But mere hours after he steps through his first portal, Cantor discovers that his job will be more dangerous and difficult than he ever imagined. The realms are plagued with crime and cruelty, and even members of the once-noble Realm Walkers Guild can no longer be trusted. To make matters worse, his first assignment—finding a dragon to assist him on his quest—has led him to Bridger, who is clearly inept and won’t leave him alone.
With the help of his new friends Bixby and Dukmee, Cantor must uncover the secrets of the corrupt guild before they become too powerful to be stopped. But his skills aren’t progressing as fast as he would like, and as he finds himself deeper and deeper in the guild’s layers of deceit, Cantor struggles to determine where his true allegiance lies.
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About the Author
Donita K. Paul retired from teaching and took up the mantle of grandma. She loves her new career as author of stories her grandchildren devour. Winner of multiple awards, she lives in Colorado, enjoying friends and family, pets, and beautiful scenery. Her favorite part of writing is the readers.
Read an Excerpt
One Realm Beyond
By Donita K. Paul
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2014 Donita K. Paul
All rights reserved.
RAISING A RUCKUS
Cantor straddled the thick tree limb suspended less than three feet over his favorite fishing hole. He'd fished from this spot for more than eighteen years, from the time he could barely straddle the fat limb 'til now, when the tips of his sandals almost brushed the surface of the clear, cold water. He watched the small fish circling below him, waiting for the big one just as he had been taught. His fishing mentor, Odem, probably took him fishing here before he was out of diapers. Cantor wouldn't want to share the limb now. Though the tree had grown with him over the years, he didn't think the branch would hold the weight of two grown men. He wasn't eager for a bath in the frigid water from the mountain's runoff.
Still and patient, Cantor waited for the large carp he called Bully to rise and push the other fish out of the way. A sprinkle of thumb-sized chunks of bread floated on the water. One of the smaller guppies darted off to the side, and a huge, open mouth appeared under the surface. The fish snapped up a sodden crust.
Cantor hurled the stone in his hand. The rock thunked against the skull of his target. All the smaller fish deserted Bully, who floated on his side. With a grin, Cantor threw his leg over the limb and slipped into the knee-high water. He shivered in the icy snowmelt, grabbed his catch, and slogged to the shore.
Exposed roots riddled the steep bank, making irregular hand and foot holds. Cantor threw the fish onto the grass above his head and climbed out. Sitting cross-legged in the tall grass, he removed his sandals and put them on a rock to dry in the sun. He opened the pouch Ahma had sewn into his tunic and removed an undersized scabbard.
He'd owned this small, sharp knife since childhood. Odem had visited on his sixth birthday and, against Ahma's protests, given the tool to him. Cantor'd thought himself very clever when he named the knife Slice, especially when Odem laughed in his loud bray that filled the tiny cabin. Ahma shook her head and fetched another piece of greenberry pie for him and Odem.
She'd caught Cantor that night picking his teeth with the blade. Boxing his ears, she told him if she caught him doing another stupid thing with "that weapon," she'd take it away.
Cantor grinned as he applied Slice to the job of gutting the big carp. A couple of carrion birds landed in a tree nearby. Cantor nodded in their direction. "I'll leave you the tasty insides. I don't suppose you would agree to peaceably share between yourselves."
The bigger of the two mountain crows spread his wings and threatened the smaller, cawing and crowding the other bird off the limb.
Cantor shook his head. "Yeah, I didn't think so."
He pulled a thin string of gut from the innards. With it in his hand, he aimed at the bird and snapped his fingers. The filament wrapped around the large scavenger's beak. The string would work loose after the smaller bird had a chance at Cantor's fishy offering.
He finished his chore and strung the fish on a switch cut from the longleaf tree. Cleaning his blade in the sandy soil, he heard the gentle whoosh of a portal opening. With a casual air he did not feel, he put the knife in its scabbard and the scabbard in his pouch.
