Place: English countryside, Earth
'Twas not a fit night out for man nor beast. Heavy clouds threatened snow and smothered the moonlight. The damp chill seeped into bones even through the heaviest cloak. Precious little light skittered along this stretch of road under heavy trees.
But there was a glint of hoof, a flash of harness, a quick bright flame to light the glowing end of a cigar. One horseman at least blocked the middle of the road, lying in wait for some unfortunate traveler caught out on this dark, inhospitable night.
Hoof beats drumming along the road began as a subterranean shudder until they grew loud and louder – a horseman come riding, riding, riding—a horseman riding through the gloom along the kind's road.
"Steady on," Shax murmured as he drew his pistols, his horse shifting restlessly under him.
Verin, who stood three yards in front of him, pistols ready, lit cigar jammed between his teeth, growled, "I know how this goes, you twerp."
"Did you want to say it?"
"Nah. You do it. Yours is more fucking posh."
Shax pushed his cocked hat back and sat up straighter in the saddle. Shame it was so dark. Their victim would never see the lovely scarlet coat he wore or the scandalously tight doeskin breeches. Oh, well. Best to dress the part, complete with leather and lace if one wanted to do things right. A black horse galloped round the bend and Shax cleared his throat and fired a pistol into the air.
"Stand and deliver, your money or your life!"
The horse reared and screamed in fear, her rider keeping his seat with ease, pistol butts and rapier hilt a-twinkle in the spare bit if starlight. The rider called out in a voice that tried for arrogance despite the quaver, "Nay, it is you who will stand and deliver!"
Shax gaped a moment before calling back, "No, that's not how this works. We said it first—Dick Turpin, is that you?"
"Aye. Who's doing the ask— Shax?"
"Dick, m'dear, as I live and breathe." Shax secured his pistols and rode forward grinning. "Haven't they caught you yet?"
"Not yet and my hope is not tonight." Dick Turpin, the butcher turned livestock thief turned highwayman, reached out to clasp hands with Shax. "You're a sight for these sore eyes, yer lordship. But I've red coats breathing down my neck. You've no desire to be within shouting distance of me tonight. I've an inn I must reach afore the moon is high. If they've reached it first, I'm done for."
"What've you gotten tangled in now? Innkeeper's daughter?"
Dick flashed his charming, albeit worried, grin. "Stable boy."
"Ah, what am I to do with you?" Shax stood in his stirrups to plant a kiss on Dick's cheek. "Ver? Fancy a bit of devil among the tailors this evening?"
"You mean go cave some redcoat heads in? Fuck yeah. Always up for that."
"Be my guest then, Ver. We'll waylay travelers another night. We'll be along soon."
Verin stubbed out his cigar on a nearby stump, vaulted into his saddle, and thundered off on his huge Friesian, one of the few horses they could find willing to bear Verin's weight. Shax and Turpin followed at a more leisurely pace as his highwayman friend told him the particulars. Not that Turpin usually cared about beyond the shag itself, but it was the principle of the thing. Red coats using a stable boy as hostage and bait. Appalling.
Shax patted Turpin's thigh. "All will be well, my dear, never fear. Except for the inn. There's likely to be damage. Would you care to leave the road for a bit for a quick bit of, as they say, backgammon? Would calm your nerves."
"Would be my honor, yer lordship. That clearing over there—"
"Stand and deliver!" a quavering young voice called from that very clearing.
Shax heaved an exasperated sigh. "Oh, for pits' sakes. I see it's going to be that kind of night."
(Shax has a postscript to add: "My darlings, you may recognize bits of this from Alfred Noyes', "The Highwayman." But damn Alfred and his Victorian morals, changing the story I told him for, as he put it, dramatic purposes.")
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Location: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
Most nights, Heckle loved sleeping with Mac. Sleeping alone for imps wasn't natural. They grew up in communal nests and slept in imp piles even after reaching full growth. Sleeping with Mac was better than any overcrowded imp pile, though. The ship's engineer tended to sleep on his back with Heckle draped over him like an extra blanket, most often with a hand on Heckle somewhere and Heckle's tail wrapped protectively around that wrist.
Most nights? It was perfect. The heat, the closeness, the steady drum of Mac's heart under Heckle's ear. Except on those few nights when Mac had nightmares.
The previous night, Heckle had snapped awake to the sickening feeling of falling just before he landed with a thud on the floor. Thrashing and flailing, Mac had become a hazard and had unknowingly tossed Heckle out of bed. With a sigh, Heckle had crawled into Mac's footlocker and slept on the clothes and extra blankets there, which was fine. It just wasn't Mac.
