It started off like any other Saturday. Katrina and her dad set out early to scour the local antique markets before stopping for breakfast. It was just the two of them this week. Her mom, Emma, was away on business. Over a plate of pancakes, her dad kept telling her he needed to show her something when they got home. Something, he said, would change her life. Despite Katrina’s attempts to guess, her father simply smiled in reply. His striking blue eyes sparkling with anticipation. Filled with excitement, Katrina rushed through her meal. The quicker they got home, the quicker she would know what was waiting for her.
This can’t be right, thought Katrina. Was this the surprise? She followed her father out of the damp cave, glancing back at the grotto -a grotto that wasn’t there a moment ago. This cavern had replaced their Southern California backyard. But how?
It was just moments ago that Katrina watched her dad in awe, wading fully dressed into their little natural garden pool. They often swam in here on hot summer days, but never clothed, and never in the chilly spring evening air. Her questions and protests went unanswered. All she could do was watch her father in disbelief. His stare was unwavering, and she realized she had to follow him. He was the person she trusted the most -along with her mom. Katrina and her parents were a tightly woven unit of three, much like the thick braid that held her long chestnut-colored hair together.
Reluctantly, she followed, wading deeper into the frigid water until the cells in her body became electric, ignited by an unseen source of energy that vibrated furiously in reply to her presence. Eyes wide, she gasped in surprise. Why had she never noticed this before? She looked up at her father, who was smiling back at her. It should have terrified her. Inexplicably it didn’t. Eyes locked, fingers linked, she waited. Silently without any instruction, he submerged. Without hesitation, she did the same. The cool water tingled on her bare skin followed by a sense of weightlessness, warmth, and peace. The feelings washed over her every cell. Then everything went black. The darkness wasn’t eerie. She didn’t fear it; rather, she embraced it. It enveloped her, and she felt safe, not wanting to leave its comforting hold.
Now she was here, wherever here was, and curiously her clothes were no longer wet and heavy. Her skin and hair were dry. Her breath shuddered as they stood on the smooth stone surface marbled with deep reddish-brown tones. The blackness of the cave behind them yielded to a grassy opening overlooking a majestic landscape unlike anything she’d ever seen. Awestruck, she remained silent and scanned the view that stretched out before her.
The shadows of rocky passages gave way to an evening sun so bright as it set over the mountains, she could barely stand to look to the sky. Its rays seeped over the lush peninsulas and spread out onto a lake that sat just below the slope, turning the surface into a glistening array of light. It was as though the sunbeams were guiding her attention to a row of residences nestled along the shoreline. Their architecture was such that they blended into their surroundings, hidden in plain sight. Large wooden decks rose from the water leading to the orb-shaped structures. Behind the lakeside dwellings stood towering skyscrapers covered in vegetation. Their shapes were geometric, with hexagonal panes of glass allowing for breaks in the greenery and offering glimpses of movement inside. Sky-high bridges connected the striking towers.
It was so beautiful that it didn’t look real. Katrina wondered if she was dreaming, because although she didn’t know where they were, it definitely wasn’t California. If only she could figure out how they got from their backyard to here.
“Where are we?” she managed, breathing the fresh floral scents the breeze swirled around.
The smile on her father’s face was so broad and genuine that Katrina grinned despite her confusion.
“This is my home.” He released her hand and placed his arm around her shoulders, hugging her.
Home? Her shoulders stiffened. She shifted her gaze back to the landscape in disbelief. This isn’t home. Santa Barbara is home, she thought. The scene blurred while the echo of her father’s words thundered in her ears.
“No, it’s not,” she countered.
Matthias stared down at her. “No, you’re right. This is where I was born.” He gestured to one of the larger dwellings that sat along the water’s edge. “And that is the house where I grew up.”
A lone figure stepped out onto the deck and stared out toward them as he spoke.
Katrina raised a brow. She thought it was odd that this person conveniently appeared on the deck at the exact moment her father pointed it out. Even stranger that this person knew to look up toward the cave where they stood.
Matthias raised his free arm and waved, laughing. “Come, you must meet my family.”
“Family?” Katrina wailed. “What family?”
She knew of her maternal grandparents, even though they had died before she was born, but never had her father even hinted that he had a family, living or dead. Why was she only now meeting them?
Matthias stopped waving and looked at Katrina. “My parents and brother.”
Katrina choked back a lump in her throat and studied the figure that awaited them. “Why haven’t you ever told us about your family?” she murmured, although a part of her wanted to scream, still undecided how to handle this news.
“I didn’t know how.” He avoided her eyes.
“What about Mom? Does she know?”
