Holly Hunter looked at the shop with trepidation. Her brother had said this was the best place in Bristol to find strange and unusual superhero comic books to add to her collection, but it looked more like an art gallery from the pavement. A drop of rain leaked from the grey sky and hit her nose.
Holly shrugged and quickly pushed the door to go inside before the rain let loose again, the bell ringing loudly to let the owner know someone had come in.
The display in front of her had the typical common superhero comic books. She already had the complete collections of Superman and Spider-man. She wanted something… different.
“Try the rack back here,” a voice sailed through the room.
How does he know what I want? she wondered, but followed the voice towards the back of the shop.
“It was pretty obvious what you wanted,” the man replied to her thoughts again.
“How did you do that?” she asked the man as she saw him. He wasn’t as old as he’d sounded. Maybe four or six years older than him. Not too old… No, she couldn’t think about dating a shop keeper who seemed to be reading her mind the moment she walked in the door!
He ignored her question and kept working on something on his desk. She looked at the rack he had gestured towards. This was something truly different. A’mara Adventures, the series seemed to be called. Men and women in long, colourful cloaks and swords that reminded her of light sabres. But that couldn’t be. Weren’t those owned by someone fairly wealthy and willing to defend his copyright?
“You are assuming that I stole that idea from George Lucas. What if I told you that he got his ideas from the same place I got mine? He just made his more obviously fiction,” the man suggested, answering her thoughts again.
“You’re saying that this isn’t fiction? It obviously is completely made up – and stolen from George Lucas!” Holly retorted. The guy was a mental case for sure!
“You sound so completely sure of yourself as well,” he quipped back, levelling a gaze of challenge into her eyes. His eyes were almost purple. Contacts, obviously. His skin though… it was more olive than brown – more olive than “olive” normally was.
“What is it if not completely stolen?” she challenged back.
He reached for one of the comic books within reach and put it on the desk next to him. “Come and read for yourself,” he invited. “Then tell me that it’s stolen from George Lucas.”
Holly wasn’t sure she trusted this man.
“The front door is still open, isn’t it? Sorry, my name is Quinn Firthorn. Does that help?”
“Firthorn?” Holly asked. “What kind of name is that?”
“Shayandan. Well, from the rain forests anyway. It is a pretty common name there – named after the predominant genus of tree.”
Holly had never heard of a firthorn before, nor of a lineage, culture or place called Shayanda. He was right though, the front door was open. It couldn’t hurt to sit at his desk with him and read what he had written and drawn. She had been looking for something different after all! Was this what her brother had meant?
Holly began reading and allowed herself to be drawn into the world… Terrenden, she read. The four-armed, blue-skinned adversary seemed to be something to contend with.
“The Curator,” he explained. “I didn’t know who she was until I came to your world. Once I studied your mythology, however, I realized… someday, she will be returned to your world – where she belongs a bit better. Though I never did find out where she was from originally – before your world.”
“Wait a second,” Holly said, looking at him again, his violet eyes meeting hers again. “You’re saying you’re not from Earth?”
“How can I be with this colour of skin? And these eyes?” he asked.
“Contacts are easy enough, this day and age,” Holly replied. “Skin colour can be had if you want it badly enough. I’ve never heard of anyone going to such lengths before. You need mental help, Quinn.”
“You are saying that I would become an outcast… voluntarily?” he challenged. “It was kind of fun at first… when I realised that the Guardians had chosen to close the portal to me. I had a whole new world to explore, after all… only to discover that my skin colour was unique – and that no one here really wanted to know me. So, I learned how to draw – and contented myself with all the stories I remembered from my country’s history.”
“That’s impossible,” Holly replied. “Guardians? Portals? Ridiculous!” She turned to go.
His hand grasped her elbow and a tingling shock coursed through her body. “Give me a chance,” he begged. “I know you’re not as prejudiced as you pretend to be. You’re different.”
