“Nick? Boo? Get up. You’re going to be late for school.”
Groaning in fear of what he might find this time, Nick opened his eyes to see the navy blue curtains his mom had bought him last year when they moved into their condo on Bourbon Street. Relief flooded him.
It was just a nightmare, after all. Thank you, God!
That was his thought until he realized that the window wasn’t the same. Instead of being a large single window, it was two windows with a divider between them.
Ah, crap. Not again. Haven’t I suffered enough indignities and horrors? Really?
His heart hammering, Nick slowly swept his gaze around a room he didn’t recognize.
His stomach tightened to the point he feared he’d be ill.
“Nick?” His mom knocked lightly before she pushed open the door to smile at him. “So you are up, sleepyhead. Hurry now, or else you’ll get another tardy.”
Even more unsettled than before, Nick gaped at the sight of her in an expensive dark blue business suit with her blond hair cut short to frame her beautiful face. That definitely wasn’t her waitress uniform.
Scowling, she moved to stand by the bed and placed her hand to his forehead. “Are you all right? You look pale.”
Stunned, he couldn’t speak as he stared at a stranger in his mother’s body.
“Cherise? It’s London calling. They need to speak to you. Said it can’t wait.”
His eyes widened at the sound of that familiar deep, thick Tennessee Southern drawl. Bubba? What the heck was Bubba doing in his house at seven thirty in the morning? It’d been bad enough when Nick had come home from the prom and found him here. But that he’d attributed to a date.
No, wait. That wasn’t right. Someone had told him at the prom that Bubba was his father now. Caleb?
For some reason, he couldn’t remember.
And why in the world would someone in London call his mom?
Maybe London’s a name?
No. Not possible. This was bad bad. His mom didn’t know anyone named London.…
“I’ll be right there, Michael.” She squeezed Nick’s cheek. “You don’t have a fever. Did you stay up too late?”
Honestly? He feared some kind of terminal brain damage. How hard had that demon slammed him on the ground while they fought to get his mom back?
His door opened again to show “Bubba” in a black Armani suit. Nick only knew that designer brand because they were the ones his immortal boss, Kyrian, favored and Nick had had a seizure the first time he’d gone to pick one up and had seen the cost of it.
Who wore that stuff and why?
Huge as ever, Bubba had abandoned his beard for smooth cheeks and wore a short, stylish cut. Yeah, this definitely wasn’t the burly redneck who hunted zombies in the bayou with his lunatic best friend. One who was paranoid as all get out, and armed to a level that the ATF had him on their watch list.
As if he hadn’t morphed into some creepy businessman, Bubba came in and handed a cordless phone to his mom.
Removing her expensive earring, she cupped her hand over the mouthpiece and whispered to Bubba. “I think our Boo is sick. See what you think.” She stepped out of the room to deal with her call.
Bubba knelt his gigantic form by the bed and brushed the hair back from Nick’s forehead. “You all right, buddy?” Now there was a loving tone Bubba had never used with him before. That was even more terrifying than having a Charonte demon try to eat him.
Completely dumbfounded by it all, Nick dropped his gaze to the huge football championship ring on Bubba’s hand. The diamonds on the front formed a pattern reminiscent of a fleur-de-lis. They were framed by the words “Forty” on one side and “Niners” on the other. The name “Burdette” was on the “Forty” side and “Super Bowl XXIV 55-10” on the “Niners” side. Gasping, he fingered the ring as he remembered Bubba’s mama telling him how Bubba could have gone pro after college, but had decided to stay home with his wife and son instead. “This looks so real.”
Bubba snorted. “It is real, you know that.” He duplicated Nick’s scowl. “What’s going on with you, Squirt? You have a test you’re trying to avoid?”
“No. I … uh … yeah, no, I’m fine. Not a morning person.”
Laughing, Bubba stood up and pulled the covers off Nick. “Come on. Mom made pancakes for breakfast and they’re getting cold.” He left the room.