“I needed to show you first. To find out whether returning was possible.”
Katrina wasn’t sure how to respond. She was beginning to feel something she never had toward her father. Disappointment. Rendered mute, she shook her head in disbelief and released a discontented sigh.
Out of the silence, the ground began to shake vigorously. Katrina was used to the odd rumbling at home in Southern California, but somehow this seemed different; it felt aggressive. Angry. Like a warning. Her skin prickled with uncertainty. In the distance, a low rumble sounded through the hills.
“What’s going on?” she asked, staring at the ground beneath her feet, half expecting it to split open under her.
“Nothing, don’t worry,” he replied. “It will be all right. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Katrina pursed her lips, her mind filled with doubt as she considered the odd comment. What could happen? Never one to question her father in the past, she now silently wondered what else he was hiding.
The rumbling was a warning. She couldn’t understand how she knew—she just did. Like her newfound ability to pick up on her father’s emotions. His feelings of fear mixed with frustration.
“Come, let’s go to the house.” Matthias forced a grin, and Katrina realized there was no point in probing further. Every instinct was telling her to run to safety, so she speedily followed him along a dirt path that wound down the slope.
At the base of the mountain, a man waited to greet them. He looked identical to her father, Matthias, with the same dark hair, strong jaw, and cleft chin. The only difference was the color of his eyes. Katrina gulped, glancing between her dad and the man several times as he ushered them into the house. Inside, Katrina noticed her father relax, helping to calm her nerves, if only a little.
“Katrina, this is my brother, Nialghaus.” Matthias leaned over to his twin and hugged him. The two men laughed, lingering in their manly embrace while Katrina watched in awe.
Nialghaus moved toward Katrina and flashed a radiant smile. “You look just like your mother,” he said, his brown eyes glinted in the dusky light.
“T–t–thank you,” she managed. How does he know Mom if Mom doesn’t know him? she wondered, licking her lips. She struggled to sort through her feelings. Her emotions weren’t her own anymore. They were a blend of hers, her dad’s, and now her uncle’s? Excitement, upset, confusion, all causing an uncontrollable twitch to pulse near her eye.
Nialghaus patted her shoulder. “Come, come. It is getting late, and you must be tired.” He motioned for them to step farther into the house.
The entry opened to a large, multifunctional space that faced the water. Floor-to-ceiling windows bathed the place in the soft orange glow of sunset. The décor looked comfortable, much like the furniture in their California home.
Matthias patted Katrina’s shoulder. “If you go up those stairs, you’ll find your room,” he said, pointing to the back of the house.
Katrina gaped up at him. What the…I have a room? she questioned silently, hoping her father would pick up on her discomfort. Did they know she was coming?
“You can get ready for bed, and I will be up to tuck you in.”
Katrina only glared in response, annoyed that her father didn’t take notice of her increasing angst. Lips pursed, she brusquely turned toward the stairs, pressing a hand to her twitching eye. Her father’s sudden obliviousness to her feelings and needs made her want to stamp her feet and scream. Ask him why, after all these years, she was only meeting his family now; why had he kept this from Emma, and, while she was on a mental rant, where were they? Despite her frustration, he seemed so happy, and she couldn’t bring herself to act out. Then she realized at some point he’d be up to tuck her in. She would get her answers then.
The echo of the front door slamming shut stopped her ascent. The air in the house shifted abruptly, dropping the temperature, causing Katrina’s skin to sting from the chill, making her feel uneasy. She turned, only to discover an elderly man with a round face and a nose just like her father’s standing in the entryway. He was tall and slender, his short hair boasting a brilliant silver tone that brought out the gray of his eyes. But his expression was stern. The shift in mood startled Katrina.
“Matthias!” the man bellowed so loudly, the walls seemed to shudder at the sound.
Matthias came out into the main area and bowed his head. “Father,” he said, “it’s so good to see you.”
Katrina swallowed hard. Father, she thought. The man turned to face her, making her flinch when their eyes met. He reached his hand out into the air and swiped at it with his finger. Katrina grimaced and gasped in shock. It was as though she could feel his finger brush roughly against her forehead. The older man sighed heavily before his demeanor became more relaxed.
“Well?” Matthias asked, his head still bent, eyes raised, waiting for an answer to a question Katrina didn’t know.
It took a moment for her to adjust to her father’s submissive behavior. Never in her life had she ever seen him behave like this. She tried to keep calm as she watched the unnerving exchange.
The older man stepped closer to Katrina and bowed. “Hello, Katrina,” he said, “I am Arthur, your grandfather.” He placed his hand on her shoulder, causing it to throb. She winced then forced a smile of her own before the irritation warmed to a more welcoming sensation.
