Dawnsong Chapter Four

The following is a free chapter from the first book in my LadyStar™ fantasy adventure series Dawnsong: The Last Skyblade

“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.


“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.


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.


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 Chapter Three

The following is a free chapter from the first book in my LadyStar™ fantasy adventure series Dawnsong: The Last Skyblade

“We get to have huge battles with nasty creatures, but we also gots magical weapons so it’s okay.”
– Jessica Halloran

“Wait! Where are you going?” Jessica followed Enken to the door.

“I must return to her Excellency’s mission. If I am not careful someone will notice my absence.”

“Why do you have to be so careful around your own ruler?” Alanna asked.

“Reina’s enemies are everywhere. You should be safe if you stay out of sight. Avoid the scarecrow. And stay out of the village if you can.”

“Wait, what about the scarecrow!?” Shannon asked with a hint of urgency.

“But–” Jessica desperately tried to think of something to say.

“I will return and help guide you to safety. You have my word as a Thesian.”

Those eyes.

And then he was gone. Jessica watched him hurry towards the road. She gently closed the shack door.

“He didn’t even tell us how to get home. Wait, he didn’t tell us about the scarecrow either! Now what do we do? How are we supposed to find that gate?” Shannon asked impatiently.

Talitha straightened her glasses and turned to page 23. By now Ranko was also trying to understand the book, just like Cici.

“I would like to make a suggestion,” Alanna said. “If this place really is a farm, surely we can find someplace to go that isn’t a cramped wooden shack.” As the oldest of the group and the only high school graduate, Alanna had at least the authority of a big sister, if not quite that of full-fledged adult. She was also almost as tall as Shannon, so the other girls literally had to look up to her.

“Is there a barn? I’ve always wanted to see a real barn!” Cici said with a hopeful expression.

“If there is, I hope it’s full of food,” Shannon said. “Let’s not forget we left our dinner behind when Miss ‘never may care’ decided to zap us all into dream world.” Ranko made a dismissive gesture at Shannon and kept reading. Well, trying to read. The only person who seemed to be getting anything out of the giant book in Talitha’s lap was Talitha. Ranko and Cici were only able to keep up with the drawings.

Jessica was on her toes looking out the window. “I bet we could run to that house over there.”

“There’s a house?” Alanna asked. Sure enough, on the opposite side of the barley field, it was just possible to see the shadowy outlines of a one-story structure that appeared to have a covered porch. “Looks spooky.”

“Okay, Shannon has a new rule. No more scary talk or ghost talk or any of that stuff until we get home.”

“Good luck with that scarecrow running around out there,” Ranko replied.

“Where?” Jessica asked, lifting back up on her toes and looking out the window again.

“If we can’t figure out how to get home soon, we’re going to need to make provisions to stay here a while,” Alanna said. “Shannon’s right. We need water, food and a place to sleep. If this place has the same basic calendar as home, I’d guess we’ve got a few hours before we’re going to be sitting out here in the dark.”

“With a scarecrow running around,” Ranko added.

“Alright that’s it. Rain or not. We’re going to the house,” Shannon said. “Come on.”

Alanna opened the shack door. It was still blustery, but by now it was more shower than deluge. The ground was sopping wet and covered with mud at least a couple inches deep. There was no chance any of the girls were going to stay dry.

“Run for it!” Jessica shouted.

Alanna and Jessica ran ahead. They tried to cover their hair for all the good it did. Cici couldn’t resist a footrace if she were restrained by an iron and concrete wall, so she ran even faster than the two older girls. She got to the covered porch first and celebrated her victory by landing on the damp wood with both feet as loud as possible. All she accomplished was to cover herself in mud from her shoulders to her feet in the process. She even managed to get dirt in her chestnut hair, but didn’t seem to care much.

“Spine up.”

“Hmm?” Talitha asked.

“Hold the book with the spine up, then the rain won’t get on the pages as much,” Ranko said. Talitha turned the book over and wrapped her arms around it. She, Ranko and Shannon ran for the porch next. The bespectacled girl was left behind, naturally, since Ranko was a lifelong athlete, and Shannon was nearly six feet tall. Talitha did her best.

