The following is a free chapter from book two in the Jessica Halloran and the Ajan Warriors series Encounter at Demon Skull
The Warrior of the River’s breathing was too fast for her to remain as quiet as she wanted. Night had fallen and she had chosen an excellent hiding place, but she was certain that the stale, sour air would soon make her wheeze or cough and give away her position.
She could hear something approaching from the direction of the outer ruins. Between her and whomever or whatever it was loomed a massive sandstone pillar: One of the huge bulwarks that formed the outer ring of the broken arena structure.
Up to now, surprise had been her ally, and she was once again prepared to utilize it. Alanna glanced up to judge height and angle, then she shifted her weight. Across the ground she could see four long shadows cast by the flickering torchlight moving towards her position.
Now or never.
“He took this path,” the Huntress said, pointing along the ground where the Chronicler’s Lantern cast it’s colorful light. “The dirt and rocks are burnt, but these are the tracks of one man.”
“What were those tracks in the inner ring?” Ranko asked, referring to the center-most region of the half-mile-wide pillar-encircled centerpiece of the Gorian Ruins.
Shannon just kept walking. Ranko took a breath to repeat herself, then her words became a troubled look. The Huntress still couldn’t hear. She reminded herself they needed to find Talitha as soon as they could.
“There’s lots of little cracks in the ground,” Cici said. “Everywhere those big monster feet were, the ground is all broken and smashed together.”
“Whatever it was, it must have been–” The Warrior of the Storms saw the faintest quicksilver flash overhead. Something had flown over them. She turned quickly and took up a defensive stance, holding Thundercaller across her body. Then a delighted expression replaced her frown.
Shannon and Cici turned and saw the Warrior of the River standing in a graceful pose only a few yards away from them, the smooth surface of the Quarterseeker fighting staff gleaming from behind her right arm. Silhouetted by the orange light of the torches, Alanna looked taller, even dire.
“Hi Alanna!” Cici exclaimed joyfully. She started forward, but Shannon held her back. Alanna’s threatening posture was matched only by the powerful glare in her purple eyes.
Ranko cautiously put a hand on Cici’s shoulder. It was a silent signal the Ajan Warriors had developed for situations just like this. The Warrior of Stone understood and willed her Lantern’s light to brighten until they could see their friend clearly. Kishi watched the familiar older girl expectantly, his ears standing straight up.
As the light crept far enough to illuminate them, the Huntress noticed smudges of dirt, scorches and burns along the arms and legs of Alanna’s raiments. Her torn sash and the huge purple bruise on the left side of her face were further signs: Alanna MacLeese had been in at least one, and possibly several vicious fights.
Ranko wondered if Alanna had fought all alone. She wondered how scared her friend must have been. Then she felt a chill. Alanna neither approached them nor even seemed to recognize them.
The Crimson Champion was confident in her own combat abilities and in the sheer power of her weapon and heavy armor, but deep in her heart she knew the Winterdancer was a very dangerous and unpredictable opponent, even outnumbered four to one.
“You okay there, boss?” Ranko asked tentatively while very gently adjusting her own stance for maximum protection against what she knew were Alanna’s favored opening attacks. She realized too late that Alanna would recognize the escalation, and she muttered self-criticism through gritted teeth. It was a rookie mistake. Reina would not have approved.
The Warrior of the River responded in kind. She spun her Staff in a quick flourish and caught it behind her right shoulder, moving her right foot back and centering her weight. Ranko recognized the battle stance instantly. The Winterdancer’s words were colder than the ice she commanded.
“You will not deceive me again.”
I think I’ve come up with a pretty good explanation of this “Picturecast” thing. On my all-new Patreon campaign, I wrote this:
I’ve done comics, but they don’t have music. I’ve done novels, but they don’t have illustrations or animation. I’ve even done an audiocast, but without visuals, the story can’t live up to its potential. If I put my studio to work drawing or animating the characters, it’s too expensive.
