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."
"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."
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.)
Time: Just after Fear of Frogs
Place: Brimstone cargo hold, Carolus Spaceport on route to Opal
"I thought we agreed no more unverified fucking eggs, sawdust for brains!" Sparks flew from Verin's nostrils as he gestured toward the aforementioned alleged egg on the floor of the hold.
It was an odd one, if it was an egg at all. More of a rounded cube than an ovoid, striated as if it were made of granite, it had been lurking, er, sitting outside the Brimstone's hatch access. In the most logical, reasonable, self-preservation parts of Shax’s brain, he knew he shouldn't have brought it inside.
But he was curious.
"Don't look like no egg I ever laid eyes on," Corny drawled at his shoulder. "But then, I ain't exactly home no more, am I?"
Shaking his head, Corny turned on one of the adjustable spot lamps, turned it so it faced the ceiling, and ambled over to the egg.
"Uh, what're you doing, Corn?" Verin asked in a much softer voice than he'd used to address Shax. Typical.
"City demons." Corny shook his head as he picked up the egg and placed it atop the spotlight. The bright light rendered the shell partially translucent.
Shax leaned in with undisguised fascination. "There's someone in there, I take it?"
"I reckon so, Cap. Not sure what, but you've got yourself an egg that's fixin' to hatch, well, somethin'."
"Do you suppose we should keep it warm?" Ness cupped the egg in his hands, frowning at it.
Verin snickered. "You gonna sit on it, wingboy?"
"I may have feathers, but I'm not shaped quite right for that," Ness said in a too-even tone Shax couldn't quite parse as serious or not. Probably not, but Ness's sense of humor could evaporate when he was distracted. His wings flipped and fluttered as he gathered some hay from Rosa's feed bin and constructed a serviceable nest. This he set on the floor of the hold and turned the spotlight on it. "Should be warm enough, don't you think?"
"Probably won't need it long." Corny pointed to a crack started on the top surface of the egg cube.
All sorts of possibilities swarmed in Shax's brain and he knelt beside the nest to watch as the unknown eggling pecked its way toward freedom. Some little alien dragon, perhaps? Or an exotic reptile? A recognizable beak showed through the gray and white shell now, yellow and thick. With a heave, the eggling broke the shell in half and sat in the midst of the shards, breathing hard. It was just a ball of egg muck at first, but it shook itself…
Its covering—feathers, fur, hair—fluffed out all at once. Now it was a ball of purple fluff with a beak and, possibly eyes in there somewhere. Tiny talons peeked out at the bottom of the fluff ball, so there were at least feet if not legs.
"Aww." Corny tipped his hat back and crouched beside Shax. "The little feller's so dang cu—"
The force of the chirp soundwave knocked Shax and Corny on their butts and sent Ness staggering back a step. Verin, too sturdy to be knocked about by a mere bit of auditory shockwave, had still squeezed his eyes shut.
"Well." Shax decided sitting was a good idea and stayed right where he was on the floor. "That was unexpec—"
At least they were more prepared this time, though Shax was quite certain the sound could stop someone's heart. "Perhaps we should move ba—"
"Hell's motherfucking pointy gates!" Verin bellowed, hands clapped over his ears. "Get rid of that thing or I'm dropkicking its ass into the next century!"
"It's just a baby," Ness grabbed his arm to keep him from charging. "Don't hurt the poor thing."
"I don't care of it's a stinking cherub made of gold! Shax, don't just fucking sit there!"
Carefully, to make certain he didn't startle the potentially dangerous fluff ball, Shax reached for Rosa's empty feed bucket and popped it over the newborn whatever-it-was.
The mighty soundwave nearly knocked the bucket off again but Shax held tight. Contained, the sound was nearly bearable, though probably not good for the hatchling. What now, what now… Call spaceport security? Find a soundproof box? Before he could make any decision, a beautiful trilling song drifted into the cargo hold followed by one of the most gorgeous creatures Shax had ever seen. Not quite the length of his forearm, the creature flew on shining appendages that were more delicate fins than wings, trailing lustrous, decorative tails. Color was difficult to assign since it changed from blue to green to brilliant orange as it progressed through different bits of light. The closest analog he had were old Earth sea dragons, but that didn't give the creature justice.
