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: 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 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."
Time: August 2017
Place: Earth, Houston area
"This is so not my fault," Shax insisted as he hunched farther into his jacket.
"How the fuck is this not your fault?" The smoke from Verin's nostrils barely made it to steam before the pouring rain obliterated it.
The floodwaters had raced in too fast to do more than escape. Shax had planned it so carefully. Wait until the property owners had evacuated, slip in and take the lovely heirloom collection of Victorian jewelry. No worries. In and out. Except when he looked out to see if the street was clear, the street had become a raging river.
The waters had risen with such voracious force that they couldn't even get down the stairs to the first floor. Verin had ripped a door from its hinges and they escaped the flood from the second floor French doors on their makeshift raft.
He patted his pocket to make certain his procurement was safe. At least he'd had time to snatch a few things. Not that he felt terribly triumphant about it as he crouched on a dubious plank of wood, drenched to the bone, whirled about on the muddy currents.
"Not my fault," Shax snuffled and tried to stifle a bout of bone-rattling sneezes. "We should've had plenty of time."
"Yeah, well." Verin shoved his dripping hair out of his eyes. "Stupid humans and their stupid fucking around with the climate, anyway. Now what?"
"Keep an eye out for higher ground. We'll make for what we can." Shax squinted through the rain, wary of large flotsam that might capsize their craft, and saw something swimming nearby. "What's that, Ver?"
Verin half-turned at the tug on his sleeve. "Cat, I think."
"Poor thing. She looks tired." Shax crept carefully toward the edge of their door. "Psss, psss, psss. Come here, kitty. You can ride with us."
"Oh, for fuck's sake, Shaxy."
The little black and white cat grabbed on and climbed aboard eagerly with Shax's help. She huddled beside him, eyes huge, shivering.
"See? She doesn't take up any room."
Except, a little farther on, they found a Pomeranian puppy barely holding to a branch, and a few minutes later, another cat with a kitten clinging to her back.
By the time a fire department rescue boat came for them, Shax and Verin had steered their door to a hill-island that stuck up above the flood. Somehow, illusion spells had held and what the rescuers believed they had found were two young men with kittens peeking out of their jackets and a small herd of animals—four dogs, six cats, a rabbit and a goat—huddled around them.
"All these yours?" One of the men in the boat called out.
Shax shook his head. "No. None of them. Just fellow flood travelers."
"We're gonna have to take a couple trips." The most senior firefighter shook his head. "We had a report of two people stranded but we didn't expect a damn Ark."
"Yes, sir. Take Ver first with some of the little ones," Shax said as he handed the Pom pup across.
"What's all the fucking good Samaritan act for, Shaxy?" Verin hissed in Shax's ear.
"Distraction. We're the good guys here. Unlikely they'll ask us many questions since they'll be worried about half-drowned pets." Shax patted his arm and spoke so the men could hear him. "Go on, Ver. I'll be all right for a bit here."
Verin took both kittens and the mama cat, still glaring at Shax as the rescue boat putted away. The goat butted gently at Shax with a soft maaaa.
"Yes, yes. Of course I couldn't let you all drown. But keep it to yourself, all right? I do have a reputation to maintain."
Time: 1350 CE,
Place: Precincts of Hell
Till was dead. No fucking way around it. Verin had tagged after Shax as he went into all out Prince of Hell mode and nearly burned the damn town to the ground. The humans would've deserved it, sure. Hanging Till for a prank was just a shitty thing to do, even for humans. But the town survived, more or less, and Shaxy finished his tantrum without too much damage to himself.
Problem was that wasn't the end of it. Shaxy had come home to see if he could find Till's soul. Verin didn't have a clue what Shax would do with it if he found it, but that wasn't his business. Weird thing, though. They'd searched and asked around everywhere. Till's soul hadn't come in any of the shipments and wasn't listed in Purgatory. He wasn't some fucking ghost moaning over his place of execution, either. Sometimes that happened. Till had been an annoying long-leggedy human but he hadn't really been evil.
Probably had just wandered off into the next whatever—plane, level, life. Typical.
But Shaxy took it hard. Lay curled up on the reclining couch in his conservatory. Wouldn't eat. Wouldn't talk to anyone. In a last ditch effort, Verin picked the couch up and dumped him out of it. Nope. Shax curled up in a miserable ball on the floor.
