A Thousand Krampuses
Time: A long time ago (Shax and Verin's young adulthood)
Place: Aministrative halls of Hell, Earth
"This isn't really punishment for you." Verin leaned back against the rock wall beside the desk.
"Of course it is." Shax slouched on the high stool, rolling the blood pen back and forth across the ledger. "It's so dull and monotonous. And it takes forever."
"Yeah, but you get to boss people around, you little shit. Stop moaning."
The next demon approached the desk. All of the demons in line were a variation on a theme—huge horns, hairy bodies, troll-esque faces, each with a wriggling sack slung over one shoulder and documents clutched in their free claws. Shax reached for the documents, careful not to touch the attached demon.
Krampuses weren't careful at all with hygiene and they stank like wet, swamp-muddied socks.
Shax sighed and sorted through the papers, all in order. The goblins at the head of the line helped the Krampuses with the forms if they weren't the literate sorts, for which Shax was grateful. Goblin handwriting was far superior to Krampus.
"Male child, several infractions—attempted drowning of kittens?" Shax shook his head. He should've been beyond shock by this point, but human children astounded him still. "Well, that's an automatic eatable offense." He checked off the appropriate boxes, signed in the supervisor space and added a note to the bottom. "You have royal permission to terrorize as much as you please prior to consumption."
"Thank you, highness," the Krampus snarled as he retrieved the papers and moved on. It wasn't disrespect. They all spoke in snarls.
"It's all mixed messages, you know." Shax turned to Verin while they waited for the next Krampus to trundle up. "Shax, steal me this. Shax, steal me that. You're such an excellent thief, Shax. Followed by recriminations and punishment when I steal the wrong thing."
Verin snorted. "You stole your mom's tiara. Even I knew that was a stupid fucking move."
"Still. You see my point, don't you?" Shax didn't expect an answer beyond more snorts, so he turned back to his Krampus supervising duties. The next Krampus had hunched shoulders, eyes flicking this way and that. Not suspicious at all. "You bagged this one for making siblings cry? Tsk." Shax pointed and intoned with his best imperious voice. "Put that one back and sing the beatings versus eatings song seven times before you go out for a replacement."
"But Prince Shax, I’m so hungry!"
"You should've thought of that before making an inappropriate catch. Go!"
The Krampus whimpered, but hurried off. Royalty had its privileges, after all. The next one had a sack that was kicking and shrieking. Oddly, the sack seemed to know demon royalty.
"Prince Shax! Prince Shax!"
"So you have a human child in there?" Shax tapped his pen on the stone desk.
The Krampus pulled out a hideous grin and nodded with enthusiasm.
I will not bang my head on the desk. I will not. "Open the sack," Shax said with a weary sigh.
As soon as the sack was untied, an imp wriggled free and leaped to his hooves, pointing at the Krampus. "You are in so much trouble!" Then he caught himself and knelt properly. "Your highness. I beg pardon."
"I should say. Who do you belong to, little one?" Shax did a quick assessment as he spoke. The imp appeared unharmed.
"Prince Vassago, highness."
Shax clicked his tongue in reproof. "Well, you probably are in trouble then…" He glanced at the designation on the paperwork. "Krampus Three Seventeen. Go and tell Uncle Vassago the number, little one. He'll have to decide while this Krampus goes to sit in the corner over there and does not have supper."
The noises coming from Verin made it clear he was stifling a guffaw.
"You're not helping things. I hate supervising the annual Krampus feed. A thousand Krampuses and I swear only three of them have any sense. There are rules."
The next Krampus in line had a sack that was crying. That wasn't too unusual, but this sounded more heartbroken than frightened. Shax frowned as he looked over the paperwork. "This is very messy."
"Do by self," the Krampus said, puffing its chest out with pride.
Ah. One of the barely verbal ones. "I see. So, the reason for trapping appears to be—and correct me if I'm wrong since it's difficult to decipher--kissing other girl."
"Yes. On list."
"What list? Certainly not on ours."