He gave up on sleep in the early hours of the ship's day cycle and wandered to the galley for breakfast without waking Mac. His poor nephilim had spent a terrible night with his dreams and was finally sleeping quietly. Oddly, Corny and Verin were already there having breakfast, which probably meant they hadn't been to bed yet. Ship hours for a pilot could get weird sometimes, especially when the ship had to drop out of Copernicus space at off hours.
"Hey, Heck." Corny glanced up from his oatmeal. "All right there? You look a mite put out."
"I'm all right." Heckle climbed onto the opposite bench. "Ms. Ivana? Could I have a sausage, please? And some chilies?"
"Of course, sweetie. Be just a second." The AI chirped from the galley speaker. "You do look down in the dumps, sugar."
"I guess a little. I don't know what to do about Mac's nightmares."
Verin growled into his coffee before he set the mug down with a thump. "Everybody has nightmares, short stuff. You can't stop the fucking things."
Heckle nodded. "Right. Of course. It's just...I get dumped out of bed or kinda seasick when he has them."
"So wake him up," Corny said with a raised eyebrow.
Heckle shifted uncomfortably on the bench. "I, um, can't. I've tried. I shake his arm when it's safe to. I call to him. Nothing wakes him up when he's having a bad dream."
"So bite him." Verin waved a spoon at him. "You've got sharp teeth. Use the damn things."
"But…" Heckled stared at him. "I can't do that."
"You chomp on me to get me woke and you'll pull back a few less teeth, Hammer." Corny gave his demon lover a playful shove.
"Big talk, cowboy. Besides, you don't sleep through a fucking pin dropping."
"True enough." Corny shrugged. "Old habits. You reckon you know why he's got such bad dreams, Heck?"
"I don't know. He won't talk about it. I'd guess it's mostly stuff from when he was a kid."
A throat cleared from the doorway. Julian, far too awake and perfectly put together. Didn't he ever sleep? Didn't he need to? Heckle still wasn't sure how he felt about Julian. He was a killer, fine, but Heckle didn't hold that against him. It was his job. He was polite, quite, neat, could be kind, but there was something always…watchful about him as if he didn't trust any person or any given situation for more than a few moments.
Heckle didn't dislike him? He just wasn't comfortable to be around.
"I have a suggestion, Mr. Quartermaster, if you don't mind coming with me," Julian said with a soft smile.
Startled, Heckle shot a glance Verin's way.
"Go on, mini-minion," Verin grumbled with a jerk of his head toward Julian. "Parallax is an asshole but he won't hurt you."
Julian's laugh was somehow both bright and brittle as he took Heckle's hand and led him back toward the cabins. "I have a device that helps me sometimes."
"You have nightmares?" Heckle cringed as his voice squeaked.
"The nightmare having nightmares, right?" Julian gave him a conspiratorial grin before he sobered abruptly. "Oh, yes. I have them. About mistakes. About failure."
Heckle stayed outside Julian's cabin, shifting from hoof to hoof as the assassin retrieved something. When Julian reemerged, he put a curious object in Heckle's palm, a twisted shape of metal and electronics that reminded Heckle of a dragon.
"What is it?" Heckle blinked first at the device, then at Julian. "And don't you need it?"
"It's called an Ear Wyrm, my dear." Julian closed Heckle's fingers around it. "I can get another one. It goes around the outside of the ear like a cuff or a mini-comm. Certain repeated frequencies keep the nightmares at bay. It does have, ah, certain side effects, but nothing harmful."
"Oh. All right."
"Just have him try it. If he doesn't want it, just bring it back to me. I won't be offended."
"Thank you." Heckle stared at for a bit more, gathering his courage. "But the side effects?"
"It varies according to the individual." Julian crossed his heart in the ancient gesture of promise. "Nothing that will hurt him, I swear."
Heckle thanked him again and trotted off to the cabin he shared with Mac to see if his giant lover was awake yet.
The next sleep cycle, Mac fitted the golden ear wyrm around his right ear, took Heckle in his arms, and had one of the quietest nights of sleep he'd experienced in years, so he said. Heckle smiled as he trotted about his day. It had worked, they were both rested, and Heckle didn't have any butt bruises from smacking into the floor.
The only strange thing? Mac kept singing, Daisy, Daisy, give me an answer do, all day long. Over and over and over…
Time: A bit after Shax's War
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, Cargo Hold
Rosa liked her stall in the big echoing place. Sometimes it was chilly but she had a good blanket and the walls of her enclosure had warm coming out of them. She missed others like her some days but she did not miss the dapple-gray stallion who had always tried to bite her.
