Time: Sometime after Shax's War
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in far orbit around Horvath Station
Some things passed around as "common knowledge" are a bit spurious. Other things are simply lies. Mac found that out the hard way en route to Horvath Station. Demons, so common knowledge said, didn't need sleep. Until that run, Mac had kept right on believing it. Captain Shax slept when he felt like it but could go days without when he had to and didn't seem to suffer.
Since Horvath was a relatively new station and the Brimstone had never had business there, this would be her first docking there to deliver extra insulators for their hydrogen oxidation tanks. Problem was that Horvath was largely a research station, built by and for, largely, engineers, scientists and accountants. Their ponderous docking regulation manuals and forms reflected this.
No. Strike that. Their manuals were arcane tomes of eldritch mutterings. Just awful.
By the ninth day, Shax still wasn't finished and he had them hold the Brimstone outside approach lanes since they wouldn't be cleared for approach without all the proper documents. Mac found him in the galley on probably his seven hundredth cup of coffee as he stared blankly at his display.
"Cap? You all right?"
Shax lifted his head, blinking bloodshot eyes at Mac and, Mother of Earth, that was disturbing to see the red cracks in a demon's black eyes. "Sorrel wine tiles."
"Pardon?" Mac came to sit across from him, more disturbed by the moment.
"I…" Shax shook his head slowly. "Caption sea verity."
"Maybe you need a rest, Cap."
Shax waved a frustrated hand at his screen. "Orange! Twelve manic!"
"I know you want to get it done but I don't think you can right now." Mac stood and hit the ship's comm on the wall. "Ness? Come get your demon. I think the Horvath manuals broke him."
Not ten seconds later, deck boots pounded down the corridor and Ness caromed around the corner into the galley. "He's worse?"
Mac waved a hand at their barely functional captain. "He's not making sense anymore. And he's not looking his normal dapper self."
Ness didn't ask any more questions. He simply hoisted a protesting Shax from the bench and carried him away. Five minutes later, he returned. "He's sleeping. Ms. Ivana put him out for his own good. I've never seen anything like that."
"Sleep deprivation and caffeine poisoning, maybe." Mac sipped his own coffee. "Don't suppose you have his access codes? Maybe he's far enough along that we can finish for him."
"I don't." Ness frowned. "I don't think it ever occurred to him to give them to me. Maybe Verin does."
Since the ship wasn't moving, Verin was able to join them and together they squirreled into Shax's files where the Horvath forms crouched in an ominous pack of bureaucratic nightmare. It only took opening the first few files to see why their captain had been taking so long to finish and why he'd nearly collapsed in a puddle of exhausted frustration. There was the docking permit, of course. That was normal. But there was also an application for the docking permit and an application to apply for the application of the docking permit. There were cargo and lading forms, ship registration separate from the docking permit, ship spec forms separate from those and on and on.
"Do these fuckers not want their cargo delivered?" Verin growled.
"Looks like most of this is initial contact stuff, Ver," Mac said as he scrolled through all the files. "After this first time, we're probably down to four or five forms. Instead of however many this is."
Corny joined them as Mac searched through form after form, then Leopold galumphed in soon after. Mac had to admit, Shax had managed an amazing amount of work in nine days considering some of the forms required dockmaster verifications from last ports of call and other officials. As far as Mac could tell, only two forms were incomplete—the ship specs and the crew manifest.
"Poor Cap." Mac cringed as he scrolled through the specs form. This was obviously where their captain's brain had given out. Shax had typed "lightning" in the box for propulsion type and "head cheese" for the interstellar drive model. Mac corrected those and moved on to the rest of the form. They wanted…what?
"Corny, hit the comm for me, would you? Get Heck up here."
A minute or so later, the trotting of muffle hooves came from the corridor—Heckle in his friction socks.
"Oh!" Heckled stopped in the doorway, wide-eyed and searching the gathered faces. "Did I miss the start of a meeting?"
"No, Heck. Just need your help." Mac waved the imp over to come sit on his knee.
"Mine?" Heckle squeaked as he wriggled into place.
"Yes, yours." Mac gave him a gentle poke. "This damnable form wants to know the configuration of our supplies."
"I don't…how do I tell it that?"
"You help me tell it that." Mac showed him the choices for supply holds, showing different numbers of aisles and stacks. Heckle picked the one that matched his supplies and then began happily rattling off what was in each stack and how much.
That went well for a bit until Mac hit a snag. "Um. Huh. Don't suppose you know the volumetric weight on each of your stacks?"
Heckle slumped in a crestfallen way. "I don't. I'm sorry. Is that a thing I should know?"
"Probably not. Ms. Ivana?"
Ship comm chirped and their AI purred, "You rang, tall dark and hung?"
"Give away all my secrets, why don't you," Mac said with a chuckle. "Volumetric weights on Heck's supply stacks? You must be helping with the load balancing, right?"
"Oh, I do, hon. Our little imp sweetie's a joy to work with. You need them all?"
With Ms. Ivana's help, even that was done in short order. That only left the crew manifest, which was far more detailed than any Mac had ever seen. Of course it was. Name, ship rank, height and weight, date of birth, place of origin, species. They did all right, checking with Ms. Ivana on some of Captain Shax's vitals since he wasn't available, until they got to Leopold.
Leopold Goldner, Mac typed in the name box. "Um. Leo? Are you demon or angel?"
"Neither one of those. I'm a genetic construct. Also a hedgehog," Leopold said in a puzzled tone.
"Right. But that's not a choice. I have to pick from the choices here."
"I suppose we'll have to say demon," Ness stroked Leopold's spines gently. "Since your Papa Shax is one and I was fallen before your, ah, birth. Though I don't know your actual birthday. I'm a terrible father, I'm sorry."
Leopold leaned against him with a peep. "We can guess on that. I'm not entirely sure. Since I was new then."
Between them, they came up with an approximate birthday and Mac listed him as a crew dependent since "apprentice thief" wasn't in the long list of choices. There was some argument about how to list Rosa, Maximillian and Nicodemus. In the end, they had to go under Livestock and Domestics since they would need official identification before being listed as crew on a docking manifest. The last thing they needed was for the forms to be rejected on a technicality.
They finished up, Mac shut everything down and the crew drifted off to whatever they'd been doing before the document crisis. Several hours later, Mac was back in the galley having dinner with Ness and Heckle when Shax strode in looking marginally better.
"Well. That was a bit of a dirty trick, Ms. Ivana but I do feel more chipper." He clapped his hands together. "Now to finish those thrice blasted, sadistic forms."
Shax nibbled on the dinner Ivana sent out for him while he checked through the documents, his expression more and more puzzled by the moment. "Did I finish these? I don't recall finishing them. Huh. Well, everything looks in order. Just need to sign and send them off."
Mac exchanged a glance with Ness, whose eyebrows were climbing up his forehead.
"Ha! Done, you pencil-pushing, nitpicking bastards!" Shax laughed in slightly hysterical triumph. "Thought you could defeat me with all of your repetitive nonsense. Persistence is my middle name. Or would be if I had one."
Should we tell him? Ness mouthed to Mac.
No. Would break his heart. Mac responded with a shake of his head.
For a few moments, there was silence in the galley, broken only by the sounds of eating. Then Shax's messaging pinged on his still open screen. When he opened it, visible to everyone at the table on his holo screen, the message from Horvath Docking Control read, Please resubmit forms using approved font.
