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Two Renegade Realms
By Donita K. Paul
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2015 Donita K. Paul
All rights reserved.
On his stomach, with his arms above his head, Cantor D'Ahma twisted his large frame and forced his broad shoulders along the narrow passage. A light globe rattled within his wire-cage hat. The bobbling motion sent light and shadow flickering across rough rock walls.
"You coming?" The dragon's voice echoed a bit as it traveled the length of the tunnel.
"Sure." He grunted. "As soon as I wiggle through this rock wormhole you've lured me into." He made little effort to keep the annoyance out of his voice. How, after three years, he was still plagued by Bridger's bumbling ineptitude and ridiculous expectations, only Primen knew.
Cantor's voice rumbled low in his chest and then rolled down the passageway with a heavy resonance. "You'd better have measured these gaps properly, or you'll be off to find miners to chip me out."
"You haven't grown any more this month, have you?" Bridger asked. "You should be able to make it if your circumference isn't any larger than it was two weeks ago."
"I thought we decided I wasn't growing so rapidly now."
"We, the brains, decided that. I don't know about you, the body." Bridger's voice echoed enough to make Cantor concentrate. With effort, he deciphered the words rolling over each other.
"Yeah, well, this tunnel is a bit snug." Cantor latched onto niches in the wall with his outstretched hands and toed the rough surface behind him. With another grunt, he heaved himself forward an inch. The next shove was more successful, and the one after that broke him free of his wedged position. He squirmed onward until the tunnel opened into a cave.
With a hearty sigh, he rose up on his elbows and surveyed the open space, noting the low ceiling.
He'd seen cabins bigger than this cave. And he'd seen prettier caves. No layered colors of sedimentary rocks striped the walls, no crystals, no unusual geological formations. Just a hollow expansion of the natural tunnels he and Bridger were exploring.
In the middle of this ordinary stone room, his mor dragon sat on a colorful, cushy chair, conveniently provided by his own shape-shifted wings and tail. Bridger liked his comforts. Jesha, the dragon's cat, curled at his feet, slumbering.
With barely a glance at the incongruous scene, Cantor elbowed farther into the cavern, swung his long legs around, and sat up. He eyed the uninspiring room. "I'm beginning to think we've got the wrong mountain."
The dragon nodded, looking thoughtful and wise. Cantor almost rolled his eyes. Bridger could be legitimately thoughtful, but wise only happened by chance.
"Could be we are in the wrong mountain. But do you really want to go back to that council library on Derson? Three weeks reading through dusty tomes is enough for me. Plus, the place was creepy. I always thought someone was watching us."
A small shudder ran over Cantor. They'd spent those weeks oscillating between spikes of fear whenever someone seemed close to identifying them and the mind-numbing boredom of searching through ancient texts for anything that could help them find the Library of Lyme. The King of Richra insisted that this ancient library be found, and supposedly, the only way to find it was to delve through libraries that were merely old, not ancient. It had been the last of a series of similar stops as the pair sought to avert the disaster that would occur when Lyme Major and Lyme Minor intersected their planar stack.
"In my opinion," Bridger continued, "it's a waste of time to try to find another likely hidden place for the oar-REE-ree." He paused, licking his lips and wrinkling his nose as he attempted to pronounce the tongue-twisting word. "Oarry-ree, no, or-erree. Another likely place for its library to be hidden."
Cantor cleared his throat and pronounced the word slowly in its parts and then as normally spoken. "OAR-rare-ree. Orrery."
Bridger nodded. "Yes, that. And the library that explains it." He picked up Jesha and stroked her soft and colorful fur. "We kind of like these dry tunnels and caves. But you want us to go back to that dusty, smelly, spooky dungeon-like place with council spies probably lurking among the book stacks?"
Cantor dug into his pocket and pulled out a flat hamper. "No, I'd rather eat." He thrust his hand into the sagging sack, thinking about sausages, and pulled out a foot-and-a-half-long salami. He tried to think of what other foodstuffs he had stored in this convenient access to another dimension.
"Ah," said the dragon. As he sprang up, his body transformed to his normal shape. "It's always good to eat." He carried the cat with him and sat down beside Cantor. "But perhaps your increased appetite means you aren't finished growing after all."
Cantor handed a loaf of bread to the dragon, then reached into the long, flat bag again. He groaned as he drew out a large hunk of very yellow cheese.
Bridger smacked his lips and took the cheese as well. "I thought you liked this cheddar."
Cantor looked up at the dragon and quirked an eyebrow. Jesha's nose quivered at the scent of one of her favorite foods.
"You groaned," Bridger said.
"That was for the growing. In the last two years, I've gained fifteen inches in height. From five foot six to six foot nine. My feet are colossal. If my chest were made out of wood, I'd button my shirts over a barrel. And my voice sounds as if I'm deep inside that barrel."
"Your singing has improved nicely," Bridger pointed out. A mouthful of bread did nothing to deter his speaking.
"My singing was all right the way it was. I'm a cantor."
"Not officially. You're named Cantor, but you don't hold a position in the sanctuary."