It flew right to Shax as he sat entranced at its approach, then it turned and smacked him across his face with its several shining tails.
"Ow!" Shax sat hard, hand on his stinging cheek.
The creature trilled again and Shax nearly forgave it for striking him. Then it pushed over the bucket and fluttered around the hatchling.
"That can't be the parent?" Ness asked in an awed whisper. "Can it?"
The hatchling answered for them, bouncing on its stubby feet and calling pitiably in a tiny voice to the flying creature, cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep, as if it had never produced sounds capable of endangering ships. The shimmering creature hovered close, gathered the peeping hatchling into several of its appendages and flew off out of the hold, leaving Shax on the floor gaping after it.
"Shaxy," Verin's growl was soft, all the more threatening for its lack of volume.
"No more unverified eggs or I snap your horns off and give them to a pack of stray dogs."
Shax accepted Ness's hand up and dusted off the seat of his work pants as he huffed at Verin. "Fine. No sense of adventure."
"Your sense of adventure might well get us all killed someday," Ness murmured. "And I agree with Verin. No more strange eggs. They don't seem to be good for you at all."
Time: A long time ago (Shax and Verin's young adulthood)
Place: Aministrative halls of Hell, Earth
"This isn't really punishment for you." Verin leaned back against the rock wall beside the desk.
"Of course it is." Shax slouched on the high stool, rolling the blood pen back and forth across the ledger. "It's so dull and monotonous. And it takes forever."
"Yeah, but you get to boss people around, you little shit. Stop moaning."
The next demon approached the desk. All of the demons in line were a variation on a theme—huge horns, hairy bodies, troll-esque faces, each with a wriggling sack slung over one shoulder and documents clutched in their free claws. Shax reached for the documents, careful not to touch the attached demon.
Krampuses weren't careful at all with hygiene and they stank like wet, swamp-muddied socks.
Shax sighed and sorted through the papers, all in order. The goblins at the head of the line helped the Krampuses with the forms if they weren't the literate sorts, for which Shax was grateful. Goblin handwriting was far superior to Krampus.
"Male child, several infractions—attempted drowning of kittens?" Shax shook his head. He should've been beyond shock by this point, but human children astounded him still. "Well, that's an automatic eatable offense." He checked off the appropriate boxes, signed in the supervisor space and added a note to the bottom. "You have royal permission to terrorize as much as you please prior to consumption."
"Thank you, highness," the Krampus snarled as he retrieved the papers and moved on. It wasn't disrespect. They all spoke in snarls.
"It's all mixed messages, you know." Shax turned to Verin while they waited for the next Krampus to trundle up. "Shax, steal me this. Shax, steal me that. You're such an excellent thief, Shax. Followed by recriminations and punishment when I steal the wrong thing."
Verin snorted. "You stole your mom's tiara. Even I knew that was a stupid fucking move."
"Still. You see my point, don't you?" Shax didn't expect an answer beyond more snorts, so he turned back to his Krampus supervising duties. The next Krampus had hunched shoulders, eyes flicking this way and that. Not suspicious at all. "You bagged this one for making siblings cry? Tsk." Shax pointed and intoned with his best imperious voice. "Put that one back and sing the beatings versus eatings song seven times before you go out for a replacement."
"But Prince Shax, I’m so hungry!"
"You should've thought of that before making an inappropriate catch. Go!"
The Krampus whimpered, but hurried off. Royalty had its privileges, after all. The next one had a sack that was kicking and shrieking. Oddly, the sack seemed to know demon royalty.
"Prince Shax! Prince Shax!"
"So you have a human child in there?" Shax tapped his pen on the stone desk.
The Krampus pulled out a hideous grin and nodded with enthusiasm.
I will not bang my head on the desk. I will not. "Open the sack," Shax said with a weary sigh.
As soon as the sack was untied, an imp wriggled free and leaped to his hooves, pointing at the Krampus. "You are in so much trouble!" Then he caught himself and knelt properly. "Your highness. I beg pardon."
"I should say. Who do you belong to, little one?" Shax did a quick assessment as he spoke. The imp appeared unharmed.
"Prince Vassago, highness."
