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The Realms of the Gods

Tamora Pierce



  Chapter 1: Skinners

  Chapter 2: Meetings with Gods

  Chapter 3: Dreams

  Chapter 4: Travelers

  Chapter 5: The Bridge

  Chapter 6: Chess Game

  Chapter 7: Falling

  Chapter 8: Dragonlands

  Chapter 9: The Battle of Legann

  Chapter 10: Judgments



  To Claire Smith and Margaret Turner,

  who teach me that heroism includes facing Sorrows each and

  every day with courage, humor,

  and practicality


  A magical barrier had separated the realms of the gods from the mortal realms for over four hundred years. While it stood, mortals were safe from the legendary creatures known as immortals, so named because, unless they were slain, they lived forever. Giants, Stormwings, griffins, basilisks, tauroses, Coldfangs, ogres, centaurs, winged horses, unicorns: In time, all became the stuff of children’s tales, or the concern of scholars who explored the records of times long gone.

  In the eighth year of the reign of Jonathan and Thayet of Tortall, mages in Carthak found the long-lost spells that were the keys to gates into the Divine Realms. Ozorne, the Carthaki emperor, turned those spells to his own use. His agents opened gates into other kingdoms, freeing immortals to weaken Carthak’s enemies for later conquest. Even those immortals who were peaceful, or indifferent to human affairs, created panic and confusion wherever they went. Gate after gate was opened. No thought was spared concerning the long-term effects on the barrier.

  In the autumn of the thirteenth year of Their Majesties’ rule, Ozorne’s great plan came to a halt. In the middle of peace talks with Tortall—whose agents had revealed his involvement in the current troubles of his neighbors—Emperor Ozorne made a final attempt to regain his advantage. He ignored omens that proclaimed the gods were most displeased with his stewardship of his kingdom. For his pains, he was turned into a Stormwing and barred from human rule. His nephew took the throne; the gate spells were destroyed. By that time, however, the barrier had been stretched in a thousand places to cover the holes made by the magical gates. Its power flickered like a guttering candle.

  At the dawn of the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, all those with any magic—Gift, immortal, and wild—woke suddenly, laboring to hear something that was not a sound. In Tortall, Numair Salmalín, one of the world’s great mages, sat up in bed, pouring sweat. Though he could not see them, he knew what all the other mages in the palace and city were doing. The king, awake and at work in his study, knocked his chair over when he jumped to his feet. Harailt of Aili, dean of the royal university, flailed in bed and fell out with a thud. Gareth the Elder of Naxen pressed a hand to his laboring heart; Kuri Taylor swayed on her feet, half fainting. Even those with wild magic registered on Numair’s senses. Onua of the Queen’s Riders jumped out of her dawn bath, shrieking a K’miri war cry. Stefan Groomsman dropped out of his loft, landing safely on bales of hay while the horses who loved him whickered in concern.

  And Daine, Numair’s teenage friend and ally of the last three years, sat up in her bed-nest of cats, dragon, marmosets, martens, and dogs, eyes wide in the gloom, soft lips parted. The young dragon Skysong trilled without stopping, her voice spreading in a series of rippling pools, soon to reach and fill the palace itself.

  “Kit, hush,” Numair heard Daine say, though the girl didn’t try to enforce the order. “Numair, what is it?”

  He didn’t question her knowing that he could hear what she’d said, in spite of hundreds of yards and a number of buildings between them, any more than she questioned it. In that moment, as the sun climbed over the horizon, any wall seemed vague and ghostly. “It’s the barrier,” he replied softly, but she heard every word. “The barrier between the realms. It’s—gone. Evaporated.”

  He could feel her blink, as if those long, dark lashes of hers touched his cheek. Suddenly he learned something that he’d never considered before. For a brief moment, that fresh knowledge erased even his sense of magical cataclysm.

  “The immortals—they’ll be on us like a ton of bricks,” she said, her voice matter-of-fact. “I’d best get up.”