In all his years on various ships, Mac had never seen the ship's captain break down and cry over forms before.
Time: A bit after Shax's War
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, Cargo Hold
Rosa liked her stall in the big echoing place. Sometimes it was chilly but she had a good blanket and the walls of her enclosure had warm coming out of them. She missed others like her some days but she did not miss the dapple-gray stallion who had always tried to bite her.
All of the two-leggeds here were good ones. None of them shouted at her or flicked a whip in her direction. She liked her own two-legged best, of course, the one she had brought with her into the metal barn. He would always be her favorite. They were a good team. But she liked the small-winged one, too, the one who brought her treats and talked to her as she helped him practice his flying. Small-wings was a nervous sort and needed supervision. Also, she liked the small-horned one very much, who also brought her treats and sometimes exercised with her in the big echoing place. He didn't need as much watching over, though. Usually.
Today, small-horns had climbed up a long metal thing, almost to the roof. In Rosa's experience, two-leggeds without wings climbing high on things often ended badly. This made her anxious.
He wore a metal plate in front of his face, held a metal tube on his back, and carried a metal stick that spat fire from time to time. Whatever the fire was supposed to do, it smelled terrible and the sounds were distressing. Rosa kicked her stall with her forelegs and whinnied, trying to tell small-horns to stop playing with stinking fires and come down. He went right on making the stick spit sparks at the ceiling. She reared up and neighed loud enough the sound echoed around her.
Small-horns stopped and lifted the metal plate from his face. He turned and called to big-wings down below on the floor. Why the one with wings was on the floor and the one with no wings was up dangerously high, Rosa couldn't understand. It made her very upset that her small-horns was up there.
Big-wings gestured toward her. Small-horns said something and gestured back, swinging out on his perch with a precarious one hand and one foot hold. Rosa banged against her door, frantic now. Big-wings came to talk to her. He had such a soft, soothing voice that normally would have calmed her but now small-horns had climbed off the long steps and was climbing around the metal pieces on the roof.
No! Come down! Come down now! Rosa screamed at him. He had to listen to her. Something bad would happen.
She backed up in her stall, gathered her hindquarters under her and sailed over the wall of her enclosure. Slipping and skidding over the shiny metal in the middle of the space, she raced to stand underneath small-horns, snorting and whinnying her disapproval. Big-wings flew up to where small-horns was playing with fire and they spoke with much waving of hands that nearly cost small-hands his already precarious grip.
When all the dangerous gestures were done, big-wings flew down and retrieved something that look to Rosa like a harness she would wear when pulling a cart. Small-horns stood on the long steps and put on this harness while big-wings flew over to clip the harness lead onto one of the metal bits attached to the ceiling.
Small horns called down to her, "Rosa! Look!"
She nearly had a fit when he let go of the ceiling, but he swung from the lead quite securely until he could grab on again. With a snort and a stamp of her hoof, she conceded. That was better. A little. Small-wings brought her an apple and walked her back to her stall where she settled in happily to her evening feed, though she did keep an eye on small-horns until he came down.
Just in case.
Shax came down the ladder after he'd finished welding and handed Ness the clip harness. "I'm adding her to the ship's roster. So you know."
"Oh?" Ness rolled the harness back up and put it in its cabinet. "As what, love?"
"I would have thought that was quite obvious," Shax grumbled. "Safety officer."
Time: During Hell for the Company
Place: An unspecified city done on Barbary
Sometimes the agency liked to challenge him with the impossible, Julian was absolutely certain. Since rumors floated through the halls of the ISE that he could accomplish six impossible things before breakfast, sometimes the jerks sorting assignments thought it would be hilarious to test those rumors.
Actinide Morose would be his first target tonight on Barbary. Then somehow he was supposed to catch up to and eliminate Serafina Cataclysm on one of the orbiting stations before the night was over. This might be the first time Agent Parallax failed to carry out his orders to the letter. Perhaps. He still hoped to find a way. Improvisation was one of his best things, after all.
It was a strange universe where the most ruthless crime lords took on the most ridiculous names. Julian shifted his cramping foot on the metal framework that held up the ceiling plates, oh so carefully so he wouldn't make a sound.
Come on now, Morose. I don't have all night while you shillyshally.
His micro camera showed the minions in place, but no Morose yet. The boss had set the meeting for eight. It was twenty minutes past the hour. Terribly rude. Finally, Morose made his grand entrance with a bit of arm candy plastered to his side and a monitor lizard tucked under his arm. So much drama. Julian was beginning to prefer the quiet hits on other operatives—that single muffled shot in the night, the subtle untraceable poison, the well-timed accident—to all this circus. So. Three minions. One boss. One bit of fluff who might escape becoming collateral damage if Julian did this efficiently. Boss first. Minions in quick succession according to their respective observed competence. He just had to wait until they were seated and--
The double doors to the posh conference room flew open with a crash. A tall slender figure stood silhouetted by the chandeliers in the hallway and shadowed by two crate-sized blocks of bodyguards.
"Serafina Cataclysm, it's been far too long," Morose intoned, eyes hooded as he stroked his lizard. "To what do we owe the pleasure?"
Cataclysm tossed her beautifully coifed purple hair and slunk into the room. "Actinide, darling, you look positively awful. I've come to pay my respects, of course, since I was in the vicinity."
What were the odds? Julian found himself grinning, despite the fact that he usually hated coincidences. But this was too good to pass up, if he could somehow avoid becoming ill from the cheesy dialogue. He eased a concussion grenade from his thigh pocket. That first. Then he could pick off the stunned roomful of awful below.
"I thought you were sulking up on station, my dear. Nasty rumors say you don't respect my authority," Morose purred.
Cataclysm let out a wordless snarl and flicked her nails in some coded gesture. Violent rustles of cloth and shouts followed as every single person in the room, including the supposedly harmless pretty, pulled guns. Invective flew, everyone covering everyone else.
One of Cataclysm's bodyguards shoved her behind him. She tripped on her long faux ermine coat. Her gun went off and took out the back of her guard's head. The other bodyguard, nervous and trigger happy, got off two shots and somehow managed to take down all three of Morose's goons. One of them fired as he hit the floor and hit the pretty in the chest, who flailed and shot Serafina, who managed to shoot her second bodyguard, whose gun flew out of his hand, hit the table and fired, putting a bullet between Morose's eyes.
The whole fiasco had taken no more than twelve seconds. Everyone in the room below was dead except the monitor lizard who sat on the table flicking his tongue in an unconcerned way. Julian lay on his ceiling girders, completely stunned. He'd barely been able to keep up with the epic levels of incompetence he'd just witnessed. How in the world was he supposed to report this?
With painstaking care, Julian retraced his steps, sliding back across the girders and through the duct system out to his waiting hoverbike beside a large drainage pipe. He was still so flabbergasted by the whole thing that he hadn't sent a status by the time HQ called him.
"Heading for the drop zone."
Julian hesitated long enough that HQ repeated the question. "The packages, ah, delivered each other."
"Full report on arrival. Let’s just say for now it's done." Julian shifted to take a hard left around a warehouse on the outskirts of the spaceport, trying to get his jumbled brain in order. "I'd like a counseling debrief with the usual round of meetings when I come in, please."
He could almost hear the puzzled frowns through his comm. "You never request voluntary counseling, Forty-two."