Shax clicked his tongue in reproof. "Well, you probably are in trouble then…" He glanced at the designation on the paperwork. "Krampus Three Seventeen. Go and tell Uncle Vassago the number, little one. He'll have to decide while this Krampus goes to sit in the corner over there and does not have supper."
The noises coming from Verin made it clear he was stifling a guffaw.
"You're not helping things. I hate supervising the annual Krampus feed. A thousand Krampuses and I swear only three of them have any sense. There are rules."
The next Krampus in line had a sack that was crying. That wasn't too unusual, but this sounded more heartbroken than frightened. Shax frowned as he looked over the paperwork. "This is very messy."
"Do by self," the Krampus said, puffing its chest out with pride.
Ah. One of the barely verbal ones. "I see. So, the reason for trapping appears to be—and correct me if I'm wrong since it's difficult to decipher--kissing other girl."
"Yes. On list."
"What list? Certainly not on ours."
The Krampus felt around in its ragged, dirty cloak and produced a much creased and stained list. "List. Man gave."
"You know better than to take direction from humans," Shax grumbled and smoothed the list out. "Pits' sakes. No. These are normal human things, like kissing another girl. Strife!"
Shax waited until the goblin administrator huffed and puffed down the hall. "My prince?"
"Find out where this list came from and make certain the source is eliminated. Also, have someone return this child. She shouldn't be here."
"Yes, Prince Shax."
Shax put his head on the desk and heaved a huge, I-must-have-patience breath. "How many more do we have to go, Ver?"
Verin gave his tally sheet a quick glance. "Hey, you've seen a lot already. Only seven hundred and thirty-eight more."
It was Shax's turn to whimper, but he managed a sub-audible one. Dignity and all. "Next!"
Time: Between Shax's War and Beside A Black Tarn
Place: New Bangkok spaceport, planet Barbary
"Well." Shax sat back, drumming his fingers on the boards in the pilot's pod. "This is potentially disastrous."
"What is, sawdust for brains?" Verin muttered from the pilot's chair as he worked through their launch forms.
"Did you visit any demon bars in port, Ver? And if so, which ones?"
"None of your fucking business." Steam curled from Verin's nostrils at an accelerated rate.
"Hmm, yes. Normally I'd agree with you." Shax waved a hand at his view screen. "But we just had a health bulletin come in from city L&I. They've tracked an outbreak of volcanitis back to Tartarus, and I know you go there sometimes."
"Are you shitting me?" Verin surged up from his chair to lean over Shax and read the bulletin. "Aw, fuck. The bastards couldn't have sent this out before we were all boarded?"
"Apparently not. Are we screwed, Ver?"
"We are screwed to the wall with giant screws." Verin sank back into his chair. "Fuckity fuck fuck."
Shax hit the all ship comm. "My dear crew, we have a bit of an issue with takeoff. No panicking, please. Meet me in the cargo bay immediately."
"Really? You went there?" Verin snarled. "Now everyone's gonna fucking panic."
"Then we'll unpanic them." Shax flapped a hand at him. "Go, go. I just need to peruse details and I'll be right there."
By the time Shax reached the cargo bay, there were indeed signs of panic, raised voices chief among them.
Mac strode to the foot of the steps before Shax had a chance to descend and demanded, "What's this about an epidemic, Captain?"
That escalated quickly. "Nothing quite so dire." He decided to address his crew from the landing and set his hands on the railing. "We received a health bulletin regarding an outbreak of volcanitis this week. They've traced it back to Club Tartarus. How many of you have been there in the past five days?"
Nearly every ship denizen in the bay raised a hand, with the exceptions of Leopold and Rosa.
Shax pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. "Wonderful."
"What does this mean, love?" Ness took a step toward him, the trembling in his wings barely discernible.
"It means we're docked and confined to the ship until we've passed the incubation period. Corny, you're exempt. Humans can neither catch not carry this."
"What about Mac?" Heckle's voice shook worse than Ness's wings.
"I'm…not sure." Shax turned to address his engineer. "Mac? Any idea if nephilim are susceptible?"
Mac shook his head. "Don't know, Cap. Never came across an outbreak before."
