Time: 21st century, December
"The fuck, Shaxy?" Verin spun in a slow circle, taking in their surroundings.
"I have reasons." Shax stamped his boots in the snow while he got his bearings. The graveyard was lovely in its festive lights and holiday decorations. He had no idea why every human community didn't do this for the solstice. But no, graveyards had to be creepy, silent, respectful places, not like the old days--
"Shax!" Ver bellowed. "Five seconds to tell me why I'm freezing my damn balls off in wherever the fuck we are!"
"Oh, very well. If you insist. We're going to spend the winter holidays in Iceland."
Verin dropped his head into his hands. "Why do you hate me, you short-assed royal prick? Why?"
"I'm quite fond of you, Ver." Shax patted his shoulder and pointed to the nearby road. "We're going this way. I have reservations at a lovely inn. We'll stay inside and drink and eat and read. And no one will be able to find us for anything Krampus related at all this year."
That brought Ver's head up. "So no Krampus herding for all the fucking krampuslaufs?"
"What the fuck ever. No oversight of the annual brushing? Or the stupid Krampus feed supervision?"
"None of it. We are bowing out inasmuch as we won't be locatable." Shax strode off, confident Ver would follow. "It'll be the best solstice we've had in years. Trust me."
"I hate it when you say that."
But Shax knew he was right this time. The doorway from Hell was conveniently located with the hotel on the Varma not even a quarter mile away. They were greeted warmly, and set up in a spacious room with two beds and lovely down duvets. They dined on reindeer and goose, trout and cod, boiled eggs in the hot springs on the property—because why not?—and lolled about in the geothermally heated pool. In the evenings, they drank Opal, which Verin claimed as his favorite fucking thing ever, and Brennivin, which the locals called Black Death.
No place in the human world got closer to good demon liquors than Iceland. It was grand.
Their peace remained undisturbed until Jól—another lovely custom, that Icelanders used the old word—when Verin had burrowed back into his bed for a nap after breakfast and Shax sat by the window, reading. The screams were entirely unexpected.
"Go tell them to keep it the fuck down," Ver growled from his blanket nest.
Shax raised an eyebrow even though Ver couldn't see. "You do know you should be looking into that as a serious threat, don't you? Aren't you my bodyguard?"
A good deal of grumble-cussing followed as Ver emerged and located his pants. Even after his bodyguard statement, Shax decided to go with him, two steps behind him, since his curiosity was going to give him an aneurysm otherwise. There were definite wails of despair amid the screams. No demon could resist that.
Footsteps pounded down stairs and hallways toward the common room with its fireplace and Yule tree. Presumably other guests and staff also drawn by the shrieks. Far from calming the situation, more people simply seemed to produce more screams.
Shax understood enough Icelandic—since human languages were one of his favorite pastimes—to pick out, "This can't be!" "It's the Christmas cat!" And one voice sobbing, "I'm so sorry! I'm not wearing anything new! It's my fault!"
"Oof," Shax exclaimed as he ran into Verin's rather solid back.
Ver had stopped in the hallway, just out of sight of the common room. "Christmas cat? The fuck are they yammering about?"
"It's a human thing. Regional. A belief that on this day, if you don't wear a new article of clothing, preferably one gifted to you, a giant cat will come and eat you."
"That's...humans are weird."
True, though when they rounded the corner, the humans were actually trapped in the common room by a giant cat lounging across the doorway. Larger than a Siberian tiger, glossy black with red paws, the cat's long tufted ears swiveled to catch every whimper and scream.
Shax sighed. "I suppose it was just a matter of time."
"Steaming piles of troll shit," Ver agreed.
The cat was, naturally, not a Christmas Cat.
"Mittens," Shax whispered as sternly as he could manage. The end of the hellcat's tail twitched in response. He stepped over her tail to stand where she couldn't pretend not to see him. Hands on his hips, he began a more proper scold. "Mittens, you can't be here. You know it's not allowed."
Her tail did the little quiver that cats used to say I'm very pleased to see you, and she mewed at him.
"I know I didn't come home. I've been having a bit of a holiday." Shax turned to the humans who had huddled, more or less, in the corner behind the tree. "I'm so sorry. She's usually the good kitty of the pride. I'll just, ah, give me just a moment."
"So it's not the Christmas Cat?" one of the humans whisper-squeaked.
"Then what the hell is it?"
Shax rolled his eyes. Though they had come awfully close to guessing. "Exotic wildcat breed. Hybrid. Stay where you are gentle folk."
"She won't eat us?"
"Can't guarantee that," Ver rumbled. "I'd stay real still if I didn't wanna be cat lunch."
The humans froze into a tangled knot of limbs and heavy breathing. Shax shot Ver a Very Stern and Quelling Glance, but he just grinned around his cigar stump. Mittens sat up and butted her head against Shax's chest with a more demanding mew.
"I suppose so. The Krampuses should all be fed and put to bed by now, I'd think." Shax stroked behind her ears and couldn't help the smile when she started to purr. "Ready to go home, Ver? Mittens says she missed us."
"You. The damn cat missed you. She thinks I'm just furniture."
