Black Friday is here and we’re discussing the season with Kenny Soward’s Jancy the Quick and Nikselpik Nur from Tinkermage.
THE ENEMY EXPOSED. Nikselpik Nur has become the city of Hightower’s staunchest—albeit unwilling—ally. He’s hardly learned to cope with his debilitating bugging addiction, much less take on the duties of being the city’s First Wizard. Can he embrace this new path? And will he?
Meanwhile, Stena Wavebreaker is pulled from her seafaring duties by the Precisor General and given command of a raggedy airship to scout the ultraworldly enemy from the perilous skies above the Southern Reaches. Her mission: gain the support of the unpredictable ‘swamp elves,’ the Giyipcias.
Lastly, Niksabella Nur has set off from Hightower at the behest of the grim stonekin leader, Jontuk. The gnomestress must unlock the full potential of her invention, the recursive mirror, and her own powers, to bear what might be the heaviest burden of all. What will she discover along the way? And will Jontuk be able to keep her alive long enough to save them all?
Make sure you stick around to the end and earn another entry into the Black Friday $50 Amazon giftcard giveaway.
Jancy the Quick stepped out of the ethereal gate to stand on the side lot of the Stalmart Department store. It was a cold morning, here amongst the dumpsters and cigarette butts, and Jancy wondered how long she could take it here on this negative prime world called Earth. Nikselpik Nur had come through with her, and the gnomish wizard gave a shudder at her side.
“The cold doesn’t bother me,” he said. “It’s this world. Futtering dead, it is.”
Jancy nodded, understanding his sentiment precisely. As the portal shut behind them with a sound like sliding steel and a clang, she went behind the dumpster to fetch the clothes she’d left from her previous reconnoiter. She found the brown paper bag and took her items out, then passed it over to Nikselpik. She quickly stripped to her small clothes and started to dress, putting on a pair of stockings and rolling them up her long, thin, goose-pimpled legs.
“Ugh, Jancy. Warn me first, will you?”
She looked up just in time to see him turn away. “What?”
“You’re like a daughter to me. You’re one female I’ll not slaver over.”
Jancy wrinkled her brow, gave her head a shake, chuckled. “Okay, father.”
When done, they stood facing one another, appreciating their outfits. Nikselpik had been forced to shave his goatee, and he’d donned a long, hooded sweatshirt that read Cincinnati Reds across the front along with a red-billed cap with a large “C” on it to match. His pants were called blue jeans, and his feet were tucked into things called sneakers. Although Jancy couldn’t see how they’d come to be so named – it would be hard to sneak up on anything wearing a pair of those.
The wizard looked Jancy up and down, took in her simple brown sweater, skirt, and black leggings. He nodded. “Boots with the fur. Nice.”
“They call them uggs.”
Nikselpik shook his head. “The barbarian tribeswomen of the Northern Reaches wear those, too.”
“Just trying to fit in, Nik.” She was satisfied with their appearance. She would look like any other young human woman – provided no one made a big deal about her white hair – and Nikselpik would appear to be a human child. Perfectly disguised.
Jancy led them to the side door and began studying the locking mechanism. There were faint marks on the plating where she’d pried her way in before.
“If by fitting in you mean acting like a grunting female who’d rather wallow naked in a mud pit rather than take a hot bath …” Nikselpik stopped himself mid-sentence, put his hand to his bare jaw, and gave it a thoughtful rub. “Hmm … I suppose grunting tribeswomen have their merits. Are they warm? The boots, I mean.”
“Mm hmm,” Jancy said, working her knife point along the crevice where the alien lock had already been weakened by her previous visit. “They’ve not had magick on Earth for hundreds of years. They’ve become quite proficient with gadgets and materials to make up for it, though. I find some of their creations quite interesting; cars, airplanes, something they call the internet.”
“Clever but soulless creations. My sister would not have been impressed.”
“Oh, now, I wouldn’t say that.”
Nikselpik went silent. Jancy knew he was thinking of his sister. That he worried about her. And she was glad when he finally broke the silence. “Let’s get what we came for and get out. This world depresses me. How can you have no magick?”
