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 Shax's War
Place: Helike, Planet Elistrus
Corny reckoned that a lot of his life had been taken up by waiting around. Not that this was a bad thing necessarily, and he'd usually had things to keep him busy in the meanwhile. Today's waiting was for Ver to get back from whatever shopping he'd wanted to do alone, and that wasn't any hardship either. It was a beautiful spring day in Helike and he'd found a good spot on a park bench in the shade.
He had a bag of some kind of dried fruit from a vendor a few streets over. The day was bright and just warm enough. Corny stretched his legs out in front of him, flexing his feet inside his boots, just enjoying the quiet.
"Excuse me, sir?"
Glancing left, right and behind him, Corny finally found the owner of the voice at his feet. A silver and steel squirrel, a might larger than life-sized, rolled around his boots on well-oiled silver wheels. "Aww, ain't you just the cutest little—"
The squirrel chirped sharply, cutting him off. "Have you been touched by the glory of our Nutness, the Great Pecan?"
Corny blinked at the little robot. "Have I what now?"
He didn't get any farther, interrupted by a tug on his pants leg. "Pardon me, sir? Have you been saved?"
What in thundering blazes? He leaned forward and found a mouse made of copper wire, roughly the size of the squirrel, with a hand on his leg. "Saved from what?"
"Saved by our merciful Lord Cheese."
"Of course. What else?" he muttered as he tried to free his pants from the grip of a wire paw.
Again, he didn't get time to go into detail about the mercy of Lord Cheese since someone tugged on his sleeve. He startled when he found a large brass porcupine sitting on the bench with him. It made an odd muttering sound before it began to speak, "Good morning to you, sir. Have you heard the news about our savior, Pine Nut?"
A whirring from his left had him jerking his head back in that direction in time to see a silver beaver robot rolling up to him. "Excuse me, sir? Do you have a moment to talk about the miracle of The Great Tree?"
But Corny never had a chance to get a word in edgewise. Every time he turned to address one little preacher robot, another rolled up to interrupt about savior carrots and cabbages and whatnot. He was dizzy from it by the time Ver showed up, and then he couldn't even get free of the mob of rodents—guinea pigs, hamsters, rats, chinchillas, various kinds of mice and squirrels and one capybara the size of a small pony.
"Ver," he called out, trying not to sound frantic. "Help?"
Verin regarded him with narrowed eyes, huffed a cloud of steam and stomped off, leaving Corny to gape after him. What in tarnation did I do to deserve that?
His confusion didn't last long, though. Verin returned within moments, something shiny tucked under his right arm. He waded partway into the robotic horde and dropped his bundle, which unwound to reveal itself as a brushed steel cat. The rodents shrieked and scattered on whirring metal wheels and rubberized treads. The cat hissed, shook itself and sat down in a patch of sunlight to clean a metal paw with a metal tongue.
Verin snorted a few sparks and pointed behind Corny. "You gotta read the fucking signs in these parks, cowboy. Save yourself a lot of trouble."
Nailed to the tree behind Corny's bench, the sign read Beware Of Proselytizing Rodents.
"Course it does," Corny grumbled and accepted a hand up. "I'll do my level best to remember that next time." He pondered for a moment, then asked, "Why didn't you just kick 'em out of your way?"
"You saying I'm predictable?" Verin asked in mock outrage while pointing again.
Fine For Damaging Robot Rodents – 100 cred per violation
"Good thing one of us fuckers is a law abiding citizen."
Corny gave him a playful shove for that as they walked away together, doing his best not to think about why in all the wide universe either of those signs had needed to be posted in the first place. And Helike had seemed such a nice, normal town, too.
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
One hoof hop. One hoof leap over the square with the bolt in it. Two hoof hop. One hoof hop. Two. One. Turn. Come back the same way. Stop and bend to pick up the bolt. Try not to fall over.
"There you go, Heck. You're gettin' it." Corny laughed as Heckle returned through the squares grinning to hand the bolt off to Corny.
Corny took his turn more slowly than Heckle and without all the twitching of wings for balance. The long ship days of traveling between systems could get really boring, and Corny had suggested this game as a break from reading lessons. Before ballet with Ness, this probably wouldn't have worked. Actually, Heckle was sure all the one-hoof hopping would've been a disaster.
"What is this drawing?"
The voice behind Heckle made him jump and whirl. He hadn't heard Leopold come down the hold stairs.
"Is it some sort of floor plan? Layout for a job?"
"Nothing so serious." Corny completed his turn with a last hop. "It's just a game. Wanna try your hand, er, paw?"
Once the game was explained, Leopold gave it a try, doing his best to balance on one back paw and hop. He landed, wobbled, and plopped over onto his back with an exasperated peep.