"All right. So everyone except Corny is confined to the ship. Leopold my dear, that means you too. We have no idea if you'll be affected." Shax heaved a put upon sigh. "This mean three more days in port. Not a terrible hardship, but I was hoping to leave this afternoon. Anyone who comes down with symptoms needs to bunk here in the hold. We can't have—"
Verin made a distressed choking sound, turned away from his shipmates and spewed flame at the metal deck plates.
"Cabin fires," Shax concluded wearily. "Well, damn it, Ver."
"Not my fault." Verin sat hard on the deck, clutching his head. "Oh, fuck."
Everyone backed up as Verin let loose with another gout of fire. Corny held a hand out toward him, clearly uncertain whether it was safe to approach.
"Can we do anything, Cap?" Corny asked from his relatively safe distance.
"I don't suppose anyone has ideas about fire-retardant bedding?"
By the time Mac had found some insulation material that wouldn't burn and had set up a few makeshift pallets in the hold as far away from Rosa as possible, Heckle had collapsed to his hands and knees spewing small spurts of flame and Shax wasn't feeling terribly well himself.
"I'll, ah, sleep in the hold tonight, cupcake." He leaned his aching head against Ness's chest.
Ness stroked his hair and kissed the base of one horn. "I should stay with you, don't you think?"
"Only if you're starting to feel poorly, too." Shax glanced up at him. "You're not, are you?"
"Not at all. Maybe the virus doesn't infect the fallen?"
"I don't—" A sudden wave of heat and nausea warned Shax. He whispered excuse me, and managed to turn before flame erupted up his esophagus and onto the corridor's deck plates. "Pits. I'll just, ah, crawl to the hold. Ms. Ivana could you—"
Another column of flame escaped. Fire suppression alarms sounded. The system doused Shax in foam fire retardant.
"—hold the fire suppression," Shax gasped out, spitting foam from his mouth.
"I'm sorry, Captain Hot Stuff. Didn't catch it in time." Ivana did sound sorry. She also sounded like she was trying not to snicker. "Didn't realize you'd gone literally hot stuff already."
"Do you need help?" Ness called after Shax as he crawled down the now slippery corridor.
"Stay there," Shax got out in a desperate plea as he tried to suppress the next fountain of flame. It didn't work. "Don't want to hurt you."
"All right." Ness agreed, then followed him at a safe distance anyway.
Damn Verin and his clubbing. Though they all went. Damn them all. And no one invited me. What the deuces am I saying?
Shax made it to the hold without setting his ship alight. He curled up on one of the empty pallets by the wall, fevered, miserable, and from time to time vomiting flame, which, frankly, wasn't much fun at all. Verin shivered and moaned through his own fever. Heckle's didn't seem quite as bad as he only hiccupped a few candle's worth of fire here and there.
While demon innards were relatively fireproof, it was still a miserable two days before symptoms and fever dreams subsided. Mac never caught it and neither did Leopold. On the afternoon of the second day, Ness joined them, though.
"You too, hon?" Shax whispered from the pallet that he had partially shredded to make himself a nest.
"I just don't feel terribly well." Ness let out an un-angelic belch. "Thought I should come down as a precaution."
"Sorry, sweetheart. I hope it's not too bad for you."
"I—" Ness hiccupped and belched again. Instead of the expected geyser of flame, pearlescent bubbles escaped his mouth and drifted peacefully toward the ceiling where they popped with little musical pings.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Verin grumbled from his pallet.
Heckle watched the bubbles with fascinated longing. "That's just not fair."
"It's not as if I'm trying to do it," Ness said with an exasperated sigh.
Shax watched another round of bubbles pop against the ceiling girders. Maybe it was leftover fever hallucinations, but he thought he saw sparks.
"Cupcake, if you don't mind aiming those at the floor, please?"
Ness shrugged but repositioned so his bubbles would hit the floor directly in front of him. Sure enough, the next ones hit the decking in showers of miniature lightning storms.
"Oh…oh, dear," Ness whispered as he lay down with his head hanging off the insulation. "There's two days of this?"
The tiny lightning strikes had become miniature thunderstorms with the next bout of bubbles, complete with about three seconds of rain. Shax rolled father into his nest, pulling the insulation up around him to protect against tiny lightning strikes. Living with a newly fallen was mostly wonderful, incredibly instructive, and never, ever boring.
