Aster Wood and the Child of Elyso
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 hit hard.
My bare arms scraped against short, dead cornstalks as I skidded across the field, finally coming to a stop in a cloud of dust. A mouthful of bone dry dirt choked me, and I coughed. My eyes watered as a cold wind blew against my face. I stared around.
I was home.
My heart sank.
Everything was the same as before. Stark. Vast. Dead.
I hadn’t expected to feel anything other than joy at returning, finally, to Earth. But the barren landscape was a shock, something I hadn’t seen in many long months, and it did not welcome me. No breathtaking vistas awaited. No gently trickling streams. No warm sunlight beneath teal skies. Compared to the planets in the Triaden, it seemed nothing of beauty remained in this place.
My fists dug into the loose, gravelly dirt, and I pushed myself up to standing. The scrapes on my arms stung, but they would heal. The coughing gradually ceased. I rubbed the dirt out of my stinging eyes.
I was in Adams county. I knew that, even though I had spent most of my childhood in the city. I recognized the odd rock formations to the east, with the telltale shapes I had gazed upon since early childhood. Somewhere out here was Grandma’s farm. I spun around, searching the brown, lifeless horizon. Overhead, storm clouds threatened.
Cait burst through, landing nearly as hard as I had. Her little body rolled over and over like a carelessly thrown doll, bumping and scraping along the ground. She cried out with a particularly rough thump to the knees and tumbled to a stop just a few feet away.
I rushed in her direction, my temporary disappointment immediately replaced with worry for the little girl.
“Cait,” I huffed, my throat still choked with dust. “Are you okay?”
Her giant blue eyes looked into mine for a quick moment, her face frozen with a look of shock. Then, the corners of her mouth turned down. She whimpered.
“Owie,” she said, her mouth opening wide into a silent cry, fat tears dripping down her dirty cheeks.
She unfolded her legs from beneath her and inspected them. At the sight of the blood on her knees, she cried louder. Suddenly, her eyes became frightened, and I noticed her shrink away from me as I got closer. She had trusted me. She hadn’t counted on scraped knees. That hadn’t been part of the deal.
“Cait, it’s alright,” I said, kneeling down. I moved one hand out to inspect her leg, but she snatched the injury away. I paused, thinking, then sat down in the dirt beside her. “You’ll be okay,” I said, trying to employ the same soothing sound my mother used to when I would get hurt as a young child. “It’s just a couple of scrapes. It’ll heal fast. Are you hurt anywhere else?”
She ventured a look in my direction, sniffed hard, then shook her head. The tears still came, but they were silent now.
“Good,” I said. “Now, I told you I’m going to take care of you, remember?”
“We’re on Earth now,” I continued. “Everything’s going to be better here. The Coyle,” I paused, not wanting to upset her further. “He can’t get to you here. Do you understand?”
She didn’t respond, but she didn’t shy away again. Another blast of winter wind hit us, and we both shivered.
“Come on,” I said, standing up and reaching out both my hands to her. “It’s not going to get any warmer. Let’s start walking.”
I pulled out the traveling cloak from my pack and draped it over both of us. Instantly, the wind was blocked as though we had our own little room to protect us from it. It had been Kiron’s gift to me when I had first met him, and the cloak had kept me warm through much more severe elements than these.
As Cait and I took our first steps away from our landing spot, I bent and scooped up the chaser she had used to follow me here, stuffing the fat ball into my pocket.
“Better?” I asked, tucking the blanket back around us again.
She looked up, eyes round, and nodded.
“Can you walk?”
Guessing that we were northwest of the farm, we started off, the hills on our left side. It was difficult to tell the time of day with the cloud cover, morning or afternoon, but the fact that it was still light at all was comforting. As much traveling as I had done at night in the Fold, something about the idea of walking around on my own planet in the dark made me nervous. There may not be evil wizards on Earth, but there were other, less obvious perils.
My first days in the Triaden seemed like years ago now. Was it possible that only eight months ago I had been a sick, weak kid? My ailing heart had cursed me since birth, and only upon arriving at Kiron’s doorstep had I found the magic, and the will, to heal. I had journeyed so far since then, met wizards and demons and fought battles that the people of Earth would never have believed. Eventually, I discovered my own unique sort of magic, tied to the vibrance of life that pulsed in the Maylin Fold and my tendency to find hope within the most dire circumstances.
