“I did not do this,” Ori said, his voice flat.
“I am aware of that,” Daura said, just as flatly.
“So why do I feel ‘the look’ burning a hole in the back of my skull?” He peered over his shoulder, was met with said ‘look’ dead on, and immediately regretted his sarcasm.
She narrowed her eyes at him even further, but was otherwise seemingly still and calm in her chair across the room. She had been silently watching him work for the past hour at least.
She had tossed her white cloak, stitched with the insignia of a healer, over the arm of the chair. She didn’t tap her foot impatiently, or wring her hands. She didn’t slouch, or cross her ankles. She merely waited, composed, only every once in a while smoothing a non-existent wrinkle from her pale blue dress. This was as close as she had ever come to lounging.
Only people who didn’t know her would make the mistake of thinking she was as serene as she looked. He could feel the energy in the room thickening around her more every second, becoming heavier, like the weight of sand slowly filling a container. He had never seen her so unsettled.
Knowing better than to keep antagonizing her, he hastily returned his attention to his task. He placed four crystals in a pouch, each containing an energy sample from the arag, two from the human side and two from their side, and pulled the drawstrings tight to close it.
He heard her sigh. “I just wish I had been able to read it for myself,” she admitted.
“The anomaly was nearly invisible,” he said, understanding her way of thinking. She was probably worried that she had missed something herself in the last reading she had done. “If it returns I will contact you immediately.”
“What if someone tampered with the arute?”
He frowned, glancing over at her as he put his reading supplies away. “That’s not possible, is it?” Her silence was not reassuring. “And why would anyone do something so foolish, knowing the consequences?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted, her frustration obvious in her tone. Scowling, she tucked a wayward strand of grey hair behind her ear. “It shouldn’t be possible to affect the arute directly, even at an arag site… But…”
“Something feels off?” he asked.
She nodded, and became quiet again, seemingly lost in thought.
He found his gaze wandering to the human for about the thousandth time as he set the pouch aside and reached for a scrap of paper. He had to admit, he was thankful Daura had shown up when she had. He knew the human had been frightened and confused, and hadn’t been sure how to handle it. He had learned her language as part of his training as a bidkail, just in case he ever had to balance the human side of the arute, but that was about as far as his knowledge of her people went.
He remembered the look in her soft brown eyes, had sensed how hard she’d been trying to stay calm, then the sudden spike in fear when he had tried to balance the arag, and it felt like a fist was tightening in his chest. He hated that he had been the one to scare her.
Would she look at him with that same expression when she woke up? The thought tore at him as he watched her sleep, at peace for the moment. She had looked so small and fragile, even more so at the moment, swallowed up in blankets on his couch. Those mesmerizing eyes were closed, long lashes sweeping lightly freckled cheeks. Skin so pale it was like porcelain. So soft looking that he wanted to touch her and discover it for himself. Full lips that it was impossible not to imagine kissing.
Were all humans so distractingly beautiful?
Even across the room, he was so in tune with her that he could feel the even rhythm of her heartbeat without having to concentrate. The instant connection had shocked him at first, perhaps more than her jump through the arag.
A loud knock on the door cut into his thoughts, and he forced himself to stop staring.
“The Jiru’s messenger has arrived,” Daura said, making no move to answer the door herself as he reached for something to write with. He didn’t meet her eyes. She was too perceptive not to have noticed his preoccupation, and he wasn’t ready to confront her knowing gaze.
Not until he understood what he was feeling.
“Watch over her, please,” he said, scribbling a quick note on the paper in front of him. He quickly folded and sealed it, grabbed the pouch, and moved towards the door, stealing one last glance at the human before he left.
“You can stop pretending to be asleep now,” Shauna heard the woman say, speaking in English again.
She hesitated briefly before she opened her eyes. Peering across the room, she slowly sat up. The woman’s expression had relaxed into a serene smile, but her tone still held a hint of command.
“What is your name, child?” she asked. “I’m sure you’d rather me refer to you properly.”
She considered lying, but didn’t really see the point. “Shauna.”
The woman inclined her head in acknowledgement. “Thank you. My name is Daura,” she said, rising and moving slowly towards Shauna. “You are safe here.”