Still disoriented and confused, Nick rolled out of bed. This was so screwed up. Raking his hand through his hair, he gaped at the photo on his desk of a sweaty Bubba in a 49ers uniform holding him as a toddler, dressed in a matching 49ers jersey with BURDETTE on the back. At least Nick thought it was him. The face and blond hair belonged to the stranger he kept seeing in the mirror. It was a picture from a newspaper where the 49ers had won the Super Bowl, January 28, 1990.
What the heck?
In 1990, Nick would have been six. The “Nick” in the photo couldn’t be more than three or four.
“I’m in another coma.” At least that made sense to his scrambled mind.
Yeah, he could definitely go with that. Instead of being sent to the Nether Realm, he was trapped here, wherever here was. Caleb or Kody would wake him up at any moment and everything would be back to normal. He just had to make sure he didn’t get sucked into a hell realm and eaten by a demon or zombie until they figured this out and performed another rescue mission.
C’mon guys, hurry. He wasn’t sure how long his sanity would hold.
Cringing at what he saw in the bathroom mirror, he curled his lip. Gah, it was so strange to see someone else peering back at him. While he’d never been vain, he missed the way he used to look. The dark hair.
And height. He really missed being tall. Short sucked. How did short guys stand it?
Give me growing pains any day over this.
Turning on the shower, he took a moment to replay the last events he remembered through his mind. He’d been in Le Monde au Delà du Voile—the world behind the veil—where his mother had been taken after being kidnapped by demons. He, along with Kody and Caleb, had fought off the huge demonic werewolf Zavid and demons to get her and his father out. His dad had died in the fighting and he’d given Nick all of his Malachai powers. Powers Caleb and Kody had bound up tight until Nick could learn to use them, and to better protect him from the supernatural predators that wanted to kill him and take those powers for themselves.
Nick froze as another fear went through him. His powers were forever malfunctioning. Could the binding potion from last night be the reason for all of this? Had it backfired and changed everything?
Made sense. He’d once turned his friend Madaug into a goat by mistake. Maybe the potion last night had turned Madaug into a douche.…
And me into a short loser.
As he left the shower, he winced at his reflection. “And I thought I was skinny before.…”
Dog, he looked awful. His arms were so frail, he was surprised he didn’t snap them off reaching for the towel. Not the image he wanted for the rest of his life. Toweling his now-blond hair, he tried not to think about it as he dressed and headed downstairs. The only good thing about this weird life was the lack of tacky Hawaiian shirts in his closet. It appeared his mom had finally let go of her Magnum, P.I. fetish and gone shopping somewhere other than Goodwill.
He paused on the stairs to gape at the photos of him, his mom, and Bubba from Nick’s birth to high school. Dang, is there not one incarnation of my life in any alternate universe where my mom didn’t take a photo of me naked in the bathtub with a rubber duck? Really? He didn’t know what was more shocking, those weird non-doctored photos or the massive size of this humongous house.
For that matter, it took him several minutes just to find the kitchen. This is worse than trying to navigate Kyrian’s mansion. At least there, he had Rosa to ask for directions whenever he got lost.
Eyes wide, Nick hesitated in the doorway as he saw Bubba at the table, reading The Wall Street Journal while his mom cleaned up the griddle that was part of their massive gas stove. That thing alone looked like something out of an alien movie.
He’d never seen a more normal morning scene in his life. And that scared the bejeezus out of him.
She glanced over to him and smiled. “There’s my favorite Boo. You feeling better, baby?”
Bubba checked his watch. “You better grab it to go. I don’t want to have to talk to Mr. Hutchins again about your tardies.”
Nick scowled at the unfamiliar name. “Mr. Hutchins?”
“Principal.” Bubba folded the paper up and placed it on the table.
Nick was even more confused than before. “When did St. Richard’s get another principal? What happened to Mr. Head?” Did zombies eat him, too?
“Who’s Mr. Head?” his mom asked.
Nick stopped while he was way behind. At least until he caught sight of the date on the newspaper by Bubba’s hand. His heart stopped. No flippin’ way. It had to be wrong. “April 22, 2002? Is this a fake paper?”
