Aster Wood (Book 5): Aster Wood and the Wizard King Paperback
J. B. Cantwell

Aster Wood (Book 5): Aster Wood and the Wizard King Paperback

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The final quest to level the planets in the Maylin Fold is now upon Aster Wood. He’s got a backpack full of gold and a group of men sworn to travel beside him until the task is done. But not everyone in the group is what they seem. From the outset, the cowardice of men takes hold and threatens to derail the attempt to take the planets back from the grip of the Corentin. Now, Aster must try to lead the group, to stay strong until the last of the planets is leveled and the path toward balance is clear.

325 Pages

Praise for The Wizard King:

"This, the last book of this series was so exhilarating. I felt like I was right there with Aster."

"The best was truly saved for last. Absolutely amazing!"

Chapter 1

We were lost. 

My heart thudded in my chest. The increasingly familiar panic was overtaking me again. I felt beads of sweat break out in a prickly wave over my forehead and shoulders as I surveyed the strange countryside.

We had been wandering for days; four, maybe five. I was quickly losing count, stuck in a haze of desperation that grew thicker with each passing of the sun. My eyes scoured the land that unfolded in a thick green blanket in all directions, searching for anything even remotely recognizable. I wondered if we were even on the right planet. When Cait, my father, and I had left Earth, Aeso had been our target. Home of the village high in the foothills of the Fire Mountains, its people tortured and murdered by the Corentin. Home of Stonemore, the walled city, now destroyed by fire. And home of the Hidden Mountains, where my friends and the remaining inhabitants of the torched city now hid, awaiting my return. But this place looked nothing like the Aeso I had come to know. Our arrival back to the correct location had been all but assured by our use of the chaser link; it should have delivered us to the heart of the Hidden Mountains, the spot where we had jumped from.

Instead, this strange landscape stretched out before us, not even a hint of a mountain in sight.  

Something had to be wrong. The chaser link had never failed us before. It followed the known path of a regular link, permanently opening a jump for anyone who held it. Why had it delivered us here, far away from where we needed to be?

I had traveled to several different worlds in the days since I had first entered the Fold. Nearly a year ago I had been pulled out of my grandmother’s farmhouse attic back on Earth by a force so great it had sent me careening across the cosmos and crashing down onto the hard ground near Kiron’s homestead. The old wizard had taken me in, told me the stories of the lost sorcerer, Almara, and started me down the path to find him. And I had found him, along with many others who had also been searching for him in the two hundred years since he had disappeared. In the months since first meeting Kiron, more terrifying events had occurred than I would have thought possible to experience in a lifetime. 

Cadoc, his body dissolving into a swirl of toxic smoke as my knife met his torso.

Jade, Almara’s daughter, her eyes enveloped by the cold blackness of Corentin possession.

Almara, knocking us backward as he ran for the ledge, leaping to his death, saving us. 

Rhainn, vanishing under the Coyle’s control as though he had never existed at all. 

And the Corentin, everything touched by the Corentin. It was only the Corentin, himself, I had yet to meet face to face. The creature who had a lust for ever more power, hypnotized by it, obsessed by his ability to inflict suffering on those around him. The being that had flitted across my nightmares on more nights than I could count. 

“I’m hungry.” 

The small voice came from behind me, snapping me from my thoughts, and I turned to look down at Cait. On the little girl’s face a thin sheen of sweat and dirt combined to make her look almost tan. And though the sun was high overhead, as I watched her she shivered. 

Wherever we were now, either Aeso or somewhere else, it was cold. Not frigid ice, like the snow in the Rocky Mountains back on Earth, but windy, biting. I took off my pack and fished around for my blanket. Cait was my responsibility now, and I had promised to return her home safely. 