Jancy shrugged and dug her dagger deeper, feeling the tip slide perfectly where she wanted it. The door popped open with a quiet click. They slipped inside to find themselves a dark storeroom. A hushed silence filled the space.
“This way,” Jancy said, leading them between rows of shelves stacked with food stuffs, paper cups, and those strange plastic utensils.
Nikselpik was enjoying his translation device – a choker with a single inlaid ruby called a voxtransmuter – reading everything as he went by. Touching things. Jancy heard a stack of something fall. “Fancy markets, these folk have. Seems they do not want for food. Is the entire world full of such food?”
“I don’t know, Nik. I’m not an Earth chronologist. I’m sure, like any world, there are places of abundance, and some less so.”
“They should call this world Food.”
“Maybe I should remove your translation device. I’m not sure if I want you conversing with the natives.”
Nikselpik toyed with the ruby at his neck. It required small amounts of magick to work … a colossal effort on this world where Nikselpik’s wellspring magick was drained away almost immediately upon calling. Thankfully, the human language of Earth was strangely similar to that of humans on Sullenor, so the processing went easy.
“Not necessary, dear,” he said. “It might come in handy. I may need to give someone a piece of my mind.”
“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.”
“Ah,” Jancy said when she found the thaumaturged box right where she’d left it. Behind a crate of canned tomato paste. The vial and syringe inside the box remained intact. “I didn’t want to leave these by the dumpster.”
“All this for a little blood.”
“Remember not to touch it. We have no idea what the blood of an Earth hero would do to us. Make no mistake, Nik, this could be a deadly excursion.”
“I understand. But we need the blood for the spell. ‘The blood of a hero of a negative prime world,’ the orc shamaness said. Earth is about as negative prime as they come.”
Jancy nodded, putting the tiny box into a leather pouch hidden beneath her sweater. “I know. If I’m to discover my heritage.” She paused, briefly touched the covered markings that ran scalp-to-chin along her hairline. She turned. Nikselpik’s eyes were hard and gray. Always sure. Always difficult to read, even for her. “You don’t have to do this, you know.”
His expression didn’t falter, except for that sort of wince he made whenever forced to confront something emotional. The wrinkles around his eyes showed his age and the consequences of a hard life. “Oh shut up. Let’s go.”
Jancy turned and led on, her lips making a tiny smile. And you’re like a father to me, Nik. Yes, you are.
They slunk around the back end of a kitchen where a handful of employees tiredly opened huge sacs of runny yellow cheese and placed pieces of twisted dough – Jancy knew they were called pretzels – on trays and carried them through a set of swinging doors. They waited until the workers weren’t looking and snuck around the long, steel counter. Nikselpik snatched a cup of the cheese sauce as he went by. He dipped his finger into the steaming gunk and stuck it in his mouth. “Ugh. I’ve never had Iron Industry sludge before … but I imagine this is what it would taste like.”
Jancy chuckled softly, slapping her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing at his screwed up face. “I told you not to eat anything here. You’ll be in the privy all day trying to squeeze it out. And it’ll take whatever else you’ve got inside with it.”
The cup of cheese went sailing into a garbage can. “Just what I need, runny insides.”
She led him through a rank-smelling closet space where mops and brooms and cleaning supplies were kept, and then pushed open a utility door to stand in a courtyard with rows of seats and tables. It was completely empty of patrons. Only employees preparing popcorn machines and hot dog stiles made quiet noise.
“Strange. It was a bustling market before.”
“Did you get the day right, Jancy?”
Jancy pulled a wrinkled piece of paper from her pouch, held it up for him so he could read along with her. “Black Friday sales event starts November 28th at Stalmart. Bring the kids for a special visitor from the North Pole!”
“It’s November 28th. I’m sure of it.”
“Well, let’s keep going. It appears we’re a little early. Surely that’s not a crime on this world.”
They worked their way further into the store, past racks of clothes and life size cardboard cutouts of reindeer and elves offering discount prices on everything in sight.
“Strange, weak looking elves on the world.”
“I’ve yet to see a living one on Earth,” Jancy replied. “Perhaps they are sacred beings here.”
“Overrated, if you ask me. Sure, elves are pretty. But what can stand up to a dwarven war hammer or gnomish lightning? Not an elf, that’s for sure.”