But that magic wasn’t with me here. I had left my wood staff, the vehicle that brought my power to life, with Kiron and the others. They would need every weapon they could get to fight the Corentin and his armies in my absence.
And they would fight Jade, too, I realized. To fight the enemy would be to fight the girl I had met and befriended at the very start of my travels in the Fold. The girl, my own flesh and blood, who had eventually fallen to the possession of the Corentin. She had tried to kill me more than once since then. And yet I still felt that feeling, that tiny spark of hope that someday I could free her from the prison the Corentin had created for her within her mind.
I picked up the pace as I thought of her, of my friends facing off against her. I hoped I could find the gold I needed on Earth and return before another drop of blood was shed. Before any more of my friends fell victim to the Corentin, or his minion, the Coyle. Time was running out.
Our feet crunched through the dead stalks as we walked. Cait’s eyes drifted around, and I could tell she was concerned about where her path had taken her. I couldn’t blame her. Between the biting wind and the expanse of dead fields, it was not a friendly looking place.
“Things used to be different here,” I said, looking across the fields, myself. “Before I was born, this place was a lot like Aeso.”
She looked up hopefully, as though the landscape might change back to the familiar green of her homeland with my story. I continued.
“I never saw it, though. Only pictures.”
“What’s pictures?” she asked.
It was the first time she had really spoken. But I didn’t know what to say. What’s pictures? I chewed on the inside of my cheek, thinking. Of course she wouldn’t know. They might have wizards and magic in the Fold, but we had our own kind of magic on Earth. We called it technology.
“Have you ever made a drawing?” I finally asked. “Or a painting? Like with a paintbrush?”
“Then you’ve made a picture before,” I said. “You draw a picture. You paint a picture. Only the types of pictures I’m talking about are made a different way, with something called a camera.”
She looked confused.
“It’s sort of hard to explain,” I continued. “You use the camera, and you take the picture.”
“Where do you take it?” she asked.
I stopped, staring at her, and then suddenly burst out laughing.
“No, no,” I said. “You don’t take it anywhere. The word take is like the word paint. It’s like, you make the picture.”
She looked down, seemingly embarrassed by my laughter.
“I’m not laughing at you,” I said, backpedaling. I put one hand on her shoulder, squeezing. We walked on. “It’s just hard to explain. Anyways, you take the picture, and it’s kind of like drawing with a brush. But what comes out has more detail than a painting.” I looked up towards the distant hills, remembering. “It’s almost like having a memory that you can hold in your hands and look at with your eyes.”
She was silent.
“I’ll show you when we get there,” I said, feeling a little defeated.
“Where are we going?” she asked. Her little moccassined foot kicked against the dry stalks as we walked.
“To my grandmother’s house,” I said. “My father’s mother.”
“I know what a grandmother is,” she said quietly.
I suddenly felt ashamed at having laughed. She was just a little kid, a day and a half out of being possessed by the Coyle. And now this, hurtled to a planet she didn’t know or understand.
I stopped walking again, turned to her and knelt down.
“I’m sorry I laughed,” I said, looking her in the eye. “I remember feeling just like you when I came to Aerit for the first time. There were lots of things I didn’t understand. I felt stupid. And scared. Really scared.”
She folded her arms in front of her chest.
“I’m not scared,” she said stubbornly.
For a moment I was taken aback. Then, without knowing where the understanding came from, I suddenly knew what to say.
“I know you’re not scared. You’re way tougher than me.”
And you’ve been through way more.
“I’m just trying to explain,” I went on. “There might be lots of things here that you don’t understand right away. So if you see something new, just ask me about it, okay? I promise I won’t laugh anymore. Deal?”
She pulled the blanket close around her face, looked up at me with untrusting eyes.
“Tell you what,” I said. “Do you want to ride on my back? You remember I’m pretty fast, right?”
I turned my back to her, encouraging her to climb aboard. Suddenly, she smiled.
“Okay,” she said, gripping her little arms around my neck.
I stood up and folded her legs into the crooks of my arms, turning to face the direction we had been traveling in. But before I could take a single step, I froze.
A sudden sense of danger overwhelmed me at the idea of running, and my eyes scanned the flat, open land before me. In another life a simple jog might have meant my death. My heart, diseased since birth, had prevented me from accomplishing anything more exciting than a brisk walk for the majority of my life. In all of my thirteen years, the only time I had ever breathed easily, or run fast, was back in the Triaden.
Was my heart, now beating Earth’s oxygen into my veins again, still healed?
