Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
One hoof hop. One hoof leap over the square with the bolt in it. Two hoof hop. One hoof hop. Two. One. Turn. Come back the same way. Stop and bend to pick up the bolt. Try not to fall over.
"There you go, Heck. You're gettin' it." Corny laughed as Heckle returned through the squares grinning to hand the bolt off to Corny.
Corny took his turn more slowly than Heckle and without all the twitching of wings for balance. The long ship days of traveling between systems could get really boring, and Corny had suggested this game as a break from reading lessons. Before ballet with Ness, this probably wouldn't have worked. Actually, Heckle was sure all the one-hoof hopping would've been a disaster.
"What is this drawing?"
The voice behind Heckle made him jump and whirl. He hadn't heard Leopold come down the hold stairs.
"Is it some sort of floor plan? Layout for a job?"
"Nothing so serious." Corny completed his turn with a last hop. "It's just a game. Wanna try your hand, er, paw?"
Once the game was explained, Leopold gave it a try, doing his best to balance on one back paw and hop. He landed, wobbled, and plopped over onto his back with an exasperated peep.
"Well, now." Corny helped the hedgehog prince up. "I'm thinkin' since you got four feet and the game calls for a person to use half their feet, you should try two."
Heckle considered that a moment. "That sounds right. No one would ask Rosa to try on one hoof. Or Max on one foot."
"Don't think Rosa'd be keen on hopping more'n the once, anyhow." Corny pushed his hat back. "Give it a try, Leo."
Two paws worked infinitely better. There were still wobbles since the squares were spaced almost too far apart, and Leopold had to hit each of the double hop squares one at a time because of the spacing of his feet, but he came back with the bolt. Hedgehog triumphant.
They played through a round and at the end, Leopold held onto their marker bolt, tapping it against his paw in a thinky way. "It is a good game. Could we add more things to it? Make new obstacles?"
"I don't—" Corny tried to object, but Heckle had already picked up the chalk they'd used to draw the squares.
Leopold crouched beside him and between them they made snakes of squareish shapes and diamond patterns to work through. Soon Ness joined them, more than happy to kneel on the floor and help. The black holes were Ness's idea—filled in squares to jump over and if a player dropped the bolt in one, they had to start over. Wasn't too long before Captain Shax joined them, probably wondering where Ness had gone, and he added the innovation of circle squares, where the player had to hop on one foot in a complete circle within the lines before continuing.
Play started up again soon after with a lot of wobbling and hands slapped against the deck plates to prevent a fall—and some falling. Leopold played with intense concentration, though he finally decided that he couldn't manage the black hole obstacle. He jumped into the center of one and declared himself eaten. Captain Shax turned out to be ridiculously good at the game, which surprised no one, while Ness found his huge wings were sometimes more in the way than not. Verin strolled down to see what everyone was going, but declined to play.
He put a clawed foot in one of the squares, completely obliterating it. "Nah, too fucking dainty for me." Though he seemed happy to sit up on the landing and laugh at everyone's expense.
There was a lot of laughter and snickered cussing. The only casualty was when Corny's leg decided to cramp, which he called a charley horse. That made less sense than some of Corny's phrases did, but Heckle decided not to ask then in case everyone else understood it.
When they'd all conceded to Captain Shax and sat gasping and snickering on various crates and steps, Verin called down from his perch, "So what're you gonna call it?"
"I thought we should call it Hecklescotch," the captain called up from his spot leaning against Ness.
"Yeah? Why's that, genius?"
"Because the finished game is largely due to Heckle." Captain Shax stopped, his forehead crinkling. "And honestly? Shaxscotch just sounds ridiculous."
Time: Twenty years after The Big Reveal
Place: Santa Cruz, CA, Earth
"Why do you have horns?"
Shax glanced up from his reader, vaguely alarmed that a small human had insinuated herself at his café table without him noticing. "Er, hello?"
"Hi. I'm Hatshepsut. I'm named for a woman who was pharaoh a long time ago."
"Lovely name." Shax pulled out a smile. The kid's parents couldn't be far away and would come to rescue him soon. No need to be unpleasant. "I knew her."
She squinted at him. "It's a stupid name. No one can say it. Everyone calls me Hattie, which is stupid, too. I'm going to change it." She swung her feet, squinting at him harder. "You're fibbing. You can't be old enough to know her."
"Hmm. I do often fib. But not about this. My kind of demon doesn't age after we're grown." He sipped at his espresso. "I'm Shax, the Demon Prince of Thieves."
"That doesn't sound like a nice thing to be."
"I'm a demon." Shax quirked a brow at her. "Most of us aren't nice things, and many are perfectly horrid."
With a nod, she glanced away from him, gaze searching the plaza. "I guess. Klfruk doesn't have horns."
Sounds like a Hellish name… But Shax couldn't place it. "Who is Klfruk?"
"He's our demon house guard." The squint became a scrunched nose, no longer directed at Shax. "He's s'posed to be watching me. But he's not smart."