“I’ve met some pretty tough elves in my day –”
Nikselpik grabbed her arm. They’d reached a sort of crossroads between the women’s coats, the jewelry department, and cash registers. Several store employees – defined by their blue vests – appeared to be hunkered down behind registers, kiosks and DVD stands as if expecting some kind of assault.
Jancy moved hesitantly to the jewelry counter and spoke to the brown, bespectacled head peeking over the top. “Excuse me, sir. Today is Black Friday, is it not?”
The man rose from his half-crouch, not without noticeable trepidation, and Jancy could see he was an elderly man of humble bearing. “Oh, yeah. Sure is, ma’am,” the fellow said. “It’s Black Friday, all right.
Nikselpik put both arms on the counter and lifted himself up, peering into the man’s eyes. “I’ve seen that look before, sir. It’s the look of a warrior preparing for battle.”
The old fellow gave a quiet cough, glanced nervously at the two. “Well, I suppose that wouldn’t be far from the truth. We’re about to be lambasted.”
“That’s right. Completely run over by a horde of … Holiday Shoppers.”
Jancy shook her head. “Who? Holiday Shoppers?” She didn’t like the sound of that. Had never heard of these Holiday Shoppers in her previous visit to Earth. Were they a peaceful race? Damn! She’d hoped for a quiet, easy mission.
The old man pointed over their shoulders, lips quivering with sudden, uncontrollable fear. Jancy and Nikselpik followed his shaking finger to the front of the store and a series of double doors with glass panes.
Jancy gasped and Nikselpik gave a dismayed grunt.
Demonic faces were pressed against the glass, squashed and twisted visages as horrifying as any she’d ever seen. They could have been carved into a vile blight witch’s alter back on Sullenor.
“Those are the Holiday Shoppers,” the man said. “And we open in three … two … one …”
A clangor sounded, and the doors were thrown open. The Holiday Shoppers poured in with looks of Holiday lust stretching their features. A tide of hungry-for-deals humanity, they swam within a current of their own making, pushing aside the weak and feeble as they surged. Several went down, crushed into door frames or smashed against rows of fixed shelving, their grasping hands and terrified faces disappearing into the mass of winter coats and slush-dripping galoshes as the tide rolled on.
One store employee, armed with a broom and dust pan, like a knight of Sullenor with shield and lance, attempted to re-direct the crowd … but they shoved her back, back, back into rack of faux-fur-trim quilted down puffer coats.
At least it was a soft landing, Jancy thought.
A DVD rack went down, scattering Die Hard and Christmas Vacation boxes across the tiles, and the young man whose job it had been to keep it upright abandoned his post. Jancy thought he might escape, but then his heel got caught in the racing feet of a scrawny lady going for the purses. He went down hard and fast.
A handful of women, working as a team and filled with the same deadly intent as an orc raiding party, surged toward the jewelry counter.
Jancy made an O with her mouth. “They’re coming right for us!”
“Oh, shit,” the man said, terror rising in his voice. “They probably want that damn cheap-ass Keepsake ring marked down to sixty-two dollars. I’m in trouble now!” He backed into the counter behind him and shot Jancy a quick glance. “You gotta help me …”
“No time for that, good sir,” came Nikselpik’s piping voice. “Good luck!”
And then Jancy was yanked away, taken by the hand and pulled into the main aisle as Holiday Shoppers raged all around them. A huge man with an orange jacket barreled blindly by, knocking Jancy to her knees while pushing an old lady face first into the tiles.
She jerked from the wizard’s grasp, half drawing her knife on the much larger man. But as he ran by, oblivious to those he ran down, she realized all of these Holiday Shoppers had the same kind of disease. Some kind of greed. Something of this world she could not possibly understand.
No. She had no right to judge them.
Jancy re-sheathed her knife, got up, and followed Nikselpik through what appeared to be children’s clothing – the exact location she’d gotten Nikselpik’s blue jeans – and into the women’s clothing section, where they found themselves standing in the middle of racks and rows of small clothes, many of them frilly and elegant and quite pretty … unlike anything she’d ever owned.
Nikselpik was grinning from ear-to-ear.
