Authors: J B Cantwell
Tags: #Children's Books, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy & Magic, #Science Fiction, #Children's eBooks, #Science Fiction; Fantasy & Scary Stories, #Coming of Age, #Scary Stories
Mother of two, horse enthusiast, and serial entrepreneur, J. B. Cantwell calls the San Francisco Bay Area home. In the Aster Wood series, she explores coming of age in an imperfect world, the effects of greed and violence on all, and the miraculous power that hope can have over the human spirit.
Special thanks to Brent Taylor and Zoe Strickland
Copyright © 2015 by J. B. Cantwell. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used, reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law, or in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, contact
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I was wild.
Leaves stuck to my boots like strips of wet newspaper, wrapping around my feet like paper mache. The dirt had bothered me at first, but I had grown used to it. It lay over every inch of my skin like a thin, light blanket, gritting between my eyelids and teeth. Once along my journey, I had seen my reflection in a still pond as I knelt to drink, and the boy I saw looking back at me was unfamiliar. Cheeks hollowed. Eyes dark. Hair matted. Jaw squared and tight.
I was thirteen now. For many months I had been plodding around the interior planets of the Maylin Fold, and in that time a birthday had passed back home on Earth.
I wondered about my mother. I craved the comfort I felt from her smiling face. With each passing week that I wandered the forests of Aeso, her face became the only face I saw in my mind. Everything else trapped in my memory had become too much to bear.
Cadoc, the life draining out of him in a hundred angry wisps of smoke. My father, his fingers clutching at his throat in the small, concrete room of my dreams, crying out soundlessly for help I couldn’t give. Almara, leaping over the edge of the chasm to destroy the dragon, its lethal body covered in a thousand razors rising to meet him in midair. And Jade. Laughing. Sneering. Her deep green eyes, once so beautiful and familiar, now possessed with an intense, evil hunger.
But Mom was untouched. Mom’s face was safe to look at from behind the lids of my eyes when I lay down on the hard ground to sleep each night. When I was hungry, my empty stomach cramping in protest, it was her look of concern that pushed me onward. When the rains started, it was her voice in my mind that kept me warm.
“Don’t be scared, baby,” she had said once, tucking the blankets beneath my outstretched legs. Outside, thunder cracked and lightning lit up the night sky. I sucked in my breath.
“But what if it sets the building on fire?” I asked, my small voice quiet and fearful, certain that the next blast would split our apartment in two.
“It won’t, hon,” she reassured, stroking the side of my face with a delicate, warm hand. “There’s a rod on the top, it catches the lightning. It won’t hurt us.”
“But what if the rain doesn’t stop? And it just keeps coming and coming? And then none of us can get out? I can’t swim, Mama, what if—”
“That’s enough,” she said, smiling gently. “None of those things are going to happen.”
“But how do you know?” A memory, not all that distant, of stinging, acidic rain burning the flesh of my arm made me pull my hands beneath the covers, ensuring that no skin was exposed but for the top of my face.
“Because I know,” she said. “And that’s all
need to know.”
She had taken care of everything. She had worked after my dad left us, making sure we always had enough to eat. She had carted me to doctor after doctor, searching for answers and cures to my failing heart, never quitting. She had told me everything would be ok. And it always was. Not always great, but ok.
But she wasn’t here with me now, and without her guidance, I feared nothing would ever be ok again.
A small, scared voice spoke up in my mind each day, asking me why I didn’t move faster. I had Kiron’s link, a fat, gray stone that could move me along to my destination within days, maybe hours. But I didn’t use it. I had speed, my heart strong and my legs able to propel me at a cheetah’s pace. But I didn’t run.
I chewed on the reasons why I moved so slowly, and there were many. I was overwhelmed. Chosen by unknown forces to be the champion to save the Fold, and Earth, from ruin had laid a heavy burden on my shoulders. I was frightened. Always. Sometimes just enough to set me on edge, sometimes enough to terrify me to my core. And I was tired. I wasn’t ready to face anything yet. Too much had happened. Too much had worn me out.
But more than anything, it was simple sadness that resulted in my inability to get anywhere.
It was Jade. I had come to rely on her more than I had ever relied on anyone before, even more than my mother. She was my guide, knowing the history of the planets we traversed together, driving our mission to level the Fold. She was my sister, young and helpless, in need of protection,
protection above any other. This was remarkable to me when I, just a sick kid from Earth, had never been able to protect even myself before. She was my friend. My friend who had been driven to madness by the relentless torture that had shadowed every day of her life. The last time I saw her she had stood over a corpse, laughing hysterically at the sickening end she was planning for me.
And now, she was gone.
And I was lost.