"Yes. I'm aware, thank you. This one…I'm not sure why I'm so disturbed except that it shouldn't have happened."
"Very good. Room twelve when you come in." Again, HQ hesitated. "You have vids?"
"Yes." Julian couldn't speak to the quality yet but he had been recording the entire time. "Good thing, too, or no one would believe me. I couldn't make this up if I tried."
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone and on Elistrus
"I miss trees sometimes." Shax leaned against the frame of the aft portal, staring out into the star dotted void.
Ness hesitated, wondering what sort of a mood this was, then put a gentle hand on Shax's shoulder. "Are you all right, love?"
Instead of answering the question, Shax went on. "It's not as if I grew up with trees, you understand. The flora in Hell doesn't run toward them. Except the anguish thorn trees in the eighth circle. You can't climb those, though. Certainly can't sit in their shade."
Ah. One of those moods. Instead of answering, Ness pull Shax back against his chest wrapping arms and wings around him.
"When Verin and I first started going topside, trees were almost too alien, too incredible to take in. They could be unthinkably huge and these giant beings stood around whispering to each other."
Ness probably knew less about trees than any of the crew did since he'd come directly from an isolated hallway in heaven to an archangel's troop ship. "You could understand tree?"
"Well, no." Shax turned his head, his expression frankly startled. "It's not as if I could speak to trees. That is, I suppose I did talk to them sometimes, but they pointedly ignored me. I could sense them speaking to each other, though, ponderously slow communications through chemical means and mycorrhizal networks."
"Oh, I see." Ness kissed the top of Shax's head, thinking. "There are trees on Elistrus."
"Not really the same, sweetheart."
"No, I suppose not."
Not too long after that strange, melancholy interlude, they found themselves headed to Elistrus with a delivery of specialty cat food. The shipment had missed its scheduled transport and the Brimstone had picked up the job out of dock messaging. Such a small shipment wasn't something Shax would have normally considered, but they all had to concede that the fee was more than fair. Ness had never realized cat food could be so expensive.
It seemed the perfect opportunity to lift Shax's spirits. He simply hadn't been the same since the Poe house incident. Ness suggested a walk in the park and Shax, once he'd checked the local weather several times, enthusiastically agreed. It might have been an excuse to wear that new bright blue jacket but Ness wasn't going to say anything.
"Lovely day." Shax nodded politely to a couple walking on the path.
"Yes. Good to be out in the sunshine sometimes. Starshine. Solar rays," Ness answered in distracted fashion. He considered shrugging out of his long black coat, now uncomfortably warm, though showing his wings would attract unwanted attention. Shax's jacket was the more sensible option… Odd. It seemed to be the precise shade of blue tinting the leaves on the trees. Something in the soil caused a blue rather than green tint, apparently. Blue leaves. Blue coat.
Shax's demeanor was all innocence when he finally got around to it. "I think I'd like to climb one."
I suppose I can't be shocked. "What are you up to, love?"
"Up to. Climbing trees. Ha. Come on, cupcake." Shax gave him the barest evil grin. "We used to do this at home. It'll be fun."
Those three words from Shax always sent vague shivers of dread down his compatriots' spines. Ness was no exception, but it was good to see Shax smile. They both waited until the footpath was clear of traffic. Shax picked an ancient tree whose branches overhung the trail and he shimmied up as easily as a squirrel. Ness shed his coat and took the more expedient winged route.
When they were safely sheltered in the thick blue foliage, Shax stretched out on his stomach along the branch and Ness sitting closer to the trunk, the demon prince pulled out an object reminiscent of a yo-yo.
Ness knew his role in these sorts of situations and obliged by asking, 'What's that?"
"It's a sort of a fishing rod. Shh. Just watch."
Carefully balanced on the branch with his ankles hooked behind him, Shax freed a sort of hook from the device. Ness felt certain that it wasn't just a hook, it's odd shape giving the impression of a magnetic component as well. Shax spooled out a length of clear line, so thin as to be nearly invisible. Then he shot a grin over his shoulder at Ness and settled in to wait.
That lovely butt wriggling from time to time to adjust sang a siren song to Ness. He really wanted to smack it. Bad idea, of course, since Shax would most likely lose his balance.
Soon enough, an equestrienne trotted down the path. Anyone owning a horse on Elistrus was obscenely wealthy, so Ness didn't feel quite as bad about what he was sure would happen. She wore one of the helmet-style hats with faux gears that were all the rage this year. Behind her saddle, a little bag sat secured, drawstring opening pointed up. That was the woman's first mistake.
With the tip of his tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth, Shax lowered his line and expertly dropped the hook into the opening provided by the drawstring. Some quick tugs and twitches, a tightening of his delicious thighs on the branch, and a little parcel emerged from the bag attached to the odd hook. Shax pulled it up quickly and the woman rode on, oblivious.
"Lovely! We seem to have acquired lunch." Shax chuckled as he tossed the packet over his shoulder to Ness.
Fumbling, nearly dropping it, Ness caught the packet and unwrapped the plastifoil. There was, indeed, a rather fussy-looking sandwich. "I don't understand why you would want to steal food."
"It's wasn't intentional, sweetie. Not always certain what you'll get during these expeditions. You're welcome to it, if you're hungry."
Over the next half hour, Shax's arboreal fishing snagged a ring, a pack of prophylactics, a shopping list, and a good pair of gloves. He didn't seem at all disappointed by the dubious haul. It was obviously the thrill of the hunt that amused him. Ness' only contribution was to put the items in his pockets to keep them safe.
"One more, cupcake. Promise." Shax blew him a kiss. "Thank you for being so patient today."
Another rider came cantering down the path, this one wearing a modern-style Homberg, a black one with just the barest hint of gold dust sparkle as it caught the light. Ness had no doubt that this hat was in trouble.
Shax hissed a breath through his teeth. "I must have that hat."
Hat lust, right on schedule…
The unsuspecting owner of the coveted headgear rode underneath their branch and Shax unerringly snagged the hat, yanking it up into the leaf cover before the owner had a chance to glance around and up. Too late to catch its trajectory and unable to see the missing hat, the poor man had no idea what had happened. He stopped, rode, back, and searched the ground for a few moments. Then he shook his head in bemusement and rode on.
The hat, due to its precipitous flight, was lodged in the leaves out of Shax's immediate reach. He tugged on his line but it was stuck tight. Carefully, Shax scooted farther out on his limb, trying to reach it. His arms weren't quite long enough.
"Be careful love. Do you want me to get that?"
"No, no, almost there." A little farther, a little farther…Shax had just managed to close his fingers around the hat's brim when the branch bent under him wildly. Unwilling to let go of the hat, he flailed wildly, snagged a handful of leaves, and plummeted.
Ness barely had time to react before Shax landed in the middle of the path with a solid whump, badly startling, and barely missing, an approaching couple. He lay there scowling up at the branches for a moment before he bounced up and offered the traumatized pair a bow.
"Terribly sorry. Wasn't quite the landing I'd intended."
They sidled around him, wide-eyed, and hurried away, leaving Shax to dust himself off.
"Are you all right?" Ness called down as he gathered the tree-fishing tool and his coat.
"More or less. Ow." Shax rubbed at his hip as Ness joined him on the ground.
Ness handed Shax his little tool of ill-gotten gains and brushed some of the dust off his back. "It probably doesn't do any good to say it serves you right, does it?"