Where was Tom? At the cabin with Ahma? He'd last seen his mentor's furry companion sunning himself on the front stoop. But Tom could be a stealthy canine, quiet like a cat sneaking up on a mouse. More often than not, Cantor played the part of the mouse.
With a searching look at the surrounding trees, he propped the switch on his shoulder, the large carp dangling behind him. He angled away from the portal as if it didn't make the hairs on the back of his neck tingle, as if it didn't give off the scent of new horizons, adventure, and intrigue, as if he hadn't a thought in his head about diving through.
Anyone watching would think he had only the intention of taking his catch home to dear Ahma for their dinner. Except Tom, of course. Tom had an uncanny sense of knowing what he planned. And Cantor had just used his talent to enhance his aim, not bothering to disguise the burst of energy. That ripple would be detected by any other being familiar with Primen's gifts. Tom would have felt it.
Cantor made himself wait until the distance to the portal had shortened considerably. With a final, nonchalant inspection of the surrounding meadow, Cantor hauled in a deep breath, dropped the fish, and bolted toward the gaping hole in space. His heart quickened when he saw it was a horizontal portal. Vertical openings presented a shaft, which required scrambling up or plunging down to enter another plane.
If he'd outsmarted Tom, he was in for some fun. He pumped his legs harder.
The distinct sound of leathery wings unfolding caught his ear. He fought back a grin and redoubled the speed of his dash to freedom. The dragon on course to intercept him roared a warning. Accepting the challenge, Cantor pushed his muscles with all his might. If he could reach the portal first, he could dive and roll. The dragon in flight would have to land and squeeze through.
Cantor kept his eye on the opening. On the other side, he could see a street with people hurrying to and fro. A rush of air above him warned him just in time. He ducked and avoided the clutching claws of a brilliantly colored mor dragon as it swooped to catch him. The small, powerful beast was slightly larger than a full-grown cow. Cantor glanced up to see him dip one wing and neatly turn, barely losing momentum as he came back for another pass. Cantor refocused on the portal. Fifteen more feet.
The dragon dropped from the sky, approaching his target face on. He skimmed the high grass and rose to thud against Cantor's chest with his own. The impact knocked Cantor down and pushed the air out of his lungs. He remained on the ground, staring up at the blue sky. Dragging air in with rasping, choking sounds, he rolled to his side and curled up to facilitate at least one life-sustaining breath.
The dragon landed and approached. Cantor would have liked to fake death, be still enough to confuse the beast stalking him, and get the better of the interfering animal. But he concentrated instead on breathing, pulling air in and pushing air out.
The dragon's clawed foot rested on his shoulder, then with a pinch, he forced Cantor to roll onto his back.
In spite of the spasms racking his chest, Cantor recognized the wicked gleam in his tormentor's eyes. The beast all but crowed with glee at having downed his prey. With a hop, the dragon sat on Cantor's chest.
"Oomph," Cantor managed to choke out, "Get off!"
The dragon's lips curled up at the ends in the terrifying smile only a dragon can produce. "Patience, Cantor. Why is it that when you are days from being allowed through the portals on your own, you still persist in trying for a rogue adventure? Ahma is very close to granting your walker status."
"Get off, Tom!" Cantor tried shifting his weight enough to tilt his body and dump the dragon.
A whoosh of air signaled the closing of the portal. The dragon winked, and his snout narrowed and grew a thick, short coat of fur. Pointed horns became floppy ears. Drool dripped from a much smaller mouth than had blown hot air on Cantor a moment before. The pressure on Cantor's chest eased as the mor dragon's body slimmed into the body of a dog. The reptilian tail changed last. Cantor couldn't see it wagging, but since Tom was pleased with himself, it most definitely was.
"I hate it when you do that!"
Tom swiped his face with a pink doggy tongue and jumped off. Cantor sat, pulled up his knees, and buried his head between them, still breathing with ragged gasps.
When he finally could talk without discomfort, he looked up at Tom and grinned. "I almost made it."
"You completely missed me on the first pass."
"I was toying with you. Establishing false confidence."