"Ah. I used to slip away from my guards when I was young, too. They weren't terribly bright either." Sometimes the out in the open nature of human-demonic relations still hit him sideways. A Hell denizen guarding a human household. So odd. "Does he have strange ears that look like squashed cauliflowers?"
She nodded, the crinkle vanishing. Perhaps Shax was being reevaluated as not stupid.
"That means he's a rock troll. Which is a sort of demon, but not my sort."
The feet swinging escalated. "So why do you have horns?"
"Why do you have green eyes?" Shax countered with a raised brow.
She snorted at him. Astounding. He'd introduced himself as a demon prince and she exhibited no fear. None at all. "Cause my mom does. Of course." She stopped, eyes widening. "So your mom has horns."
"Well...no. She has wings, though."
Leaning back in her chair, Hattie checked behind Shax. "Did yours get cut off?"
"No." Shax tried for haughty but only managed irritated. "I never had wings."
She gave a terribly serious nod. "My dad's got brown eyes. I didn't get those. I guess your dad's got horns."
"Stands to reason, yes." Don't frown. No need to scare the poor kid now. "I've never seen him, though."
"That's silly. You're a prince. You have to know who your dad is."
Shax pushed his plate of macarons toward Hattie, pleased when she took one. It only seemed polite. "Demon royalty does have registries and bloodlines, like human nobility, but it's not always trackable. Some high-echelon demons weren't born, you see. They were created." He gave an insouciant shrug. "And some don't care to acknowledge offspring or progeni— Parents."
"So your dad's…" Hattie bit into her carefully selected macaron and leaned closer to whisper, "A secret?"
Shax brightened considerably. A secret was much more fun than saying I have no idea. "Yes," he whispered back. "A secret."
Hattie stuffed the rest of her bright purple macaron into her mouth and hopped off her chair. A uniformed rock troll had just entered the plaza, head swiveling back and forth. Hello, sir. You must be Klfruk.
"That's all right then. You just have to go on a quest someday to find him. Princes do that." Hattie scampered off and only turned to wave when she'd taken the befuddled rock troll's hand.
A quest? Shax pulled the plate back toward him and took a delicate nibble of a virulently yellow macaron. Ridiculous. Absurd. Demons didn't go on quests. He shook himself, trying to get rid of the unsettled ripples under his skin. If he'd had a cane, he would've been shaking it. "Damn kids. Stay off my lineage."
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, In Transit
Blue dot. Treats come with blue dot.
Nic twitched his whiskers and hurried after the dot. Sometimes it wouldn't wait for him. Then he had to stop and watch until it came back. The dot zipped down the tunnel and Nic ran to keep up, barely in time to catch the quick turn it made to the left. There, in a little niche--
Treats! Yes! Nom nom…seeds…nom…pumpkin.
When he finished, he glanced around for the blue dot. Did it have more following games for him? Was it time to go back to Big Feathers? There! There it ran, back to the wide tunnel. Nic scurried after. There would be more treats. Blue dot did not go back the way he had come. Down the tunnel, then up, up, into a tunnel where Nic needed the sticky pads of his feet to run on the walls instead of the floor.
Up. Up. Up. Then blue dot turned down a flat tunnel again to stop at a tiny cave in the tunnel wall.
More treats! Sweet potato! Nom nom nom nom.
He finished his nibbling and sat up, alert and waiting. Blue dot returned and raced away down the tunnels up one way, down the other, through bends and twists, sharp corners, and the occasional scramble-plop from an up tunnel to a flat one below. There were treats, but it seemed to Nic that there was more game in between treats now than there had been the first time he'd played with blue dot. That was all right. A bit more of a run to food was never wasted time.
Scent told him they were backtracking now, returning along his own trail to rejoin Big Feathers in the bright room of food smells. The bright room meant the end of the game and more treats. Yes. He was right. The light from the opening shone at the end of the tunnel now. He followed blue dot out and onto the table where Big Feathers sat with Giant and Hunter. All of these were large folk Nic liked. In this flying cave, he liked most of the large folk. Spiney was the most fun, especially when he was with Nic's small friend, Many Legs. The large person who blew smoke was a little scarier, but he'd only tried to catch Nic that once.
Sniff sniff. Yes, there was egg for him. Who had it, though? The large people were talking and not paying proper attention to him. There…Hunter held something out for him. Nic scampered over to claim his prize and chomped down. A sharp cry startled him into jumping back and the taste in his mouth was definitely not egg. Oops. Finger.
There were some sharp words, but Nic decided they weren't for him as he discovered the bowl of chopped egg next to the finger. Giant took the strange little hat off Nic's head and blue dot vanished, signaling the end of the game—also, sadly, the end of treats. That was fine. He was full now, so he climbed Big Feathers and settled out of the way on his shoulder.
Blue dot was a good game. He might even consider playing it without treats. Maybe.