"Not in the least." Shax plopped his new hat on his head and turned to point an accusing finger at the tree. 'You did that on purpose."
Though there was no wind, not even a breeze, the tree's leaves rustled.
Shax paled. "I think I've had enough fresh air and trees today, don't you?" He took Ness's arm and turned him back the way they had come. "Let's go back to the nice, unforested ship."
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Place: Amnesia Dock
Shipments were exciting. Heckle had originally been a bundle of nerves with every new shipment. Would it be right? Had he made mistakes? What would happen if he had? Now, though, he knew all of those answers and had the right tools for the job. Getting the boxes into the ship and entered into inventory was actually fun.
He'd even gotten to the point where he could time it so shipments were waiting for them when they docked. He would message one of the Dock Agents en route, they filled the orders, and hooray! Instant shipment as soon as Brimstone opened her hold. Not that he could get everything at every port of call. Oh, no, no. A quartermaster had to know which supplies were local so he wasn't paying a prince's ransom for sugar on Triton Station or three times the actual worth of a seal gasket on Elistrus.
Most of the crew even trusted him with special requisitions, now that he was more comfortable with his job. Sure, there were things the captain wanted to shop for himself still, but Heckle wasn't offended. Captain Shax enjoyed his shopping therapy too much. It would be incredibly mean to ask him to give that up.
Today's shipment was mostly dry goods—coffee, oats, flour, and so on. Heckle stood by the conveyor with its robot arms that took the boxes and crates from dockside up into the hold. The upgrade to a robotic assist loader was exciting too, since now the crew didn't have to help him load the heavy things on the conveyor. Heckle could manage it all himself.
"Gryphon on. Inventory up. Adding quantities." Heckle's tablet chirped and lit up to show the inventory screens. He couldn't read them but he could see the right numbers going in. "Coffee, three crates."
"Coffee, three crates," the pleasant Gryphon voice verified. They were good friends now that they understood each other and Heckle rarely had to make corrections anymore.
"Baking soda, one box."
"Baking soda, one box."
"One package…what in Hell's pits?"
"One package, Worcestershire sauce."
"Delete last entry, Gryphon." Heckle hurried to turn off the conveyor.
The oddly shaped package halfway up the belt didn't have a scanning label or any markings indicating what it was. Several cylindrical lumps showed through the packaging along with a strange collection of other shapes. He was about to call Ness, anxieties about sabotage and bombs forming in his stomach, when three heads popped up on the other side of the conveyor, two pink, one white.
Heckle blinked in surprise at the sudden and suspiciously convenient appearance. "Um, hello, boys."
"Hello. That is mine." Leopold said as Nicodemus scurried from atop his head to explore the strange package. "Special order from Habco. I will take it, please."
"Okay, I guess? I mean, I didn't get a requisition for it?" Heckle caught his tail to twist it between his fingers. This felt like it could be a confrontation soon and he hated those more than anything. "And I don't want to be a pain, Leo, but I kinda have to know what's coming aboard. It's…it's my job."
Leopold stared at him for one of those long, unsettling Leopold moments. Max had joined Nic on the package, tapping here and there with his feelers, singing soft notes to the shapes.
"It's a habitat. For Max and Nicodemus. Papa said I should."
"Oh. But they live in the ship? I don't understand."
Leopold sighed. Anyone who said he had no expressions had never heard Leopold sigh. It was such a long-suffering, aggravated sound that it made Heckle feel smaller for asking the question.
"For when I'm not there. Papa Shax says secure them. I won't use cages." Leopold trundled around to Heckle's side of the conveyor belt, pushing a little cart. "It has nooks and toys. And Copernicus flight pods. And many tunnels."
Heckle picked up the package and turned it over to find the Habco label on the bottom. "Oh. I get it. Someplace fun for them to be when you're not with them. That's a good idea."
"I hope they like it. Some assembly is required. Put it on the cart?"
With a start, Heckle realized he was still holding the package. He placed it carefully on the cart, with the flattest side down so it wouldn't fall off. "Sure. Okay. Could you, um, maybe let me know when you have something coming in next time?"
"I suppose I could. Unless it's super secret. Then I won't tell you." With that, Leopold waddled off on his hind legs, forepaws clutched around the handle of his cart. Max and Nic leaped off the conveyor and scurried after him, climbing up his spines to hitch a ride. No thank you, not even a look back. Leopold did get in strange, secretive moods sometimes, but that probably had everything to do with being a demon princeling.
"Some people's kids," Heckle muttered as he started the conveyor again.
Time: Shortly before the beginning of Potato Surprise
Location: Earth, North America
"You know this is all crap, right?" Verin grumbled as he chewed on the end of an unlit cigar.
"What is, Ver?" Shax dodged a man on a unicycle, caught up in the distractions of the carnival crowd.
"The fucking tarot cards, dumbass. Those damn cards aren't any more mystical than my left nut. We used to use the same damn deck to cheat humans out of their gold."
Shax nudged Verin with an elbow. "And here I thought your left nut was just a little heavier." He ducked the cuff to his head and laughed. "It's not the cards, Ver, or the pictures on them. You could draw cards with flying pigs and baby vampire bunnies on them and it could still work."
"I'd pay to see that."
"Ha. Yes, actually, that would be fun. But it's all in the emotive energy invested, the psychic will of the reader and the subject. The cards themselves don’t matter, as long as you've assigned them meaning."
Verin's sigh carried a double curl of smoke. "If you say so, your all-knowing highness."
Their goal was at the far end of the carnival, beyond the brightest of the lights. Shax pulled Verin out of the way of a stilt walker—Ver would've happily let the man crash into him and topple over—and hurried them along. The tent at the end of the fairway was different from the larger tents, more of a yurt shape and hung with long tassels that gesticulated languidly in the breeze.
Shax stopped in the doorway to appreciate the artistry of the scene—the dark silks, the cinnamon and cardamom scent drifting from within, the soft red-tinged glow that beckoned the curious seeker. Well done, indeed. He pushed through the curtains, Verin's steam laden breath just behind him, a comfort and a distraction since he knew Verin well enough to know his companion wouldn't leave his skepticism at the door.
"Welcome, Highness," a genderless voice said from behind a velvet draped table. Black veils shrouded the figure, giving only an impression of a face, with the only visible physical attributes the elegant hands with their red lacquered nails.
"You know me?" Shax asked as he swaggered in.
"Not by name. Though Hell's courts are known to me. I know royalty when it's in my presence."
"Excellent." He took the chair opposite the tarot reader and set his hands flat on the table. "Then we shouldn't need preliminaries. I'd like a reading, please. Short-term future. The next year or two."
"You should have a more comprehensive one, Highness. It would be in your best interests."
"I'm sure it would, since it would be more expensive," Shax gave them a warm smile to show he didn't at all resent a bit of huckstering. "Just the immediate future, please."
The reader tipped their head in a sideways nod and handed the deck of cards to Shax. "Look them over. Let them know you."
The cards were, as so often with tarot decks, a bit larger than playing cards and a bit clumsy to fan out. Shax's eyebrows went up as he examined this particular deck, which wasn't at all usual. Instead of the normal suits and Major Arcana, all the symbolism on these cards was ornithological. No wands, pentacles, cups and swords here from the Rider deck, nor the discs of the Crowley Thoth. Instead, the suits appeared to be eggs, feathers, claws and…chickens? He might have been able to puzzle out the Major Arcana eventually, but they were all unfamiliar, each one a beautiful bird painting.
