Ever have a nightmare where you’re naked in public? What if everyone else in the room was also naked…and also a version of yourself? That’s the reality Esme Kuchis finds herself in, and soon things get even weirder.
She’s not in her Kansas City anymore. This alternate world is home to an ancient, secret Order with a king, conjuri magicians, cavali fighters, and dozens of paranormal races. And the purpose of this magical Order? They protect an unsuspecting public from malevolenci, demonic beasts from otherworldly rifts.
As an alterni summoned to this world, Esme must partner with the king and fight using magic only an alterni can wield. Unfortunately, the model-perfect King Owen is broken by grief and guilt, the Order has little faith in her, and the malevolenci are worse than ever.
Eight alt-Esmes preceded her. Eight lost their lives. Can Esme use her unique gifts to master this world’s magic? If she can’t, the consequences might be more devastating than Owen is willing to say.
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As far as Esme could tell, this wasn’t a dream. She sat, naked, on the floor of a rundown pub. Her back rested against one of the stools lining the bar. In front of her, a few tables stood on the wooden floor of the long, open room. No windows broke up the drab walls. A heavy locked door was to her right. To the left, an unoccupied stage held a karaoke setup.
None of this was the weird part.
The weird part was that nine other Esmes sat naked around her. These doppelgangers had varying hair lengths and dye jobs, their bodies at different levels of fitness, but all were undeniably her. It felt bizarre comparing oneself to one’s selves, but Esme couldn’t help thinking she was the average of the bunch. Her athletic frame was neither plump nor model-thin. Her long hair was the Pakistani brown of her mother, though not of a fashionable style. She knew from years of being told so that she was pretty, but she’d never be a head-turner like some of these…versions of herself.
Esme had a weird sense of déjà vu.
Four Esmes sat huddled together, each covering their nakedness as best they could. The reason for this alliance was unknown, but they refused to move.
One super-thin, albino-pale Esme sat rocking back and forth. Her freakishly red eyes stared at everything that moved. She hadn’t spoken a word and seemed a lost cause.
“Where are we?” one Esme whispered. Her voice even matched Esme’s, although this one’s hair was long and dyed blond. She wore gobs of makeup.
“How did we get here?” asked another. This one had red hair cut short with bangs, which wasn’t something Esme thought flattering on their face.
A black-haired copy sitting beside Esme whispered, “I was the first one here, and I saw each of you show up in flashes of weird, bubbly light.” She pointed around the room at each. “You came, then you, you, you, you, you, you, you, and you.” She wrinkled her nose. “I think that was the order, anyway. It happened so fast.”
Esme had arrived somewhere in the middle, and she remembered the same.
“We’re sure that door’s locked?” This Esme was the most identical to herself, and her eyes looked violet in the light.
Huh, thought Esme with interest. Never seen that except in a mirror. It is kinda cool.
The black-haired one nodded. “Yeah, I checked the door first thing. I told you.”
Esme had missed this conversation in the confusion and shock earlier. They’d been here at least a half hour, though this was a guess without a watch, cell phone, or any kind of clock on the dingy walls.
There’s nothing else we can do, thought Esme. We’re frightened and confused…but it’s getting boring too. If I’m dreaming this, my subconscious isn’t very creative.
“So…” The black-haired Esme put a hand to her forehead, her knees bent to cover her chest. “Are you guys like my clones or something?”
“Your clones?” said the identical Esme. “Who said you’re the original?”
“I’m just trying to figure this out. I was minding my own business, watering my flowers, and suddenly I’m here, naked, surrounded by copies of myself!”
“I have a life too, thank you. I was on a cruise with my boyfriend. If he comes back to find me not in the shower, he’ll look everywhere.” She put a hand to her face. “Was I abducted?”
Esme spoke up. “I’m guessing we all were.”
The black-haired Esme shook her head. “Who knows? But somebody’s going to come for us eventually. I mean, we’ve been here a while.” She tried to think. “Where were you guys taken from?”
“I told you, I was on a cruise,” said the identical Esme. “But I’m from Dallas.”
“Kansas City for me.” The black-haired copy looked at Esme. “You?”
“Southern Florida. But I grew up in Kansas City.”
The identical Esme’s eyes widened. “I was born there too.”
Esme looked at the others scattered around the bar. “Well, there’s no way we’re all long-lost twins, or… What do you call a batch of ten?”
“If we’re all from Kansas City…” The black-haired Esme scrunched her face. “Maybe you were cloned when I was born…”
“We’re not your clones!” the identical Esme insisted again.
