Aster Wood and the Blackburn Son (Book 3)
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 Books@JBCantwell.com.
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 you 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, my 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.
Then slowly, mercilessly, as if savoring my last moment, he lowered his hand over my eyes. And all was black.
I startled awake, jumping to my feet, adrenaline coursing through me.
Where was he? I spun around and around, waiting for him to attack from somewhere just out of sight. I searched the trees, but only the tiny birds nesting above looked down at me as they hopped along the branches, preparing for the morning.
Just a dream.
I stood panting. I shivered in the chill of the sweat that had broken out across my skin. It had seemed so real. I shuffled over to a boulder and slumped against it, trying to catch my breath.
The clearing, so dark and terrifying in my dream, was now bright. The first rays of sun broke through the trees, and I shifted over to sit in the beam.
Who was that man? I shuddered as I remembered Almara beneath the water, his hair floating around him as if caught in a hurricane. Was the dark man after me now? Following me? Hunting me? I hadn’t seen a single person since leaving the mountaintop, not a traveler, not a villager, no one. I shook my head, trying to rid it of his face staring down at me. It wasn’t real. He wasn’t here.
I was just as alone as I had been yesterday.
The fire sat, cold and lifeless, the pot beside it. I got up and retrieved it, bringing it back to my sunny spot to eat. Half the stew still remained, cold and lumpy now, but still wonderful compared to anything else I had tasted in recent days. I savored every bite as I watched the sun begin its long trek across the sky. As I slowly filled my stomach, the threatening dream faded away.
When the pot was empty, and I had all but licked it clean, I finally rose to gather my things. Before I set off, I paused, looking back at the small campsite that had sustained me. The owner of the meal had never returned. I left the empty pot by the fire pit, wishing I had something more I could offer in gratitude. But, with nothing else I to leave, I could only send a silent thank you up into the trees. I hoped that, wherever he was, he would be granted respite from his troubles. The way that his meal had given me respite from the gnawing hunger that had plagued me.
Maybe it was just the fact that I had a full stomach, but I felt more awake than I had in a while. For so many days I had been stumbling around in a haze, not caring about where I was or where I was going. But today my feet walked with a purpose. I soon became impatient. I wanted to move. I wanted to get somewhere. I had been buried inside this forest for too long. I felt an itch growing inside my chest, and I absently ran my fingers over Kiron’s link. Without realizing I had stopped, I found myself standing still, mid-stride, staring at the fat little rock.
I could use it now. I still remembered the command. Forasha. Jade and I had used this link once before, and while the jump had been uncomfortable, it had worked as predicted.
My heart skipped in my chest, and I was suddenly excited to see where a jump would take me. I hastily pointed the rock in my general direction of travel, vaguely hoping that I didn’t land stuck inside a boulder or tree. I spoke the command.
Squeezing and twisting, my body bent into the jump. I would have yelped out in pain, but before the cry even made it to my lips, I had already landed. Still in the forest, the low sound of trickling water came to me. I was on all fours, squeezing the dust between my fingers as my muscles released from clenching.
I stood up, excited by the change in my surroundings. More determined now, I pointed the link again. This time, the pain was less. I tightened every muscle in my body before giving the command, and when I landed moments later, it only took a few seconds for me to recover. A thick bed of pine needles carpeted the ground all around me. I jumped again. And again. For eight jumps, nine, ten, too many to count, the forest held. I hungered for sky and sun, and tendrils of claustrophobia threatened me each time I landed. These trees seemed to have no end. Worry began to eat at me, and my chest tightened uncomfortably. I wanted out.
I jumped again and again, growing more frantic each time I landed in the cool shade of the trees.
And then, finally, grass.
It unfolded before me, dancing in the breeze like great ribbons of fabric spread upon the ground. I let out a heavy sigh of relief, and the panic drained away.
Now we’re talking.
I let the link fall back to my chest and lifted my face to the sun. It seemed I hadn’t felt its warmth for years, and I felt a smile stretch across my cheeks. Beneath my skin, energy pulsed. Ahead, the way was open; no mountain or tree or boulder stood between me and freedom. I tucked the link beneath my shirt. No more jumping today.
I broke into a run.
The morning breeze whipped through my hair. Each step I took felt unfamiliar, as if I hadn’t set foot on the ground in ages. But as I picked up speed, my feet seemed to remember their old tricks. My strides increased, my legs moving faster and faster until the world around me blurred. I laughed. I couldn’t remember the last time I had laughed, and this realization made me laugh harder. It felt so good to be out. To be alone and away from all of the evil I had seen. I had forgotten the feeling that running gave me. I felt joy. And awe. And power. I pushed harder.