“Don’t even think about it.” Jancy looked around at any sign of what these small clothes were called here on Earth. Surely not small clothes. She found it. “We’re not here to steal panties, even if they are on sale.” Although she had to admit owning some of these would be nice. She shook her head. “These humans are insane.”
Nikselpik nodded. “That’s why they won’t miss a few panties. I’m sure Lili would love a pair.”
“No. Come on.”
Jancy led them toward the back of the store. Unsure, truth be told, on where to find Earth’s hero. The crowds seemed to have dispersed enough to calm the calamitous panic, although some Holiday Shoppers were fighting over a pile of thin boxes laying on a pallet. The boxes read, 42-inch LCD, and the yellow sign poking up from the riotous mess read, 60% Off!
As they made their way past the shoe section, a large woman in a Stalmart vest snatched Nikselpik by the arm and lifted him to the tips of his toes.
Jancy turned, again with the instinct to make use of her blade. “What is the meaning of this?”
The Stalmart employee reached down and pulled something from the bottom of Nikselpik’s Reds sweatshirt. “You forgot to cut off the tags, you little thieves.”
“We’re not thieves …” And seeing the blazing wrath in the woman’s eyes, Jancy saw their mission failing. They could escape, yes, knock the woman down and run … but that would be admitting failure. No hero’s blood. No spell. No discovering where she’d come from. She might as well remain on Earth for all that mattered, lost between two worlds. Tears formed in her eyes. “I’m sorry, milady. We … we were just looking for Santa.”
The woman visibly softened at Jancy’s tears. “Santa?”
“Yes. My son and I. We need him.”
The woman’s eyes became sad, then determined. She looked to her left and then to her right, leaned in. “Aw, Hell. Go on then. I didn’t see anything.”
Jancy blustered, quite honestly expecting the woman to pull out one of Earth Authority’s favorite deadly weapons – taser or gun – and use it on them to deadly effect. “But … we are thieves. And you’ve caught us.”
“Nonsense.” The woman ripped Nikselpik’s tag away and shoved it in her pocket. A fierce look claimed her expression. “I know what it’s like, young lady. I have kids of my own. You just get along to the back of the store where Santa’s waiting. He’s there with his sled and reindeer and elves.” She knelt in front of Nikselpik and gave him a pat on the cheek. “You can ask him for anything you want, and if you’ve been good … well, he’ll give it to you.”
“I need a vial of blood.”
“Nevermind him, milady. He’s a silly little boy sometimes.” Jancy yanked Nikselpik away from the gaping woman and drug him forcibly to the back of the store.
“I’m impressed, Jancy,” the wizard said as he staggered, arm-dragged. “Please, call on those tears the next time we run into a company of vorax. Soften them up while I sneak around behind them …”
“Oh shut up,” she said, wiping the tears away with her sleeve. The woman’s kindness shouldn’t have affected her this way. But that simple act had somehow filled her heart with hope.
At the back of the store, standing there amongst the other smiling parents, they appraised a plump, white-bearded fellow with a red coat sitting in the back of a wooden sled attached to a bridled row of wooden beasts Jancy assumed were replicas of his actual mode of transport.
Props, they called them in the gnomish theater. Why would a hero need props?
Nikselpik said, with a noticeable degree of disappointment, “That’s one of Earth’s heroes?”
Jancy’s expression changed from smug assuredness to dismay. Santa was sickeningly coordinated, his bright red hat matching his coat and baggy pants. Annoyingly bright. And that stomach! The fellow looked like he’d never seen the field of battle. Not a hero at all. She frowned. “Perhaps he’s a diplomat of sorts.”
“Oh, great. A political hero. His blood will be as worthless as my piss. But we’re here, so let’s get it.”
Jancy studied the line of children waiting to greet Santa. She had an idea. “Stand in line with the rest of the children. You’ll have a turn to sit on his lap, and when you do, quietly stick him through that big coat of his.”
Nikselpik nodded enthusiastically. “Probably won’t even feel it. I’ll get him right in his fat belly.”
“Be careful.” She started to hand Nikselpik the box with the rune-covered syringe.
“I will.” He tried to take it …
“Do not get a single drop of it on you.” Jancy held the box a moment longer before Nikselpik jerked it away.