“That’s an old one!” she retorted, shaking her head. She’d thought she’d heard all the come-on lines in the world by now. He was attractive, she had to admit, but…
“That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever thought about me,” he said into her ear. “It’s been a long eight years waiting for someone who could look past the colour of my skin. Some of your people claim to not care about the colour of skin, but they don’t know how to handle someone like me.”
“How do you read my mind?” Holly asked, looking at him, surprised that his face was so close to hers. Somehow, she wasn’t as surprised by the lips that pressed gently to hers. They were soft and tingly. She answered the first kiss with a second. What was it about this strange man that attracted her so strongly? How was it that it felt that she had known him for centuries, not for minutes?
“Come!” he breathed, parting his lips from hers. He stood, only a couple inches taller than her. He tugged on her arm. “We need to see whether they’ll let you see for yourself.”
“What?” she asked, wondering for a split second whether she had truly mislaid her common sense.
“Come!” he urged again.
She didn’t fight him this time, but let him lead her to a room in the back of the shop.
“Don’t be afraid. I won’t let anything bad happen to you,” he insisted. “I just want to see if...”
There was an ancient-looking archway in the doorway of one of the rooms, like she had stepped onto the set of some hit sci-fi/fantasy TV show. Quinn tugged her towards it.
“Trust me,” he requested. “Take my arm. You must be willing or they won’t let you through.”
“Okay!” she cried at last. “I’ll come with you! We can play this make-believe together.”
He only smiled as she took his arm like she was attending her brother’s wedding. She stepped with Quinn through the arch and nearly fainted.
Holly grabbed Quinn’s arm for stability. She was sure she would have fainted otherwise. Gone was the comic book shop in cool, dreary Bristol. Instead, it was hot and humid and there were trees as far as the eye could see. The forest was taller than she could have imagined, and alive with many animal noises, some of which frightened her.
“I’m here,” he reminded her. “Plus...” he grabbed something from the long scabbard he wore. It made a sliding sound, like that of a sword being drawn. Except this sword produced a blinding light – like what he had been drawing at his desk. Her eyes grew wide. This was impossible!
“Why is it impossible?” he answered her thoughts. He led her down a trail she hadn’t seen the moment before.
“Where are we going?”
“I know where we are. We’re near Omrill, where I was stationed before I slipped through that portal.”
“I want to see who’s in charge there now. I need to know how long I’ve been gone.” The spring in his step was unmistakable as Holly kept with him. She didn’t understand how they could suddenly be so far from home.
“Where are we?” she asked as her toe hit a root. His hand steadied her. “When are we?” Holly asked again, thinking of a TV show she liked to watch.
He grinned. “I don’t know when we are – that’s why I want to get to the Complex and find out who is the abári.”
“The one in charge of a group of A’mara is called an abári. He or she is also the head teacher, so to speak.”
“I thought you were speaking English…,” she complained mildly.
“Yes… and no...”
“Çtaráña. We are in Çtaráña, not far from my native Shayanda. On Terrenden. I’m hoping we’re in the 860s TCE, but we won’t know until we reach Omrill and I can talk to the abári or the stella.”
“Our healer. They usually know more about things of the Other World as your Earth is called here.”
“How did you end up on Earth?” Holly asked.
“I’m not sure. I stumbled through the portal we just came through and suddenly, I was in Bristol. I tried to return, but the Guardians wouldn’t let me for some reason. Maybe I had a lesson to learn. They do things like that from time to time. Or maybe I was waiting to meet you.”
“Can I go back?” she asked. “When I want, that is… I’m not ready to go back just yet.”
“Probably,” he replied. “I don’t know very much about portal travel. I’ve only been through twice now.”
“So you can read my mind. You can use that sword-thingy...”
“Anything else I should know about?”
“Probably lots,” he replied. “That’s one of the reasons I started drawing the comic.”
“Can you levitate things like your characters?”
“Most A’mara can,” he said, then made a motion towards a flower that had fallen on the ground. It lifted and floated to them. Quinn caught it and put it in Holly’s hair. “It looks best right there.”
