Aster Wood The Lost Tales: Earthbound

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.

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He hit the ground like a stone, rolling across the dirt like a tumbleweed, fast and out of control. Rough vegetation scratched at his exposed skin. A pop from somewhere in his body sounded, followed by a brief spasm of pain in his left leg. When he finally slowed to a stop, he lay on his back, gasping, squinting up into the brightness of the sun. 

He had lost control somewhere mid-jump, spinning head over feet as he leapt through the cosmos. Now, finally arrived at his destination, his head swirled as if he were still in the midst of the jump. He struggled to keep from being sick as the ground beneath him slowly stopped bucking. 

The jump had been unlike the many others he had taken in his twenty years. This had been the farthest distance he’d ever attempted, and he was lucky that it had worked at all. Lucky to still be alive. Lucky that his navigation had landed him on Earth and not floating in the darkness of space, forever lost.

He rolled over and pushed himself up to sitting, staring around in a daze. He was in a field of corn. It swayed lazily in the hot breeze several feet above his head. Beads of sweat popped out on his forehead with just the small effort of sitting up, and already the need for shade overpowered his excitement of finally having landed.

He was one of the most talented in the Fold at creating links, and his abilities had resulted in a lifetime obsession with travel. For years he had been sneaking away, jumping to distant planets, and the feeling of looking out across a strange landscape for the first time had always given him a thrill. But he had never experienced a landing quite like this, and the panic he had felt once he’d started tumbling through space still had him rattled. 

His fingers dug into the warm dirt as his stomach settled. The low hum of insects joined with the sounds of the cornstalks rustling above his head, calming him. A tiny red bug climbed over his hand, and he watched it move, his vision slowly coming back into focus. 

He had learned of Earth, what little he could find about it, from his father and the other elders, and had long been obsessed with discovering its secrets. It was said to be a place of vastness, where wide open plains gave way to stark, jagged peaks. And oceans. Enormous, treacherous oceans. It housed an industrious race of humans. And, most importantly, it was teeming with gold. From a young age the thought of one day visiting Earth had fueled his desire to go farther, learn more, explore planets at greater and greater distance from the Fold. Now, as he sat in the blazing sun, his excitement had evaporated like the sweat on his skin. His tongue moved over his dry lips. He couldn’t stay out here, so exposed.

He groaned as he stood up, and immediately realized he was injured. That must have been the pop he’d heard, the pang in his leg on landing. Something felt wrong, out of place, in his left knee. He dropped his pack and pulled out a long scarf, leaning over to tie it around his leg. Once it was stabilized he was able to move forward, but the effort of pushing through the corn was intense, and soon his clothes stuck to his body with sweat. He tried to stifle a groan.

It was always this way at the beginning. New planets never looked or felt as he expected them to, and each landing was a rude awakening in its own way. But he had hoped Earth would be different, hungry for his curiosity to be satisfied by great vistas and strange things no one in the Triaden had ever dreamed of. 

Not that easy.

Never that easy.

He resigned himself to the truth, that he would have to work for his discoveries. Just like on every other journey he had ever taken. Alien worlds, no matter how beautiful, were never comforting. 

He could only just see over the tops of the cornstalks, and another flash of worry pulsed through his chest. It seemed all the land in sight was blanketed with nothing but tall, dense corn. Far in the distance, a few buildings were scattered about, baking in the humid heat, but they were miles away. Could he make it that far on this leg? When he turned to look behind him, relief washed over him. A small grove of trees was only fifty feet back in the other direction. Shade, if not water, would certainly be found beneath the canopy.

As he walked, he pulled a slim canteen from his pocket and drank from it. Had he known the heat of this place, he would have brought more. But despite having been to dozens of planets before this one, he had never been anywhere so hot. It had never occurred to him or his father that water might be an issue. Now, as he drank half his supply in just a few thirsty gulps and dragged his bad leg through the thick stalks, the knot of worry in his stomach grew. 

So many mistakes. And so soon in the journey. 

But soon he was no longer concerned with chiding himself for his missteps. The pain in his leg increased,  demanded his full attention. His wrap helped only for a few hundred feet before the knee was screaming with pain. Soon he was gritting his teeth with each step he took closer to the trees, and not long after that was whimpering in agony. 

Finally, nearly in tears, he reached the cover of the trees. He fell to the ground, and with the weight removed from his leg, the pain mercifully eased. 

He hadn’t intended on mingling with the people here. His father had told him that no one in the Triaden had ever successfully made a jump to Earth, and the unknown race here would be best left alone. But now he needed help. He thought of those buildings he’d seen in the distance. Would the people dare leave their dwellings in this heat? Maybe they were used to it, living in a place like this day after day. Maybe they would find him.

It had always been the planet itself he was interested in, not the people. On all the others he had visited, he had never met an alien race outside the three planets in the Triaden, and he had not intended for Earth to be the exception. People were dangerous enough when one was familiar. 

But within Earth, mixed with its rocks and swimming in its core, was gold. He knew that getting hold of a few pounds of the most powerful metal in the universe would be well worth a brush with dangerous beings. Assuming he survived the encounter.

Very little gold remained back home, something he had been vaguely aware of since he had been a small boy. But he hadn’t truly understood how precious what little remained truly was. 

Though he had tried to convince him year after year to teach him what he knew of the gold arts, his father had always denied his requests for knowledge. He took the old man’s refusal as a comment on his abilities, an indication that he believed his son could never be so great a sorcerer as the master he, himself, had become. 

So the young man did it alone. Studied, stole, jumped. Like a thieving mouse, he had taken tiny pieces of his father’s stash, bit by bit over the years like crumbs of cheddar left out overnight. His own unquenchable desire for travel and adventure had led him to steal the element, to learn how to shape and wield it in secret into the links that took him farther into the cosmos than anyone he knew had ever dared go. His father, believing the gold was locked away, had not suspected the theft. 

Then, the droughts came. And the sickness. Soon, the people of the Triaden were pounding on Riverstone’s gate, demanding action be taken by the seers who held court in the great towers. With the hope that the gold could be used as a catalyst to thrust the planets back into alignment, his father had unlocked the vault his son had learned of so many years ago. And his parents had finally discovered his secret. 

Nearly all the gold was gone.

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