The Krampus felt around in its ragged, dirty cloak and produced a much creased and stained list. "List. Man gave."
"You know better than to take direction from humans," Shax grumbled and smoothed the list out. "Pits' sakes. No. These are normal human things, like kissing another girl. Strife!"
Shax waited until the goblin administrator huffed and puffed down the hall. "My prince?"
"Find out where this list came from and make certain the source is eliminated. Also, have someone return this child. She shouldn't be here."
"Yes, Prince Shax."
Shax put his head on the desk and heaved a huge, I-must-have-patience breath. "How many more do we have to go, Ver?"
Verin gave his tally sheet a quick glance. "Hey, you've seen a lot already. Only seven hundred and thirty-eight more."
It was Shax's turn to whimper, but he managed a sub-audible one. Dignity and all. "Next!"
Time: Shortly after Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Amnesia Spaceport
Perfect weather on Amnesia came in stops and starts, so on pleasant sunny days when unpaved bits had dried and the rains had been recent enough to keep the dust down, the streets of the spaceport bustled with extra activity.
Ness strolled the shopping district with Leopold, comfortable and familiar here, and the shadier denizens gave him plenty of room. Quite the contrast from the first time he'd set foot in the spaceport, naïve, new to the world, and telegraphing target to everyone he passed. That first visit had overshadowed his opinion of the place for some time—the place where an archangel had cut Shax down, the place where Ness had lost his angelic status and his first set of wings.
The memories of that terrible day persisted, of course, but the planet had many different associations now.
Leopold tugged at his hand, pulling him toward a café. They had been walking for some time. Ness reasoned that his son must be thirsty. He helped Leopold onto the self-adjusting stool at the counter, which wobbled up and down a few times, challenged by Leopold's shape and size, before it settled at the perfect height for him. Ness ordered a lemon water and a slice of cherry pie for himself, a soy milk and a muffin for Leopold.
Leopold was particularly fond of the muffins here.
Halfway through his muffin, Leopold murmured, "Papa, there's a man. He's been watching us eating. Do you think we're safe?"
"Is he trying to look like he's not looking?" Ness asked without looking up from his pie.
Leopold shook his head.
"I'd think we're fine, then." Ness checked out of the corner of his eye. Yes, there was a man watching, but he seemed more dejected than threatening. So dejected in fact that Ness couldn't simply walk by his table on their way out. "Sir? Are you all right?"
"I'm…no." The man's voice was soft and melodic, a trained voice, Ness thought. "I apologize for staring but I don't suppose you have any spare credit chits?"
Leopold put down his backpack and disappeared halfway into it as he said, "Are you hungry, sir? I have a cinnamon roll. It may be flattened."
The cinnamon roll, one of Ivana's, was in relatively good shape, safe in a plasti-seal. The man hesitated, but his obvious hunger won out and he accepted it with a nod. "Thank you, young…hedgehog…person."
Ness had taken the other chair at the man's table and let Leopold climb into his lap. "Are you between jobs?" He hoped that wasn't rude to ask.
The man made a non-committal head tilt as he devoured Leopold's offering. When he finished, he licked his fingers. "I was a storyteller. Pubs would pay me to spin stories some nights. Most afternoons, I could find an audience in the squares. Not a job to grow rich and fat on, but I was good at it."
That was puzzling. Ness turned it over and over and finally said, "But you still have your voice. You can't tell stories any longer?"
"They're all gone." The erstwhile storyteller's hands shook as he folded up the plasti-seal. "The place inside my head where the stories should be has been drained dry."
Leopold's peep was questioning, confused. "It's a story drought? But how can that even be? Can't you make new ones?"
"The doctors said the treatment would cure the recurring fibroid tumors. It was experimental. But it changed something in my brain." The storyteller shook his head. "There's nothing but an empty, gray space where the stories should be."
More of a story-pocalypse than a drought. Ness waved the attendant bot over and ordered them more food. "Have you tried to, ah, fill the space back up? Read stories to put back in the empty spot?"