My vision is art, animation, music, sound effects, voices and story in one package, and published where someone can actually see it. Now if all that sounds familiar to you it should. What I’m building here is an animated TV series!
That really does a much better job of explaining the Picturecast than saying it’s a combination of an audiobook and a comic, even though that’s also a good description. So, here we go. LadyStar is on Patreon, the Picturecast is in production, and when I’m not doing videos, I’m going to be advancing the book series with new titles.
The Official LadyStar Site is also back up and live. I’m going to set aside some space to organize Picturecast episodes there and make at least one page a headquarters for the videos. If I can figure out how to do it, I’ll be publishing them on Facebook and anyplace else that will host videos as well (Instagram?). Black out.
One of the great strengths of the ensemble model or the “classic” team of superheroes is the wide range of personalities and powers they can develop through the story. Authors like myself recognize many young readers are looking for someone they can identify with and root for through the adventure. That’s why I believe my character ensemble is one of LadyStar’s greatest strengths.
Simply put, everyone who reads LadyStar books will find a character they can follow. Whether they like seeing a shy girl like Talitha Casey navigate a mystery, or they like to laugh at a joke-telling firecracker like Ranko Whelan, there will be at least one hero they will find appealing, and that character will make them feel like they have something to offer too.
Middle grade readers are at a point in life where they are asking important questions about themselves like “where do I belong?” and “what can I do?” These can be confusing questions, especially for someone with little experience, few social skills and the ever present feeling maybe they don’t really fit in. What LadyStar will teach them is to be patient with themselves. It will show every reader that even the 11-year-old “annoying little kid” can be part of the older girls’ adventure and might even have something unique to contribute.
Things don’t always work out for the Ajan Warriors right away, but Jessica and her friends find a way to get the job done. They don’t quit. More often than not, the solution is found when everyone contributes. All the girls find their own answers to the questions of where they belong and what they can do. I wrote these books to give readers a sense of participating in exactly these kinds of adventures, so they can learn what it takes to overcome challenges, put their unique talents to work and achieve the same things my characters do.
Then I discovered I was telling a Noblebright Story.
Jessica Halloran and the Ajan Warriors will be a standalone story much like Secret of the Witchwand and No Savage Under This Moon. The warriors explore a mysterious abandoned keep near the Gunsuan Tower Grounds where the first beacon was found during the events in Dawnsong: the Last Skyblade.
I’m publishing Jessica Halloran and the Ajan Warriors as a free webcomic.
As part of the 20th Anniversary celebration of LadyStar, my next book will be a digital comic. I’ve been developing models for the LadyStar characters for some time now, and I think my technology (such as it is) has caught up to the capabilities we had when I did my first webcomic back in 2008. I’ll be performing a couple of simultaneous experiments as part of the project.
First, I have a Patreon, where I’ll have previews and extras for readers. I’ll be publishing the books on my bookstore and on Kindle. The books will be titled Fury of the Venom Legion and will depict a confrontation between the Ajan Warriors and the minions of Bane Cryptic Sai Magnen. Each book will be 60-80 pages and will release in sequence.
Secondly, I will be publishing a free parallel story in weekly chapters on Webtoons titled Jessica Halloran and the Ajan Warriors. The parallel story will serve as a prequel to the events in Venom Legion and will be released in weekly chapters.
I produce a fair amount of art that doesn’t find its way into the comics during production, so I will be posting some promotional works on Instagram.
The purpose here is two-fold. One, I am fully committed to promoting Enchanted Airship and middle grade fiction in general. Also the LadyStar characters have always gravitated towards books, comics and games, which means once we have a new comic we’ll be 2/3rds of the way to fulfilling the trifecta.
If I’m successful, I will rebuild LadyStar.net to its original vision and launch our first new game book sometime in early 2019. All the new books will take full advantage of the version 12 Jericho engine and the premium EPUB3 format I spent most of the summer converting my bibliography to. I think the comics and fiction will promote each other quite effectively.
