalene chilis combine with the acid in the tomatoes and so on and have the potential to produce some really powerful methane. I mean, really, you must've noticed the horrid smell coming from Corny and Verin's cabin the morning after a chili dinner."
Heckle nodded, lips pursed in concentration. "You have…smell sensors?"
"I have everything sensors, cutie," Ms. Ivana purred. "Scent receptors can be helpful in diagnostics and they don't hurt for cooking either. So that potential for methane combined with the captain's other ingredients made a bigger boom than he was counting on."
Heckle snagged the eggs as they came down the conveyor. "Thank you, Ms. Ivana. Your eggs are always perfect."
"Honey, you're always a pleasure to cook for. It helps."
"So something inside us…well, some of us…makes the methane, too. But no one's going to blow up?"
Ms. Ivana nearly choked on a laugh. "Well, sweetie, I can guarantee no one will blow up. But I wouldn't light a match outside our grumpy old pilot's cabin this morning either. Safety first, you know."
Interlude in the Park
Place: Equestrian Park, city of Helike on the planet Elistrus
Time: After Beside a Black Tarn
The park in the middle of Helike was just like Captain Shax had said it would be. Corny hadn't believed him, that a city park would have trails and paths just for horses. Now that he had Rosa on the trails under the delicate pink and red flowered trees, he understood how it was.
Only well-heeled people owned horses on Elistrus. They weren't transportation or work partners. They were to show off. He had to admit the riders in the park had beautiful horses, but they wouldn't have lasted a day out on the range, all these glossy, long-legged prancing beasts. His sturdy little Rosa actually turned heads here. More than one rider stopped to talk about her origins and bloodline.
"Reckon you're something new for these folks," Corny murmured in Rosa's ear as he patted her neck. For her part, Rosa was in high spirits—head up, ears swiveling. She'd nipped at one stallion who'd dared get too close and threatened another with a flick of her back hooves.
Since she was tugging, Corny let her have her head on a broad well-paved path between flower gardens, a stretch where a rolling canter wouldn't endanger anyone on foot. It was all mighty pretty and a relief to find somewhere Rosa could run in the city, but it all felt so make-believe. People playing at knowing horses and pretending to be experienced riders. As Rosa cantered under the trees again, Corny slowed her to a walk. Around a bend in the road, they walked through a storm of falling blossoms and came to a carved bridge over a little stream. A familiar figure leaned on the rail, idly kicking at a support post.
If someone had asked, Corny would've said Julian looked despondent. Not a word he ever thought would fit the agent-assassin. But the expression vanished when Julian turned and spotted them, replaced by his bright, charming smile.
"Good morning, Mr. DeGroot! Lovely day."
"Morning, Julian." Corny drew Rosa up beside him. "All on your lonesome?"
"It's a perfect thinking spot." Julian turned lean back on the railing, every movement screaming grace and sensuality. Corny wondered if knew it. Yeah, he did. Part of his job was other people's reactions. "Besides everyone but Mac is still asleep and he's busy with some complicated repair or other."
"Yeah, they can be a passel of lazybones." Corny nodded and pushed his hat back. "Hop on up. We'll give you a ride back."
"On Rosa?" Julian straightened, his eyebrows drawing in as he frowned. "Won't we hurt her?"
Corny chuckled. "You don't weigh much more than dandelion fluff. Rosa won't mind. She's carried more weight in saddlebags."
"Hmm. I've never ridden."
"Ain't scared, are you? That'd be hard to believe. You zip around on those cycles faster'n Rosa could ever go."
Julian let out a soft snort. "I'm not one of those macho types, you know. Certainly not afraid to admit to a little trepidation. Hover cycles are machines. Rosa is a living, thinking being. It's a matter of control."
Corny swung down, determined now. "Heck's even learning to ride."
"Heckle has wings."
Before Julian could think of another objection, Corny gave him a boost. Julian's instinctive reflexes did the rest, though his eyes were wide and white around the edges.
"Oh. I'm up. Ah, what now?"
"Hold tight a quick spell." Corny patted Julian's knee as he shortened the stirrups, not quite as far as he would have for Heckle. Julian took him literally and clung white-knuckled to the saddle horn. "There. Put your boots in…yep. Just like that. Take up the reins—"
"What? No! I'm not driving."
"Just hold 'em loose. Relax and try to move with her instead of fighting her. Rosa knows what to do."
Corny pulled his hat down to hide his grin when Julian let out a sound suspiciously like a whimper. Cool and calm in all sorts of bad spots, it was hard to ruffle him. But Corny had to concede that every man was afraid of something. He took Rosa's cheek strap and got her moving in a slow walk to get Julian used to the feel of it.
