Ranko Whelan and Cici Ryan Encounter a Mystery

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.

Headed Back to Comics

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.

LadyStar for Warrior Moms and Warrior Dads Chapter Three: A Good Person

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.

Now, what if they were all heroes?

Dawnsong Chapter Seven

The following is a free chapter from the first book in my LadyStar™ fantasy adventure series Dawnsong: The Last Skyblade, available now at the Palace in the Sky Bookstore.



“I’ve got light green, dark green, three kinds of green that ain’t even green…”
– Ranko Whelan


Secret Tunnel Entrance
South Barrotog Claim
Three miles northwest of Berrypatch Grove

“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.

“Hi.”

“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.”

“What is?”

“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?”

Jessica nodded.

“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.

“Whatever!”

“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.

Dawnsong: The Last Skyblade is available now at the Palace in the Sky Bookstore!

Dawnsong Chapter Six

The following is a free chapter from the first book in my LadyStar™ fantasy adventure series Dawnsong: The Last Skyblade, available now at the Palace in the Sky Bookstore.



“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!”

Hikousen snored.

Dawnsong: The Last Skyblade is available now at the Palace in the Sky Bookstore!

LadyStar for Warrior Moms and Warrior Dads Chapter Two: Teamwork

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.

But teamwork alone isn’t enough.

LadyStar for Warrior Moms and Warrior Dads Chapter One

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for considering the LadyStar™ fantasy adventure series. LadyStar for Warrior Moms and Warrior Dads will take no longer than fifteen minutes to read. It will describe why I believe the LadyStar series is important, and why I think my characters will serve to inspire, strengthen and encourage young readers like your child.

When we started this project all the way back in the summer of 1998, we knew we were setting some pretty ambitious goals for ourselves. My artists, my editor and my technical staff are some of the best in the world at what they do, and now I believe we’ve succeeded in launching one of the best action-adventure book series available today.

My name is Shane Lochlann Black. I’m a science-fiction and fantasy adventure author. I’ve been writing professionally for video games, television, major corporations and my own publishing company for more than 25 years. I’ve written and published more than 90 books in the last seven years. I’ve worked in animated television, children’s educational and interactive software and merchandising and licensing for numerous popular characters. I hold the degree of Bachelor of Arts in English Education. I’m academically qualified to teach the English language up to the high school level. My university emphasis was creative writing. Both my parents were award-winning television and newspaper journalists, so I come by my writing talent honestly.

When I first set out to bring Jessica Halloran and the Ajan Warriors to life, I was in the process of writing an episodic video game script. My company had invented a point-and-click adventure playable in a standard web browser. I needed characters and a story.

My first thought was to license another company’s characters, but that proved to be more expensive and time consuming than I thought it would. So I created a story world called LadyStar.

My first adventure game went on to rather impressive success given its limited production values. It became clear after a while that the characters and world I had created were far larger and had far more potential than just one game. As I explored all the options available to me, I adapted the story to other media and watched it grow. We published a print manga. We published a web comic with more than a quarter million readers. We produced a full line of licensed merchandise. We recorded an audiocast. I wrote a 79,000-word novel which remained my best-selling book for three years. Each time we developed and released a new product, the story got stronger, the characters became more interesting, and the world they inhabited became more vivid. All we needed was something to bring it all together.

So in January of 2017, I sat down to a blank screen to reboot my series. I wrote an original full-length fantasy adventure novel called Dawnsong The Last Skyblade. I believe it is the finest work of my career so far.

Let me explain why.

Dawnsong Chapter Five

The following is a free chapter from the first book in my LadyStar™ fantasy adventure series Dawnsong: The Last Skyblade, available now at the Palace in the Sky Bookstore.



“The mind that is without fear is a weapon with a diamond’s edge.”
– Mitre


Barrotog Farm House
In the Bristlebarrow
Two miles south of Songbird Wick

All six girls were gathered around the main table looking at Talitha’s book. Not long after the girls “moved in” so to speak, Alanna had organized a cleaning detail. The search for furniture to dust led to the discovery of more than fifteen rooms, some of which were furnished, some of which seemed to have been once set aside for storage. Ranko and Talitha made the beds as best they could using what linens they could scrounge up.