If you’d like updates on my progress, be sure to join my mailing list. Black out.
Remember when I was asked to describe LadyStar in only a few words? It’s much easier to describe my main character than it is to cover the whole story, because Jessica Halloran is easy to recognize. I wrote her to be a “human ray of sunshine.”
I have been frequently distressed at how mean many fictional characters have become over the years. When I was growing up, I had Looney Tunes and Mister Rogers to look forward to on television. While those cartoons sometimes got a little rambunctious, there was never any bitterness or gloom in them. Fred Rogers remains one of the greatest role models in the entire history of television. Not once did Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ever have a negative message for viewers.
The LadyStar story has a positive moral core because of Jessica. She is relentlessly optimistic and positive. Her friends call her a “goofball.” All of the girls do their fair share of teasing each other, but when push comes to shove, Jessica is almost always the reason the LadyStar characters prevail in the face of peril. She’s their heart. But there is more to it than Jessica’s happy personality.
In the story, Jessica wields a magical sword called Dawnsong. It is a weapon of nearly limitless power. Initially, it is disguised as a golden ring. Over the course of the first book, Dawnsong: The Last Skyblade, the characters discover that both the ring and the sword respond to honor, valor and selfless acts of kindness and goodness. When Jessica helps others, heals her enemies, tells the truth and avoids subterfuge and treacherous behavior, she becomes more powerful. She is literally a source of light in the story, since several of her magical abilities cause her to give off a soothing golden glow. One of the key symbolic images in LadyStar is the fact Jessica is never in the dark.
This isn’t to say Jessica doesn’t run into obstacles. The necessity of her moral foundation leads her into more than a few dilemmas through her adventures. The other characters’ powers aren’t bound by the same kinds of restrictions on their behavior, so they sometimes push the boundaries and force Jessica to continually examine and sometimes adjust her approach. In the process, the other characters learn that sometimes the ends don’t justify the means and vice versa.
The moral journey the LadyStar characters take is just as important as the choices they make. I believe this is the essence of any coming of age story. Jessica can bless and strengthen her friends, not only making them stronger but amplifying their powers as well. This ability not only reinforces her role as the positive and encouraging member of the group, but it also underlines how important teamwork is.
When Jessica and any of her teammates work together, they get more powerful. When Jessica and the whole group work together, they can accomplish the impossible, and frequently do just that. Jessica doesn’t lie. She never uses violence unless necessary. She prefers to defend instead of attack. She eschews subterfuge, disguise, poisons and deception. She almost always announces herself and challenges her enemies face to face. She is charitable. She gives away most of the wealth she is given. She shows mercy and gives quarter, sometimes to a fault. These values sometimes put her at odds with her friends, but for Jessica, doing the right thing always prevails.
The following is a free chapter from the first book in my LadyStar™ fantasy adventure series Dawnsong: The Last Skyblade
“I’ve got light green, dark green, three kinds of green that ain’t even green…”
– Ranko Whelan
“I’m not going down there! There’s no telling what might be in that tunnel!”
“Ranko, it’s five feet away!” Shannon replied. “Just get one of those coins. You’re faster than us.”
“If it’s so safe, why don’t you go?” Ranko asked.
“Because that tunnel is made for short people like you,” Shannon replied, putting her hands on her hips.
“Alright, that’s enough,” Alanna said. “Cici, go get one of those little coins and bring it right back. And don’t go any further into the tunnel.”
Cici lit up like a light bulb factory at being chosen for something important by Alanna. She scrambled down the waterlogged wooden stairs to the muddy base of the tunnel. The girls had gathered on the east edge of the barley field, under a line of thin willow trees. Talitha had already remarked on the fact the tunnel had to be artificially made, since it was square in shape, with clearly defined corners and edges. It also had a wooden trap door almost covering the entrance, which at least partially explained why it wasn’t completely full of water from the rainstorm.
“Hurry up, Little Bit!” Ranko urged. Cici knelt and picked a handful of the smaller coins out of the mud and even snagged the big one before she clambered back up the stairs. She dumped them in the grass and all the girls gathered around to look.
