Aster Wood and the Book of Leveling (Volume 2)

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CONTENTS

About the Author

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Excerpt from Book 3

Mother of two, horse enthusiast, and serial entrepreneur, J. B. Cantwell calls the San Francisco Bay Area home. In the Aster Wood series, she explores coming of age in an imperfect world, the effects of greed and violence on all, and the miraculous power that hope can have over the human spirit.
 

Cover art by Ken Tan

Copyright © 2014 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
[email protected]
.

ISBN:
978-0-9906925-2-2

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CHAPTER ONE

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 looking 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 at 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.