During the exploration party, Shannon had discovered a collection of partially used candles each mounted on a pot metal holder. After considerable effort had been invested in figuring out a way to get a fire started during a driving rainstorm, Jessica discovered a metal box containing several broken pieces of flint. With Talitha’s help, the girls assembled a small nest of straw in the fireplace and managed to get it to light by striking the flint against a metal cup Alanna found in the water barrel. Moments later they had light in the farm house. The scent from the candle helped dispel the musty air. It even seemed a little warmer.

“We should keep one candle lit all the time, huh?” Jessica said.

“Especially at night, otherwise we won’t be able to see at all. This place is going to be pitch black after dark,” Shannon added.

“How come it makes sparks like that when you hit those rocks together?” Cici asked, playing with the little pieces of flint.

“It’s ‘cause of iron!” Jessica exclaimed. “I remember when me and Talitha were in the Dandelion Guides and went on the nature tour! We learned how to make campfires and torches and lots of stuff. If you take something real hard and hit it against a piece of iron, it makes sparks fly because iron burns in the air!”

Talitha nodded, confirming Jessica’s explanation.

“You know we could use a torch or two if we’re going exploring,” Alanna said.

“Except we’re not going out there at night,” Shannon replied.

“Okay, I have to ask, Professor. What is the deal with that book? Where did you find it?” Ranko asked, leaning against the big table’s surface with both hands.

Talitha turned the page. She hadn’t spoken more than six words since they got inside.

“There it is,” she said, pointing at a strange, ethereal symbol printed on the elaborately illuminated page. “That’s the symbol I touched on the red globe.”

“The one from my ring?” Jessica asked. Talitha nodded.

“Was it part of the map?” Alanna asked as she and the other girls stood to get a better look.

“Not the dot that I touched?” Ranko asked.

“This symbol was next to it,” Talitha replied. “I saw an enormous library. Some of the books were so big I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to lift them. I had just picked this one up. Then I saw you all and ran with you to the shack.”

“Maybe that symbol means ‘Makoce’ or something,” Jessica said. “Like Enken said.”

“Yeah, but look at these words here.” Ranko pointed at the opposite page, which was covered in handwritten script. “I can’t read this, can you?”

“That doesn’t look like any language I’ve ever seen,” Shannon said.

“It looks like cursive writing!” Cici said. “I learned that in school last year!”

“But it’s not English,” Alanna noted. “And you’ve read almost 40 pages so far.”

“It’s indexed,” Talitha replied, straightening her glasses and turning to the back of the book. “Here. This appendix has a primer that describes the phonetics, grammar and symbol syntax. It’s also illustrated after a fashion, so it explains some of the verbs and gives examples. The structure of this language isn’t all that different from our own, except none of the individual sentences seem to have objects. Only subjects. They have to be combined to make complex phrases. At least that’s what I’ve figured out so far. I think this book was written to help teach the language it was written in. It recounts historical events I think the authors wanted to preserve. It might even be some kind of children’s book. Some of the chapters are written in verse.”

“Verse?” Alanna asked.

“Like a poem.”

“Like fairy tales or something?” Jessica asked.

Talitha nodded.

“I feel like I just got beat up by my English homework,” Ranko said.

Cici giggled.

“What about this symbol?” Jessica asked. “What does it say?”

“The only word I can find that references it is ‘Lockvern.’”

“That’s what that weird guy was talking about!” Shannon said.

“Wait a second! Hold it!” Ranko exclaimed. “If all the books are written in fairy tale language, how is it that guy was speaking English?”

Nobody answered.

“Well? Do you know?” Ranko asked Talitha. The bespectacled girl shrugged.

“Do you know?”

Jessica shook her head.

“Well who knows!?” Ranko gestured with both hands.

Alanna shrugged. Ranko threw a piece of flint over her shoulder and collapsed into one of the wooden chairs.

“We’ve got a lot to figure out. We’ll have to start taking notes,” Alanna said. “Who wants to volunteer?”

“Meeee!” Jessica exclaimed, jumping up and down. “Talitha helped me with all my homework this year, so we work super-good together!”

“Super-well,” Talitha said quietly as she turned the pages.