Bubba frowned at him. “Maybe we should take you to a doctor.”
That was all he needed. A visit to a psych ward. “No, I’m fine. Really.”
Discreetly, Nick pulled out his license and checked his date of birth. His stomach hit the ground. If that was right, he was still sixteen, but that wasn’t the right birth year for him.
Everything here was wrong.
How is this possible? How?
“I better get to school,” Nick breathed. “Where’s my backpack?”
His mom ruffled his hair. “I think you left it in your car.”
Bubba burst out laughing. “You wish. I’m not letting you drive the Jag until you’re eighteen, buddy. It’s in your Jeep.”
Okay, go with it. Don’t react.
All is right in my world.
Yeah, right. Nothing about any of this was right or normal. Which, given his royally screwed-up life, said a lot. He wanted to scream until it went back to the way it was supposed to be.
His mom brought the keys to him and held her hand to his forehead again. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
Better a lie than a straightjacket. “Fine.”
“Michael … I’m thinking we might need to take him to a doctor.”
“Sweetheart, you’ve got to quit babying him so. He’s a man with a job. He says he’s fine. He’s fine.”
Nick arched a brow at that. Could he still be working for Kyrian or Liza in this place? If Kyrian was around, he might be able to help. Surely a two-thousand-year-old immortal warrior who’d sold his soul to a goddess would know something about alternate realities. For that matter, Nick might be able to borrow Kyrian’s ring and summon the Greek goddess Artemis himself and get some long overdue answers.
His mother bit her bottom lip as she brushed her hand through Nick’s hair. “He’s still my baby.”
Grateful that hadn’t changed, Nick gave her a quick hug before he headed for the front of the house.
Bubba cleared his throat. “Where are you going, son?”
“Why? Your Jeep’s in the garage.”
They had a garage?
Nick looked up at the ornate crown molding in this expensive house. Of course they had a garage.…
“Oh. Okay.” He headed in the opposite direction.
With a slight hesitation, he opened the door that he assumed was the garage only to find himself in the pantry.
“Um … grabbing some Pop-Tarts for the road,” Nick said, covering his mistake. Still, they both stared at him as if he’d escaped Arkham Asylum. Offering them a fake smile, he grabbed the pastries, crossed himself, and hoped he got the next door correct.
With a pain-filled groan at his rampant stupidity, Nick pretended to use it before he tried again. At least there were only two more doors to go.
Thankfully, third time was the charm. He let out a relieved breath as he stepped down and saw a red Jeep, black SUV, and silver Jaguar in the three-car garage. Man, that was so wrong. That Jag was the same car Acheron had given him when he’d brought Nick’s license over to their condo.
I want the life back where I get to drive that without Bubba flipping out on me.
Then again …
This was a normal life. Really normal, like other people’s lives. No one was trying to kill him, or eat him. He didn’t have a principal who thought he was the biggest loser on the planet. Half the football team wasn’t turning into zombies or werewolves. There was no psycho-demon coach threatening him if he didn’t help kill his fellow teammates. Bubba and Mark weren’t cattle-prod-wielding lunatics.
You know, this has possibilities. It might not be bad to be normal for a while. Weird and poor hadn’t worked out that well for him. Rich and well dressed might be another story.
Feeling better about it all, Nick decided he’d stop complaining about everything and just try this life on for a while. It might suit him.
After climbing into his Jeep, he made his way to school, where no one stared at him as if he’d just run over their dog. In fact, it was disturbing how little attention he garnered. No one seemed to care at all that he was here.
I could get used to this.
It took him a second to realize it was Caleb … Fingerman, not Malphas, who was walking up to him in the hallway.
“Feeling any better?”
He scowled at Caleb’s question. “Pardon?”
“I called to check on you, but your dad said you didn’t feel well. That you went to bed as soon as you got home, without saying a word to anyone.”
Yes, he had. After stumbling through the mansion and finding his room, he’d been hoping it was all a bad dream and that he’d wake up at home.
Bust on that thought.