“Where am I?” Shauna demanded, not entirely convinced she was telling the truth. There was no logical reason they would hurt her, but none of this made sense anyway.
“That is… complicated. Can we talk while I examine you?” she asked, pulling a small wooden chair over in front of the couch. “I would like to make sure you are healing properly.”
Shauna narrowed her eyes at her, unsure. Other than the fact that she was starving, like she hadn’t eaten for days, she didn’t feel too bad. A little stiff and sore, but she didn’t think Daura could do anything about that. Or maybe she didn’t want her to do anything about it.
She eyed Daura’s hands distrustfully, remembering what had happened the last time she’d touched her.
“If we were going to hurt you, we would have already.”
Shauna scowled, meeting her steady gaze again. “You knocked me out.”
“I only meant to assist you,” she said, and Shauna had to admit she seemed sincere. Her brows were drawn together, and she studied her with concerned eyes. “Your fear was taking over, and it would have been dangerous for you to run out into an unknown city in that state.”
Sitting on the chair, Daura extended a hand. “Please,” she said. “Let me examine you.”
She studied Daura, considering. What were her options? She had no idea where she was, how she got there, or how to get home. And apparently she didn’t speak the local language.
I have to trust somebody…
Hesitantly, Shauna took her hand, and immediately felt a warmth spreading through her. She would have pulled her hand back, but Daura held onto her easily, as if she didn’t even notice her trying to pull away.
“In this city,” Daura said quietly, clasping Shauna’s hand between both of hers and closing her eyes as she spoke. The warmth intensified. “Everything is… different from what you are used to…”
“Different?” Shauna repeated, eyes widening as she watched a small scrape on her arm miraculously heal, fading away as if it had never been there in the first place. A chill raced along her skin, and she had to resist the urge to struggle.
“Calm,” Daura said, gently reminding her as her discomfort started to fade. “Breathe slowly.” She let go of Shauna’s hand and offered a reassuring smile. “Here, everything is based on energy, and how that energy can be manipulated. It’s what you would call magic.”
“You’re messing with me, right?” She started to laugh, stressed enough that the sound came out a little strangled, but something in Daura’s calm expression stopped her. She didn’t look like she was playing around.
“You’ve seen the evidence already.”
She took a deep breath to steady herself. “Magic,” she said, her anxious gaze moving around the room. “Right. That was my second guess after the coma theory anyway.” She knew she must be inside the stone cottage now, but it looked completely ordinary. She was sitting in a living room, and she could see into the kitchen through an over-sized doorway. Cabinets, counters, a sink, a kitchen table with chairs. Nothing unusual. She was sitting on a normal couch. There were a couple matching chairs and what looked like a surprisingly intricate, hand carved coffee table. She had been expecting… she wasn’t sure what she had been expecting from a…
She stole a look at Daura and saw her smiling in a patient, motherly way.
“So… You are…?”
“We are called shima,” Daura said, rising to her feet. Pulling the chair with her, she went into the kitchen and put it back beside the table. She turned to open what looked like a metal refrigerator with an intricate winding design on the front. There was a faint blue glow from the open door as she pulled out food and set it on the counter. “Our worlds are like the two sides of a coin. As we are the opposite side of you, our world is the opposite side of yours.”
That’s when Shauna finally noticed something unusual. There were no electronics. No television. No dishwasher. No outlets. No electricity. Just more of those glowing orbs in brackets to light up the rooms. Whatever that metal cabinet was, it wasn’t the refrigerator she was used to.
“And our world shares the same space as yours.”
Now that had her full attention again. “That’s not…”
“Not possible?” Daura said, cutting into a loaf of bread. She chuckled, looking at her with raised eyebrows. “And was being here, in this cottage with two shima, possible yesterday?”
Shauna couldn’t help smiling at that, Daura’s relaxed attitude helping to relieve some of her nervousness. “Good point.” Strangely open to this whole ‘other world’ thing, probably because at least it meant she wasn’t in a coma somewhere, she got up and stretched carefully. She was surprised that she didn’t feel stiff anymore. Her stomach growled, and she tried to imagine what their food would taste like.
Seeing a movement out of the corner of her eye, she moved towards the window. Bracing her hands on the sill, she saw ‘medieval man’ talking to someone outside.