All of the two-leggeds here were good ones. None of them shouted at her or flicked a whip in her direction. She liked her own two-legged best, of course, the one she had brought with her into the metal barn. He would always be her favorite. They were a good team. But she liked the small-winged one, too, the one who brought her treats and talked to her as she helped him practice his flying. Small-wings was a nervous sort and needed supervision. Also, she liked the small-horned one very much, who also brought her treats and sometimes exercised with her in the big echoing place. He didn't need as much watching over, though. Usually.
Today, small-horns had climbed up a long metal thing, almost to the roof. In Rosa's experience, two-leggeds without wings climbing high on things often ended badly. This made her anxious.
He wore a metal plate in front of his face, held a metal tube on his back, and carried a metal stick that spat fire from time to time. Whatever the fire was supposed to do, it smelled terrible and the sounds were distressing. Rosa kicked her stall with her forelegs and whinnied, trying to tell small-horns to stop playing with stinking fires and come down. He went right on making the stick spit sparks at the ceiling. She reared up and neighed loud enough the sound echoed around her.
Small-horns stopped and lifted the metal plate from his face. He turned and called to big-wings down below on the floor. Why the one with wings was on the floor and the one with no wings was up dangerously high, Rosa couldn't understand. It made her very upset that her small-horns was up there.
Big-wings gestured toward her. Small-horns said something and gestured back, swinging out on his perch with a precarious one hand and one foot hold. Rosa banged against her door, frantic now. Big-wings came to talk to her. He had such a soft, soothing voice that normally would have calmed her but now small-horns had climbed off the long steps and was climbing around the metal pieces on the roof.
No! Come down! Come down now! Rosa screamed at him. He had to listen to her. Something bad would happen.
She backed up in her stall, gathered her hindquarters under her and sailed over the wall of her enclosure. Slipping and skidding over the shiny metal in the middle of the space, she raced to stand underneath small-horns, snorting and whinnying her disapproval. Big-wings flew up to where small-horns was playing with fire and they spoke with much waving of hands that nearly cost small-hands his already precarious grip.
When all the dangerous gestures were done, big-wings flew down and retrieved something that look to Rosa like a harness she would wear when pulling a cart. Small-horns stood on the long steps and put on this harness while big-wings flew over to clip the harness lead onto one of the metal bits attached to the ceiling.
Small horns called down to her, "Rosa! Look!"
She nearly had a fit when he let go of the ceiling, but he swung from the lead quite securely until he could grab on again. With a snort and a stamp of her hoof, she conceded. That was better. A little. Small-wings brought her an apple and walked her back to her stall where she settled in happily to her evening feed, though she did keep an eye on small-horns until he came down.
Just in case.
Shax came down the ladder after he'd finished welding and handed Ness the clip harness. "I'm adding her to the ship's roster. So you know."
"Oh?" Ness rolled the harness back up and put it in its cabinet. "As what, love?"
"I would have thought that was quite obvious," Shax grumbled. "Safety officer."
Time: During Hell for the Company
Place: An unspecified city done on Barbary
Sometimes the agency liked to challenge him with the impossible, Julian was absolutely certain. Since rumors floated through the halls of the ISE that he could accomplish six impossible things before breakfast, sometimes the jerks sorting assignments thought it would be hilarious to test those rumors.
Actinide Morose would be his first target tonight on Barbary. Then somehow he was supposed to catch up to and eliminate Serafina Cataclysm on one of the orbiting stations before the night was over. This might be the first time Agent Parallax failed to carry out his orders to the letter. Perhaps. He still hoped to find a way. Improvisation was one of his best things, after all.
It was a strange universe where the most ruthless crime lords took on the most ridiculous names. Julian shifted his cramping foot on the metal framework that held up the ceiling plates, oh so carefully so he wouldn't make a sound.
Come on now, Morose. I don't have all night while you shillyshally.
His micro camera showed the minions in place, but no Morose yet. The boss had set the meeting for eight. It was twenty minutes past the hour. Terribly rude. Finally, Morose made his grand entrance with a bit of arm candy plastered to his side and a monitor lizard tucked under his arm. So much drama. Julian was beginning to prefer the quiet hits on other operatives—that single muffled shot in the night, the subtle untraceable poison, the well-timed accident—to all this circus. So. Three minions. One boss. One bit of fluff who might escape becoming collateral damage if Julian did this efficiently. Boss first. Minions in quick succession according to their respective observed competence. He just had to wait until they were seated and--
The double doors to the posh conference room flew open with a crash. A tall slender figure stood silhouetted by the chandeliers in the hallway and shadowed by two crate-sized blocks of bodyguards.
