Time: 21st century, December
"The fuck, Shaxy?" Verin spun in a slow circle, taking in their surroundings.
"I have reasons." Shax stamped his boots in the snow while he got his bearings. The graveyard was lovely in its festive lights and holiday decorations. He had no idea why every human community didn't do this for the solstice. But no, graveyards had to be creepy, silent, respectful places, not like the old days--
"Shax!" Ver bellowed. "Five seconds to tell me why I'm freezing my damn balls off in wherever the fuck we are!"
"Oh, very well. If you insist. We're going to spend the winter holidays in Iceland."
Verin dropped his head into his hands. "Why do you hate me, you short-assed royal prick? Why?"
"I'm quite fond of you, Ver." Shax patted his shoulder and pointed to the nearby road. "We're going this way. I have reservations at a lovely inn. We'll stay inside and drink and eat and read. And no one will be able to find us for anything Krampus related at all this year."
That brought Ver's head up. "So no Krampus herding for all the fucking krampuslaufs?"
"What the fuck ever. No oversight of the annual brushing? Or the stupid Krampus feed supervision?"
"None of it. We are bowing out inasmuch as we won't be locatable." Shax strode off, confident Ver would follow. "It'll be the best solstice we've had in years. Trust me."
"I hate it when you say that."
But Shax knew he was right this time. The doorway from Hell was conveniently located with the hotel on the Varma not even a quarter mile away. They were greeted warmly, and set up in a spacious room with two beds and lovely down duvets. They dined on reindeer and goose, trout and cod, boiled eggs in the hot springs on the property—because why not?—and lolled about in the geothermally heated pool. In the evenings, they drank Opal, which Verin claimed as his favorite fucking thing ever, and Brennivin, which the locals called Black Death.
No place in the human world got closer to good demon liquors than Iceland. It was grand.
Their peace remained undisturbed until Jól—another lovely custom, that Icelanders used the old word—when Verin had burrowed back into his bed for a nap after breakfast and Shax sat by the window, reading. The screams were entirely unexpected.
"Go tell them to keep it the fuck down," Ver growled from his blanket nest.
Shax raised an eyebrow even though Ver couldn't see. "You do know you should be looking into that as a serious threat, don't you? Aren't you my bodyguard?"
A good deal of grumble-cussing followed as Ver emerged and located his pants. Even after his bodyguard statement, Shax decided to go with him, two steps behind him, since his curiosity was going to give him an aneurysm otherwise. There were definite wails of despair amid the screams. No demon could resist that.
Footsteps pounded down stairs and hallways toward the common room with its fireplace and Yule tree. Presumably other guests and staff also drawn by the shrieks. Far from calming the situation, more people simply seemed to produce more screams.
Shax understood enough Icelandic—since human languages were one of his favorite pastimes—to pick out, "This can't be!" "It's the Christmas cat!" And one voice sobbing, "I'm so sorry! I'm not wearing anything new! It's my fault!"
"Oof," Shax exclaimed as he ran into Verin's rather solid back.
Ver had stopped in the hallway, just out of sight of the common room. "Christmas cat? The fuck are they yammering about?"
"It's a human thing. Regional. A belief that on this day, if you don't wear a new article of clothing, preferably one gifted to you, a giant cat will come and eat you."
"That's...humans are weird."
True, though when they rounded the corner, the humans were actually trapped in the common room by a giant cat lounging across the doorway. Larger than a Siberian tiger, glossy black with red paws, the cat's long tufted ears swiveled to catch every whimper and scream.
Shax sighed. "I suppose it was just a matter of time."
"Steaming piles of troll shit," Ver agreed.
The cat was, naturally, not a Christmas Cat.
"Mittens," Shax whispered as sternly as he could manage. The end of the hellcat's tail twitched in response. He stepped over her tail to stand where she couldn't pretend not to see him. Hands on his hips, he began a more proper scold. "Mittens, you can't be here. You know it's not allowed."
Her tail did the little quiver that cats used to say I'm very pleased to see you, and she mewed at him.
"I know I didn't come home. I've been having a bit of a holiday." Shax turned to the humans who had huddled, more or less, in the corner behind the tree. "I'm so sorry. She's usually the good kitty of the pride. I'll just, ah, give me just a moment."
"So it's not the Christmas Cat?" one of the humans whisper-squeaked.
"Then what the hell is it?"