"What a lovely deck, Mx." Shax shuffled the cards and handed them back, annoyed at being thrown off balance.
"You will follow their meaning easily, Highness. Never fear." The smile in that soft voice was obvious, rankling Shax further since he wasn't normally so transparent.
They took his hand briefly in a light, cool grip, then laid the first card, the king of feathers, represented by a peacock with his tail spread behind him. "The peacock is you, Highness."
"Because I'm so beautiful?" Shax gave them a wink.
They answered with a throaty chuckle. "You are. But you are vain and proud, as well. These are your greatest challenges."
Shax fought a scowl. "It's a genetic issue."
"Your understanding of perception and your ability to project authority also come from these attributes, so long as you use them wisely."
"Duly noted." So far, the reader hadn't said anything new.
The next cards were the Knight of feathers, represented by a harpy eagle, and the ten of claws. The reader tapped it with their forefinger. "Your allies. The one who stands at your shoulder now, yes. But there will be others."
He wanted to ask why he would need allies, but kept silent. A demon prince could always use them, of course. In the court of Hell, he was such a fringe player, though, not involved in the broiling cauldron of constant intrigue.
Hesitantly, as if they were disturbed by it, the reader played the next card that showed a stooping hawk with red-talons and an ominous red sun behind it. "The Hawk, Highness."
Shax stared at it, threat nearly pulsating from it. "It's like the Tower, isn't it?"
"Very similar." They inclined their head. "Disaster in your near future." She laid out three more cards in quick succession, the Knight of eggs, represented by a partridge, the nine of feathers, a cardinal, and the King of chickens, represented by a Jersey Giant rooster in glossy black with a proud red comb. "Economic. Familial. Political."
The next card played was a vulture with a skull for a head, though it was reversed.
"Death?" Shax asked, his voice a spare murmur to keep is steady.
"The Vulture is Death, yes. Though reversed it can mean great change. A new beginning."
They drew several more cards—a flight of swallows, a great horned owl, a winter ptarmigan, and a mantling eagle. "When the time comes, and you will know the time, you must move swiftly, Highness. Swiftly, silently. Vanish into the landscape to avoid disaster." They stopped the reading suddenly and picked up all the cards. "I'm sorry, Highness. Normally, the readings are for show. To give the customer something hopeful. Sometimes, the cards read true. But I can't continue and I won't charge you."
"You can't?" Verin growled from behind Shax. "Why the fuck not?"
They nodded at Verin. "You will need your knight in the days to come. Take the warning, Highness. The reading is too dark for me, too difficult."
Shax rose slowly, confused and disturbed. Verin had to catch him by the elbow when he stumbled. "Er…thank you? I think? We won't distress you further."
As they made their way back out onto the midway, which now seemed too brassy and loud, the lights too garish, Shax managed to shake off some of the creeping dread he'd felt in the reader's tent. "Ah, well. I guess you're right, Ver. It was a load of crap."
Verin snorted sparks and jammed his cigar between his teeth again. "Told you. And I sure as shit am not some fucking harpy eagle."
Time: Shortly after Beside a Black Tarn
Location: Triton Station
"Eyes on the chip, ladies and gentlemen, eyes on the chip," the man with moveable holo boxes exhorted his audience as he shifted the shells around on the light table. Every now and then, he would lift one to show the location of the chip, then begin shifting them again.
Papa Shax had warned him about shell games. He'd also warned Leopold about wandering into this part of the station. It was nice that Papa Shax worried but he was the son of a demon prince, after all. Hives of scum and villainy should be like a second home, shouldn't they? Besides, Leopold had felt contrary that morning and didn't want to hear where he could and couldn't go.
Finally the grinning human stopped. "All right, young man. Where's the chip?"
Leopold pointed to the man's left hand.
The man's smile slipped. "No, no, my spikey friend. You misunderstood. Point to the box you think the chip is under."
From a diplomatic point of view, Leopold knew it was a bad idea, but he persisted, pointing again to the man's left hand.
"That's not how the game's played, son." The man's smile became more a baring of teeth. "How about you run along now?"
A bright pink head with waving antennae popped up over the man's shoulder. Maximillian clambered the rest of the way up the man's back and plopped down onto his left hand. The man screamed and shook his hand violently. Max flew. The game chip fell from his hand and clattered to the floor, uncommonly loud in the sudden silence as Leopold scrambled to let Max land on his head.
The surrounding crowd muttered in anger and derision while the game man hastily packed up his table. But where was Nicodemus? Ah, there. A white whiskered snout peeked from around a table leg. Nic risked a glance up at the furious game man, then scurried to Leopold with the credit chit in his mouth.
"You little shit! Give that back!" The game man lunged but Nic was already wriggling into Leopold's backpack.
Leopold held up a paw. Amazingly the man stopped.
"It was in your hand. Not under the holo shells. You, sir, were cheating." Not that Leopold had anything against cheating. Papa Shax did it all the time and was good at it. Unlike this man.
The man let out an infuriated shriek and made a grab for them. Leopold dropped to all fours and zipped around behind a pair of large disgruntled looking men who were closing the circle around game man. He did wonder how people could still be fooled by such an ancient con but perhaps it wasn't common among spacers. The novelty of it here must have been how game man had gotten away with it. All quite fascinating.
Not quite fascinating enough to ignore that it was time to leave. Leopold ran as fast as his stumpy legs could manage. They wouldn't keep him ahead of his pursuer for long but he only needed a few seconds of distance and game man's erstwhile audience was providing an angry distraction. Papa Shax often said in a tight spot, play to your strengths. One of Leopold's strengths was breaking into things.
Another was ductwork.
He spotted a vent within a few yards of running, and had his tools out and the cover popped off in less than thirty seconds. It wasn't the best solution—foreign matter in the air ducts could lead to criminal charges on a space station—but it was the best he had. If he kept to the corridors and promenades, his bright pinkness would give him away at every step.
In the way of underground creatures, Leopold's sense of direction in tunnels and ducts was unerring. He had them moving toward the ship connectors in a couple of turns. Brimstone wasn't one of the huge ships who had to stand off from the station, but it wasn't small enough to fit into a berth in Triton's docking bays. Those were for shuttles, small corsairs and the more modest private yachts. Mid-sized ships like theirs gathered along the outer station rings, snuggled close and connected with docking tubes. The transparent kind Corny hated so much.
He peeked out through the vent holes when they reached the one nearest the Brimstone. Unfortunately, it was the middle of the station's business day and the corridor was crowded. Not a good idea to be seen crawling out of an air duct by all those people. Leopold backtracked to a spot where three sweeper bot access ports and recharge stations sat in a neat row along the duct's outer wall. These were usually in less-trafficked access corridors and as long as at least one sweeper bot was there for recharge, the accompanying port would be unlocked for techs to scoop up the bot for scheduled maintenance. The ports could be opened from the inside—for maintenance crews working in the ducts—but required a mag tool to be opened from the outside.
Leopold spent quite a bit of time studying duct specs. Everyone needed hobbies.
"All three ports have bots. Hello, little sweeper bots. We won't disturb you." Leopold patted one of the docked sweepers as he pressed his ear to the middle port to listen.
Nic popped his head out of the pack, squeaking urgently.