“Yeah. I think it was just a bug.” Nick headed for his locker. As he tried to open it, the larger and snottier Madaug grabbed him and snatched him back.
“What are you doing, buttmunch? You trying to put a love letter in my locker or something?”
Nick shrugged his hold off. “I was going to my locker.”
Madaug shoved him across the hall. “Yours is over there, doof. How many paint chips did you eat for breakfast?”
Scowling, Nick met Caleb’s concerned gaze.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
Nick returned his backpack to his shoulder. “Can you keep a secret?”
“I think I have amnesia.”
Caleb’s eyes widened. “From what?”
“Being slammed into lockers by dung-sniffing Neanderthals.” Nick passed an evil glare at Madaug as he walked past them. “I can’t seem to remember anything. Like, where’s my first class?”
“Did you tell your parents?”
Nick shook his head. “You know how my mom is. I don’t want to go to the Mayo Clinic for a hangnail. I feel fine. I just can’t remember anything.”
“That’s not fine, Nick. That’s a big problem.”
Yes, it was. But not for the reasons Caleb was thinking. “Please don’t tell anyone, Caleb.”
“All right. I’ll help, but if it doesn’t get better, you really need to have it checked out.”
Caleb showed him to his locker and then opened it after Nick couldn’t. “The combo is your dad’s jersey number, your mom’s birth year, and the year your dad’s team won the Super Bowl.”
He arched a brow at Caleb’s dissertation. “How do you know that?”
Caleb shrugged. “We’ve been best friends since birth. There’s nothing about you I don’t know.”
Yeah, right. He didn’t know that Nick didn’t belong here, and that in another life Caleb was a badass demigod demonspawn, and Nick was his half-breed demonkyn charge who was wanted by most anything not human-born.
Don’t think about it.…
Grabbing his chem book, Nick stood up, shut his locker, then clicked his heels together three times.
Caleb gave him a strange look. “What are you doing?”
Nick sighed heavily. “Seeing if what worked for Dorothy and witches worked for demonspawn, too.”
He scowled. “Dorothy? Demonspawn? What in the name of sanity are you talking about?”
“Nothing.” Nick scanned the hall as he tucked his book into his backpack. “So where’s Kody?”
“Kennedy. My girlfriend … sort of.” At least she was whenever she wasn’t trying to kill or confuse him.
“Did you forget that, too? Casey’s your girlfriend.”
So it’d seemed at the prom, but given Casey’s bipolar affaires de couer, Nick wasn’t eager to renew their “friendship.” Honestly, he wanted to stay away from her for a while.
Just to be safe.
“Yeah, but where’s Kody?”
Caleb continued to stare at him as if he’d grown another head. “Where does she go to school?”
Was he serious? “Here. With us.”
He shook his head. “We don’t have a Kody in this school, Nick.”
That sick, awful feeling returned to his stomach. No Kody? How was that possible? If she existed in his realm, wouldn’t she have to be here, too?
And if she was gone from here was that a good thing, or a really bad one?
“Hey, guys! Guess what I did?”
Nick cringed at the new incarnation of Acheron as he joined them. He still couldn’t get used to or accept this person as his friend. His Ash was not normal in any sense of the word. He was the Goth king, Acheron, towering over Nick and the rest of the world with his massive seven feet of augmented height. An eleven-thousand-year-old warrior, Acheron was the epitome of lethal, in-your-face badass.
And with that thought, Nick felt that familiar weird fissure of preternatural power emanating in the air between them.
It was definitely Acheron’s essence.
But as soon as he felt it, it was gone and he was back in this “normal” realm.
“Nick?” Ash put his hand on his shoulder to steady him. “You all right?”
No. His head swam viciously, and for a moment, he thought he might collapse. Everything around him was wobbling, like he was watching the world through water. Pain radiated through his entire being and settled hard in the pit of his stomach. He looked down at his hand that no longer appeared human at all. His skin bubbled then turned translucent.
Terrified of someone else seeing it, he clenched his fist tight and hid it under his shirttail. Great. All I need is to turn into a human jellyfish right in front of everyone.