“Right! See?”

“We have to find some notebooks!” Cici said. “And pencils and pens! And crayons so we can color them!” Alanna helped the younger girl up on her lap so she could see better.

“Okay, so you’ve got a handle on the written language. What have you learned from this thing so far?” Shannon asked.

Talitha turned back to the beginning of the book. The first page was decorated with an elaborate illuminated painting in red with gold ornaments. At its center was an enormous symbol. “This book was written by someone calling themselves ‘Devao.’ My best guess so far is that could be a name for a race of people instead of someone’s personal name. A crude translation of the title is “The Devao Book of Music-Stories.” Talitha turned pages as she spoke. “It seems a collected history passed down from generation to generation. Most of the chapters I’ve read apparently started out as metered lyrics. Someone took the time to write them down one by one, and then they were all compiled in this binding. Some of them are about Jessica’s ring.”

Ranko stood up, pulled out one of the wooden chairs, sat right next to Talitha, folded her hands on the table and looked directly into the bespectacled girl’s eyes. “Talk to me.”

Talitha turned to a spot near the beginning of the book where a painted illustration of a magnificent hand-and-a-half longsword filled the page. “I think this is what that boy was talking about. It is a weapon, but it’s disguised. Jessica’s ring is one form of an enchanted sword. Its blade is made of celestium, which is a very rare mineral that can only be found here in Aventar. Both the ring’s and the sword’s powers are based on light and fire.”

Alanna and Jessica glanced at each other.

“What.” Ranko asked.

“I’m glowing. Or, I was glowing. At least sometimes.” Jessica smiled and let her chin rest on her folded hands as she leaned her elbows on the table.

“She’s right. We saw it when we first came in here,” Alanna said. “There’s this golden light that fills the air around her. You can see it from a distance. It even shows up on the floor and walls. We also found out that ring disappears if she tries to give it to someone else.”

“And then it appears back on my hand like only a second after. It likes me.”

Ranko made a face and shoved Jessica’s shoulder. “Pssh. It ‘likes’ me,” she said sarcastically. Jessica closed her eyes and kept smiling contentedly.

“There’s more,” Talitha said. “Whoever wrote this book theorized quite a bit about Dawnsong’s powers. Ring and sword are the same object, and the Devao believe Dawnsong can take as many as three forms. We’ve only seen the ring so far.”

“How do we get the sword one?” Jessica asked.

“That’s the confusing part,” Talitha replied, turning ahead in the book several dozen more pages.

“Okay, if the Professor is confused, we’re sunk,” Ranko said. The other girls leaned closer to see what Talitha was pointing at.

“This part of the book speaks of more abstract concepts like honor and courage. That’s one of the things that is making it so hard to read. The sentence structure in this language is like a storybook for small children, so when it tries to describe more advanced concepts, it gets very choppy and hard to understand. What I’m pretty sure of, though, is that Dawnsong responds to honor.”

“What does that mean?” Shannon asked.

“This is just a guess, but I think the ring and sword become more powerful when they are wielded by an honest, courageous person. I think they lose their powers if they are wielded by a wicked person. In fact, I don’t think an evil person could even touch the ring or the sword without some kind of reaction, possibly a dangerous one.”

“Whoa,” Ranko said. “That little thing is dangerous?”

“Well, only if you’re evil,” Jessica replied. “Are you?”

“If winning and looking good doing it are evil, then I’m a super-villain!” Ranko boasted.

“How sensitive is it?” Alanna asked. “I mean, I don’t think any of us are going to trip the evil alarm, but what if Jessica does something not quite evil but not exactly good either?”

“I’m not going to do anything evil!” She closed her eyes to emphasize her self-assurance. “I’m a nice girl.”

“I don’t know for sure, but I would expect it would become less powerful if Jessica did something less than honest. On the other hand, if she is dedicated and follows a virtuous path, there’s no telling how powerful it might become.”

“Okay, then. Goofball is our secret weapon. If we run into something haunted, like evil scarecrows, she goes first,” Ranko said.

“Seconded,” Shannon added.

“Hey!”

“What? You’re glowing, you’ve got a sword and you’ll never tell a lie or steal my lunch. You should march right out there and ‘chop chop.’ No more haunted scarecrow,” Ranko said. Shannon and Alanna smiled.