“I won’t. By Tick and Tock, Jancy. Do you think me an idiot?”
“Don’t make me answer that now.” She smoothed the shoulders of his jacket as if he were her own little boy. “And … thank you, Nik. I’ll owe you for this.”
Shrugging out of her grasp, he grumbled, “You don’t owe me anything.”
Jancy went about mimicking the other mothers, shooing Nikselpik along, saying, “Now go on. Go tell Santa what you want.”
Nikselpik shot her a derisive scowl but got in line behind the other youngsters. Jancy stepped back along with the other mothers, forming a semi-circle around the jaunty Santa and his temporary wards.
All they needed was a little of Santa’s blood and they could quietly leave this world for good. Back to the shamaness and her spells, to use the blood to divine information about Jancy’s past. Things Jancy couldn’t remember since the moment she’d woken up as a child on a shoe maker’s doorstep.
A guardsman stood near Santa’s right arm. An elf on Santa’s left. The guard appeared bored while the elf – not an elf at all, but a human dressed like some parody of the race – helped the children climb one-by-one into Santa’s lap where they were each given a few seconds to entreat with Earth’s hero.
Jancy smiled, relaxing now that things seemed to be going smoothly. So many happy children here today. She rarely saw such a sight on Sullenor. Some, yes … farmers’ sons and daughters brought up benath the rules of the land. But in the cities, things were much worse, men greedier.
But the hopeful and expectant looks on these kids’ faces were as precious as anything she’d ever seen. She doubted they were all this damn happy. Still, the moment was nice … and she basked in it, wondering briefly what it might be like to have children of her own someday.
There was something strange about the guard, though. The way he stood stock still. Not a hint of movement but for a slow turning of his head where he began to glare at the line of children.
Directly at Nikselpik, it seemed.
And then she noticed the thing shifting beneath the guard’s hat. Familiar, reptilian fingers dug in through the flesh and bone of his skull, pumping oily crud inside. The tail of the thing was wrapped around the guard’s neck and covered, quite haphazardly, by a flannel scarf.
An amorph. A creature once brought to Sullenor during the assault on Hightower. A lecherous arachnid-like thing that, once attached, possessed its host’s mind and body. It commanded a type of naturally corrosive ooze called crud as a weapon … and it wielded it like magick. Only, it wasn’t magick.
Their crud would work on Earth. Nikselpik’s magick, not so much. And the hive mind certainly wanted Nikselpik dead after what he’d done to their kind during the battle for Hightower. It was perfect, really.
Nikselpik was third up now. When he got to Santa’s lap, the amorph would make its move. And the wizard hadn’t noticed the dangerous creature so near. Without his wellspring magick he wouldn’t detect even the slightest presence of the creatures he’d become so attuned to on Sullenor.
It would tear him apart before he knew what hit him.
She gave a wave to get his attention, but he was busy tugging the pigtails of the girl in front of him.
Jancy circled the ring of smiling parents who were unaware they stood in the presence of a being capable of … yes, it would destroy them all if given half a chance. Her hand found the hilt of her dagger, slid it quietly from its sheath.
The guard edged closer to the great, laughing Santa.
The little girl turned and slapped Nikselpik just as the elf helper hefted her to Santa’s lap.
Nikselpik was the next in line.
The amorph-possessed guard edged closer, moved Santa’s sack of prop toys aside with the tip of its boot.
Jancy could make a lunge, but she would risk discovery and a quick death. No, this would have to be the best throw she’d ever made. Her dagger held high and in plain sight, she advanced.
The little girl slid from Santa’s lap with an enormous grin on her face. In turn, the elf hoisted a scowling Nikselpik.
The amorph edged even closer and gathered a massive fist full of crud, preparing to kill the wizard, her friend and surrogate father, in one blow. The air smelled like old oil from a gnomish refinery, burned grease, oozing toxicity.
Jancy drew her arm back – her vision focused to a fine point at the guard’s temple – and twisted her hips, whipping the knife in an over hand throw she’d mastered long ago.
Her blade was larger than a normal throwing knife. Harder to master, yes, but also with more kinetic potential.
