Black Friday is here and we’re discussing the season with EJ Frost’s Tsara from Neon Blue.
My name is Tsara Elizabeth Faa, and I have a demon problem. A very serious demon problem. My ex-best friend has summoned an incubus, and left me to deal with him. Now he’s after my soul.
Thing is, the more time I spend with him, the more I want to give it to him.
Make sure you stick around to the end. We’ll be giving away an ecopy of Snowburn.
Bargain Basement Imp
I tug against her insistent pull on my wrist. “Ease up, Linnie.” I have to shout to make myself heard over the roar of the crowd.
“We might miss something!” she shouts back and continues to drag me through the throng filling the Basement’s massive shopping floor. Lin shops like other people invade South-American countries. Although she won’t admit it, I’m sure she has a battle-plan for the invasion. Complete with floor plans, and probably color-coded.
She finally halts the charge, goes up on her toes, and scans the many, many heads in front of us. “There!”
Somehow, she spots an opening in the crowd and squeezes into it, pulling me after her.
Between elbows and overstuffed shopping bags, we reach Lin’s objective: a huge bin of FieldFair towels. All marked down fifty percent. Okay, I like fluffy Egyptian cotton towels, too. And the mark-down is the only way I’d ever be able to afford FieldFair. I have to give Lin points: she can hunt out a bargain like no one I’ve ever met. I lean over and rummage through the bin with her, trying to find towels that aren’t puke green or violent pink, and trying to avoid the extremely sharp nails of the woman next to me. Digging down, I find two sets still bound together with ribbon. They’re a nice medium blue, which will work in my bathroom and Lin’s guest bath.
I’m pulling them out of the bin when the woman next to me drags her freaking stilettos across the back of my hand. Her acrylic nails, which she must have just sharpened, actually draw blood.
I pull my hand out of the bin to avoid staining the nice towels, and turn my head to look at her. She gives me a nasty, dare-you kind of stare as she makes a grab for the towels.
With my bleeding hand, I reach up and pull down the sunglasses I’m wearing. Indoors, in November.
Stiletto Girl takes one look at my eyes and stumbles back a step. Her glossy pink mouth works but no sound comes out.
I hand Lin the towels. She stuffs them in the jute shopping bag she’s carrying without comment. Lin’s seen what’s behind my sunglasses.
“You need a bandage?” Lin asks.
I swear, I wouldn’t be surprised if she brought some. She’s planned for a frontal assault after all.
“No,” I say. I lick the back of my hand, push a little power into the scratches with my tongue, and wipe off the blood and saliva on my jeans. They’re black so the fluids won’t show. Like everything I wear now.
“C’mon!” Lin grabs my wrist and drags me towards the next objective. Designer handbags marked down forty percent. The discount still isn’t enough to tempt me, not at those prices, so I let Lin take point and hold the jute bag for her as she snatches a trophy from the fray: a Saaxi clutch in fire-engine red. Very Lin. As she retreats, a store employee, pushing a rack of suits, bumps into her.
Lin reels away, clutching her side. It didn’t look like an especially hard hit. Puzzled, I put my arm around her to protect her from the crowd as she bends over, hands to her knees, and tries to get her wind back.
“You okay?” I put my mouth to her ear so I don’t have to shout.
She nods, but remains bent over, her back heaving.
I straighten up and look for the store employee. He’s about to have a nice case of swine flu for Christmas. But he’s disappeared in the mayhem. “Is it just me or does this seem awfully full-contact?” I shout to Lin over the dull roar.
“It is Black Friday,” Lin says, straightening up and wiping her eyes. “We should have worn body armor.”
Or people-repelling charms. If I’d known it was going to be this bad, I’d have draped both of us in them.
Feeling stupid and a little helpless, I follow Lin to the next field of battle – Bath and Body – where Lin takes an elbow to the cheek while scoring an Alexandroff for Men gift set. I drag her out of the bedlam to the relative shelter of a huge mirrored column. She’s got a bright red mark that could turn into a black eye. Licking it will probably get me arrested for public indecency – and it will gross-out Lin – so I lean close and breathe on it.
Lin snorts and waves her hand in front of her face. “Coffee-breath,” she complains.
I ignore her and examine her cheek. The red mark has faded to a light puce. Probably the best I can do here in public.