“Come on,” Cait urged, squeezing her legs against my sides as if I were a pony.
I chuckled, trying to push fear away, and took a few tentative steps.
Nothing happened. My heart did not explode in my chest. My breathing was normal.
I pushed a little faster, a slow run now.
My heart beat, strong and steady. My breath came, free and clear.
Could it be possible?
I felt my body launch forward like a truck hitting fifth gear, and suddenly the dirt was flying beneath my feet. Cait squealed with delight at the speed, but I wanted to go faster. My breath came in gasps now, but I didn’t care. I pushed my legs harder. And harder.
But the blinding speed I was searching for eluded me.
I focused on a point on the horizon, willing my body to shoot towards it like a bullet from a gun. My feet hit one after the other, again and again until I was running with all the efficiency of one of Earth’s machines.
But I could not go faster.
Finally, I slowed, first to a jog, then a walk. I stopped, panting hard, releasing Cait from my back. She slid down to the ground, her hair a mess, a huge smile on her face.
“That was fun,” she said. “You’re faster than Rhainn-y.”
I smiled back. But inside, my heart hurt. Not from the effort of the run, but from my lack of speed. I had run fast, that was sure. But nowhere near as fast as I could in the Fold.
My ability to run was the only piece of magic I had known since the moment my feet touched the ground on Aerit, Kiron’s home planet. I had left the staff with Kiron, believing that its magic wouldn’t work on Earth. But part of me had hoped that I was wrong, that somewhere within Earth magic stirred, and I would still have the uncanny ability to run faster than any animal that had ever traversed these lands.
I leaned over as I caught my breath. Sweat broke out over my body, and I shivered as my skin met the cold air.
There was no magic here. It had been as I had believed. Any magic Earth contained, it seemed, was as dead as the plains surrounding us.
But I was still healthy. Still strong. The lack of obvious power was not a death sentence.
Standing back up again, I put my hands on my hips and looked down at Cait.
“Maybe we should walk for a while,” I said.
“No!” she said. “Again! Again!”
“In a little while, okay?”
“Awww,” she complained. But she fell into step beside me as I started walking again.
I slid my hand beneath my shirt, holding it over my chest. I could feel my heart beating beneath my fingers. It felt strong. New. The breath I sucked in and out of my lungs was clear. My chest did not clench.
I was healed, it seemed, both on Earth and in the Fold. But the speed I had found, the speed that had protected me, saved me from so many dangerous encounters, was gone. Would it come back to me, the magic I had felt coursing through my veins, when I returned to the Fold? Or did a return to Earth mean that my time as someone extraordinary was over?
I had been brought to the Fold, a crease in the fabric of space that allowed easy travel between planets, by accident. I hadn’t known that the blank letter I had held in my hands was actually a link, a portal to a place far from here. Upon arriving I had learned that my ancestors had not come from Earth. That my existence had been, basically, an accident.
But now, with Earth in a state of steep decline, and the three planets that made up the Triaden in the Fold at war with the armies of the Corentin, things had changed. Without my presence, without the accidents that had brought me into being and later sent me hurtling across the cosmos, Earth and all of its inhabitants would have unknowingly met an unimaginable enemy. One who would destroy what was left of Earth beyond imagining. Everything around us that my eyes could make out, the remnants of a society that no longer existed, would be obliterated once Earth became close enough for the Corentin to stretch out his rule and blanket this planet with his darkness. The people who remained, who had survived the Long Drought and made lives for themselves in the towering cities, would have fallen to him as so many others had already.
Others could fight him. Others could make their attempts to restore order to the planets that now swung wildly out of alignment.
But only I could come back here and get them the gold they needed to do it.
I reached out my hand automatically, and Cait took it. Together, our feet crunched through the dead stalks, which had lived only long enough to be disintegrated by the poison rains that now haunted everyone who remained.
We walked for hours. Sometimes side by side, sometimes Cait riding piggyback. Far in the distance a couple of buildings came into view. The sky was growing darker now, either from the day ending or the clouds growing thicker, I couldn’t tell. I hoped that one of those buildings up ahead was the farm. There was nowhere to take shelter out here from the cold of a winter night.
Suddenly, the sky seemed to split open. A crack so loud I had to put my hands over my ears as it echoed across the clouds. My stomach dropped painfully. I knew what that sound meant.