[Author's note: Rat eyesight is notoriously poor with a limited color range and lack of definition, although they do see ultraviolet light. Many a young rat friend has been nipped or bitten by making the mistake of putting a finger between the bars of a rat's cage. They're not being mean—they just mistook it for something else.]
"What's it like to have a mom?" Heckle asked, staring at his plate of pancakes.
Corny turned to give him a puzzled look. "Don't rightly know, little bit. Don't recollect mine at all. How 'bout you, Mac?"
"Me?" Mac shrugged. "Sure, I had a mom. She was gone most of the time, though. Julian, did you have parents or were you hatched?"
The galley was full that morning for breakfast, something Heckle wasn't used to. He so often had the early hours of day shift to himself since he didn't need much sleep. It was his time to talk to Ms. Ivana and while he didn't actually resent his shipmates suddenly being there… He didn't, did he? Still, it wasn't what he'd come to expect, even if it was for a good reason like an early berth time at station dock.
Julian laughed softly. "I expect I had biological parents. If they'd made me in a lab, I doubt they would've chucked me into the childcare system. Not a good use of resources. No, I'm sure I had a mother. No recollection of her, like Corny. Ver, you must have had one. Higher-echelon demon and such."
"Yeah, yeah." Verin speared a sausage with savage intensity. "Good old Mom dropped me where she birthed me and left me to figure shit out or be eaten. Haven't seen her much since."
"But you know who she is?" Mac asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Fuck yeah. Shaxy's mom had her people figure it out so she could get me on the stupid register. Couldn't have some unregistered demon guarding her little boy, could she?" Curls of steam spiraled from Verin's nostrils. "What about you, twinkles? Guess angels can't be fucking bothered to have moms, huh?"
Ness startled and blinked at Verin as if he'd come back from deep thoughts. He probably had. "Oh. No. We don't have parents. Angels are created. Perhaps we should have had." He turned his solemn expression on Heckle, showing that he had been following along. "You should ask Shax. I think he's the only one of us with real mother experience."
"Ask me what now?" Captain Shax strode in, pressed and professional in a crisp dress shirt and his captain's jacket, ready to meet with docking officials.
"Heckle has asked what it's like to have a mother." Ness rose from his place at the table to offer Shax a quick kiss and to clean up his dishes. "We find, all of us here, that we're not qualified to answer."
"Ah. Well. Hmm." The captain hadn't looked up from his reader and still didn't as he took the coffee mug Ms. Ivana sent down the conveyer for him. "I'm not sure mine would be a typical example of mothers. Being who and what she is. I was as much an ornament for her household as I was offspring. Something for her to fuss and preen over, to show off when it was advantageous. But she does care, in her own way and she did always make certain I had everything I needed. Not necessarily wanted, but needed. I suppose that's what most mothers do."
Heckle nodded, absorbing it all. He'd hoped for more of an explanation, but it helped.
"What's all this about, Heck?" Mac nudged him gently. "Did something set your brain spinning again?"
"Oh. I…yes." Heckle took another slow bite so he could put an answer together that didn't sound crazy. "I'd just been hearing things on the nets about this thing called Mother's Day. And I wondered, I guess, what it was all about. Captain, do you send your mother something for it?"
Captain Shax was on his way back out of the galley, coffee in hand, but he stopped to raise an eyebrow at Heckle. "Certainly not. It's a human holiday. Not as old as they'd like you to think. Though it's more that if I send my mother a present, she'll wonder what I want. Not that she'd be wrong, mind you."
The first proximity pylon warning sounded and everyone cleared the galley—not hurrying, there was plenty of time, but off to various pre-docking duties. Heckle finally sat alone since his hold was secure and he had nothing to do until they were secure at Nereus Station.
"You want another stack, cutie?" Ms. Ivana spoke into the sudden silence.
"Oh. Yes, please."
"So polite. You get the last of the sausages too." The conveyer purred as Ms. Ivana sent out another plate for Heckle.
He devoured and thought some more. Ms. Ivana had more to do than anyone did as they approached station. Life support, proximity calculations, deceleration, course corrections, internal gravity, all the little things that kept the ship running and moving in the right direction in the huge empty of space. With all that, she still took time to make sure he felt cared for and important.
Tail twitching, Heckle reached a conclusion and raised his head to address the galley speaker directly. "Happy Mother's Day, Ms. Ivana. Thank you for all the things."
"It's an ocean, Ver." Shax spread his arms toward the crash and retreat of the waves, the cool salt spray exciting and new.
"Yeah? Where's the magma? Where's the sulfur mist? How the fuck is this an ocean?" Verin scowled hard enough to scare away a group of nearby birds.
Shax patted his companion on the shoulder. "It's a water ocean. It's all salted water. Amazing, don't you think?"
"It's stupid. And colder than ice dragon balls. And who had the shitty idea to pour salt into it?"
"Pour…? I don't think anyone did, you know. I think they simply come that way. Oceans." Shax frowned at a creature with huge claws scuttling sideways past his toes. "Though some of the wildlife looks much like home."