“I want to go,” I tell her. This place is a madhouse, and the shopping frenzy is making even the deepest discount unappealing.
She pulls free of my hands. “No way! We haven’t even hit the Vault yet.”
Sounds like a heist. I roll my eyes, but follow her as she heads for the escalators.
As we leave the shelter of the column, movement catches my eye. Not the shoppers swirling around us. Not the bright overhead signs or racks of merchandise swaying under the influence of too many grabbing hands. This is a dark, oily movement that slithers across the mirror and out of sight.
When I turn my head to follow the movement, it’s gone. I only meet my own reflection – black hair, black clothes, black messenger bag, black sunglasses, and now a black scowl – but nothing else. Nothing out of place.
“Zee, come on!”
Not wanting to lose her in the crowd, I hurry after Lin, tripping through an obstacle course of men’s shirts that have fallen off a “last chance” rack. I pity the store employee who has to pick them up. They’ll get trampled.
The elevator takes us up a level, but plunges us deeper into the fray. The next level is wall-to-wall bodies. I can’t even see the sale racks. Lin’s undeterred as she plunges into the mass. I trail her, trying to keep her black pony-tail in sight as she weaves between the other shoppers. How does she even know where she’s going? She must have memorized the battle-plan, I mean, floor-plan.
I catch up with her at a huge double-rack of winter coats. She has two padded coats that look identical to me, one in each hand, and is holding them up for comparison.
Until a middle-aged woman tears one out of her hand with a snarl. “I saw that first!”
Okay, that is beyond too much. “Hey,” I say sharply, putting some power behind the word.
A goateed young man turns from the opposite rack, moves up behind the grabby woman and shouts at me, “Don’t you threaten her!”
I wasn’t. Not yet. “Let’s all—”
But I don’t get to finish telling them all to calm down. A hard shove from behind knocks me into the rack of coats. I grab the rack to keep from falling. Another shove sends me sagging into the rack, as a young man in a plaid coat and jeans hurdles me to grapple with the grabby woman.
In his wake, in my peripheral vision as I tangle in the coats, there’s a dark, oily movement.
Lin grabs my arm and starts pulling me out of the coats. Then she’s thrown on top of me as two women jump into the battle over the puffy coat.
“Out the other side,” I shout to Lin. I duck down and crawl under the coats. Standing up in the middle of the rack, between the parallel hanging bars, elicits cries of surprise from the shoppers on the far side of the rack, but gives me a good view of the fracas unfolding behind me.
There are now six people involved in the tug-of-war over the coat, which has torn and is shedding stuffing in all directions. Onlookers ring the opponents. Cell phones begin to flash, chronicling the mayhem. And in their glare, I see that dark, oily movement again, sliding between the combatants.
Goosebumps rise on my arms, despite the warmth of the overcrowded store, as I realize what that movement is. What’s incited the battle, beyond the usual irritation and aggression of competitive shopping. And why every small injury today has been so magnified.
Hidden behind my sunglasses, I roll my eyes up until all I can see is the blackness behind my eyelids. Opening my Second Sight, I whisper, “Show yourself.”
In my Sight, the Basement looks mostly the same, although there’s a pixie nest buzzing under a lingerie display two aisles over, and a man holding up a flashing cell phone glitters in a way that no human being should. I ignore the fae and focus on the fight. The oily movement resolves first into a black ribbon that weaves the combatants together, and then into a tiny, hunched man with horns, a tail and clawed hands that drag along the linoleum as he creeps between the fighters.
I’ve seen imps before. I know that, like their greater demon cousins, they come in several flavors. I’m not sure what flavor this imp is, but based on the effect he’s having on the shoppers, I’m guessing he’s a rage demon.
Demons feed on powerful human emotions, but I know from dealing with the greater demon who nearly stole my soul, they also incite those emotions. This imp is having his Thanksgiving feast a day late, and he’s about to incite a full-scale riot in Filene’s Basement. On the busiest shopping day of the year.
I blink until my eyes roll back to their normal position. Hesitate. The imp might be here because of me. The greater demon’s interest – and maybe the mark he left on me – have turned me into a bull’s-eye for infernal attention. I might have drawn the imp here. But he’s not paying any attention to me – he’s found a rich source of emotion to feed on. I could probably slip away while he’s busy. Hell, with everyone focused on the fight, I could probably Earth Walk right out of here without anyone noticing.