"Well, now." Corny helped the hedgehog prince up. "I'm thinkin' since you got four feet and the game calls for a person to use half their feet, you should try two."
Heckle considered that a moment. "That sounds right. No one would ask Rosa to try on one hoof. Or Max on one foot."
"Don't think Rosa'd be keen on hopping more'n the once, anyhow." Corny pushed his hat back. "Give it a try, Leo."
Two paws worked infinitely better. There were still wobbles since the squares were spaced almost too far apart, and Leopold had to hit each of the double hop squares one at a time because of the spacing of his feet, but he came back with the bolt. Hedgehog triumphant.
They played through a round and at the end, Leopold held onto their marker bolt, tapping it against his paw in a thinky way. "It is a good game. Could we add more things to it? Make new obstacles?"
"I don't—" Corny tried to object, but Heckle had already picked up the chalk they'd used to draw the squares.
Leopold crouched beside him and between them they made snakes of squareish shapes and diamond patterns to work through. Soon Ness joined them, more than happy to kneel on the floor and help. The black holes were Ness's idea—filled in squares to jump over and if a player dropped the bolt in one, they had to start over. Wasn't too long before Captain Shax joined them, probably wondering where Ness had gone, and he added the innovation of circle squares, where the player had to hop on one foot in a complete circle within the lines before continuing.
Play started up again soon after with a lot of wobbling and hands slapped against the deck plates to prevent a fall—and some falling. Leopold played with intense concentration, though he finally decided that he couldn't manage the black hole obstacle. He jumped into the center of one and declared himself eaten. Captain Shax turned out to be ridiculously good at the game, which surprised no one, while Ness found his huge wings were sometimes more in the way than not. Verin strolled down to see what everyone was going, but declined to play.
He put a clawed foot in one of the squares, completely obliterating it. "Nah, too fucking dainty for me." Though he seemed happy to sit up on the landing and laugh at everyone's expense.
There was a lot of laughter and snickered cussing. The only casualty was when Corny's leg decided to cramp, which he called a charley horse. That made less sense than some of Corny's phrases did, but Heckle decided not to ask then in case everyone else understood it.
When they'd all conceded to Captain Shax and sat gasping and snickering on various crates and steps, Verin called down from his perch, "So what're you gonna call it?"
"I thought we should call it Hecklescotch," the captain called up from his spot leaning against Ness.
"Yeah? Why's that, genius?"
"Because the finished game is largely due to Heckle." Captain Shax stopped, his forehead crinkling. "And honestly? Shaxscotch just sounds ridiculous."
"What's it like to have a mom?" Heckle asked, staring at his plate of pancakes.
Corny turned to give him a puzzled look. "Don't rightly know, little bit. Don't recollect mine at all. How 'bout you, Mac?"
"Me?" Mac shrugged. "Sure, I had a mom. She was gone most of the time, though. Julian, did you have parents or were you hatched?"
The galley was full that morning for breakfast, something Heckle wasn't used to. He so often had the early hours of day shift to himself since he didn't need much sleep. It was his time to talk to Ms. Ivana and while he didn't actually resent his shipmates suddenly being there… He didn't, did he? Still, it wasn't what he'd come to expect, even if it was for a good reason like an early berth time at station dock.
Julian laughed softly. "I expect I had biological parents. If they'd made me in a lab, I doubt they would've chucked me into the childcare system. Not a good use of resources. No, I'm sure I had a mother. No recollection of her, like Corny. Ver, you must have had one. Higher-echelon demon and such."
"Yeah, yeah." Verin speared a sausage with savage intensity. "Good old Mom dropped me where she birthed me and left me to figure shit out or be eaten. Haven't seen her much since."
"But you know who she is?" Mac asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Fuck yeah. Shaxy's mom had her people figure it out so she could get me on the stupid register. Couldn't have some unregistered demon guarding her little boy, could she?" Curls of steam spiraled from Verin's nostrils. "What about you, twinkles? Guess angels can't be fucking bothered to have moms, huh?"
Ness startled and blinked at Verin as if he'd come back from deep thoughts. He probably had. "Oh. No. We don't have parents. Angels are created. Perhaps we should have had." He turned his solemn expression on Heckle, showing that he had been following along. "You should ask Shax. I think he's the only one of us with real mother experience."
"Ask me what now?" Captain Shax strode in, pressed and professional in a crisp dress shirt and his captain's jacket, ready to meet with docking officials.
"Heckle has asked what it's like to have a mother." Ness rose from his place at the table to offer Shax a quick kiss and to clean up his dishes. "We find, all of us here, that we're not qualified to answer."