Esme liked these two best. At least they were trying to sort things out. The only problem was, no one had a clue what had happened.
Clones or sisters or whatever, someone abducted us. And they’ll do something about it sooner or later. Are they studying us to see what we’ll do? Are they waiting to see how we’re different? Were we taken by aliens? Have we already been probed? No, don’t think like that.
She flexed her toes on the wooden floor. Her butt was numb from sitting so long.
In a burst of defiance, Esme pushed off the floor to stand. Every Esme looked to see what she was doing, but she ignored the group and stepped around the bar. She figured it was pointless to cover herself, since the other women had seen it all before. Besides, whoever abducted them had most likely seen her full body when they’d brought her here.
Nobody back home will know I’m missing for days, she thought with a scowl. That is not an upside of working from home. Good lord, I don’t even have a cat to miss me. No family. No friends worth mentioning since I moved. Yikes. If I get out of this alive, I really need to meet people.
Esme walked along the bar and found an empty glass hanging from a rack. This she set upright on the long counter before turning to the arrangements of liquor.
“What are you doing?” hissed the red-haired double.
Esme spoke at full volume. “I’m making a drink. Anyone want anything?”
No one answered, but she heard a whispered discussion behind her.
“She’ll get us killed.”
Still only half-believing any of this was real, Esme ignored them. She opted for vodka and a couple of mixers and turned back to the bar where her glass waited. She made her drink and returned the liquor – no need to be a messy guest. Then she downed the drink.
Oh, that burns, she thought as she lowered the finished glass. Nope, this is definitely not a dream.
Suddenly, over the stage end of the room, a flash like lightning demanded their attention. A swirling cloud of gray-black smoke blew into the bar, and lightning flashes illuminated the depths of the cloud. Sparking noises and deep, rumbling growls drowned out the screams of the Esmes.
Something was coming.
Esme set down her glass and backed against the bar. Several Esmes crawled under tables. A few ran to the far wall before turning, their nakedness forgotten, to stare at the floating cloud of smoke. The black-haired Esme, who’d held herself together until now, pounded at the door, begging and shouting to be let out. The albino Esme remained on the floor, shaking and not looking up.
Esme clutched the bar, faced the source of danger, and watched in horror as two long, scaly arms stretched out of the smoke. Their taloned claws swept back and forth, as if sensing for life.
“Let us go!” screamed the Esme pounding on the door.
In reaction to this, the reptile-like arms swung faster, stretching farther and farther into the room.
An Esme by the door screamed in a language Esme didn’t recognize.
“Please, I want to go home!” yelled another. “Somebody-”
Esme turned to yell at the women. “Quiet! It’s-”
The claws focused now to reach toward the Esmes by the door. A deafening roar shook the bar.
Without thinking, she grabbed a loose spoon poking out from a pile of rolled table settings. While she wielded this in the monster’s direction, she shouted to the others, “Get behind the bar for protection! Quick! It’s all we’ve got for cover!”
The nine other women, even the albino on the floor, understood. They scurried over, joining Esme to crouch behind the bar. A few peeked out, but after another blasting roar they ducked back with the group.
The red-eyed albino sat and rocked. “Aquivos desarni, afiday risminos!”
“Shh!” said a chorus of matching voices.
Esme, perhaps because of the vodka kicking in, decided she’d had enough. With the spoon at her side, she stomped around the bar and stood in the open space to face the roaring monster. It continued to swing its spiked claws through the room, and they reached within only a few meters of where she stood.
Draw its attention. Keep it away from the others. I’m not sure any of them will fight back… I’m pissed enough to try anything.
“Hey!” she yelled at it.
The monster heard her, and the grasping claws swung in her direction. Fortunately the monstrosity’s reach was short, and it drew back to grasp either side of the smoking cloud. It seemed to be trying to pull itself out. A head with angles like a skeletal snake broke through the smoke, and Esme stepped back in horror. After the head, a muscled torso like a demonic horse’s emerged. The beast’s red eyes locked on Esme where she stood. A serpentine tongue flicked out between fangs as if tasting the air. The monster tilted its head to examine her, and two horns shone in the bursts of lightning.
Esme shuddered as the beast began to speak in a throaty, clicking language. The voice was spine-chilling, and nothing could persuade her to know what it said.
“Ticka-ticka-ticka. Vatic-vatic-vatic. Kich!”
In desperation, Esme chucked the spoon at the monster.
Horrible idea, she thought immediately. Really horrible idea.