But that would mean leaving everyone in the Basement to the imp’s very untender mercies. Including Lin, who has never Earth Walked before.
I reach down between the suffocating coats until I find the messenger bag riding my hip. I open the top flap and slide my hand in gingerly. What I’m reaching for is sharp.
My fingertips brush cool metal. I find the less-pointy end of the needle and pull it out of the bag’s lining. Holding it up, eye-to-eye, I reach out with my other hand, pinch together my thumb and first finger and draw my hand through the air, describing an invisible thread. I draw the thread out for a yard, then push it through the eye of the needle. A glimmer of power follows my movements, and when I take the threaded needle and draw it through the air in a wide loop, that glimmer explodes into fireworks.
Everything around me freezes: the swaying coats, the flashing phones, the tussling shoppers. They become streamers of colored light, waving gently through the air while Time follows the loop I’ve created. It’s the longest stitch-in-time I’ve tried. Maybe five minutes. The demon who showed me this trick could create much longer loops. But he didn’t teach me how, not before I banished him back to Hell. I created this charm on my own, using the homely magic that feels most natural to me. And it’s come in handy recently, on the occasions I’ve needed a few extra minutes to save my skin.
I push the coats out of my way, step over Lin who is a black and beige streamer at my feet, and climb out of the rack. The imp, like the pixies I can hear rustling in the sudden silence, isn’t caught in the stitch. He digs his black claws into the streamers on either side of him, two of the shoppers still fighting over the puffy coat, leans forward and snarls at me.
“So,” I say, sliding the needle back into my bag. “There are two ways we can do this. There’s the easy way, where you give me your true name and I send you back to Hell.”
I pause for effect. When the imp continues to hiss, I push my sunglasses up onto the top of my head, and unleash the lightning that strikes constantly in my pupils. It leaps into my hands. I hold out two crackling balls of skyfire. “Or there’s the hard way.”
The imp bares his needle-teeth. “Human,” he hisses.
I examine the fireballs in my hands. Raise an eyebrow at the imp. “Well, mostly.”
The imp thrashes his tail around his bowed legs. I’m not an expert in imp body-language, but I think that’s confusion. The imp sweeps his tail around a few more times, then I feel him extend his will towards me. Creeping and greasy, like a fast-food burger. The skyfire in my hands leaps in response, showering sparks onto the linoleum. But I cup my fingers around the lightning and let the imp pit his will against mine.
A neon blue glow spills out of the sleeves of my leather jacket. The bindings the greater demon put on me, seared into the skin of my forearms, reacting to the imp’s challenge.
The imp cowers, stretching out its long, hairy arms, claws scrabbling across the floor. “Mistress! Forgive, mistress!”
Uh-huh. I’m still not sure what Jou was, but I know he had huge amounts of power, much more than this little imp. And his bindings carry the stamp of all that power. “So that’ll be option one then?”
The imp shakes from horns to tail. “Please, mistress. No, mistress.”
“Look.” I transfer both fireballs into one palm, work them around like hand exercisers to keep myself calm and focused. I hate negotiating with the infernal. “You don’t belong here. I get you’ve just come to feed, but you can’t stay. You’ll cause a riot.”
“Beg, mistress.” The imp cowers and shakes again. “Please, mistress, beg. Starve, mistress. Hurt, mistress.”
I don’t think he’s asking me to starve or hurt him. I think he’s trying to explain – in limited imp vocabulary – that he’ll be starved and hurt if I send him back. That doesn’t surprise me. I’ve been to Hell. It’s not a very nice place. And imps are at the bottom of the pecking order.
I release the lightning globes, twirl my finger so they circle me, creating a ring of fire that protects me against any demonic treachery. Just because I feel kinda sorry for the imp, doesn’t mean I trust him.
“Stay, mistress. Keep. Be. Good,” the imp pleads.
No, definitely not. I have more than enough demons in my mind, without having another in my life.
“Sorry, no. But you don’t have to go back to where you’ll be hurt, either. I can send you back to a . . . good place.”
Well, a not-so-terrifying place.
The imp creeps across the floor towards me, clacking its claws along the linoleum like a crab. “Good, mistress?”
“Yeah.” That’s what Jou promised me, at any rate. That it could be a place I would be happy. That it would be a place I could call home. And he never lied to me, not until the very end. I wave the balls of lightning out of my way and kneel so I’m nose to beak with the imp. I offer him my finger. “Here. Bite. Not too hard, please.”