"Serafina Cataclysm, it's been far too long," Morose intoned, eyes hooded as he stroked his lizard. "To what do we owe the pleasure?"
Cataclysm tossed her beautifully coifed purple hair and slunk into the room. "Actinide, darling, you look positively awful. I've come to pay my respects, of course, since I was in the vicinity."
What were the odds? Julian found himself grinning, despite the fact that he usually hated coincidences. But this was too good to pass up, if he could somehow avoid becoming ill from the cheesy dialogue. He eased a concussion grenade from his thigh pocket. That first. Then he could pick off the stunned roomful of awful below.
"I thought you were sulking up on station, my dear. Nasty rumors say you don't respect my authority," Morose purred.
Cataclysm let out a wordless snarl and flicked her nails in some coded gesture. Violent rustles of cloth and shouts followed as every single person in the room, including the supposedly harmless pretty, pulled guns. Invective flew, everyone covering everyone else.
One of Cataclysm's bodyguards shoved her behind him. She tripped on her long faux ermine coat. Her gun went off and took out the back of her guard's head. The other bodyguard, nervous and trigger happy, got off two shots and somehow managed to take down all three of Morose's goons. One of them fired as he hit the floor and hit the pretty in the chest, who flailed and shot Serafina, who managed to shoot her second bodyguard, whose gun flew out of his hand, hit the table and fired, putting a bullet between Morose's eyes.
The whole fiasco had taken no more than twelve seconds. Everyone in the room below was dead except the monitor lizard who sat on the table flicking his tongue in an unconcerned way. Julian lay on his ceiling girders, completely stunned. He'd barely been able to keep up with the epic levels of incompetence he'd just witnessed. How in the world was he supposed to report this?
With painstaking care, Julian retraced his steps, sliding back across the girders and through the duct system out to his waiting hoverbike beside a large drainage pipe. He was still so flabbergasted by the whole thing that he hadn't sent a status by the time HQ called him.
"Heading for the drop zone."
Julian hesitated long enough that HQ repeated the question. "The packages, ah, delivered each other."
"Full report on arrival. Let’s just say for now it's done." Julian shifted to take a hard left around a warehouse on the outskirts of the spaceport, trying to get his jumbled brain in order. "I'd like a counseling debrief with the usual round of meetings when I come in, please."
He could almost hear the puzzled frowns through his comm. "You never request voluntary counseling, Forty-two."
"Yes. I'm aware, thank you. This one…I'm not sure why I'm so disturbed except that it shouldn't have happened."
"Very good. Room twelve when you come in." Again, HQ hesitated. "You have vids?"
"Yes." Julian couldn't speak to the quality yet but he had been recording the entire time. "Good thing, too, or no one would believe me. I couldn't make this up if I tried."
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone and on Elistrus
"I miss trees sometimes." Shax leaned against the frame of the aft portal, staring out into the star dotted void.
Ness hesitated, wondering what sort of a mood this was, then put a gentle hand on Shax's shoulder. "Are you all right, love?"
Instead of answering the question, Shax went on. "It's not as if I grew up with trees, you understand. The flora in Hell doesn't run toward them. Except the anguish thorn trees in the eighth circle. You can't climb those, though. Certainly can't sit in their shade."
Ah. One of those moods. Instead of answering, Ness pull Shax back against his chest wrapping arms and wings around him.
"When Verin and I first started going topside, trees were almost too alien, too incredible to take in. They could be unthinkably huge and these giant beings stood around whispering to each other."
Ness probably knew less about trees than any of the crew did since he'd come directly from an isolated hallway in heaven to an archangel's troop ship. "You could understand tree?"
"Well, no." Shax turned his head, his expression frankly startled. "It's not as if I could speak to trees. That is, I suppose I did talk to them sometimes, but they pointedly ignored me. I could sense them speaking to each other, though, ponderously slow communications through chemical means and mycorrhizal networks."
"Oh, I see." Ness kissed the top of Shax's head, thinking. "There are trees on Elistrus."
"Not really the same, sweetheart."
"No, I suppose not."
Not too long after that strange, melancholy interlude, they found themselves headed to Elistrus with a delivery of specialty cat food. The shipment had missed its scheduled transport and the Brimstone had picked up the job out of dock messaging. Such a small shipment wasn't something Shax would have normally considered, but they all had to concede that the fee was more than fair. Ness had never realized cat food could be so expensive.
It seemed the perfect opportunity to lift Shax's spirits. He simply hadn't been the same since the Poe house incident. Ness suggested a walk in the park and Shax, once he'd checked the local weather several times, enthusiastically agreed. It might have been an excuse to wear that new bright blue jacket but Ness wasn't going to say anything.