Irritated beyond words and maybe a little worried though he wasn't tell anyone that, Verin stomped to the stables, bellowed for a nightmare to be saddled and rode to Princess Ashtaroth's palace. Her gate guards let him through, of course. Even without Shax as an automatic pass through, he'd grown up at the palace. They all knew him.
"Xzim!" Verin bellowed for the major domo as he stomped into the reception hall. "Where's her nibs?"
The minor fallen glided out from her room beside the door, looking down her long beak of a nose at Verin. "She's engaged. Keep your voice down. What could she possibly want to speak to you about?"
"Her son, you snooty jackass. What else would I be here for?"
That shut her up as she must have put the numbers together and realized Verin coming alone probably wasn't a good thing. "Wait here."
"Yeah, yeah." Verin knew the drill. Wait until summoned. He waited long enough that he had time to bully the house imps into bringing him food. Might as well make it worth my while.
Finally, the major domo came back, eyeing the imps suspiciously who were scurrying away with empty plates. "She will see you now. Do not annoy her with petty matters."
"Fuck off," Verin responded without too much rancor. His empty pit of a stomach was full, after all.
Herself was out on her balcony artfully arranged on a chaise as she surveyed her principality of red planes and forbidding cliff sides. "Verin." She waved a languid hand at the nearest chair. "Sit. Tell me why you come without sending word first. Does my son need rescuing from something?"
"Not…as such, ma'am." Verin kept his steam and his cussing to himself in her presence. He might've snarked at the major domo but not herself. Princess Ashtaroth was one of the few beings who scared him. "He's, ah, in a funk since his human died. The thief he really liked."
She drummed her perfect claws against the arm of her chaise. "He has these spells. It will pass."
"I guess so, ma'am? It's just usually he mopes around a little. Paces the palace. Doesn't want a bath and sh—stuff." Verin drew in a huge breath. "'Cept this time? He won't eat. He won't drink. He won't even get up. Just lies there in a demon prince ball and whimpers sometimes."
She frowned at that and even her frown was beautiful and perfect. Of course it was. "That is unusual. Perhaps you were right to come. He really should think ahead where these things are concerned, though. Arrangements could have been made. Of course he left it until too late."
"Yes, ma'am," Verin mumbled.
He waited as quietly as a demon of impatience could while those claws drummed and she stared holes in the air.
"You will tell him this, oh my son's garde du corps," she said in a Voice of Proclamation. "I will hold a Grand Ball a fortnight hence. All of Hell's royalty will attend. But hear me—Prince Asmodeus has acquired a diadem of blue diamonds and fire opals and I will not be outshone at my own fete. I will have the jewel casque of Mansa Musa. You will fetch it for me."
"Highness…um. No one knows where it is?"
For the first time she turned to him, her blue eyes flashing with barely controlled temper. "You will tell him."
"Yes, highness." He got up and started to back out. "I'll just go…do that."
She turned back to her view and Verin hustled out of there. Never safe to have her attention for too long. He galloped back to Shax, more disturbed than when he'd left, and returned to where Shax lay under his dark cloud.
"Hey. Um. I'm back, genius. From seeing your mom. She's having some big-ass ball thing in a couple weeks but she's pissed that your Uncle Asmo has a pretty that outclasses hers. She told me… Fuck, Shaxy, you better be listening, 'cause I'm in some deep shit here. She wants me to bring her Mansa Musa's jewels. I don't even know where the fuck to start."
Shax unwound far enough to blink one bloodshot eye at him as he whispered, "She wants you to fetch them?"
"Yeah. I mean, she probably would've asked you but you're not answering your fucking messenger imps."
"Yes. I suppose…" Shax unwound farther so he reclined on his side with his head elevated. He looked like crap but at least he looked sane. "One would begin with his son, Mansa Maghan, I assume. Though the jewels might have gone to Musa's older bother, Suleyman. Possibly. This would require some considerable reconnaissance."
Verin let out a slow breath. "Yeah? You think?"
"Oh, yes. Quite a bit of handing off power after Musa's death. Tricky." Shax rolled over and stretched out on his back. "I'm too dizzy to think straight, though. We'll have dinner early. Tell Soot to bring up what he can right now. And some of the good port. We need to plan this out."