Time: Shortly after Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Elistrus, Thinis CIty
"Shoo! I don't want any dirty animals in my bakery!" The proprietor backed up her words with sharp snaps of an apron.
This was why Leopold dreaded going into new establishments, though he realized he would probably do better if he wore pants on a consistent basis.
He heaved up onto his hind legs and held out his front paws. "I'm a small demon. Not an animal, per se. And I have money."
"Oh. Sorry." The proprietor still scowled. "You should probably lead with that."
"My apologies," Leopold managed a little bow, careful of his backpack. If he disturbed Max and Nic too much, they'd want to come out and see what was happening. Yes. That would go well. "Your danishes smell so good. I would like two, please."
After a bout of indecision—all of the pastries looked delicious—Leopold settled on a raspberry danish and a lemon one. The shop owner was magically more polite and friendly when he paid for them, but he reasoned that he could be a bit of a shock for some people. The nice human in his favorite yarn store in Thinis had never reacted that way, but they were the exception.
Outside the shop, he reverted to all fours and ran to the nearest city park where he monopolized a bench and let Max and Nic out of the backpack. Max trilled and waved his front sets of legs toward the sunlight while Nic stayed close to Leopold and sniffed the air suspiciously. Planetary air was always a little weird for Nic, born and raised in space.
Leopold broke bits off each pastry, with a line of tiny pieces for Max on the right and another for Nic on the left, before he began devouring. They really were as good as they smelled and Leopold polished off his portions in seconds. His companions were considerably slower eaters, nibbling, in Nic's case, and breaking off tiny crumbs for a tiny mouth in Max's. Not that they were in any hurry and Leopold enjoyed the sunshine.
While waiting, Leopold opened his backpack all the way and dug into the larger pocket for his flute, the silver one, and started to compose a song about pastries. Max hummed softly in accompaniment while he ate and Nic swayed to the rhythm. Leopold lost track of his surroundings until a man walking by dropped a small credit chit into the open backpack.
"Sir? You've dropped something," Leopold called after him. "A credit chit—in my pack. I see it in there."
The man kept walking, oblivious, so Leopold shrugged and returned to playing, transitioning from his new song to older ones he'd learned from Papa Shax. A few minutes later, another human dropped a chit into the pack. This time Leopold was watching and it looked oddly deliberate.
Max finished his crumbs and began to sing in earnest, harmonizing with the flute, while Nic began to do a rat dance in earnest, the suckers on his paws allowing him to use the back of the bench as well as the seat. The chits kept coming, from a few isolated plinks to a steady shower.
When Leopold finally packed up to go home, there wasn't any room left for Nic and Max in the backpack, so they rode on top, clinging to the clinking pack. Still puzzled, he took everything into the galley where he found his Papa Shax.
"What in all levels do you have in there?" Papa Shax asked as his eyebrows rose. "It sounds like your pack's full of credit chits."
Leopold thumped the pack on the bench and climbed up before he opened it.
"Ah. It is indeed a pack full of small credit. Should I ask how you obtained these? Or perhaps why in the world you would?"
"In the park, Papa. It's accidental busking. I didn't mean to."
"Huh. Well. I'll have Heckle and Ms. Ivana help you get those deposited." Papa Shax patted his paw. "Don't feel bad, my dear. We've all engaged in more-or-less honest employment from time to time, accidentally or not."
Time: Shortly before Hell for the Company
Place: Kepler Station
"Well. They've certainly done a lovely job." Shax stopped on the catwalk above the newly renovated Kepler Station shopping concourse to appreciate the view. Brighter, wider, with more merchants and even a miniature park, the designers had completely transformed the old, dingy shopping district.
Unsurprisingly, Verin was less impressed. "Yeah, yeah. Can we just get the shit we need and get the fuck out of here?"
"You take all the fun out of shopping, Ver. Why did I bring you?"
"Because I don't trust you to buy pants for me, that's why."
Shax heaved a put-upon sigh. "I bought you plaid pants once. Once. And it was centuries ago."
"One fucking time too many." Verin pushed off the railing and stomped toward the stairs. "Come on, your annoying highness. Let's get this crap over with."