Inside the pack, the chunks of gold we had recovered from Earth clunked against each other. They were our prize; the reason we had traveled back to Earth in the first place. Gold was scarce in the Fold, removed eons ago by the mad wizard, Jared, in his greedy haste to gain more power. But it had been that greed that had thrown his home planets out of alignment. When he realized what he had done, the damage he had caused was too great to restore with the gold left in the Fold. In desperation, he had called Earth, my home, towards himself, thinking that he could somehow harvest the gold within it to set things right. Compared to the planets he knew, Earth was a mecca of gold, teeming with the stuff. Now, these small pieces in my possession were our only hope of realigning the planets of the Fold and reversing the damage Jared had caused. 

The gold was our only hope not just for the planets closer in to Aeso, but for Earth as well. Back home, the planet was a wreck from its own misalignment. Droughts plagued the lands, and when the rains did come, they dropped their acid droplets to the ground, killing what little vegetation remained. If we were able to level the planets in the Fold, there was a hope that Earth’s systems might right themselves. 

My fingers closed around the corner of my blanket, Kiron’s magical gift, and I pulled it from the pack and wrapped it snugly around Cait’s shoulders. Instantly, her face relaxed as it reflected her own heat back to her. 

I looked out again across the horizon. Trees with branches stuck at odd angles dotted the landscape in the distance. Fat orange fruits grew on those branches, discovered by Cait on our first day in this strange land. My stomach rumbled at the thought of them. 

My dad, or what was left of him, had followed us on our journey from Earth. I had started calling him “Father,” a formal name I had never used for him before. This choice was mostly because I couldn’t think of anything better to call him. Technically, he was my father, at least in the physical sense of the word. But the man who joined us now was nothing like the dad I had once known. He seemed empty, with no memories or even a basic understanding about why he was alive at all. My real dad, if he still resided inside that body, was somewhere deep inside, somewhere I couldn’t access. 

What was even more concerning was the fact that he bore the trademark of someone who was possessed by the Corentin. Father’s eyes, like Jade’s the last time I had seen her, had turned completely black. But he was so kind and agreeable. Possession by the Corentin usually resulted in someone becoming something of a sick puppet, forced to do his bidding. Not Father. His eyes told us that he was possessed, but whoever was doing it seemed to not want to use him for ill at all. 

I looked up at him as he stared, his expression blank, down at Cait. 

“I’ll run ahead with her,” I told him. 

After a moment he shook his head slightly, as if coming back from a daydream. His eyes met mine, black and cavernous.

“Yes, alright,” he said, nodding.

I had found him like this, possessed and calm. When I had seen Jade in the grip of the Corentin, she had been mad, completely under his control as he sought out every evil thought she had, every memory of anger or fear or foreboding, and turned it all to his will. 

But not Father. I couldn’t even begin to understand why, when clear of this possession, he wanted to hurt me.

To get my dad back, I needed to get him to Kiron. Kiron’s potion had made me well when I was so ill. Now, I was hanging my hopes for my dad on Kiron’s talent over a cauldron. 

I tore my eyes from his face, wishing I knew him better. But Father was a stranger to me. I looked down at Cait, trying a half-smile to mask my anxiety. 

“Want to take a ride?” I asked. 

She looked up at me, a strange, almost sarcastic look for such a little kid to wear. Then her face broke into a wide smile, and a giggle erupted from her chest. 

I knelt down and, holding her little arms around my neck, helped her climb on. Then, gripping her calves in the crook of my elbows, I dashed away. 

Instantly, I felt the tension of the morning slip away as I ran. I had been nervous that my return to Earth might have robbed me of my power of speed here in the Fold, that I would be forever back among the normal folks who couldn’t run like the wind. But then the delight of my first run had coursed through me, the wind coaxing tears from my eyes, and I had shouted with laughter between breaths, pushing hard. 

Now, in a matter of seconds, I was far away from our starting point, tearing across the windswept grass towards the rise in the land in the distance. Cait yelped with delight from behind, and I ran harder, willing my legs to move ever faster, away from the panic of the unknown. Away from Father and all the questions I didn’t have good answers to.