"I think you are right," Leopold whispered. "There is a human out there. He does not smell washed."
Carefully, he started to push the lift door of the left-hand port up.
"Ha! Knew you'd come out here, you pink freak!"
Leopold slammed the port shut as game man tried to seize him. The metal door caught the human's fingers and Leopold winced since the howl of pain wasn't a good sign that game man would be calming down soon. He raced over to the right-hand port and tried again with the same result. Grabbing hands, slamming door, though game man was faster and didn't get his fingers caught. This went on for a few moments, until game man decided on a different tactic.
The center door creaked and scraped up. Game man had found a way to pry it open.
Leopold scrambled back, desperately trying to think of another nearby inconspicuous way out of the ductwork. With a triumphant cry, game man lunged through the port up to his waist and caught Leopold's back foot. He peeped as he fell on his side, scrabbling for purchase on the polished metal.
Nic and Max swarmed from the pack, trampling over Leopold so Nic could chomp into game man's index finger and Max could spray the irritant he stored in his side spiracles. Some of Max's defensive weapon landed on game man's nose and some in his eye. Again, the human howled in pain. It wasn't really a good sound for him. While game man wiped furiously at his stinging eyes, Leopold jumped on his back, slammed the middle door shut on his waist and herded Max and Nic through the right-hand door. He'd just gathered them into his pack and was making his way to the main corridor when security turned at the nearest cross-corridor at a run.
"What the hell is going on down here?" the larger security human bellowed.
Leopold pointed back to the access corridor. "Back there in the ducts. He was trying to climb in. I think he is stuck."
"Damn it! Not again!" shorter human swore before both security officers raced toward the ports.
It was both amusing and disturbing that apparently this had happened more than once, but Leopold didn't stop to think about it too hard. He ran full out to the docking tubes and stood on tiptoes to put his comm against the door pad by the Brimstone's. The iris lock clicked and cycled open and he only stopped to catch his breath when it had cycled shut again behind him.
Papa Shax was in the kitchen with his coffee, sleepy-eyed like he'd just woken up. "Well hello, my dear. You look as if you had furies after you. What have you been up to today and do I need a bribe for the authorities?"
Leopold pulled himself onto the bench beside his demon father, shaking his head. "Just looking around. No bribes for our walk today." He stole a bit of his father's cinnamon roll. "Shell games are stupid."
Time: Directly before the start of Shax's War
Place: Interstellar Enforcement HQ
"Parallax." The director tapped his papers straight, a nervous tic. "Come in."
"Sir." Julian hesitated in the doorway, thrown off by the sheer number of administrators behind the table. "Am I up for review?"
"No. The committee has some questions. Come in. Sit down." The director indicated the single uncomfortable chair in front of the table. "I must say, this is rather poor form. This is not how I'm accustomed to seeing agents at headquarters."
Bad enough being called in right from an assignment. Julian was filthy, exhausted, and his arm might have been bleeding again. Well, it would serve them right if he dripped on the lovely new conference room tiles. "I was on assignment when the summons came through, sir. It did have a level five priority on it."
Urgent. Come with all possible speed.
He'd expected headquarters to be under siege or something equally exciting. No such luck.
"Yes. Quite." The director did that blustery throat-clearing thing. "For god's sake, Julian. Sit."
Lovely. He'd embarrassed the director. "Yes, sir." He sat carefully, set his hoverbike helmet on the floor and tried not to look like he was cradling his arm.
"Parallax." A woman he couldn't identify spoke up sharply from halfway down the left side of the table. She was iron-haired and hard featured. Ex-marine, Julian guessed. "You consort with demons in your line of work?"
Consort? What an odd way to put it. "I have contact with demons and certain other hell species, yes."
"This demon?" The head of research asked as a holo still image flashed into the air before them.
Julian had to fight a smile. It was Shax, cocky and self-assured as he leaned against a bar somewhere chatting to the bartender. Little alarm bells rang in Julian's head, but he'd certainly mentioned Shax in previous reports. Using him as an informant and occasional operative wasn't a secret he'd kept from the ISE. "Yes."
"Can you verify his name?"
Ye gods, what had Shaxy gotten himself into now? "That's Captain Shax Goldner, of the transport ship, Brimstone."
"You're certain?" a thin-faced man from the opposite end barked out.
Another holographic still popped up. "And this one?"
This was Shax on a dock somewhere, talking to what appeared to be a group of academic types. He was grinning. They were scowling. "That's also Captain Goldner."
"You are a hundred percent certain?" the first woman snapped.
"No, ma'am. That's foolish in my profession. I can't be without doubts from a still image. One I didn't take."
"Reasonably certain, then?" a small man with a high voice piped in.
"Yes, sir. Reasonably certain."
"Were you aware then, Mr. Parallax, that the captain of the Brimstone recently engaged in unauthorized temporal displacement?" This from an older military man, so old he looked like retirement was several centuries late.
Wait…what? Unauthorized? "I had heard rumors, none I've followed up on, that there was a time travel incident. I'd also heard it was disastrously accidental."
"When you heard these rumors, why didn't you detain the demon captain for questioning?" the head of research asked.
Julian blinked, staring. He glanced at the director for some clue as to how he was supposed to handle this. The director tapped on his holo pad, very studiously not looking up. "I…had no orders to do so? None that reached me, in any case."
"We understand that you're a high-level agent," a younger man purred from the far right end of the table. Julian hadn't a clue what role that one might play, which made him supremely uncomfortable. "And have a great deal of autonomy in the field. Why wouldn't you take the initiative to bring this demon in?"
Again, Julian tried and failed to catch the director's eye. What the hell was going on here? "My autonomy is generally mission specific. Yes, I'm authorized to intervene in matters of interstellar security threats but they need to be overt threats without orders." He cleared his throat, knowing he was wandering out onto cracking ice. "Time travel, while outlawed on some space stations specifically, is not prohibited by interstellar law or planetary law. Since no one's done it before, I assume no one felt the need to legislate. It was my understanding that Captain Goldner's temporal accident occurred in Copernicus space? Not on a space station? Am I incorrect?"
"You are correct, Mr. Parallax." The minister of transportation nodded. "But such an unusual occurrence didn't even peak your curiosity?"
"I won't say that, sir. But the Brimstone's time jump accident was safely in the hands of top-notch academics by the time word reached me. I didn't see any need to be involved."
The marine type was by now alarm siren red and her teeth were quite obviously clenched as she said, "Your demon captain friend received a summons from ISE to come in for questioning regarding the incident. This was his response."
The holo projector popped on again, this time showing a full vid. Shax spun idly in the desk chair of what looked to be a private communications suite of the sort found on some space stations. He was playing pirate captain, appearance-wise, in his captain's jacket and silver scale armor shirt, a bit too much eye makeup and probably half the earrings he owned. He came around on the third spin and propped his boots up on the comm console.
"Greetings, lovely ISE people. I realize our relationship has been rather problematic over the years. But your last communique was nothing short of rude, so I will be clear and bluntly to the point and use one of my favorite phrases. You are out of your jurisdiction. So far out of it, I fear you may not find your way back. I'm not unreasonable, as demons go, and I'm perfectly willing to point the way."
He took his feet down and leaned closer to the vid screen. "My time and my information are not free. I've sold both to the nice professors at the university, much to their finance manager's chagrin. If you want the information, you pay me what they paid or you negotiate with them. I am not coming in to headquarters to end up some caged pet demon and you have no right to demand it. Now shoo."