"Ah. Well. Hmm." The captain hadn't looked up from his reader and still didn't as he took the coffee mug Ms. Ivana sent down the conveyer for him. "I'm not sure mine would be a typical example of mothers. Being who and what she is. I was as much an ornament for her household as I was offspring. Something for her to fuss and preen over, to show off when it was advantageous. But she does care, in her own way and she did always make certain I had everything I needed. Not necessarily wanted, but needed. I suppose that's what most mothers do."
Heckle nodded, absorbing it all. He'd hoped for more of an explanation, but it helped.
"What's all this about, Heck?" Mac nudged him gently. "Did something set your brain spinning again?"
"Oh. I…yes." Heckle took another slow bite so he could put an answer together that didn't sound crazy. "I'd just been hearing things on the nets about this thing called Mother's Day. And I wondered, I guess, what it was all about. Captain, do you send your mother something for it?"
Captain Shax was on his way back out of the galley, coffee in hand, but he stopped to raise an eyebrow at Heckle. "Certainly not. It's a human holiday. Not as old as they'd like you to think. Though it's more that if I send my mother a present, she'll wonder what I want. Not that she'd be wrong, mind you."
The first proximity pylon warning sounded and everyone cleared the galley—not hurrying, there was plenty of time, but off to various pre-docking duties. Heckle finally sat alone since his hold was secure and he had nothing to do until they were secure at Nereus Station.
"You want another stack, cutie?" Ms. Ivana spoke into the sudden silence.
"Oh. Yes, please."
"So polite. You get the last of the sausages too." The conveyer purred as Ms. Ivana sent out another plate for Heckle.
He devoured and thought some more. Ms. Ivana had more to do than anyone did as they approached station. Life support, proximity calculations, deceleration, course corrections, internal gravity, all the little things that kept the ship running and moving in the right direction in the huge empty of space. With all that, she still took time to make sure he felt cared for and important.
Tail twitching, Heckle reached a conclusion and raised his head to address the galley speaker directly. "Happy Mother's Day, Ms. Ivana. Thank you for all the things."
Time: Directly after The Big Reveal
Place: Undisclosed large city, Earth
They really didn't waste any time, did they? Shax stood on the sidewalk staring at the Demon Prizefighting sign with mixed interest and jaundiced dismay. A mere three years after the Powers That Be had decided to reveal the physical reality of demons and angels, and humans had discovered ways to exploit it.
"You're sure?" Shax tore his attention far enough from the lurid poster of battling 'demons'—the artist had obviously never seen one in person—to give Verin a hard side-eye.
"Easy money, Shaxy." Verin gave him a little shove. "You saying you don't fucking believe I can win?"
"I have every confidence in your pugilistic prowess. It's the fighting for the entertainment of humans I find…questionable." Shax wrinkled his nose. "Undignified. Exploitative."
"Just another way to take their money, your royal pain in the ass. Come on." Verin took his arm and gave him no choice but to trot along inside.
The venue was just as dirty and unpleasant as he had feared, a distressing mix of unwashed human and demon blood suffusing the air. A dark hallway let out into the fighting arena, not much more than a sandpit surrounded by chicken wire and rusty bleachers. Shax felt his nose would be permanently wrinkled after this.
A human of impressive size blocked the way into the main room. "Watching or fighting?"
"Fighting," Verin growled and jerked a thumb at Shax. "My manager."
Shax raised an eyebrow, but fell into the role without a hitch. "Who do we need to see to get my boy on the lists?"
Large Human nodded to a desk beside a scale in the corner where flurries of activity welled up and subsided at regular intervals. Not only the registry for fighters but also the betting table. He could at least appreciate the economy of purpose.
"Fighter, before you ask." Shax imitated Verin's thumb jerk. It seemed appropriate to the venue. "Your doorman said to sign him in here."
After a quick visual assessment of Verin, who stood with arms crossed and his most belligerent expression, the man behind the table raised bushy eyebrows. "He got powers? Can't use 'em here."
Shax resisted the urge to correct the man's grammar. "Nothing beyond snorting sparks."
"Um." Yes? Occasionally? He cleans up rather well? Shax managed a quick peek at the registry book—so old fashioned, an actual paper book—and the light dawned. "Ah. High-echelon non-royal with infernal attribute."
"Yeah? Don't get many of those. What's his handle?"
"Demon of Impatience." Shax ducked instinctively as Verin aimed a swat at his head. "I'm sorry, Ver. But it's true."
"Stupid demonic registry," Verin muttered.
Despite the grumbling, Verin stripped to his boxer briefs and stepped up on the scale when asked. His horns caused something of an issue since one of the human officials thought they shouldn't be included in his weight class and the other thought they should. In the end, they registered him as a heavyweight since they didn't have the equipment to deduce how much of Verin's weight was horn.