Cantor stood and brushed off his clothing. "Yeah, sure. I believe that."
He walked back to the dropped fish with Tom dogging his steps. "You really think Ahma is ready to let me out on my own?"
"I know she thinks you think you are ready to be out on your own."
"Now, see, Tom, that's what I don't understand. How do you know what she's thinking? I have no idea whether I'm going to be blessed apprentice or cursed knave each day." He snorted. "Each moment."
The dog considered the young man for a minute before answering. "Ahma blames her rheumatism. But I think it has more to do with how the planes are shifting. When too many of them slide in the same direction, she feels off-kilter."
Cantor nodded, observing clouds drifting in from the western horizon. "She knows things before they happen. How is that? She won't teach me the skill."
Tom responded with a bark of laughter. "She's been a realm walker a very long time. I think you must grow old to acquire that skill."
"Too bad not many realm walkers grow old. Odem and Ahma are the oldest, aren't they?"
"Some on the guild council claim to be older than Odem and Ahma, but there is no way to prove that."
They climbed a steep hill and paused at the rise to catch their breath. Cantor looked over at Tom and noticed his tongue hanging out as he panted.
"What are you grinning about, boy?"
"Your long, wet, dangling, very pink tongue. Poor Tom. It must be deeply humiliating to lose your dignity whenever you're hot."
"I don't keep my dignity on my face, but in my heart. Why is it you allow years of instruction given to you by Ahma and myself to drift from your mind like a dandelion seed on a breeze?"
Cantor shrugged, which reminded him of the big fish on the long stick over his shoulder. "Let's go give this to Ahma."
He started down the hill with Tom trotting beside him, head held high and tail swaying behind. A squirrel ran for the nearest tree and scrambled to a safe branch. Its indignant chatter railed them as they passed. Tom lifted his chin, gave the small animal a direct look, and let out a bark. The squirrel stopped its noise long enough to scamper up to a higher limb, then resumed its scold.
"Before you lose your words altogether," said Cantor, "tell me why you think Ahma is on the verge of letting me go."
"Because Odem is there. They have their heads together and are sniggering over some scheme. Woof.... bother! When they last parted, Odem said he woof—blast!—would return for your initiation."
"So you think that's now?" Cantor couldn't help the enthusiasm taking over his voice.
Tom's yes sounded more like a yap, but it was good enough for Cantor.CHAPTER 2
Odem's donkey, Nahzy, dozed in the shade of the blackamore tree. Tom deserted Cantor to wake his old mor dragon friend. He tore down the hill, displaying dog-like enthusiasm. As a dragon, Tom exhibited more decorum. Cantor waved a greeting as Nahzy lifted his head and let out a lazy bray with a yawn.
The door to the cabin stood open. Two calico kittens, one black-and-white and one tabby, basked in the sun on the worn stoop. Cantor stopped at the well, drew up the bucket, and splashed his face, rubbed his hands a bit in the water, and then rinsed the dirt off his fish.
He glanced over his shoulder, wondering if Tom were right. Could Ahma and Odem be plotting his initiation? Cantor didn't even know what the initiation involved. As long as he didn't have to write a report, he'd be okay.
Oral questions didn't bother him. Ahma said he'd been gifted with a tinker's tongue and fingers. Sometimes that was a compliment and sometimes ... it was not. He explained things well, could persuade all but Ahma and Odem to let him have his way.
The physical performance tasks didn't challenge him either. For intricate movement, his nimble fingers could twist and poke and maneuver almost any gadget into working properly. As for agility in games and athletic skills, he could outrun, outjump, outflip, twist, or tumble any animal he'd ever met.
He'd do all right as long as he didn't have to pick up a pen. The skinny little implements made him nervous. If he walked into a room, he knew where pens and pencils hid in drawers or behind cupboard doors. A bit of charcoal from the fire didn't bother him unless someone had made a mark with the black lump. And a paintbrush was just a paintbrush unless someone had strayed from merely whitewashing walls and wrote on the faded siding.