"Why're we here, genius?"
Shax gave a one-shouldered shrug and wandered closer to the waves with his boots in one hand. "I'm not certain. I wanted to see it, I suppose. Auntie Lilith talks about the sea. It always sounded unbelievable. A story."
"Tons of better places we could've gone if you wanted something fucking unbelievable."
"I think it's quite lovely, in a melancholy way." Shax dug his toes into the sand, relishing the soft spread of it as he pressed down. "Besides, pearls are said to come from oceans. Pearls are so pretty."
"Whatever. Some hell-boar flank would be a lot prettier right now."
Shax shot him a startled glance. "You can't be hungry again already."
"Always fucking hungry." Verin crouched, drawing angry lines in the sand with a stick. "Stupid body needs to stop the stupid growing already."
Since they'd hit puberty it had been like this, and had only gotten worse. As Verin outstripped Shax in height and breadth of shoulder, his constant gnawing hunger only increased with his size. He hoped that Ver would stop growing soon. Mum said he was to be Shax's bodyguard and would receive the proper training and, granted, while it was good to have a sizeable personal guard of impressive strength, Shax didn't want to have to look up too far to speak to him.
"Psst. Hey. Demon kids."
Shax peered up and down the beach, frowning when he didn't spot anyone.
"Down here, dummy," the voice went on. "By the waves."
A glance down and to the left revealed a fascinating being. They, for gender was difficult to determine with an unknown species, were built something like a fish, though with sleek watertight skin rather than scales and a breathing opening atop the head.
"Well, hello there," Shax smiled tentatively. "Who might you be?"
The being emitted a series of high-pitched whistles and chirps. "But my name's not important right now. You kids shouldn't be on topside land. Didn't anyone tell you humans live there?"
Shax blinked at that. "Well…yes? We've met quite a few humans. They're rather fun."
"Filthy, greedy, violent," the being with the whistle-chirp name went on heatedly. "No sense of proportion and their singing is terrible. Not to mention, they think dolphins are fish! Idiots. Look, you boys be careful. All I'm saying. Humans are trouble and they're multiplying. It'll only get worse from here."
"Thank you, Mr. um…Dolphin." Shax swept the ocean being an elegant bow. "We'll be as careful as we can. It will be part of our jobs when we're older to seed chaos in among the humans. We can't really avoid them, I'm afraid."
The dolphin, since they didn't object to the name, snorted through the hole atop their head. "Sucks to be you, then."
With a flip of their tail that soaked Shax, the dolphin used its flippers to turn, humped back into the water and swam away.
"Can we go home now, your dripping highness?" Verin muttered. "The water ocean is fucking ridiculous."
Shax shoved his sodden hair out of his eyes. "Yes. To both those things. And I'm going to have some sharp words for Auntie Lilith when we get there."
"It's not right." Verin stormed down the corridor toward Ness, his bulk taking up too much space to edge around.
Ness had mantled out of startled reflex and pulled his wings in. "Several things aren't right, I'm sure. What specifically, Ver?"
Verin poked at his comm and brought up a holo display. "The fucking weapons' ratings, that's what. The fuck, featherboy?"
"The—" Ness leaned forward to peruse the numbers with a puzzled frown. "Did I make a mistake entering them?"
Heavy footfalls approached from behind him and a hand the size of a dinner platter fell on his shoulder. "Mind if I squeeze by, boys?"
"Ah." Ness half-turned to offer Mac an apologetic grimace. "I think I have to understand why Verin's having a fit before he'll move."
"A fit? I'll give you fits, you pea brained crappy excuse for a fallen!" Verin stabbed a claw at the numbers. "You can't be that blind. Look at the rankings. Why is that half-pint little—"
"Choose your next word carefully, Hammer," Mac rumbled.
Verin's mouth snapped shut and it took half a heartbeat for him to say, "Twerp. That damn little twerp's rated higher than me." Verin shot Mac a venomous look when he chuckled. "Shut it. This is serious. I can handle any weapon manufactured now or whatever the fuck came before. I've been his rotten sodding selfish highness's bodyguard for how many troll-fucking centuries? And that little twerp—"
"Outscored you on the qualifying course," Ness cut him off softly. "I'm sorry. I know it's unfair, and overall, yes, you're far more experienced and qualified. But for the interplanetary ratings course, these were the scores."
"You." Verin first pointed a finger, then grabbed a handful of Ness's sleeve. "You're gonna sit down with me and explain how in all levels of fucking fuckery this happened."
Too befuddled to protest, Ness allowed himself to be dragged to the galley and shoved onto one of the benches. If he'd known Verin would take the scores so personally, he would have…what would he have done? Hidden them? Tried to soothe an irritable demon's ego? Talked to Shax? He sighed and pulled the scores up on the table's holoscreen for better viewing. The new rating system had come down from ISE, mandatory for anyone who wanted a weapons license and competence level in any planetary city or station. As security officer, Ness had needed to make certain the crew ran through the approved course, a much stranger qualifying course than he'd anticipated.