Mittens rubbed the side of her head against any part of Shax she could reach.
"All right, sweetie. All right." He laughed and rubbed his face against hers. To the humans, he said, "Sorry about that. You might want to make sure you all have something new, though. The day isn't over and the actual Christmas Cat might still come."
The humans' shudders practically vibrated through the floorboards. The unmistakable scent of someone's bladder giving up followed them out. Upstairs, Shax packed quickly, Verin ready to go seconds before him, which had to be a record. Packing quickly and Shax were not things that went together well.
On the way back to the graveyard, Mittens happy to walk at Shax's side with his hand on her shoulder, Verin gave him an odd look. "That was kinda meaner than your usual, your irritating highness."
Shax snorted. "Mistaking my beautiful Mittens for some mangy Christmas Cat. The utter nerve."
With a definitely offended sneeze, Mittens obviously agreed.
Author's note: The Christmas Cat is actually a thing in Iceland. Really.
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
"Hello, Mum." Shax settled himself in his desk chair, feeling on solid ground for once since he hadn't initiated the call or done anything to tick his royal mother off. "You're looking positively radiant. Bacchanal this evening?"
She preened a bit, smoothing her silver hair. Flattery was always a wise opening gambit with her, but she was particularly stunning in a diaphanous pale blue gown dripping with diamonds. "There is. I think I'll allow the general to escort me. I'm in the mood for a powerful demon groveling on his knees."
"Er, quite." Shax sipped his coffee and did his best to banish thoughts of how exactly General Separ would be groveling. "To what do I owe the pleasure? Not that I mind if this is a purely social call, of course."
"I would like to speak to my grandson when we've finished, but yes, I had a particular reason for calling." She adjusted her sleeves and managed it in a way that was both graceful and irritated. "I require something from you."
"A favor?" Shax purred. Favors could be as good as currency.
Her eyes narrowed. "Hardly. You are my son and should accede to my wishes. Besides which, you are indebted if we come down to it."
Shax barely managed to keep himself from answering with an eye roll. "Even after the Leopold kidnapping? I'd say your account was emptied there."
"It was an enforced familial visit. Not a kidnapping. Don't over dramatize." She sniffed. "Though my beautiful boy once lived to please me."
Oh, I've missed these games. "I grew up and moved out of the palace, Mum. But tell me what this is all about. Perhaps it's something I can help with in the course of my normal activities."
"Lu's trying to find—"
"Oh, no no no no." Shax put his coffee mug down with a thump. "Let's stop right there. Why in all the wide universe would I ever do a favor for him?"
Mum favored his question with a delicate snort. "It's not a favor for him. It's for me. I'll have no peace from his whining until I've at least brought the subject to you. He's recently heard that there are objects out there in the universe called Obfuscational Orbs. Some exotic human tech or other that allows the holder to lie with impunity and be believed without reservation. Obviously, he wants one."
"Of course he does. This wouldn't be a favor, though. This would be a commission. If I do happen to find one, and I've never heard of them, I would expect to be compensated for skilled services."
"So very mercenary." A little smile tugged at her lips. "That's my boy. I understand compensation would be negotiable."
"Up to and including full pardon and a restoration to the courts for me and Verin?"
"It may have been discussed."
Shax waved a hand. "I just wanted to check. Interesting, but I wouldn't take that offer. Rather fond of my life out here."
She heaved a mournful, tragic sigh—a graceful sigh, and how many beings could manage that? "I was afraid you might feel that way. Though why you would so thoroughly embrace a life of uncouth brigandry when you could live as a prince again is baffling. Regardless, price is highly negotiable."
"Very good. I'll keep eyes and ears out for it." The door behind Shax opened followed by a scrambling of claws as Leopold ran across the cabin. "Hello, my dear. Have you come to speak with Grandmama?"
Leopold stood on his hind legs, forepaws clutching the edge of the desk. "Hello, Grandmama." Then he made little shooing motions at Shax. "Could you go away, Papa? Some privacy, please?"
Shax glared from his son to his mother. "Did you just try to shoo me from my own cabin?"
"Yes, darling." His mother purred. "Shoo. Run along now."
"You could take this in your own cabin." Still, Shax found he had risen from his chair and Leopold now occupied it. Leopold peeped and pointed to the holo display. "Yes, I know my comm is better quality than yours. Oh, very well. Fifteen minutes."
Grumbling, he walked to the door and put one foot out before he turned back. "And don't change the settings on my chair."
Leopold waved over his shoulder with a distracted peep.
Lovely. I know where I rate here. There might have been grumbling all the way to the galley.
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.)
Time: 1350 CE,
Place: Precincts of Hell
Till was dead. No fucking way around it. Verin had tagged after Shax as he went into all out Prince of Hell mode and nearly burned the damn town to the ground. The humans would've deserved it, sure. Hanging Till for a prank was just a shitty thing to do, even for humans. But the town survived, more or less, and Shaxy finished his tantrum without too much damage to himself.