Shax rolled his eyes. Though they had come awfully close to guessing. "Exotic wildcat breed. Hybrid. Stay where you are gentle folk."
"She won't eat us?"
"Can't guarantee that," Ver rumbled. "I'd stay real still if I didn't wanna be cat lunch."
The humans froze into a tangled knot of limbs and heavy breathing. Shax shot Ver a Very Stern and Quelling Glance, but he just grinned around his cigar stump. Mittens sat up and butted her head against Shax's chest with a more demanding mew.
"I suppose so. The Krampuses should all be fed and put to bed by now, I'd think." Shax stroked behind her ears and couldn't help the smile when she started to purr. "Ready to go home, Ver? Mittens says she missed us."
"You. The damn cat missed you. She thinks I'm just furniture."
Mittens rubbed the side of her head against any part of Shax she could reach.
"All right, sweetie. All right." He laughed and rubbed his face against hers. To the humans, he said, "Sorry about that. You might want to make sure you all have something new, though. The day isn't over and the actual Christmas Cat might still come."
The humans' shudders practically vibrated through the floorboards. The unmistakable scent of someone's bladder giving up followed them out. Upstairs, Shax packed quickly, Verin ready to go seconds before him, which had to be a record. Packing quickly and Shax were not things that went together well.
On the way back to the graveyard, Mittens happy to walk at Shax's side with his hand on her shoulder, Verin gave him an odd look. "That was kinda meaner than your usual, your irritating highness."
Shax snorted. "Mistaking my beautiful Mittens for some mangy Christmas Cat. The utter nerve."
With a definitely offended sneeze, Mittens obviously agreed.
Author's note: The Christmas Cat is actually a thing in Iceland. Really.
Time: Sometime Tuesday morning
Place: Angel's desk
"What do you mean she's gone?" Shax clawed frantically at the interface and stuck his head out through the interwebs. "She's just not at her desk. Went for coffee. Or out into the garden."
"I told you she was going, Captain Adorable When He's Frantic," Ivana crooned, halfway between fond and exasperated.
"Did you?" Shax poked about on the desk. No coffee mug. No iPad. No Notebook Of All The Notes. "She can't just abandon us!"
"She'll be back, dumbass," Verin growled from the safety of the Brimstone. "Not the first time she's been away. Give the author a fucking break."
"You're the one who's always angry with her," Shax muttered, poking around in the calendar. "And for a whole week? This is unacceptable."
"Captain, please come back inside. Your cute little tushy isn't supposed to be out there." Worry laced Ivana's disembodied voice. "There are things--"
Shax ignored her. Maybe there was something he could take. Would serve the author right. A breeze ghosted over his cheek. No, not a breeze, a breath. He turned his head slowly...and screamed.
"Yaaaaagh! Giant cat! Giant cat!" Shax scrambled back so fast he fell on his butt in the pilot's pod. "Hell's gates! What was that monster!"
Verin fell over laughing. Ivana tsked.
"That's a regular sized cat, Captain. Well, all right. It is a big fluffy-wuffy cat, but not that big. You're just small when you poke through the interface."
"I think I'll just watch and wait from in here." Shax rubbed at his chest, recovering the pieces of his tattered dignity.
In the study, Sweetpea, the admittedly large half Maine Coon, pats at the computer screen, hoping Mom comes back soon. Her desk does weird things without her.
Time: Shortly after Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, docked on Triton Station
Shax took a deliberate sip of coffee. "Was it Charles or Georgette?"
"Uh, Charles." Verin had the decency to shuffle his big scaly feet in embarrassment.
The impressive spread of destruction kept Shax from managing more than mild annoyance. It really was exceptionally thorough. "You do know we need Charles to keep the air breathable in here."
"I said I was fucking sorry," Ver muttered.
"So you did. That didn't save Charles from your big, scaly feet."
One of the aforementioned big scalies toed a piece of Charles's broken carapace. "I was mad. He got in my way. Stomping happened."
Another sip. "I got you a punching bag for these occasions."
"That shit's just not the same."
Shax allowed a sideways glare at his long-time partner in crime. "Corny's angry with you, isn't he?"
Another foot shuffle and nudging of cleaner-bot pieces. "Yeah."
"Any thoughts on why Corny's not speaking to you?" The last was a bit of a logic leap, but Shax felt it wasn't an outrageous one given the circumstances.