"Can I ask you a question?"
Julian raised an eyebrow and his voice only shook a little when he said, "You can always ask. There are a lot of things I'm not at liberty to answer."
"Not that sorta question. More personal like." Corny glanced up at him, pleased to see he was already steadier in the saddle. "When did you know?"
"When did I know what?" Julian's expression remained pleasant but an edge crept into his voice. "That I was good at hunting people? That I was a boy?"
Corny tipped his hat up to scratch his head. "No. Weren't either of those. When did you know you liked men?"
"Oh, that." The smile returned. "I guess I've always known that I'm attracted to males."
"Why'd you say it that way? Males?"
Julian laughed and clutched at the saddle horn again for balance. "I'm not a speciest. Human men are delicious, but I've had more than one demon lover. Something you know a bit about. Androids. An imp once."
"That makes sense. Angels?" Corny swung up behind Julian and reached around for the reins. He got Rosa moving at a faster walk and Julian took a minute to adjust before he answered.
"Angels don't do sex. You can be sure some of them think about it, which is why there are Fallen, but angels don't. You don't get many Fallen this far out. They tend to stick closer to Earth. Ness is the first I've actually met and he hates me."
Corny took his time before he answered. Wasn't like he hadn't been watching the whole time. "Don't think Ness hates you."
"No? He certainly dislikes me to an extreme degree."
"Part of that's your own fault, you know. You and Cap'n Shax are a mite too cozy sometimes."
Julian shifted in the saddle. "We're old friends. There's a lot of history there."
"Yep. My point right there. You've known him longer, been through things he wasn't a part of. Ness is jealous and he's powerful mad at himself for being jealous and maybe mad at you for making him feel that way."
"You gotta recollect, though. Ness just started thinking about sex. He's trying to figure his way through all that still. All them new feelings. Just when he's startin' not to feel so at sea, there's you."
Julian leaned back against Corny, but it seemed more of a contemplative thing than a suggestive move. "He has nothing to be jealous of. I've told him that. How could I ever compete with an angel?"
That knocked Corny for an odd loop. A thought occurred to him that would mean big trouble. "Would you want to? I mean…do you want Shax back?"
"I never had Shax to begin with." To Corny's relief, Julian's tone was dry instead of bitter. "It's good to see him find someone. I'm glad of that."
Corny waited, certain Julian would go on. He stayed silent for the remainder of the ride back to the transport Corny had used to bring Rosa out to the park. He swung off and help Julian down, surprised again at how little such a deadly predator weighed.
"Thank you. That was…interesting."
"Did you wanna learn?" Corny undid the cinch and lifted Rosa's saddle off. "I'd be happy to teach you how to ride."
"No. Thank you." Julian rubbed at his butt as he made his way toward the transport cab. "I think I'll stick to hover bikes."
Time: A long long time ago
Place: Hell, Palace of Princess Ashtaroth
"So what do you do?"
The annoying little shit leaped up on the bed and sprawled on his back, kicking one sandaled foot against the frame. Verin didn't stop his poking and prodding around the room as he snarled, "Do? What the fuck does that mean?"
"Yes. Do." Prince Shax rolled far enough to ring a skull-shaped bell on the bedside table. An imp popped up from somewhere and the prince waved an imperious hand at it and ordered, "Food."
The imp scurried off. Fine. The prince was an arrogant little prick, but Verin wasn't going to say no to a free meal.
"Mostly, I survive, your high muckity-ness."
"Oh, don't be dense. Every demon does something. I have a cousin who shoots venom out his ass."
Now that would be a good trick. Verin shrugged. "I snort out smoke and shit. Sometimes flames. What do you do?"
Prince Shax turned his head to shoot him a bright smile. "I'm charming and handsome and great at parties."
Verin pulled a footstool out from under the prince's desk and plunked his butt down. "That's not really a…thing."
"Fair enough." The prince rolled onto his stomach facing Verin, his smile somehow sliding into a shit-eating grin. "I steal things."
Wisps of steam curled from Verin's nostrils. He was trying to keep a tight lid on things, since he was getting a meal out of it. Would help if the prince wasn't so fucking irritating. "I steal shit, too. That's not exactly a thing either."
"Considering where I found you, you don't steal successfully." Prince Shax's voice dropped to a murmur, as if he shared secrets. "That's the difference."
"Fuck you, your highness."