"Lovely day." Shax nodded politely to a couple walking on the path.
"Yes. Good to be out in the sunshine sometimes. Starshine. Solar rays," Ness answered in distracted fashion. He considered shrugging out of his long black coat, now uncomfortably warm, though showing his wings would attract unwanted attention. Shax's jacket was the more sensible option… Odd. It seemed to be the precise shade of blue tinting the leaves on the trees. Something in the soil caused a blue rather than green tint, apparently. Blue leaves. Blue coat.
Shax's demeanor was all innocence when he finally got around to it. "I think I'd like to climb one."
I suppose I can't be shocked. "What are you up to, love?"
"Up to. Climbing trees. Ha. Come on, cupcake." Shax gave him the barest evil grin. "We used to do this at home. It'll be fun."
Those three words from Shax always sent vague shivers of dread down his compatriots' spines. Ness was no exception, but it was good to see Shax smile. They both waited until the footpath was clear of traffic. Shax picked an ancient tree whose branches overhung the trail and he shimmied up as easily as a squirrel. Ness shed his coat and took the more expedient winged route.
When they were safely sheltered in the thick blue foliage, Shax stretched out on his stomach along the branch and Ness sitting closer to the trunk, the demon prince pulled out an object reminiscent of a yo-yo.
Ness knew his role in these sorts of situations and obliged by asking, 'What's that?"
"It's a sort of a fishing rod. Shh. Just watch."
Carefully balanced on the branch with his ankles hooked behind him, Shax freed a sort of hook from the device. Ness felt certain that it wasn't just a hook, it's odd shape giving the impression of a magnetic component as well. Shax spooled out a length of clear line, so thin as to be nearly invisible. Then he shot a grin over his shoulder at Ness and settled in to wait.
That lovely butt wriggling from time to time to adjust sang a siren song to Ness. He really wanted to smack it. Bad idea, of course, since Shax would most likely lose his balance.
Soon enough, an equestrienne trotted down the path. Anyone owning a horse on Elistrus was obscenely wealthy, so Ness didn't feel quite as bad about what he was sure would happen. She wore one of the helmet-style hats with faux gears that were all the rage this year. Behind her saddle, a little bag sat secured, drawstring opening pointed up. That was the woman's first mistake.
With the tip of his tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth, Shax lowered his line and expertly dropped the hook into the opening provided by the drawstring. Some quick tugs and twitches, a tightening of his delicious thighs on the branch, and a little parcel emerged from the bag attached to the odd hook. Shax pulled it up quickly and the woman rode on, oblivious.
"Lovely! We seem to have acquired lunch." Shax chuckled as he tossed the packet over his shoulder to Ness.
Fumbling, nearly dropping it, Ness caught the packet and unwrapped the plastifoil. There was, indeed, a rather fussy-looking sandwich. "I don't understand why you would want to steal food."
"It's wasn't intentional, sweetie. Not always certain what you'll get during these expeditions. You're welcome to it, if you're hungry."
Over the next half hour, Shax's arboreal fishing snagged a ring, a pack of prophylactics, a shopping list, and a good pair of gloves. He didn't seem at all disappointed by the dubious haul. It was obviously the thrill of the hunt that amused him. Ness' only contribution was to put the items in his pockets to keep them safe.
"One more, cupcake. Promise." Shax blew him a kiss. "Thank you for being so patient today."
Another rider came cantering down the path, this one wearing a modern-style Homberg, a black one with just the barest hint of gold dust sparkle as it caught the light. Ness had no doubt that this hat was in trouble.
Shax hissed a breath through his teeth. "I must have that hat."
Hat lust, right on schedule…
The unsuspecting owner of the coveted headgear rode underneath their branch and Shax unerringly snagged the hat, yanking it up into the leaf cover before the owner had a chance to glance around and up. Too late to catch its trajectory and unable to see the missing hat, the poor man had no idea what had happened. He stopped, rode, back, and searched the ground for a few moments. Then he shook his head in bemusement and rode on.
The hat, due to its precipitous flight, was lodged in the leaves out of Shax's immediate reach. He tugged on his line but it was stuck tight. Carefully, Shax scooted farther out on his limb, trying to reach it. His arms weren't quite long enough.
"Be careful love. Do you want me to get that?"
"No, no, almost there." A little farther, a little farther…Shax had just managed to close his fingers around the hat's brim when the branch bent under him wildly. Unwilling to let go of the hat, he flailed wildly, snagged a handful of leaves, and plummeted.
Ness barely had time to react before Shax landed in the middle of the path with a solid whump, badly startling, and barely missing, an approaching couple. He lay there scowling up at the branches for a moment before he bounced up and offered the traumatized pair a bow.