“They look heavy,” Jessica said, picking one up and turning it over. “Ooh looky! They have little crowns on them.”
“Is that the same language as the book?” Alanna asked, indicating the lettering on the largest coin. Talitha shook her head.
“These look like copper,” Jessica muttered.
“They make coins out of copper here?” Shannon asked.
“I guess,” Jessica replied. “We got one mama coin and eight little baby coins.”
“I told you we found treasure-land,” Ranko said. “There’s probably a lot more in the part of the tunnel we can’t see. We have to explore the rest of it!”
“I am not crawling around in that muddy tunnel!” Shannon said.
“Even if it means we can find more coins?” Jessica asked with a smile. “Come on! We can pretend we’re explorers and we’ll be rich after we find buried treasure!”
“You be an explorer. I’m going to stay right here where there’s no mud in my hair.”
“If there’s a lot of these little coins, we’re going to need something to carry them in. Little Bit, go back to the barn and get one of those bags you found,” Ranko said. “Hurry quick.”
Cici bolted. The older girls knew she would treat the request like she was competing for gold in the 4×100 relay, so it wouldn’t be long before she got back.
“You’re going in there?” Shannon asked in an incredulous tone.
“Yep. If there’s a monster in there that eats copper coins, I’d rather find out about it during the day,” Ranko replied.
“There’s a monster in there!?” Jessica’s voice became more than a little squeaky.
“Oh, my goodness,” Talitha whispered.
“If there is, it’s six against one. Well, five and a half,” Ranko replied as Cici ran up with two of the dingy cloth bags. Ranko took one and threaded it through the thin belt in her jeans.
“We’re going to regret this,” Shannon said as Ranko slipped down the wooden stairs and crouched.
“Leave the trap door open for light!” the red-haired girl said as she ventured into the tunnel.
Jessica looked around at the other girls. They were all watching the tunnel entrance expectantly. “I’m going with her,” she finally announced.
“What?” Shannon asked. “Are you crazy?”
“What if she needs help? I’m going.” Jessica gingerly navigated down the stairs and disappeared into the tunnel.
Ranko stopped when she noticed the passageway was getting brighter. She looked back and saw Jessica.
“The boss wasn’t kidding when she said you were glowing, was she?”
Jessica shook her head and smiled.
“I guess we won’t need a torch then. Come on.”
“It smells like moldy pond water in here,” Jessica said. “Yucky.”
It wasn’t long before the tunnel opened up considerably. Ranko slid down a muddy ramp of sorts and found she could stand without having to hunch over. When Jessica arrived, the low-ceiling room was illuminated well enough to see an upright wooden door was installed in a stone wall at the opposite end of the chamber. In this part of the tunnel the floor looked completely dry.
“That’s a sconce.”
“That!” Jessica was pointing at a black metal frame of sorts attached to the wall next to the door. “You put torches in them so you can see.”
“Okay, Miss Smarty, riddle me this. Remember how the boss said the tunnel should have a bunch of water in it?”
“The water would run down that passageway and in here. Where did it go? This room should be waist deep from all that rain yesterday!”
“Okay, but look at this!” Jessica hunched and made her way across to the opposite corner and crouched. “There’s a drain here, like the one at the place my dad gets our car fixed. Maybe the water did run down the tunnel and into here and then drained away.”
“I know Miss Shannon said no spooky talk, but this place is getting really weird.” Ranko’s voice lowered to a whisper. “This is all too perfect. Someone had to have built all this. Someone has to be living here!”
“Let’s open that door and find out!” Jessica whispered back.
“Nope. We take all this back to the boss. We need a plan, and we can do better than ‘the redhead and the goofball charge through the weird door in the monster cave.’”
“But where do you think the rest of the treasure went?”
“It’s probably all behind that door with the monsters. Let’s go.”
