Aster Wood (Book 2): Aster Wood and the Book of Leveling Ebook
After failing to locate the celebrated sorcerer Almara, Aster Wood has done the next best thing; he has found, and rescued, Almara’s daughter, Jade.
Now, the two are traveling through the Maylin Fold together, still searching for the lost wizard. He is the one man who can answer their questions about why the planets within the Fold are dying, what it means for Earth, and how the evil can be stopped.
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Praise for The Book of Leveling:
"From a dad to those parents out there who are looking for something good to read to their child, or for their child to fall in love with on their own, look no further than Cantwell's magical worlds."
"Aster is tortured and interesting, and so is Jade. I look forward to seeing if he learns magic in later books."
This was the worst idea Jade had had yet.
I was crumpled into a tight ball on the cabin bed, willing what was left of my dinner to stay in my acid-filled stomach, while the creaking, groaning ship swayed around me. With each cresting wave the wooden vessel rose up, tilting me dangerously close to the edge of the mattress, and then fell with a rush.
Couldn’t we have just walked?
The ship gave another jolt, and I buried my head in the pillow. Ugh! When would this rocking nightmare stop? I wished desperately for the end of the sea voyage, but I knew it was hopeless. It would be two more days before my feet would touch land again. Or so the sailors had told us.
The door to the tiny cabin creaked loudly on sea-salt rusted hinges. And then she was tugging at my arm, trying to peel me from the bed.
“Come on, Aster,” Jade’s voice reached for me through my foggy consciousness. “Don’t be such a child. You’ll feel better on deck.”
“No,” I moaned into the musty mattress. “Leave me alone.”
“You need air, you fool,” she said with a particularly sharp pull on my arm.
I snatched my hand away from her grip and rolled over. I wasn’t ready to believe that relief lay anywhere but in the depths of this pillow.
“You’re being an idiot,” she said to my back. I had spent enough time with Jade over the past few months that I could easily imagine her face without actually looking at it. She was the type of kid who wore a look or superiority to express almost every type of emotion. She shoved my shoulder. “Aster, get up.”
I flung her tiny hands away and folded my body in half, warding her off, refusing to play.
She finally gave up, and her little feet stomped with all the ferocity she could manage against the wooden floor of the cabin. She banged the door on her way out and I covered my ears with my hands. The door missed its latch and squeaked back and forth on its hinges as it opened and closed with the rolling of the sea.
Jade had become, for all intents and purposes, like a little sister to me, though she was actually my senior by a couple hundred years. I was driven to protect her, my companion and friend, from the evils that lurked in the worlds we traveled through. She looked to me for safety and stability, and I to her for experience and knowledge. She meant well, I was sure of that. And we had been through so, so much together, our battles fought side by side joining us in spirit. But along with our friendship came the rivalries and irritations all brothers and sisters have. Most days, she just made me nuts.
I had come to meet Jade after I discovered a long-hidden link that joined my home, Earth, to the planet Aerit. It seemed like years ago now since I had landed on the grassy knoll after my first jump, unexpectedly wrenched from my Grandmother’s farmhouse attic and transplanted to another world. Suddenly arriving on a strange planet without any prior warning of the journey is enough to put gray hairs on anybody’s head, even mine. Though I was only twelve, I had experienced many years’ worth of terror and excitement since that first rainy afternoon.
But it had only been four months that I had been gone. Missing from Earth. Maybe presumed dead by now. I imagined my mother, forever wondering about her lost son, never knowing the truth about what had happened to me. At the thought, my stomach gave a lurch that had nothing to do with the moving ship.
When I arrived on Aerit I had learned that it was a planet within the Maylin Fold, a crease in the fabric of space that allowed travel between planets that would otherwise be too far apart to traverse. Earth lay on the outer reaches of the Fold, and it was due to its great distance from the others that I was unable to return to it. Yet.
I opened my eyes and glanced up at the small, thick glass set in the window frame above my bed. A handful of stars twinkled down at me for a moment before the movement of the ship swept them from my sight.
Somewhere out there, hidden within the tightly woven galaxies of our universe, was Almara.
Ever since I had left Earth I had spent most of my efforts trying to get back. The only way I would ever be able to see my family again was to find the lost sorcerer, the leader of the seers in the Triaden of planets within the Maylin Fold. It was Almara who had left a trail of links for me to follow. His son, Brendan, who also happened to be my great great grandfather, had left me the first link, the one I had found in the attic. But Almara had left all the rest, and I chased him through the cosmos, bouncing from planet to planet like a rubber ball, each time hoping that it was this time I would find the man who could send me home.