Ahma said he was touched in the head. He laughed to himself. Sometimes she regarded his state of mind favorably, and sometimes, not.
Sitting on the stone wall of the well, he studied the house. He'd seen grander houses in the village, but Ahma always said grander houses required more work. He'd seen drawn pictures of cities and their impressive buildings. His life with Ahma had not included visits to very large cities, but he'd done realm walking with both Ahma and Odem to other planes and towns of various sizes.
The guild held council in Gilead, the largest city on Dairine. He would have liked to have some familiarity with that metropolis. He'd see it soon and on his own.
Would he approach the guild leaders before or after the initiation? If he passed the initiation, would he go straight to Effram to seek out his dragon companion?
Ahma and Odem kept tight lips when it came to the guild. Every year they talked less about the people in charge of all realm walkers. At least, they didn't openly discuss them. Cantor felt the tension rise when the topic skittered around the room and disappeared again.
He rubbed his palms over his trousers, picked up the fish, and headed toward the open door. In that humble abode lurked his future. Adventure. Excitement. He was ready, once he got past this initiation. Ignoring a prick of conscience, he paused just outside the doorway to listen, quietly standing and observing.
Ahma and Odem sat at the table. A large empty bowl sat to the side of Odem's elbow. He tipped a tankard of melon-water to his lips, then set the beverage down.
Between the two old realm walkers, objects from the room floated. Cantor recognized the loose configuration of the nine planes represented by spoons, a couple of knotted napkins, a saltshaker, a ball of string, and woodchips from the kindling box. Of course, in reality, the planes looked more like floating pancakes, suspended over one another in a lopsided, shifting column.
Every planetary system in the galaxy was grouped in individual stacks. At times, columns came within pitching distance of one another. Well, not really. When Cantor was younger, he believed everything Odem told him, but he soon learned to discern when the man stretched a fact out of shape for a bit of fun.
The tales of two columns of planes being shuffled together like two halves of a deck of cards were just legends based on imagination, not truth. The ancient myth of one plane sliding out of its column, traveling through space, and integrating with another was also suspect. The only reason anyone lent these tales credence was Primen. Everyone knew Primen could do impossible things. If He were involved, then mountains might pick up their skirts and dance to the seashore.
Some facts stood on their own: Each plane held a realm. Each realm operated independently of its neighbors. Gravity kept them from floating away from each other, but didn't keep them at a predictable, precise distance.
Many years before, Cantor had seen the plane of Alius when his realm and the other had drifted dangerously close. The other realm looked like a pale, mottled yellow disk floating high in the blue sky.
Odem told him that once, in ancient times, Alius and Dairine had collided. They'd bounced, and each floated out of the other's domain.
Odem had cleared his throat and looked Cantor in the eye, the signal that what he was about to say held great importance. "The terror in the minds of the people far outreached the authentic threat of the situation. Some of our people ran to the other side of the plane and jumped off."
"Couldn't the guild do something? Aren't they in charge of organizing the powerful and defending the weak?"
At the time of the discussion, Odem had wagged his head in disgust as he tried to explain.
"The guild had less power back then. Chomountain the Wise was wise. He walked among the people on every plane. Then he disappeared with no one to replace him. He took over from Avamountain. The Age of Ava was tranquil. Dargamountain passed his mantle down to Ava. And before Darga was Sentarmountain. The Age of Sentar was prosperous.
Cantor sought to impress his mentor. "What about Ladomountain? Didn't he come before Darga?"
Odem scowled at Cantor. "Of course, he did. Between Darga and Sentar, I'm glad to see you're paying attention. I wasn't able to trick you."
The old man rubbed his palms over the thick material of his trousers. "But we're talking about power. Without the check of the right hand of Primen, the guild is powerful beyond common sense. If they've grabbed the power, they took it from someone. Who?"
Excerpted from One Realm Beyond by Donita K. Paul. Copyright © 2014 Donita K. Paul. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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