The imp cowers and shakes its horned head, but when I hold my finger out insistently, finally stretches its neck and clamps its bony black beak down on my finger.
I wince and pull my finger away once I feel the skin break. I flex the wounded digit, working it until there’s a good amount of blood smeared on my finger. Then I draw a sigil on the imp’s forehead. Between its horns. A sigil that Jou drew all over my skin while he was making love to me. His true-name. He never said it out loud, but I memorized the feel of it, and I draw it now from flesh-memory, in four quick strokes.
When I’m done I straighten up and stick my finger in my mouth. Closing the wounds with power and my tongue, I swallow the sharp copper of my blood. So different from the dark-treacle of demon blood. “That’s it,” I tell the imp. “Jou will know I sent you. He’ll be . . . nice to you.” Or I hope he will. He’s probably still not very happy with me. If he remembers me at all; I can’t tell since he’s stopped speaking into my mind. But I don’t think he’ll punish the imp just because I sent him. Jou’s not like that. He’s fairer than that. Fairer than I was.
“You’re welcome. You ready?”
The imp nods. I squat down and put my hands flat on the floor. Reach for my Element. With my blood on the imp, I don’t need his true-name to send him back to Hell. As soon as the warmth and strength of Earth surges up through my palms, I reach and feel that smear of blood. Separate but still part of me. Full of my essence; full of my magic. I dig my hands into the floor, feel it soften, then pull my hands apart, tearing opening a hole in the planes. I build an image in my mind. Where I want this hole to end. A tower with burning walls. Standing on a hill of ash. Surrounded by a moat of tears.
As the image becomes so strong I can feel the gritty ash that billows off the hill flick against my cheeks, smell the smoke from the burning walls, I hear an agonized roar. I glance at the imp, but he’s silent, watching me with wide eyes. “There, go,” I whisper to him.
The imp nods and when I push with my magic, slips down into the rift between the planes.
I pull my hands out of the floor, but not before I feel the touch of Jou’s mind. A gentle brush, like the stroke of his hand. Sweet meat, he thinks. His pet-name for me, and descriptive, given how he thinks of humans.
Jou, I respond warily. I still have nightmares from the last time he spoke into my mind.
I miss you.
I hesitate, not sure how to respond. I miss him, too. But the reasons I sent him back to Hell are all still there. Keeping us apart.
His thoughts turn harsh. Lashing across my nerves. I shy away from him, cowering like the imp, and finally scream when his thought becomes a searing whip, scourging my mind.
“No!” I push with my hands and my magic. Closing the rift. The floor smooths under my palms. I bend over for a moment, catching my breath after using so much magic. I feel a cold drop hit the back of my hand. Wipe it off on my jeans. I’ve cried too many tears for Jou. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry any more.
I stand shakily and brush myself off. The shoppers around me are still blurred ribbons of color, but the ribbons are getting shorter, more like shadows than parade streamers. Time chewing inexorably toward the end of the loop.
I turn to find Lin and realize there’s someone else that wasn’t affected by the stitch. It’s a little girl, maybe eight or nine. She wears jeans with holes in the knees and a Christmas sweater a size too small for her. Tears streak her cheeks. She stands stock still, clutching the maroon streamer next to her. Who brings a kid to Filene’s Basement on Black Friday?
“Hey, hey,” I say in what I hope is a soothing tone. I pull my sunglasses back down so my eyes don’t terrify her.
She snuffles and stares but doesn’t say anything. I kneel so I’m not towering over her. Put a hand out, but she flinches away. Since she probably saw me juggling lightning, I can understand why she wouldn’t want me touching her.
“Hey,” I repeat. “My name’s Tsara. What’s your name?”
“’Cole,” the girl says, with a pronounced lisp. I see she’s lost her two front teeth and I grin, remembering the years I went without mine after they were knocked out during a particularly rough ball game with my cousins. The girl smiles back uncertainly.
“Nicole, can you see things other people can’t see?” I ask.
The girl nods and clutches tighter at the maroon ribbon. It’s so short now I can see the details of the form behind the blur. A gray-haired woman in a long maroon coat and dark slacks, carrying too many bags.