It didn’t take long to reach the trees. I slowed my pace, not yet wanting to stop. The brief respite I had felt from the run would be over, overcome again by my fear. But I couldn’t deny the pulling of Cait’s hands against my throat, reminding me to not leave Father behind. 

I had come to know Cait by an accident of circumstance. The little girl was now my responsibility, a promise I had made to her older brother, Rhainn. I had sworn to keep her safe, and she had been by my side virtually every moment ever since. She alone had accompanied me back to Earth and across its wastelands in search of gold. Eventually, she led me to not only gold, but Father as well. And it was only at her insistence that I trusted him at all now. She had done so much for me in such a short space of time, shown me her own strange tracking power, tied to her inexplicable ability to sense the good, and the evil, in people. At this point I had no choice but to trust her. 

Sighing heavily, Cait sat down, crossing her legs in the grass. I chose a spot beside her, biting into my own fruit, which we had nicknamed “papples”. They tasted of both peaches and apples, and with no one around to ask, we had amused ourselves with the trying out of names for the round, juicy globes. 

After she had finished off the first, ripping the two brown pits from the center, she turned to me.

“When are we going to get there?” she asked.

“You tell me,” I said. 

I had often caught her over the past few days concentrating hard on the horizon line, turning on the spot, trying to find the thin, golden line of her power that would lead us back to Kiron and the rest of Stonemore’s survivors in the Hidden Mountains. But despite my great desire to reach them, we had been wandering aimlessly instead, not yet able to pick up a trail. 

It was desire that was the key to Cait’s powers. She could look inside people’s hearts, their souls, and see what it was they wanted more than anything else in the world. Then, if the desire was true and good, a path would reveal itself to her. 

But not this time.

She looked thoughtfully down at her papple, chewing slowly as she examined it. 

“I’ve been thinking,” I finally said, breaking the silence between us. “Maybe we shouldn’t try to get to Kiron and Larissa. Not yet. Maybe we should target somewhere else instead.”

She looked up, a glint of hope flickering in her eyes. Then, as if a cloud had passed over her heart, she dropped her gaze again. 

“We could look for him, you know,” I said, my voice quiet. “For Rhainn. Maybe he’d be easier to for you to find, you know, since you want to find him so badly.”

But she only shook her head, sniffling gently.

“I can’t see him, either,” she finally said, and this time her gaze met mine her eyes were filled with tears. “What does it mean?” came her tiny voice. 

I twisted the stem of my papple as I tried to come up with an answer for her. In the distance, Father’s ambling gait brought him closer and closer to us. 

There were so many things we wanted, and it seemed that all of them were out of reach.

“I don’t know what it means,” I finally responded, taking another bite of my fruit. “Maybe they’re on a different planet now or something, the Coyle and all the—” I couldn’t bring myself to finish the sentence. 

“All the other children?” she asked. Her eyes grew wide and far away as she remembered the dozens of other young kids she had been imprisoned with just weeks ago. 

“Yes,” I said. “Maybe.”

But I had to shake myself a little at the thought that the Coyle and Rhainn were out of reach on some other planet. While it seemed possible that this was the reason Cait had been unable to find their trail, it also meant that it was possible the Hidden Mountains were on a different planet, too. That we had landed in the wrong place after all. That thought twisted my stomach into cold, hard knots.

Since arriving in this strange land we had made several jumps with Kiron’s link. Each one took us about a mile, and using the old stone I wore around my neck meant we could traverse the land much more quickly than on foot. But after a few days of this, we had started breaking up our jumps with long stretches of walking. To jump repeatedly was tiring, and it was a relief to take the breaks, however brief they were. 

The truth was, we had no idea which direction to jump in anyways.

I was starting to worry that we might never find the end of these strange green hills where no humans had settled and even animals seemed to avoid. The Aeso I remembered was so nothing like this place. It had been hard, jagged, with sharp mountaintops shooting up in vast ranges, and violent seas that obeyed the calls of wizards who knew the right songs. But here, it seemed it was only the three of us and a spattering of trees every once in a while. I was growing both restless and weary as I tried to force my brain to think, to come up with a logical explanation for where we had landed.