That would not be a fun explanation to have to make. He’d rather back over his mom’s favorite houseplant.
And still that wobbling persisted. Something was seriously wrong with him, and he needed to find real help. Someone who could tell him what was going on and which reality was his.…
This world? Or the one he thought he knew?
What if everything in my life until now has been a dream? Or worse. What if it wasn’t?
Licking his lips, Nick met Ash’s befuddled stare. “I, um … feel sick. I … I need to head out. See that doctor you told me about.” He handed his backpack to Caleb then started for the door.
“You can’t leave campus!” Caleb hissed.
Nick snorted at Caleb’s panic. “Stop me.” He opened the door and went straight for the street. Yeah, he might get into trouble later, but right now he didn’t care. Forget this normal crap. He had to have answers.
Sprinting over to Royal, he went to Bubba’s store, the Triple B. But instead of the computer and gun store Bubba owned, it was now a beauty salon.…
Everything in it was pink and white. Girly. Bubba would die to see this. His precious sanctum had been defiled by rollers and hand lotions. Hairpieces.
Celebrity gossip rags, instead of zombie survival classes.
There was no sign of the store where Nick had spent the last few years learning about computers, lunatic conspiracy theories, and pending government-sanctioned zombie attacks. How to protect himself from the undead, undesirables, and unknown. Strange, but he really missed that Bubba and Mark. Heck, he even missed the stench of Mark’s duck-urine zombie-deterrent deodorant.
Grief-stricken and disoriented, Nick headed down the street to where Liza’s doll store had been in business since long before his birth. Just like Bubba’s, it was gone. Instead of glass shelves filled with handmade porcelain and vinyl dolls—some that doubled as stabbing weapons—it was another ubiquitous antique store.
This isn’t right. He wanted to cry at the absence of the people he knew and cared about. Crazy and eccentric though they were, they were his family. He couldn’t stand the thought of not seeing them again.
What had happened to Ms. Liza?
His senses reeling, Nick made his way to Canal to grab a streetcar so that he could head over to Kyrian’s house in the Garden District. Bubba had said Nick had a job.
Maybe, just maybe, he still worked for Kyrian. Maybe this part of his life hadn’t changed. Please give me something to hold on to. Desperately, he clung to that hope. Something had to make sense. Something had to be the same.
Stepping off the streetcar, Nick wasn’t sure what to expect, especially after all he’d seen so far. But if Kyrian was still here in this reality, he’d have to be a Dark-Hunter … wouldn’t he?
Just don’t be an attorney. Or something equally banal. Not like what had been done to Acheron. Nick wasn’t sure he could handle that kind of shock again.
He slowed as he walked past a faded blue antebellum mansion. The windows were open and someone was playing a piano. Even though he was Catholic, he knew the popular Southern Baptist hymn that was often a favorite among the street musicians who sang in the Quarter. It was one Tyree’s grandma would often hum whenever she shelled beans on her front porch when he was a kid.
And when the unknown older woman’s voice began the strains of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a chill went straight down his spine.
There’s a better home a’waiting …
In the sky, Lord, in the sky.
Back in Nick’s world, the demonspawn version of Caleb had told him to listen to the signs that the universe sent him. They were warnings and guides.
Could this be one of them?
Did it mean that this was his new home and that he’d be stuck here forever?
Too scared to contemplate what it could mean for him, he crossed the street and made his way to Kyrian’s. It wasn’t until he reached the driveway that he remembered he hadn’t had to take the streetcar, after all. He could have just driven his Jeep over. But then he’d done without a license all this time … it was hard to remember he didn’t have to walk anymore.
And maybe that was a sign, too. His life, and his body, were changing faster than he could keep track of.
Nick paused halfway up the driveway as he realized another fact. There was no locked gate to prevent someone from entering the property. That didn’t bode well. Kyrian wouldn’t be so lackadaisical. Not with his safety, and definitely not with all the things that hunted him.
Cold and fearful of what he’d find, Nick climbed the white stairs and approached the familiar door. Please let Rosa answer … please.