As they climbed back towards the wooden stairs, Jessica looked back to make sure Ranko was kidding about the monsters. The two girls finally emerged from the trap door. Ranko closed it and sat on top to make sure nothing escaped from the tunnel.
“There’s a door down there. It’s not just a muddy passageway, and Goofy saw a sconce where they might put a torch.”
“Great. Let’s put a big rock on the trap door and call it even,” Shannon said, folding her arms. “Sounds like we weren’t invited anyway.”
“Why would they dig a tunnel under a farm?” Cici asked.
“It’s the last place anyone would look,” Alanna muttered. Then she snapped her fingers. “A hideout! Enken did say this farm was abandoned. Maybe this is an underground hideout of some kind?”
“That makes sense. They must be storing all their stolen coins down there,” Ranko said.
“Yeah, but who is storing stolen coins?” Alanna added.
“These are stolen!?” Jessica exclaimed. “Then we gotta give ‘em back!”
“To who?” Shannon asked. “The chickens?”
“Whom,” Talitha said quietly.
“No, silly! Whoever the hideout people stole them from!” Jessica replied. “If I lost a bunch of baby copper coins and a big mama coin I’d want someone to bring them back to me. Wouldn’t you?”
“So what’s your plan, Doofus? A frontal assault or do we sneak in there by dark of night and try to pick the lock?” Ranko asked with a sarcastic look.
Jessica shrugged and made a sound like “idunno.”
“I say we get one of those big shovels and smash the door with it!” Cici announced.
“Okay, we’ll all go to lunch and you let us know how that works out,” Ranko replied.
“No! You’re supposed to go with me!” Cici said with a big smile. “I’m just a little kid!”
“Nah, I’d rather go out for pizza. You can be the too-short shovel guard,” Ranko said, reclining on the door and pretending to yawn and go to sleep. Cici ran over and punched her shoulder. Ranko playfully grabbed at the younger girl’s ankles as she danced out of reach.
“I have a better plan,” Alanna said with a confident smile.
The following is a free chapter from the first book in my LadyStar™ fantasy adventure series Dawnsong: The Last Skyblade
“I trust my weapon.”
– Alanna MacLeese
I was going to put a day for this but I don’t know what day it is here yet. Talitha says there’s a calendar here called an astral calendar, I think? Anyway it’s got all these circles and to find out what day it is you have to see where your circles touch the other circles and then there’s a line from this circle to that circle and I’m getting jumbly puzzles just writing about it. I’ll figure out a day to put for this later when Talitha figures out more of that book she got.
Today Ranko found the jackpot! There was another wooden shack on the whole other side of this big farm house, and inside we got all these farm tools! Let’s see, there was a pitchfork and a shovel, and a plow blade, and a bag of dirt, and lots of little empty cans, and tons of gloves. We have enough gloves to last us for a million years now!
Anyway, inside the other shack we found an oil lantern and a little container kind of like a vase that is about halfway full of oil for it. There were two shacks. Did I tell you that part? We found the farm stuff in one but there was another one that was the other one from before, I think.
Okay, so it finally got sunny after it rained for a whole day and a half, but we still only use the lamp at night so we don’t run out of oil. Sometimes I like when it rains but I still like sunshiny days best. I bet if we find another wooden shack there will be more oil in it, but Alanna still said we should be careful about burning the lantern too much. I hope we don’t find any more gloves, though, or we’re going to run out of places to put them. We only have twelve hands!
I’m not too sure about this ring. I know Talitha says I have to be virtuous and courageous and honorable so it’s more powerful, but I don’t know if I know how to do all that stuff! It sounds hard! I mean I would never lie or steal anything, but I think there’s more to it than that. After me and Talitha read more of the book, we noticed it kept going back to the word ‘honor.’ I’m pretty sure I know what that means, but I’m still not sure. I guess I’ll just have to do my best. I wonder when I’ll find the sword? I hope it’s not scary or something. I’m pretty sure it won’t be. I really like my ring. It’s pretty and I really like wearing it.