  The Stormwing sat on a low wooden perch like a king on his throne. All around him torches flickered; men spoke quietly as they prepared the evening meal. He was a creature of bad dreams, a giant bird with the head and chest of a man. As he moved, his steel feathers and claws clicked softly. For one of his kind, he was unusually clean. His reddish brown hair had once been dressed in thin braids, but many had unraveled. His face, with its firm mouth and large, amber eyes, had once been attractive, but hate deepened the lines at mouth and eyes. Dangling around his neck was a twisted, glassy lump of rock that shimmered in the torchlight.

  Now he stared intently at a puddle of darkness on the ground before him. An image grew in the inky depths. In it, a tall, swarthy man turned the reins of his black-and-white spotted gelding over to a young hostler. Beside him, a girl—a young woman, really—lifted saddlebags from the back of a sturdy gray pony. When the hostler reached for her reins, the mare’s ears went flat; lips curled away from teeth.

  “Cloud, leave be,” ordered the girl. She spoke Common, the main language of the Eastern and Southern lands, with only a faint accent, the last trace of her origins in the mountains of Galla. “It’s too late for you to be at your tricks.”

  The mare sighed audibly, as if she agreed. The hostler took her reins carefully, and led mare and gelding away. Grinning, the girl slung the bags over her shoulder.

  She is lovely, thought the Stormwing who had once been Emperor Ozorne of Carthak. The boys must swarm around her now, seeing the promise of that soft mouth, and ignoring the stubborn chin. Or at least, he amended his own thought, the ones with the courage to approach a girl so different from others. Boys who don’t mind that she converses with passing animals, not caring that only half the conversation can be heard by two-leggers. Such a brave boy—or man—would try to drown himself in those blue-gray eyes, with their extravagant eyelashes.

  Ozorne the Stormwing smiled. It was a pity that, unlike most girls of sixteen, she would not make a charm this Midsummer’s Day to attract her true love. On the holiday, two days hence, she—and her lanky companion—would be dead. There would be no lovers, no future husband, for Veralidaine Sarrasri, just as there would be no more arcane discoveries for Numair Salmalín, Ozorne’s one-time friend.

  “I want the box,” he said, never looking away from the dark pool.

  Two new arrivals entered the image in the pool. One was an immortal, a basilisk. Over seven feet tall, thin and fragile-looking, he resembled a giant lizard who had decided to walk on his hind legs. His eyes were calm and gray, set in beaded skin the color of a thundercloud. In one paw he bore his long tail as a lady might carry the train to her gown.

  The other newcomer rode in a pouch made of a fold of skin on the basilisk’s stomach. Alert, she surveyed everything around her, fascination in her large eyes with their slit pupils. A young dragon, she was small—only two feet long, with an extra twelve inches of tail—and bore little resemblance to the adults of her kind. They reached twenty feet in length by midadolescence, after their tenth century of life.

  “Numair! Daine! Tkaa, and Kitten—welcome!” A tall, black-haired man with a close-cropped beard, wearing blue linen and white silk, approached the new arrivals, holding out a hand. The swarthy man gripped it in his own with a smile. As the young dragon chirped a greeting, the basilisk and the girl bowed. Jonathan of Conté, king of Tortall, put an arm around mage a
nd girl and led them away, saying, “Can you help us with these wyverns?” Basilisk and dragon brought up the rear.

  Something tapped the Stormwing’s side. A ball of shadow was there, invisible in the half-light except where it had wrapped smoky tendrils around a small iron box. The Stormwing brushed the latch with a steel claw; the top flipped back. Inside lay five small, lumpy, flesh-colored balls. They wriggled slightly as he watched.

  “Patience,” he said. “It is nearly time. You must try to make your mistress proud.”

  Mortals approached from the camp. They stopped on the far edge of the Stormwing’s dark pool; the image in it vanished. Two were Copper Islanders. They were dressed in the soft boots, flowing breeches, and long overtunics worn by their navy, the elder with a copper breastplate showing a jaguar leaping free of a wave, the younger with a plain breastplate. The third man, a Scanran shaman-mage, was as much their opposite as anyone could be. His shaggy blond mane and beard were a rough contrast to the greased, complex loops of the Islanders’ black hair. Hot though it was, he wore a bearskin cape over his stained tunic and leggings, but never sweated. Few people ever looked at his dress: All eyes were drawn to the large ruby set in the empty socket of one eye. The other eye glittered with cold amusement at his companions.