Tears, stolen from my eyes by the stinging wind, streamed down my cheeks. I urged my legs to move faster, and they did. I moved so fast that I could barely hear the wind in my ears, barely feel my feet touch the grass.
Then suddenly, without warning, an image flashed into my head. Jade’s face, eyes dark, mouth open in a snarl.
My stride faltered. I pushed the thought of her away, shaking my head to rid it of the memory.
And then again, a flash of malice in my mind. Almara clutching at his throat, trying to speak.
I faltered again, almost fell.
The images started coming in a rush, raining down inside my head like an avalanche of horror. I slowed, gripping my hands over my heart, sure that it was splitting into two at that very moment.
Cadoc’s sadistic snarl.
The faces of a hundred prisoners, drawn and gray.
The Torrensai knocking me down inside the Fire Mountains as Almara ran for the ledge.
I wanted to fall. I wanted to hit the ground, burrow into it, hide from the demons that tormented me.
Anger flared in the back of my throat, burning as it mingled with the sobs I was choking on.
I didn’t fall. I moved faster and faster. I held nothing back, took no care, and instead I poured my fury into the flight. The tears were no longer from the wind, but I didn’t care. I wouldn’t stop. I wouldn’t be held down by this anymore, I couldn’t be.
I was pure instinct. My legs moved too fast now for me to control. I was a symphony of movement, no longer able to concentrate on the details, only on the whole. I screamed out my rage as I ran. The burning spread to my chest, my arms, and I gasped for breath. But I didn’t stop.
I ran faster.
I pushed body harder, sobbing into the wind.
The little girl beneath the mountain. The one who depended on me.
I shouted incoherent, angry protests. And when there was no more breath for me to yell, I simply let my feet pound the grass beneath me.
I wondered if I would ever see her again.
Finally, after a long, long time, I hit the ground as I tripped over my own, exhausted legs. My body rolled across the grass as it slowed from great speed, dry stalks scraping at my arms and face as I tumbled, finally coming to a stop. I lay on my side, panting and gasping for air, anguish still threatening to close my throat entirely. The air barely made it through my clenched body, and I was forcibly reminded of my asthma attacks back on Earth. Mom would hold me, comfort me as we both waited for the medicine to open my airways again.
Breathe slow. Breathe calm.
Blades of grass scratched at my cheeks.
Breathe slow. Breathe calm.
Slowly, my throat opened bit by bit. I rolled onto my back.
The sun was bright, and it stung my eyes, but my tears were drying as the air moved in and out of my lungs. Above, puffy white clouds drifted lazily across my view, and I relaxed into the earth as if it were a feather bed. The terrifying images drained away, and my body melted against the ground. My breathing slowed, and my misery trickled out of me like the sweat on my back until I felt nothing but the beating of my heart.
And all was quiet.
Around my body, the tall grass rippled. I was hidden deep within it and watched the blades from below as they gently swayed back and forth. I didn’t think anymore. I had run to the point of exhaustion, and now I simply lay there, unmoving, an observer.
But I didn’t sleep. For hours I watched the sky from my little pocket, my mind all but blank. The afternoon sun gradually sunk low, then became sunset, and then disappeared into the purple of dusk. And for all that while I thought of nothing but the grass, the clouds, the wind. I wondered, if I listened hard enough, if I could hear the grass grow. Slow and certain, it pushed its way up to the sky from the depths below.
As twilight fell, I rose. I felt as though I had been sleeping for days, and was now just emerging from some illness that had kept me down. I shivered as the heat from the sun disappeared into the night. I looked around at the landscape, choosing a direction.
But I didn’t run. Instead I pulled the link from beneath my shirt and pointed it. Three jumps and the grassland had become dotted with heavy oak trees. In the distance I could just make out the groves clumping together, as if a stream were nearby. My tongue moved over my dry lips, and I started down the hill.
I was walking absently, still hazy, when I heard it. Cracking. I froze, listening. For a moment, I couldn’t put my finger on the sound. It was so familiar, somehow, but what was it? From the corner of my eye a flicker of light flashed, and suddenly I understood. I fell to the ground, instantly disappearing into the deep field, grateful for the darkness.
Two hundred feet away, behind the cover of the trees, but no, they weren’t trees, a fire crackled.
I hugged the ground, barely daring to breathe, and peered from between the blades.
Other sounds joined it as night fell in earnest. Grunts of men, clanking of metal, the low snort of a horse. My heart leapt. Long shadows fell from those near the flames. I craned my neck, trying to get a better look, part of me excited at the prospect of finding some companions again.
But then I realized what I was looking at.
Those hadn’t been trees clumped together. They had been men. Thousands of men. I hadn’t stumbled upon some lone traveler’s campfire.
I had stumbled upon an army.