"I have," the storyteller mumbled between bites of cheese bread. "I've tried to read all kinds of stories. They simply trickle out again."
Leopold sipped at the straw in his second glass of milk. It seemed a thoughtful sip. "You told your stories. You didn't read to people. Maybe hear not read?"
"That's an excellent idea," Ness hurried to agree. "Maybe the way your brain retains things has changed. Would you like me to tell you a story?"
When the storyteller gave him a hesitant nod, Ness gave a brief account of Shax and the anti-gravity cows, which had his listener chuckling. When he'd finished, Ness spread his hands and asked, "Well?"
The storyteller's eyes widened. "It's…it's still in there. I have it!"
"Perfect." Ness turned back to his son. "Leo, do you have your reader with you?"
He waited while Leopold fished it out of his backpack and handed it over, then he scrolled through some of Leopold's stories. The Once And Future King. Good, but too long. A Child's Garden Of Verses. Probably not quite right. Finding The Pirate Captain's Secret Baby.
Ness blinked at the torrid cover image. "Goodness, Leopold. What have you been reading?"
Leopold shrugged and somehow managed to look embarrassed.
Finally, Ness settled on a collection of fairytales. "I'll read you a few and then you can build from there. Just have the books read to you instead of trying to read."
"Thank you." The storyteller swiped at his eyes. "You're very kind. I didn't expect that from one of the fallen."
"We come in all sorts," Ness murmured as he searched the index. He flipped his wings to a more comfortable position, settled back and began. "Once there was a king who had three sons…"
Time: Between Shax's War and Beside A Black Tarn
Place: New Bangkok spaceport, planet Barbary
"Well." Shax sat back, drumming his fingers on the boards in the pilot's pod. "This is potentially disastrous."
"What is, sawdust for brains?" Verin muttered from the pilot's chair as he worked through their launch forms.
"Did you visit any demon bars in port, Ver? And if so, which ones?"
"None of your fucking business." Steam curled from Verin's nostrils at an accelerated rate.
"Hmm, yes. Normally I'd agree with you." Shax waved a hand at his view screen. "But we just had a health bulletin come in from city L&I. They've tracked an outbreak of volcanitis back to Tartarus, and I know you go there sometimes."
"Are you shitting me?" Verin surged up from his chair to lean over Shax and read the bulletin. "Aw, fuck. The bastards couldn't have sent this out before we were all boarded?"
"Apparently not. Are we screwed, Ver?"
"We are screwed to the wall with giant screws." Verin sank back into his chair. "Fuckity fuck fuck."
Shax hit the all ship comm. "My dear crew, we have a bit of an issue with takeoff. No panicking, please. Meet me in the cargo bay immediately."
"Really? You went there?" Verin snarled. "Now everyone's gonna fucking panic."
"Then we'll unpanic them." Shax flapped a hand at him. "Go, go. I just need to peruse details and I'll be right there."
By the time Shax reached the cargo bay, there were indeed signs of panic, raised voices chief among them.
Mac strode to the foot of the steps before Shax had a chance to descend and demanded, "What's this about an epidemic, Captain?"
That escalated quickly. "Nothing quite so dire." He decided to address his crew from the landing and set his hands on the railing. "We received a health bulletin regarding an outbreak of volcanitis this week. They've traced it back to Club Tartarus. How many of you have been there in the past five days?"
Nearly every ship denizen in the bay raised a hand, with the exceptions of Leopold and Rosa.
Shax pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. "Wonderful."
"What does this mean, love?" Ness took a step toward him, the trembling in his wings barely discernible.
"It means we're docked and confined to the ship until we've passed the incubation period. Corny, you're exempt. Humans can neither catch not carry this."
"What about Mac?" Heckle's voice shook worse than Ness's wings.
"I'm…not sure." Shax turned to address his engineer. "Mac? Any idea if nephilim are susceptible?"
Mac shook his head. "Don't know, Cap. Never came across an outbreak before."