  “Still watching Salmalín and the girl?” asked the senior Islander. “My king did not send us for your private revenge. We are here to loot. The central cities of Tortall are far richer prizes than this one.”

  “You will have your richer prizes,” Ozorne said coldly, “after Legann falls.”

  “It will take all summer to break Legann,” argued the Islander. “I want to reunite my fleet and strike Port Caynn now! Unless your spies have lied —”

  “My agents can no more lie than they can unmake themselves,” replied the Stormwing coldly.

  “Then an attack from my fleet at full strength will take port and capital! I want to do it now, before help comes from the Yamani Islands!”

  Ozorne’s amber eyes glittered coldly. “Your king told you to heed my instructions.”

  “My king is not here. He cannot see that you forced us into a fruitless siege only to lure a common-born man and maid into a trap! I—”

  The Stormwing reached out a wing to point at the angry Islander. The black pool on the ground hurled itself into the air. Settling over the man’s head and shoulders, it plugged his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. He thrashed, ripping at the pool. It reshaped itself away from his clawing hands, flowing until it pinned his arms against his sides. The onlookers could hear his muffled screams.

  When the man’s thrashing ended, Ozorne looked at the remaining Islander. “Have you questions for me?”

  The younger man shook his head. Droplets of sweat flew from him.

  “Consider yourself promoted. Bury that,” the Stormwing ordered, meaning the dead man. He looked at the Scanran shaman-mage. “What do you say, Inar Hadensra?”

  The man grinned. Crimson sparks flashed in his ruby eye. “My masters sent me to see that Tortall is stretched thin,” he said in a cracked voice. “Where our forces go is no matter, so long as this bountiful realm is weak as a kitten in the spring.”

  “Wise,” Ozorne remarked with a shrug of contempt.

  Fire blazed out of the ruby, searing Ozorne’s eyes. He covered his face with his wings, sweat pouring from his living flesh, but the agony went on, and on. A harsh voice whispered, “Remember that you are no longer emperor of Carthak. Take care how you address me.” The pain twisted and went icy, chilling Ozorne from top to toe. Each place where his flesh mixed with steel burned white-hot with cold. “The power for which I plucked one eye out of my own head is enough to defeat the magic of a Stormwing, even one so tricky as you.”

  When Ozorne’s vision cleared, he was alone with the dark pool on the ground, and the shadow next to him. “I’ll gut you for that, Inar,” he whispered, looking at the box. “But not before I settle my score with Veralidaine and the one-time Arram Draper.” Grabbing his iron box in one claw, he took off, flapping clumsily into the night sky.

  Two days later, the girl and the man who had drawn Ozorne’s attention hovered over a cot in a guard tower at Port Legann. Their eyes were locked on the small, blue-white form curled up in a tight ball at the cot’s center. The dragon’s immature wings were clenched tight on either side of her backbone. The tall gray basilisk Tkaa was there as well, gazing through a window at the courtyard below.

  “I don’t like her color,” Daine said. “She’s never been that shade before. Pale blue, yes, but—going white along with the blue? It’s as if she’s turning into a ghost.”

  “She is weary,” replied the basilisk, turning away from his view. “For a dragon as young as Skysong, the effort of will required to send a wyvern about his business is tiring. She will be fine when she awakes.”

  “What if the wyverns return before then?” Numair Salmalín showed the effects of the spring’s fighting more than Daine or Tkaa. Too many nights with little or no sleep had etched creases around his full, sensitive mouth and at the corners of his dark eyes. For all that he was only thirty, there were one or two white hairs in his crisp, black mane of hair. “The king was—unpleased—when I attempted to fight them last time.”

  Daine smiled. Unpleased described King Jonathan’s reaction to Numair’s use of his magical Gift on wyverns as well as breeze described a hurricane. “You were ordered to keep your strength in reserve,” she reminded him. “Archers can do for wyverns as well as you, and there might come something archers can’t fight. Then he’ll need you.”

  “The wyverns should not return for at least a day,” the basilisk added. “They too used up their strength, to defy a dragon’s command for as long as they did.”