"You and Heckle have nearly identical scores until we reach this part here." Ness enlarged the scores and expanded Heckle's and Verin's to show each segment.
Verin snorted a heavy, unhappy cloud of steam and sparks. "What in all levels of fuck was that?"
"Let's see…" Ness checked his coding list, pointing to the specific numbers where the scores diverged. "Here's where the wind tunnel test began. And here's where the required dual weapon firing starts within the wind tunnel."
"How did that little runt do better'n me in the cocksucking wind tunnel?" The sparks flew at an alarming rate as Verin's volume reached bellow stage. "It should've blown him over at the first fucking breeze!"
"Well, yes." Ness brushed a spark from his sleeve. "From what I understand, it did initially. But Heckle has extra appendages at his disposal. He went airborne with his tail wrapped around a support beam and was able to navigate the air currents better than a standing shooter could."
Verin stared at him, his expression hovering between shock and fury. Finally, he sputtered, "That should've been a disqualification!"
No cuss words in an entire sentence just highlighted how upset Verin was, and Ness thought he began to understand why. "Well, no. Everyone was permitted to use their natural attributes. You have your enormous strength, Heckle has a tail. His accuracy is a bit better than yours, but your rate of fire is higher than anyone on board. Except perhaps Julian…" He had to stop for a breath to avoid sounding annoyed. "But Julian's licensing isn't something I need to worry about. For sheer mayhem, no one can outdo you, Ver."
Ness dared to reach across the table to pat Verin's arm. "Yeah. Heckle doesn't have the mass or the horns to brawl as you do. Even Mac, who just doesn't have the experience, would stand up to you in a protracted fight. You are The Hammer, Shax knows it, and no one could ever replace you by his side."
"What the fuck ever." Verin pulled his arm away, though only so he could stand. His steam had calmed to occasional puffs. "Stupid touchy feely angel stuff."
Ness kept a straight face as Verin stalked out, shutting down the holo screen, ignoring the muttering. Only when those big, clawed feet had stomped away down the corridor did he allow himself a chuckle. "You're welcome, Ver."
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Amnesia Spaceport
Amnesia got a bad rap in Mac's opinion—not quite the hive of thieves and villains some people made it out to be. Sure. There were thieves and villains, since Amnesia spaceport had an extremely loose definition of law, but there were plenty of honest folks and business owners just trying to make a living. It was also a familiar place where he knew the streets and a place where people understood a simple social contract:
If it doesn't concern you, keep walking.
Which was why he shocked himself by stopping when he heard a frustrated squeak overhead.
He'd just had lunch with his handsome imp, though Heckle had needed to scurry back to the Brimstone for an incoming shipment, and Mac had decided on a window-shopping stroll. Gnawing on a toothpick, taking his own time down the covered sidewalk, he'd let other pedestrians part around him, wavelets to the prow of his ponderous barge of a body, as he headed toward the bazaar. Never knew what to expect there.
The overhead squeak sure as hell wasn't expected. Mac peered up into the support beams of the walkway awning and spotted something glittery squirming up there. A packing crate outside one of the shops made a good stepstool for Mac. Perfect for him, anyone else would've needed a ladder. Someone more or less Heckle-sized had gotten snagged on a jagged edge of one of the beams and Mac carefully disengaged the captured fabric before lifting the small person down.
"Put me down!" Small Person shrieked and hammered against Mac's shoulder with a tiny, sparkly hand.
"Sure. No problem." Mac set Small Person on his feet, so small he only came up to Mac's waist. "Are you all right?"
Small Person shook out shimmering gossamer wings with a disgusted snort and straightened what appeared to be a blue satin princess dress and tiara of questionable quality. A cigarillo clamped tight between blinding white teeth completed the look. "Yeah. Yeah. I'll live."
"I know it's none of my business, but are your wings viable?"
"Vestigial, thanks for bringing up a sore subject, you ass." Small Person straightened his shoulders. "I'm a dentata pseudonymph."
Mac fought against squinting, though it was a struggle faced with such an abundance of glitter. "You're…some kind of tooth fairy?"
"Oh fuck you, nephy-poo." Small Person rolled his eyes. "Like fairies exist. I'm a dental demon."
Mac's forehead crinkled at the childish insult. "Why were you stuck up in the roof beams if you can't fly?"
Not-The-Tooth-Fairy shot him a frown blacker than anything Captain Shax could manage. "Some big bruiser shoved me up there for stealing her box of flavored dental dams."
"Ookay." Mac wondered if he'd fallen out of bed that morning and hit his head. "Why would you steal dental dams?"
"Hello! Dental demon! It's what I do. I steal mouth stuff. Teeth. Fillings. Ball gags. Dentures. Toothbrushes. All that crap."
Amazing how some explanations don't explain one damn thing. "And what do you do with all of it?"