Cantor shrugged, took a swig from his flagon, corked it, and took an enormous bite out of a second loaf of bread from the hamper. He then put a saucer down and filled it from a small bottle of milk. Jesha jumped down to lap at the creamy liquid as Cantor put the bottle back into the hamper.
Cantor gestured to the cave around them. "We've seen no sign of life. No writing on the walls. No implements left behind. Nothing to say, 'Hey! People have been here before you.'"
Bridger cocked his head and held up one digit. He whispered, "Did you hear that?"
Cantor closed his eyes and concentrated, fine-tuning his gift of enhanced hearing. "No."
The dragon shrugged. "I don't hear it now either."
"What was it?"
Before Bridger could answer, his eyes opened wider. "There it is again. That sound."
Cantor heard it as well, a scrape of something hard against another hard surface. At the next noise—a human voice, a female human voice—he stood up.
The low ceiling. He'd forgotten. Eyes watering, he squatted and rubbed the crown of his head, glad he hadn't hollered and given away their presence to the owners of the mysterious voices.
Still rubbing his tender scalp, he pointed to the second of the tunnels in the walls of the cave. "That way."
Bridger stuffed the remainder of his bread and cheese into his mouth and approached the entrance of a tunnel they had yet to explore. He nodded, and around the wad of half-chewed snack, he said, "I hear two voices—one man and one woman."
Cantor puzzled over this new development. Wisdom demanded a look at the situation before allowing this man and woman to know they had company. He spoke softly. "I can't make out what they're saying, can you?"
Bridger shook his head. "There's too much echoing in and out of all the tunnels and caves."
"That may deceive us as to where the voices originate." Cantor slapped the dragon on his scaly shoulder. "Let's go explore."
Bridger ducked into the tunnel.
Cantor cupped his hand to his mouth. "Psst."
Cantor debated only a moment. An extra measure of caution would be prudent. He placed a general hedge around himself and the dragon, hoping the less complicated maneuver would not alert an enemy of their presence. "Be sure to measure accurately. I'm beginning to think you shift to a smaller size without realizing what you're doing."
"I am always aware of what I'm doing."
Cantor snorted but said nothing. Bridger didn't readily acknowledge the blunders he made, but Cantor had many anecdotes of the dragon's fumbling from their travels. Still, Cantor liked him enough to not want to humiliate him.
In spite of the difficulty discerning which tunnel was filled with echoes and which might lead to the talking people, they pushed onward, at times stooping or crawling, at others walking upright through long and twisting stone corridors.
Bridger stopped abruptly as he reached a turn in the tunnel ahead. Cantor barreled into him, tripping over his tail and landing in a tight spot between the dragon's hind leg and the stone wall.
Without seeming to notice Cantor's predicament, Bridger whispered over his shoulder, "They're in the next chamber. The walls are lined with bookshelves."
"The library? We've found it?" Cantor eased back, removing himself from his uncomfortable position. "Can you see the people?"
"No ... Yes!" Bridger's lips stretched into a grin, his sharp teeth creating a bizarre picture of gruesome gladness. He jumped forward, out of the tunnel. "Dukmee! Bixby!"
Cantor's heart expanded, and a smile forced its way to his mouth. Bixby! He hadn't seen the little realm walker for two years. The smile fell away as quickly as it had appeared. Why was Bixby traveling with Dukmee?CHAPTER 2
He heard nothing from the mage Dukmee, but Bixby's cry of delight spurred him through the last section of the tunnel. Following the dragon into the spacious library, Cantor found his friend the same as she had been: tiny, disheveled, fluttery, and beautiful. He quickly made a point of studying his surroundings rather than allowing his gaze to remain too long on the girl.
Glow-orbs studded the room's high ceiling, and cascades of powerful miniature lights decorated the walls from ceiling to floor at intervals around the room. Massive bookshelves lined the outer walls of the room, and freestanding counterparts stood in a haphazard formation around the center. Unlike many of the libraries he and Bridger had delved into, this collection showed no particular dedication to order. Few shelves contained neatly aligned books side by side. Stacks and fallen piles plus small statues and metal twisted into odd sculptures, stuffed every possible ledge. Two massive tables with a dozen wooden chairs dominated one side of the room. Dukmee and Bixby stood there with scrolls, maps, and ledgers spread out before them.
Cantor's eyes skidded over Bixby. She stood too close to the mage. He looked away, studying the spacious room. So this was the ancient Library of Lyme. Here they would find answers to the questions about the renegade planes, the most important being a precise date the trouble would begin. Cantor peered closely at the shelves and alcoves. Where was the orrery?
Bixby's lilting voice interrupted his perusal of the ancient library.
"Bridger, who have you brought with you? Introduce your new friend."
"New friend?" Puzzlement creased the dragon's forehead. "Not new. This is my constant, still Cantor D'Ahma. You didn't think I would forsake him, Bixby? I never would."
Countering the sincerity in the dragon's voice, Cantor laughed. His chortle, deep in his throat, sounded like a frog in a well. No, Bridger would not desert him even when Cantor wanted him to.