The venue might have been seedy, but the lack of posh credentials didn't appear to hurt its popularity. Humans and demons packed the bleachers and the schedule was likewise overflowing, allowing time for observation before Verin's fight. The rules appeared to follow those of bloodier human sports, those without gloves or head protection or, quick frankly, much in the way of rules. Two demons walked in. One demon walked out, the other crawled or left in some other less dignified manner. No fire or acid breathing permitted and those with wings had them pinned, but otherwise? Claws, teeth, horns, spiked tails, tentacles—all permissible.
As his turn approached, Verin became fidgety, bouncing on the balls of his feet. "You place a bet?"
"Not that I support this demonsploitation, but yes." Shax held up a hand when Verin shot him a hard look. "For you to win, Ver."
"Too fucking right."
Verin's first fight was against a distinctly reptilian demon with a heavy crocodilian tail. The referee, one of the largest rock trolls Shax had ever seen, introduced the lizard demon as Haket Escala, so he was one of those who had embraced the fashion of taking a surname as humans did. Partly, Shax saw the sense of it. If one wanted to interact with the human world, one eventually ran into—he shuddered delicately—paperwork. Much easier to navigate with a first and last name.
The combatants circled. Shax leaned forward as if it would help his focus. While Verin had perhaps a few pounds on his opponent, Haket had the reach and that pits-forsaken tail. Predictably, he feinted with a claw slash and employed the tail in his first attack, trying to sweep Verin's feet out from under him. Silly of him since Verin was far too canny a fighter to fall for the trap. Verin leaped over the tail sweep and delivered a roundhouse kick to Haket's midsection where his foot claws took out a nice chunk. Before the reptile demon could even dredge up surprise, Verin leaped again and brought his joined fists down atop Haket's skull with a nasty crunch.
The evening progressed in this way with Verin taking out previously victorious opponents one by one, usually in the first two minutes of the fight. By the fourth bout, he'd gained a proper fighter's title—Verin the Hammer—for that devastating double-fisted blow.
Just as Shax was feeling rather smug about the fact that none of the demons that evening were at all up to Ver's level of brawling, the referee announced the final bout of the evening. Horror crept up his spine as he caught sight of Verin's final opponent. Twice Verin's size, huge black wings clipped back, sharp bull's horns, one of the most handsome demons in all the precincts of Hell…
"Ver!" Shax waved him over frantically, speaking in a heated whisper as Verin jogged up. "You can't fight him."
Verin twitched when he caught sight of his last opponent, but covered it with a shrug. "So Agi's slumming tonight, so what?"
"Agaliarept will tear you into bite-sized pieces." Shax scrubbed both hands over his face. "Even if you do manage to beat him, think. Commander of Lu's own guard beaten by…well, you? My mother's general might enjoy a bit of humiliation. Agi certainly doesn't. It'll get back to court. We'll be stirring up things we don't want to. Revenge issues. Lu wondering if he needs a new commander. Do you really want to attract attention like that?"
"Fuck's sake, Shaxy. I can't just walk away now. May not matter to you, but I've got pride too."
"Could you, perhaps, throw the fight?"
In response, Verin snorted a cloud of smoke and sparks at him so thick it set Shax coughing, and stomped away to take his place arena-side. Both combatants were announced. The worked up and inebriated crowd roared. The bell rang. Shax winced as the first flurry of fists and claws ended with Verin thrown hard against the chicken wire. With a little niggle of shame wedged under his heart, his relief only grew each time Agaliarept tossed, flattened or stomped Verin. Not pretty by any stretch of the imagination, and good for Ver, he left the commander bruised and bloody, but not an evenly matched contest in the end.
The arena erupted in wild cheers when the referee called the bout, and Shax used the pandemonium to retrieve his fallen companion as discreetly as possible, head down so Agaliarept wouldn't recognize him. Not that being recognized mattered too much, but there would be the inevitable kowtowing and court gossip and the commander would want to go out for drinks. Shax just didn't think Ver would be up to it. For a few days.
Cab. Assistance from a bribed bellhop. Hotel room. Some good scotch. Verin had managed a glowering and subdued consciousness a bare two hours later. Not a bad showing, really, but Shax would have to find something Verin enjoyed doing in the next day or so. Otherwise he would become morose.
"You know, I rather liked that." Shax said as they watched the late news.
Verin managed a tiny gout of steam through his swollen nose. "Me getting pounded into the floor? Fuck off, dickweed."
"No. Ver, don't be like that. I meant the ring name they gave you. Quite fitting."
"We really should pick out last names we can register, you know. High time since we're topside so often. Verin Hammer. It suits you, don't you think?"
"Yeah." Verin stopped in the act of pouring himself another scotch and started drinking from the bottle. "Could be worse, I guess."
"Good." Shax hid his smile in a sip of his own drink. Verin hadn't cussed, so the conclusion had to be he was secretly pleased. It was going to be fun, being official in the human world. Even if there was paperwork.
Time: 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.
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