"You sure ask a lot of dumb questions. But you're a nephy, so I guess you can't help it." The dental demon shrugged. "It's what I do. What I do with what I do isn't any of your damn business. Thanks for the hand, but it's not like we're gonna be friends or anything." The dentata demon glared up at him, obviously waiting for something. "Move, you cretinous mountain!"
Mac stepped aside, gaping after the demon who stomped off in a huff of glitter and fluttering shimmery wings. When the demon vanished around a corner, Mac realized two things—his toothpick had also vanished and he'd completely forgotten what he'd planned to do with his afternoon.
Shaking his head, he made his way back to the Brimstone instead. Heck was never going to believe this.
Then again… Mac shook his head at himself. Heckle had seen a lot during his life in Hell. Probably not much left he wouldn't believe, even demonic tooth not-fairies.
Time: Directly after The Big Reveal
Place: Undisclosed large city, Earth
They really didn't waste any time, did they? Shax stood on the sidewalk staring at the Demon Prizefighting sign with mixed interest and jaundiced dismay. A mere three years after the Powers That Be had decided to reveal the physical reality of demons and angels, and humans had discovered ways to exploit it.
"You're sure?" Shax tore his attention far enough from the lurid poster of battling 'demons'—the artist had obviously never seen one in person—to give Verin a hard side-eye.
"Easy money, Shaxy." Verin gave him a little shove. "You saying you don't fucking believe I can win?"
"I have every confidence in your pugilistic prowess. It's the fighting for the entertainment of humans I find…questionable." Shax wrinkled his nose. "Undignified. Exploitative."
"Just another way to take their money, your royal pain in the ass. Come on." Verin took his arm and gave him no choice but to trot along inside.
The venue was just as dirty and unpleasant as he had feared, a distressing mix of unwashed human and demon blood suffusing the air. A dark hallway let out into the fighting arena, not much more than a sandpit surrounded by chicken wire and rusty bleachers. Shax felt his nose would be permanently wrinkled after this.
A human of impressive size blocked the way into the main room. "Watching or fighting?"
"Fighting," Verin growled and jerked a thumb at Shax. "My manager."
Shax raised an eyebrow, but fell into the role without a hitch. "Who do we need to see to get my boy on the lists?"
Large Human nodded to a desk beside a scale in the corner where flurries of activity welled up and subsided at regular intervals. Not only the registry for fighters but also the betting table. He could at least appreciate the economy of purpose.
"Fighter, before you ask." Shax imitated Verin's thumb jerk. It seemed appropriate to the venue. "Your doorman said to sign him in here."
After a quick visual assessment of Verin, who stood with arms crossed and his most belligerent expression, the man behind the table raised bushy eyebrows. "He got powers? Can't use 'em here."
Shax resisted the urge to correct the man's grammar. "Nothing beyond snorting sparks."
"Um." Yes? Occasionally? He cleans up rather well? Shax managed a quick peek at the registry book—so old fashioned, an actual paper book—and the light dawned. "Ah. High-echelon non-royal with infernal attribute."
"Yeah? Don't get many of those. What's his handle?"
"Demon of Impatience." Shax ducked instinctively as Verin aimed a swat at his head. "I'm sorry, Ver. But it's true."
"Stupid demonic registry," Verin muttered.
Despite the grumbling, Verin stripped to his boxer briefs and stepped up on the scale when asked. His horns caused something of an issue since one of the human officials thought they shouldn't be included in his weight class and the other thought they should. In the end, they registered him as a heavyweight since they didn't have the equipment to deduce how much of Verin's weight was horn.
The venue might have been seedy, but the lack of posh credentials didn't appear to hurt its popularity. Humans and demons packed the bleachers and the schedule was likewise overflowing, allowing time for observation before Verin's fight. The rules appeared to follow those of bloodier human sports, those without gloves or head protection or, quick frankly, much in the way of rules. Two demons walked in. One demon walked out, the other crawled or left in some other less dignified manner. No fire or acid breathing permitted and those with wings had them pinned, but otherwise? Claws, teeth, horns, spiked tails, tentacles—all permissible.
As his turn approached, Verin became fidgety, bouncing on the balls of his feet. "You place a bet?"
"Not that I support this demonsploitation, but yes." Shax held up a hand when Verin shot him a hard look. "For you to win, Ver."
"Too fucking right."
Verin's first fight was against a distinctly reptilian demon with a heavy crocodilian tail. The referee, one of the largest rock trolls Shax had ever seen, introduced the lizard demon as Haket Escala, so he was one of those who had embraced the fashion of taking a surname as humans did. Partly, Shax saw the sense of it. If one wanted to interact with the human world, one eventually ran into—he shuddered delicately—paperwork. Much easier to navigate with a first and last name.