Steam trailed from Ver's nostrils as he muttered about an old lady in a crowded passageway moving slowly and a certain Demon of Impatience losing his temper. Loudly. At her. Mutter mutter mumble… "So Corny's pissed."
They both stared at the remains of Charles for a few silent moments.
"What the fuck do I do?"
"That's the question, isn't it?" Shax sipped once more, thinking. I suppose I need to be captain here. He turned to face Verin, putting on his most imperious expression. "First, you're going to find Mac, explain what happened and apologize for the trouble. I think Charles's central core looks intact. Possibly. We'll let the qualified engineer make the call on whether poor Charles's rebuildable."
"That's not a real word," Verin muttered, probably out of habit.
"You," Shax poked a finger at Verin's chest. "Do not get to police my wordage right now. Next you're going to go to Corny and grovel. Say you're sorry, that you know you were wrong—"
"That you know you were wrong. And that you'll try to do better." Shax huffed out a breath. "Truly, for all of our sakes, mend things with your lovely cowboy and have some loud make up sex so we don't have these things happening."
"Okay," Verin mumbled to the floor.
"And you will write an Ode to Charles to apologize for wrecking him when he was just doing his job."
Shax did his best not to react to the bellow. A small cringe might have gotten away from him. "You heard me. This ode will be recited to Charles when he's repaired—or, barring that, before he goes into the scrap recycler—and in front of the crew."
"Fucking pits, Shaxy…"
"Get going." Shax stopped for a pointed sip of coffee. "You have a lot to accomplish, Mr. Lead Feet."
Verin stomped off in the direction of the engine room, muttering invective all the way. Fine, let him curse Shax all he wanted. But there was just enough frustration and embarrassment involved in his directives that maybe—just maybe—Ver would be less likely to destroy helpless bots in the future.
Or maybe Shax should ask Mac to add defensive capabilities to Charles and Georgette's repertoire.
After dinner that evening—after there had been a flurry of activity repairing and refurbishing Charles, after there had, indeed, been loud and, from the sounds of it, rather violent make up sex—Shax gathered the crew in the cargo hold with the shiny new version of Charles at their center.
"All right, Ver. Let's hear it."
"Come on, your annoying highness. Don't make me do this." Verin's jaw jutted defiantly, but his shoulders slumped.
"Just get it done, Ver." Corny bumped his shoulder. "Won't take but a minute."
"Fucking fine." Without meeting anyone's gaze, Verin began. "Ode to Charles:
You're a good bot
You do a lot
Sorry I got hot
Poems are fucking grot."
Heckle started to applaud, trailing off when no one else did. Several faces appeared to be fighting snickers. Julian looked on the verge of a stroke from holding it in. Charles simply beeped.
"Charley-kins says thank you," Ms. Ivana said with a verbal flounce. "But he wants a kiss."
"The fuck?" Verin gestured at the cleaner bot. "He's just a little sweeper. He can't fucking say things."
"Who speaks AI here, you or me, Meanie Bighorns?" Ivana snapped.
"Fucking deepest shit pits," Verin growled under his breath, but he bent and planted a quick kiss to the top of Charles's ocular module.
Charles pip-beeped and scurried away on his several mechanical legs.
"There. Was that so hard?" Shax made a show of straightening his jacket so he didn't have to look at Verin. Laughing at that moment? Probably hazardous.
Verin snorted a cloud of steam so thick that his head vanished. "Yeah. It was." He stomped out of the hold muttering about self-important little pricks and oversensitive electronics.
"I thought it was a good poem," Heckle offered.
"For Ver? An excellent poem indeed." Shax raised a finger before Heckle could continue. "But we shall never, ever recite it again."
Time: Shortly after Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
Ness retreated to the safety of the cabin he shared with Shax. Sometimes in moments of confusion, this was the safest and least humiliating option. Shax and Verin had been chatting and laughing about orgies over the centuries, the sort of conversation that brought all sorts of feelings bubbling to the surface.
This time, there wasn't the horrible flare of jealous rage Ness still suffered from when someone mentioned Shax and other people. A bit of bitter regret lodged under his heart, certainly, for all the years Verin and Shax had together, for all the years Ness had missed. But that was a small thing that never exploded into anything larger.
No, the reason for his escape this time had been simple embarrassment. He'd started thinking too hard about orgies, had realized he really had no idea how they worked, and had left before he could ask ridiculous questions.
He didn't need to ask those any longer. That's what the nets were for.