I hope Enken comes back soon.
Cici Ryan clumsily pushed her way through the side door of the farm house. Normally she would have had no trouble with the wooden handle and lock, but at the moment, her hands were full. She carefully walked through what everyone had agreed was at least some kind of kitchen and arrived in the main room where Alanna, Shannon and Jessica were enjoying a bowl of apples they had picked from the farm’s nearby orchard.
“What is that!?” Shannon exclaimed.
Jessica put her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing.
“Is it alive?” Alanna asked.
Cici stalked over to the table and practically poured the enormous orange cat on to the wooden surface. It didn’t move. It just laid there as if it had been hit with knockout gas.
“I found him in the barn. He was sleeping on a big pile of those cloth sacks we found yesterday,” Cici exhaled. “His name is Hikousen.”
Jessica peered at the huge cat’s fuzzy face. “Well, he’s purring, so he must be alive, at least.”
“That creature weighs forty pounds if he weighs an ounce! How did you carry him all the way here from the barn?” Shannon asked. “For that matter, how does he eat? That gigantic thing couldn’t catch a mouse in a million years!”
“Because I’m strong!” Cici replied, as if announcing the most obvious thing in the world. “My mom and dad never let me have a pet, but Hikousen is my pet cat now.” Cici started stroking his ears and back. Hikousen moved just enough to make his other ear reachable, then didn’t move again.
The sound of fast approaching footsteps made all the girls look up. The front door banged open. “Boss! You need to come see this!” Ranko shouted in an out-of-breath voice as she pointed back in the direction of the south field. “I think we found the hidden treasure cave of treasure-land or something! I left the Professor to guard it!”
“You left Talitha to guard something!?” Shannon asked as she and the others hurried for the door. “I think we need to work on our job responsibilities list!”
“Hey, there were only two of us, and if we wait for the Professor to run across that field, it would be dark already! Come on!”
Growing up, I played a lot of sports. I joined numerous organizations for kids my age including scouting, a swim team and finally marching band in both high school and college. The one thing all those experiences had in common was the primacy of teamwork and sportsmanship. I learned how important teamwork was for success in life from participating in those clubs and teams. I found out what it was like to be a champion, and why I was able to participate in so many victories. I’ve been asked on numerous occasions to describe the LadyStar story in as few words as possible. Business executives call it an “elevator pitch.” I’ve gotten pretty good at rattling off shorter and shorter summaries of my work over the years.
Now I can describe it in one word: Teamwork.
That word raises eyebrows from time to time. You see, all seven of my main characters are girls between the ages of 11 and 18. Unfortunately in American popular culture, we don’t do a very good job of portraying girls working together as a team. When America encounters more than one fictional teenage girl, they are usually rivals.
If you’ve spent even a little time watching television written for teenage audiences, you will instantly recognize how central rivalry is in many storylines. I call it the “homecoming queen syndrome.” The show starts with many girls, and ends when one claims the tiara and all her rivals are destroyed. That’s not a healthy message. It becomes destructive when it is portrayed as normal. Treachery and bitterness are a reality, to be sure, but they certainly shouldn’t be presented as goals or as a basis for success in life.
In LadyStar, Jessica and her friends work together as a team to overcome challenges and obstacles. Each character has a different personality and brings different strengths and weaknesses to the group. Throughout the story, the girls put a great deal of effort into learning how to work together. They don’t always agree, but they never become bitter or hostile to each other.
There are no attitudes. There is no unacceptable language. The characters don’t betray or sabotage each other. This basic focus on teamwork becomes very important later in the series because each character develops different powers and fighting abilities. They quickly learn to depend on each other. Jessica Halloran’s adventures powerfully reinforce the values of friendship and teamwork chapter after chapter.
We’ve never had a problem teaching young boys the vital importance of teamwork. There is no reason we can’t teach exactly the same values to girls. Communicating those values is one of the reasons I write these books. You can be sure when I write an adventure series for boys, teamwork will be one of its core values as well.