The combatants circled. Shax leaned forward as if it would help his focus. While Verin had perhaps a few pounds on his opponent, Haket had the reach and that pits-forsaken tail. Predictably, he feinted with a claw slash and employed the tail in his first attack, trying to sweep Verin's feet out from under him. Silly of him since Verin was far too canny a fighter to fall for the trap. Verin leaped over the tail sweep and delivered a roundhouse kick to Haket's midsection where his foot claws took out a nice chunk. Before the reptile demon could even dredge up surprise, Verin leaped again and brought his joined fists down atop Haket's skull with a nasty crunch.
The evening progressed in this way with Verin taking out previously victorious opponents one by one, usually in the first two minutes of the fight. By the fourth bout, he'd gained a proper fighter's title—Verin the Hammer—for that devastating double-fisted blow.
Just as Shax was feeling rather smug about the fact that none of the demons that evening were at all up to Ver's level of brawling, the referee announced the final bout of the evening. Horror crept up his spine as he caught sight of Verin's final opponent. Twice Verin's size, huge black wings clipped back, sharp bull's horns, one of the most handsome demons in all the precincts of Hell…
"Ver!" Shax waved him over frantically, speaking in a heated whisper as Verin jogged up. "You can't fight him."
Verin twitched when he caught sight of his last opponent, but covered it with a shrug. "So Agi's slumming tonight, so what?"
"Agaliarept will tear you into bite-sized pieces." Shax scrubbed both hands over his face. "Even if you do manage to beat him, think. Commander of Lu's own guard beaten by…well, you? My mother's general might enjoy a bit of humiliation. Agi certainly doesn't. It'll get back to court. We'll be stirring up things we don't want to. Revenge issues. Lu wondering if he needs a new commander. Do you really want to attract attention like that?"
"Fuck's sake, Shaxy. I can't just walk away now. May not matter to you, but I've got pride too."
"Could you, perhaps, throw the fight?"
In response, Verin snorted a cloud of smoke and sparks at him so thick it set Shax coughing, and stomped away to take his place arena-side. Both combatants were announced. The worked up and inebriated crowd roared. The bell rang. Shax winced as the first flurry of fists and claws ended with Verin thrown hard against the chicken wire. With a little niggle of shame wedged under his heart, his relief only grew each time Agaliarept tossed, flattened or stomped Verin. Not pretty by any stretch of the imagination, and good for Ver, he left the commander bruised and bloody, but not an evenly matched contest in the end.
The arena erupted in wild cheers when the referee called the bout, and Shax used the pandemonium to retrieve his fallen companion as discreetly as possible, head down so Agaliarept wouldn't recognize him. Not that being recognized mattered too much, but there would be the inevitable kowtowing and court gossip and the commander would want to go out for drinks. Shax just didn't think Ver would be up to it. For a few days.
Cab. Assistance from a bribed bellhop. Hotel room. Some good scotch. Verin had managed a glowering and subdued consciousness a bare two hours later. Not a bad showing, really, but Shax would have to find something Verin enjoyed doing in the next day or so. Otherwise he would become morose.
"You know, I rather liked that." Shax said as they watched the late news.
Verin managed a tiny gout of steam through his swollen nose. "Me getting pounded into the floor? Fuck off, dickweed."
"No. Ver, don't be like that. I meant the ring name they gave you. Quite fitting."
"We really should pick out last names we can register, you know. High time since we're topside so often. Verin Hammer. It suits you, don't you think?"
"Yeah." Verin stopped in the act of pouring himself another scotch and started drinking from the bottle. "Could be worse, I guess."
"Good." Shax hid his smile in a sip of his own drink. Verin hadn't cussed, so the conclusion had to be he was secretly pleased. It was going to be fun, being official in the human world. Even if there was paperwork.
Time: Shortly after Potato Surprise
Location: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
"All right. I have something." Shax nestled into the corner and put his feet up on the galley bench. Teaching the ship's AI to play Twenty Questions was just to pass an incredibly boring stretch of Copernicus flight. He reasoned it would be easy to win since even Ivana's circuits shouldn't be able to make the jumps of intuition necessary.
After a moment's silence, Ivana asked, "Now I'm supposed to ask if it's animal, vegetable or mineral, hotstuff? Are all chlorophyll based life forms considered vegetable for the game? And do all the adorable little fungi get smushed into animal, then?"
Shax furrowed his brow at the nearest speaker. "I think you're making this too complicated, my dear. If it's organic and moves at a visible pace under its own power, we'll call it animal."
"I'm just trying to get the rules down, Captain." Ivana sniffed in offense. "Human games can be so vague and wobbly."
"In the interest of moving along here, I will tell you that my thing is an animal."
Ivana's voice became insufferably smug as she said, "It's a hellcat."
"What? No. That's not how this is done."
"It was a hellcat. You're lying Captain Innocent Face. There's just this teensy kick in your pulse sometimes when—"
"Fine. It was. But that's still not how it's done. This is a process of elimination exercise. If it's not this subset, then it's that subset sort of thing."
"I see. The object is the process." Ivan sent a cup of coffee out on the conveyor, her voice eager and chipper again. "Did you want to start again?"