“Hello,” she gulped, peering over at her dad, then back to Arthur, “Grandfather.”
Arthur nodded before turning to Matthias. “Your suspicions were correct,” he announced, “she is gifted.” His eyes narrowed, and he glowered at Matthias. “But I am disappointed that you brought her against my wishes.”
Katrina remained still, unsure of what to do, too afraid to move.
“Father, they need your help,” Nialghaus interjected in a soothing tenor, stepping closer to Matthias.
The sight of the twins standing side by side only made Katrina’s eye twitch more rapidly.
“Yes, but the simple act of crossing over has now put her in danger,” Arthur shouted. His face went red before he heaved a loud sigh and calmed himself once more.
The front door swung open, revealing a tall woman whose presence was ethereal yet formidable. Another person entering the room nearly caused Katrina to moan out loud. That was until she noticed that the woman had the same impressive almond-shaped eyes as her dad…and his brother. Her fiery red hair flowed behind her as she glided into the room. Her smile was radiant as she reached out to cradle Matthias’s face. “My son,” she said.
“Mother, it’s so good to see you again,” he responded, allowing his head to bob gently in her hands before cupping his palms over her delicate fingers.
The woman spun toward the stairs. “You must be Katrina,” she said, stepping over to tap the bottom of Katrina’s chin, which had released in amazement. Katrina closed her mouth and nodded.
“I am Athena, your grandmother. I am happy to meet you.” She clasped Katrina’s jaw with her thumb and forefinger, giving it a soft squeeze. An immense surge of power that exuded from Athena’s touch threatened to overwhelm Katrina, and her chin tingled long after Athena removed her hand.
“You knew they were crossing over?” Arthur bellowed with a twinge of annoyance.
“Yes,” she countered. “Our granddaughter needs your guidance, Arthur.” Her eyes twinkled when she addressed him, showing no sign of apprehension, regardless of Arthur’s petulance. “Won’t you celebrate their homecoming?”
Arthur’s nostrils flared. “I will not. Not until I advise the assembly,” he declared as he blustered out of the room. When he left, the air lost some of the tension it had gathered upon his arrival.
Matthias closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath before turning his head to meet Katrina’s stare. “Go ready yourself for bed. I’ll be right behind you.”
Katrina whipped around without a word and raced up the stairs. She wasn’t about to wait for anyone else to join them.
When she reached the room, she leaned against the doorframe to steady herself. It took a moment for her to relax, and she drew her lips in under her teeth to silence a whimper that was making its way up her throat. When calmer, she took notice of the incredible view of the lake and mountains. Drawn by the sight, she relaxed further as she shuffled toward the massive pane of glass that framed the landscape. She pressed herself against it to get a better look. The water was so clear, she could see the fish swimming below the surface, even in the fading light. She smiled as she watched them scuttle around, following them with her index finger and tracing their path along the glass. “Cool,” she whispered, taking it all in till her anxiety fully subsided. After a while, she turned and examined the bed set against the opposite wall. It looked comfortable enough with its plush white comforter folded neatly across the bottom edge. On top of the pillow sat a pair of pajamas. Exhausted, she resigned to ready herself for sleep.
The softness of the sheets helped her to settle as she pulled the comforter up to her chin and collapsed onto her pillow.
Matthias tapped on the door. “Can I come in?”
“Yes,” she replied, stifling a yawn.
Matthias entered and sat on the bed next to Katrina. She looked up with mixed emotions. Her dad was her hero, someone she thought could do no wrong. Despite his good intentions, Katrina’s perception was shifting. He had kept this place and his family a secret when she thought they had no secrets between them. She couldn’t help but wonder what else he was concealing.
“You lied,” she snapped, more harshly than she had intended.
Matthias shook his head. “I didn’t lie, I just never told you about my family, or this place.”
“That’s the same as lying.”
“How could I have explained all this to you and your mother without being able to show you?”
Katrina huffed in reply. He had a point, she realized, and paused momentarily to filter through her questions. “Where are we?” she inquired, struggling to keep her voice steady.
“My home—well, the place where I grew up,” he said, brushing the hair back from her forehead.
“I know that, but where is your home? And why have we only come now?”
Matthias looked around the room before returning his gaze to his daughter. “This is Shaanti. I am sorry that I have kept this from you, but I had to wait till now to find out if returning was possible.”
Katrina eyed him suspiciously. “What’s so special about now?”
“Well, you are,” he said as he tapped her nose playfully.