Jessica carefully worked the wooden handle and latch and opened the door. She and Alanna peered inside. The main room was thankfully much larger than the little shack they had just left. It was sparsely furnished and dusty.

“Enken was right, huh? This place really is abandoned.”

“Looks that way,” Alanna replied. “Let’s take a walk around. You all wait out here while we scout the house.”

“Roger wilco, boss,” Ranko said as she made her way to one end of the porch to see what was behind the main structure. Talitha, Cici and Shannon sat in a circle and continued looking through the book. There were only about 700 pages to go. Talitha was quietly explaining what she understood of the strange language as she read.

Once inside, Alanna ducked into what looked like a kitchen of sorts while Jessica wandered down a long hall. It was a little warmer inside. The air was thick and stale. There were several rooms, each darker and dustier than the last. Some had windows which weren’t in much better shape than the one in the shack. The smaller rooms were sparsely furnished with simple wooden beds, armoires and shelves.

The kitchen area looked relatively clean, which surprised Alanna. In one corner was an enormous barrel of murky water. There was an exit which led to an open field surrounded by trees to one side of the house.

The older girl went back to the main room and froze. Jessica was still at the far end of the hall, and from this distance, it looked as if there was a golden light around her. It was visible on the floor and walls. Alanna didn’t say anything. She stepped into the hallway and watched carefully. Jessica crossed from one room into another, looking around as she walked. The glow was visible all around her, as if she were at the center of a sphere of energy. The only problem was the younger girl wasn’t carrying any light.



“Do you see that light?”

Jessica looked around and then finally down at the floor. She jumped back and the light followed her. “Hey look! I’m glowing! How did that happen?”

“Let me look at your ring,” Alanna said. Jessica took it off and handed it to the taller girl. Alanna tried to take the ring from Jessica, but the moment she touched it, the ring disappeared! Jessica gasped. Alanna looked around. The glow hadn’t disappeared. It was still just as bright. Then she noticed the ring was back on Jessica’s hand. They tried again, but each time Alanna tried to take the ring it silently vanished and re-appeared on Jessica’s finger.

“Maybe it likes me?”

“Well, it’s certainly a convenient way to keep the thing from getting stolen. I wonder if the power from this ring is what is causing this glow around you?”

Jessica nodded. “I think so. Enken did say it was a weapon. Maybe it’s more powerful than we think.”

“I want you to remember something, okay?” Alanna said gently. “I want you to be careful about this Enken. We don’t know this guy or anything about him yet.”

“Why wouldn’t I be careful?” Jessica asked sincerely.

“I saw how you looked at him. He’s tall and he’s handsome, and it’s pretty obvious how you feel. He did walk right up to you first. You’re getting a little fluttery.”

Jessica blushed and looked down at her ring. “I am not. I mean–”

“Jessie, give me a break. I’ve known you too long. He’s a hunk. You’d make a cute couple. Believe me, I get it. But we’ve only known this guy for five minutes. I just want you to be careful. He’s telling stories about haunted farms and evil monsters. If we’re in danger around here, we need to look out for each other first.”

Jessica nodded, still blushing. She had always considered Alanna a mentor of sorts, and often went to the older girl for advice. Alanna’s bobbed hair and height gave her a confident appearance, and her calm, measured personality just made Jessica and the other girls feel better sometimes.

Alanna smiled. “In the meantime, let’s get the others and figure out what we’re going to do with this place.”

Dawnsong Chapter Two

The following is a free chapter from the first book in my LadyStar™ fantasy adventure series Dawnsong: The Last Skyblade

“If you want to beat Talitha Casey in a fight, it’s really simple. Just make sure you’re in the middle of a ten-acre asphalt parking lot. Trust me, if there’s so much as a dandelion nearby, you’re going to be real unhappy in a real hurry.”
– Shannon O’Keene

When the young man saw Jessica he stepped inside quickly, took her by both hands and lifted her to her feet.

“I knew you would come to help us.”

Jessica looked into his eyes and saw the same earnest sincerity. He held her hands by his heart, just like in her dream. That smile.

“Whoa whoa whoa,” Ranko said, taking the taller boy by the arm and pulling him back a step. “Slow down there, Stretch. Help who?” The boy was dressed in a damp brown shirt, brown leggings, boots and a crimson cloak.