“I liked it better when it was just glowing,” Jessica said, folding her arms and pouting.

“There are seven other rings,” Talitha said.

Ranko snapped around. “Say again?”

Dawnsong: The Last Skyblade is available now at the Palace in the Sky Bookstore!

What’s Dawnsong: The Last Skyblade About?

When an idealistic boy steals a celestium sword and gives it to sixteen-year-old Jessica Halloran, he doesn’t realize he has broken a centuries-old bloodsworn truce between Aventar’s most ancient and ruthless guilds. Mercenaries, assassins and hideous creatures suddenly emerge from every depraved and unclean place across the land seeking to claim Dawnsong for themselves.

The long dormant Champion Skyblade’s magic inexplicably responds to the girl, which inspires one guardian of the truce to intercede to protect Jessica’s life. Reina’s act is an open declaration of war that threatens to plunge the seven kingdoms into chaos.

Jessica quickly learns Dawnsong is most powerful when she is truthful and acts honorably. Her compassion becomes healing magic. Her joyful personality becomes a golden glow that follows her everywhere and her kindness becomes a blessing that heals and strengthens others. Even learned scribes and arcanists cannot explain it.

Now, after the discovery of a hidden map to a place called the Palace in the Sky, Jessica and her friends find themselves in a race to rescue the other seven Ajan weapons before Lord Dane and his vile Cryptics discover and destroy them!

Here begin the adventures of Jessica Halloran and the Greatest Fighting Team of Teenage Girls Ever Assembled!

Dawnsong: The Last Skyblade is available now at the Palace in the Sky Bookstore!

Dawnsong Chapter Four

The following is a free chapter from the first book in my LadyStar™ fantasy adventure series Dawnsong: The Last Skyblade, available now at the Palace in the Sky Bookstore.



“There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
– Talitha Casey


Rathshire Gentry House
Village of Escator
Thirty-One miles northeast of Phileo’s Fortune

The hollow sound of a fist against rotted wood caused a small flight of sickly birds to scatter from the dead branches of a nearby tree. Unlike many of the others who hurried through the darker sections of Escator, the unarmed man wore no cloak and no cowl. The right half of his face was covered with a thick dark gray cloth wrapped much like a bandage.

The houses in the Escator Manorial District were dark, uninviting structures. What lights were visible were pale and cold, and often only shone through upper windows. The walkways were gated and the remains of ivy plants and creepers hung on the iron bars of the fences. There was no foot traffic in the muddy street. The smell of an overfed wood fire clawed its way through the heaviness in the evening air. A single street lamp flickered on the opposite side of the street.

A small portal in the pitted door opened, revealing an unpleasant expression. A tin plaque next to the door listed the address.

EIGHT RATHSHIRE PLACE

“I have an appointment,” the man said.

“This is not a hospital,” the gaunt-faced doorman replied. He got no reply. The portal snapped shut and the door opened. Far in the distance, the sound of a carriage rushing past the gate separating the Manorial District from the rest of the village faded back into the dusk.

“Who are you here to see?”

The bandaged man walked inside, causing the doorman’s candle to flicker as he strode past.

“The doctor.”

Even in the candlelight, the doorman could see the grotesque texture of the man’s face only partially concealed by the gray cloth. He had obviously been horribly burned, and seemed to be completely unable to focus his remaining eye.

“We have no medicine for your affliction, sir.”

“And I have asked for none,” the man replied sharply. “Please inform the doctor of my arrival.”

The doorman turned his head to one side with an expression of distrust, then reluctantly walked past the row of sculpted empty frames hanging on the entry wall towards the parlor. He noticed the hilt of an expensive looking dagger sheathed along the man’s boot. Generally, visitors to a Gentry House were not permitted to carry weapons. But he decided to favor self-preservation over heroics.

The foyer of the dignified mansion was warm to the point of stuffiness. Crabby flames covered a damp pile of rotted firewood in the recessed fireplace. Pieces of mismatched furniture complemented a mantled mirror anchored to the top edge of the wall, forming a nice centerpiece for evenly spaced paintings. The threadbare rug was a non-threatening color. It was all very proper. Nothing in this house was meant to draw attention.