Shax ended the communication by sticking a cigar in his mouth and holding up both middle fingers.
It was impolitic and incredibly stupid but Julian laughed and once started, found it difficult to stop. When he finally took a deep breath and wiped at his eyes, the director was drumming his fingers on the table.
"Found that amusing, did you?" the strange man at the end of the table purred.
"It was. Because he's right, I'm afraid." Julian pulled in another deep breath and made a conscious effort at a more sober demeanor. "We have no right to harass him for the information."
The hard-faced woman growled, "You have an obligation here, Parallax—"
Julian held up a hand. "Ladies and gentlemen of whatever committee this happens to be, here's what I see. Somewhere, there is an internal program to develop time travel. To date, this program has not been successful. Then you hear that a disreputable demon has managed to accomplish, by accident, that which you cannot. This annoys certain internal parties and you believe you can make demands. When they are refused, you call me in to make the demands instead because I have prior contact with said disreputable demon."
He shook his head, managing a pleasant enough smile. "My answer is no. I will ask. But this particular demon is valuable in the long run. I will not jeopardize a good working relationship with a vital operative to coerce information that can be obtained by other means."
The director finally sat up straighter and raked a gaze over one side of the table, then the other. "There you are, ladies and gentlemen. I will repeat that I predicted this outcome."
"You're his supervisor! You can—"
The director cleared his throat to cut off the objecting VIP type. "No. There are procedures in place for a reason. No, I can't."
The head of research frowned, though what he said wasn't what Julian was expecting. "Mr. Parallax, your arm is dripping."
Julian leaned over and spotted the ever-growing red puddle on the crisp white tiles. "Ah. So it is."
The director huffed a sigh. "Dismissed, Parallax. And for god's sake, get to medical."
Time: Directly after the end of Fear of Frogs
Place: Brimstone, in transit
Ness grimaced at his screen and erased the greeting. One didn't begin a letter to an archangel that way. Maybe. He really had no idea since his experience of corresponding with angels was limited to the occasional report to a commanding officer.
To the most holy Archangel Raphael
"That sounds almost sarcastic. Won't do at all." Ness deleted most holy and replaced it with esteemed, cringed and replaced it with honorable, deleted that and finally settled on omitting the extras.
To the Archangel Raphael
It was a shock…
"No, that's terrible."
It was a bit of a surprise to receive your letter and it's very kind of you to ask after Shax. He's doing quite well, thank you. Fully recovered from the horrific damage…
"Oh, dear. No. That sounds so angry."
Fully recovered from the incident that led to my celestial separation.
"Yes. That's more calm and reasonable." Ness nodded in satisfaction at the turn of phrase, then stared at the screen. What in the world was he supposed to say to an Archangel who asked after his welfare? I didn't realize correspondence was an option? I'm sorry your bigoted colleagues destroyed a large part of who I was? I'm more demon than angel now and have this anger living inside me that was never there before and it's all your fault?
Ness shook out his wings and pulled in a slow breath. None of that. Raphael had saved Shax, despite what the other angels said. He'd made certain Ness could stay with Shax as well instead of being dragged off in front of some heavenly board of inquiry.
Life aboard ship is endlessly fascinating. I would never have guessed that there was so much involved in interstellar cargo hauling, especially for a small, independent ship. We've just come from a delivery of scientific equipment and specimens that resulted in our being flung centuries back in time…
"Um. Maybe that's not something I should talk about."
We've just come from a delivery of scientific equipment and specimens that posed some nearly baffling challenges. We all hope that the next cargo run will be for more mundane, ordinary shipments.
A laugh escaped as Ness recalled the faces of the university administrators when Shax had submitted his final bill for the frog run. No common pirate, Shax knew the value of leverage and had kept meticulous track of every minute of time the Brimstone's crew spent in conference with scientists eager to learn about time travel, every scrap of data they insisted they needed from ship's records. The Brimstone and her crew would be well off for some time.
Anger issues aside, he loved the sheer autonomy of his new life. He had responsibilities, yes, but he had a voice as crew and he had choices to make. If he wanted to sleep when no one needed him, he could. If he wanted to cuss, no one reprimanded him. His choice what to eat, how to spend his free time, what to wear, and where to sleep.
His choice to stay with a devious, handsome demon who loved him. Ness smiled at that, letting the warm glow settle around his heart. Perhaps he hadn't had much choice in falling in love but it was his understanding that those sorts of things snuck up on people, regardless of species. The anger and the jealousy he would learn to manage as every other being in love had since the beginning of time.
The sum of it all? He hummed as he concluded his letter.
I am loved and I am happy. I want to be sure that you know, since you are partly the agent of that happiness. No matter what gulfs of perceived morality separate us, I want you to know that I am grateful. Thank you.
My regards to the guardians of the Fourth Hallway,
Ness Angelus, security officer, cargo hauler Brimstone
Speaking of devious demons, it had been far too quiet for the past hour. Ness sent his letter off through channels and left the cabin in search of his Shax. Perhaps he was up to something that would merit a spanking later.
Time: A Long Time Ago During Shax's Teenage Years
Place: In Hell, Palace of Princess Ashtaroth
"Ver?" Shax kicked his boot heels against the rock ledge where he'd perched. His squad of troll guards stood out of earshot, watchful, wary. Maybe riding out here to the Cliffs of Lunacy hadn't been the best idea but it wasn't as if the cliff bats would dare bother a Prince of Hell. Besides, the view was fabulous.
Verin, lying on his back with his eyes squeezed shut, grunted a non-committal response.
"What do you think it's like? The human world?"
"Don't care. Humans are assholes."
Shax chewed on a bit of candied manticore heart from the supply in his belt pouch. "I bet it's interesting. They have towns and markets and wars. Greed and lust and vanity in these weird combinations. They have sunlight. And oceans."
"We have oceans."
"Of water, not lava."
Shax belatedly offered a candy to Verin. "Want one?"
"Gross. No. Don't know how you eat those fucking things. Too sweet."
Verin's horns were finally coming in, fully curved black rams horns that would be devastating in a fight. Shax envied him a little but the horns had grown faster than Verin, imposing a heavy burden on his still-slender adolescent neck. Gave him nasty headaches sometimes. Shax flexed his shoulders fretfully, trying for the thousandth time to see if wings were coming in. Mum had wings. He should get wings. Being an almost-grown demon was irritating.
"One of my cousins told me the humans do festivals."
Verin snorted. "What in all fucking pits is that?"
"Seems to be something like an orgy. Sometimes. But with music and dancing and offerings where they give things to beings they think are gods."
"That's stupid. Why would they do that?"
Shax nodded. "I suppose it's a little odd. But it's all part of worship. If the humans worship you, they want to please you. Sitri says they even offer themselves." He chewed on a thumb claw, unable to let go of the idea now that it had taken root. "I want to go, Ver. I want to see the humans. Not souls, but living, flesh and bone humans."
"You're gonna get us in fucking trouble again, aren't you?"
"Come on, Ver. It was completely worth it to sneak into Uncle Asmo's last orgy. Even if we couldn't sit down for a week."