“The people of Aventar.”

By now all the girls except Talitha had gotten to their feet. They surrounded the boy and watched him carefully. He was roughly the same height as the two tallest girls Alanna and Shannon.

“What’s Aventar?” Shannon asked.

The boy looked confused. “It is where you are. Where we all are.”

“Who’s ‘we,’ kemosabe?” Ranko asked. “You came in to our shack, remember?”

“Forgive me, I have been remiss in my courtesies. I am Enken, Chamberlain of the First House of Thesia.” He performed a gallant formal gesture. The girls glanced at each other uncomfortably.

“I know you have traveled a long distance and you must be weary. I trust you will be grateful for the hospitality of the Barrotog Stead, such as it is. I’m afraid it has been recently abandoned.”

“Why?” Shannon asked.

“The villagers say it is haunted.”

“Perfect,” Shannon said with a sarcastic gesture. “That does it. I’m out of here.” She started for the door. A low howl sounded outside as the wind whipped past the nearby stables. Shannon’s eyes widened and she froze with her hand on the door handle. Enken ducked down. He nodded, gesturing to the girls to follow his example. Alanna, Ranko and Jessica glanced at each other again and knelt on the wooden floor. Finally Shannon joined them. Cici decided the huge book was more interesting than the weird tall guy, so she sat next to Talitha, trying to understand the strange writing.

“You shouldn’t venture outside until dark,” he said.

“And why not?”

“Because my benefactress will be looking for us.”

“Say again?” Ranko said. “Bene-who?”

“Reina is Vicereine of the King’s Province of Kulnas. Dawnsong belongs to the Thesian First House.”

“Dawnsong?” Jessica asked.

“Your ring.”

Jessica glanced at her hand for a moment, then at the other girls. She leaned forward using her fists for support until she was nose to nose with Enken.

“Are you going to tell us what’s going on?”

Enken ran his hand through his sandy damp hair sheepishly. “The ring isn’t exactly mine.”

“You stole it,” Alanna said.

“In a manner of speaking.”

“Then why didn’t you just wear it yourself?” Jessica asked. Talitha turned to page ten.

“It’s too small.” The looks on the girls’ faces told Enken they were not amused.

“And who is this Vicereine again?” Alanna asked.

“She is the ruler of Aventar’s northern province and a Scribe Arcanist of the First Order. The common folk call her kind ‘Witchkin.’”

“This gets better and better, doesn’t it?” Shannon said in an annoyed tone.

“What’s a Scribe Arcanist?” Jessica asked.

“They are members of an ancient guild. Scribe Arcanists study sigils, glyphs and sorcery. Her Excellency was allowed to join because of her knowledge of alchemy. She is a renowned teacher,” Enken replied. “I believe she served the betrayed King of Ajanel as Royal Mediciner long ago, but some dispute her claim to her royal title.”

“Then why don’t we just give her the ring and call it even?” Ranko said.

“You can’t.”

“So help me, if you give us one more piece of bad news I’m going to thump you over the head,” Shannon growled.

“Aventar is–” Enken paused and took a deep breath. “The land has been corrupted. Our wisest scholars cannot tell us how or why. I suspect one of the factions bound to the Iron Compact may have broken away, and if that is true, time is short. Dawnsong is our only link to Ajanel’s greatest powers.” The boy turned his attention to Jessica. “Unless you can discover the secrets of this weapon, there will be none to turn away this evil.”

Jessica glanced at her ring again. Its golden wings sparkled, even in the gloom. “How did we get here?” she asked with a sincere look. “We’ve never seen a place like this before.”

“Dawnsong contains a map of the Lockvern. Of that much Aventar’s scholars are certain. I’ve seen it myself. One of its many paths may have led you from your world to this place.”

“But it looks like home. I mean it’s different, but not like–”

“I am neither a scribe nor a scholar, but if your journey through the Lockvern was a short one, it is possible your world and ours are linked somehow. There are much stranger places in the astral realm. They are all accessible through the Lockvern’s many gateways, but they require much longer journeys. Some astral expeditions can last for centuries, at least by our reckoning of time here in Aventar.”