Cait had her hands over her ears, too, but only for a moment. To her, the rain was nothing more than something unpleasant we would have to walk through. Maybe not even that. She might have even taken delight in splashing through the puddles along the journey. If the journey we were on had been on any other planet but Earth.
She didn’t understand.
I knelt down in front of her again.
“Time to get back on, Cait,” I said. “Make sure you wrap that blanket around you tight, okay?” She looked confused at the tension in my voice, but she didn’t argue.
The sky was darkest behind us, and it was a relief to realize that we wouldn’t be running into the rain, but away from it. I took a wild guess that the buildings up ahead were two miles out. How long would it take me to get there in this mortal body?
I broke into a run, immediately winded by my panic.
Wait. Pace yourself, or you’ll never make it.
I forced myself to slow down. Between my pack and Cait, I had nearly eighty pounds on my back.
The sky cracked again. And again. It was only a matter of time. The clouds were right behind us.
Be careful. Don’t fall.
I had seen the people who had been caught out in the rain in the hospital when I was a small child, their skin taught and red as though seared with a hot iron. If I fell and twisted an ankle, hit my knees in the dirt the way Cait had, it could be the difference between life and death.
The raindrops started. I felt the first one on the top of my fist, the second on the tip of my nose. The acidic water rested innocently on my flesh for several seconds. Then it began to burn.
“Owww!” Cait yelled from my back, clearly struck, herself. “Owww, it hurts!”
“I know,” I called back. “Hang on. Make sure you’re covered by the blanket!”
Her cries became howls of pain as I ran through the fields. We had to get there. Had to reach beneath the protection of the old buildings up ahead. I heaved us through the dirt, which was quickly becoming sticky mud.
How long had it been? How far had I come? A half mile? A mile?
The water began to puddle at my feet, and it splashed up around my calves with every stride I took.
I panted, pushing myself to go faster, all the while keeping the buildings up ahead in sight.
Were they getting closer?
Rain made its way into my eyes, and they stung as if I had opened them under ocean waves.
They were getting closer. Up ahead, I could see the road, long disused and crumbling. I didn’t bother to look for cars as I stumbled across the pavement. There would be no traffic out here. There would be nobody at all.
“Are you okay?” I choked as I ran.
Cait’s quiet whimpers of pain seemed to bounce around the inside of my skull.
My face burned. My bare arms felt like they were on fire. Now that we were close, I couldn’t tell with my stinging eyes if this was the farm at all. But it was shelter. It was a way out of this pain, and I pushed with everything I had to get us there.
The water seeped through my pants, coating my skin with the sharp sting of acid.
Why had I come? In that moment I wished I had stayed in the Fold. What good could come from returning to a place like this? Earth was ravaged. Destroyed. And now it would destroy us.
The mist that hung in the air was finding its way into my throat, and I coughed. It seared as if I was drinking boiling water.
Cait had gone quiet now, but her fingers gripped hard around my neck. I put my head down, trying to shield my face from the spray. I looked up from time to time, watched the looming farmhouse getting closer and closer.
The rain seemed to sense that our respite was close. The sky opened up and dumped water down upon us. Just steps away from the front porch of the house, I was completely drenched but for the place on my back where Cait’s little body was pressed into mine, every other inch of me screaming in agony.
Then we were there. I dropped Cait, hard, on the porch. She came back to life, wailing in pain. I fell to my hands and knees, crawled towards the door, everything blurred and confused. My eyeballs felt like they were melting within their sockets. The handle was locked. I pounded on the wood, praying that someone inside would hear us, would help us.
I slumped down at the doorway, no longer able to summon any strength to fight. Every ounce of energy I had was gone, sapped away from the run, insulted further by the stinging rain. I heard Cait’s cries, but I could do nothing for her. I could barely breathe, myself.
The world started to go dark, and I fought off unconsciousness. I had to get us inside. I had to protect Cait. I had promised I would.
Behind me, I heard sounds, muffled by my exhausted brain. The door handle creaked, the wood groaned, and the door to the house opened.
Someone stepped over the threshold. Then, a cry. A cry that wasn’t Cait’s. I tried to look up, but saw only the outline of a person hovering above me, the shapes made blurry by my damaged eyes.
I opened my mouth to speak, to agree.
My brain called the words, but my voice stayed silent.
The person kneeled over me, her shocked face coming into sharper focus as it got closer.
I stared into the eyes of my Grandmother, warm and full of concern, as the world around me dimmed to black.