"All right. So everyone except Corny is confined to the ship. Leopold my dear, that means you too. We have no idea if you'll be affected." Shax heaved a put upon sigh. "This mean three more days in port. Not a terrible hardship, but I was hoping to leave this afternoon. Anyone who comes down with symptoms needs to bunk here in the hold. We can't have—"
Verin made a distressed choking sound, turned away from his shipmates and spewed flame at the metal deck plates.
"Cabin fires," Shax concluded wearily. "Well, damn it, Ver."
"Not my fault." Verin sat hard on the deck, clutching his head. "Oh, fuck."
Everyone backed up as Verin let loose with another gout of fire. Corny held a hand out toward him, clearly uncertain whether it was safe to approach.
"Can we do anything, Cap?" Corny asked from his relatively safe distance.
"I don't suppose anyone has ideas about fire-retardant bedding?"
By the time Mac had found some insulation material that wouldn't burn and had set up a few makeshift pallets in the hold as far away from Rosa as possible, Heckle had collapsed to his hands and knees spewing small spurts of flame and Shax wasn't feeling terribly well himself.
"I'll, ah, sleep in the hold tonight, cupcake." He leaned his aching head against Ness's chest.
Ness stroked his hair and kissed the base of one horn. "I should stay with you, don't you think?"
"Only if you're starting to feel poorly, too." Shax glanced up at him. "You're not, are you?"
"Not at all. Maybe the virus doesn't infect the fallen?"
"I don't—" A sudden wave of heat and nausea warned Shax. He whispered excuse me, and managed to turn before flame erupted up his esophagus and onto the corridor's deck plates. "Pits. I'll just, ah, crawl to the hold. Ms. Ivana could you—"
Another column of flame escaped. Fire suppression alarms sounded. The system doused Shax in foam fire retardant.
"—hold the fire suppression," Shax gasped out, spitting foam from his mouth.
"I'm sorry, Captain Hot Stuff. Didn't catch it in time." Ivana did sound sorry. She also sounded like she was trying not to snicker. "Didn't realize you'd gone literally hot stuff already."
"Do you need help?" Ness called after Shax as he crawled down the now slippery corridor.
"Stay there," Shax got out in a desperate plea as he tried to suppress the next fountain of flame. It didn't work. "Don't want to hurt you."
"All right." Ness agreed, then followed him at a safe distance anyway.
Damn Verin and his clubbing. Though they all went. Damn them all. And no one invited me. What the deuces am I saying?
Shax made it to the hold without setting his ship alight. He curled up on one of the empty pallets by the wall, fevered, miserable, and from time to time vomiting flame, which, frankly, wasn't much fun at all. Verin shivered and moaned through his own fever. Heckle's didn't seem quite as bad as he only hiccupped a few candle's worth of fire here and there.
While demon innards were relatively fireproof, it was still a miserable two days before symptoms and fever dreams subsided. Mac never caught it and neither did Leopold. On the afternoon of the second day, Ness joined them, though.
"You too, hon?" Shax whispered from the pallet that he had partially shredded to make himself a nest.
"I just don't feel terribly well." Ness let out an un-angelic belch. "Thought I should come down as a precaution."
"Sorry, sweetheart. I hope it's not too bad for you."
"I—" Ness hiccupped and belched again. Instead of the expected geyser of flame, pearlescent bubbles escaped his mouth and drifted peacefully toward the ceiling where they popped with little musical pings.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Verin grumbled from his pallet.
Heckle watched the bubbles with fascinated longing. "That's just not fair."
"It's not as if I'm trying to do it," Ness said with an exasperated sigh.
Shax watched another round of bubbles pop against the ceiling girders. Maybe it was leftover fever hallucinations, but he thought he saw sparks.
"Cupcake, if you don't mind aiming those at the floor, please?"
Ness shrugged but repositioned so his bubbles would hit the floor directly in front of him. Sure enough, the next ones hit the decking in showers of miniature lightning storms.
"Oh…oh, dear," Ness whispered as he lay down with his head hanging off the insulation. "There's two days of this?"