Any other prince of Hell might have called for guards to have Verin hauled out and boiled alive. Prince Shax only laughed. Giggled, really, but he'd probably grow into a more impressive demon laugh when he got older. He was an odd little blue blood, no fucking way around it.
A whole troop of imps came back with trays groaning with more food than Verin thought could exist in one place. Smoked grubs, eggs done a dozen different ways, flame fish in sauces that made his stomach rumble, along with a crowd of delicacies he couldn't name.
For a few precious moments when he could've been eating, all he could do was stare. He knew royalty lived better than gutter scum, but he'd never known how much better. Anger and envy warred in his gut, along with the realization that a prince had chosen him, at least for the day. Lucky me.
Prince Shax pulled up a chair and started to pick at things like the fussy spoiled brat he was, but he broke off to wave to Verin. "Come over here. I know you're hungry. Eat whatever you want."
No one had to tell him twice. Verin stood over the trays and dug in with both hands, devouring indiscriminately until the horrible, gnawing edge of his hunger receded. Only when he felt stuffed did he slow down to pull up the footstool and start tasting his food. It was damn good stuff.
"You don't believe me about my talents." Prince Shax sucked green sauce from his claws and drank something fancy from his dragon-shaped goblet. "Mother is having guests for dinner. I'm not invited since I'm too young. But I still have to go down and greet them. So not fair. Anyway, I'll show you then."
Verin kept his mouth shut. Probably best not to annoy his little lordship too much if he wanted more than a single meal out of this. When they finished eating, the prince actually let Verin nap on the huge canopied bed with him. The thing was big enough for twenty demon kids.
Later that night, Prince Shax woke him and made him dress in some fancy velvet shit. He kept babbling instructions, so the prince was obviously nervous as fuck. Verin had the bad feeling that some bigger demon was about to have him on toast after all.
"And don't be scared. I'll protect you."
"I'm not scared," Verin growled. I'm terrified.
They took a narrow winding staircase down to the receiving hall so they could peek out and see what was happening first. Princess Ashtaroth was there in all her hugely scary glory, white-blonde hair cascading round her, white dragon wings folded neatly on her back. Every movement screamed power and grace. Every lift of perfect eyebrow, every gesture was heavy with meaning, though Verin was fucked if he knew what anything meant.
He stayed in the shadowed alcove of the staircase while Prince Shax trotted forward to greet his mother. She deigned to bend down and brush a kiss over his cheek before she greeted her next guest. All court demons, big and small. Verin couldn't name all of them, but he recognized at least two other rulers of Hell provinces. This wasn't a dinner party. This was a cabal, a place for a certain court faction to meet and scheme. Verin wasn't going anywhere near it.
But if he thought he was escaping HER notice, he was so fucking wrong. She couldn't have seen him. Still, the princess turned and pointed to the alcove.
"Who is this, my darling boy?"
Give the little shit credit. Prince Shax squared his shoulders and looked right in her icy violet eyes. "That's my new minion, Mother. His name is Verin."
"Your new minion? We discussed this. Any minions you are to have, I will choose for you."
Prince Shax's chin went up just a hair. "I know, but please, Mum? Just this one?"
The house minions were fussing over another high-ranking demon in the foyer, dividing Princess Ashtaroth's attention. She waved an elegant clawed hand. "Very well. You may keep that one. Be certain he understands how to behave in this household or he goes to the meat locker."
Prince Shax shot a conspiratorial grin back at Verin, then turned to the next guest. "Uncle Asmo!"
The greeting sounded sincerely glad instead of polite, but Verin shivered. Asmodeus, Prince of Lust, stood before her highness now, his beautiful, sensual movements hypnotic, his gorgeous body covered only in strategic strips of leather and gold. So much gold. Rings of ruby and gold, piercings, bangles at wrists and ankles, he chimed when he walked. Waves of carnal desire rolled off him, impossible to ignore. A couple of the foyer minions had succumbed and were fucking madly by the front door.
Asmodeus opened his arms and Prince Shax leapt into them, squirming and laughing as his "Uncle Asmo" stroked him and kissed him. Royal families were weird. When the princess cleared her throat, frowning, he let the princeling go so he could come and kiss his hostess. Shax, for his part, scurried back to Verin, seized his hand, and hauled him back up the stairs.
Halfway up, he held out two rings for Verin to see. Two of the rings from Prince Asmodeus's fingers.
"Mother of demons," Verin breathed out. "You took the fucking things right off him."
"I did." Prince Shax looped an arm through Verin's as they made their way back to his room. "You and I, Verin. We're going to have so much fun."
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