"All right. Once more from the beginning." Shax sipped at his whiskey-laced coffee with a contented sigh. "Ah, bribes. Thank you, Ms. Ivana."
"You're very welcome. Now is it animal, vegetable or mineral?"
"One track mind this morning. Is it a Sol system species?"
Ivana snickered. "That narrows it down to about a hundred and thirty thousand possibilities. Is your animal chordata?"
"I beg your pardon?" As discreetly as he could, Shax attempted to look up the word.
Chordata…vertebrates… "Oh. Yes. Yes it is."
Shax gave the speaker a side eye. "Yes."
"Is it an otter?"
"That's…" Shax plunked down his coffee mug. "If you've installed some sort of telepathic software, you know that's not at all cricket, Ms. Ivana."
"I'd need bio components that I don't have for that," Ivana said in flounce mode. "Don't you accuse me of cheating, Captain. You were looking at otter videos earlier. It was a reasonable guess."
"Oh. So I was. My apologies."
"Really, I'm surprised you were so obvious. Did you want to try again, Captain Tightbuns?" Ivana cooed, all but stroking Shax as she spoke.
"No. Thank you for indulging me." Shax did his best not to scowl and sipped at his coffee. "It's a stupid game anyway."
Time: An Incredibly Long Time Ago
Place: Palace of Princess Ashtaroth, Hell
"Prince Shax, your shoes!"
For a fleeting instant, Shax nearly obeyed the call of his attendants, the ones who dressed him every morning so he could be presentable for breakfast with Mum. She was a princess and wanted him to look perfect at her table. Normally, he sat quiet and still while the goblin dressers bathed him, fussed with his hair and nails, and picked out the perfect clothes. But today was special and he couldn't wait any longer.
Today was his birthday.
He raced down the stairs from his tower and only slowed as he got close to his mother's breakfast room. Running in the palace wasn't allowed. It wasn't dignified and messed up your hair, Mum said. Shax tried to look dignified as he marched past the servants, but he wasn't sure what that looked like. He would get better at it. At least this year, he didn't have an attendant leading him by the hand as if he didn't know the way.
Mum already sat in her throne-like chair in her breakfast room of black velvet and obsidian. She shone like a star against the dark background and the notion hit
Shax for the first time that it was probably the point to all the black furniture and drapery.
Carefully so he didn't fall over, Shax gave her a proper bow since he knew how to do that now. "Good morning, Royal Mum."
One perfect white eyebrow arched at him. "Where your shoes, my princeling?"
"Upstairs. Mummy, I was too excited…"
"I suppose since your feet are perfectly shaped, they won't disturb the aesthetics of the room. Though I do hope you won't be barefoot all day. Calloused feet are so unattractive." She waved to his smaller chair beside him and waited for him to clamber up. There were only two cushions now instead of three to bring him up to the height of the table. "So my own little demonling, what would you ask of your mother for you birthday this year? You must consider carefully since your sixth birthday is an auspicious one."
Considering carefully had taken up most of his thoughts the last month. For his fifth birthday, he'd asked for his own nightmare. Mum had given him a spark pony instead, and told him he must learn to ride first. The pony was wonderful, but made him think about how his mother might react to this request or that.
"I would like my own minion, Mummy. You have lots of minions. I'd like just one because I'm still a demonling."
Mum broke the top of her egg and took a dainty bite before she answered. "I see. This is an admirable wish in a young prince, to want vassals of your own. But minions are a heavy responsibility. Their appearance, their words and actions all reflect upon their liege. You must be able to control them and to discipline them. For that, I'm afraid you're still too young, my own."
"Oh." Shax tried not to let his disappointment show, but a shaky sigh still got away from him. Always too young, too small. When would he be big and have beautiful wings like Mum?
"Someday, I will choose minions for you." Mum raised her hand and with an elegant wave, ordered one of the imps forward. "Today, I have a more appropriate present for you. One I know will please you."
The imp staggered under the weight of a strange stone box. Fancy holes were carved into the lid and the box seemed to be…squeaking.
"You may open it." Mum sounded amused, though Shax didn't know why.
He eased the lid back on its hinges to reveal a ball of glossy fur crouched at the bottom of the box. Shax gasped and bounced in his chair. "A hell kitten! Really for me?"
"For you, my darling prince. We will start with smaller responsibilities before we talk about minions, yes?" She leaned down so Shax could plant a careful kiss on her cheek.
The kitten uncurled to stare up at him with its gorgeous glowing red eyes. Shining black fur covered most of it, but its ear tufts, tail tip and paws were scarlet.
"What will you call your kitten?" Mum asked in that same amused tone.
Shax lifted the kitten from its box to set on his lap and feed little bits of egg. He considered the question seriously, before answering, "I will call her Mittens."
(Author's note: Shax would continue to name his hellcats absurdly inappropriate things like Fluffy and Socks and Spot his entire life.)
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