Unfortunately, my journey to find Almara had been frequently sidetracked by a variety of terrifying events, not the least of which was facing Cadoc, the twisted ruler of the city of Stonemore. Cadoc had been holding Jade prisoner for more than two hundred years, corrupted by an evil I still struggled to understand. On Earth, the thought of living that long would be seen as fantasy. But here, deep in the Fold, sorcerers and seers walked the lands, their magical powers keeping them alive long past the limits of the human life I knew. So while my great great grandfather had long since died, trapped on Earth, his three-hundred-year-old father was likely still alive.
And Jade, Almara’s other child, was still alive, too. Jade, trapped in the body of a nine-year-old for the past two hundred years by a sadistic madman, was my distant relative.
It was three months past our brush with Cadoc, and since that time Jade’s demeanor had changed. A lot. No longer was she the broken young girl Cadoc had buried deep in his mountain. Now, finally truly free of him, a spirit of adventure had taken hold of her, and her energy seemed boundless. She was focused, as a beam through a magnifying glass on a glaring day, on finding her father. And the bossiness that had been hinted at during our time in her cave dungeon had now reached full force. Honestly, it was quite a challenge keeping her in line.
But Jade’s superiority was worth dealing with. We both wanted to find Almara, something that was proving much more difficult than I had originally thought, and we stood a better chance together than apart. If we were successful, Jade would have her father again. And I would have my ticket back to Earth.
Though, right now, Earth seemed farther away from me than ever. Trapped on this wretched boat, visions of home surfaced freely in my head. I tried to stifle the longing I felt for comfort, but it was hopeless in this cramped, smelly cabin. There were simply too many things I had to complain about, all of which were made worse by the boiling forces in my angry stomach.
This mattress for one thing. It carried the smell of a hundred sailors before me and was hard as a block of sidewalk pavement. The rough canvas cover of the pillow scratched at my sunburned cheeks as I rolled over and over, searching in vain for relief from my seasickness.
The food. I didn’t know what, exactly, it was that I had been fed for dinner. All I knew was that it didn’t taste so good going down, and was even worse upon its immediate reappearance. The men in the mess hall had definitely not appreciated my commentary on the meal. They sprang away from our table, disgusted and grumbling, their own appetites ruined by my presence. I doubted I would be welcomed to take meals with them again.
The stifling heat, still hanging in the air of this miserable, wooden cell, had been trapped down here since we had left the port of Kazalow on the planet Aria. What wouldn’t I have given for the cool touch of my mother’s hand against my hot cheek. For the comforting sound of Grandma’s sitcoms on the TV set downstairs. Maybe even for the familiar feeling of tightness I so often felt in my chest back on Earth.
No, I take that back. That was something I definitely didn’t miss about Earth. The heart defect I had been born with, the one that had haunted me my entire life, had seemingly vanished since I had arrived on Aerit. No matter how much I missed Earth, missed the broken, dying world I knew, I couldn’t deny that the miraculous health I had enjoyed on these planets deeper in the Fold was something I didn’t ever want to give up.
I wondered, not for the first time, what would happen to my health if I ever managed to return home. Would I go back to being an invalid like before? Or would my now-strong heart stay with me wherever I went?
As the ship bucked, I pushed my mind to thoughts of green grass. And the crisp smell that came from a fresh, clean rain. On Earth, such things no longer existed, not really. Our planet had become barren and toxic, nothing like the wild lands of these other worlds I had traveled between. Now, the only green we saw back home was inside the vast growing towers that lined the perimeters of the cities most people lived in. It was the best, the easiest, way to survive. Tainted water was processed and food grown just blocks from where we slept in the glass sheathed monoliths that stretched up to the murky sky.
Those who chose to brave life farther out, like my grandmother, risked starvation and dehydration, just because they wanted a little room to breathe. But I understood why some took that risk. Now that I had spent some time walking these lands, still vibrant with life, I wasn’t sure how I would handle life back on Earth.
Jade and I had last jumped to the planet Aria, her home planet, and on the other end of this sea lay the castle of her youth, Riverstone. She had bounced up and down like a five-year-old when we had finally made the hill and could see the marina below. It was all I could do to hold her back from running full-out to the nearest ship. Her caution had completely evaporated at the sight of the familiar port.
But she had been forgetting that her status here might not be what it once was. Jade had been a princess in these lands, daughter to the queen Morna. Morna ruled over Aria not for the joy of conquest, but as last in the royal line of magical blood. It had been many long years since the royalty here waged war or ruled in the traditional ways we from Earth might imagine. Instead she and the members of her court pledged their lives to helping the citizens of Aria, and those beyond. When the planets in the Fold had begun to deteriorate, Almara had stepped forward to aid in the search for a reason why the lands were dying, and why strange madness and incurable disease were ravaging the inhabitants.