"I'll just have to come back later and shop properly," Shax muttered as he followed Verin's streamers of steam.
The expedition went well for the first three stores—new work gloves, a bit of a restock on the liquor supplies, some electronic bits and bobs Ivana had requested. In the fourth store, however, things began to go oddly pear-shaped.
Verin was standing in the waist-high booth so the tape measure lasers could get his particulars for his pants purchase when the oddest feeling crept over Shax. Verin simply had the most glorious horns and Shax couldn't help staring as a contented warmth wrapped around his heart.
"What?" Verin finally stepped out of the booth, regarding Shax with narrowed eyes. "Shaxy?"
"Ver…you…" Shax stepped up to him and rested his head on Verin's shoulder. "You've put up with so much from me. Dragging you all over the galaxy and back. All the jobs gone wrong. All the times you've had to come after me. I…I don't think I tell you enough how very much I appreciate you."
"Hey, don't start crying and shit." Verin actually wrapped an arm around him instead of pushing him away. "If I didn't feel appreciated, I would never have fucking stayed. You know that, genius."
"I do. I know that. You're my brother in all but blood. You're…" Shax grabbed a fistful of Verin's shirtfront. "Ver…something's not right here."
Verin didn't let go but he did start to edge them toward the door. "Was kinda thinking the same thing."
"You are indeed very dear to me, but this isn't like us."
"Nope. Not one fucking bit. And I love you too, Shaxy." Verin held on tighter and started edging faster. "Fuck."
By the time they made it out of the store, they were the only people still making a concerted effort at moving forward. Difficult to say who might have known whom previously as they were forced to step over and around fellow shoppers, concourse employees and security who had paired off or trio-ed off or however many people were involved in the corner there, all kissing, groping and in various stages of screwing.
"Hell's gates," Shax whispered. "Come on. We have to get off the concourse."
He grabbed Verin's sleeve and pulled him along, though the urge to join the carousers on the floor yanked at Shax every step of the way. As soon as the concourse doors whooshed shut behind them, the powerful urges subsided.
"What the fuck was all that?" Verin yanked his sleeve out of Shax's grasp, steam billowing from his heaving breaths.
"Not sure, but certainly not a natural reaction." Shax stared through the closed doors at the orgy taking place on the other side. "Sonic interference isn't out of the question but one of us would've noticed. Chemical interference seems more likely and there are only two vectors that would work that quickly on such a varied sample of victims – air and water."
"And since all of those people weren't drinking water at the same fucking time…"
"Exactly. Whatever it is, it's in the ventilation system in there." Shax hurried over to the nearest maintenance port and hacked into the station schematics, fingers flying over the screen. "Interesting. Why would they do that?"
"Do what, you smug little shit?"
Shax grinned even as he kept at the schematics, drilling down into behind the scenes corridors. "That's my Ver. They've built the concourse with a ventilation system independent from the rest of the station. Or I should say isolated from."
"Well that's the stupidest—" Verin cut off, his eyes going wide. "Oh."
"Yes. While I completely support underhanded methods in merchandising, even as far as subliminal suggestions, this is going a bit too far." Shax shut down the terminal. "Come on. We're finding a way into the back rooms."
Breaking into the back corridors was child's play. Finding the room that served as the monitoring station for the concourse wasn't much harder. The screens showed the strange scenes playing out in the concourse, though the room appeared abandoned until Shax spotted the trio of security goons going at it under the counter. A huge tank on a transport cart sat along the far wall, hoses obviously hooked into the ventilation system, Experiment 642 stenciled in white block letters on its side.
"Ver, shut the damn valves. Please." Shax tapped a foot in irritation. "There's obviously a leak. How dare they. I don't even have words."
"Sounds like you still got plenty of words, slush for brains," Verin grumbled as he turned the valves shut on the tank. "So what now?"
"We're taking this thing and hooking it up to the administrative offices. Then we're leaving."
Verin snorted out a cloud of black smoke.
"What, Ver? You're against revenge suddenly?"
"Oh, fuck no. But I still didn't get any pants."
"Next station. I promise." It took both of them to get the tank moving into the corridor, Shax huffing and straining. "One that doesn't experiment with untested airborne drugs on its shoppers."
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