Tears misted in his eyes as every instinct told him to run. To not discover what was on the other side of that portal.
But he had to know. One way or another. And Gautiers weren’t cowards in any sense of that word. Whatever fate threw at them, they faced it with a straight spine, and full on.
Prepared for the worst, Nick forced himself to knock.
An older woman in some kind of purple designer jumpsuit, holding a small gold Pomeranian, answered it. “Yes?”
“Um…” Nick swallowed hard, hoping this was Ms. Rosa’s alternate form in this world.
Acheron and Caleb were now geeks. Madaug was cool.
It could happen to Rosa, too.
“Is Mr. Hunter home?”
She frowned. “I’m sorry. There’s no one here by that name.”
Her words hit him like a fist as he felt his hope deflate. He hadn’t realized until then that he’d been holding his breath, praying to see some semblance of his old life in front of him.
Dang it all.
“Sorry I disturbed you, ma’am. I must have been given the wrong address.” Feeling even sicker than before, Nick turned around. He’d just reached the steps when the woman’s voice stopped him.
“Now that you mention it … I do believe we purchased this home from someone named Hunter.”
Hopeful, he looked back at her. “Kyrian?”
“Yes! That was it. I remember ’cause it was so unusual.”
Kyrian had lived here. That was a good sign. “Do you know where he went?”
Grief darkened her eyes as she stroked the dog’s head. “Up to Jesus, baby. Sorry. We purchased the house as part of an estate sale after that poor man was murdered down in the Quarter … but that was … goodness … twenty-five, thirty years ago. Long before you were born. How do you know him?”
Nick blinked back the tears that suddenly stung his throat. “He was family to me.”
“Oh honey, I’m so sorry. Do I need to call your mama for you? Or someone else? Are you all right?”
Nick nodded. “Yes, ma’am. I’m fine. My mama don’t need to know I was here. Sorry I disturbed you.” Completely dazed, he headed back to the street as her words sank into his heart with talons.
Did that mean that Kyrian had been a Dark-Hunter? That he’d been killed in action while trying to protect humans? Or had he been normal and living in this time period, too?
Gah, trying to unravel this made his head feel like it was going to explode.
I am too young for this. He should be at home playing ungodly amounts of Nintendo. Hanging out with his friends, talking about girls and manga. Or doing whatever it was that normal kids did.
“Ow! Hey! Hello? I’m standing here.”
He jumped at the outraged cry as he realized he’d been so lost in thought that he’d accidentally bumped into someone on the street corner. “Sorry.” He looked up into a familiar pair of blue eyes and a face he knew real well, even though the hair was brown and a frizzy mess of curls instead of the dyed black he was used to on her. “Tabitha?”
With an exasperated sound, she rolled her eyes. “Please tell me you’re not one of Tabby’s zoo crew. Though to be honest, they don’t usually get us confused.” She held her hand out to him. “I’m her sister Selena. You are?”
“Nick.” He shook her hand as hope sprung up new again inside him. Please, God. Give me this one bit … “Tabby still stalking the undead?”
“Oh God … you really do know her.”
Laughing in relief at something familiar, he noted Selena’s unorthodox appearance. She had on an embroidered purple skirt and white tank top with a fringed brown leather jacket. Not to mention the purple and pink Tarot Card Reader price list poster tucked under her arm. “You’re psychic?”
She arched a brow at him. “Obviously, you’re not. Observant either, for that matter. Strike two for you.”
For once, he ignored her sarcasm. He was too grateful to have someone “normal” and familiar around him. And right now, getting some real answers was much more important than firing back an equally nasty retort. “Do you believe in past lives and alternate universes and stuff?”
“Of course I do. It pays my rent.”
She was making it harder and harder to hold his smart aleck in. “No, I’m serious.”
Selena pinned him with a stern frown. “So am I. I’m not one of the fakes on the street. I honestly believe in what I do. I know for a fact that it’s all real.”
“Then could you help me?”
“Help you what?”
“Find my way home.”
Copyright © 2014 by Sherrilyn Kenyon