Verin grumbled something about strips taken out of his ass but they had enjoyed themselves until Mum caught them. It wasn't that she objected to her little princeling buried under a pile of attentive imps but she had expressly forbidden him to attend orgies until his formal presentation at court. She would not be disobeyed. As to the matter of traveling topside, she hadn't said not to. It was just generally understood that immature demons didn't. Restless anger had become his companion more and more. They were nearly grown and still treated like hatchlings.
"Oh, shit." Verin covered his face with both hands, smoke curling between his fingers. "We're doing this, aren't we?"
"Yes." The fever had Shax now. It had to be done. "Tonight."
Later that night, or rather bugfuck early the next morning when Hell parties had ended in stupor and occasional slaughter and the workday had yet to begin, two teenage demons climbed down the side of one of the high towers of Princess Ashtaroth's palace. The one used a rope and the other used his claws to descend the mirror-sheen obsidian. The stone wasn't quite as glass-perfect by the time they reached the bottom.
"That left more of a mark than I thought it would." Shax cringed.
"Yeah, well, too late now, genius," Verin growled. "Your idea to go together so it'd be faster."
They only took Shax's own nightmare, riding double, in a hushed and hurried escape from the stable before the gremlin grooms could wake and ask questions. They galloped to the Cave of Expedition where all points in the human world linked to Hell in some mysterious, arcane way. The narrow mouth opened into a vast cavern where the ceiling vanished into blackness. Shining, shifting surfaces with constantly changing jagged edges, too strange and unsettling to be called windows, stood in a rough circle at the center of the cavern.
Verin touched a surface gingerly with a single forefinger. When his digit didn't sink through, he knocked on it with his knuckles. "What the fuck, Shaxy? How do we get through?"
"Ah, my dear Verin, one needs a key." Shax grinned as he pulled a shard of black crystal from his pack. "And not every demon has one."
"Um…" The color drained from Verin's face. "Did you steal that from your mom?"
"Pfff. Of course not. Do you think I'm stupid?" Shax glared when Verin opened his mouth to answer. "Shush. No. I took it from her secretary."
"Don't know if that's a shit ton better," Verin muttered.
"We just need to find a fun spot to go through." Shax began searching the surfaces, fascinated by the sheer variety of humans and their activities. "Oooh, they're fighting in this one. Ow. No. That looks painful. A night scene. That's what we want. All the fun things happen at night up there, don't they?"
"Don't look at me. Nobody tells me shit."
Which wasn't precisely true. Higher-level demons tended to talk around Verin since he was 'just a minion.' They'd learned some juicy stuff that way.
Shax rounded the curve and came upon an intriguing scene—young humans, naked or mostly so, danced around an enormous bonfire. They wore garlands of leaves and flowers twined in their hair and they swayed as they leapt and turned, chanting wildly.
"This one. Definitely this one." Shax reached out a hand. "Come on, Ver. Hang on tight."
Verin clutched his arm with both hands, claws digging in. With a deep breath, Shax stepped forward with the crystal in his free hand, letting the black shard touch the portal surface first. There was a moment's resistance, then the portal spat them out with unseemly force so that they tumbled in a heap onto a broad moonlit meadow.
They had landed downslope from the bonfire, outside the circle of light, so Shax rolled off Verin and stayed flat in the grass to observe. The humans had food and wine piled up on a wooden, flower-strewn dais. It all looked so festive and inviting…and lithe naked humans…
Shax stood slowly, even though Verin hissed and cussed at him to get down.
"They'll fucking see you!"
"That's the idea." Shax left his pack on the hillside and after a moment's thought, his shirt and his boots as well. Then he walked boldly into the firelight.
The nearest humans gasped, their drums and pipes petering to a ragged halt as the dancers spotted him, mouths open, eyes wide. The frozen tableau only lasted a moment until one young man flung his head back and let out a crazed bellow. This seemed to be some kind of signal. The humans rushed toward him.
"Pan! Pan has come!"
"A young god! Pan come to us as a young god!"
"Pan has heard us!"
"He's brought a satyr too!" This came from the gleeful group of celebrants dragging Verin up the hill.
Humans fell to their knees in the grass before Shax, they leapt and danced around him in joyous celebration, laughing and whooping.
"Shax! They're…touching me!" Verin called out in panic as the humans pulled him down to the grass.
Shax laughed and pulled a young man close for a teasing kiss. "Relax, Ver. This is worship. You're fine."
"Oh. Huh." Verin had ended up with his horned head in a lovely young man's lap while another fed him some small round fruit. A third had shoved Verin's kilt up and was licking at eager demon cock. "Oh…fuck yeah."
The young humans surrounded Shax, touching him, stroking him. One lovely with golden hair brought him a goblet. Another brought him a bowl of little…somethings. Shax took one delicately in his claws. Hard. Teardrop shaped. Oh. It was delicious. Nuts, he decided. He had heard of those.
"Which do you choose, oh, Pan?" A youngster with beautiful black ringlets knelt before him, one hand on his thigh. "Which of your virgins would you prefer tonight?"
Shax's wits scattered and lay in little ecstatic balls around his feet as the youngster reached up under his kilt and did wicked, wicked things. "Mmmm…I do like you. You're not really virgins, though, are you?"
The youngsters laughed in delight.
"No, my lord Pan. It's a ceremonial title. What fun would actual virgins be?"
Shax relaxed back in the arms of his supplicants, stroking and kissing languidly as he pleased but letting them do the work. And, oh, it was glorious, all those hands and mouths and cocks everywhere. He thought he would shatter with pleasure. Everything was going--
"Shax, you fucking little pile of goblin shit!"
A frighteningly strong, clawed hand reached into the dogpile of humans and yanked Shax out.
"Ah. Um. Hello, Sitri." Shax swallowed hard as he blinked up at his cousin's face. His purple with rage face topped with the sharp goat horns. "Nice evening for a stroll, isn't it?"
"What the fuck do you think you're doing with those humans?"
"I wasn't really doing much of anything. They were doing the, ah, doing."
Sitri breathed out a short gout of fire and turned his back on the worshippers. "Those are my worshippers, you little git. And you're poaching."
"Maybe you should arrive to your orgies on time then, Si."
The blow Sitri gave him was so hard, Shax tumbled all the way back down the hill. He lay there dazed until Sitri came stomping down with Verin under one arm. He scooped Shax up with the other and tossed them, rather rudely Shax thought, back through the portal into the Cave of Expedition.
"Fucking pits, Shax," Verin muttered. "Why the fucking fuck do I listen to you?"
It was three days later, with their scurrilous deeds discovered and their rather nasty punishments over, that the adolescent demons were back in Shax's room. Verin was missing an ear. Shax was temporarily devoid of thumbs. But they were mostly whole, the missing parts would grow back, and hadn't been fed to Leviathan or anything. Yes, Mum had been furious, mostly about the damage to her lovely tower.
"It could've been worse." Shax picked at his dragon stew. Such a bother eating without thumbs.
"Shut up." Verin snarled from where he curled in a ball on the bed.
"Ver, come on. It was wonderful until Sitri came."
A steam-laden sigh drifted through the bed curtains. "I guess. Yeah."
"When we're grown and I have my own palace, we'll go to the human world whenever we want. Wherever we want. Worshippers are nice but I'm sure there are a million amazing things to do there. We'll have so much fun."
"Maybe." Verin grunted, shifting around on the bed. "For right now? I'm gonna be lying on my one fucking ear so I can't hear you anymore."
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.
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