“The light you saw was Ori trying to make sure no one else would be pulled into our world,” Daura continued behind her. She heard her start chopping something crunchy, but she wasn’t curious enough to look away from Ori. “When I retired, I passed the responsibility to him, my best student.”
Now that she knew he wasn’t an axe murderer, she had to admit he wasn’t hard to look at. Or stare at. Or maybe even drool over a little.
He was tall. Leanly muscled. His hair fell below his shoulders. It was pulled back now, and she could see a couple thin braids with some sort of beads on the ends. And she remembered his eyes very clearly. The way he had focused on her. Studied her quietly.
Lifting a hand, she absently brought her fingertips to her lips. She had actually felt his eyes on her as she pretended to sleep.
“Be careful,” Daura said, her amused tone breaking into Shauna’s thoughts and making her jump. Embarrassed to be caught staring, she quickly turned away from the window.
“He is a lukesh,” she continued, as if this should explain her warning perfectly. She gestured for Shauna to join her in the kitchen.
“I thought you said you were both Shima?” She sat at the table and Daura set a glass of water and a plate in front of her. She narrowed her eyes at the mystery sandwich in front of her, and what she assumed were some strange looking fruit.
“Human, shima,” Daura said, indicating Shauna and then herself. She pointed at Shauna again. “Humans differentiate themselves by traits such as hair color, skin tone, eye color, where you live…” She pointed at herself. “We look at what we call ‘aspects.’ Lukesh, nesho, mahegi… Differences in ability. Only a mahegi can master all the elements. Only a nesho can take on whatever form they wish. Only a lukesh can grant a wish.” She shrugged. “Ori and I are both lukesh aspects of shima.”
“Okay… And I need to be careful around Ori?” she asked, picking up an almost innocent looking, oval shaped piece of teal ‘maybe-fruit’ about the size of an egg. It was smooth and soft. Somehow, this was the least scary thing on the plate. She eyed it dubiously, pinching the ‘please-God-don’t-let-this-be-their-version-of-mealworms-fruit,’ hoping for a familiar texture, or smell, or anything. “Are lukesh dangerous?” she asked, trying to pretend she wasn’t holding her breath for the answer. The skin of the ‘what-the-hell-am-I-about-to-eat-fruit’ tore, and the juice that trickled out smelled sweet. Unfortunately, the dark teal liquid reminded her of black ink.
Daura laughed, drawing her attention. “We are all dangerous,” she said, picking up her sandwich. “You are dangerous.”
Shauna almost dropped her ‘I-guess-it’s-fruit,’ and it was her turn to laugh. “Yeah, I must be truly frightening to those of you who can control the elements and turn into whatever you want.” She raised an eyebrow and sniffed the ‘scary-fruit.’
“Do not underestimate your own people,” she said, completely serious. “You have legends about us because you have seen us.” Her expression hardened as she spoke, and Shauna felt pinned in place again. “And you have stories about your heroes killing us because you have killed us…”
She was thankful there was no malice in Daura’s tone. Regardless of what she said about humans, and she was sure it was somehow true, she still found Daura very intimidating.
Daura smiled gently. “Eat, please,” she said. “It looks different, but what we can and cannot eat is the same.” She took a bite of her sandwich.
Too hungry to resist any longer, Shauna took a bite of the ‘I-hope-I-don’t-die-fruit.’ The texture was like a grape and a tomato, little seeds in the middle, and it was as sweet as it smelled. The juice stained her fingertips, and she hungrily licked them clean before reaching for another ‘awesome-fruit.’
“I warned you to be careful because, even as young as he is, as a lukesh he will be able to sense your desires.”
Shauna almost choked. She put down the ‘tasty-fruit’ and reached for her water.
“You must not look at him while wishing for something, if you want to keep your thoughts to yourself.”
“I wasn’t!” she sputtered, putting the glass down with more force than she had intended. Water sloshed over the side, and she felt a little too warm suddenly.
Daura raised an eyebrow, eyes twinkling as she lifted her own glass. “Mmm-hmm…”
“You knew I was hungry…” she realized, looking down at her mystery sandwich. “I never told you I was, but…”
Daura smiled. “Now you understand.”