Almara, a common yet powerful wizard, had come to love the beautiful queen, her formidable powers rivaling his own. They wed, and he moved himself and his tribe of seers to Riverstone. Soon, a son was born, Brendan Elgin Sawyer Wood, my own direct ancestor. Later, Jade Aednat Enda Wood joined the three. For a time, the family lived happily in Riverstone, working together as the children grew to find answers to the troubles that plagued the planets in the Fold.
Then, one day, Morna fell ill. Almara, Brendan, and Jade, each with their individual powers, tried in vain to save her. But their efforts were wasted, and it wasn’t long before she succumbed to the foreign, unnatural sickness that had taken the lives of so many on Aria already.
It was then that Almara, his heart broken and his children motherless, had developed the plan to take the wizards who remained on his council and quest across the planets to find a way to end the destruction once and for all.
They disappeared. Stories of their travels were few, and all that anyone knew was that conditions had improved a few years after the quest had left Riverstone.
But all of that was a long, long time ago. We had no idea what life was like on Aria now, or what may have happened during the time since.
So I had insisted on caution as we made our way down that hill and into the port village. After a day of watching the ships from a distance, quietly asking around about their destinations, Jade chose one to take our chances on. I had decided to let her take the lead, here on her home planet, sure that she would recognize the best ways to get what we needed. Upon seeing the sailors of the chosen ship up close, however, I was somewhat alarmed.
“Jade,” I hissed behind her as she approached the men on the dock. “I don’t think this is a good idea. Can’t we just, I don’t know, find our own boat? I don’t like the looks of these men.” Up ahead a group of enormous brutes shuffled goods onto the ship.
“It’s this one that will be going by Riverstone,” she said. She gazed up at the hull and a shadow of concern crossed her face. “I was surprised that none of the others were going in that direction, actually. Riverstone was a center of trade when I was a child.” Her eyes remained unfocused for another moment, but then fell from the ship and met mine. “Besides, any boat that you and I could handle alone would be swallowed up by the sea on our first night out. We need to travel by ship.” She walked away towards the men.
I watched her go, so confident now compared to the child I had first met. Her worn nightgown from the caves had long since been replaced with rugged traveling clothes, pants and long sleeves. On her belt her powerful jade knife stuck into its sheath. Her fingers rested on her upper thigh as she walked, ready to grasp the handle of the blade with the slightest provocation. If it weren’t for her long, white-blond hair she would have looked just like a teenage boy, too small to be mistaken for a man, but too bold to be treated as a child.
I looked up at the wooden craft doubtfully as Jade strode away. From the bow that towered over our heads, a skull carved into the wood stared menacingly down.
“Does it have to be the one with the skull?” I mumbled under my breath. I glanced around. Other ships lined the port, and none of them had skulls. Smartly outfitted and with slim young men working on their docks, they seemed like much friendlier options.
Jade returned, impatient at my delay, and grabbed my arm, dragging me along towards the death ship. As I peered back and forth over our shoulders, on the lookout for attack, she struck a deal with the largest of the men on the dock. She slid him a neat handful of silver coins and hopped onto the mounting plank without bothering to wait for his permission. I eyeballed him, and as he glared down at me from his towering height, his head slowly nodded once. I dashed up the plank after her.
It hadn’t taken long for me to realize that I was not the seafaring type. Within ten minutes I was feeling dizzy from the tiny ripples of water that skirted under the boat in the harbor. By the time we set sail I was fully green. After the dinner fiasco I made my way down to our tiny room to ride out the rest of the trip in isolation.
But it was so hot. The sun had set many hours ago, but the heat from the day was still trapped down below. I considered that the men I had embarrassed myself in front of at dinner might have mostly retired for the night. A soft waft of salty air, just slightly less stifling than that in the cabin, came through the swinging door and teased my nose. Finally, I forced myself to sit up. When walking didn’t seem possible, I settled for crawling from the bed to the door and out into the narrow hallway.
The ship knocked me from side to side as I scurried down the tiny corridor like a mouse. Then, from an opening above my head, cool night air gently blew down over me. I raised my head and closed my eyes, relieved at the fresh, sweet smell. A slim set of stairs, more a ladder than a proper staircase, snaked down the wall beneath the opening. I eagerly climbed out of the wooden tomb I had been holed up in.
I hated to admit it, but Jade had been right. The instant I heaved my miserable body out from the depths of the ship I began to feel better. The deck was all but deserted. One man sat at the controls of the ship, bare feet propped up on the wheel, tankard propped up on his stomach. He flashed a toothless grin at me and raised his ale in a drunken salute.