  “I can’t believe they ran.” Daine pushed her tumble of smoky brown curls away from her face. “She’s not even three years old.” She and Kitten had risen at sunrise to handle the attacking wyverns; there had been no time to pin up her hair, or even to comb it well. With a sigh, she picked up her brush and began to drag it through her curls.

  Numair watched her from his position next to the sleeping dragon. He could see weariness in Daine’s blue-gray eyes. The two of them had been in motion since the spring thaws, when Tortall’s foreign enemies—an alliance of Copper Islanders, Carthaki rebels, Scanran raiders, and untold immortals—had struck the northern border, western coast, and a hundred points within the realm. With the wild magic that enabled Daine to ask the animals and birds of Tortall to fight the invaders, Kitten’s dragon power, Tkaa’s ability to turn any who vexed him to stone, and Numair’s own great magical Gift, they had managed time after time in the last twelve weeks to stave off disaster.

  Port Legann was their most recent stop; the four had ridden all night to reach the king. Remembering that ride, just two days ago, Numair wondered how much more of this pace they would be able to stand.

  The rest of the country was in little better shape. “Our true allies are pressed to the wall,” King Jonathan had told them over supper on the night of their arrival. “Maren, Galla, Tyra—immortals hit them at the same time they hit us. Emperor Kaddar does his best to guard our southern coast, but he’s got a rebellion on his hands. The emperor of the Yamani Islands has promised to send a fleet, but even when it comes, it will be needed to relieve the siege on Port Caynn and on Corus.”

  Kitten stirred in her sleep, interrupting Numair’s thoughts. “Shh,” he murmured, stroking her. The dragon twisted so that her belly was half exposed, and quieted again.

  A boy stuck his head in the open door. “’Scuze me, m’lord Numair, Lady, um—um—sir.” His confusion over the proper title for a basilisk was brief. “His Majesty needs you now, up on the coast wall, the northwest drum tower. If you’ll follow me?”

  Now what? was in the looks Daine and Numair exchanged, before the girl remembered the dragon. “Kitten—”

  “I will remain with Skysong,” Tkaa assured her.

  Daine stood on tiptoe to p
at the immortal’s cheek. “You’re fair wonderful, Tkaa.” She and Numair followed the runner at a brisk walk.

  A man, a commoner by his sweat-soaked clothes, knelt at the king’s feet, drinking greedily from a tankard. Beside him was a tray with a pitcher and a plate of sliced bread, meat, and cheese. The king, in tunic and breeches of his favorite blue and a plain white shirt, leaned against the tower wall, reading a grimy sheet of parchment. In direct sunlight, Daine could see that Jonathan had also acquired some white threads in his black hair since the arrival of spring.

  “This is Ulmer of Greenhall, a village southeast of here,” the king said when he saw them. “He has ridden hard to reach us, and his news is—unsettling.”

  Watching the man eat, Daine realized he didn’t kneel just from reverence to his monarch—gray with exhaustion, he was too weak to stand. It seemed that all he could manage was to chew his food.

  “‘Unsettling’? I don’t like the sound of that,” Numair remarked.

  “The village headman writes that five things came out of the Coastal Hills near Greenhall the day before yesterday. They kill what they touch—”

  “Skin ’em, with magic,” Ulmer interrupted. “Can’t shoot ’em.” He refilled his tankard with trembling hands. “I mean, y’ can, but it does them no hurt. Swords, axes—” He shook his head. Realizing that he’d interrupted the king, he ducked his head. “Beggin’ your pardon, Sire.”

  “It’s all right, Ulmer.” To Numair and Daine, Jonathan added, “Sir Hallec of Fief Nenan went to fight them at sunset yesterday. They killed him.” He grimly rolled up the parchment. “Fortunately, the Skinners don’t move after dark, and are slow to start in the morning—they seem to need to warm up. The people of Greenhall have fled, but . . . there are rich fields in this part of the realm, as you know. We will need those crops this winter.” He looked at Numair, then at Daine. “I’m sorry. I know you’re exhausted, but—”

  “You need your other mages to deal with the enemy fleet, and the siege,” Numair said. “This is why you’ve kept me in reserve, Your Majesty.”