Shauna heard the front door open, and just knew it was him. The heat blazing across her cheeks intensified. Even though she felt it the moment Ori paused in the doorway, a wave of awareness sweeping through her, she didn’t look at him. She knew that he was looking at her, however. She could feel that too, like a soft touch on her skin.
“I am glad to see you are okay…” he said quietly, the sound of his voice just as captivating as the rest of him.
“Shauna,” Daura supplied.
“Shauna,” he repeated, and the sound of him saying her name sent a shiver through her.
Was it something in the low rumbling tone? The exotic accent? Or maybe this was some kind of freakish lukesh thing, like the wishes?
Different worlds or not, she was sure it was still rude not to look at someone when they were talking. Trying to brace herself, she looked over at him, and could have kicked herself for giving in to the temptation. If she had been too scared and confused to notice his drool-worthiness before, she certainly wasn’t anymore.
She wracked her brain for some witty response. Or maybe just a half-way intelligent one would do. Or maybe merely not staring at him with her mouth open would pass as polite enough acknowledgement for him to think she wasn’t a complete head case.
“Uh, thank you,” she finally managed.
A smile curved his perfect lips, warming his eyes, and she nearly died.
“We will be meeting with the Jiru tomorrow morning,” he said, striding into the kitchen. He picked up another plate of food from the counter and sat at the table with them.
“The ruler of this city,” Daura clarified, glancing at Shauna. “Have you taken responsibility for her?”
He nodded. “Yes.” He took a huge bite of his sandwich, as if he hadn’t eaten all day.
“What does that mean?” Shauna frowned.
His eyes captured hers easily as he swallowed and took a drink. “You will have to stay with me until you are able to go home,” he said simply. “I will protect you.”
“I’m staying here…” Shauna repeated slowly, his words making her feel warm all over again. “With you?”
He grinned and nodded, apparently oblivious to what that response did to her. What he did to her.
Daura cleared her throat.
Wildflowers. Puppies. Burritos. Think of something else. Anything else, for the love of all that’s holy!
“I should be going then,” Daura said, finishing off the last of her sandwich before standing up.
“You’re leaving?” Shauna was proud of the calm tone of her voice, and managed to give Daura a meaningful look as Ori focused on his food.
Daura smiled broadly, obviously enjoying herself. “Oh, there’s only the one bed…” She paused, coughing delicately. “And a couch to sleep on. If I stayed it would be too crowded.”
Shauna narrowed her eyes, hoping she was getting across her wish to strangle her. Kind, motherly, all-powerful-being or not, dammit.
It seemed to work, because Daura threw her head back and laughed.
Ori glanced up from his food, raising an eyebrow. “What?”
Daura shook her head, waving off his question. Still chuckling, she turned away to rinse her plate.
“Why does this Jiru want to meet me?” Shauna asked, trying to change the subject. A sudden thought made her stomach flutter with nerves. “Why would a ruler bother with me?”
“The Jiru will evaluate you, and decide if he will speak on your behalf in front of the Junak, our central council,” Ori said. “If he takes responsibility for you, as I have, you will be allowed to decide for yourself what happens after this. Whether you stay or go home. You only have to vow to keep our secret if you go home.”
Still hungry, she eyed her mystery sandwich, not really getting why her presence in their world was a big deal. “No one would believe me anyway.”
“Some would,” Daura said quietly, and Shauna remembered her earlier insistence that humans were dangerous. “Your people have always hunted us.”
Shauna stared at them both disbelievingly. Neither of them were laughing.
“So what happens if the Jiru doesn’t support me? Or I do tell someone about this when I get home?” she asked. “Not that I would,” she quickly assured them.
They exchanged a glance, and her stomach sank with a sickening lurch.
It was Ori who answered, capturing her gaze again. “I told you that I will protect you,” he said. “And I will lay down my life to do so. That is the vow I have freely made in taking responsibility for you.” He sighed, shaking his head. “But this is something I have no say in,” he admitted. “In either case, the outcome would be the same.”
Shauna frowned, not liking where this was going.
“Your memory would be erased.”
Beyond the Gate (Chapter Two) <– You are here.