I’m running out of time. I fumble in my messenger bag, pull out one of my business cards. It’s a cream and black card, that says, “Tsara Elizabeth Faa, Licensed Midwife,” to anyone without the Sight. Nicole will see “Tsara Elizabeth Faa, Witch,” and my private number. I offer her the card and she takes it hesitantly.
“I can see those things, too, Nicole. Same as you. If you ever need to tell someone what you see, or if you see something that really scares you, you can call me at the number on that card. Do you know how to use a phone?”
The girl nods and puffs out her thin chest as she contemplates my card. She should be able to see the charms that shimmer across it. “I know my number and my Gramma’s number, too. By heart,” she says.
“That’s excellent, Nicole. You can learn my number by heart, too.” Memorizing my number will seal the card’s protective enchantments to her. “And you can call me any time, okay?”
She nods and clutches the card to her chest.
I glance up at the woman Nicole is clinging to. I can see her clearly. The stitch is almost over. “It’s going to go back to normal in a moment, Nicole,” I say. “It’s going to be okay.”
She watches me with huge eyes as I rise from my crouch. “You looked like the monster,” she whispers, over the rising hubbub of the crowd. “I thought . . . you were one.”
“What?” I’m not sure what she means.
“When you were there.” She points to where I was crouched near the group fighting over the coat. “You looked like him.” She lifts two fingers above her bobble-hatted head.
“Did you see . . . did I have horns, Nicole?”
She nods. “And a tail. And wings. Big wings.”
Wings? I’ve recently discovered that I can shape a second Element: Air. But I don’t have wings and I can’t fly. Not even on my grandmother’s broom.
“Like a fairy, or an angel?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “They were red.”
Red wings. I’ve seen red wings before. In a vision I had of Jou, through the bow of a key that might open doors through time. Either Nicole was seeing a reflection of my vision, or the mark Jou carved into my body and soul has more far-reaching consequences than I ever imagined.
I reach out to Nicole and this time she doesn’t flinch away. I pat her shoulder. “Learn my number, okay? And if you ever, ever need me, call.”
She smiles broadly up at me, showing the wide gap in her teeth. “Okay.”
I step back, so the adult with her doesn’t think I’m accosting the kid. I bump into something, and when I turn, I find it’s the man in the plaid coat. He’s backed away from the fight, dusted with white stuffing, looking extremely sheepish.
“Be careful out there,” I tell him and edge around him to find Lin.
She’s picking herself up from under the coat rack. Gathering the items that have spilled out of her jute bag. Behind her, the fight has ended, as abruptly as it started. One of the women is crying and several people have circled her, offering comfort, but everyone else has wandered away, now that the excitement is over.
“How’d you get over there?” Lin asks as she stuffs the towels back into her carrier bag. “I thought you were in front of me.”
I shrug, something I’ve had to do a lot with Lin over the past two months, since I don’t want her to know anything about my involvement with the infernal.
Lin gives me a sharp glance. “Did it have anything to do with that?” She nods back over her shoulder at where the fight took place.
Possibly. Probably. “Can we go get a cup of coffee? I could really use a coffee.”
Lin, who is more than passingly familiar with my caffeine addiction, rolls her eyes.
“Seriously,” I say. “Can we go? This place is nuts.”
With another eye-roll and a grimace that says I’m going to hear about the deals I made her miss for the rest of my life, Lin nods. I help her to her feet and link my arm through hers.
“Starbucks?” Lin asks.
“Yes, please.” I’d actually rather go to Borders, but it’s a bit of a walk and there’s a Starbucks right on Winter Street.
“Okay. I’ll even spring for a gingerbread latte, if you tell me what really happened,” Lin says, squeezing my arm as she steers us towards the check-outs.
I can’t, and I never will be able to, not if I’m going to keep Lin and everyone else around me safe. But I’m getting good at making up convincing stories. “That’s a deal,” I say.
“Too bad it’s not a bargain!” Lin says. Chuckling together, we join the line at the registers.
Meet EJ Frost!
Writer of speculative fiction, set in the near and distant future. Reader of everything I can get my hands on that has a great storyline and characters I can fall in love with. Eater of cake. Anytime, anywhere.
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EJ is giving away an ecopy of Snowburn. To enter, all you have to do is answer this one question: Have you ever had to fight for a bargain? What was it for? Remember, you must answer the question in order to be entered.
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