Bixby's eyes widened. "Cantor?"
He saw the astonishment on her face and tried not to turn red with embarrassment. He knew she found the change in him disturbing. He wasn't comfortable with this outlandish growth spurt either—not that he would admit it.
Assuming an air of nonchalance, he grinned as he advanced over the smoothed rock floor. "It's me. Two years older than the last time we were together."
"In my parents' palace." Her eyes searched his face, no doubt looking for the lanky adolescent she'd known. Her head was nodding. A tiny rush of pleasure gushed through him. Good. She hadn't forgotten.
He looked at her whitish-blonde hair. The feather-light, lustrous mop topped her small frame like dandelion fuzz. Her outrageous outfit included a dozen layered skirts and dresses, ruffles, lace, and elaborate embroidery, all in shades of brewed tea. "You look just the same."
She laughed, the rippling sound floating around the cave, passing through tunnels and coming back on itself in merry echoes. "Is that my cue to say, 'Well, that can't be said of you'?" She grabbed his wrists in her tiny hands and gave them a shake. Hitching her head back to look up at him, she flashed him a smile, and her eyes twinkled. "What happened to you?"
"Cantor." Bridger motioned him to come to where the dragon stood with the mage. "They're looking for the same information we are. And they found the or—thingamabobby."
Dukmee reached out to clasp arms with Cantor in the traditional greeting of realm walkers. Two years ago, Cantor had been a head shorter than Dukmee. But now the long, lean healer-scholar-realm walker-mage looked up at Cantor.
Dukmee grinned. "I've heard a lot about your exploits."
Bixby hurried to a position beside the two men. She peered up at them, impatience at being left out clear on her face. "I haven't heard anything. What exploits?"
Cantor broke the grasp with Dukmee and turned a little to include her. "Nothing much. Bridger and I have been looking for Ahma and Odem. We've made meticulous searches and discreet inquiries in every realm on every plane in our planeary system. And we failed." He heaved a sigh. "And now your parents have assigned us with the task of finding—" He gestured with an open hand. "What you have already found. Which reminds me ... your father sends a reprimand. He wants you to send in reports. And your mother complains that she doesn't hear from you. Letters, lots of letters, are her request."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I do forget." Bixby gave her head a shake, sending her white-blonde curls into a frenzy. Her expression changed from annoyance to compassion. She reached up to touch Cantor's arm. "I can't imagine the loss of ones so dear."
He liked the feel of her small, comforting hand. But when he looked in her eyes, he saw emotion, and he didn't want to deal with emotion just now. Nevertheless, he felt the frustration rise at his own failures, not to mention the feelings of inadequacy and loneliness he'd cooped up in the same unwanted burden box. Ahma would have counseled him to throw the thing out. Sometimes it was difficult to trash a concept. Cleaning stable stalls was harder on the back, but easier than clearing negative thoughts from the mind.
Frowning, he shook off her hand and took a step back. Dwelling on his failure wasted time and distracted from this mission. He would not let Bixby lure him into such a quagmire.
Bridger lifted his head from examining an old, faded map on discolored parchment. "We still believe Ahma and Odem are alive. We haven't looked for them inside any mountains." He waved his arm around, indicating the cavern. "I bet there are lots of these little hidey-holes around in places we've already been."
A tiny spark of hope flickered in Cantor's heart. "Once we figure out this mess with the renegade planes, we'll look into it."
"Literally." Bridger grinned.
Dukmee laughed, then his face turned somber. "What rumors brought you here?"
All at once the weight of the Lyme prediction fell onto Cantor's heart. As long as no Library of Lyme was found, he could believe that the doomsayers had no ground on which to stand. Now that he was in the very library he'd hoped did not exist, he had to give credence to the rest of the tales.
Reluctantly he related how they'd been lured into investigating the Lyme phenomenon. "Bixby's father related a string of unsettling happenings. Old folklore has been reborn. The Lyme Wars were a legend from an era so long ago that they were mostly forgotten. But men of dubious backgrounds began mumbling about the day approaching when the path of Lyme Major and Lyme Minor would once again intersect our orbit. At first I thought it was some council plot to demoralize the populace."
Bridger perked his ears. "Considering the source of the rumors, that was an understandable conclusion. The council may not be the same as it was, but we've seen evidence that it still promotes discord."
Cantor nodded his agreement. Every once in a while, Bridger sounded like a dragon raised in a proper home, which he was. Proper in that he and his sister were educated, primed with cultural advantages, and expected to become worthwhile citizens. Other times he sounded like he'd missed the point of all that quality background.
Cantor brought his thoughts back to his story. "Then more reliable storytellers began reciting obscure tales of the Lyme Wars. Of course, charlatans latched on to the growing rumor. To them, it was another opportunity to make money. Charm makers, soothsayers, and dealers of amulets sprang up in the marketplaces."
Excerpted from Two Renegade Realms by Donita K. Paul. Copyright © 2015 Donita K. Paul. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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