Orgies. The first few vids he tried were badly lit and therefore entirely too confusing, limbs and heads everywhere, everything moving as if of independent origin.
"Tsk. This will never do," Ness muttered, shaking his head as he refined his search to uncover quality orgies. He was beginning to think it might be a contradiction in terms.
After a bit more frustrated searching, he found one that wasn't grainy and half in the dark. The scene was pleasing enough in an aesthetic sense—a sea of bodies undulating in localized storms. Several genders, a multitude of skin tones and a variety of activity certainly made a fascinating scene. But there seemed little focus in much of the activity since the participants often distracted each other with new impalements, touches and toys. There seemed to be climaxing going on? All rather chaotic and messy, though.
Interesting to watch, but Ness didn't think he'd want to try one. The search suggested he try ménage next. Since he was already looking at vids, why not?
"Oh, a threesome. They could've said so." Ness huffed and flipped his wings to settle them better as he leaned in to observe.
Easier to follow with three instead of however many the roiling masses of flesh in the orgy vids had been and Ness found it rather sweet that a sandwich effect prevailed. No matter the grouping—all males, all females, various genders—someone appeared to be the focus of attention more often than not. A lot of attention in some cases.
"Oh, that's…goodness. I didn't think that was possible." Ness turned the holo view to a different angle and yes, both of those were penetrating the same orifice. Some humans were apparently as flexible as demons.
The door whooshed open and Shax sailed in to plant a kiss atop Ness' forehead. "What are you up to, sweetheart?" He stopped and leaned in. "Ah. Research."
"No need to mollycoddle me," Ness murmured. "I know it's porn by now."
Shax settled beside him to lean his horned head on Ness' shoulder. "It can be research, too. Sometimes even I find something new. What's happening here?"
Ness tilted his head at the image. "I'm not certain. Do you think the screen turned itself upside-down?"
"It's not a tablet, my dear." Still, Shax leaned forward and tapped the console up on his desk from whence the holo projection came. "No, seems to be…ah. They've lowered the gravity, you see. That's how they've managed such very interesting positions." He leaned back against Ness, claws drumming on his thighs.
Ness waved a hand toward the vid. "Is this something you would…want?"
"All things considered, more showy than practical. Difficult to get things to work properly in low G." Shax turned far enough to plant a soft kiss on his lips. "But you're sweet to offer, cupcake."
"Good. Plenty of other things to do." Ness wrapped arms and wings around Shax and held him tight. He hadn't been talking about the low gravity part, but it seemed terribly awkward to say that now. Maybe some other time.
Time: Shortly after Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Amnesia Space Port
"Leopold, my dear, you do understand that your grandmother is dangerous, yes?" Shax peered at his spiny son as they strolled past the shops, Leopold's front paw tucked firmly in his Papa's hand.
"I'm aware, Papa. Traps can lie in promises. Grandmama's, at least."
"Well…good." Shax stopped to peruse a display of colorful boots. "I do love my mother, but I also know her well. She does nothing without reason and her pursuit of your loyalty is… Ah, well. It's expected. She consolidates power wherever she can. It's still mildly concerning."
"Grandmama plays games. Some of them are even fun. Best from a distance."
"Ha! Yes." Shax squeezed his son's paw. "She's only slightly less dangerous from afar, but it does give one a better feeling of control."
A cat raced by with something cylindrical in its mouth. Not five seconds later, a gremlin raced after it shrieking the war song of her people. A human followed shortly after, chasing the gremlin. Followed by a larger human. Then a larger, lumbering demon.
"Er. Hmm. That was interesting." Shax turned them to continue their meander. He did need to pick up the custom deck boots for Heckle that he'd ordered several weeks before, but a bit of window shopping and conversation never went amiss. "My point is that I'm pleased to see you get along so well, But do be careful if she starts asking for favors. Or worse, demanding that you do things for her out of familial obligation."
Whatever bits of haiku wisdom Leopold had meant to impart cut off as the gremlin raced by them headed in the opposite direction. She clutched the cylinder thing in both hands, cackling. The cat galloped after her. Followed by the larger human. Then the smaller human. Then the lumbering demon who looked a tad confused now.
Leopold shook out his spines with a sniff before he turned back to Shax. "She asked a question. Papa, I'm thinking I should—" The large demon lumbered past again, though now with the cylinder in his possession, both humans and the gremlin hanging off his arms trying to pull him down, and the hissing cat atop his head. "Should we do something?"