“Where’s Jade?” I asked. He raised the mug in the direction of the bow and I nodded. Then he tilted his head back at a sharp angle and poured the remainder of the beer down his throat.
The night sky was moonless, and the heavens sparkled down on the ocean like glittering rain. I walked unsteadily towards the front of the ship. Up ahead Jade’s dim outline was cut against the dark sea beyond, her mane of hair flying out behind her. As I came closer I heard her humming, but the words I couldn’t make out over the roar of the waves.
She turned at the sound of my footsteps, and her face broke into a wide smile.
“Ah! I told you you would feel better!” she said. “You do feel better, don’t you?”
I smirked at her and nodded.
“Mmm, hmm,” she said, and turned her gaze back out to the ocean.
“How much longer?” I asked.
“Two days. They’ve agreed to let us out on one of the lifeboats when we’re near.”
“You mean they’re not even stopping at Riverstone?” I asked.
“No, it appears not,” she said. If she tried to hide the worry on her face, it didn’t work. Suddenly I understood her desire for speed, to get to Riverstone as quickly as possible. As I had been searching for Almara so that I could return home, she was returning home now, and hoping to find him already there. Maybe, with our arrival at Riverstone, our search for Almara would be over. And she would finally have her father back.
“How do you know these guys will take us where they say?” I asked.
“Because I know the way. I can read these stars as well as any map.”
I looked up at the blazing night sky. Where I saw an impenetrable mass of twinkling lights, Jade saw roadmaps, street signs. We were in her neighborhood, and it was the first time she had seen it in two hundred years.
“Does it still look the same?” I asked. I remembered visiting our old neighborhood back home once, the apartment block we had lived in before my dad left. Things had changed. Paint colors and traffic signals were different than I had remembered, and everything looked smaller.
“The stars don’t change so much,” she said. “But the harbor wasn’t the same. The people were cold. When I was a child, the town was friendly, lively even. And passage to Riverstone was common, with ships leaving daily. It concerns me greatly, the lack of options we had today.”
Yes, I was concerned about that, too.
Months ago, when I first met Jade, I had been searching for the links Almara had left behind. Each time I found one I would use it to jump to the next location, and each jump would bring me closer to finding him. Together, Jade and I traveled for a time, and we had succeeded in finding several more of Almara’s links.
But then our trail suddenly evaporated. The last link we found, which brought us from the forests on Aegis to the plains of Aria, had failed to give us any further guidance. Unlike the other links, no map had appeared, no driving heat or howl had shown us where to go. It had simply deposited us here on Aria, and no further instruction was revealed.
Not knowing where, exactly, to journey to find the next link, we chose to move on to the only place on Aeso we could think of where we might find it: Riverstone. It was a guess and a gamble. Almara had originally left these links for Brendan. Had he hoped that his son would know to find the next link in Riverstone, his home?
As the ship jerked up and down with the swells of the ocean, I let the spray mist across my face. In the distance the faintest glow of sunrise was beginning to light the horizon. It was hard to feel fearful about what awaited us in Riverstone just at the moment. I was too caught up in the relief I felt in this delicious, cool air. I leaned slightly over the railing, lifted my chin skyward and breathed long, slow breaths.
But my respite was short-lived. Before Jade could say another word, a shrill whistle pierced through the night. I guess that the few men up on deck weren’t all as drunk as the driver of this great, lumbering boat. The lookouts high up in the sails had seen something, and several alarmed shouts echoed against the surface of the water.
I turned, staring around for the cause of the disturbance. No other ships revealed themselves. Land was still out of sight. I couldn’t see any threat at all. What was the commotion about?
Jade had gone silent amidst the chaos. I turned and saw that her hands gripped the edge of the railing, and her eyes were wide and fixed on a point in the distance I could not see.
“What is it?” I asked, squinting in the same direction. She stayed silent, her mouth hanging slightly open. I searched and searched, but the darkness, still hanging on to the last hour of night, revealed little.
The night had suddenly turned black again, whereas moments before the moonless sky had still been bright with stars, the promise of sunrise teasing the horizon. Now it was as if half of those lights had gone out. Where had the stars gone? What had happened to the early morning light?
Then, with a sickening twist of my stomach, I suddenly understood. The stars hadn’t gone out or moved or changed in any way at all. The sun hadn’t sunk back down below the waves. The light was being obscured by something, something massive and black.
A great, enormous wave rose up ahead of the ship, much larger than anything we had voyaged over since coming aboard. Much larger, in fact, than any wave I had ever seen. And it was headed, fast, in our direction.