The tiny lightning strikes had become miniature thunderstorms with the next bout of bubbles, complete with about three seconds of rain. Shax rolled father into his nest, pulling the insulation up around him to protect against tiny lightning strikes. Living with a newly fallen was mostly wonderful, incredibly instructive, and never, ever boring.
The Worst Bits
Time: After Shax's War
Place: Planet Barbary, New Bangkok city dome
Heckle swung his hooves as he waited for Corny to come back from the counter. They'd come into the shopping district for, surprisingly, shopping. Things they couldn't just order from the dockmaster at the spaceport. Captain Shax had asked for a list of things for Ness's unbirthday—in place of a birthday since Ness had no idea when his creation day was—and Corny had needed a substitute for leather for tack repair.
By the time they were finished, they were both starving so Corny had found a place serving a meatless pulled pork that smelled wonderful. Heckle snagged a table for them while Corny ordered since the counter wasn't even close to imp-sized. The food stand was doing a brisk business and customers far outnumbered tables, which worked well since so many of the customers, probably locals, wanted takeaway. Unfortunately, not everyone.
"Oy! Mini-demon! Move along. You don't need that whole table." A large bald human—Heckle was sure he was a human by the scent, though his much bent and crinkled nose could've been a pit demon's—loomed over him, blocking the day-cycle lights of the dome.
Heckle didn't dare look the rude human in the face, but he did manage to stammer out, "I'm—I'm waiting for a friend."
"Then both you mini-demons can go sit your asses on the curb where you belong." The human's smaller, mean-eyed friend guffawed.
Even though he knew he risked being tossed, Heckle swallowed hard and stood his ground. "It's not—"
"Move along, gentlemen," Corny's softest, most dangerous tone came from behind them. "The little hombre got there first."
"Who the fuck are you?" Crinkle Nose turned on Corny.
"The friend he's waiting for."
The threat in Corny's eyes was hard and unmistakable. Both humans moved off muttering about the benches in the park being cleaner anyway. Corny shook his head and handed Heckle his share of lunch as he sat down.
"You all right, little bit?"
The confrontation had shaken Heckle down to his hooves. He pulled in a slow breath before answering, "They didn't hurt me."
"Not what I asked but good to hear."
Heckle dug into his lunch, which was spicy and warm. The food in his stomach steadied him, as it often did and he started to wonder about things. "Are humans or demons worse, do you think?"
It took three bites for Corny to answer. "Well, I reckon there's worse and there's worse."
"I don't know what that means," Heckle said as he shoveled up another forkful.
Corny waved his own fork around to include the other patrons. "Some people used to say that humans are half demon and half angel. That we have to fight all our lives against the bad parts of who we are if we wanna be good people. I dunno much about that. I do know that demons come in lots of types and some are bone-deep bad and heartless. Others are just, what does Cap say? Morally dubious."
"So humans come in different kinds, too?"
"Nah. We're all the same. Not like pit demons and imps and other hell critters. But lots of humans… Well, something goes wrong in their rearing. Or just in their insides. They grow up heartless. Still human. Just can't think beyond their own selves." Corny shrugged. "Demons just are what they are. Come to think of it, some of the things I've heard tell about angels have been pretty heartless, too."
Heckle nodded at that. Taking Ness's beautiful golden wings because he was in love? That had been shockingly cruel even from a demonic view of things.
"I'll cotton to not thinking everything Cap'n Shax does it right, but he's still got a heart. And Ver will tear you to pieces if he thinks you done him wrong. But his heart's still in there. That's what matters, I reckon."
The proprietor of the food stand bustled up then with a thundercloud frown. Heckle was sure she was going to tell them to leave. No imps allowed or something.
She plunked a takeaway container on the table. "Here, sweetie. You take that with you. I don't like seeing my customers bullied."
"Oh." Heckle blinked at the container. "Thank you."
But she'd already hurried off again and probably hadn't heard. He gathered the container close as they left the table. Heart. Heart was good. A full stomach was sometimes just as wonderful.
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.
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