"I'm a dangerously curious demon, it's true." Shax picked Leopold up to keep him from being trampled as the whole cluster stumbled by again. "But there are times when you need to know when to mind your own damn business."
Leopold peeped as Shax strode at a determined rate away from the melee, "Yes, my dear. This would be one of those times."
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
"Hello, Mum." Shax settled himself in his desk chair, feeling on solid ground for once since he hadn't initiated the call or done anything to tick his royal mother off. "You're looking positively radiant. Bacchanal this evening?"
She preened a bit, smoothing her silver hair. Flattery was always a wise opening gambit with her, but she was particularly stunning in a diaphanous pale blue gown dripping with diamonds. "There is. I think I'll allow the general to escort me. I'm in the mood for a powerful demon groveling on his knees."
"Er, quite." Shax sipped his coffee and did his best to banish thoughts of how exactly General Separ would be groveling. "To what do I owe the pleasure? Not that I mind if this is a purely social call, of course."
"I would like to speak to my grandson when we've finished, but yes, I had a particular reason for calling." She adjusted her sleeves and managed it in a way that was both graceful and irritated. "I require something from you."
"A favor?" Shax purred. Favors could be as good as currency.
Her eyes narrowed. "Hardly. You are my son and should accede to my wishes. Besides which, you are indebted if we come down to it."
Shax barely managed to keep himself from answering with an eye roll. "Even after the Leopold kidnapping? I'd say your account was emptied there."
"It was an enforced familial visit. Not a kidnapping. Don't over dramatize." She sniffed. "Though my beautiful boy once lived to please me."
Oh, I've missed these games. "I grew up and moved out of the palace, Mum. But tell me what this is all about. Perhaps it's something I can help with in the course of my normal activities."
"Lu's trying to find—"
"Oh, no no no no." Shax put his coffee mug down with a thump. "Let's stop right there. Why in all the wide universe would I ever do a favor for him?"
Mum favored his question with a delicate snort. "It's not a favor for him. It's for me. I'll have no peace from his whining until I've at least brought the subject to you. He's recently heard that there are objects out there in the universe called Obfuscational Orbs. Some exotic human tech or other that allows the holder to lie with impunity and be believed without reservation. Obviously, he wants one."
"Of course he does. This wouldn't be a favor, though. This would be a commission. If I do happen to find one, and I've never heard of them, I would expect to be compensated for skilled services."
"So very mercenary." A little smile tugged at her lips. "That's my boy. I understand compensation would be negotiable."
"Up to and including full pardon and a restoration to the courts for me and Verin?"
"It may have been discussed."
Shax waved a hand. "I just wanted to check. Interesting, but I wouldn't take that offer. Rather fond of my life out here."
She heaved a mournful, tragic sigh—a graceful sigh, and how many beings could manage that? "I was afraid you might feel that way. Though why you would so thoroughly embrace a life of uncouth brigandry when you could live as a prince again is baffling. Regardless, price is highly negotiable."
"Very good. I'll keep eyes and ears out for it." The door behind Shax opened followed by a scrambling of claws as Leopold ran across the cabin. "Hello, my dear. Have you come to speak with Grandmama?"
Leopold stood on his hind legs, forepaws clutching the edge of the desk. "Hello, Grandmama." Then he made little shooing motions at Shax. "Could you go away, Papa? Some privacy, please?"
Shax glared from his son to his mother. "Did you just try to shoo me from my own cabin?"
"Yes, darling." His mother purred. "Shoo. Run along now."
"You could take this in your own cabin." Still, Shax found he had risen from his chair and Leopold now occupied it. Leopold peeped and pointed to the holo display. "Yes, I know my comm is better quality than yours. Oh, very well. Fifteen minutes."
Grumbling, he walked to the door and put one foot out before he turned back. "And don't change the settings on my chair."
Leopold waved over his shoulder with a distracted peep.
Lovely. I know where I rate here. There might have been grumbling all the way to the galley.
Time: Shortly before Hell For The Company
Place: Triton Station
"Captain! Excuse me! Captain!"
Shax stopped in the middle of the decking on docking arm C, trying to pinpoint if someone was indeed calling out to him and who the someone might be. The short human in coveralls did indeed appear to be headed right for him, so he waited, one eyebrow raised, hoping short human would be able to stop in time.
She did, in a skid that brought her nearly up under Shax's nose. Skidding in deck shoes. Impressive. "Yes?"