“So, everything you put in your comic book is real..,” she said with wonderment, gazing into his violet eyes.
“Yes. Everything I drew… everything. It’s all real.”
“What about this?” Holly asked, reaching for his lips. “Is this real?”
He replied eagerly, meeting her lips with enthusiasm. “Oh yes!” he agreed. “This is very, very real!”
One kiss led to another, Holly enjoying the taste of him as the kisses grew deeper.
“I hate to put a stop to this,” Quinn breathed. “But if we don’t get to Omrill before dark, we’re going to have to find a place to sleep in this forest.”
“I didn’t know it was that late.”
“Late enough. I’d just as soon have a soft warm bed tonight. Wouldn’t you?”
Holly flushed. Was she really going to be expected to share his bed tonight?
“Nothing is assumed, Holly,” he replied to her thoughts, grabbing her hand. “Of course, it would be nice if you wanted to join me.”
She blushed again, thinking about how nice that would be. Her thoughts dizzied her as they continued walking through the enormous jungle. She was afraid of being alone in this strange world.
“I won’t leave you,” he promised. Then he chuckled. “The abári has been trying to match me up with women for ages!”
“What stopped him?”
“Skin colour. I grew up thinking that I needed to marry another Shayandan, that somehow that was really important. Then I land in your world where my colour was not just different, but alien. You were the first woman to look beyond the colour of my skin enough to kiss me. Thank you.” He pulled her closer and put his arm around her as they continued to walk.
“I guess that was the lesson you needed to learn?” Holly offered. “I didn’t see someone with strange skin. I saw someone whose dedication to his work was very attractive. Then when I looked at you again, I realized how handsome you were – as a package – an olive-brown, violet eyed package… one that I could maybe fall in love with.”
“And now?” he asked, stopping her again.
“I’ve only known you for a few hours. How could I know?”
“In here,” he said, tapping her heart. “The A’mara are rather notorious for feeling things deeply, quickly… it’s part of who we are. Instincts are pretty good too though – that’s something I learned in Bristol. Can you fall in love with someone like me?”
Holly looked at him, admiring everything she could see, wondering what their children would look like. She blushed, realising that he probably knew what she’d thought about. She nodded shyly. “Maybe,” she said.
“I’ll accept that… for now.”
Ahead, Holly could see some white greenhouses.
“That’s Omrill,” Quinn explained. “I love to work in those greenhouses. Would you like to try? I know how you English are so keen on gardening!”
“Sure,” Holly replied, thinking how interesting it would be to see their different kinds of plants.
As they reached the gates, Holly could see that the Complex was much bigger than she’d thought.
“This is one of our smaller Complexes,” Quinn explained.
A small woman greeted them. Her dark tunic was partly covered with a forest green cloak that nearly reached the ground. It had a fringed hem all around. “Quinn,” she greeted. “Coomar kept telling me you would be back. We didn’t know how long it would be though.”
“Me neither, Janika. I’ve missed you. How is the abári?”
“He’s well, but is in town right now investigating something. You aren’t alone?”
“This is Holly. She’ll be staying with me.”
“Lovely,” Janika replied with a grin. “How long will you two be staying?”
“Unknown. We need to talk to the stella first.”
“One bed or two?” Janika asked.
Quinn looked at Holly, the question in his eyes.
Holly blushed. She knew she should ask for two, but she couldn’t deny that she was falling in love with this strange man and his strange world.
“It will be done,” Janika replied to her thoughts. “Please find some supper as we prepare your quarters for you.”
“Thank you,” he said again, pulling her close. “I fell in love with you in Bristol, when I saw you in my shop today. I knew I wanted you to be with me always.”
“My brother said I’d like you… I thought he meant your comic books!”
“This is better than any comic book!” he growled, then took her lips in a powerful kiss.
Holly took a gasping breath, then met his next kiss just as eagerly. She knew that she had lost her heart that afternoon in the comic book store, but she didn’t want it back again. It belonged to this strange olive-brown man with the violet eyes. She would always love Quinn.