"Fucking right I'm not listening to you ramble on an empty stomach," Verin grumbled as he strode off to find the kitchen imps. He didn't smile. No need for Shax to know how worried he'd been. Inwardly, though, he laughed. He'd known Shax's mom would know just what to do.
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Place: New Bangkok, planet Barbary
This bar is powerful blue. Corny figured it probably wasn't all blue, but all the glass and chrome with soft blue lighting along the floors and walls certainly created the illusion. Peaceful. Like being one of them mer people in stories, living under the sea and breathing just fine. It wasn't a fancy place, not like one Cap'n might take them to where he'd have to get all gussied up and strangle himself with a stiff shirt collar. But it was a heaping helping fancier than the bars they usually went to in New Bangkok.
Verin glanced at his face and snorted. "They won't toss us out, cowboy. Don't say I never take you anywhere nice."
"It is nice. Was just taking a gander. Pretty place." Corny bumped shoulders with him before weaving through the patrons to a raised table at the far end of the blue glass bar top. He waited until they were settled before he asked, "What's the occasion? Did I misrecollect a date?"
"Just thought a change of scenery…" Verin shrugged. Clearly, he was chewing on something but Corny wasn't about to prod at him. If he wanted to say it, he would in his own good time.
They ordered the usual—something toxic for Ver, a whiskey for Corny—and settled back to watch the patrons and talk about little things. They needed to get a new file for Verin's claws. Corny kinda liked doing the foot claws since it wasn't too far a throw from taking care of hooves and it was… Well, it was intimate. Taking care of your lover's feet. Not something he'd been able to do before Ver.
Ver swirled whatever nasty rotgut he had in his glass, watching the gray-green whirlpool with a frown. "You ever regret it, Corn?"
That set Corny back. "Regret filing your claws?"
"No, dumbass." Ver blew out a slow breath, smoke spiraling from his nostrils. "Coming with me. Leaving your own time."
A quick answer would sound like he wasn't willing to think about it, so Corny tipped back his chair and thought a spell. "I miss some things, sure. Riding out under the sky most every day. The smell of a cookfire. Waving grass that…looks like grass should. Guess that's true of anybody who leaves home. You miss little things."
Verin stared off across the bar, silent, sipping his drink.
Corny let his chair down, reached across the table and seized Verin's hand. "But I don't regret it, Hammer. Not for one second. I don't regret bein' here with you. I don't regret traveling to a time where I can hold your hand and no one's got a word to say contrariwise. Where I can—"
He broke off and leaned across the table to plant a kiss at the base of Ver's right horn. While he would've loved to get a real kiss, probably best not while Ver was drinking poison. Corny smiled as he smoothed the dark hair between Ver's curled horns.
Raised voices came from the other end of the bar, two people arguing in a language Corny couldn't understand. One had multiple braids of different colors, though the blue light made it hard to tell what colors. The other was covered either in green scales or in tattoos of green scales. Corny had learned not to assume about things like that. Braids shoved Scales. The bartender tried to calm things down but it looked like these boys were fixin' to fight like Kilkenny cats.
Corny glanced between the brewing fight and his demon lover, still sipping his drink. Ver was interested but he was slouched back in his chair, relaxed. Wouldn't be the first bar fight, and sure as shooting wouldn't be the last they saw, but so long as Ver wasn't reaching for his weapons, Corny wouldn't start worrying.
Scales had Braids by the throat now. The bartender was signaling frantically for one of the security demons at the door.
"Bets on the door goons getting there in time?" Ver asked with an evil grin.
"Five says the big demon gets there afore a punch gets thrown," Corny said, eyeing the action with more interest now.
Security waded through the crowd, hampered by their size. Braids kneed Scales in the balls, or tried to. Didn't quite connect since it just made Scales madder. He picked Braids up and tossed him down the length of the bar where he skidded to a stop just shy of Corny and Verin's table. Ver turned to Corny to say something but one of the patrons whose drinks had been bulldozed grabbed Braids off the bar and tossed him at the table. The poor table broke. Ver rose slowly from his chair, sparks shooting out with each breath.
"Just your fists, Ver," Corny murmured as Verin got up a head of steam.