The bandaged man stood with his back turned, appearing to be examining an obviously forged painting and contemplating the concept of too proper. He carefully watched the parlor entry in the nearby mirror. His hands were clasped behind his waist. Either could easily reach the knife under his tunic. Or the scalpel inside his left sleeve. The reflection of a matronly woman emerging from the darkened hallway appeared in the mirror.

“Kenesh Drun.” The woman’s voice was rough, but clear and with just the slightest edge, as if she were someone accustomed to being not just heard, but listened to by others. “Welcome to Gacenar.”

Kenesh carefully examined the woman’s reflection. She wore a simple black gown decorated with an enormous toka-pearl brooch encrusted with opulent Rotenshan jewel work. He recognized the work. He knew the owner. And the former owner.

“Thea, it is agreeable to see you once again.”

Thea squinted, then a rueful grin crossed her taut face. “Won’t you join us?”

Kenesh cautiously obliged, but instinctively kept a distance and followed one step behind Thea’s pace. The distinguished-looking woman walked through the equally-proper parlor with a steady purpose. The room was unfurnished but for an out-of-place rug under a dingy chandelier so plain that could have easily been used to plow a dry field.

Thea’s gray and white hair was pulled up by a circlet of jasper stones around a sharp coil at the top. In her hands she carried a pair of spectacles.

Kenesh took immediate account of the dining room as they entered. Three exits. Curtained window. Four people. One at the entry. He concluded those at the table were the most obvious non-threat.

Drunk?

There were no visible weapons, but some things were to be expected. To most people the woman at the entry would have appeared to be nothing more than an overdressed merchant from a Rathshire Guild. She faked a sip of her drink as Kenesh passed. He noticed her posture shift subtly to favor her right side.

Kenesh exhaled without making it obvious the woman’s purpose had been discovered. She was concealing a weapon of some kind, but inexplicably guarding the exit nobody in the room would use. Kenesh expended considerable effort to keep his breathing controlled. Getting out of this room alive was going to be enough of a toss-up. Losing his cool would just make it harder.

“May I present Kenesh Drun,” Thea said with a formal air of announcing a visitor to court. She took her seat at the head of the table opposite the entry. A shadowy staircase was visible through the open door behind her chair. Once situated, she placed her spectacles on the table next to her place setting.

“Please,” Thea nodded, indicating an open place at the table for Kenesh.

“I’ll stand,” Kenesh replied, after quickly appraising the cutlery and the alley value of the plate.

“Please take a seat,” Thea said, her expression hardening.

Kenesh hesitated, then pulled the heavy cushioned chair from one side of the table and sat down, every muscle in his body tense enough to split firewood. He exhaled again, so slowly he could taste the cool edge in his breath.

Thea noticed he had chosen a vantage point near two exits from which he could observe all four other people in the room. Nothing in her expression betrayed how impressed she already was with his progress. Even in her own dining room, she had no obvious advantages.

“You are known as the Scaled One,” one of the men at the table offered after a few moments of silence. Kenesh did not reply.

“An appropriate nomenclature,” Thea replied, unfolding her napkin. “Our problem is formidable.”

“What is your knowledge of healing magic?” the nondescript man persisted. The other drained a fine cup of its contents.

“Look at me,” Kenesh replied.

The merchant’s face fell. He swallowed uncomfortably, realizing the absurdity of the question as he looked at the glassy, off-center gaze. He nervously took a sip from his cup, managing to get it all the way back into the saucer before it rattled too much.

Kenesh glanced at the merchant then back at Thea. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have hired a Sparrowman?”

“We have made inquiries,” Thea replied with a tone of contempt. “There are few with knowledge of what takes place north of the Forge. Those who didn’t excuse themselves at the very mention of Kulnas claimed prior engagements. It seems that region inspires more than its fair share of dread, even among the jackals.”

The table settings themselves seemed hesitant. Sweat glistened on the forehead of one of the merchants.

Kenesh tightened one fist. He tried to control his expression while making certain he actually took the time to breathe. He closed his eyes, then opened them.

“I’ll pass.”