The blade thwacked with perfect precision. Crud splatted the back wall. The guard tumbled off the dais in mid blow, taking Santa and Nikselpik with it. A string of taffy-formed crud – the blast that was to kill her friend – disbanded to its liquid form and splashed everywhere. People screamed and snatched up their children, tripping over one another to confound their own attempts at escape.
Jancy ran to the dais where they’d gone over. The sled prop had been crushed beneath the weight of the fat Santa, and her friend thrown clear where he crawled dazedly away from the melee.
The guard lay sprawled. Her blade had stung true, penetrating the guard’s temple and taking two of the amorph’s grubby little claws with it.
But the amorph, now detached, was going after her friend.
In a second, it would be on him … once attached, it would try to crush his mind.
Jancy drew a giant metal candy cane from the jolly green sack next to Santa’s toppled sled and swung it at the twitching, skittering amorph. The thing was so damn fast … her candy cane struck the tiled floor with a clang. And then it was beyond her reach, scuttling toward the wizard
To Jancy’s great relief, Nikselpik’s wellspring came to life – she smelled the sharp odor like burnt cinnamon – and he turned and used his telekinetic power to crunch the amorph with a squeeze of his fist. Then he collapsed in a heap.
“Nik!” Jancy went to him. Put her hands under his arms and lifted. He was okay, but weak.
And where was Santa? Someone had rescued him, taken him away. Probably his elf. Who knew when they’d ever get a second chance at a few drops of that precious blood?
Conversely, how many other amorphs might be around, waiting to make another attempt on his life? No, she needed to get him out of here, before they tried again.
“Back to the gate with us, Nik.” And with that, she put one arm beneath his knees and the other around his shoulders, and lifted him.
Yes, she wanted to know about her past. Were her descendants ultraworlders? Or perhaps some other, less noble line? It didn’t matter. She’d never put Nikselpik in jeopardy again even if it meant she’d never find out.
She carried him through the crowds, through the kitchen and storeroom and side door.
Outside, there was a young man standing by the dumpster, smoking a cigarette and looking bored. He watched them with mild interest.
Jancy set Nikselpik on his feet but remained holding one hand. He was shaky, but otherwise fine. She bent and gathered the brown bag with their garments and tucked it under her arm, pulled the portal stone from her pouch. She no longer cared who saw them use magick. For no good reason, she said to the young man, “We’ve failed in our mission.”
He took a draw from that horrible-smelling stick and let the smoke slide from his nose. “Uh. What was your mission, lady?”
“Santa. We wanted to find Santa. He’s gone now.”
The young man shrugged and tossed the finished cigarette down. He gave it a twist with his foot. “There’s Santa’s all over town lady. I’m taking my kids over to the one at the Cresthill Mall after my shift.”
Jancy’s face fell slack. “More than one Santa?”
“Yeah. They’re a dime a dozen.” With that, he stuck his hands in his pockets against the cold, walked to the door and threw it open. It slammed behind him with a finality that matched Jancy’s chances of ever discovering her heritage. She’d forever be one of a kind on the face of Sullenor. Alone in that, after all.
“Merry Christmas, Jancy.” Nikselpik handed her the box.
She took it with her free hand. Jerked it. Flipped the lid open. Inside was a half-full vial of blood. Shook her head. Smiled. True to form, the little guy came through. “It doesn’t matter, Nik. This probably won’t work anyway. Let’s just go home.”
The gate slid open. Jancy stepped through with the wizard Nikselpik. And then the portal closed behind them with a sound like sliding metal and a clang!
Meet Kenny Soward!
Kenny Soward’s love for books flourished early, a habit passed down to him by his uncles. He burned through his grade school library, and in high school spent many days in detention for reading fantasy fiction during class. The transition to author was a natural one for Kenny. His sixth grade teacher encouraged him to start a journal, and he later began jotting down pieces of stories, mostly the outcomes of D&D gaming sessions. At the University of Kentucky, Kenny took creative writing classes under Gurny Norman, former Kentucky Poet Laureate and author of Divine Rights Trip (1971). By day, Kenny works as a Unix professional, and at night he writes and sips bourbon. Kenny lives in Independence, Kentucky, with three cats and a gal who thinks she’s a cat.
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