Verin charged into the growing melee, going after the patron who had spilled his drink. She was a tough old bird and got in some painful licks before Ver flattened her. Not that it mattered. It was an out and out brawl now, fists flying without rhyme or reason. Corny sighed and waded in after his demon, keeping combatants off his back best he could. Wasn't too hard. When Ver got going, he was a one-demon wrecking ball. Best Corny could do was keep up and try to steer them toward the door.
He was so intent on his goal that he had to stop a second and reorient when they stumbled out onto the street. Sirens wailed in the distance. The riot raged on inside.
"Shame. Nice place like that. Best make ourselves scarce," Corny insisted as he steered Ver down the street. "All right there?"
"Yeah. That was great," Ver grinned and stuck a cigar stump between his teeth. "And you owe me five, cowboy."
Corny snorted. "I reckon I don't." He stopped in front of Verin and plucked the cigar out. "We said the first punch afore security got there. Weren't no punch till you threw one."
"Aw, c'mon. Technicalities."
"Nope. That was the bet. Fair and square, Hammer." He seized Ver's head between both hands and kissed him hard, right there in the street, which he could've never done in his old life if he wanted to keep breathing. "You remember what you asked me?"
Ver blinked a few times before he got out in a husky murmur, "Yeah?"
"I got some small wistfuls, Ver. But I ain't got no regrets." Corny dove in for another kiss, pulling Ver close with a hand on his ass for good measure. "Nary a one."
Place: English countryside, Earth
'Twas not a fit night out for man nor beast. Heavy clouds threatened snow and smothered the moonlight. The damp chill seeped into bones even through the heaviest cloak. Precious little light skittered along this stretch of road under heavy trees.
But there was a glint of hoof, a flash of harness, a quick bright flame to light the glowing end of a cigar. One horseman at least blocked the middle of the road, lying in wait for some unfortunate traveler caught out on this dark, inhospitable night.
Hoof beats drumming along the road began as a subterranean shudder until they grew loud and louder – a horseman come riding, riding, riding—a horseman riding through the gloom along the kind's road.
"Steady on," Shax murmured as he drew his pistols, his horse shifting restlessly under him.
Verin, who stood three yards in front of him, pistols ready, lit cigar jammed between his teeth, growled, "I know how this goes, you twerp."
"Did you want to say it?"
"Nah. You do it. Yours is more fucking posh."
Shax pushed his cocked hat back and sat up straighter in the saddle. Shame it was so dark. Their victim would never see the lovely scarlet coat he wore or the scandalously tight doeskin breeches. Oh, well. Best to dress the part, complete with leather and lace if one wanted to do things right. A black horse galloped round the bend and Shax cleared his throat and fired a pistol into the air.
"Stand and deliver, your money or your life!"
The horse reared and screamed in fear, her rider keeping his seat with ease, pistol butts and rapier hilt a-twinkle in the spare bit if starlight. The rider called out in a voice that tried for arrogance despite the quaver, "Nay, it is you who will stand and deliver!"
Shax gaped a moment before calling back, "No, that's not how this works. We said it first—Dick Turpin, is that you?"
"Aye. Who's doing the ask— Shax?"
"Dick, m'dear, as I live and breathe." Shax secured his pistols and rode forward grinning. "Haven't they caught you yet?"
"Not yet and my hope is not tonight." Dick Turpin, the butcher turned livestock thief turned highwayman, reached out to clasp hands with Shax. "You're a sight for these sore eyes, yer lordship. But I've red coats breathing down my neck. You've no desire to be within shouting distance of me tonight. I've an inn I must reach afore the moon is high. If they've reached it first, I'm done for."
"What've you gotten tangled in now? Innkeeper's daughter?"
Dick flashed his charming, albeit worried, grin. "Stable boy."
"Ah, what am I to do with you?" Shax stood in his stirrups to plant a kiss on Dick's cheek. "Ver? Fancy a bit of devil among the tailors this evening?"
"You mean go cave some redcoat heads in? Fuck yeah. Always up for that."
"Be my guest then, Ver. We'll waylay travelers another night. We'll be along soon."
Verin stubbed out his cigar on a nearby stump, vaulted into his saddle, and thundered off on his huge Friesian, one of the few horses they could find willing to bear Verin's weight. Shax and Turpin followed at a more leisurely pace as his highwayman friend told him the particulars. Not that Turpin usually cared about beyond the shag itself, but it was the principle of the thing. Red coats using a stable boy as hostage and bait. Appalling.