“Okay,” Ranko said cautiously, looking at Alanna for help.

“So we can get home the same way we got here?” Shannon asked. “Why don’t we just start picking gateways one by one until we find the right one?”

“No, you mustn’t do that!” Enken’s sharp tone startled Jessica. “The Lockvern is ancient, and we know very little about it. Even scribes as wise as her Excellency have cautioned us to avoid it unless we are familiar with the gateway we plan to use. The astral pathways were not built by men, but by powerful beings from unseen worlds. Mortals were not meant to understand it, and we were certainly never meant to use it for our own purposes. If you step through the wrong Lockvern gate you could all be lost or worse, open a doorway for something unspeakably evil to enter this world.”

“But as long as we use the right gateways, we’re okay, right?” Jessica asked.

Enken nodded. “The portal that brought you to Aventar is called the Makoce Gate. Its companion leads back to your world. If you are insightful and courageous, I believe Dawnsong’s enchantments will help you find a safe path home.”

“Mah-ko-chay,” Cici repeated. “That’s neat.”

“Why did you give that ring to Jessica?” Alanna asked.

“Because I see in her what this world lacks,” Enken replied, holding Jessica’s gaze.

“A goofball with a ponytail?” Shannon offered.


Dawnsong Chapter One

The following is a free chapter from the first book in my LadyStar™ fantasy adventure series Dawnsong: The Last Skyblade

My name is Jessica Halloran. I’m sixteen years old and I live in Tree Shores. My best friend’s name is Talitha Casey. I’m writing all this down because there’s strange things happening and me and Talitha think someone should write it down ‘cause then if someone else finds it they’ll know what we learned and stuff.

Anyway, I knew there was something going on! I’m pretty smart about mystery things but not as smart as Talitha because she’s the super-smartest girl in our whole school!

Okay, first I had this dream.

There was this super-cute boy in it and he gave me a really heavy gold ring with a beautiful red gemstone in the shape of a heart. I knew it was a special ring because the heart had pretty golden wings around it!

When I woke up after the dream, I was still wearing the ring! I know it sounds really weird but I took it to school and Talitha saw it too. When I wore it the whole world got clearer. It was like everything was the same color as before but just more of it. I think my ring makes me stronger.

But that’s not the weirdest part!

You know how you can look through glass and sometimes it makes light really glowy and bendy? I looked through a water drop once in science class and everything was upside down! Talitha says that’s called a lens. Okay that’s super-neat, but you know what? That’s what happened to my ring! I lit a candle in my room because I love vanilla candles. My new ring was there on my dresser right by my unicorn keepsake box that I keep all my bangles and charms and stuff in. When the candlelight lit the red stone in my ring it made a map!

It wasn’t like one of those paper maps my dad unfolds in the car because he’s mad we’re lost and it wasn’t like the big map of the United States in our history class at school. This one was made of light and it was on the wall in my room all the way to the ceiling! It was mostly red lines but there were also some green and blue and brown parts in it too.

Talitha thinks the light from the candle was reflecting from inside the red stone in my ring. I think so too. But you know what’s funny? It works with fireplaces!

I went downstairs when we had a fire in our fireplace in the den and I put the ring next to it when nobody was looking and instead of the map being on my wall it was a big red globe that was floating all around me! I almost jumped out of my socks!

I told Talitha I think it’s magic, because when I shined my flashlight at the red jewel in my ring nothing happened. Well, except it was reflecting from the gold and stuff like it would normally do, but the map wasn’t there any more. So I said what if it works only with fire? That means it’s a fire ring! I wonder if it was stolen by a big nasty monster and we might have to fight it?

I know what monster fights are! They’re not like the kind of fights you have in school when some girl is talking to a guy you like, and they’re not like the kind of fights where you put on those big poofy red gloves and a bell rings.

Monster fights are the ones where its really noisy and scary and stuff gets broken and people get beat up! I told Talitha I’m not afraid. She thinks its ‘cause redheads like me have too much of a temper, but I still think she probably doesn’t want us to be around big ogres with clubs and stuff. I got in a fight once at school because I had this really neat purple pencil with a big orange butterfly where the eraser goes and this girl took it from me. Talitha was there, and I think that’s why she worries about me sometimes. I also told her my hair is more strawberry blond so it’s not like I get super mad or anything but she still said I’m still a redhead and she doesn’t want me to get in fights. I got my pencil back, though.