Katrina moved her face away and pursed her lips. She was determined to get answers, and cute gestures were pointless. She raised her brow and glared at him.
“Now that you’re twelve, you’re what makes coming here possible.”
Katrina opened her mouth but then shut it quickly, unsure how to reply. She tapped her lips with her index finger and shifted her head so she could see her father’s face.
“Tell me about this place,” she finally said, her long list of questions so buried beneath her fatigue that her mind was practically blank.
“Shaanti is not in the Earth realm.”
“What do you mean realm?”
“Well, it’s like Earth. In fact, some believe we were once connected, one world.” Matthias sighed as he struggled to explain. “This will be harder than I thought,” he murmured.
“So we’re not connected anymore, but we exist, like different countries?”
“Yes, in a matter of speaking.” He grinned. “But let’s say with limited access to one another.”
“Legend tells that a group of powerful mystics foretold of a grim future for our colony. This was because of a growing divide between tribes and their beliefs.”
“There were once two main colonies, ours and that of the Gatekeepers. Each of them vibrated on a different level of consciousness and were evolving in a way that created a great shift in our system.”
Matthias looked at Katrina, who was transfixed, her fatigue temporarily halted as she clung to every word.
“The shift caused our worlds to separate, and since this great divide we have lived apart, yet connected.”
Katrina struggled to understand, so thought it best to ask a question that would yield a reply she could grasp. “Is Grandfather upset we came?”
Matthias shimmied himself parallel to her, lifting his strong legs up onto the bed. He put his arm around her, and she snuggled into him as he said. “Yes, but he’ll get over it.”
“What is the assembly?”
“The assembly is a group of powerful Shamans who work with the reigning noble family. Their purpose is to help ensure the well-being of the colony.”
Katrina scrunched her nose. “Okay,” she replied, unsure how this had anything to do with her.
“Your grandmother, Athena, is the head of the sovereign family, and Arthur is the chief Shaman.”
“So, wait. Grandma’s royalty?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes.”
“Does that mean I’m a princess?”
“Well, that sucks.” She scowled, crossing her arms.
Matthias laughed. “Do you want to hear more or not?”
Katrina gave a lopsided grin and a curt nod.
“Arthur is simply doing his job,” he proceeded with a sigh, “to protect the colony.”
“Is it unsafe because we’re here?” Katrina asked.
Matthias let out a sharp breath. “No, it will be fine. It’s just that, well, like most families, we have some, hmm, family conflict.”
Katrina furrowed her brow and scratched her head. It still wasn’t making much sense to her, and her exhaustion wasn’t helping.
“What happened?” She stifled a yawn, fatigue washing over her. Eyes watering, she covered her mouth with her palm, yawning yet again.
Matthias watched her then announced, “You’re tired. Maybe I should let you sleep.”
“No, it’s okay, please tell me,” she asked, her jaw stretching with an audible moan.
With a laugh, he replied. “Tell you what, I’ll give you the short version now, and tomorrow we can go into more detail. Does that work for you?”
Katrina nodded, her eyelids droopy. He kissed the top of her head then began.
“Your grandmother, Athena, has an older sister named Azera who was next in line to rule the colony, but the responsibility was given to Athena instead.”
“How come?” Katrina asked.
“Azera yearned for power. The kind of power that comes from oppression and submission, as once taught by the Gatekeepers. When the family found out that Azera and her husband, Evalac, had hurt people in the colony to forward their own agenda, they were arrested.”
Fascinated, she nodded.
“Their punishment was that they were to be banished from Shaanti.”
“So, like, sent away from here?”
“Yes, to the Earth realm, but at the time Azera and Evalac had a son named Bron. Athena could not bring herself to exile him; instead he was raised with Nialghaus and I, like a brother.”
“Will I meet him too?” She perked up a little.
“Ah, I certainly hope not. When Bron learned the truth about his parents, he didn’t take it well. He was, and still is, very angry with us.”
“Oh, well, why didn’t Azera and Evalac just come back?” she asked matter-of-factly.
“They couldn’t. No one could cross over to Shaanti from the Earth realm… Until you came along.”
“Why?” Things were circling back to her, and she didn’t like it.
Matthias took hold of Katrina’s nose, shook it playfully, and said, “Because you are a special girl, with very special gifts, who needs her rest.”
Katrina wanted to know more, but her father was right, and she was too tired to argue. Despite her curiosity, her mind and body weren’t up for it. Matthias stood, then leaned over and kissed her forehead.
“It’s late,” he said. “We can talk more in the morning.”
She nodded. “Dad?” Katrina called as he walked to the door.
“Yes?” He stopped and looked back at her.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”