Father’s feet barely made a sound as he approached us across the soft grass. He dropped his bag to the earth with a thump and sat down, picking up an orange fruit and taking a bite. He chewed slowly, almost as if he were thinking hard, trying to solve some difficult puzzle in his mind. Only the blankness in his black eyes gave him away. There might have been nothing going on in that mind of his at all.

I took a deep breath and blew it out with a sigh. 

“I think we should start jumping again,” I said. 

Cait stopped chewing and her face fell. As much as she, too, wanted to find the others, we had still been quite safe in this lonely place. Comfortable, with food always nearby. 

“Do you have any indication at all of which direction we should travel?” I asked her. 

We had gone only in a single direction since arriving. East. I figured that if we started turning this way and that that we might be more likely to miss our target altogether. It had been my strategy to stay the eastern course, hoping that we would eventually come upon some landmark that would give us a clue about our location.

But that strategy needed changing.

Cait stood up, her blue eyes scanning the horizon on all sides as she turned slowly on the spot. Then, when she seemed to see nothing, she closed them and tried again. Finally, after rotating three times, she stopped and looked at me, her face grim. She gave a tiny shake of her head. 

I sighed again, and got to my feet. 

“South then, I think,” I said, orienting my body to face to the right of our previous path. In the distance I saw nothing unusual, nothing new to give me any indication that we wouldn’t be hopping through meadow after meadow for all of eternity. 

Father got to his feet, too, slinging his pack back over his shoulder. But he did not join us as I took Cait’s hands in my own, readying to jump. 

“Come on,” I said. 

Father was facing away from us, looking hard in the opposite direction. 

“Come on, Father,” I tried. “It’s time to jump again.”

But he stayed still and didn’t answer me. 

Finally, I dropped Cait’s hand and walked to him.

“What is it?” I asked, a little alarmed. Those black eyes were fiercely set on something in the distance. I stood beside him and tried to make out whatever it was he was seeing. 

“It’s darker over there,” he said, his voice practically a whisper. 

“What do you mean?” I asked, looking. “No, it’s not.”

But his eyes stayed fixed. I squinted, standing beside him. Then, as if shaking himself out of a daydream, he turned towards me. 

“We are going the other way then?” he asked.

But something had gotten my attention. Something far in the distance was darker than other spots on the horizon. He moved away from me, joining Cait obediently, waiting for me to initiate the jump. 

With one hand, I waved towards Cait, beckoning her to join me. A moment later she was beside me, and I leaned over her shoulder, pointing towards the sky in the north. I could barely see it, and couldn’t really tell if it was a trick of the light, or of my tired eyes, or if what I was seeing was real at all. But far in the distance I was sure that the sky was, ever so slightly, darker.  

“Do you see it?” I whispered. 

She squinted in the late morning sun, searching. 

“Do you see anything?” I prodded.

She looked for several long moments before finally turning back to me, shaking her head, her eyes cast down. 

“Father,” I said, taking the link out from beneath my shirt. “What did you see?” 

He shrugged as he joined us.

“Nothing,” he said. 

“Alright,” I said, reading out one hand to Cait. 

Automatically, she turned to take Father’s. She had liked him from our first meeting, insisting that he was good inside. Clean. 

But I didn’t understand the man who accompanied us now. 

I held out the stone before me, pointing it instead in the direction of the darkened sky. North. It had been there. I had seen it, just as he had. I wondered why he had pointed it out, only to then decide to ignore what he had seen. It might turn out to be nothing, perhaps an aberration of the morning light on the atmosphere. 

But I had seen it. Something. 

“Forasha,” I commanded, no longer even giving a single thought to the magical language that came so naturally to me now. And we leapt out of the green valley and into the unknown beyond. 

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