"Terribly sorry. Wasn't quite the landing I'd intended."
They sidled around him, wide-eyed, and hurried away, leaving Shax to dust himself off.
"Are you all right?" Ness called down as he gathered the tree-fishing tool and his coat.
"More or less. Ow." Shax rubbed at his hip as Ness joined him on the ground.
Ness handed Shax his little tool of ill-gotten gains and brushed some of the dust off his back. "It probably doesn't do any good to say it serves you right, does it?"
"Not in the least." Shax plopped his new hat on his head and turned to point an accusing finger at the tree. 'You did that on purpose."
Though there was no wind, not even a breeze, the tree's leaves rustled.
Shax paled. "I think I've had enough fresh air and trees today, don't you?" He took Ness's arm and turned him back the way they had come. "Let's go back to the nice, unforested ship."
Time: Shortly before the beginning of Potato Surprise
Location: Earth, North America
"You know this is all crap, right?" Verin grumbled as he chewed on the end of an unlit cigar.
"What is, Ver?" Shax dodged a man on a unicycle, caught up in the distractions of the carnival crowd.
"The fucking tarot cards, dumbass. Those damn cards aren't any more mystical than my left nut. We used to use the same damn deck to cheat humans out of their gold."
Shax nudged Verin with an elbow. "And here I thought your left nut was just a little heavier." He ducked the cuff to his head and laughed. "It's not the cards, Ver, or the pictures on them. You could draw cards with flying pigs and baby vampire bunnies on them and it could still work."
"I'd pay to see that."
"Ha. Yes, actually, that would be fun. But it's all in the emotive energy invested, the psychic will of the reader and the subject. The cards themselves don’t matter, as long as you've assigned them meaning."
Verin's sigh carried a double curl of smoke. "If you say so, your all-knowing highness."
Their goal was at the far end of the carnival, beyond the brightest of the lights. Shax pulled Verin out of the way of a stilt walker—Ver would've happily let the man crash into him and topple over—and hurried them along. The tent at the end of the fairway was different from the larger tents, more of a yurt shape and hung with long tassels that gesticulated languidly in the breeze.
Shax stopped in the doorway to appreciate the artistry of the scene—the dark silks, the cinnamon and cardamom scent drifting from within, the soft red-tinged glow that beckoned the curious seeker. Well done, indeed. He pushed through the curtains, Verin's steam laden breath just behind him, a comfort and a distraction since he knew Verin well enough to know his companion wouldn't leave his skepticism at the door.
"Welcome, Highness," a genderless voice said from behind a velvet draped table. Black veils shrouded the figure, giving only an impression of a face, with the only visible physical attributes the elegant hands with their red lacquered nails.
"You know me?" Shax asked as he swaggered in.
"Not by name. Though Hell's courts are known to me. I know royalty when it's in my presence."
"Excellent." He took the chair opposite the tarot reader and set his hands flat on the table. "Then we shouldn't need preliminaries. I'd like a reading, please. Short-term future. The next year or two."
"You should have a more comprehensive one, Highness. It would be in your best interests."
"I'm sure it would, since it would be more expensive," Shax gave them a warm smile to show he didn't at all resent a bit of huckstering. "Just the immediate future, please."
The reader tipped their head in a sideways nod and handed the deck of cards to Shax. "Look them over. Let them know you."
The cards were, as so often with tarot decks, a bit larger than playing cards and a bit clumsy to fan out. Shax's eyebrows went up as he examined this particular deck, which wasn't at all usual. Instead of the normal suits and Major Arcana, all the symbolism on these cards was ornithological. No wands, pentacles, cups and swords here from the Rider deck, nor the discs of the Crowley Thoth. Instead, the suits appeared to be eggs, feathers, claws and…chickens? He might have been able to puzzle out the Major Arcana eventually, but they were all unfamiliar, each one a beautiful bird painting.
"What a lovely deck, Mx." Shax shuffled the cards and handed them back, annoyed at being thrown off balance.
"You will follow their meaning easily, Highness. Never fear." The smile in that soft voice was obvious, rankling Shax further since he wasn't normally so transparent.
They took his hand briefly in a light, cool grip, then laid the first card, the king of feathers, represented by a peacock with his tail spread behind him. "The peacock is you, Highness."
"Because I'm so beautiful?" Shax gave them a wink.
They answered with a throaty chuckle. "You are. But you are vain and proud, as well. These are your greatest challenges."
Shax fought a scowl. "It's a genetic issue."
"Your understanding of perception and your ability to project authority also come from these attributes, so long as you use them wisely."