Me and Talitha made a secret plan to get all our friends from school together and figure all this stuff out, because when we all work together we can do anything. Talitha also said we should try to keep writing down what we see and think about so we know what’s going on, or something like that. She’s super-good at books, so I bet she’ll know what to write even if I forget.

“And dawn strolls through the garden wearing a gown sewn of fire and light.”
– Auren

South Acres
Barrotog Stead
Sixteen miles west of the Heatherlands


Jessica Halloran thought she had experienced the worst storms before, but they were nothing compared to this. She and her friends ran with their arms over their heads towards a gloomy-looking wood shack. It was the closest shelter from the wind and the downpour. They all crowded inside and pulled the rickety door closed behind them. Gusts and blasts of rain rattled the flimsy wood.

“I told you not to touch it!” Shannon O’Keene shouted, wringing rainwater out of her long dark hair.

“How was I supposed to know it would light up like that?” Ranko Whelan snapped.

“I knew it was magic,” Jessica said, turning the ring over and over on her finger.

“Where did you get that?” Alanna MacLeese asked. Talitha Casey was sitting in the corner cradling an enormous book in her arms. The lenses of her glasses were covered with water droplets and her soaked brown bangs were stuck to the rims.

“From the library.”

“What library?” Cecilia Ryan asked. “I didn’t see a library. We were at Doubler’s and then we were here!”

“I was in a library–” Talitha said almost too quietly for anyone to hear. She blushed and lifted the book to cover her face.

“Well, there you have it,” Ranko said, gesturing with one hand while brushing the water out of her short red hair with the other. “She was in a library. We’re in a shack. What’s so strange about that?”

“I’m cold,” Cici said.

“Will someone please tell me what is going on?” Shannon asked in an annoyed tone. “Five seconds ago we were all sitting at a table at Doubler’s and now we’re in a big wooden box with a door and no furniture.”

“And a book,” Jessica said.

“Oh my goodness,” Talitha said quietly, her face still hidden.

“Whatever.” Shannon folded her arms and sat in the corner with a stubborn look on her face.

“I didn’t get to finish my pizza,” Cici said. “Or my strawberry soda!”

“Okay, either this is the greatest prank of all time or we are a long way from home,” Ranko said, looking out the smudged rectangular window next to the door. The other girls crowded around. Cici stood on her toes to see. The shack was situated on the edge of an enormous green field. Far in the distance, they could all see the flat horizon of what looked like an ocean. Jessica worked to get the dampness out of her blond hair.

“What kind of plants are those?” Shannon asked.

“Barley,” Alanna replied quietly.

“Yeah?” Ranko asked, raising an eyebrow.

Alanna nodded. “That’s a barley crop. This must be a farm,” Alanna concluded. “And the closest farm to where we live is about a hundred miles.”

“Like I said,” Ranko replied.

“We’re a lot further than a hundred miles, I think,” Jessica said. “I never saw that map before. Or that weird symbol. I think it was even different from the one in my fireplace.”

“There was a map in your fireplace?” Cici asked.

“None of us ever saw anything like that before!” Shannon exclaimed. “Now we’re inside the map because Ranko just had to touch it!”

“I just wanted to see if it was solid or not!”

“Well, what difference does it make now!? We’re lost in some weird farm! How do we get back home!?”

“We can use the same map, right?” Alanna asked. She shook her head and then brushed her slightly drier short white hair back down with her fingers.

“Yeah! Except it didn’t have any dots for where we live,” Jessica replied.

“Terrific!” Shannon gestured with both hands, then she slumped back into the corner and sat with an annoyed look on her face. She looked over at Talitha, who was already on page five of the enormous book and twirling her still-soaked hair around one finger. Shannon rolled her eyes and folded her arms again.

Ranko leaned over to Jessica. “Is she going to be like that all night?” Jessica shrugged.

All six girls were startled by the sound of a rattling knock at the door.