"Sorry to bother you, Captain. But you’re a demon, right?" The young woman waved a power wrench, realized what she was doing and stuck it in a coverall pocket.
"Am I?" Shax feigned surprise and reached up to touch his horns. "Oh dear. I suppose I am."
"Right…um. We were hoping you could help us with a gremlin problem. He's a demon, you're a bigger demon and all."
"Yes, that's generally how it goes. Bigger demon trumps smaller demon." Shax backed a step to retrieve some personal space. "But why would I do that?"
"Captain Lawhorn's offering a bounty to anyone who can talk the little guy out of the port thruster." She tapped on her wrist comm to show Shax the figure.
"Ah. Well. That's different. Lead on, then. I'll see what I can do."
He had no doubt that the young woman referred to a derfa and not a gremlin at all. True gremlins were the bureaucrats of Hell, and took pride in creating the most hellish bureaucracy they could. The derfa and various subsets were related to gremlins way back in the demon evolutionary chain, but so distantly that it would be like saying a mouse was a distant relative of the giraffe. Nevertheless, the humans had decided for whatever reasons human brains concocted, that the creatures messing with their machinery starting shortly after the industrial revolution would be called 'gremlins.'
The Celadon had one of the larger bays down the row from the Brimstone, small enough still to fit in a bay, large enough that it was difficult to take in the whole ship at once. Part of the port thruster's housing lay in pieces beside the hull, disassembled most likely to try to get at the derfa.
"How do you know you have a visitor and not a broken thruster?" Shax asked right before he had to duck a bolt hurled from within. "Ah. I withdraw the question."
A stream of what nearly sounded like profanity followed, then a bit of metal Shax couldn't begin to identify hit one of the nearby mechanics in the head.
"Damn it." The mechanic beside Shax heaved a put-upon sigh. "It's started on the turbines."
Shax settled his captain's jacket on his shoulders, shot her his best hold my beer grin, and jogged over to climb into the remainder of the housing. There, perched on the turbine, was a rather cute purple derfa.
"Well, hello there."
*scree!* *chirp* *clack* !@%$#
"No need for formalities. It's just Shax these days." Shax turned so he could lean against the housing's wall. "Any particular reason you're taking apart this human ship piece by piece?"
*pfffftthh* &^*$%#@ *snort*
"Are you certain they understood the concept of tribute? Humans can be a little dense."
*SCREEEEEEEEE!* *chirp* *chep*
"Ah, well. I see. It does sound like you were clear enough." Shax searched his pockets and found a wrapped caramel, which he handed to the derfa. "What have you demanded as restitution?"
The derfa accepted the caramel with a happy squeak and swallowed it whole, plastic and all. *squeak* *chirrup* *hfff* *crrrrreh*
"That seems more than fair." Shax leaned around the housing to find the mechanics huddled in a we're-not-scared group nearby. "The de—gremlin requires a pie."
"Will it fix the damage if it gets a pie?" Shax's original mechanic called out.
Shax managed to keep a straight face. "Apparently not. But it will go away and leave you alone."
"What kind of pie?" an older mechanic demanded.
The mechanics all lost color at the same rate, as if they were a single organism. Maybe they were. What did he know about mechanics? "We…that's not possible. We'd have to special order that from dirtside somewhere."
The derfa ripped another piece from a turbine fin and lobbed it at the humans.
Sometimes the hardest thing about a situation was not laughing. Shax turned back to the derfa. "You don't really want to stay with this ship, do you? These humans can't even bring you appropriate tribute. Clearly not worth your time."
The derfa shrugged. *prrrrrt* *chirp*
"I know you have an obligation—look, what if I took over the tribute part as a one-time thing? You get away from these space cases, I get paid, we have a nice afternoon?"
"Very well, then." Shax held out his hand and the derfa put a tiny lilac paw into his palm. They left the housing, stopped by the mechanics long enough for Shax to collect payment, and together, sauntered back out to the corridor.
"No, you know they don't or you wouldn't have asked for it. You were angry, so you asked for something impossible." Shax peered down, trying to see the eyes hidden within the purple fuzz. "But I do know a lovely coffee shop that serves almond pastries to die for. And I know where a starliner's docked over on G arm. Much more fun for you than a silly cargo ship. How does that sound?"
*squeeeeee!!!* *chehrek!* %^#@$*
"I couldn't have said it better myself."
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.
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