"Duly noted." So far, the reader hadn't said anything new.
The next cards were the Knight of feathers, represented by a harpy eagle, and the ten of claws. The reader tapped it with their forefinger. "Your allies. The one who stands at your shoulder now, yes. But there will be others."
He wanted to ask why he would need allies, but kept silent. A demon prince could always use them, of course. In the court of Hell, he was such a fringe player, though, not involved in the broiling cauldron of constant intrigue.
Hesitantly, as if they were disturbed by it, the reader played the next card that showed a stooping hawk with red-talons and an ominous red sun behind it. "The Hawk, Highness."
Shax stared at it, threat nearly pulsating from it. "It's like the Tower, isn't it?"
"Very similar." They inclined their head. "Disaster in your near future." She laid out three more cards in quick succession, the Knight of eggs, represented by a partridge, the nine of feathers, a cardinal, and the King of chickens, represented by a Jersey Giant rooster in glossy black with a proud red comb. "Economic. Familial. Political."
The next card played was a vulture with a skull for a head, though it was reversed.
"Death?" Shax asked, his voice a spare murmur to keep is steady.
"The Vulture is Death, yes. Though reversed it can mean great change. A new beginning."
They drew several more cards—a flight of swallows, a great horned owl, a winter ptarmigan, and a mantling eagle. "When the time comes, and you will know the time, you must move swiftly, Highness. Swiftly, silently. Vanish into the landscape to avoid disaster." They stopped the reading suddenly and picked up all the cards. "I'm sorry, Highness. Normally, the readings are for show. To give the customer something hopeful. Sometimes, the cards read true. But I can't continue and I won't charge you."
"You can't?" Verin growled from behind Shax. "Why the fuck not?"
They nodded at Verin. "You will need your knight in the days to come. Take the warning, Highness. The reading is too dark for me, too difficult."
Shax rose slowly, confused and disturbed. Verin had to catch him by the elbow when he stumbled. "Er…thank you? I think? We won't distress you further."
As they made their way back out onto the midway, which now seemed too brassy and loud, the lights too garish, Shax managed to shake off some of the creeping dread he'd felt in the reader's tent. "Ah, well. I guess you're right, Ver. It was a load of crap."
Verin snorted sparks and jammed his cigar between his teeth again. "Told you. And I sure as shit am not some fucking harpy eagle."
Time: Directly before the start of Shax's War
Place: Interstellar Enforcement HQ
"Parallax." The director tapped his papers straight, a nervous tic. "Come in."
"Sir." Julian hesitated in the doorway, thrown off by the sheer number of administrators behind the table. "Am I up for review?"
"No. The committee has some questions. Come in. Sit down." The director indicated the single uncomfortable chair in front of the table. "I must say, this is rather poor form. This is not how I'm accustomed to seeing agents at headquarters."
Bad enough being called in right from an assignment. Julian was filthy, exhausted, and his arm might have been bleeding again. Well, it would serve them right if he dripped on the lovely new conference room tiles. "I was on assignment when the summons came through, sir. It did have a level five priority on it."
Urgent. Come with all possible speed.
He'd expected headquarters to be under siege or something equally exciting. No such luck.
"Yes. Quite." The director did that blustery throat-clearing thing. "For god's sake, Julian. Sit."
Lovely. He'd embarrassed the director. "Yes, sir." He sat carefully, set his hoverbike helmet on the floor and tried not to look like he was cradling his arm.
"Parallax." A woman he couldn't identify spoke up sharply from halfway down the left side of the table. She was iron-haired and hard featured. Ex-marine, Julian guessed. "You consort with demons in your line of work?"
Consort? What an odd way to put it. "I have contact with demons and certain other hell species, yes."
"This demon?" The head of research asked as a holo still image flashed into the air before them.
Julian had to fight a smile. It was Shax, cocky and self-assured as he leaned against a bar somewhere chatting to the bartender. Little alarm bells rang in Julian's head, but he'd certainly mentioned Shax in previous reports. Using him as an informant and occasional operative wasn't a secret he'd kept from the ISE. "Yes."
"Can you verify his name?"
Ye gods, what had Shaxy gotten himself into now? "That's Captain Shax Goldner, of the transport ship, Brimstone."
"You're certain?" a thin-faced man from the opposite end barked out.
Another holographic still popped up. "And this one?"
This was Shax on a dock somewhere, talking to what appeared to be a group of academic types. He was grinning. They were scowling. "That's also Captain Goldner."
"You are a hundred percent certain?" the first woman snapped.
"No, ma'am. That's foolish in my profession. I can't be without doubts from a still image. One I didn't take."