Problem was that wasn't the end of it. Shaxy had come home to see if he could find Till's soul. Verin didn't have a clue what Shax would do with it if he found it, but that wasn't his business. Weird thing, though. They'd searched and asked around everywhere. Till's soul hadn't come in any of the shipments and wasn't listed in Purgatory. He wasn't some fucking ghost moaning over his place of execution, either. Sometimes that happened. Till had been an annoying long-leggedy human but he hadn't really been evil.
Probably had just wandered off into the next whatever—plane, level, life. Typical.
But Shaxy took it hard. Lay curled up on the reclining couch in his conservatory. Wouldn't eat. Wouldn't talk to anyone. In a last ditch effort, Verin picked the couch up and dumped him out of it. Nope. Shax curled up in a miserable ball on the floor.
Irritated beyond words and maybe a little worried though he wasn't tell anyone that, Verin stomped to the stables, bellowed for a nightmare to be saddled and rode to Princess Ashtaroth's palace. Her gate guards let him through, of course. Even without Shax as an automatic pass through, he'd grown up at the palace. They all knew him.
"Xzim!" Verin bellowed for the major domo as he stomped into the reception hall. "Where's her nibs?"
The minor fallen glided out from her room beside the door, looking down her long beak of a nose at Verin. "She's engaged. Keep your voice down. What could she possibly want to speak to you about?"
"Her son, you snooty jackass. What else would I be here for?"
That shut her up as she must have put the numbers together and realized Verin coming alone probably wasn't a good thing. "Wait here."
"Yeah, yeah." Verin knew the drill. Wait until summoned. He waited long enough that he had time to bully the house imps into bringing him food. Might as well make it worth my while.
Finally, the major domo came back, eyeing the imps suspiciously who were scurrying away with empty plates. "She will see you now. Do not annoy her with petty matters."
"Fuck off," Verin responded without too much rancor. His empty pit of a stomach was full, after all.
Herself was out on her balcony artfully arranged on a chaise as she surveyed her principality of red planes and forbidding cliff sides. "Verin." She waved a languid hand at the nearest chair. "Sit. Tell me why you come without sending word first. Does my son need rescuing from something?"
"Not…as such, ma'am." Verin kept his steam and his cussing to himself in her presence. He might've snarked at the major domo but not herself. Princess Ashtaroth was one of the few beings who scared him. "He's, ah, in a funk since his human died. The thief he really liked."
She drummed her perfect claws against the arm of her chaise. "He has these spells. It will pass."
"I guess so, ma'am? It's just usually he mopes around a little. Paces the palace. Doesn't want a bath and sh—stuff." Verin drew in a huge breath. "'Cept this time? He won't eat. He won't drink. He won't even get up. Just lies there in a demon prince ball and whimpers sometimes."
She frowned at that and even her frown was beautiful and perfect. Of course it was. "That is unusual. Perhaps you were right to come. He really should think ahead where these things are concerned, though. Arrangements could have been made. Of course he left it until too late."
"Yes, ma'am," Verin mumbled.
He waited as quietly as a demon of impatience could while those claws drummed and she stared holes in the air.
"You will tell him this, oh my son's garde du corps," she said in a Voice of Proclamation. "I will hold a Grand Ball a fortnight hence. All of Hell's royalty will attend. But hear me—Prince Asmodeus has acquired a diadem of blue diamonds and fire opals and I will not be outshone at my own fete. I will have the jewel casque of Mansa Musa. You will fetch it for me."
"Highness…um. No one knows where it is?"
For the first time she turned to him, her blue eyes flashing with barely controlled temper. "You will tell him."
"Yes, highness." He got up and started to back out. "I'll just go…do that."
She turned back to her view and Verin hustled out of there. Never safe to have her attention for too long. He galloped back to Shax, more disturbed than when he'd left, and returned to where Shax lay under his dark cloud.
"Hey. Um. I'm back, genius. From seeing your mom. She's having some big-ass ball thing in a couple weeks but she's pissed that your Uncle Asmo has a pretty that outclasses hers. She told me… Fuck, Shaxy, you better be listening, 'cause I'm in some deep shit here. She wants me to bring her Mansa Musa's jewels. I don't even know where the fuck to start."
Shax unwound far enough to blink one bloodshot eye at him as he whispered, "She wants you to fetch them?"
"Yeah. I mean, she probably would've asked you but you're not answering your fucking messenger imps."
"Yes. I suppose…" Shax unwound farther so he reclined on his side with his head elevated. He looked like crap but at least he looked sane. "One would begin with his son, Mansa Maghan, I assume. Though the jewels might have gone to Musa's older bother, Suleyman. Possibly. This would require some considerable reconnaissance."
Verin let out a slow breath. "Yeah? You think?"
"Oh, yes. Quite a bit of handing off power after Musa's death. Tricky." Shax rolled over and stretched out on his back. "I'm too dizzy to think straight, though. We'll have dinner early. Tell Soot to bring up what he can right now. And some of the good port. We need to plan this out."
"Fucking right I'm not listening to you ramble on an empty stomach," Verin grumbled as he strode off to find the kitchen imps. He didn't smile. No need for Shax to know how worried he'd been. Inwardly, though, he laughed. He'd known Shax's mom would know just what to do.
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