Shax patted Turpin's thigh. "All will be well, my dear, never fear. Except for the inn. There's likely to be damage. Would you care to leave the road for a bit for a quick bit of, as they say, backgammon? Would calm your nerves."
"Would be my honor, yer lordship. That clearing over there—"
"Stand and deliver!" a quavering young voice called from that very clearing.
Shax heaved an exasperated sigh. "Oh, for pits' sakes. I see it's going to be that kind of night."
(Shax has a postscript to add: "My darlings, you may recognize bits of this from Alfred Noyes', "The Highwayman." But damn Alfred and his Victorian morals, changing the story I told him for, as he put it, dramatic purposes.")
Time: shortly after the end of Beside a Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, docked at Triton Station
Being in dock was positively restful sometimes, especially during night cycle. Ivana had time to defrag systems and maximize efficiencies when the ship was still. Sure, she had to talk to the station about certain things, but none of that took up much of her capacity.
She checked on her boys—and they were her boys, every one of them, and Rosa, of course, was hers too. Captain Hot Stuff lay asleep in his security officer's arms and wings. Shax looked so angelic when he finally slept deeply, never mind the horns, and it warmed Ivana's processors the way Ness curled around him so protectively. Her little demon pirate hadn't changed much since the first time her optics had fastened on him. Still the schemer, still the compact package of sex appeal and swagger, but a piece of him had changed. He was, what? More responsible now? In his own way, she supposed. He'd become a lot more captain than brigand in the past couple of years.
Verin slept on his back, snoring loud enough to rattle the deck plates. Somehow, his cowboy slept with his head on that broad chest, not bothered by the racket one bit. Maybe it reminded Corny of an old steam train. They'd had a rocky start, her and Verin. She was used to him now. Depended on him for many things, the grump. While Shax was the unstoppable force that impelled them, Verin was the gravitational force that steadied them.
Station: seals check
Brimstone: confirmed, within standard limits
Leopold slept curled in a tight ball in his fabulous nest of many colors, with Nicodemus burrowed in nearby. Nic officially belonged to Ness but he'd taken to sleeping with Leopold since it tended to be less active in Leo's cabin at bedtime. Maximillian slept nearby in one of the padded compartments of his play maze. Safer for him if anyone rolled over. Leo's posse—they had become that, and if anyone ever doubted that the hedgehog was a demon prince's son, they just had to look at his talent for gathering minions and his huge obstinate streak. Leo often did as Leo pleased and damn the torpedoes.
Brimstone: CO2 up .002%
In Mac's cabin, Heckle slept atop his giant lover, probably the warmest bed on the ship. The slow ride up and down with each of Mac's breaths seemed to soothe him, too, the little cutie. He smiled in his sleep as he did sort of a wriggle-snuggle. Heck had been another surprise, one Ivana would've gladly tossed out the airlock those first days, but her imp had hidden depths and he was lightning quick when you explained something new without yelling at him. Mac, for his part, could do no wrong in Ivana's eyes. She wouldn't have cared if he was a serial killer. Having a skilled engineer on board was just too lovely.
Brimstone: Delivery query 58674192
Station: 0600 confirmed, signature required
And her Julian, oh, her handsome Julian. She was glad to have him back for a while. He never stayed long anymore. Pity. Though this time, he seemed to have settled in for a stay. He whimpered and snuffled in his sleep, shifting until he had his back to the wall. Ivana wished she had hands to soothe him. Poor sweetie needed someone to sleep with.
Ivana hummed as she checked through station data. She wasn't supposed to be able to sift through the things behind firewalls, but Captain Cute Buns had set up some programming that helped her get around those nasty things.
Outstanding warrant: Verin Hammer. Civil disturbance. Simple assault. Assault with blunt object (chair.) Assault with blunt object (bar top.) Bartender tossing.
Really? That was a specific offense now? The warrant's date corresponded with their last visit. Oops. Surprising that station security hadn't pinged them on docking. Lazy ninnies. Ivana asked the system nicely to delete the warrant. The security system refused. She threatened selective data erasure. The warrant vanished without a trace.
Ivana gave a prim sniff. Nobody better mess with her boys.
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