"Reasonably certain, then?" a small man with a high voice piped in.
"Yes, sir. Reasonably certain."
"Were you aware then, Mr. Parallax, that the captain of the Brimstone recently engaged in unauthorized temporal displacement?" This from an older military man, so old he looked like retirement was several centuries late.
Wait…what? Unauthorized? "I had heard rumors, none I've followed up on, that there was a time travel incident. I'd also heard it was disastrously accidental."
"When you heard these rumors, why didn't you detain the demon captain for questioning?" the head of research asked.
Julian blinked, staring. He glanced at the director for some clue as to how he was supposed to handle this. The director tapped on his holo pad, very studiously not looking up. "I…had no orders to do so? None that reached me, in any case."
"We understand that you're a high-level agent," a younger man purred from the far right end of the table. Julian hadn't a clue what role that one might play, which made him supremely uncomfortable. "And have a great deal of autonomy in the field. Why wouldn't you take the initiative to bring this demon in?"
Again, Julian tried and failed to catch the director's eye. What the hell was going on here? "My autonomy is generally mission specific. Yes, I'm authorized to intervene in matters of interstellar security threats but they need to be overt threats without orders." He cleared his throat, knowing he was wandering out onto cracking ice. "Time travel, while outlawed on some space stations specifically, is not prohibited by interstellar law or planetary law. Since no one's done it before, I assume no one felt the need to legislate. It was my understanding that Captain Goldner's temporal accident occurred in Copernicus space? Not on a space station? Am I incorrect?"
"You are correct, Mr. Parallax." The minister of transportation nodded. "But such an unusual occurrence didn't even peak your curiosity?"
"I won't say that, sir. But the Brimstone's time jump accident was safely in the hands of top-notch academics by the time word reached me. I didn't see any need to be involved."
The marine type was by now alarm siren red and her teeth were quite obviously clenched as she said, "Your demon captain friend received a summons from ISE to come in for questioning regarding the incident. This was his response."
The holo projector popped on again, this time showing a full vid. Shax spun idly in the desk chair of what looked to be a private communications suite of the sort found on some space stations. He was playing pirate captain, appearance-wise, in his captain's jacket and silver scale armor shirt, a bit too much eye makeup and probably half the earrings he owned. He came around on the third spin and propped his boots up on the comm console.
"Greetings, lovely ISE people. I realize our relationship has been rather problematic over the years. But your last communique was nothing short of rude, so I will be clear and bluntly to the point and use one of my favorite phrases. You are out of your jurisdiction. So far out of it, I fear you may not find your way back. I'm not unreasonable, as demons go, and I'm perfectly willing to point the way."
He took his feet down and leaned closer to the vid screen. "My time and my information are not free. I've sold both to the nice professors at the university, much to their finance manager's chagrin. If you want the information, you pay me what they paid or you negotiate with them. I am not coming in to headquarters to end up some caged pet demon and you have no right to demand it. Now shoo."
Shax ended the communication by sticking a cigar in his mouth and holding up both middle fingers.
It was impolitic and incredibly stupid but Julian laughed and once started, found it difficult to stop. When he finally took a deep breath and wiped at his eyes, the director was drumming his fingers on the table.
"Found that amusing, did you?" the strange man at the end of the table purred.
"It was. Because he's right, I'm afraid." Julian pulled in another deep breath and made a conscious effort at a more sober demeanor. "We have no right to harass him for the information."
The hard-faced woman growled, "You have an obligation here, Parallax—"
Julian held up a hand. "Ladies and gentlemen of whatever committee this happens to be, here's what I see. Somewhere, there is an internal program to develop time travel. To date, this program has not been successful. Then you hear that a disreputable demon has managed to accomplish, by accident, that which you cannot. This annoys certain internal parties and you believe you can make demands. When they are refused, you call me in to make the demands instead because I have prior contact with said disreputable demon."
He shook his head, managing a pleasant enough smile. "My answer is no. I will ask. But this particular demon is valuable in the long run. I will not jeopardize a good working relationship with a vital operative to coerce information that can be obtained by other means."
The director finally sat up straighter and raked a gaze over one side of the table, then the other. "There you are, ladies and gentlemen. I will repeat that I predicted this outcome."
"You're his supervisor! You can—"
The director cleared his throat to cut off the objecting VIP type. "No. There are procedures in place for a reason. No, I can't."
The head of research frowned, though what he said wasn't what Julian was expecting. "Mr. Parallax, your arm is dripping."
Julian leaned over and spotted the ever-growing red puddle on the crisp white tiles. "Ah. So it is."
The director huffed a sigh. "Dismissed, Parallax. And for god's sake, get to medical."
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