I quickly shoved away the image of her face, distorted by the control of the Corentin, replacing it forcibly with that of my mother again. But nothing could ever remove it completely from my thoughts, the scene that had awaited me after our escape from the Fire Mountains. On that day we should have been happy, victorious, united together with the Book of Leveling, our key to setting everything right. Almara, Jade’s father, should have been with us as we celebrated the Book’s recovery. But Almara was dead, and Jade tormented by his departure. All I was left with was the scene of her before those corpses, burned into the back of my head, forever visible like a film that lay over my eyes.
So, with nowhere to be and no one to urge me on, I walked. Stonemore lay somewhere up ahead, though where, exactly, I wasn’t sure. Almara had once pointed towards the walled city, and it was in that direction I now headed. It mattered little to me, most days, whether I was going the right way or not.
When I had descended from the peak of the Fire Mountains, I had crawled through the great, grassy valley beneath them in a haze of misery. Over several days, I gradually became aware of the need to eat, the need to sleep. Occasionally, I would be troubled to forage for a meal. Jade had taught me enough during our time together so that I knew which plants sustained and which killed. But with each passing day, the hole in my stomach grew deeper and deeper until I felt that my entire body was slowly emptying out, held together only loosely now by bones and skin.
One evening after sunset, months into my aimless journey, the smell of meat caught my attention. Not the raw, sweet smell of an animal recently caught, but the savory, thick scent of someone cooking, and nearby. It sent me to my feet before I even realized what I was doing, and soon I was sneaking through the underbrush, searching for its source.
The forest around me was quiet. Darkness hadn’t completely fallen yet, and usually around this time I would hear the skittering of birds up high in the trees, settling in for the night. But nothing stirred.
The smell was beginning to overwhelm me, and I had to forcibly hold myself back from crashing around in my desperation to reach it. Then, up ahead, a faint, flickering light. I crouched low, peering through the pine needles, trying to catch a glimpse of whoever was tending to that fire. But the tiny orange flames were the only movement I saw as night settled around me in earnest. I took several cautious steps forward, stopping again, waiting, watching the small, lonely pot perched over the flames.
Nobody came. And finally I could wait no longer. I broke through the brush and grabbed the pot, lifting the lid to find a glorious concoction of meat, potatoes and vegetables swimming in a pool of gravy. I set it onto the dirt, where a single spoon waited for the owner of the meal to arrive. I grasped it, looking around once more, just to be sure I really was alone. I filled the spoon, steam billowing up into the brisk night from the boiling stew, and held it out with a shaking hand for a moment to cool. Finally, I opened my mouth and took the first bite.
It felt so good going down, and hit my empty stomach like the first coin in a piggy bank.
It was stupid of me to take the food. I knew that no good could come of my actions, no matter how hungry I was. It could be poison. It could be a trick. Or, at the very least, I would be seen as a thief if the owner of the meal returned. And what would I do then?
But I didn’t care. As I gradually filled my belly, I considered fleeing with entire pot, hiding out somewhere so that I wouldn’t be caught by whoever had prepared this meal. But the truth was, I sort of hoped he would return. It had been so long since I had seen another person. And, somehow, the act of eating a hot meal made me hunger for company as well, no matter how angry he might be.
Finally, my stomach held as much as it could handle. Half the stew remained, and I left the pot in the dirt next to the fire. I settled back against the rocks, removing my boots and digging out Kiron’s old blanket from my pack. I was staying here, I had decided, convincing myself that it was unlikely the cook would go so far as to murder me.
I looked up into the canopy of trees, satisfied and comfortable for the first time in many long weeks. Through the thick covering of branches, only occasional pinpricks of stars were visible overhead. I felt warm, inside and out, and my socked feet rested just a few inches from the fire. I wiggled my toes like a little kid. And, without even realizing it, faded into sleep as completely as any soldier at the end of battle ever could have done.
The man sat across the clearing from me, his legs crossed beneath him. Around his bare, black shoulders, a wild mane of locked hair hung down, draping him like a cloak. His silver eyes focused on me like a beam, wide and wild, and I was held down against the ground as though tied.
He rose and approached me, his bare feet silent on the forest floor.
My heart bucked wildly in my chest. Terror seized me as I recognized his face, his unmistakable, onyx skin.
I had seen him before. Months ago he had sat upon a steep cliff, watching as Almara trudged into the sea towards his doom. He had been the one, the wicked monster who had overtaken Almara, forced him into the water. Until I had arrived and pulled the old man free of the strange force that drove him into the deep.
And now, his prize lost, he had come for me.
I opened my mouth to scream, but no sound came. I struggled against the invisible bonds that held me, his attack imminent.
He knelt over me, face eager and hungry and black as coal. His skin was chalky, and if I had been able to raise a hand to touch it, I was certain it would crumble beneath my fingertips.
I cowered, horrified, as he stretched out one hand. I wanted to speak, to shout my questions out into the night.
Why me? Why now?
But not so much as a groan escaped my lips.
Nobody would hear my death.
My fight drained away, and I felt as if my body would melt into the ground.