The woman at the door straightened, as if insulted. Thea smiled with some apparent effort. Then she took a sip of wine from a crystal goblet and set it back on the gray tablecloth.

One step closer, Kenesh thought.

“One hundred monarchs of pure gold for whatever drew the shadows south,” Thea said.

“I avoid Witchkin and Arcanists, Thea. Especially when they are the same person. I live longer that way,” Kenesh said, gesturing politely as if explaining the obvious. He had already very nearly insulted the deadliest woman in Gacenar. Why not pressure the bet?

“Two hundred,” Thea said, her smile widening.

Interesting.

Kenesh looked at the nearest of the two impostors. It was obvious at this point the matron had filled the room with concealed weapons to avoid any “misunderstandings.” Nevertheless, discussions of such large amounts of gold seemed to be quite uncomfortable for them, at least gold paid to someone else. Kenesh guessed Thea was playing with the “merchants’” chips. West of Chaer, the gold monarch was the exclusive coin of the Branven guilds and those who cut their purses.

And now it was the coin of an aspiring assassin.

“Five thousand,” Kenesh said coolly as he nonchalantly examined a piece of fruit taken from the table’s centerpiece.

One of the bladesmen sputtered while attempting to sip his tea and the cup slipped. A moment later the china shattered against the wooden floor.

A glint of reflected light caught Kenesh’s eye from the narrow staircase opposite the dining room entrance. Fortunately for him, under the table a balanced blade already rested in his skilled fingers.

The guard’s hand froze against the wall with a sickly wet thud and his weapon clattered down the last few wooden steps. He shrieked as the sharpness of the dagger blade impaling his hand registered. He was immobilized.

One of the bladesmen lunged, but Kenesh caught his wrist an instant before his weapon made contact with his own neck. Drun held a bronzed hornwing claw under the man’s chin. None could say where it came from. Both men were frozen in mid-attack, gazes locked. The bladesman trembled, trying to hold Kenesh at bay. The guard again tried to dislodge the dagger from the wall, and he howled as his failure was rewarded with a barrage of roaring pain.

“Silence,” Thea said. She appeared unaffected by the simultaneous start of two knife fights mere steps from her chair.

The guard’s voice quieted. The sound was replaced by grunts and hisses as the guard tried to mask his reflexive reactions to the double-edged knife embedded between his knuckle bones.

Kenesh pushed the bladesman’s weapon back. He carefully observed the staircase doorway for any other movement. Then he took his seat again.

The woman at the entrance had used the distraction to move a step closer to him. Time was growing short. The guard finally managed to work the dagger free of the door jamb and he scuttled away back up the narrow staircase, his hand dripping on the steps.

“Plus the cost of the dagger,” Kenesh added as he adjusted his chair to sit squarely.

For the first time in the negotiations, Thea glanced away from Kenesh at the others.

“Done,” she said.

The face of the sputtering bladesman drained of its color and he gave up on his attempts to clean the tea from his shirt. The defeated stares were gratifying for Kenesh, at least momentarily.

“Shadows have been seen as far south as Isia. None can say why they are on the move. The First House has informants everywhere, and the Vicereine spends her days haggling with the guilds and spreading filth,” one of the nondescript men said.

Kenesh did not acknowledge the statement.

The woman crept closer.

“The gold,” Kenesh said, watching Thea’s face carefully. She gestured with her chin and Kenesh looked down. A golden monarch coin weighing at least four ounces rested in the cup at his place setting. Kenesh retrieved it quickly and took a moment to examine it.

“How will we know you have succeeded?” one of the impostor merchants asked.

A serrated knife slid from under the woman’s sleeve and dropped into her right palm, and she twisted her fingers to grip its hilt. One more step was all she needed.

“You’ll still be alive,” Kenesh replied, tossing the coin across the table. Everyone watched it tumble through the air. One of the bladesmen caught it clumsily against his chest with both hands. The woman slashed with her knife–

–and punctured the back of Kenesh’s empty chair. Splinters scattered across the fine rug.

Thea closed her eyes and exhaled, then took a sip of her wine. A breeze caused the curtains to flutter.

“Close the window please,” she said.

Dawnsong: The Last Skyblade is available now at the Palace in the Sky Bookstore!